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Furnishings retailer with eco-sustainable focus is now calling Tacoma home

Furniture retailer Tree plants roots in Tacoma

Tree, an internationally-known eco furniture retailer founded by Nicole Wakley, is thrilled with its new showroom and warehouse in the former Nisqually Power Plant Substation building in Tacoma.
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Tree, an internationally-known eco furniture retailer founded by Nicole Wakley, is thrilled with its new showroom and warehouse in the former Nisqually Power Plant Substation building in Tacoma.

You might have seen the billboards, showing an ethereal interior in a loft-style setting and advertising a retailer called Tree.

That’s a vision of you, South Sounders, brought to you by an international expert in furnishings who’s putting down roots in Tacoma.

Tree is a home furnishings store at 2416 S. C St. It specializes in products made from reclaimed or sustainable wood or upcycled products such as wool or denim.

It opened its first U.S. store in October, in Tacoma’s Historic Brewery District, and recently added a boutique in the Bellevue Design Market.

Typically, retail travels the other way on the Interstate 5 corridor.

But times, and populations, change. Pierce County has seen its population, rents and home prices spiral upward recently. Last year, population in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties grew by enough to fill Cheney Stadium 10 times over.

That’s a lot of people probably needing new furnishings.

Nicole Wakley, Tree’s British-born founder and CEO, says environmentally sustainable furnishings come with a price worth paying.

“Say clients in their first chapter of life — buying their first home — buy a small dining table,” Wakley said. “Then, as they move to the next home, it becomes the kid's desk. It’s a piece they keep forever, reuse in a different way because it’s in a style they can use.”

A bookshelf in the store can cost $300. In the online store, beds start at just under $2,000. Dining tables shown online range from $2,000-$4,000.

She notes that the items will last a generation, be handed down and remain one of a kind.

When you factor in the years of use, she says, the store's prices are “comparable or better value than elsewhere.”

And she’s found her niche. After Wakley started the business overseas in 2005, it reported 2017 revenue of about $9.9 million, according to Forbes, with more than 65 employees across three stores in Hong Kong. She sold the Hong Kong operation in 2015 but has a license agreement for the U.S. version.

Wakley stresses her emphasis now is Tacoma.

"I love Tacoma," she said.

PERSONAL JOURNEY

Wakley’s passion for sustainability is tied to her own history.

“I was a lawyer in Hong Kong when I started Tree,” she said. “I was lucky that my husband, who I met in Hong Kong, was a pilot there. So I flew all over the world with him, and I was exposed to design, to a way of life, to environmental issues which then allowed me to realize the beauty of sustainability in as many choices as I can make.”

It was a welcome change for her, in light of her future in a high-pressure career in law.

“When I was very small I knew I wanted to have a furniture shop and a cafe, and my parents would kind of humor me,” she recalled. “Then I went on my trajectory of being a lawyer … and after a point I thought, ‘I don't want to carry on this trajectory. I've made it. I can step out and do what I want to do.’

“And that's when I allowed myself to remember I wanted to do furniture … so to me it's not a trend, it's just a way of living."

She made a go of it in Hong Kong, where that separate branch of Tree is still going strong.

Now, she’s focused on what Tree can mean for the U.S., starting in Tacoma.

MAKING A LIFE IN TACOMA

Wakley didn’t know she’d launch the first U.S. version of Tree in Tacoma until she dreamed about the building where it’s now housed.

“I was in Singapore at a furniture exposition,” she recalled. “I woke up and I could see the building. And I drew it.”

She knew she wanted the store to be in the Northwest, and one of her employees already in the Northwest driving down I-5 spotted Wakley’s dream building.

It was the former Nisqually Power Plant Substation, which back in the day helped to make Tacoma independent of privately owned sources of electricity via Tacoma City Light’s LaGrande Powerhouse on the Nisqually River.

Wakley said she trusted her intuition.

“I'm here because Tacoma is booming and you couldn't find a building like this anywhere else,” she said.

She’s still amazed at how it’s all come together and sees a direct lineage from the power station days to what her store’s concept is about today.

“In my mind (the building) is modern nostalgia,” she said. “It represents the history of Tacoma in so many ways because it was an old power substation that allowed green electricity and allowed the city to grow on some level.

“And now we're bringing back that sense of modern nostalgia with eco furniture here, bringing the life back with sustainable living.”

'NOTHING HERE MASS PRODUCED'

Tree in Tacoma comprises an upstairs showroom with a warehouse below. The company employs 21.

“I formed partnerships with artisans and craftsmen who make these pieces for us,” Wakley said. “There's nothing here cookie cutter or mass produced. But at the same time, we still are able to balance a business where we have signature collections where we can sell them online.”

She is all about becoming an integral force in the community.

“I have loved every single person who's walked through the door,” she said. “I've felt the sense of community, sense of pride and sense of belonging in Tacoma.

Even to the extent when the business hosted a night in the building with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber: Tree Loves Tacoma (the night’s theme), “we had close to 200 people here and it was just such a joyful night,” she recalled.

The store also works with Tacoma’s NW Furniture Bank, which helps to get donated furniture to people in need.

“When we deliver new pieces of furniture and clients have pieces they don't want, we'll take them to the NW Furniture Bank,” Wakley said. “They have their board meetings here. Those small connections become very tangible and real.”

Jeremy Simler, NW Furniture Bank’s director of development, called Tree a great partner.

“Almost immediately, we made a connection in the commonality of furniture and they’ve been incredibly generous,” he said. “They are symbiotic in many ways with what we do and it’s easy for both businesses to say to each other: ‘We get what you do.’"

Tree also has been involved in planting 80,000 trees globally through Trees4Trees, an Indonesian nonprofit, and is working with the Seattle nonprofit environmental group Forterra for more reforestation in the Pacific Northwest.

Meanwhile, plans for the Tacoma store’s future include Tesla charging stations in its courtyard so customers from Portland or Seattle can stop, shop and charge their vehicles. The goal is to serve a broad client base and teach sustainability.

“I’ve learned to walk my talk,” Wakley noted.

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell
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