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Strategy for Success: Business is a game for this family

Ray Gay Sales started life as a furniture store serving the neighborhood around its Sycamore Street storefront.

By the mid-1960s, owner Raymond Gajewski had completely revamped the business, switching to sell fundraising supplies and equipment instead of sofas and washing machines.

As Ray Gay Sales moved, first down the street in Buffalo and later to the suburbs of Cheektowaga, the business continued to provide everything from bingo cards to blackjack tables for area churches, veterans’ groups, schools and youth sports leagues.

The company, which recently celebrated 60 years in business, remains family-owned, with son Charles Gajewski taking over from his father and hoping to pass on the business to his children.

Ray Gay Sales has fended off competition from big box stores and Internet-based suppliers, and has survived the smoking ban and the recession, while differentiating itself by offering personalized service and new product lines that include customized T-shirts.

“We’re offering the service, the quality,” said Charles Gajewski, 57, the president and owner.

Raymond Gajewski was working at American Standard in the 1950s, but he always wanted to be his own boss and have his own store, according to his son.

So he scraped enough money together to rent a storefront at 991 Sycamore St. and open a furniture store in 1953. The name Ray Gay Sales came from the nickname he received from his former co-workers, who weren’t Polish and couldn’t pronounce Gajewski (“Guy-EFF-ski”).

Charles Gajewski said his father initially couldn’t afford to buy a lot of inventory, so he would display an item next to the box it was shipped in to convince customers the store had twice as many items for sale.

The business grew slowly, with Charles’ mother, Stasia, joining the company as bookkeeper and office manager.

“My father could sell the Brooklyn Bridge to New York City,” Charles Gajewski said, but his mother was more organized and better at handling money.

Ray Gay Sales moved into larger space at 972 Sycamore, where the family lived above the store. Charles and older sisters, Kathy and Sue, helped out, with Charles earning 25 cents an hour to put price tags on the items for sale. “It was not by choice – child labor,” Charles Gajewski quipped.

Raymond Gajewski also was deeply involved with his church, the former Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church, where he served as chairman of the lawn fetes and the weekly bingo.

The elder Gajewski supplied plaster plaques that were used as prizes during the games at the church, Charles Gajewski said, which became quite popular. He soon realized he was making more money from the games than from furniture.

Raymond Gajewski soon began working at other events, and gradually went all-in with supplying games at community fundraisers. He hired his children and their high school friends to staff the booths at weekend fundraising events.

Charles Gajewski left town in the mid-1970s to study photography in college, but he worried about finding a job after school and decided to return to help his father with the family business, which grew through the 1980s and ’90s.

Even as other locally owned gaming and fundraising suppliers closed their doors, Ray Gay Sales hung on, selling or renting bell-jar tickets, raffle drums, money wheels and door prizes to schools, churches, veterans’ halls, sports leagues and “animal clubs” – Elks and Moose.

In 1991, the company moved to a 15,000-square-foot space at 2880 Genesee St. in Cheektowaga – appropriately, a former Schaefer furniture store – with a retail store and warehouse.

The last decade or so has seen some of its customers cut back on their fundraising events, because of shrinking memberships or lagging interest in bingo and related activities, Charles Gajewski said. “It’s declined over the years,” he said.

The smoking ban also indirectly hurt Ray Gay Sales, he said, because bingo nights saw attendance drop considerably after the ban went into effect, so the sponsoring organizations didn’t need to order as many supplies from the company.

Many of those smokers went to the Seneca casinos, where they can smoke, but they have started coming back to bingo nights, Gajewski said.

And though Ray Gay Sales doesn’t have a lot of local competition, it does have to contend with Walmart, Sam’s Club, Dollar Tree and other major retailers, as well as companies that sell through the Internet.

Ray Gay Sales can’t beat those businesses on price, Gajewski said, so the company competes by offering hands-on service and the expertise they’ve gleaned from years in the industry.

“We deliver. We pick up. We do things on consignment – pay for what you use, return what you don’t. We’ll take the time to listen, if you’re not making money at your bingo or your lawn fete,” Gajewski said.

They get most of their business through word of mouth or through mailings they send to organizations and nonprofits throughout the region.

About two years ago, the company started making custom-imprint T-shirts, with Charles’ oldest son, Gregory, handling designing and printing. “You’re always looking to come up with another niche, to diversify,” Gajewski said.

Ray Gay Sales employs nine people now, including Charles; his sister, Sue Zlotek; his son; his daughter, Jillian Patric; and his childhood friend, Bob Szywala.

Five years ago, when his daughter asked about working for Ray Gay Sales full time, Charles Gajewski worried the company was “a white elephant” that didn’t have a future.

But he believes business has stabilized and he was encouraged enough to welcome her into the company one year ago.

“I didn’t want her to start off on a slump and not go anywhere,” he added. “Since then, things have changed.”