Harold Verbarg is a smart guy, a good businessman, a hard worker "” the quintessential American success story. He started with nothing and now his furniture stores are worth millions. You look at a man like this and wonder, what makes the difference? Why do some people work their whole lives "” incredibly hard "” for somebody else? And how do some of them wind up owning the store?

Maybe he could have made his fortune making widgets or selling cars. But he started making furniture when he was 15 years old. "And I kind of stayed with what I knew," he says.

Some of his life was spent as a salesman, but you can bet he wasn't the slick kind. He was the kind wh'™d show you how a thing was made, the kind of salesperson who was angling for your future business.

As a boy he started hanging around the antique shop owned by his Silverton neighbor, Webster B. Meier, running errands, buffing lamps. Then the boy began learning to work with wood. By the time he finished high school at Withrow, Harold was making end tables, china cabinets, a hutch, a drop-leaf table. He learned about good wood: Cherry, mahogany, walnut. "Each piece is different. You never know when you start to plane down a piece of wood, what you'll get.

"I didn't have a grand plan. I just liked what I was doing," he says.

Next he went to the University of Cincinnati, in the co-op program, working again at W.B. Meier's store. He worked for "Web" Meier for more than 20 years, starting in sales, and then becoming the company's president. In 1977, when Meier sold his store in Amelia, Harold was ready to buy.

Sort of.

He had $15,000, but "I was scared to death," he says. "By then I had a family, and I had to take a cut in pay. But I figured if you understand how things are made, it gives you an edge." Plus he'd been around the business long enough for some of the big companies to take a chance on him, extend credit, "give me a little time."

He spruced up the place a bit, and then opened with his name on it in January 1978. Every Saturday, Harold went out on the delivery truck himself. He did his own touchups, met with the customers in their homes. He visited furniture factories, noticing how merchandise was put together. He wanted to transform the low-end 15,000-square-foot Amelia store into a place where they sold the kind of furniture that he admired: furniture that had solid construction, fine materials, good wood. "Something you might pass down to your kids," he says.

Harold and his wife, Shirley, have five kids of their own, married daughters, all of whom help run the family business, now including Harold's 30,000-square-foot American Heritage Furniture Store, which opened in 1996 north of the mall in Kenwood. Linda Cook handles the finances for both stores, the warehouse and the business office. Gail Maile buys lamps and accessories. Sheri Mitchell handles advertising and public relations. Jenny Kent manages the Kenwood Store. Debbie Gilligan divides her time between both stores, working with clients and designing the gallery layouts.

And at age 74, Harold still shows up for work every day, "still trying to figure out where this business is going." One way it's going is the route of franchises "” Sofa Express, Arhaus. Another way is out of the country. "We're seeing lots of imports from China and losing a lot of jobs in North Carolina and Virginia."

He golfs a little and bought a Corvette a few years ago. "I don't do that much woodworking anymore. Oh," he interrupts himself, "I'm making a little shelf right now for my wife's collectibles, and a bookshelf."

Still, he likes to run his hand over a fine piece of furniture. "Nothing prettier," he says. "Just the way God built the tree. You can't get that in any other product. And you have something that will last for generations." He built a drop-leaf table in 1957, a 48-inch round which he gave as a wedding gift. "I just traded to get it back. It still has the original finish. Solid cherry," he says appreciatively. He ambles through the store, dressed casually in an open-necked, short-sleeved blue shirt, dark trousers and black wingtips. "Stickley," he says, pointing out a table. "A good line."

So, how did he get to put his name on the store? What made the difference? Guts? Luck? Hard work? An instinct for quality?

He doesn't know, he says. "You're thrown into things sometimes. Then you just work as hard as you can, stick to what you know."

Listening to him talk about the business he has built over a lifetime, watching him carefully brush an imaginary speck of dust off the beautifully polished wood-grain of a table, it would be hard to imagine him devoting his life to widgets. Even for a fortune.