Paying it forward: Mentorship the glue of the industry

Mike Genrich’s passing reminds us of the industry’s enduring humanity

By Brian Carroll

When Home News Now publisher Rick Harrison asked whether I might be interested in writing a column, it’s this one I first thought I needed to write, which is to say a column about how enduring and important mentorship is in home furnishings. 

Shortly after my conversation with Rick came the news that we’d lost Big Mike Genrich. My wife and I so fondly remember Mike’s invitation to dine with him during one of the San Francisco markets, a lovely evening at Farallon during which he regaled us with stories of the many times he had been mistaken for Chicago Bears great Mike Ditka. We will all miss his energy, enthusiasm, humanity, and, of course, that easy, reassuring smile.

Mike Genrich

Mike’s friendship is the exclamation mark punctuating this tribute, which endeavors to celebrate and, by celebrating, in some small way encourage and nurture mentorship in the industry. 

When I first joined Furniture Today in 1992, I benefitted immediately from the reluctant mentorship of Lee Buchanan, one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever known, and the paper’s upholstery editor at the time. I followed him around markets like a therapy dog. 

Lee introduced me to some legends in the upholstery business, including Alan Cole, Otto “Smokey” Smoktonowicz, Jeff Baron, Tom Shores, Jack Glasheen, and so, so many others. Without exception, these industry leaders welcomed me into their showrooms for long chats, indispensable context, and answers to even the most elementary of questions. They spilled some tea, too, giving me leads to follow up that often made the front page of the newspaper. 

On a tour of Natuzzi tanneries and factories, Jeff Baron taught me more than I could ever learn in school, and he sparked a love affair with Italy that remains in full flower today. On a cold night in Venice, Jeff even loaned me his leather jacket – that’s right, the coat off his back! I simply couldn’t have done my job reporting on the leather furniture category without Jeff’s mentorship. 

Smokey was a gentle soul and a paradigm of integrity. Rountree Collett at Bernhardt so patiently educated a cub reporter on the finer points of the high end. And gentlemanly Jack Donahoe at Leathercraft knew more about the leather upholstery business than perhaps anyone. 

Bob Maricich

When I transitioned to case goods, I discovered a new cohort of colleagues and mentors whose reservoir of deep knowledge and willingness to share what they knew made me not just a better reporter but a better person. I’m thinking about people such as Don Mitchell, Bob Maricich, John Jokinen, Tom Tilley, Jim Adams, Jeff Young, Don Mecke, John D. Bassett, Jean Deveault, Jeff Cook, and so many others. I apologize most sincerely for being unable to complete this important roll call; the frailties of memory are many.

Tom Tilley should have been a professor (or a senator or diplomat or basically anything he chose). I looked forward to his patient instruction on styles, design details, manufacturing considerations, and trends each and every pre-market. 

I appreciated the mentorship from Jeff Young and Don Mitchell more than they will ever know, in no small part because initially they were so reluctant to give it. Skeptical of reporters and careful with their information, each received me with an eye most wary. But once trust had been established, they opened their vaults to priceless intel, deep knowledge of the industry and, most valuably of all, their friendship. I miss Jeff’s semi-annual jokes at UNC’s expense. And I miss Don Mitchell’s tutelage probably more than any other single aspect of my time in the industry. 

Tom Tilley

Donnie Mitchell proved a hard nut to crack, but once a rapport had been established, there is no one I more enjoyed conversations with, regardless of the topic, and there is no one’s tip or lead I could have more trusted. He was simply never wrong. Though at heart he’s still a down-home country boy, Donnie is one of the most intelligent, incisive, intuitive executives I’ve ever known. That same wary eye, seemingly caught in a perpetual Clint Eastwood squint, never missed a thing. 

Don Mecke could not have been more generous in giving me a front row seat for the migration of production to China in the late 1990s. We toured factories together in Dongguan, Tianjin, Xiamen, Shenzhen, Beijing and God knows where else, with Donnie fearlessly leading the way. I have to mention also Ron and Todd Wanek, who, despite running seemingly a hundred disparate businesses, always proved willing to sit down and explain not only Ashley’s approach, but much wider manufacturing and sourcing trends.  

Jacques and Hennessy Wayseur, Kevin O’Connor, Serge Racine, Mike Dugan, Merv Rabin, Rick Powell, Aminy Audi, Steve Kincaid, Geoff Beaston and so many others are those who made the industry such a joy to cover and to know. Writing their names, I’m remembering both personal and professional memories associated with each. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Finally, I would be a horrible person if I didn’t include in this personal mentorship hall of fame the incredibly influential Furniture Today colleagues Dave Perry and Lester Craft. If I had a Mount Rushmore of editors who shaped the reporter and editor I became, Dave’s face would be on it, likely sporting that cherubic smile that provided comfort in stressful, difficult situations in the newsroom. Lester’s belief in me and in the trajectory my career could take were not just encouraging, they were self-fulfilling prophecies. By believing, in no small part did he effect the very progression in which he was believing. I will be forever grateful. 

In a world increasingly dominated by machines, systems, algorithms, and big data, it can be no small thing that ours is an industry that still values, honors, and even depends on the human touch. And we are all better for it. 

Rest in peace, Big Mike. We love you, and we will continue to cherish your love you so lavished on us.

If you have a topic you would like Carroll to address, let him know at

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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