How the Celia Moh Scholarship at HPU came about
One of the more unlikely days I ever spent as a reporter covering the international home furnishings industry seems in retrospect like a gauzy scene from a J. G. Ballard movie, one like Empire of the Sun. Like many great movie scenes, it involves flashbacks, blood and treasure. Well, at least one flashback and a whole lot of bling.
In circa 1998, with the generous help of K. L. Ching, who many knew as the “Larry Moh whisperer,” I finally made contact with the legendary founder of Universal Furniture and a pioneer of large-scale offshore sourcing throughout the Pacific Rim. In fact, thanks to Mr. Ching’s bona fides, the otherwise reclusive Mr. Moh not only agreed to be interviewed, he invited me to his palatial, gated home in Singapore.
In town to cover the international furniture show at the Changi expo center, I was picked up at my hotel by a big, black Mercedes and whisked to the rather modest home office of Mr. Moh. Peering out of eyes that seemed to miss nothing, and displaying an emotional palette I would describe as restrained, he spent much of the day recounting his experiences creating the Universal empire, which shareholders sold to Masco for a half-billion bucks in 1989. With a gaze that combined a flashlight and a crowbar, Mr. Moh spent a lifetime avoiding stupidity in all its forms; he was no fan of Masco’s guardianship of his manufacturing legacy.
Now, at the time, I’m in my early 30s and Mr. Moh is in his early 70s. Neither of us knew he would soon be diagnosed with lung cancer, which took him from us just a few years later in 2002 at the age of 76. Rolling hours of conversation were punctuated by meals – lunch at his home and dinner at his favorite seafood restaurant along Singapore’s stunningly beautiful waterfront. And by a slow-moving fan, the kind you only see in the tropics, with fronds spinning so slowly that this touch of Raymond Chandler just had to be a metaphor for how the day unspooled at such a measured pace.
Toward the end of the visit, Mr. Moh sprung his surprise. “I want to endow a college scholarship to honor my wife. Who should get my money?” He had no idea how scholarships work, but then neither did I, and he was by then used to simply speaking things into existence.
“How much are you thinking?” I asked him. “Whatever it takes,” he said, “but I want only Celia’s name on it.” He was emphatic about this. It says a great deal about his Zen-like, steely humility generally and, more specifically, his inspiring devotion to his wife, who I heard occasionally moving about in other rooms of the compound but never got to meet or even see.
We discussed N.C. State, the Kendall College of Art and Design, and High Point University, weighing the pros and cons of each furniture-specific program. N.C. State’s strength, of course, is in manufacturing and engineering. This didn’t interest him much in terms of funding a young person’s college pursuits, nor did furniture design. So, Kendall was out, too. I brought him up to speed on HPU’s plans for an International School of Home Furnishings and, as part of that effort, the institution’s relationship with then-La-Z-Boy chairman Pat Norton, for whom we not surprisingly shared a great deal of mutual respect. (Mr. Moh later became very involved in establishing the home furnishings program at the university). And he quite liked the idea of improving the industry’s talent pool in marketing and merchandising by offering such a coveted scholarship.
“Who should determine the recipients?” I asked him. “You choose,” he said, which I took as quite the compliment after but one day of breaking bread together and talking mostly off the record. I suggested then-Furniture/TODAY publisher Joe Carroll (no relation), Donnie Mitchell, then CEO at Universal, and Geoff Beaston, then a vice president at Lexington. “Set it up,” he said, before once more beckoning his black stretch sedan for the ride back to my hotel.
Now, here is the best part.
Back in my hotel room that evening, but 14 hours ahead of the clock in High Point, I phoned Dr. Richard Bennington, a furniture marketing professor I had known for some time and had guest-lectured for – a preview of my second career as an academic. (I’m grateful for the classroom opportunities Dr. Bennington provided.) His wife picked up and quickly I sketched the basic plan Mr. Moh had in mind.
“RICHARD!!!!!!!” she screamed, presumably out her front door or perhaps the kitchen window. Dr. Bennington had started the day walking the dog in the neighborhood. After scurrying back to the house, he didn’t know what to say, having never before answered a phone call to accept a $1 million endowment check. “Oh my!” he managed to squeak.
Several weeks later, I picked up Mr. and Mrs. Moh from the Greensboro airport and in my Honda Civic escorted them to the executive suites of HPU, which were not yet occupied by Nido Qubein. He assumed the presidency there in 2005. Having made the necessary connections and arranged the membership of the selections committee, I exited stage left and resumed my non-superhero life of reporting on furniture stuff.
Peace of mind
I’m still a bit chapped that HPU never sent me at least a fruit basket. But, I count myself blessed to have been entrusted by such a revered man with the logistics of at least part of his legacy and perhaps to have facilitated for Mr. Moh some peace of mind, which is merely the aim of religions and the promise of underwriters.
Thus is the tale of my pilgrimage to the mecca of Asian furniture sourcing just as it was opening its wide gates to North American markets, a leisurely day spent on a glimmering little atoll in the great ocean of capitalism that would soon re-shape the industry forever.
And I continue to be inspired by Mr. Moh, Mr. Norton, Joe (really, no relation), Geoff and Donnie, people able to soar on the thermals of opportunity seemingly so effortlessly. It’s been such an honor to call them friends.
My tale told, it’s time to rise from the easy chair of nostalgia and, perhaps appropriately given the context of this tale, go get some homework grading done. Now, let’s be clear: If there are any more Larry Mohs out there, on behalf of Berry College, I’m ready to take your call. The dog can wait.