I first began reporting on the home furnishings industry in the late ’80s and as the “new guy,” I was summarily sent off (more like banished) to cover the Tupelo Furniture Market.
The trade publication I was working for at the time was based in the Big Apple and the sense I got was that many of those fashionistas would prefer life in purgatory to a week in Tupelo.
Call me crazy, but I loved Tupelo. Still do, and probably always will.
Now, to be fair, it wasn’t a mutual love-at-first-sight affair. I had three strikes against me and I hadn’t even shaken one hand.
For openers, I was with the press and back in the day, most of the Mississippi-based factory owners (affectionately often referred to as the Mississippi Mafia) preferred to play their cards incredibly close to their vests.
Then, there was the issue of me being a “transplant” from Long Island. I am pretty sure my zip code was too close to Manhattan for their initial liking.
My third strike was my long, challenging-to-pronounce last name. I’m pretty sure they pronounced it as a three-syllable word. Damn Yank-eee.
But from day one, there was an exception, and his name was Hassell Franklin, who died Jan. 22 at age 87.
He agreed to sit down with me and as we began, I found myself chatting with a warm, intelligent, honest and ethical guy who had four loves: his family, Mississippi State, his company and employees, and the furniture industry.
Most of us know that he launched a small, family-run business back in 1970 that through innovation and investments in people, equipment and processes swiftly became not only one of the industry’s largest, privately owned furniture companies but one that enjoyed double-digit growth year after year.
Oh, and since I’m dropping names, I also learned that Hassell went to school with a kid from Tupelo who also went on to do well for himself — someone named Elvis Presley.
I never asked Hassell if he could sing, shake his hips or play guitar because when he was on our stage, the furniture his team made was the headliner.
As I got to know Hassell over the years I came to realize he was both book-smart as well as street-smart. Mississippi State had taught him well and as evidence of being street-smart, he once told me that he was also “taught by his customers and their merchandise managers and buyers.”
I remember asking him what he did that made him successful. His answer had nothing to do with fabric, foam, frames or anything remotely associated with furniture.
Instead, he credited his success to forging one-on-one relationships with his customers that were built on trust, honesty and loyalty.
He went on to maintain that, because of forging deep relationships with customers, his company was able to provide dealers with things he said his competitors often could not do. Hassell said that meant different things for each customer. For some, it meant shipping faster. For others, it meant hitting a certain price point, he explained.
But Franklin was also an innovator. Before they became “buzzwords,” Franklin had already done a deep dive into the pool later called vertical integration. The same was true for his early use of lean manufacturing.
Another ingredient in his recipe for success was Franklin’s integrity. I remember him telling me that he and his team built the company on integrity. “We always did what we said we would do and if we committed, we lived up to it,” he told me.
Franklin was also a giver and a generous one at that. He established a $1 million endowment at Mississippi State University to build the Franklin Furniture Institute, a research and training facility serving the furniture community.
His many employees were like family, and he treated them accordingly. In addition to a yearly family picnic, the company sponsors a health fair each August with a nurse practitioner on-site, seeing employees who may have health concerns.
Over the years and from many trips to Mississippi, I learned volumes from this man. Important things like ours are relationship businesses. Your word is your bond. Honesty, trust and ethics matter.
Thank you, Hassell, for your time, your wisdom and your good works.
In your relentless efforts to continually improve, you made us all better.