Remembering some of the industry’s finest — and smartest — gentlemen

When I was asked a little over a year ago if I would like to write a column for Home News Now, I was flattered and surprised. Retired for over 10 years, I couldn’t imagine that I would have anything worthwhile to contribute. Rick Harrison, HNN publisher, was not ready to accept a graceful no. The more we talked I soon convinced myself that perhaps I could reminisce about some of the lessons I learned during my 40-plus years in the industry.

I accepted his offer with a caveat: There would be no deadlines. I would write when I felt I had something to say. So for those who have written to ask why my column hasn’t appeared in the past few months, I tell them of the kid who hadn’t spoken a complete sentence in the first eight years of his life. One morning at breakfast he says, “Pass the damn cornflakes.” His parents were deliriously happy and said, “Son, this is fantastic. Why did you suddenly decide to speak?” The child looked at them and said, “Up till now, I didn’t have anything to say.”

I was having lunch recently with Karl Kunkel, a former colleague who wrote for the now defunct Upholstery Today back in the 1980s. He asked me why I hadn’t written a column lately. I told him the cornflakes story. Karl then pointed out that every time we got together I was always telling him stories about people I knew in the industry and most likely had many more to share. He said that he had learned over the years that once you think of a particular person or incident you will soon think of another similar or related one. When you discover that these stories have a common thread you have yourself a column.

I had been telling Karl about the origin of the Premarket back in the ’80s when buyers would arrive in Hickory Sunday afternoon to shop the three major showroom buildings: the Hickory Furniture Mart, the Merchandise Mart and the Home Furnishings Mart, as
well as the factory showrooms at Bernhardt, Broyhill, Century and several smaller manufacturers. They would shop for three days and then leave for High Point’s opening day on Thursday.

It was a rainy day when I arrived at Bernhardt’s showroom conveniently around noon knowing they would invite me to have lunch. The press always knew which showrooms served the best food. Fried chicken at Vaughn-Bassett and hotdogs at Burris in High Point were known to most savvy buyers, as well as the press. The skies had opened and rain was pouring down as I pulled into a parking space across from the main entrance to the showroom. As I was trying to decide whether to wait for a pause in the rain or make a dash for the door, an elderly gentleman wearing a yellow raincoat and holding an umbrella for me walked me to the door. I thanked him and hurried over to the cafeteria.

During lunch I remarked to Larry Erwin, one of the Bernhardt executives, how nice it was to have a doorman to escort you in this downpour. Larry chuckled. “That ‘doorman’ was John Christian Bernhardt, the owner and founder.” I will never forget the kindness
and humility of one of the industry’s wealthiest gentlemen. He put his customers’ comfort first. I believe he treated everyone with respect.

Bassett Furniture used to invest its advertising dollars to reach the consumer through TV game shows and a few shelter magazines. I thought they would enhance their presence in the industry with a marketing program in Furniture Today. Every year, I would request an opportunity to make a presentation to Bob Spilman, the no-nonsense-get-to-the-point president of Bassett Furniture Industries, and the company’s board of directors. I had been doing this every year for eight years. Each year Bob and the board would politely listen to my presentation and then thank me for the work I had put into it saying they would pass on my proposal — again. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I looked at Bob and said, “Mr Spilman, I have one major goal in life.” “What’s that?” he asked. “I would like to see you advertise in Furniture Today before I die.” Bob leaned forward toward me: “How much longer you got to live?”

Why I came up with that unprofessional statement I’ll never know. I’ve never said it before or since. Even though it was years later before Bassett eventually advertised in FT I always found him easy to get an appointment with and enjoyed our conversations.
His reputation for toughness was well-deserved but he always conducted himself with dignity.

Let me talk about another of the industry’s gentlemen, Paul Broyhill. In 1980, in its fourth year, Furniture Today had become the top furniture trade publication in the world — both in advertising revenue and editorial content. It occurred to me that we could capitalize on our good fortune by publishing a furniture newspaper for a worldwide audience. It would be called Furniture Today International. I discussed this idea with Steve Pond, the owner and publisher of FT. He asked me how much it would cost to do this and I guesstimated around $200,000. He told me to put together a business plan and he would consider it. I asked him what would happen if the publication failed. He said if I give you the go-ahead and it fails, it’s my loss, not yours.

Armed with that support, I asked Paul Broyhill to meet with me. I was always a bit awed to be in the presence of this industry giant but Paul could always put you at ease with his down-to-earth personality. His keen mind was always a step ahead of what you were about to say. Paul’s advice was if we published an international newspaper we should not do it on a uniform schedule like monthly or quarterly.

“Time it to be published in concurrence with the major world furniture markets such as Cologne, Milan, Paris, Copenhagen,
Tokyo, Toronto, Shanghai and Guadalajara. Manufacturers get Market fever,” he said. “Take advantage of their desire to do everything possible to draw buyers to their showroom. This is your best time to sell them ads.”

A week or so later I was at the Tokyo Market when I ran into Hans Klaussner. He invited me to have a sandwich with him in his tiny showroom office. I asked him what he thought of an international furniture newspaper. He said that he comes from a little town
in Germany just across the border from France.

“German retailers have no interest in what’s going on in France and the French retailers don’t care about what’s selling in
Germany, or the United States, for that matter. This is a very chauvinistic industry where most retailers only care about what’s selling in their own country.”

After thinking about the advice two of the best minds in the business had offered me, I decided not to proceed with the new publication. As both men’s suggestions turned out to be accurate, I realized how fortunate I was that these men willingly offered their advice just to be of help. I also learned an additional lesson from Steve Pond: Give your managers the freedom to come up with innovative ideas without fear of being penalized if you give them the go-ahead on a project and they are not successful.

Fear of losing your bonus or losing your job only results in a CYA mentality. Successful companies know that nothing ventured is nothing gained. I have many more stories to tell of the kindness and generosity of most people I knew in the furniture industry. Many times during my career an industry newcomer would tell me how different furniture people were from other industries they had worked in. They felt we were more like a family. I would jokingly reply that it might be because it was not uncommon for someone to work for a half-dozen companies or more during their careers.

I’ve always thought, perhaps naively, that “mean” people don’t make beautiful furniture. By the nature of the product, people who make and sell furniture share a love of design and creativity.

Perhaps in a future column I will share some more stories of people who built this great industry. I hope their legacy rubs off on today’s generation.

Joe Carroll is a former publisher of Furniture Today. He was inducted into the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame in 2009.

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