Lessons learned — it’s all about people

I hear a familiar refrain just about every time I catch up with an old furniture friend or acquaintance. When we share memories of our years in the furniture industry, inevitably, my friend will confide that what he or she misses most is the people.

The furniture industry is indeed a “people industry.” I’ve often wondered why we all seem to feel this way. Even though one would think we are a big industry, just mention someone’s name and usually your friend will not only know, or at least have heard of that person, but will recite all the companies they have worked for — often in chronological order. It that what makes us a family? We love to point out how competitors will fight tooth and nail for business but share a drink or dinner at the end of the day. Not infrequently, I’ve heard people who came into furniture from another industry comment on how closely knit furniture people are.

I have some thoughts of my own on why I miss the people in the industry.

When I think of the many interesting people I met during the 40 years I spent in the industry, I almost always recall something I learned from them. Here are a few examples. You will learn by the end of this column why I believe there are lessons to be learned from some of the industry’s greats and near-greats.

A great company needs a visionary      

In 1983, I met Ron Wanek, who, at the time, was president of Ashley Furniture. We were meeting in his office in Arcadia, Wisconsin. I was looking out the window at a lot full of semitrailers. I jokingly asked Ron if he was going into the trucking business. He smiled and said the key to success was going to be in providing his customers with fast delivery. The nation was just pulling out of a mild recession and a few manufacturers were offering a new concept called “quick ship” which basically offered 30-day or less delivery on a limited number of styles, finishes or colors. Ashley’s goal was to ship the dealer’s order in a few weeks and eventually in a few days. To accomplish this would require a fleet of trucks as well as dependable carriers with distribution centers throughout the U.S. Obviously, other manufacturers may have also thought of this concept but were staggered by the cost of coordinating manufacturing inventory and logistics. Wanek was thinking out of the box and had the savvy to pull it off. A few years later, I was visiting Sam Levitz in Tucson, Arizona. I asked if he was an Ashley customer. He said he was. I asked if Ashley could deliver his order in a week or less as advertised. He replied, “If I place an order on Monday morning, I will receive the goods by Thursday or Friday. That saves me about $10,000 a month on warehousing alone and makes my customers very happy. I’ll be doing more business with them in the future.” (Remember, this was the 1980s).

But Ron Wanek’s visionary talents didn’t stop there. On another occasion, I was meeting with him in Arcadia when on the way to lunch he stopped at a nondescript building beside the highway. He took me inside to show me a prototype of an Ashley store he was developing. I was struck by the concrete floors and lack of decoration. After a brief walk around, he asked me what I thought. I always gave him my honest opinion so I replied, “It’s too plain. It looks blue collar.” He smiled at me and said, “Well, Carroll, there’s more of them than there are of us.” We all know this success story. There are more than 1,000 Ashley Home Stores or operatives all over the world and they are beautifully decorated. Just before I retired in 2010, I asked Ron if he got the idea for the Ashley Home Store from the niche Ethan Allen had carved out at the upper end. He just smiled.

The business world is constantly changing

I would like to add my recollections to the memory of Albert Fraenkel who recently passed away. Albert would usually invite me to have lunch with him the day before the San Francisco Market. I always looked forward to this occasion. I always came away enriched by his words of wisdom. It was mostly a one-sided conversation. Albert would not talk about himself. His endless flow of questions never gave me an opportunity to ask him questions. After a few years, I realized that his questions were designed to make me think and hence come up with new ideas.

It was the early ’80s and I was to meet him in a park off Columbus Avenue in North Beach. He was sitting on a park bench with some packages beside him. One of the packages contained our lunch. The other looked like a stack of newspapers. Once we had finished our sandwiches, he unwrapped the other package. It was the first year’s issues (1976-1977) of Furniture Today. I had joined the newspaper in the fall of 1977 so the issues were still familiar to me. He placed his hand on top of the stack to prevent me from peeking. He said, “Here’s a test for you. How many advertisers in the first year’s issues of your newspaper can you name?” As many of the advertisers appeared regularly for many years, I did a passable job of remembering them. Then he began opening the issues and turning the pages to show me advertisers I had not named. Some were no longer in business; some had been purchased by conglomerates. Albert, in his scholarly manner, said, “I just wanted to point out that the business world changes about every five years. If you doubt that, ask your yourself how many were around five years ago, how many people who worked there five years ago are still there and how many had the same job they had five years ago?”

Albert wanted to help me, as a relative newcomer to publishing, to use this point as a reason to advertise. People come and go; today’s buyer may be replaced next year, but your company still remains and still offers a product that a new buyer or customer may not be aware of. I have never forgotten his advice.

I could relate many more stories like this as there are many talented people in our industry to talk about. I learned from so many of them. As my mentor once told me when I first went to work in an advertising agency, “If you want to succeed, watch what successful people do and copy them. Then you will become a composite of the best.”

These are lessons we can all share and learn from.

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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