Alvin E. "Bo" Bland; Action Industries
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
NOVEMBER 29, 2004
OFFICE OF FURNITURE BRANDS INTERNATIONAL
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: When were you born?
BLAND: I was born October 20, 1924. I’m just at my 80th birthday.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, good for you! Where were you born?
BLAND: I was born in Lafayette County, which is near a small town, Toccopola, which is about 20 miles from the University of Mississippi at Oxford.
INTERVIEWER: Is your family in furniture?
BLAND: No. They are farmers.
INTERVIEWER: How about your in-laws?
INTERVIEWER: Do you still have family in furniture?
BLAND: My son is still in furniture, yes. Roger.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about your growing up years.
BLAND: My parents were very poor. My father was a farmer – owned a farm – but got wiped out during the Depression, so we grew up with very meager means. My father died when I was 12 years old. That left my mother and me. I have a brother who was married at that time and I have a sister who was married at that time, so it left my mother and me still on the farm. After I finished high school, I married at a very young age and worked for about a year with a construction company building an army camp in the small town of Grenada, Mississippi. Then I was drafted into the Army and served 32 months in the combat engineers. About 12 to 14 of those months were overseas. I gained enough points to get out of the Army after the war ended in Japan and in Germany. The way you got out of the Army was based on the points you had and the points were based on children, time of service, need of the family and so forth.
When I gained enough points, which was probably six months after the war ended, I came home and enrolled at Mississippi State University. I graduated from Mississippi State University in 1950 with an industrial management degree.
The first job I had, which was immediately out of school, was with a company making clothing in Houston, Mississippi. I worked with them for about a year, and then I went into sales with Pillsbury. I was in the sales and marketing position with Pillsbury for approximately three years and then I joined Futorian Manufacturing Company. That was early 1954. I had about three months of exposure to the furniture industry and very casual training, which directed me into the various departments. After that short period of training, I became a plant manager, and you can imagine how difficult that was.
My furniture background started at that point and grew with Futorian. I spent 16 years with Futorian and decided that I wanted to be in my own business. I discussed it with Morrie Futorian. He was very favorable. I discussed completely what my motivations were.
INTERVIEWER: Morrie was not very charitable to most of the people who left him.
BLAND: That’s true, but fortunately he was very charitable in the way of maintaining a close friendship after we started our business, and we kept in contact throughout the years.
It was 1970 when we started Action Industries, and in 1972, we merged with The Lane Company. Lane was very anxious to get into the recliner business and bought a plant in High Point. They were struggling to get into the recliner business and they thought they saw an opportunity.
Adrian Pearsall and Dick Pearsall were at Craft Associates and were very good friends of mine. We were showing in Chicago as Action Industries. That would have been April 1972.
I went up to visit Dick and Adrian, and during our visit, Adrian suggested, “Why don’t you contact The Lane Company? They’re struggling, trying to get into the recliner business.” He recommended strongly that I do that. I said I had no desire to pursue anything further than to run our business.
He continued to insist and he called Stuart Moore in Chicago, told Stuart that I was visiting with him, and that he’d like for me to meet Stuart. Stuart said to come on down, so Adrian went with me to meet Stuart, introduced us, and then he disappeared. Stuart and I talked for about an hour, and Stuart said, “Let me call Hamp Powell and let you talk with him.”
So he called Hamp and Hamp and I talked for a while on the phone. Hamp said, “Can you come to Altavista, Virginia, to Lane’s headquarters?” I said, “I’m going back home at such and such time.” He said, “Schedule yourself through Altavista and let’s talk.” I said, “OK.”
Just prior to that, Bob Spilman at Bassett had contacted me and had some interest. It was probably just a week before the Market that Bob and his group flew down to Tupelo and visited our plant. He was very interested and wanted to pursue the conversation further.
After Hamp insisted that I come down to Altavista to visit with him, I did go by and visit with him, and he was interested in discussing the situation further. He wanted to fly down.
John Jones from Hickory Tavern had merged with The Lane Company and John had a jet. Hamp said, “I’ll get John to fly me down and we’ll come take a look.” Hamp, Stuart Moore and B.B. Lane came down and spent a day with us and were still interested in talking further.
Probably a week or two later, Hamp called and said, “We want you to come up and visit us. We’ll send John Jones down to pick you up.” So John came down with his jet and picked Mickey Holliman and me up. We flew to Hickory, spent the night and had dinner and discussions with John. Then the next day, he flew us over to Altavista and we met most of the day with Hamp, Stuart and B.B.
Toward the end of the day, Hamp said, “Bo, let’s you and I go in my office and talk.” So we did and before I left his office, we had a deal, which I couldn’t believe. I made the price offer, which I felt was an inflated price and a price that would discourage him, but it didn’t discourage him. He said, “I’m all for it. Let’s do a deal.” He called Stuart, B.B. and Mickey Holliman and explained to them what our discussion was. We all agreed and in a short time we were merged with Lane and had an excellent relationship with them for a number of years and still have an excellent relationship.
But along the way, Hamp died. He retired a few years before he died.
INTERVIEWER: He retired about 1980.
BLAND: That’s probably about right. He didn’t live very long after he retired. Then B.B. became the chairman of the board, which lasted for a period of time, and B.B. struggled there. The board of directors felt that we needed to make a move, so we confronted B.B. with that, which was not a very popular confrontation.
INTERVIEWER: This was the board of The Lane Company?
BLAND: Yes, this was the board of The Lane Company, because once we merged, we only had one board. I went on the Lane board, and of course we didn’t have a board with Action because we were a wholly-owned subsidiary. We just had an executive group.
INTERVIEWER: So B.B. was chairman of a huge group.
BLAND: Yes, that’s correct. We had a lot of discussions within the board and the board tried to convince me to consider that job. I said, “No way. I’m not going to get involved in that confrontation.” We decided that Stuart Moore was the man for the job, so we elected Stuart as chairman of the board.
Stuart died about 1994. Of course, we were still a part of The Lane Company, but we were pretty much independent from Lane. Our volume had exceeded Lane’s volume by about 2 or 2 ½ to 1. We operated pretty independently from The Lane Company.
Interco out of St. Louis was a broadly diversified company. They were in furniture, shoes, hats, hardware, hardware retail – a number of different markets. Most of the companies had no relationship to each other except Broyhill and Ethan Allen. Then they came after Lane. They had a definite interest in Lane, but the Lane people (Stuart, Hamp and B.B.) were totally opposed to this.
Interco pursued. In the meantime, we had a group out of New York –the Rawis brothers; they were in the automotive parts business. They made a pass at Lane. They made a fairly substantial offer, but we weren’t interested in that because we just didn’t see the future with them. In the meantime, Interco was still in the process of trying to negotiate.
We finally reached a point that we met with the Interco people in New York and talked the situation over. We decided to take it to the stockholders, because that was the time when everybody was pursuing everybody else and the merger thing was hot. So after our discussions, we decided to take it to the stockholders.
Of course, the Lane group, including Hamp and all of that group, were not in control of The Lane Company at that time. We held a stockholders meeting, and the stockholders voted to merge with Interco. So we merged with Interco and went through a process for about a year or a year and a half.
Let me backtrack. The Rawis brothers – it wasn’t Lane they came after; it was after we joined Interco. They came after Interco and made a fairly substantial offer and were pursuing it aggressively. The Interco board decided to buy our company out through a deal of paying the stockholders 50 percent of the value that was being offered for the company in cash and the balance in junk bonds.
That finally occurred. After six or eight months, Interco just couldn’t handle the interest of the junk bond situation and had to go into Chapter 11 on account of the junk bonds and the fact that they paid out the stockholders 50 percent of the value that was offered for the stock, which obviously liquidated all of their cash. They had to go take some of the junk bonds capital to provide the cash needed to make the acquisition.
It was about 11 months later when the Interco board was contacted by a group out of New York. It was Black – I forgot his first name. He had an acquisition group. They made an offer. Of course, the company was in a position where they had to have the capital so it was pretty much a takeover situation that Black and his group made. The company was still in Chapter 11, so they bought it dirt cheap.
It wasn’t too long after that, maybe 10 or 11 months, that we came out of bankruptcy, and of course the company was reorganized and issued common stock. It was issued at that time as Furniture Brands. While the company was in the hands of the Black group, they reorganized the company with the name Furniture Brands instead of Interco.
In the meantime, in this process, they sold off their chain of hardware stores, and their donut business, and they had a hat company. Whatever holdings they had, other than furniture, were all disposed of. Of course, Ethan Allen was bought back by the management group.
INTERVIEWER: They had Florsheim Shoes.
BLAND: Florsheim Shoes, exactly. They had Converse tennis shoes. In the meantime, all of that was spun off and they ended up with Broyhill, Lane and Action-Lane. At that time Ethan Allen was still a part of the group.
INTERVIEWER: Hampton purchased Hickory Chair way back.
BLAND: Right, way back. He also purchased Clyde Pearson and Craft, which ultimately went into bankruptcy and were liquidated. Hickory Chair, Clyde Pearson, Royal Development, Action and that entire group were still a part of the Lane group. We kept all of those companies. Hickory Tavern was still a part of the Lane group. That was all consolidated under Lane. Then there were Broyhill and Ethan Allen, if I recall correctly.
Ethan Allen was spun off to the management group. Shortly after that, or approximately at that time, the Black group bought Thomasville, so we ended up with Thomasville, Lane and Broyhill as Furniture Brands. We operated those companies until about four years ago when Furniture Brands acquired Henredon, Drexel Heritage and Maitland-Smith. That’s the Furniture Brands group as of today.
INTERVIEWER: We really got ahead of the agenda here but that’s fine.
BLAND: Yeah, I guess we did. You asked me about growing up. But I was growing up all during that period of time, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: Meanwhile, you answered where you went to college, your major and some significant happenings in college that affected your life.
BLAND: I went to college under the GI Bill, and I was married and had one child at that time. The GI Bill paid the tuition but that was about the extent of it. I had to go to work during that period of time. I worked while I was in college and was supplemented by GI income.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the farm. Did your family own the farm?
BLAND: No, not in the beginning. As I told you, my father owned the farm originally, and during the Depression, he was wiped out. It was probably a year after my father died that my mother bought a small farm, a different farm, and she and I lived on that farm until I was out of high school. She continued to live there after I left.
Of course, I was anxious to get away from the farm and as soon as I finished high school that gave me the freedom to move forward with my life.
INTERVIEWER: Was the farm anywhere near Mississippi State?
BLAND: No, we were near Oxford, where I was born. It was in the same community where I was born.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job? With Morrie, right?
INTERVIEWER: Who was your boss?
BLAND: Morrie. I worked in conjunction with the manager of the Stratford operation, who was Milton Nudelman. You remember Milton and his brother Seth, who was in sales? But my reporting was directly to Morrie.
INTERVIEWER: Where did Bill Taymon come in?
BLAND: Bill Taymon was probably there at the time I joined the company. If not, he came in almost immediately. I guess it was shortly after Mohasco bought Futorian, about 1962 or 1964, that I replaced Bill Taymon as vice president of manufacturing.
INTERVIEWER: Where did he go?
BLAND: He went to Texas someplace with some small furniture company. I don’t remember now just what it was. It was a mutual agreement when Bill left between Bill and Morrie.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the furniture industry at that time.
BLAND: The furniture industry at that time was obviously, as it is today, extremely competitive. But Morrie had visited an automobile plant some years earlier in Detroit and he got the idea of producing furniture on a mass production basis.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, he was on a flight, and his seatmate was a vice president of General Motors. He told me all about this. He said, “Tell me how you make a Chevrolet Caprice and how you make a Cadillac DeVille. They look very similar but the Cadillac costs a whole lot more.” Morrie asked “How much more does the Cadillac cost to make?” The guy said, “$700.”
BLAND: Yeah, that’s probably right. With those ideas, he started pursuing a place to put a factory to give mass production a try. He had a Jewish friend in New Albany, Mississippi; I don’t know how they became friends, but this friend was at a general merchandise store in New Albany. He invited Morrie to come to New Albany and talk to the fathers of the town about the possibility.
At that time, Mississippi had a program that was called Balance Agriculture with Industry, which started very shortly after the war. The purpose of that program was to entice industries to come into Mississippi. Mississippi was basically, totally an agricultural state. This was the attempt to get industry interested in Mississippi because certainly we had the labor for it. We didn’t have anything to attract industry here but that program.
The way the program worked was that the community would put up its assets as security for the funds. They’d issue bonds and they’d put up their assets or a certain amount of their assets as security for the bonds, and the bonds were sold at an extremely low interest rate, which would normally be paid out through an attractive rental situation over a period of 20 to 25 years. At the time it was paid out, the community owned the facility.
The company had a very low lease option where they could lease the facility at a ridiculously low rate. That was the thing that kept Morrie going. The people in New Albany were very anxious to get some industry going so they got together with Morrie and built the plant there. This is where Morrie started his mass production.
INTERVIEWER: Morrie claimed to be great friends with Ross Barnett.
BLAND: They became friends after the initial contact in New Albany, but that’s where the initial contact was. It was his Jewish friend in New Albany. They made that friendship develop into an association with the community, which got the thing going where they issued the bonds to build the factory and continued to as the company grew and needed additional facilities.
That program didn’t only apply to the furniture industry; it applied to any industry that would come into the state.
Morrie, as a result of that, was able to produce furniture at an extremely attractive rate from a competitive standpoint. He began to grow and continued to grow.
INTERVIEWER: His growth was also caused by his mass production idea, because upholstery is still made by a Mississippi system or a North Carolina system, and they’re quite different.
BLAND: Yes, that’s true. Of course, the North Carolina system and the system that Morrie used in Chicago (where he got his start) was a totally different approach than the mass-produced approach. As a result, shortly after I joined Futorian, he closed the Chicago operation and moved all of the production to Mississippi.
INTERVIEWER: The way he made it in Chicago was totally different.
BLAND: Totally different. That was where one man would take a frame and probably do half of the operation. Then the upholstery guy would put the fabric and so forth on. It was basically a two-man operation; in some cases one man would make the entire piece of furniture, which obviously was more expensive. Plus, he was unionized in Chicago and was not unionized in Mississippi. Mississippi had an extremely low labor rate compared to North Carolina and particularly Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first Market you attended?
BLAND: The first Market I attended was Chicago. I don’t remember exactly the year, but it was probably the second year after I had joined the company. It was relatively soon after that. I always attended the Chicago Market in January and in June. The Market in Chicago was eventually closed down as a result of the moves to North Carolina. Of course, the manufacturers of North Carolina and Virginia were consolidated and tried to bring the Market into North Carolina, which they did, and as a result, that brought all the furniture showrooms out of Chicago and into North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Can you describe your first Market in Chicago in detail?
BLAND: Hmmm, it’s been a long time, Roy. Basically, our showroom as I recall was on the 8th floor of the furniture building at 666 Lakeshore Drive, and we had an excellent display of furniture, had a substantial-sized showroom. We obviously had a lot of customers in and salesmen who were very busy.
INTERVIEWER: That was in the summer?
BLAND: Probably. I don’t remember if the first one was or not. I remember there was no air conditioner in the summer; windows were always open. In the winter, there was no heat on the streets either. I attended both the winter and the summer ones.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in the Market since then?
BLAND: Oh, there’s been many, many. The market has been a constant change since then.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, it’s totally moved to High Point now.
BLAND: Oh, yeah, it’s all moved to High Point and High Point has continued to grow, building additional Market buildings. I guess everybody of any consequence has been showing in High Point for quite some time now.
Our first showing in North Carolina was obviously six months after Chicago. Well, our first showing was in Dallas in July; then our next showing would have been in January in Chicago. We showed in Chicago at probably two or three different Markets, and in the meantime we also showed in Atlanta. That’s before we merged with Lane.
After we merged with Lane we showed in Hickory. Actually, we had shown in Hickory before we merged with Lane, probably for two Markets. I guess we stayed in Hickory for two Markets after we joined Lane and then we moved into the Main building in High Point. This was about the time of the move from Chicago to North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: I think that’s when the Commerce Wing was built, when Lane consolidated and took the whole 8th floor.
BLAND: That’s probably right. We showed just outside the new building where the walkway went across to the older unit. We showed on that walkway; Vaughan-Bassett was just down the hall from us. We were the first showroom on the right as you left the new complex. Lane owned a substantial part of that building and so did Bassett. Eventually it all became one.
We showed two Markets in High Point in this location that I just described. Then we moved into the new complex with Lane. As Lane could get other companies moved out of there, we moved in and took over additional space, and eventually we took over the entire 8th floor.
INTERVIEWER: All right. Tell us about the beginning of your company, Action Industries.
BLAND: We started in 1970. We left Futorian about April of 1970. I had talked to Morrie over the last couple of years prior to that about our plans and desires, without being specific, and Morrie understood. He didn’t cheer it on, but he didn’t discourage it either.
We got our samples built and our base organization established before the July Market of 1970. Our first showing was at the Dallas Market in July 1970.
From there, it became a gradually expanding situation. I think the first six months, we were in the black. Our second year, 1971, we did about $5.5 million in volume and made a pretty substantial profit.
We were in leased space in the beginning, and at that point, we decided to build our own building. We moved down to our own area, which was an industrial park area. We bought 30 acres of land and started building a 100,000-square-foot building. We must have started that in the late summer, early fall of 1971. We joined Lane in April or May of 1972. We operated a little less than two years before we joined Lane.
Of course, that was a good move for us, because the Lane people – we couldn’t be with nicer people than they were. We had full freedom to operate our operation. We operated totally independent from Lane, and they just cheered us on and financed our operations – provided the money. We really had no problem in continuing our growth situation.
It was probably about 1974 that we acquired Royal Development in High Point. They had a nice, small operation going. Frank Hoffman and Bill Bencini had disposed of their company to somebody and they were under a no-compete agreement. Frank talked whoever they sold it to out of the no-compete program. So they started Royal Development from the ground up.
They probably had 100 people working – maybe 50 in High Point and they had a plant down in Red Springs with about 50 people in that plant. After a couple of years, we eventually disposed of all the business they were doing with outside customers and just took over the full volume. They are still going great.
Frank Hoffman died at a very early age, probably about a year after he joined The Lane Company.
INTERVIEWER: Anything further about the growth of your company? The growth of your company and the combination of companies was fairly fantastic.
BLAND: Yeah, it was. At the time I retired, which was 1996, just in Action we were doing in the neighborhood of $400 million. Lane’s volume was around $60 million and they got up to about $80 million at the maximum. We were about four times the size of Lane at the time I retired, in terms of volume.
INTERVIEWER: Lane was always very proud. They claimed to be the most efficient of the furniture factories in the South.
BLAND: They did, but that was a bad claim because that was not the case.
INTERVIEWER: I think perhaps in the group that they were competitive with.
BLAND: Yeah, maybe in the group they were competitive with. Actually, Bassett was a step-down from Lane in their range; at least Lane claimed that. Bassett was a little bit lower, price-wise.
INTERVIEWER: I went to a lot of Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association’s manufacturing division meetings. Lane was always very proud of its efficiency.
BLAND: Yeah. Lane was an excellent company; they were a very profitable company. A lot of their profits came from their cash; they had a bundle of cash invested and that generates a lot of profit.
Hamp Powell was a prince, just a super nice guy, but he had to squeeze the last penny out of the product. That hindered a lot of their sales – the fact that they just continued to escalate the price of their product. They couldn’t get the volume. After the cedar chest thing started to tail down a little bit, that put the pressure on them for the balance of the line.
INTERVIEWER: They got into occasional tables and then they bought the old Bald Knob factory in Rocky Mount, Virginia. That’s when they got into case goods.
BLAND: They were really never very important in case goods. The occasional tables and the cedar chests were their main volume. The cedar chest part of that business was very profitable because they didn’t have any competition.
INTERVIEWER: They had a couple; one in Memphis. It was called Cavalier, I think, but yes, they pretty much owned the cedar chest business.
I had the privilege of working with Morrie for three years or so, and then, when I went back to the Manufacturers Association, we got into the UFAC (Upholstered Furniture Action Council, an industry flammability effort) activity. The major force of UFAC was Hamp Powell. So I had the privilege of working for Hamp for years. It always struck me how much Hamp and Morrie were alike in so many ways, and there’s no way that two men could have come from more different backgrounds.
BLAND: That’s true.
INTERVIEWER: Hamp swore he was born in a log cabin in Virginia. I’ve always had an interest in Judaism, and Morrie was a scholar, but he was born in Russia.
BLAND: That’s very true, background-wise. Morrie drove a cab in Chicago for several years. Then his father started reupholstering furniture for the hotel industry in Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: Morrie would drive the cab all day, and on the last trip, he’d put the furniture in the cab and take it home for his father to reupholster. That’s how they got into the upholstery business.
BLAND: Both were great guys. Hamp was the type of guy that ruled with an iron hand, and Morrie did to some degree. But Morrie was based in Chicago, which was away from the factories and what was going on there, and Hamp was on location with the factories. And, boy, those people in Altavista – when Hamp would walk by, they would shudder. But he was a down-to-earth, super guy if you really got to know him.
INTERVIEWER: People who worked with him said, “Mr. Powell’s a one-man gang!”
BLAND: Yeah, yeah. Everybody in the company called him Mr. Powell except for me. I called him Hamp.
INTERVIEWER: We never called him Hamp to his face. Of course, he was all wrapped up in the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.
BLAND: Yes, he was. When the crunch came – the fire problem with the furniture and the UFAC – Morrie was hell-bent against it. He fought that thing. He called a meeting in Altavista one time and had B.B., Stuart and me in the meeting.
This California deal (where California had mandatory fire-safety regulations for upholstered furniture, which some groups outside the industry wanted to make into a national standard) became very rigid. Hamp made the decision that we weren’t shipping anything upholstered into California. I said: “Hamp, there’s no damn way we’re going to stop shipping to California. That’s a major part of our business.” We had Breuners and a number of the department stores there, so we were probably doing 20 percent of our business in the state of California. I said, “There’s no way we’re going to stop shipping to California because it would kill our company.” So he conceded.
INTERVIEWER: We fought it in the association. He called me up one Saturday afternoon and said, “Roy, I’ve got to have you in San Francisco tomorrow morning.” I packed up and left. He called Bob Spilman at the shipyard in Miami and Hamp got him to San Francisco the next morning.
BLAND: He was a dude! He got things done. I always got tickled at his eyebrows. He could look at you with those eyebrows, could look a hole through you!
INTERVIEWER: He was remarkable.
BLAND: Yes, he was.
INTERVIEWER: He and Morrie were so determined. I always said if Morrie Futorian had wanted to build a concrete airplane, he would have made it fly. You know he would have and Hamp too.
BLAND: That’s right, so would Hamp.
INTERVIEWER: We spoke about the growth of your company. How has your growth been affected by labor?
BLAND: No problem whatsoever. We’ve never had a problem with the labor force. We have an outstanding labor force.
INTERVIEWER: Here in Tupelo?
BLAND: Yeah, and the whole area where we operate.
INTERVIEWER: The reason Morrie moved down here was labor, so that was a fairly heavy effect.
BLAND: Yeah, our labor force has been very loyal all along. We pay our people well and provide excellent benefits. We’ve never had a union attempt in all the years we’ve been in business.
The years that I was at Futorian, we had one at least every other year, but Morrie never paid his people like we did. They were on piecework, the people at Futorian. They always operated on piecework. When we started our company, we started on hourly – no piecework – and to this day there’s no piecework.
INTERVIEWER: Is it just hourly pay or is it incentive somehow?
BLAND: Hourly pay. We pay our management people on an incentive basis, but for our hourly people, there’s no place they can go and earn that kind of money. Our benefits are strong, so when you have that going, you keep your people. On our management team, there’s no turnover. We’ve never had much turnover at all in our management team. But we’ve been very cautious in building it, and over the years, we’ve basically built our management team right here in the Mississippi area. Obviously, we brought some people out – more so in marketing and sales, and sales management.
INTERVIEWER: How has your growth been affected by style and design?
BLAND: I would say it’s been pretty good. Our growth has been pretty good as a result of style and design. We’ve had our own design force now for quite a few years. We hired Tom Winrow who designed for Futorian, and Tom was our designer for probably 10 years, pretty much on an exclusive basis. We started fading out with him as we were building our own design force. Design is a strong point in growth. If you get a good design, build a good product – it just makes a big difference.
We committed from day one that the only type of product we were going to build was quality product, regardless of what price we had to sell it for. It was going to be a quality product, never short of that. That’s been our philosophy from day one and we’ve stuck with it.
INTERVIEWER: It’s paid off. What about advertising?
BLAND: Quite a bit of advertising. We started advertising shortly after we joined The Lane Company. Lane had been doing some national advertising. The first national advertising we did was in People magazine. When People magazine was founded, its rates were reasonable. We started advertising with People magazine and did that for a couple of years. Then we started fading into Better Homes & Gardens, Architectural Digest, and those types of magazines that went into the homes with wives – shelter magazines.
INTERVIEWER: That was largely an outgrowth of Lane’s long-time procedure, I expect.
BLAND: Yeah, I would say definitely so. We paid for all of our advertising from day one. In fact, we had our own advertising department within a couple of years. We used Lane’s advertising department in the first couple of years that we started, and then we developed our own advertising department.
INTERVIEWER: Hamp would not run an ad, would not use a picture without a person or two in it.
BLAND: Yeah, probably a good philosophy.
INTERVIEWER: In High Point, you could look through any shelter magazine and find pictures of people you knew. Alderman Studios had a big list of people – all locals – that would just come down and model for ads.
Apart from your own company, what was your furniture industry involvement? This has been covered, but you may have some other comments. What jobs did you have in furniture companies?
BLAND: My first job, with Futorian, was plant manager. I worked maybe a couple of months or so just visiting various departments, just getting the feel of what went on in the furniture industry.
INTERVIEWER: You were an industrial engineer?
BLAND: Yes, but my first job was plant manager.
INTERVIEWER: Mickey Holliman was an industrial engineer.
BLAND: Mickey was an industrial engineer. We hired Mickey right out of Mississippi State, and he’s never had another job other than what I’ve been involved with.
INTERVIEWER: Was Rocky Mount his first job?
BLAND: No, he was in our industrial engineering department here before we sent him to Rocky Mount. That was his first management job. He had the engineering responsibility there. Al Buskirk was the plant manager. Later we sent Art Drye.
INTERVIEWER: I never met anybody who didn’t have fond memories of Al Buskirk, a real gentleman.
BLAND: My next responsibility was vice president of manufacturing operations with Futorian and I maintained that position until we started Action.
INTERVIEWER: That’s when you came to Rocky Mount. You spent pretty much one week a month in Rocky Mount.
BLAND: Yeah, I spent a lot of time in Rocky Mount. We always struggled with that Rocky Mount operation.
When we built our company, I was president of the company, and then when we merged with Lane, I continued to be president of the company. I was elected to the Lane board.
A couple of years after that, I was appointed as executive vice president of The Lane Company, and I was part of the Lane executive committee. Really, I had no operational function at Lane other than as part of the executive committee, but I had a title at Lane as executive vice president.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in production?
BLAND: There have been a lot of changes in production over the years from what I learned at Futorian and the way they produced. It’s pretty much filtered itself throughout the industry and this area, but there have been a lot of refinements in the production process.
There have been a lot of mechanizations in the production process, like in the conveyors and sewing departments, the automated cutting machines and spreading machines. The production lines, to a degree, are automated now.
I remember at Morrie’s, we used to move a sofa down a couple of rails. One guy would finish his job and slide it down to the next, but in our case it’s operated on benches with rollers and when you finish one operation, it goes right to the next one.
INTERVIEWER: Everyone works on the same moving bench?
BLAND: Yeah. When it comes to the end of the line, it’s obviously inspected, and from there it goes onto a conveyor and it moves into the packaging department. There is automation in the packaging department.
INTERVIEWER: There have been a lot of changes in production. How about in purchasing?
BLAND: I don’t know that there’s been a lot of difference in purchasing, other than the fact that as you build volume, you consolidate your purchasing with fewer vendors, and as a result you can negotiate much better prices. Of course, the generation of purchase orders, inventory control, and all of that is now computerized – totally and completely different.
When we started our operation, we did a study. We had an accounting firm here in town do a study for us about six months before we started to help us develop our programs. We went on the computer from the day we started operation.
We did all of our inventory control; we did our order processing. All the major functions were computerized. Today, the consolidation of shipments is all computerized.
When a customer calls in today, with the control of the computer, the customer service operator can give him an immediate analysis of where his product is, when it will come off the production line, and when it will be delivered to his location. Going back for years, when a customer called in, it might take a day or two to run all this information down and get the information back to him. That’s all been improved so much.
INTERVIEWER: Talk about changes in sales and merchandising.
BLAND: From my viewpoint, there’s been quite a bit of change in sales because we started out with a sales force that was a multiple-lines sales force. We tried to never hire anybody that was carrying more than two other lines. We started working our way toward an exclusive sales force and it probably took us five years to do that. We developed an exclusive sales force, which definitely enhanced our ability to sell because the guys had nothing to do but sell our one product line. It improved our customer base and improved our customer relationships substantially.
From the standpoint of merchandising, I can’t think of any major changes. Obviously, it’s been improved – more sophisticated and automated.
It’s automated from the standpoint of how fast you can get a new product developed and how fast you can get it through development into the production line. There’s been a lot of improvement in that area but that’s not really a merchandising function – other than the fact that you can make a lot faster delivery to the customer.
Our normal delivery used to be six to eight weeks and that’s not the case anymore. It’s probably four weeks maximum, in some cases a lot less.
Of course, there are a lot more major accounts now with multiple stores, and obviously it’s a different approach to deal with those stores from a merchandising standpoint than it is with mom-and-pops.
When we first started in business, there were a lot of mom-and-pop stores and we basically built a major part of our business with mom-and-pops. We probably had about 60 percent of our business with what we classified as mom-and-pop stores – one store, family-operated, that type of thing. Then we developed with the major accounts. It was our philosophy to never allow an account to get more than 5 percent of our total business. But that really doesn’t affect merchandising.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it does.
BLAND: It does to some degree. Yes, I guess it does. There’s been a tremendous change in the furniture industry. Mom-and-pops are just about non-existent today. Through consolidation there have been many retail companies that have bitten the dust, but the major ones have continued to grow.
INTERVIEWER: When I started, the biggest retailers were Sears, Wards and JCPenneys. They’ve practically disappeared.
BLAND: Wards is completely out and has been for several years. Sears does very little if any since it doesn’t have its home stores. Kmart bought Sears.
INTERVIEWER: Kmart owned their stores but Sears theirs. Kmart was able to buy Sears with the real estate collateral that was its stores.
BLAND: Right, it was a real estate transaction in effect.
INTERVIEWER: But it was Kmart that bought Sears.
BLAND: Yeah, that’s amazing, isn’t it? Over the years we’ve done a lot of business with JCPenney; we’ve done as much as $60 million a year with JCPenney but that phased down. They’ve de-emphasized furniture to a great degree. The major department stores are de-emphasizing furniture; they’re getting out of it. The real furniture stores have expanded and grown. They’ve done a much better job at merchandising.
INTERVIEWER: One after the other. Levitz was the biggest; then Levitz was gone. Heilig-Meyers was the biggest; then Heilig-Meyers was gone. Rooms To Go is the biggest now.
BLAND: That’s right. Breuners, which was the biggest on the West Coast, is gone. The ones that are not aggressive enough and don’t do adequate merchandising just wither and go away. The good ones grow.
INTERVIEWER: They grow and then they fade out.
BLAND: That’s true. There has been some of that in the furniture business. When I came to work with Morrie, Kroehler was it. They were manufacturer number one. Morrie wasn’t number two at that time but grew to be. Kroehler just fizzled and completely went away. What’s left of Morrie’s operation is some part of Simmons, I think? I believe they ended up with them.
INTERVIEWER: It’s been knocked around so much, I don’t believe anybody could sort it out.
BLAND: I don’t think so either. I don’t know whether they still make the Barcalounger.
INTERVIEWER: Barcalounger is pretty much a freestanding company.
BLAND: I know they became a freestanding company.
INTERVIEWER: Bill Richman was president for several years and they’re still around. They still show at the Market.
BLAND: Yeah. And Schnadig?
INTERVIEWER: Schnadig has some kind of a problem.
BLAND: Schweiger is basically gone, aren’t they?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, they’re bankrupt. But now, in case goods, 52 percent of the furniture is not even made in the United States. The biggest furniture retailer is Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. Costco is right in there with them also.
BLAND: Yeah, I didn’t realize Costco was that much into furniture. Roger was telling me three to four weeks ago what kind of volume they were doing. In fact, he went up to Costco headquarters about three weeks ago. He said they were really going.
INTERVIEWER: I bet they’ll have a rough time catching up with Wal-Mart, though.
BLAND: Yeah, they will. That’s been some kind of story, hasn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: Oh my, yes. This all goes into globalization. It’s coming just as fast as it possibly can.
How about changes in finance? You’ve touched on that.
BLAND: I’m really not close enough now; I’m pretty much out of touch with that area. I know from the standpoint of Furniture Brands, finance has been no problem. In fact, the outstanding debt of Furniture Brands is down to about $300 million. That’s small compared to the volume they do.
INTERVIEWER: Bassett, a totally well-organized company, owes only for about 10 days worth of purchasing because it takes that long to pay a bill. Bassett, for many years, has made more money off their investments than they have manufacturing furniture. For the last two or three years, they’ve made more money off the furniture building in High Point than they have making furniture.
BLAND: Yeah, they haven’t done a very good job in manufacturing over the years, from a growth standpoint.
INTERVIEWER: The American Furniture Manufacturing Association (AFMA) is gone now. It’s now the American Home Furnishings Alliance, isn’t it?
BLAND: I believe it is.
INTERVIEWER: They now can take in Chinese manufacturers. AFMA got to the point where a substantial number of their once-manufacturing members were no longer eligible to belong to the association.
BLAND: Isn’t that amazing? Upholstery is probably a few years away, but offshore groups are going to start to pull into the upholstery business.
INTERVIEWER: That’s fascinating to me, because Morrie tried and tried and spent millions of dollars to marry a given fabric to a given frame, and he never could do it. We always had a bunc of closeout stuff from last year that we were trying to get rid of at whatever price we could get. He never succeeded in marrying covers and frames together.
You can do that in leather, because you can run I don’t know how many different patterns of leather and colorings together, but I bet you don’t have 30 to 35.
BLAND: A pretty good number.
INTERVIEWER: In leather?
BLAND: In leather, yeah. It’s amazing, the leather business.
INTERVIEWER: To a very high degree, you can marry a given pattern to a given frame and offer it in three to four colors.
BLAND: A lot of our leather is coming from offshore cut and sewn.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, of course. I don’t know how many combinations of fabric patterns and colors they offered on the Stratford line, but I bet it was 300.
BLAND: Yeah, probably so. But with the communications of today, there is a lot more chance of offshore getting into upholstery because they offer the same patterns with no problem at all. In fact, a lot of the upholstery fabric comes from offshore.
If you have the communications to deal instantly with the reordering process, that just facilitates it. With that said, I think it’ll be several years before that will happen, but I think we’re starting to see some of it, more so in the promotional lines, but there again, that’s where the volume is.
When you take labor that is $1.50 to $2 per day, compared with the labor here… I know 10 percent of our manufacturing cost is labor. It might be a little bit less than that; I think we’re down to about 8 to 8.5 percent now.
INTERVIEWER: One of my best friends was the manager of Drexel Heritage plant number 37 in High Point, the big one over on Ward Street, and I have a client who manufactures leather in China. I asked Jim, “How much does a skilled leather upholsterer in High Point make?” He said, “They’re on piecework.” I said, “What does he take home every day?” He said, “About $150.” I asked the Chinese guy, “What does a skilled leather upholsterer in China take home every day?” He said, “$12.”
There’s no way to compete with that. The 8 to 10 percent that you have becomes 0.8 percent
BLAND: That’s right. Of course, you have the freight factor and the packaging factor, but you have a lot of difference to offset it. You have to do it anyhow.
INTERVIEWER: Freight is not all that much considering what you can get in a 40-foot container. The real drag on it is three weeks in transit.
BLAND: Yeah, that’s true. For the differential in the cost, a lot of the major retailers are willing to wait that time to get the price advantage.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a totally different ball game.
BLAND: Yes, it is.
INTERVIEWER: That covers changes. Anything else to say on what has changed over the years?
BLAND: I think we touched on the retail operation and what’s happened there with the consolidation of major stores and the elimination of mom-and-pops and a lot of badly managed operations. They’re all gone.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you’ve personally received from people in our industry and support your company has received.
BLAND: From a competitor’s standpoint, Morrie had a few friends, close friends, that he always gave tours to. But in our company, we’ve been pretty much a closed-door situation. We’ve not been an operation where that’s done. Neither have we visited other companies’ factories; that’s just never been a part of our philosophy. We pretty much have not had competitors – people within the same industry – tour our facility. Now retailers and so forth, obviously, they were always free to tour any plant.
INTERVIEWER: They wouldn’t have understood the inner workings of it anyway; they have bigger things to worry about.
INTERVIEWER: You have been pretty much isolated from other people in the furniture business and wanted to be.
BLAND: As far as general upholstery is concerned, it is fairly basic from the standpoint of the manufacturing process. But from a mechanical standpoint, as in our case, there were a lot of techniques that aid the production process that we just didn’t care to expose to our competition. As a result, we just always had a pretty much closed-door policy for competitors.
INTERVIEWER: There’s a big difference with recliners. If you’re making recliners and one makes fat arms and another makes thin ones, when you go to put the seat and back on there, it doesn’t work. There’s a lot more precision in the manufacturing of recliners.
BLAND: Exactly. As far as the assembly of the mechanism to the base unit and the assembly of the back and seat to the arm unit, there are a lot of techniques that aid and speed up the process. They give you a lot more productivity per man-hour. We just felt like if we were smart enough to develop advanced techniques, then why should we expose it to our competition?
INTERVIEWER: Your solutions were different, as shown by the fact that upholstery is made so differently in Mississippi than in North Carolina.
BLAND: Right. In fact, we have and control our own mechanical operation. We make all of our own mechanisms. As a result of that, we can develop a lot of processes that aid the production process from the upholstery standpoint.
INTERVIEWER: I was very much surprised when I went to Rocky Mount. In most North Carolina factories, each upholsterer has a roll of cotton on the bench, he rolls what he needs and pulls it off. Everything we did in Rocky Mount, all the padding material, was cut to pattern. It was laid in there, so that every single chair had the same amount of filling. It came out the same size down to the end of the line. That is a degree of precision in manufacturing that was never necessary until recliners.
BLAND: Right. Everything we do is precut in that regard. Every foam piece and every piece of padding are all precut.
INTERVIEWER: It’s not that way in most North Carolina factories. That’s quite different.
Describe your business strategy.
BLAND: From the standpoint of product, initially we developed our philosophy of emphasis on product quality – to never shortchange the quality of our product. From a business philosophy standpoint, we always projected our plans forward. We always projected aggressive plans. We pretty much tied our management group into the accomplishments of our plans and we paid them on the basis of meeting those plans.
We always tried to be realistic in terms of what was available and what we could accomplish. We always very carefully studied the industry and what was out there from our viewpoint and information we could get that was available to us.
There again, we always set a range of product that we felt we could compete in. We never went to the really low-end and we never went to the highest end. We always tried to be in the middle range of the product.
We always tried to project what kind of an investment we had to make to accomplish this and we always planned our need for space ahead, for production and storage space. We always worked on a five-year-plan basis. Obviously we had it updated every year. That was pretty much our business philosophy.
We wanted to develop as much business as we could, as long as it was profitable business. We shied away from the promotional areas that didn’t give us a profitable prospect. Certain parts of the line make a much better percentage of profit than others but it has to balance out.
We always had an objective of where we wanted to be, profit-wise. Fifteen percent pretax was always our objective and our goal. We worked pretty hard to accomplish that, and over time, we pretty well did it. We’d range anywhere from 12 to 18 percent pretax profit.
The reason for doing that is that, from an investment standpoint, if you don’t have the return and generate the cash to do it, what’s your growth situation going to be?
INTERVIEWER: This was professional management – setting out your one-year objective, then your five- year plan.
BLAND: Absolutely. Based on our one-year plan, we always had our management team submit their objectives, regardless of what they were. Whatever they were in, they had to submit five points of what their objective was for the coming year, and we measured them on the basis of how well they accomplished what their objectives were.
Their objectives always had to be within reason and reach. If it was an upholstery foreman, he had to project on his level of quality, his level of turnover of personnel, his cost of personnel, his training program and those types of things.
When you consolidate all of that together and develop a 12-month plan, then you’ve got everybody keyed in as to what your objectives are and what you have to do to make them realistic and accomplish them.
Morrie never earned the kind of profits he should have. Morrie was always in the 3 to 4 percent pretax range and that was too close to margin from my standpoint. We set high objectives and we tried our best to accomplish them.
INTERVIEWER: How did that compare to Lane?
BLAND: Percentage-wise? Most of the time we were slightly above Lane. Of course, keep in mind that Lane had investment income, of which we had none. They supplemented their income with the investment of their cash pool. I would say from an actual furniture standpoint, they were probably in the 9 to 10 percent range.
In the years after the acquisition by Interco, there was no surplus cash left because Interco took all that capital and consolidated it. Lane didn’t have the abundance of cash to invest and their profits immediately went down. In fact, when I retired from the company, Lane had some years where they had losses.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in business?
BLAND: My central personal goal has been to build a good company on a profitable basis.
INTERVIEWER: How well have you achieved it?
BLAND: Pretty well. It’s been a great experience.
INTERVIEWER: What’s been your company goal?
BLAND: Basically the same thing – to be successful, make money and grow, to develop a good management team, a good work force, and to be a good part of the community. We’ve been a good part of the community; we’ve helped in a lot of charitable ways and participated in the community’s welfare.
INTERVIEWER: Was that not also a Lane philosophy?
BLAND: To some degree, yes, they had a foundation – the Lane Foundation. They did some in their area; they never did anything in Mississippi. But they had a fairly good philosophy on that. I think B.B. and the Lane family had primarily started the foundation. The Lane Company has a foundation, but I don’t know just how active it is.
INTERVIEWER: B.B.’s wife was Minnie Bassett, and John Bassett is her brother.
BLAND: Yes. When I visited Bassett, John was with Bassett, and I spent a good bit of time with him. Yeah, Minnie was a Bassett. She probably ended up with more assets than B.B. did.
INTERVIEWER: I would assume so. I was at an AFMA meeting and B.B. told us, “They had a testimonial banquet in Altavista. The presiding gentleman said, ‘B.B., what’s the greatest thing you ever did for Altavista?’ B.B. said, ‘I brought Minnie Bassett here.’”
BLAND: That’s probably the case, too.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any difference between your company philosophy and your personal philosophy?
BLAND: Not really, no. This is something I always wanted to do from the time I was just a kid, even before I knew what a factory looked like. There weren’t even any factories in the area where I was but from what I learned in school about manufacturing and so forth, it just appealed to me. I just always wanted to be in that area. Fortunately, I was able to do it.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationship with your suppliers.
BLAND: We dealt with the majority of our suppliers on a long-term basis. We had excellent relationships with them. We gave our frame suppliers and basically all suppliers that did a good job significant business, enough business that we were important to them and they were important to us. We just always maintained a good relationship with them. We were always tough from the standpoint of trying to get the best prices at the appropriate time. When we had to go into a promotional situation to generate business, we always called on our suppliers and I’d say 99 percent of them always responded.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationship with your customers.
BLAND: Our relationship with our customers was also very good. We tried to develop as much of a rapport with our customers as possible, because we were trying to build a long-term relationship with each of them. I’d say we had a good relationship with 90 percent of our customers.
In the early stages, about 60 percent of our business was done with the mom-and-pop stores. Of course, with that broad a base, top management didn’t get in to see them that often.
With our major accounts, we got in to see them, worked with them and worked on a relationship. I think we built a good rapport and relationship with all of our customers, like Havertys, for example; we had an outstanding relationship with Havertys. And we had an outstanding relationship with Breuners on the West Coast.
There were a limited number of multiple-store operations that we had good relationships with.
We didn’t have too good of a relationship with Sears. We started to do some business with them one time. I was a little reluctant to do it to begin with, but we worked out a program and they had us build up a tremendous amount of inventory. By the time that it was supposed to ship out, they had changed buyers. They were famous for that. The new buyer came in and he didn’t know anything about the program or what was supposed to happen, so they kept dragging their feet and dragging their feet. Finally, I had to go to Chicago to set a spark under Sears. We finally got them to move those chairs out, and we cut our relationship off with them and never had any more business with Sears until after I retired. They did a little business with Sears then but never anything important. We never had a good relationship there.
But we had an outstanding relationship with JCPenneys, for example. We never did any business with Montgomery Ward, but I’d say that with the majority of large companies, we had good relationships.
INTERVIEWER: What were your greatest problems with your customers?
BLAND: Other than day-to-day type of things, I don’t know that we had any great problems with customers. Of course, we’d lose a customer occasionally. He’d be dissatisfied about his deliveries – delivery was supposed to be at a certain time and if it didn’t make it on that date, he’d get upset. But in the majority, we didn’t have any real problems with our dealers.
Fortunately, we never faced many quality problems. I’ll take that back now; Sears and JCPenney were tough on quality, and I think they did a lot of charge-backs that were not justified. They kept the records; we never saw the chairs that they complained about. They kept the records and their charges, and we usually had to accept them or challenge them, and we did a lot of that – negotiated with them when we could. But that never affected our business on a long-term basis.
INTERVIEWER: Isn’t the furniture industry average on charge-backs 2 percent?
INTERVIEWER: Most manufacturers don’t worry too much about it until it gets over 2 percent. Most department stores were notorious; they would take every nickel they could get.
BLAND: Exactly. I don’t remember exactly what our returns and allowances were, but I don’t think they ever reached 2 percent. I’d say more like 1 percent. I don’t remember exactly what they were but I’m confident they weren’t in the 2 percent range.
We did a lot of business with Macy’s, and we never had any more problems with them than we did with any other department stores, which, like you say, are famous for charge-backs and quality complaints. They’d make a complaint and most of the time we never saw the merchandise that they were complaining about. They’d issue their charge-backs and it was a matter of accepting or negotiating.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have any problems with your suppliers?
BLAND: I’m sure we’ve had some problems with suppliers from a quality standpoint but offhand I can’t think of any major problems. We always had fabric problems with suppliers – they didn’t meet quality standards – but that was not anything we didn’t live with. We just accepted it as a fact and they always stood behind their fabrics.
INTERVIEWER: Did you inspect the fabric?
BLAND: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Every yard of it?
BLAND: Not every yard, no. We did spot checks. If a shipment came in, we might inspect every 10th roll or something like that. But not every yard, no.
INTERVIEWER: The fabric people made, and they knew it, a certain amount of defects. They sent us the top quality goods because they knew we would send it back.
BLAND: Yeah, we did too. But most of our suppliers gave us an allowance for defects.
INTERVIEWER: They’re supposed to do that. They put a string in the selvage and that was a half a yard or whatever.
BLAND: Yeah, they’d give allowances for that, but if we ran into real problems we always had the supplier come in. I don’t recall any situations where they wouldn’t take it back and replace it or give you the allowance.
You’ll have occasional quality problems with suppliers, but I can’t think of anything serious enough that we ever dropped a supplier as a result of a quality situation. I’m sure we did have problems with smaller ones, though.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement with industry trade associations. Of course, the only one now is AFMA.
BLAND: Yeah. I never had a lot of association there. I guess it was the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association that got the idea of developing a Furniture Factory of the Future. I was on that committee.
INTERVIEWER: Anco Prak designed the Furniture Factory of the Future.
BLAND: Yeah. Before that we had one and we had a committee that designed certain segments of it. Then we put it all together for a furniture show in Louisville, Kentucky.
They may have done the artwork on it, but as far as the actual departmental areas, you had to develop what you thought was the future process of those particular departments. I had the cutting and sewing. I think there were about seven or eight of us involved in various departments. I was never on the board at anytime.
I was on some minor projects but not a lot of associations, and like you said, it was on SFMA or then AFMA.
INTERVIEWER: They merged with the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers. They got control of the wood show in Atlanta.
BLAND: Most of the machinery shows that I attended were in Cologne. I had the responsibility of the entire furniture operation after I became vice president of manufacturing operations. They had a show in Cologne every two years that I usually attended. As far as the shows in the U.S., one or two is all I ever recall attending.
INTERVIEWER: The U.S. show was in Louisville for a good long while. Then they moved it to Atlanta to get a bigger venue.
BLAND: I attended the one in Louisville. I don’t know that I ever attended the one in Atlanta. We always sent people there.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the greatest benefit from association activities?
BLAND: Not from my particular involvement, but we always had people involved in the SFMA and the American Furniture Manufacturers Association exchanging ideas and attending the meetings. We’ve had people serve on various functions within those organizations. I would say the exchange of ideas with various companies was the major benefit.
Morrie was never too strong on that association. We didn’t participate very much in the manufacturing meetings at Futorian.
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of and how did they work out?
BLAND: No other joint ventures.
INTERVIEWER: You haven’t had time.
BLAND: No, I’ve had that one court – Futorian and Action.
INTERVIEWER: How about overall changes in the furniture industry? Describe how the industry has changed over the years that you’ve been active in manufacturing.
BLAND: I think we pretty well covered that when we talked about the mom-and-pop stores, those stores going away, the multiple-store operations gaining more and more share of the market, a lot of the majors who weren’t well managed going away, and the strong ones getting stronger.
There has been a lot of consolidation and a lot of change. From a product and a marketing standpoint, there is more advertising and running of half-off deals – two for the price of one – that kind of stuff.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today in the short-term?
BLAND: I see this offshore situation being the most serious problem that we’re facing, because it’s a gaining-momentum situation. Manufacturers have got to follow the trend to be competitive. That is forcing more and more people to go offshore to get greater percentages of their product manufactured. Take Lane for example. Every bit of the Lane wood product line is manufactured offshore. We’ve got a 500,000-square-foot distribution center about 25 miles from here where all of the Lane line is consolidated. The shipments come to one spot, are consolidated and shipped out. Every bit of it – every stick – is manufactured offshore. I’m sure that Bassett has gotten into that; most of the middle-range areas have gotten more and more into that. Mickey Holliman told me that 55 percent of the wood furniture for the Furniture Brands group was made offshore. I think that is a big portion of the Broyhill line and a big portion of Thomasville.
INTERVIEWER: The figure is 55 percent in China. This doesn’t include stuff that comes from Vietnam, the Philippines or Brazil.
BLAND: The major part of Furniture Brands is coming out of China. They have been in a transition period with Broyhill for the last two to three years; they’ve closed a ton of Broyhill plants. With Thomasville, a lot of that is going on. But Henredon and Drexel Heritage – I don’t think they’ve probably gotten into that too much yet because of the price category.
Roger was over there last year and he toured a bunch of those factories. He said they were ultra-modern. We’ve got quality-control people in those various factories that watch the quality all the time when they’re running our product and they don’t have a lot of problems with it.
INTERVIEWER: Next is long-term.
BLAND: I think the long-term is just a continuation and probably an increasing situation of that. I still believe that down the road five to 10 years from now, you’ll see upholstery taking up with that.
INTERVIEWER: You’re right, but there is a problem with what Morrie tried to do and never could. He spent literally millions of dollars trying to standardize upholstery frame styles with fabric. The retailer Rooms To Go is doing it successfully today. They sell to a lady, saying: “Here’s a room. You don’t pick the fabric; you take what we’ve got.”
BLAND: Yes, that’s right. There are some other companies – a lot of these promotional companies – doing the same thing. I think as time goes forward, you’ll see more and more of that.
INTERVIEWER: You are right. You said five to 10 years; it’s going to be closer to five than 10.
BLAND: Probably so. To keep the furniture prices down, it has to go in that direction, because you can’t maintain the production in the U.S. and be competitive. Furniture prices haven’t increased in the last 15 years.
INTERVIEWER: According to Jerry Epperson, a typical bedroom suit hasn’t increased in 30 years.
BLAND: That’s right. A reclining chair is pretty much the same situation. We sold a few back then that could retail for $99 but not anymore; $198 was the big retail starting point then and it is now, too.
INTERVIEWER: I was in WalMart in High Point to buy these tapes, and they had a recliner in there for $79.
BLAND: I’m not surprised at all. The home building industry has been so strong for so long that many people who are buying and building new homes in the middle class can’t afford to buy furniture; they’re getting by with what they had. As a result, the demand is down and when the demand is down, that forces prices to be down.
INTERVIEWER: Jerry says that for many, many years, the furniture industry has followed home building with a lag of about a year. Now the home building industry is still going gangbusters, but the furniture industry is languishing. That means that there are thousands upon thousands of empty rooms.
BLAND: That’s for sure, but it’s going to be awhile before they are filled. The price of housing has continued to escalate on a substantial basis.
INTERVIEWER: There is going to be a catch-up sometime. The question is, “When?”
Now, what has been your own greatest contribution to our industry?
BLAND: I guess building a good product for a respectable price.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a formula for success.
BLAND: Yes. Other than that, I don’t know. There’s one area where we’ve created a tremendous amount of good designs in the industry that have been copied and knocked off dead-cold. I feel like we’ve kind of been leading the style category in the industry – not purposely to contribute to the industry so other people could knock it off, but that’s the fact. I would say in the recliner area, we’ve pretty much been the style leader for the last 20 years.
INTERVIEWER: Right from your very beginning.
BLAND: Yes. From a mechanical standpoint, it has been pretty much the same thing. As a result of that, it has boosted the recliner industry. There again, like I said, we’re not doing it purposely to aid the industry. Obviously, we’ve hired and trained a lot of people, provided a lot of jobs.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder if part of your contribution has been the difference in manufacturing procedure between North Carolina and Mississippi, which we’ve talked about. You yourself have had a very major part in the success of the Mississippi methods, if that’s a good way to say it.
BLAND: Yeah, that’s true. That’s definitely true. I learned from the Futorian College. We’ve obviously been a leader in innovation of methods and sophistication of manufacturing procedures. There again, we have not had an open door policy to spread those to the industry, but the industry learns from competition, learns from leaders.
INTERVIEWER: Nobody really succeeded in making recliners in bulk until Stratoloungers. La-Z-Boy was in there and they were smart, smart people. It seems to me that the mass production of recliners really originated with Stratoloungers. If anybody was involved with that, it was you.
BLAND: Yes, I definitely was there. I was the primary communicator involved in the development of the reclining chair mechanisms between Professor Lorenz and Futorian. I used to go down to his place in Florida and work with them. He had a guy by the name of Peter Fletcher who was supposed to be the real designer. Peter was kind of an off-the-wall guy. He was a good designer. With Peter Fletcher, Professor Lorenz and me, we basically developed the three-way mechanism. The two-way had been around for a while, but we basically developed the full-reclining unit, the three-way. From that standpoint, I was involved in that. I don’t take full credit for it but I take credit for being involved and participating in it.
INTERVIEWER: When I came down here to your factory, Mickey Holliman said, “Come here and let me show you my lumberyard.” That was the first time I had seen that much plywood in an upholstery factory. He had those 4 by 8 panels stacked 20 feet high. Not a lot of people then were making frames out of plywood.
BLAND: That’s true. I guess we were probably one of the first; we may have been the first to develop frames out of plywood. At Futorian – and this is not really anything that contributed to the industry – but we developed a situation where we bought our own standing timber and contracted with the mill to cut it and bring it into our yard. We did the drying process, which no other company that I know about did the process from that standpoint.
INTERVIEWER: Not in the upholstery business.
BLAND: Yes, none in the upholstery business. There were in case goods.
INTERVIEWER: One of the Hall of Fame candidates this past fall was with Williams Furniture in Sumter, South Carolina. Williams owned woodlands. They grew their own trees and even made their own finishing material.
BLAND: We never grew our own trees but we bought the timber rights. In fact, we bought 90 percent of our lumber from our own cutting rights.
INTERVIEWER: But not anymore.
BLAND: Not anymore, no. The hardwood thing is dwindling more and more.
INTERVIEWER: We were talking about your contributions. How much of your contribution was built on already-existing techniques and methods? How much came from innovations that you originated and put into use before other companies did?
BLAND: The reclining chair mechanism, from a very commercial basis, was in existence a long time before we were. From a standpoint of refinement, improvement and some innovation, we took a very simple idea and developed it into a more sophisticated idea, a much more comfortable product.
INTERVIEWER: Did Frank Hoffman have a lot to do with that?
BLAND: Frank did after the Lane deal, but I’m going back to the Futorian deal. Frank was a good manufacturing man but Frank was not a designer. Clark Rogers was their designer. He was an outstanding mechanical designer. He was with them in the General Steel days and he left when Frank and Bill Bencini did. They started up Royal Development. Clark was the brainpower behind the mechanical design.
There’s a lake outside of High Point; I think it’s out toward Charlotte. He had a home out on this lake. He had a design studio down near this place; it was a small town.
BLAND: Denton, that’s exactly it. He had a design studio back there. Clark was the brains behind the design. He had to be given the idea; he didn’t generate all the ideas. But once he developed the idea, he could make it happen.
INTERVIEWER: At one point there wasn’t much previously existing technique, but then Stratolounger got that running pretty well.
BLAND: Then there was the rocker recliner. Basically, we developed the rocker recliner as Royal Development and the Wallaway. It was very crude but we basically developed the Wallaway. We have since developed the glider, which has been an extremely successful idea. Those are basically improvements and innovations on existing products.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else about innovation?
BLAND: Only from the manufacturing process. We’ve done a lot as far as conveyorizing the manufacturing process and packaging. We were the first company that developed a conveyorized packaging system. But there were conveyors around before that.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by the Depression?
BLAND: That was before the company existed.
INTERVIEWER: World War II? I would say the same.
BLAND: Same thing.
INTERVIEWER: Except what happened after World War II...
BLAND: That’s when Morrie actually began – right after World War II – in New Albany on his mass-produced basis. We were 16 years down the road from that when we started our company. Of course, we’ve had recessions since that time; we’ve had a number of recessions. I’d say up until the last four to five years, we’ve always had tremendous growth during the recessionary periods and I can’t explain why. I guess we got more aggressive with our selling techniques, promotional ideas and so forth.
A lot of this happened because things were going pretty well and we had either started an expansion or a new factory. By the time it was completed, we would be in the middle of a recession and we had to do whatever we had to do to get business to keep up.
INTERVIEWER: What about racial attitudes? You’ve been right in the middle of that.
BLAND: Only from the standpoint of improving productivity. We’ve done everything that’s imaginable to increase productivity.
INTERVIEWER: From a racial standpoint, you didn’t have black people working down here?
BLAND: No, but we have a lot of them now. We sure do. I remember how much trouble we had down here getting black people into the plant operation at New Albany. You’d get a few black people – just a minimal amount – but we’ve got a tremendous amount of black people now.
INTERVIEWER: I had a dickens of a time in Rocky Mount and you were involved in that. They wouldn’t let us hire black people. You finally were the one that persuaded them.
BLAND: We faced up to the fact that this is the world we live in so we have to adjust to it.
INTERVIEWER: What about women’s issues?
BLAND: Oh, yeah, we worked a lot of women on the production line and in areas other than in the sewing department.
INTERVIEWER: Weren’t you pretty much the very first to do that?
BLAND: We probably were.
INTERVIEWER: I can remember at New Albany that was a triumph of industrial engineering to fit nine people on a production line, each with exactly the same work to do. With two women, it was part of the procedure to help the next woman, one on each end of the sofa, pick it up and move it.
BLAND: That’s true. Basically, the first women were in the sewing area because this used to be a predominant garment area. That was before furniture and before the garments started to move offshore, just like the furniture is doing right now. Everything now is basically gone.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, garments are gone.
BLAND: Other than in our sewing department, we have had women on the upholstery line. In fact, all of our inspectors are women. Also, we use them in supply areas.
INTERVIEWER: When I came down here, it was the first time I had seen this many women working in furniture.
BLAND: I don’t know what our percentage is, but probably 35 percent of our employees are women.
INTERVIEWER: You mean in upholstering or overall?
BLAND: I mean overall.
INTERVIEWER: How has shipment of your products affected your company?
BLAND: Tremendously. We used to ship probably 90 percent of our product by rail, and we’ve transitioned to the point now where we don’t really use railcars anymore. It’s all trucks. We’ve got a fleet of probably 200 truck units and probably about 400 trailers. Of course, we do a lot with contract carriers – not LTL-type stuff because we don’t really ship any LTL anymore.
We’ll send a truck into an area and if some guy buys 10 units, our truck delivers that. We use carriers other than our own fleet. We ship basically everything by truck, no rail anymore. In fact, the last two factories we built, we didn’t even run a rail line to them.
That was the most important thing. That’s improved our business tremendously because that’s downsized the inventory that the retailer has to carry. For example, to the West Coast, it used to take three weeks to get a car from here to California and a truck beats that in nothing flat. We send two drivers out, they alternate and roll right on. It’s 2,000 miles to California and they’ll average 50 to 60 miles per hour so it doesn’t take long – next day.
Another thing that happened, as far as our shipments are concerned, is that we’ve had a lot less damage. In fact, we have practically no damage anymore; whereas shipping by rail, we always had damage. It is a little more expensive, but the retailer is willing to pay that difference because his time investment is less.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the involvement of your family business on your community? Action wasn’t a family business for very long.
BLAND: We still look at it as a family business because we started it and basically built it being a part of Lane; it is still our family business. It’s meant a lot; we employ probably 3,500 people in the Tupelo area as a result of our production, raw material suppliers, and a lot of manufacturing suppliers.
Another thing that has happened is we have generated a lot of furniture company startups in the area that have added more influence and more volume to the suppliers’ employment. I would guess that probably for every employee we have, there are at least two people in the supply industry. There are frames, springs, fabrics, padding, nails, staples, screws and mechanisms.
INTERVIEWER: I understand the furniture supply industry is bigger than the furniture industry itself.
BLAND: Oh, no question about it.
INTERVIEWER: The other day when I came here, I saw a Culp Fabric warehouse.
BLAND: Yeah. Of course, we’ve had an impact from the standpoint of being a good citizen in the community and participating in charitable organizations – the schools and other things in the community that need to be supported by industry and business people. We’ve been a good citizen in the community.
INTERVIEWER: Schools, roads, all sorts of things. In North Carolina, they’re very enthusiastic about business recruitment, and their claim is that for every factory job that is created, there are seven more created as a result.
BLAND: I’ve heard that number before. That sounds a little high to me but that may be a fact.
INTERVIEWER: That includes schoolteachers and traffic cops and fast-food employees.
BLAND: Yeah. It’s because you’re bringing customers.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in social, civic and business activities outside the furniture industry.
BLAND: I served on the board of an insurance company for 20 years.
INTERVIEWER: Any civic projects?
BLAND: I used to be a member of the Rotary Club. I haven’t been for a few years now, but I have served in the Rotary Club and I’ve served on the board of the Community Development Foundation, which is our chamber of commerce. I’ve also served on the board of the hospital for 20 years; I was a member of the executive committee there. Did you see that hospital? Isn’t that quite a facility?
INTERVIEWER: I was amazed by it. Yes.
BLAND: That’s the largest rural hospital in the U.S. It’s quite a facility.
INTERVIEWER: Bigger than ours in High Point.
BLAND: We’ve got all of the latest equipment here. We have a cancer center here. I think they do about 1,000 open-heart surgeries a year. They are qualified to do anything that most anyplace else can do. They are getting into nuclear medicine. I think we’ve got like 500 doctors on the staff. It’s quite an operation.
INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?
BLAND: Gosh, there are a lot of them. I guess United Way because it contributes to a lot of smaller charities, but we’ve got plenty of them here in town. We’ve got a children’s home that probably has 50 to 60 children. We’ve got a big Salvation Army operation here; we have a Boys & Girls Club. We’ve got just a girl’s organization, the same type of situation as the children’s home. Just on and on. I contribute more to United Way because, like I said, it spreads more into a number of different organizations.
Also, after my first wife died, my children and I thought about some appropriate way to recognize her importance in our lives. We thought our congregation, the First United Methodist Church in downtown Tupelo, could make good use of a small chapel. With their approval, we designed and built a jewel of a small structure in the side yard of the main building, which has been there since 1899.
The Lou Bland Memorial Chapel was dedicated in June 1994. It is a perfect match to the old structure, using the same dark red brick and architectural style. In appearance, it looks like it has been there as long as the sanctuary. It is plain and simple with an old-fashioned hardwood floor and appropriate fixtures. It has become a very important part of the worship activity of the congregation. It’s a meeting room when a lot of space is not needed and is super for small weddings and ceremonies. Our family is very proud of our gift to our church, an organization that has been an important part of all our lives, including Lou’s.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure time activity?
BLAND: Good question. I guess I’d say boating. I spend a lot of time at the lake but not as much as I’d like to. I used to have a nice boat, but I sold it about four years ago and bought a condo up there. So we go to the lake.
I bought a boat – the shell was made in High Point. They did the shell there and then moved it to New Bern, North Carolina and built the boat in New Bern. I had a 52-foot Hatteras; it was a gorgeous boat. I spent a lot of time and a lot of money in doing it.
I enjoyed it for several years and we got to the point where we didn’t use it anymore. They’re too expensive to let them sit and not use them.
INTERVIEWER: Is it true about the second-best day in a boat owner’s life?
BLAND: The first best day is when you get it; the second best is when you get rid of it.
INTERVIEWER: What was your greatest success in boating?
BLAND: I don’t know that I had any success. I wouldn’t consider boating any success. It was a pleasure though. We traveled some in it, not a lot. We traveled the different lakes here; we’d go up to Paducah, Kentucky, occasionally, went to Chattanooga several times, and then to the local lake. We’d go to the lake right outside of Florence, Alabama, but we never took it out to the salt water.
The boat came down from New Bern to Fort Lauderdale, and the guy I bought it from, the dealer, drove down. We did a lot of work on it in Fort Lauderdale; we enclosed the flybridge and air-conditioned it, put all the electronics on it and so forth. Then we brought it down around the Keys and up the Gulf Coast to Mobile, Alabama. We have a waterway from Mobile that comes right into this lake.
INTERVIEWER: What was your best experience in boating?
BLAND: I don’t know. I guess the best trip was to Knoxville, Tennessee, to a Mississippi State–Tennessee football game. They have a place in Knoxville where you can bring your boat right up to the dock right across the street from the stadium. There are a ton of folks that go in there when they have ball games. That was probably the most fun.
INTERVIEWER: If you are retired, what was the date?
BLAND: December 31, 1996.
INTERVIEWER: 1996? I didn’t realize it had been that long. How old were you then?
BLAND: I’m 80 now in 2004, so I was about 72.
I worked what I considered to be enough years and enjoyed most of it. In fact, I enjoyed all of it. I mean, there were some struggles along the way – headaches, heartaches and all that – but it was a great career, and I accomplished my goal in life, so that’s another great satisfaction. I thought I’d take a little time to enjoy it.
The only thing I regret, if there is anything, is that I didn’t retire earlier while my first wife was still living. We had plans to do a lot of things and travel a lot. We traveled a lot but we had some bigger plans and we never got to carry them out. Of course, my present wife and I have traveled quite a bit.
INTERVIEWER: Since you’ve retired, what have you done in the industry?
INTERVIEWER: Any other business?
INTERVIEWER: Stock market?
BLAND: Stock market, some, yes. I just manage my own investments and take care of my own affairs. I’ve got a couple of daughters and I take care of all the investments for them. And granddaughters, I have three granddaughters. Roger has two boys but I let him handle his own affairs. He handles it for his boys too.
INTERVIEWER: You have a brand new granddaughter, weren’t you telling me?
BLAND: I have a granddaughter that is getting married. The new granddaughter is my wife’s son’s baby. She’s about 2 months old now.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to the furniture industry. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Keep in mind that you may request a follow-up interview later if you wish.