Bobby wesley bush, sr.; hickory springs
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
JANUARY 28, 2004
HICKORY, NORTH CAROLINA
OFFICE OF BOB BUSH
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: When were you born?
BUSH: March 12, 1931.
BUSH: Rahway, Union County, New Jersey.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture?
BUSH: No. My father was an automatic sprinkler engineer, and except for the fact that he sprinklered most of the furniture factories in this area of the state, he was not in furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any in-laws in furniture?
BUSH: Rooster Bush at one time had a little chair plant. He’s my first cousin. We’re not kin to the people of Bush Furniture, Paul Bush.
INTERVIEWER: Was anybody else in furniture in your background?
BUSH: Not that I can think of. The one exception is Mr. Parks Underdown Sr., who had some upholstery plants right after World War II.
INTERVIEWER: Were you related to him?
BUSH: Parks’ mother and my father were first cousins. She was a Bush.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still have family in furniture?
BUSH: No, I can’t think of any direct family that I have in furniture.
INTERVIEWER: How about Bobby?
BUSH: Bobby and Jimmy both work with Hickory Springs, but that’s not necessarily in furniture. If you count that as “in furniture”, then, yes, we have a lot of people in furniture, because we’ve got a bunch of grandkids and so forth in the furniture game.
INTERVIEWER: Specifically who?
BUSH: Bobby Bush Jr., and James J. Bush (Jimmy) both work with Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company. Neil Underdown is a cousin of mine. Neil has five children, and four of them are employed by the company. Bob Simmons’ children are cousins of mine, and two of them are employed by the company.
INTERVIEWER: Is that Linda’s family?
BUSH: Yes, that’s Linda’s father. Linda and her brother, Mike, both work with Hickory Springs. The other two kids do not. I have a cousin, Barry Simmons, who is roughly the same kin to me as Neil, and he also works with us.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your growing-up years.
BUSH: I was born in New Jersey, but I was only there for a very short time. My father had gone there to work for my uncle, who apparently had managerial responsibility for New Jersey Power and Light. He gave Dad a job during the Depression on the high-tension wires. As soon as Dad thought that there was enough business back in North Carolina to support him, he moved back to Lenoir, North Carolina, and started back into the sprinkler business. That was when I was about 3 months old, I believe. I certainly don’t know because they died when I was young.
I grew up in Lenoir, and at the age of 5, my family moved into a house next door to Parks Underdown’s family. Neil is a year older than I, but we grew up together, were best friends and still are. I went to public schools in Lenoir through the eighth grade, went to Riverside Military Academy from the ninth through 12th. After that I went to Duke University for 4 years, and then I went to work for Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company on June 3, 1953.
INTERVIEWER: You went to Duke for college. What was your major?
BUSH: It started out as engineering, but my father died during my first semester, so I switched from engineering over to business because the company my father had was a good company, but it needed someone running it. With me in school, that wouldn’t work, so I switched over to business and graduated in business.
INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings at Duke affected your life?
BUSH: There was not anything particularly significant at Duke, but the death of my father while I was there certainly affected me. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I was married during my time at Duke, but other than that it was pretty uneventful, because my preparation at Riverside Military Academy had been so good that Duke was not a great challenge.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have military experience?
BUSH: Just my time at Riverside Military Academy. I went there starting in 1945 while the war was still on, and our training was just exactly the same as you’d get in most any military establishment or officers training corps. Actually, a lot of the kids who were graduating then were going straight overseas as second lieutenants. When we graduated, we were supposedly second lieutenants in the reserves. Fortunately, they didn’t pay me; I never did really have a commission, so when they tried to pull me up in Korea, I told them no and didn’t have to go into service.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job?
BUSH: Other than going with my Daddy around to the furniture plants that he was sprinklering, my first furniture job was with Hickory Springs in 1947 when I was 16 years old. Neil and I worked on the tables, making springs. That was my first furniture job.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your boss?
BUSH: I had a couple. The manager at that time was Jack Tunnell, but our superintendent was Plez Lingle. Plez was a great guy. Neil and I would bust the heck out of the piece-rate, so he would raise the piece-rate.
We just worked through most all of the jobs in the plant and wound up primarily unloading wire. In those days you got it in catch-weight 600-pound coil basically, and they were about this big around. We pulled them off the back of the truck and had to get them down in a basement, had to get them stacked. We’d drop them down and one would catch it, bounce it, and get it on the stack. Neil and I, neither one of us weighed 130 pounds, so we both have bad backs from that. Neil’s is much worse than mine.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the furniture industry at that time.
BUSH: The furniture industry at that time was in the very doldrums – to be real blunt about it. 1947 through ’48 were pretty tough years for the furniture business. The real peak was probably in early 1948, and then it just went to hell, the bottom dropped out.
Hickory Springs started as a company called Better Built Bedding, and they manufactured their own Marshall units, like a Simmons Beautyrest, and made finished mattresses. That plant burned down. We presently have a plant on the same ground. We call it the Dixie-Regency division. Out of that came Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company, primarily to manufacture spring products for the upholstered furniture industry, which Mr. Underdown was involved with at that time. It was really making products for internal usage.
INTERVIEWER: When did you start selling to the furniture industry?
BUSH: They always tried to, but as long as Parks had those furniture plants it was a little difficult. I think the last of those went out about the first part of 1948. I got out of Duke in 1953, and the company did $800,000 in sales to the furniture industry.
INTERVIEWER: Who did you work with in the furniture industry?
BUSH: I personally called on just about everybody. There was one commission salesman named Mr. Shields, who worked for the company. Parks Underdown, who was the president, was also a salesman. And I was, too. The world was my oyster; I went any dang place I wanted to and made my calls.
I worked with Broyhill, with Mr. Clarence Holden. I called on him regularly. I worked with most all of the other plants: Fairfield (Mr. Fred Ford was the president and purchaser at that time), and the Bernhardts. I worked with all the Lenoir people and gradually expanded into the Hickory area. Kathleen Hollar, as an example, took an entire day and worked me through every job in her upholstery plant, teaching me how to pull a frame together, spring it up, pad it, upholster it, cut and sew, etcetera. She did a wonderful job and I have always been appreciative of her.
INTERVIEWER: Who was she with?
BUSH: Hickory Upholstery – they’re still in business. It’s on the tracks, going out on old 70.
I worked with all the people in this area and gradually expanded and started working through Tennessee, calling on some of Parks’ accounts with him and so forth. Training-wise, I had practically no training. I had my own car, they paid me mileage, and they paid me a very minimal salary. I just went out and tried to find business. I worked just about everybody you can think of in Hickory, Lenoir, Morganton, Drexel, Valdese. I worked my way over into Tennessee up through Elizabethtown, Greenville, Morristown and so forth – all of those little plants back in those days. I worked all through Tennessee, which was a very good stronghold for Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company. We sold most everybody a lot of stuff.
I started working in Arkansas and Texas in 1954, and built it into a very strong territory. We did a tremendous amount of business in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was a furniture center. Places like Benton, Arkansas; Sheraton, Arkansas; El Dorado, Arkansas, had furniture operations. I went on down into Houston, Dallas, Waco and Austin, all the way out through Texas and so forth. Then we went up North; Indiana was a real good place for us.
Of course, Bassett Industries in Virginia was one of my first accounts. (Mr. Underdown actually had a brother who was killed in an elevator accident at the Bassett’s Superior plant. He was their manufacturing superintendent at the time.) We sold Bassett, Johnson-Carper, American of Martinsville – all of those accounts.
INTERVIEWER: Bassett didn’t make any upholstery then.
BUSH: No, we sold them bedrails. We sold Bassett, Broyhill, Kemp Furniture. We made 8,000 pairs of bedrails a day for years.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first furniture Market you attended?
BUSH: The first Market I went to was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I think it was in 1953. I borrowed a pickup truck, took product up there, showed it, demonstrated it and so forth. It was a very nice Market. It was just bedrails, not upholstery. Grand Rapids has never been a great upholstery area anyway. Now they’ve come along with some office furniture upholstery in that area and it’s very, very strong now. I used to call on the taxicab company, the ones that made the checkered cabs.
At things like that, I worked with those people, and I did all kinds of different things, so I’ve had a fairly broad sales experience.
INTERVIEWER: What did you sell to the taxicab people?
BUSH: I tried to sell them seat springs like we sold the bus companies, Thomas and so forth. We sold them bus seats, coils, and this, that and the other through the years.
INTERVIEWER: I thought most of Thomas’ springs came from Carolina Springs.
BUSH: At that time they did, but we finally got a lot of their business! Then they went to foam, and most of the foam was our product but through another company.
INTERVIEWER: When did urethane foam first come in?
BUSH: Urethane was invented during World War II in Germany. It came to this country by being imported.
The real problem with that particular urethane was that it was primarily polyester instead of polyether. Polyester was not and is not a good seating item. It is a wonderful insulation item and is used a lot for car decking and roof decking. All foam insulation in clothing is polyester. Polyether, which is the form of urethane that the furniture industry uses, is a relatively new science. E.R. Carpenter Company was probably one of the first to actually make it in this country with the aid of DuPont; DuPont had a factory. You can call it “Carpenter Foam” as far as I’m concerned. We never did get along, DuPont and I.
Then a doctor from England came over here and worked with some people in High Point, and they started Phillips Foscue. That was a pre-polymer methodology. They made pre-¬polymers. They prepared some stuff over there, some stuff over here, and mixed the two pre-polymers together to make urethane.
Four or five years later, General Tire & Rubber in Marion, Indiana, came up with a one-shot polyurethane, which is being used today. Everything goes into one pouring head at the same time with no pre-steps. That was the real beginning of the urethane business. But the reason why urethane became popular so rapidly was because of a bad mistake that the foam rubber people made.
Foam rubber was made by B.F. Goodrich. They had most of the seating business, except for the very low-end, which continued to use springs. Anything that was pretty good furniture, like Broyhill, was definitely all rubber. The Talalay brothers invented a process, whereby they used heat and cold to make better foam (and it was better foam). Both brothers were doctors of chemical engineering and so forth – brilliant people. They came up with this idea that they could stick it in a mold; let’s say 110 inches long and whatever width you wanted. Then they would pour the goop, the lid would come down and freeze it or heat it or whichever, and they would come out with a product exactly that size. Then anybody could take a cutting knife and lop off what they wanted.
Of course, latex (foam) is a vertical support only; it works well under vertical pressure, but under horizontal pressure, it has no strength at all. Vertical pressure is like when you sit on it. When you push it in from the side, that’s horizontal pressure. Because of its structure, it has to be cut round. You can leave rubber square and still stuff it in there, because it doesn’t have any strength in that direction.
They made this block, 110 by 22 inches, let’s say, and sold it that way by the truckload. That was the beginning of the end of latex foam. I don’t know if the latex people ever thought about this, but I’m saying it. Before, it was a crowned and core cushion, as they called it. It had a crowned shape to it and it had great big core holes in it. That’s what they did in the flat molds; that’s what the Talalays did. Before you had these great big cores, you varied the cores. The cores were varied so you got the holding pressure where you wanted it. When you put a core in, you took the strength away. So they varied them and made the things perfectly into two halves. He molded two halves and then had to glue them together. It was very laborious and expensive because you had to have molds for each half of each cushion. The mold would only turn maybe twice a day.
When the Talalays made this product, they also wanted the cores to help with the strength but they used little bitty cores. The cores in the old crowned cores were at least an inch. But the cores in pin core are not as much as a quarter of an inch, an eighth of an inch probably. They had pins on the bottom. The lid came down and had pins in the opposite direction, so that when you looked at it, if you looked at the centerline when you took it out of the mold, you saw a solid line. The reason why was that none of them were joining on the outside; they did it all on the inside.
INTERVIEWER: They joined on the inside?
BUSH: No, they just missed each other. That created a product very usable for the furniture industry, and people like Jack Goldwire at Jessup would give you an order for latex foam. He’d say, “Send me 2 miles of 22-inch.” That’s an example of how utilitarian the idea was.
It just opened the gates though, for urethane foam, because now a flat surface was acceptable. Prior to that, everybody that had any urethane was working their butt off to get a crown on it. They were buffing the edges and all.
INTERVIEWER: Molded cushions are crowned?
BUSH: Molded cushions were always crowned and cased because you pull the bag down on them, but the middle is still stronger than the edge, so you never could get it. That’s why it was crowned. That was one of the developments in the furniture foam game that I really enjoyed.
We were fortunate enough to have B.F. Goodrich through Snyder Paper Company, which is also an Underdown enterprise. But I wasn’t involved with that. I got Dayton Rubber for Hickory Springs, so we had a product out of Waynesville, North Carolina. We did not have any in this immediate territory because we couldn’t compete with our own company, and they couldn’t compete with us in certain territories. We had latex.
My first deal on urethane was with General Tire & Rubber and Sheller-Globe. Most people never heard of Sheller-Globe, actually Dryden Rubber in Keokuk, Iowa. We bought buns from both of those folks and fabricated the buns down to the shapes and sizes that we needed.
INTERVIEWER: Those were urethane?
BUSH: Those were urethane. We had both products. We had springs for cushioning, we had urethane, and we had the foam latex. That worked very well because some people just were not going to buy anything but latex; some people weren’t going to buy anything but springs; some people wanted to buy them all, and we had them all. We’d work it out so whatever they wanted, we delivered. We delivered on time.
Hickory Springs is the best service company on the face of the Earth. There’s no question about it. Service, service, service. We have good quality, but we have fantastic service. We know the industry; we live with the industry. These jokers would call and say, “Hey, you’re a day late on our order.” They hadn’t even placed an order. We’d say, “Oh, we’re sorry. I don’t have a copy; read it to me right quick.” They’d read it; we’d get it and go. We didn’t want them feeling bad.
We didn’t want to say, “You didn’t order.” I’ve had to run a lot of salespeople off for saying, “You’re the next delivery on the truck; we have eight stops before you.” That means you’re the ninth and least important to us. Through the years we’ve developed a tremendous service attitude.
The urethane part was fun – it is fun. We’re one of the biggest, and as far as furniture is concerned, we don’t really have a whole lot of competition, in my personal opinion. Carpenter is wonderful; they’re a good company; they do a good job, but we know the industry better.
INTERVIEWER: All this started when I asked you about the first Market you attended.
BUSH: The first Market I attended, of course, was in Grand Rapids in 1953, but that was for metal products only. We did not have any foam in 1953.
INTERVIEWER: Can you describe the Market in detail?
BUSH: It was what I would call today an archetype Market. It was a small Market, well-attended for the space it took up. The furniture was fantastic, but at fantastic prices for a country boy like me who had never really been exposed to prices like that. Kendall Furniture, as an example, sold a three-piece suite for $4,000 wholesale. But they took it, delivered it, and set it up in the home. These were just concepts I’d never heard of.
I was very impressed with the Market; I was impressed with the people. They are short-talkers; they don’t have a gift for gab, but at the same time, they were nice. They said just about what they thought, exactly when they thought it. I can appreciate that; it saves a lot of time. I love to bullshit, but it doesn’t do any good.
They did a good job; I enjoyed working with them. I really did.
INTERVIEWER: How did they react to metal bedrails?
BUSH: They weren’t the hottest things in the world, but the slat problem was a real problem. All of the people in Grand Rapids made wonderful wooden rails. Probably an inch to an inch-and-a-quarter thick, five to six inches deep, and they had a nice runner on them to hold a slat. But even so, the wood slat was the problem.
The dealer furnished the slats, so the quality of the damn slat was always the cheapest the dealer could buy. If the slat kicks out, it starts pulling that runner off or it starts bowing the rail. Some of the rails were 18- to 20-ply rails. There were just all these problems. The product we were showing in Grand Rapids was not the full metal rail with the Perma-Slat; it was the Perma-Slat adapted to the wood side rails. It had a piece at an angle with holes in it. You just screwed them in and it opened like this. They’re on my beds at home; they’re on my beds everywhere. It was a wonderful product and we did a good job with it.
INTERVIEWER: They were able to keep the wooden bedrails?
BUSH: They could keep the wooden bedrails. Baker bought them, but they wouldn’t have bought them using the metal bedrails. In fact, they had to think twice about using metal that you couldn’t see.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in Markets since then?
BUSH: Oh, the Market’s a totally different concept. That was a personality-type Market. All the Markets in those days were personality-type Markets. You had these wonderful furniture salesmen who had fantastic personalities, and they were terrific at selling their merchandise – not through product knowledge but through personal relationships. Somebody would walk into the store to look at a nice brand new offering of furniture. If it were case goods, the salesman would shake his hand and say, “This is new!” “Yeah, yeah, tell me about it” “It’s new!” That’s about as much as they knew about it: It was new.
There were some real experts that were salesmen, but generally speaking, these gentlemen made their calls, took their customers out to dinner, became friends with the family and spent the night usually at the family’s home. They usually had one account in a town, and they did a good job of working their trade.
They were well paid; commission in those days on case goods was 5 percent; upholstery was 7 percent. A man worth his salt would not work for a salary. A man worth his salt wanted to be on commission. If a man would take a salary, I don’t think you ought to hire him because that wasn’t the game. If he wasn’t smart enough to know better than that, then you didn’t want him.
The Markets were totally different. The Markets today are drudgeries compared to the old days. In the old days, the Markets were fun. People were happy; people were smiling. People didn’t say, “What are you doing in here?” or that kind of stuff. You were welcome. If a customer walked up, you got your butt out of the way. If you didn’t have enough sense to do that, they’d tell you about it. But generally speaking, you were accepted; you didn’t have to go through the rigmarole.
The Market down here in High Point became such a pain that I wouldn’t go unless a customer called me and asked me to be there. Then I’d have them get me a pass. The High Point Market, as far as I’m concerned, was a pain in the butt, and to a great degree, it still is.
San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami – all these things that are defunct now were everywhere. I used to go to all of them. High Point was the worst. I think it was the worst from every attitude. The motels really jumped their prices.
Here in Hickory, when we had a Market, the Holiday Inn tripled the rates. You had to stay for six days, but they published it well in advance. During Market days, they posted the days and “These are the prices. Please don’t make reservations unless you understand this is the price.” You didn’t like it, but at least it was known. In High Point, you made reservations at one of the motels, and when you got there, you found out. Plus, there was no parking.
INTERVIEWER: It’s fascinating – the different perspective on the Market a supplier has from a furniture manufacturer or retailer.
BUSH: At the Chicago Market, when Neil Underdown and I were trying to take the Perma-Slats on the full-length rails to the different spaces, we had to walk up and down the stairs of a 17-story building because the Perma-Slats were freight and couldn’t get on the passenger elevator, and we were people and couldn’t get on the freight elevator, so we had to walk. That was a rule and we were just the wrong people at the wrong time.
INTERVIEWER: So Markets have changed a lot?
BUSH: Markets have changed tremendously. The fact that Chicago eventually burned itself out started because of overcharging people. Of course, I don’t care what time they put the Markets in Chicago, the weather was the worst it could be.
INTERVIEWER: Hottest place in the world.
BUSH: Yes, hottest place or the coldest place and it was always that way. They’d change the dates and the weather would change with the dates. That was not a very attractive thing. At least High Point and other areas had decent weather. Dallas was usually hot as hell, but it didn’t rain so it wasn’t all that bad.
I did most of my work with Drexel when Mr. Huffman was president. As far as I know, since World War II, a successful case goods furniture company has not been started. In other words, there hasn’t been one that has not been bought out or closed down. I know that the VonCannon family had a little family problem down in West End, North Carolina, so one or two of them went into western North Carolina to start a new furniture factory. They built a beautiful plant with wonderful equipment, but they couldn’t make it. I think in that particular case, Drexel bought it.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the one that was built in the flood plain?
BUSH: That’s right. It was built in the flood plain.
Go back through the years and think about the case goods companies. The ones that are in business today were all started before World War II. They’re going out because of the import situation.
Most of them have started their own import businesses. The Vaughans, the Bassetts, the Broyhills, the Bernhardts – all of these people have been here for years and years. I’m not talking about some of these little guys on the West Coast who sell two suites of furniture a year that are highly fashionable. I’m talking about factories. It’s always been an interesting thing to me. Here in Hickory, roughly within a 25-mile circle, at one time we had 153 furniture plants.
INTERVIEWER: How many today?
BUSH: Oh, you might drum up 28 or 30.
INTERVIEWER: Are these case goods?
BUSH: No, that was everything. With case goods, I think today we only have two. We have Century and Hickory Manufacturing. We’ve got one other little one, but nobody of stature. There were quite a few. Hylan Furniture was a great company.
INTERVIEWER: Now they primarily make dining rooms.
BUSH: Yes, well, that’s case goods to me. They were nice products. Unagusta got involved with them. Unagusta was an old company, but of course, they’re gone now. That’s always been something that amazed me.
With upholstered furniture, at one time, they’d start probably two a day here in Hickory, and four would go out. A lot of money was made. A lot of money was lost. But the money was lost by suppliers.
If you want to build an upholstery business, what you do now is go to a sewing machine company, and they’ll rent you one for practically nothing. Then you need staples, right? So you go to a staple salesman; he’ll give you the staple guns, if you buy his staples. He’ll give you an air compressor, too and 90-day terms.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the beginnings of your companies.
BUSH: Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company was started in 1944 as a partnership between Parks Underdown and Mrs. Ann Lewis. Like I said, it operated primarily as a supply firm for their own furniture corporations, as well as outside sales.
INTERVIEWER: Were these springs for upholstery or bedrails?
BUSH: Springs for upholstery. Bedrails came along later. That was in 1944. The company was incorporated in 1947. By that time, an outside sales agency was primarily serving manufacturing. A lot of events occurred to the company through the years.
On Valentine’s Day in 1951, the factory burned completely to the ground. It was very poorly insured, but through the help of machinery manufacturers and competitors, we were back in business before we lost customers. One competitor allowed them to use his plant on a shift when he wasn’t working. A machine manufacturer took machines that were scheduled for other people and sold them to Hickory Springs so they could get back in business quicker. Back in those days, it was not as cut-throat as it is today. You certainly didn’t wish your competitors ill. I can’t say that’s not true today.
It came through the years and developed the added products, like the bedrails we referred to and later the urethane foam business and many, many other products, such as polyethylene foam operations, which go into insulation for piping, and a great many products manufactured for the fiber optics industries.
It’s been an ongoing development, with plants opening to supply customers in the new areas. Urethane foam is a very bulky item and these would be delivered constantly to the customer instead of trying to take a train load at one time. They don’t have room for storage, and their insurance company won’t let them, if they have a good insurance company, because when this stuff burns, it burns really well.
We’re very experienced with it. As far as I know, we send a warning letter with every shipment of foam that goes out that this foam burns. We have done that for a long, long time. People get to where they just throw them away, but maybe some new kid that’s never seen it before will read it and not smoke around the stuff or something.
Through the years those product lines were developed. Different plants were opened; different plants were closed. New products were created; some of them we got rid of. Tremendous development of personnel through the years led to a fantastic sales force. Most of them are now retired. The new product development is absolutely fantastic at Hickory Springs, in all fields – furniture, bedding.
INTERVIEWER: You’re just expanding in all directions!
BUSH: We’ve expanded in all directions rather than just one; we’re not dependent on the furniture industry. We love the furniture industry; it’s our backbone, but fortunately we’re not dependent on it, so when furniture goes down, sometimes it doesn’t affect us too badly.
For instance, during the last few years, our volume has been extremely good. However, our profits have not. We have not lost money, but it is very difficult to make any money in times like this. Things seem to be settling down in regard to the import business. Everybody jumped on the case goods and case goods is going to stay an import item. But the upholstery industry has not been successful that way.
INTERVIEWER: You mean imported upholstery?
BUSH: Imported upholstery. All of our industry is down. The furniture industry, as far as the total amount of consumer dollars spent, is way down. The furniture industry as a total dollar volume is down.
The imported upholstery ran into some major snags. Number one was its quality. It may look the same, but it’s not the same, and that shows up rapidly. In China and China alone, there are a thousand manufacturers of urethane foam. Most of them make about enough to make four pieces of furniture a week. They mix two cups full of stuff, put it in the mold, and that’s foam. Naturally, the next two cups aren’t the same, so it’s a little bit different, and so are the next and the next. Some of the foam is wonderful. But it’s not the same, so even if it’s great foam, it’s inconsistent. Try a piece in a sofa and see what turns up. It’s going to get you a hell of a lot of complaints.
Hickory Springs spends a fortune to try to keep foam within a given range of compression so we get the same results. It’s very difficult to do, but we spend a lot of money doing that, and so do legitimate competitors of ours. The development in the game is all by one or two companies, primarily Hickory Springs, at least in the last 20 years. Prior to that, I’ll take my hat off to Carpenter. But I don’t know of anybody else that’s come up with anything new. I see a lot of words, but I don’t see a lot of product.
What changed some of our methodologies is the fact that we have to contend with this import program in a way that keeps us safe. We go to China, we look, and we come back home. We don’t do anything; maybe we should, but we don’t think we can control a joint venture over there, and we don’t think our competitors who are trying it are controlling it. They are trying hard – building plants, starting plants all the time.
They dumped goods over there cheaper than we could buy them. Some of our competitors went over there, bought it, brought it back, and still had it cheaper. Chemicals are 98.6 percent of the cost of foam, so it’s a very important factor in the business.
Certainly these things are going to make an impact in importing, particularly in leather. The Italians started it; the Italians picked their plants up and moved them to China. They’re still Italians, but it’s coming from China.
Some of the furniture is very good. They still have that quality problem, but there are some large manufacturers over there who manufacture their own foam. Some do a little better job than some of the others, but they’re not all that wonderful.
A lot of companies that were importing – I mean, really jumped into it – have now backed off very, very seriously. I don’t think the United States, for quantity production of leather merchandise, is going to compete with Italy or China – as long as that cushioning problem doesn’t kill them.
INTERVIEWER: You’re talking about upholstery now?
BUSH: Yes, strictly upholstery. As far as case goods are concerned, I think most all the pieces of case goods will be brought to the U.S. from overseas. I think there will be very little true manufacturing work done in the U.S. anymore. The assembly and finishing may be done in this country, so they can claim “Made in America.” But, generally speaking, a lot of these companies have full-time people, experienced Americans, living in China, supervising and inspecting every single piece of goods before it goes in a box.
Ready-to-assemble furniture companies have been around for years. They are making stuff that goes into offices primarily because the household furniture retailers won’t accept it.
INTERVIEWER: Because they couldn’t send people out to put it together.
BUSH: Paul Broyhill decided that he could sell it; he could get these furniture stores to buy it. He spent a fortune building those chip-core plants and everything in that big complex up in Lenoir for ready-to-assemble furniture. He called it RTA. He did as good a job as anybody’s done, but he didn’t sell it. Do you know who the number one retailer of furniture is?
BUSH: Wal-Mart. When you add Sam’s Club to it, they’re leading by a long shot. Do you know who’s pushing on second?
BUSH: Right up and down the line. The principle is just what you’re talking about: It’s in a box; you take it home; you can put it in your car, and you make an armoire. You can’t fit an assembled armoire in a car! The same thing is true in upholstery. It’s something that has bothered me for years.
We developed a self-assembly piece of upholstery furniture years ago. It was cumbersome, yes. It was a poor attempt, yes. But it was a good idea. Along comes Simply Together. It wound up being owned by the plumbing company, Masco. Later it wound up being owned by the company that bought up Drexel and all these others.
They made a big attempt at it; it didn’t go. Now, some little jokers have bought or developed something better or something along the same lines. These folks in Mississippi aren’t going to go broke because they know what they’re doing. You know where they’re taking it, don’t you? Where would you take it?
INTERVIEWER: You want me to say China?
BUSH: No. You don’t have to go to China. If you want to produce furniture in Mississippi to compete with China, you can do it. You don’t have to worry about China. The outlet is what the real problem has always been with that concept, so take it to the guys who are used to the concept – Wal-Mart.
That’s where they’re headed. They’re not big enough yet for Wal-¬Mart to bite, but somebody will come along and take it.
It’s bothered me. I’ve pushed our company, pushed and pushed. We don’t want to sell just pieces; we want to create. I want to create more than just these little pieces to put together. Of course, when I sell it, I want to sell the foam. I want to sell everything that goes in it, with maybe the exception of the lumber, because if I did that, then one of my upholstery customers could say, “Now, you’re selling a whole piece of furniture,” and I don’t want to compete with our customers. I really don’t. I want to have an arm’s length. I think we could sell everything but the boards; I really do. These guys can buy cut-and-sewn covers or whatever they want to do and finish it out. That’s going to be a big deal.
INTERVIEWER: The case goods and upholstery are going to be totally different from the way they were?
BUSH: Absolutely. Case goods will go through a furniture factory because they’ll be assembled. Wal-Mart will jump on it if it can be done that way, if an armoire can be put together by me or by a woman.
INTERVIEWER: I think that’ll happen. You could have a case clamp in a furniture factory, and it doesn’t matter whether the wood is white or finished; you might have to put extra padding on the clamp, but you could finish those flat panels, assemble them, and put them in a box, right?
BUSH: Take desks like that (points): Those desks came from Paoli. They’re very expensive desks. I got them wholesale. You can buy something that looks like it and probably performs just as well at Wal-Mart in a box for 5 percent of what one of those desks costs.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, but it doesn’t look like that.
BUSH: As far as looks are concerned, there is not much there. I think that’s the concept that’s going to come along in the industry. It has some really tremendous effects. A housewife can be walking through Wal-Mart and see a sofa that she can put in her car and take home. It’s going to affect people. I’m not talking about people who are buying Thomasville sofas for $8,000 retail. I’m talking about people who are buying a piece of furniture in a store for $399.
INTERVIEWER: If you look at Chinese upholstery, a good deal of it is actually made in pieces. They prepare the arms, the back and the cushion. Then they put them together.
BUSH: Have you ever been through a Berkline plant? Jack Popkin was the first one that ever did that as far as I know. The right arm comes down here, the left arm comes down here, the seat comes down here, the back comes down here, and all of them go together with nuts and bolts.
INTERVIEWER: The first time I saw that was in the Kroehler plant in Charlotte. Kroehler claimed at the time that that was their vision.
BUSH: It could have been. I remember not all that many years ago, when Natuzzi first started sending furniture over here. The boys down at Mohasco got a sofa from one of their retailers. They fiddled and they messed, trying to figure out how to compete with it. It was leather. I was calling on them one day, and the purchasing agent said, “Bob, why don’t you come sit in on this meeting?” I went. This was after Morrie Futorian was gone. In fact, our buddy Bill Richman was president, and he was there.
I sat in on the meeting. They said, “There’s no way we can compete with this.” They’d read what the assembly, the upholstery label and this, that and the other were. They got through, turned to me and said, “Bush, what can you do about cutting the price on these supplies?” I said, “Boys, you’re buying the supplies as cheap as you’re going to get them. I’ll tell you what you can do to compete with that furniture.” “What?” “Make it the same damn way they make it.” “What are you talking about?” “It’s made by KD.” “That’s not KD.” “Turn the thing over and look at it. I don’t know what you guys have been doing.”
I didn’t make any friends that day. They flipped that thing over. I thought Richman was going to come out of his skin! I’ve never seen the man mad but twice; that was one time. The other time was when they made him pull an order from me. He gave me an order for a recliner fixture, and Mohasco brass made him pull it because it was Super Sagless, one of their companies. That was something else.
At Futorian there were people who had spent their lives making furniture – good ole country boys. They knew how to make furniture but they just needed to look. We buried our head in the sand over a lot of this import stuff.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve got to look at the growth of your companies, which I guess we’ve pretty well covered at this point.
BUSH: Yes, we moved through the products, the plants and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: How has the growth of Hickory Springs been affected by labor?
BUSH: That’s one of the reasons why we have so many factories. Hickory has always been an over-employed area, until the last four years. It was so highly over-employed that we had to go places that we could find labor.
The other thing about this area, this locale, is that people want to be known by their names. They want to be treated as people. When you get a factory with a thousand employees, I don’t care who you are, the people and the customers become numbers. They have to; that’s the only way you can deal with them. We found out at an early stage that the small-size personnel operation was better for this area. We took both of those concepts – better service and dealing with people – to heart and started building along those lines.
We still do. I personally think that a 40,000-square-foot building for the fabrication and transfer of urethane foam to customers is the perfect size. You can have a good manager; he can know every employee by his name and know the families. He can see that everybody is dealt with fairly. He can do it all.
INTERVIEWER: How many people are in a 40,000-square-foot factory?
BUSH: The perfect number is probably 60. You turn out a lot of product, a tremendous amount of product with a properly run plant. It just works well. That includes secretaries, truck drivers, and janitors – everybody you can think of. It has worked well for us. Staffing those plants is easier, too. I could go rent a new building. I’d have a beautiful factory over here but not be able to get enough help. Four miles away, I could rent the most awful-looking damn thing you’ve ever seen with bathrooms you’d be ashamed of and fill it up with employees!
INTERVIEWER: Why is that?
BUSH: Because they felt like they were going to be treated like people. They could clean those toilets up, paint, this, that and the other. Part of it became them; it made a tremendous difference. This was back years and years ago. We took that all the way through, and besides the service, we did a great deal with our people. Hickory-area people are wonderful. They’re intelligent; they’re hard workers. Certainly there are rotten eggs of all colors, but our black people have been one of our backbones.
Regretfully, we don’t have as many anymore because our work is pretty hard on a comparative basis. They’ve been sold a bill of goods. Now you have fiber optics coming in here paying $20 to $30 an hour, and you cannot do it in our business.
We pay a very legitimate wage and we don’t lose a lot of people once they start working for us. Our turnover is all by people who have been with us less than a year. We have 160 some people in this area who have worked with Hickory Springs for over 25 years. All over the country we’ve got that same story. We feel that we’ve been in a perfect area.
In our California plants, our personnel, primarily, are Mexican or Latino, and they’re absolutely wonderful workers. We’ve been well pleased with them, and we have no complaints at all. We have several West Coast operations up and down the coast, and that’s the story all the way through there. Our Chicago plant, which we recently closed because the building was sold out from under us, was all Mexican people except for the supervisor, who was Turkish. They did a wonderful job for us – no complaints. The people in Sheboygan, Wisconsin are absolutely fine folks. Those are all white people – not just white, but hard-headed Germans, really. We’re in Holland, Michigan, and the workers are primarily Mexican again; they came through as sharecroppers and stayed. In Fort Smith, there are a lot of Native Americans. You go through 50 to get one, regretfully, but once you do, you’ve got a wonderful employee!
INTERVIEWER: How many of these small plants do you have?
BUSH: The last time I looked we had in the 60s, and they’re not necessarily small. Your main manufacturing operations can’t be that small; they have to be sizable. The foam plant down here is probably 700,000 to 800,000 square feet. The foam plant in Fort Smith is big and the foam plant in Tupelo is big. All foam pouring plants have to be if you want to do a job. If we turned on the pouring line at the Conover plant and left it on for 24 hours, we could probably cover Hickory six-feet deep by tomorrow! It just shoots it down the line. Its 7 feet wide or wider and 4 feet high and runs 25 to 30 feet a minute. You do the math.
The metal plants have to be large; you have to have so many things that are dependent on that – huge press rooms, big presses. They make pieces that go over here to the little presses so there are some small operations, but most of the little outlying plants were put in to get labor. We went to Micaville to get labor, period. We could not get any labor at that time.
Bob Simmons went up in the mountains, found this piece of land; its right at the foot of Mount Mitchell and it’s beautiful. Our sprinkler water tank is about 150 feet up the mountain. There is tremendous pressure, so we built a pond.
We had to buy the train. There was one little train and we bought it. We don’t have it anymore, thank goodness; it cost a lot of money. We’ve had to do things like that through the years, and they’ve been good. The people up there are wonderful. I can’t think of anywhere we operate that hasn’t been good. Probably the worst situation we’ve had was in Americus, Georgia, which is 7 miles from Plains, Georgia, the home of Jimmy Carter. It was a wonderful operation until Jimmy Carter was elected president. He came in, gave everybody the world, and then those people felt that they didn’t have to work. We turned people over and over, but we’ve got a wonderful workforce now, because it’s not affecting them anymore, thank goodness.
INTERVIEWER: How has your growth been affected by style and design?
BUSH: Fortunately, we’re the cutting edge of style and design in our type of business. We’ve created new foams, like Code Red, which is fire retardant or as best as we could make it to be fire retardant. We’ve made safer foams; we’ve made better quality foams. That certainly is style and design. With our metal products, we’ve constantly brought out new high-style, high-fashion recliners, sleepers and that kind of thing. One of our big products, by the way, is steps for RVs – recreational vehicles.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, really?
BUSH: Yes, every RV has a set of steps. Most every RV has our set of steps. Now we have electric ones and people are starting to buy them. We also have electric recliners, of course, but several people have done that over the years.
In fiber optics, the reason we were successful was that we had new stuff. We had stuff nobody else could do. We could hold a tolerance of 1/10,000 of an inch in a plastics product, which is almost impossible. I don’t believe it myself; I don’t know how they check it.
We’ve created things like toys, called Tubers and Zots. We didn’t sell them as toys; we sold them to someone who then sold them as toys. It wound up being the second-biggest toy company in the world, and they bought these things by the billions. We lost our butt, but at the same time, it was innovative. We’ve done a lot of these things, and a lot of them have been mistakes.
Style and design has definitely affected our business.
INTERVIEWER: How about advertising?
BUSH: Advertising, basically, has been to keep our name in front of our public, which is the manufacturer. It’s a different thing than advertising furniture per se, because what we’re trying to do is to get the upholstery manufacturer to, when he thinks of a recliner fixture, think of Hickory Springs. We want to get the case goods man, when he thinks of bedrails, to think of Hickory Springs. We want to get the fiber optics business to think of us. If you notice in Furniture/Today, for example, or in most all of the journals, you’ll see an ad for Hickory Springs that includes an 800-number for answering questions about fire retardancy on foam. This is fantastic. It’s on the Internet.
Our type of advertising is institutional, and it’s very difficult to see any real payoff, but there is one somewhere down the line. We don’t think we waste a lot of money on advertising. We spend a lot of money, but we hope we don’t waste it.
INTERVIEWER: What jobs did you have in furniture companies?
BUSH: I’ve never held any jobs in furniture companies, and I’ve only held one job at Hickory Springs – sales manager, VP of sales.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about industry changes in production?
BUSH: I think that the basic changes that I’ve seen are improvements in the woodworking area of upholstered furniture by eliminating a lot of the oddball parts like we were talking about earlier, trying to standardize frame sizing and so forth. I’ve seen some improvement along these lines. In case goods, I think the only real change that I’ve seen is a lower-cost finishing operation, which was forced upon them because of the lacquer problem. They now have better finishes, probably at a much lower cost, because there were too many coats of the old stuff, and they don’t spend as much labor on it. But other than that, I walked by a case goods company today that’s run the old way. I don’t see much change.
INTERVIEWER: You’re referring to water-based finishes?
BUSH: Yes, basically, instead of the lacquer, which was outlawed. It seems to me that they’d use less labor in the water coat, but that’s an impression from an outsider; that’s not from someone who knows anything about making furniture.
INTERVIEWER: What about sales and merchandising?
BUSH: Yes, it is like I said earlier, though, in relation to the Market, the same thing is true here. The sales and merchandising of furniture, generally speaking by the manufacturing operations, has been pretty good; they do a reasonably good job. The breakdown is in the retail end.
I give credit to the ones who can do it, that have the knowledge to present the product properly, but it doesn’t get repeated when it gets into the retail store.
The retail salesman is looking for a spiff, or a perk, or whatever you want to call it. He’s looking at “What’s in it for me?” When X company says, “I’ll give you $10 cash when you sell this set,” and this company over here doesn’t say anything, he’s not going to talk about it; he’ll sell X. That’s the biggest problem that I see – the sales or merchandising or combination of both in relationship to the retail salespeople actually working at it. Maybe running the newspaper ads sells furniture; I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: If they do, it’s a miracle.
BUSH: If it does, it’s 50 percent off this, that and the other. Let’s put it this way: They haven’t done as good of a job as Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart came from zero not long ago. Of course, there is Rooms To Go; you’ve got to give those boys credit. He’s doing a good job, but he’s doing it all with gimmicks, pricing and so forth. The name of that is merchandising. That’s what he’s doing it with; he’s not doing it with sales; he’s doing it with merchandising.
INTERVIEWER: How about the finance industry overall? I think you said something awhile ago that a sale that’s red in the furniture business is thrown back on the suppliers.
BUSH: It tries to be. Financing in the furniture business, particularly in upholstery, is very, very weak. There are exceptions to that of course; Furniture Brands, La-Z-Boy, so forth and so on – these brands are well financed.
If you go back through the years, we’ve had people owe us 20 times their net worth. That scared me to death! We’ve got a competitor who has $650 million negative net worth. I wish I knew how you could operate on that basis, but they do.
Case goods have always been well-financed. That’s one reason why there have not been many start-ups in case goods, because it takes money to set up a case goods plant.
Through the years, the upholstery companies have been ill-financed and the case goods companies have been well-financed. When you take it all to the retail store, the manufacturers have the same problem with the retail operations that we do with the manufacturers.
INTERVIEWER: The company turnover in retail is worse than in upholstery.
BUSH: It is like with this huge bunch of bankruptcies in the year before last. The big one up in Richmond – Heilig-Meyers – affected us directly, because it was some of our customers. One of them had 20-some trailer loads specifically made and they said, “Don’t ship it.” He couldn’t do anything else with it, so he shipped it and didn’t get paid for it. That was in addition to what else he lost. It put quite a few of these companies right against a wall. Some of them, of course, went.
It affected us tremendously, a bankruptcy like that. The Sears, Roebuck division also affected us.
INTERVIEWER: Then it was Montgomery Ward, Levitz and over and over. Is that likely to change?
BUSH: Not in my opinion, because like we were talking about before, how do you get into the upholstery business? You rent a sewing machine; you get free staple guns; you get frames on credit; you get foam on credit; you get cotton on credit – everything’s on credit.
What tickles me is these little ole guys will get ticked off at their bosses, go home and start one in their basement. They get all this on credit. They finally sell the first product, the money comes in, and it’s all profit. Every dime is profit, because those idiots don’t realize they owe for it.
I call it the circle principle. They’re making the circle two to three times; they go buy themselves a new Cadillac. They make it four to five times; they go buy a new home. Then about that time, they realize, “What? We owe you money?”
We do that, we suppliers. Hickory Springs doesn’t do that. We want them to know that we know a little bit about business, and we’re not going to let them do that. You don’t pay us in 30 days; you’re liable not to buy from us at all. I don’t like COD business.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve still been stuck a few times.
BUSH: Certainly we have. I got out of school in 1953. From that day until the end of September this year, we have lost less than 1/10 of 1 percent. We don’t get stuck very often.
INTERVIEWER: For 50 years, that’s pretty good! Describe the support you personally have received from people in the furniture industry.
BUSH: Oh, there’s tremendous support from people in the furniture industry. Kathleen Hollar is an example. She is the lady who took her time and patience to try to teach me a little about upholstered furniture. That was Hickory Upholstery Company.
There are the Broyhill people, of course. Clarence Holden was very instrumental in helping me learn the sales end of it. In fact, I’ll tell you a story about Clarence.
When I first got out of school and started working at Hickory Springs on June 3, 1953, the first call I made was on Clarence Holden. I called on Clarence Holden every Monday morning; I was waiting for him to come to work. Every Monday morning. After about 10 weeks of this, Clarence sat me down and said, “Bobby, are there not any other accounts in this country but us?” I said, “Well, yeah, sure there are.” He said, “Why don’t you go call on them? Tell you what I’ll do: I’m going to buy from you and I’ll call you if I want to see you.” To this day, I haven’t gone back without being called.
The point is it got me off my damn ass. I started working west and went to Fort Smith, Arkansas within two weeks of that, and I started doing big business in Fort Smith, Arkansas. That’s a good example – people like that.
Of course, Paul Broyhill has been a tremendous support to me, as a great many people have. Jerry, at Rowe Furniture Company, old Mr. Rowe, when he was alive, and the Bassetts were helpful to me in many ways. We sold him bedrails. He certainly helped me understand what was going on in the furniture industry. Mr. Ford at Fairfield Chair Company was fantastic. Of course, Mr. Bernhardt, John Christian – he treated me like a son, really. I’d have to sit down and write it as I went, but there is just one after the other after the other: Percy Monroe at Modern Upholstered Chair, Jack Popkin at Berkline.
Ray Jackson is another one. Although we had a tremendous age gap, we were very, very good friends. Ray called me at 4 o’clock in the morning. He couldn’t sleep, so he called me and wanted to talk. We talked for an hour. I didn’t sell him originally; Parks sold him originally. I’m not trying to take credit for the account because I didn’t create the account. But I’ll tell you this: I had keys to their warehouse, and my job was to keep it full. That’s a pretty good relationship.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t get any better than that.
BUSH: It was consistent all the way through. There was the Covey family out in Fort Smith; they were extremely kind to me. There was Ward Hurt with Lumberton Manufacturing Company – all of these people. There are so many of them who have been so nice to me through the years – not that they didn’t kick my butt; they did, but they were certainly very supportive.
INTERVIEWER: You can say that that is the result of a two-way street philosophy.
BUSH: It is certainly, because they expected some and I expected some, but primarily, they gave me an opportunity to be a person. You weren’t just some character walking in to call on them. They didn’t treat you that way. They treated you as someone they wanted to be with and of course, that was reciprocal.
I never did run territorial sales. My sales have always been by account lists, because then I can match the personality to the account. If it doesn’t work, I can change the personality and I’m not hooked. I’ve had salesmen with one account. I’ve got salesmen with three.
Who can sell this account? Well, I know a fellow over here who sells him millions of dollars worth. I get this fellow on the phone and say, “You reckon you could sell him this for me?” “Sure I can! What do you pay?” “Our commission is 3 percent. You pay all of your expenses, but our commission is 3 percent.”
INTERVIEWER: As distinct from you personally, what about support your company has received?
BUSH: The company has received fantastic support. In the formative stages, when the company really needed help from a developmental standpoint, I was not available; I was in school. There was a gentleman named Nathan Pearson from Queen City Mattress Company in Charlotte. He made sofa beds and low-end mattresses. But Nathan Pearson was the backbone of this company. Nathan had Queen City, Nathan’s Inc., P&G Chair, and PosturBuilt. The Garrett family joined him in P&G and PosturBuilt.
INTERVIEWER: They were in Hickory, weren’t they?
BUSH: Those two were. Nathan’s and Queen City were in the same place – Charlotte. They supported Hickory Springs to the nth degree. They took product that was not as good as it should have been. They certainly wanted to buy right, but they didn’t squeeze the last drop of blood out of it; they gave them a chance.
Yes, Nathan Pearson was one of the very, very helpful, formative people that bought from the company. Percy Monroe was another one of those, as was Jack Popkin at Berkline. Parks had given Ray Jackson his first credit from Lenoir Pad and Paper. These were the kind of people who let Hickory Springs come along and have an opportunity to grow.
Like I said, although the company was doing very poorly up through 1953, the basis, the background would not have been there without those kinds of people, and there were lots of them. Was that a personality thing with Parks? Yes, it certainly was. But the support that was provided for whatever reason allowed this company to exist and to grow later.
INTERVIEWER: How much of that can be attributed to Parks Underdown and how much to Bob Bush?
BUSH: Oh, no, that was Parks Underdown in those days. I wasn’t even here. In the summers, yes, I worked, but the rest of the time I went to school.
INTERVIEWER: This was prior to your graduation from Duke?
BUSH: Yes. When I came along, I took over and worked the accounts. Don’t get me wrong: Parks did it as long as he lived. But basically, after I got out of school, Parks just concentrated on less and less accounts, like the Ray Jackson empire. (Ray built a wonderful company. His son Ronnie’s doing pretty well. Ronnie isn’t Ray, and I have to remind him every now and then, but Ronnie’s a loyal boy and has done pretty well.)
INTERVIEWER: On the other hand, what have you done for other people?
BUSH: Hickory Springs has probably been the real backbone of a great many companies. Some of them are gone today; some of them aren’t. Rowe Furniture Company was coming along, and they’ve always done well, but when Jerry and I got to be pretty good friends, and their sales manager – a great big ole, black-headed boy with a funny name, very sharp guy – came to me, I was up there calling on them; we sold them a lot of goods. Their purchasing agent was a good friend and an excellent buyer.
They’d asked him who was the supplier that could help them in coming up with something new. He got me with them, and I came up with some very legitimate, brand new, first ideas.
For Broyhill also, we created a great many of their innovations. They used to have 12 new things, new features for each Market. I don’t know of even one of them that wasn’t ours. We created for them a double-cone seat unit for their furniture. Everybody else had single-cone or hand-tied. We called it Flexi-Coil and got it patented. They wanted the patent; I wouldn’t give it to them. So I made a deal with Broyhill that I wouldn’t sell it to anybody without their permission. That was never was broken.
They wanted Carolina Springs to have the privilege of making 15 percent of them. I said OK to 15 percent and we both lived up to our word. In fact, after Carolina changed hands, it got to where Broyhill couldn’t use the product. But we developed these kinds of things, and it sure made them a lot bigger in upholstery. It really did.
The same thing happened for Rowe. For Rowe, we took the Flexi-Coil idea and made it a hand-tied construction. They could call it hand-tied coils without lying; it was hand tied. You can go down today and see the people hand tying. But it’s a fixture; all they have to do is pop it in, take the cords and tie. In other words, they don’t do everything, but they have the advertising portion of it. We made them fantastic cushions of different kinds, which did different things for them.
They were smart enough to employ the concepts and increased their sales fantastically. Those are two I happened to think of. There was also Murray Upholstery and a guy named Glenn Fox. He and I got to be good friends.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that?
BUSH: Nashville. All four of them were. Well, one was in Springfield. He made jackknife sofa beds; he was very creative. He created a wooden frame that was absolutely fantastic for the industry. It was out of this world. He had tremendous business; we had a trailer of springs to him every day. (We didn’t have foam at that time.)
He had a customer at May Company, out of Pittsburgh. May used to be a large furniture company. Glenn called me one night and said, “Bob, can you come over here tomorrow?” I said, “Sure.” Hell, the man was buying what he was buying from me, so yeah, I could get there. I jumped in the car and drove across the mountain, and this customer was there.
May Company needed a promotion that was really, really down and dirty but different – something that hadn’t ever been done. They said, “What can you do?” I said, “I don’t know; let me think.”
I drove back home and talked to an old Baptist preacher of ours, a supervisor. I laid it out. I said, “Listen, we have to come up with something that is different.” Then I got with Homer Poovey and said, “Poov, we gotta come up with something that’s different.” I said, “Bill Martin is thinking about it; how about you and Bill knock your heads together and see if you can come up with something?” About that time, an ad came out from Kroehler on a chair-bed instead of a sleeper.
INTERVIEWER: I remember that, but it wasn’t very successful.
BUSH: No, no. It bombed like hell. Our guys took that and created a chair-bed. Here’s the chair-bed: a square-framed 27-by-27, a construction that fit on top of the 27-by-27, a same-size cushion on top of that, a set of bunk bed V-shape hook-ons.
Then came the part that Bill Martin played. Bill took a 1-by-l angle and signode strapping and made kind of a ladder-like thing that folded. It could come up yea-high and fold out. We sewed a little sack to cover that up and had a back pillow. So you had a construction unit, a seat unit, seat pillow, back pillow, your little ladder, two pieces of hardware, and four screw-on legs for which we made the little plates, which you screwed the leg into, all in the package.
We took it over to Glenn and he said, “God, that’s awful looking!” I said, “I know it, I know it, but here’s what you got. You got probably 300,000 yards of a short-end fabric, and you can buy 40 million yards of a short-end fabric for anywhere from a nickel to 50 cents per yard.”
“Oh, Lord,” he said, “Yeah, I can.” I said, “How many yards do you think this thing’s going to take?” He said five.
I said, “OK, so you’ve got 50 cents worth of fabric, you’ve got sewing labor, which is expensive, and you’ve got to make this frame and so forth. Hell, my package is going to cost you $11.75.” He said, “Can I have an exclusive on it?”
I said, “Absolutely. Until you tell me I can sell somebody else because I’m going to need more business. You’re not going to be able to sell enough for me to run a production line so that I can sell at this price. When you can’t use enough for me to keep my production line going… I’ve got to have 250 a day to keep it going.” He said, “OK.”
Of course I could do it if he sold it. They ran a full-color ad and they sold the living hell out of it. We didn’t turn that line off – just kept it going, going and going. Finally it slowed down a little bit, and Ward wanted to buy it.
Lumberton Manufacturing wanted to take it to Puerto Rico; he wasn’t going to sell it in this country. So the deal was, he could have it for Puerto Rico, and he’d use chartreuse or oddball colors. Ward bought it by the trailer load.
Marion Tinsley had been the purchasing agent for Murray Chair, and he was over in Livingston, Tennessee. He needed it to pull himself out of a hole, and Glenn Fox said OK, because Marion was clean; Marion wouldn’t bother his sales. We only had those three customers, but that was a heck of a product, and we went crazy with it. We got the name for creating something out of nothing. We didn’t build a tool at all.
There were things like that. We’ve created products for them; we’ve created concepts for them; we’ve created things like Code Red foam to really fill a very definite need. For instance, over in Morristown, Shelby Williams was using the old bad stuff that cost a ton. We sold them Code Red for probably half of what they were paying for the other, and it was a much better product.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us what Code Red is.
BUSH: Code Red is a foam that we developed that retards fire as best as we know how by using a physical additive, not a chemical additive. We have a patent on the process. We still make Code Red; we make Code Yellow; we make several different grades of fire-retardant foam – California grades and so forth. Through the years, we’ve created products and concepts for a great many people in the industry. The sleeper mechanisms have been a big product with us since we got into it. There are only two of us left in the world that’s making sleepers of the kind we make.
INTERVIEWER: Define a sleeper.
BUSH: The old name is hide-a-bed. It’s a sofa that you can make a bed out of. We call it a mother-in-law bed because we don’t want them to stay long. However, we make one that’s very comfortable.
There’s another unique thing we did for Klaussner. We made it so that the shoulder rod drops down, so that your shoulders don’t hit it in a hard spot. I’m talking about things of this nature. We’ve done a lot of these through the years. We’ve been very fortunate; we’ve had some wonderful people who have been creative, like Poovey, Bill Martin and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategy.
BUSH: Our business strategy would be basically the same as our code of ethics or our code of the company. We want to manufacture anything and everything that will serve a useful need at a profit that is legitimate. We can consider the needs of our people, the needs of our stockholders, and the needs of our customers. That’s our basic operating mode, always has been, and I hope always shall be. Our company is a very legitimately-operated company. We don’t even take our own inventories. We have it taken. Therefore don’t question our inventory, unless the auditors cheat, and we sure don’t want that going on!
INTERVIEWER: Do you know anybody else who states that as thoroughly as you do?
BUSH: Oh, yeah, I think most of our customers would, I really do. I think Paul Broyhill, Jerry Birnbach at Rowe, most anybody would tell you that.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your management technique, and I think you have done that, but maybe you can expand upon it.
BUSH: Our management technique is basically an old creed; it comes from the Bible. I’m not an exceptionally religious person, but what we believe is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That works well.
We try to service all of our populations – certainly the stockholders, the employees, the customers and the community.
INTERVIEWER: How would you tie this in with what you have already said about the way you treat your workers as people and not as numbers? Do you do the same thing with your customers?
BUSH: Yes, we certainly do. As good of an example of that as any is that most of our supervisors are getting old now, but they’re good ole country boys with very little education, and they’ve been with us all these years; they haven’t been replaced. They’ve been taught and brought along as best as we know how.
Our president is Don Coleman. Don Coleman is not a family member, has no connection with the family, and he’s the president of the company. We have several corporate vice presidents, but only three vice presidents are members of the family. Two happen to be my sons, plus Linda Simmons, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it. I’m an extremely minor stockholder, so don’t let the relationship and ownership get confused.
The rest of them are not family members. Most of them have been with us for a long time. We have some new ones just coming in because we need more management. The company has grown, grown, grown, fortunately.
We have always supported the community college and will pay the tuition for our people who want to take courses. A lot of them do, and then go into competition with us. That’s fine; that’s just part of life; there are no hard feelings. Jack Bell is an example: We basically educated Jack, and he had his own spring company that sold out to Leggett & Platt and competes with us. But that’s beside the point.
The company may have somebody who doesn’t work with us today that did work with us. We may think he’s misguided – but just because he doesn’t work with us anymore or maybe because he now competes with us, that doesn’t make him a bad person. We try not to let it affect us. It’s very difficult.
I think the company has been extremely fair to everybody involved, including me. I had an opportunity that just doesn’t happen to anybody.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in business?
BUSH: My central personal goal was building a legitimate company and seeing it grow and gain stature in the industry we serve. I’ve been very well pleased with that result.
INTERVIEWER: You have probably been better at building a company than anybody in this industry.
BUSH: Not necessarily, but at the same time, it’s been a good growth business. It started with two partners. The one partner passed away, and she had one son, and he chose to sell out. He was advised by an attorney not to, advised by me not to, advised by Mr. Underdown not to, but he was determined to sell out.
It put Parks in a hell of a hole, getting enough money to buy him out. But Parks did it and the guy made a heck of a mistake.
INTERVIEWER: That’s your personal goal. How well do you feel that you have achieved it?
BUSH: Not as well as I would have liked to, but within the context of the operation, I think we did it pretty well. Neil is a very conservative person from a financial standpoint, and he needs to be.
I’m a charger, and I can see the opportunity out there. They didn’t always work; there are a lot of mistakes in Bush’s library. I can see things that we should have done but didn’t do. That was one thing about it: We didn’t do it unless we agreed. If we didn’t agree, if it was still in argument, we didn’t do it. That served us well. We would be for it or we didn’t go into it. If we couldn’t be for it, there wasn’t any sense in working at it. I don’t really have any complaints about the way it went.
It could have been faster, could have been bigger. I had no desire of going public, either. The company is still privately held. The way to have done it a lot faster would be to do as Leggett & Platt did. We were bigger than Leggett & Platt at one time, but they chose to go public and did extremely well with it. I’ve known Harry Cornell, Felix Wright and the rest of the crew ever since 1953. I remember when Felix came to work for them. I’ve known the company and competed with them for a long, long time, and they’ve done an extremely good job.
Do I wish we were doing $4 billion a year? Not really, because then the people that I think are responsible for the growth and development of the company couldn’t be involved in it. That wouldn’t be right to me. Yes, we ought to be doing $1 billion, but that’s about it. As long as we’re making money and growing a little bit each year, that’s what is important.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your company goal?
BUSH: I think our company’s goals and my goals have been very closely related. Through our developmental stages, I was the one seeing the industry, I was the one out and involved in the trade, knowing what was going on.
Neil was a very caring person. Neil said, “We’ve got to have a retirement plan.” I said, “Neil, we can’t afford a retirement plan.” We went back and forth for a period of days. Neil finally developed a completely company-paid retirement plan. My thinking was that the person had to be an employee for 10 years before he was vested. Neil wanted to do it right now. I said, “No, 10 years. Past service counts, but let’s make it 10 years.” We agreed to that and put one in.
INTERVIEWER: But you had a bunch of people who were instantly in.
BUSH: Yes. That was fine. They had developed it; they were the people who deserved it. That was my entire point to begin with. They had company loyalty. We didn’t have to build loyalty with a retirement program.
The next thing that came up along these lines was hospitalization insurance. Neil wanted to put in a hospitalization program. It was very expensive. Our industry was really just not allowing that kind of profit. But after awhile, after a bargain again, we put in one. It was a great one and still is a great one. The employee had to pay a little bit – not much, but a little bit.
INTERVIEWER: The employee didn’t contribute to the retirement program?
BUSH: Not to the retirement program. Not a dime.
That came on through, and finally we absorbed it. Fortunately, we kept our plan intact. We’ve had to make some changes. Yes, we’ve had to make people contribute a little bit more but not enough to stick in your ear. The company’s still doing a good job.
This is all Neil. The next thing was Neil bringing them a 401(k) plan. I said, “Jimmy, Neil, how much are we going to match?” The limit was 60 percent, I think. He said, “Let’s give them 50 percent.” I said OK, so we matched. That one’s been terrific too. Our company has more fringes, I truly think, than anybody in our industry.
The point is: those fringes are expensive. Every time we spend $1 on labor, we spend 40 cents more. I won’t let them put labor into overhead. Labor is $1.40. I want them to know labor is $1.40. Because if you don’t make them know that, they think, “Labor’s not bad.” Then you add that 40 cents, and labor’s $1.40, boys. They’d say, “We can get rid of this overhead.” I’d say, “Let me ask you a dumbass question: If our business drops tomorrow by about 20 percent, are you going to fire the girl in the office? Just turn the lights off, have nothing to eat or have no water?” I said, “What the hell do you think it is?”
Anyway, primarily through the efforts of Neil – that’s why I wanted to make sure I said this – we have developed a package for the people employed by the company that should be the envy of the industry. I think that’s a reflection on how the company has treated and is treating the people who have made it grow and who have developed it. Other than the development of people like Don Coleman, Homer Poovey, Barry Simmons and so on and so forth, all of these kids have come from nowhere. I think that speaks well for the firm.
INTERVIEWER: What was the overriding business philosophy of your company?
BUSH: Certainly, just as any company should have, the overriding goal should be to make an honest profit for the stockholders. I truly believe that. I think that was my number one responsibility, particularly as sales manager.
I think sales is responsible for profit. I don’t think there’s an argument between sales and production. The responsibility portion is what I’m talking about now. Sales should be responsible for profit. If cost comes up to $10, and the price in the marketplace is $8, sales has the choice of getting out, not anything else. It’s not an argument with me. I think you have to put the buck where the buck belongs, and the only man who knows anything about the customer is the salesman.
I know what I’m talking about because I’ve done it both ways. I’m a good plant man; I started most of the plants. Personally, I’m a good plant man when I have to be. I don’t like to be because I like to get out and shoot the bull.
INTERVIEWER: What is your, Bob Bush’s, overriding business philosophy?
BUSH: My overriding philosophy of this business, or any business, is use your intelligence and work hard. That’s basically what it boils down to. Be as honest as you can be. None of us are totally honest. We try to be, but we can con ourselves just as badly as we can con others. Basically, it’s an effort to be completely honest, above board, and straight in dealing with everybody. That includes competitors. With our laws and so forth, I don’t want any of our folks exposed to meetings that may be questionable from a standpoint of legality. I’ve never asked an employee that I know of to do something questionable from a legality standpoint. My beliefs and the company’s beliefs basically are the same thing. They would have to be; I’ve been there too long. How could I have a different belief? I wouldn’t be there.
INTERVIEWER: Or it would be a different company.
BUSH: Yes, I guess so.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationship with your suppliers.
BUSH: Our relationship with our suppliers is fantastic. Are you talking personally or as a company? I’ll give you both. Our company has always believed that our suppliers are a very integral part of our company. Years ago with those furniture companies, Parks got into a lot of debt. When those companies were closed (they were all partnerships by the way), those partners disappeared. But Parks Underdown paid every dime to every vendor, plus 6 percent interest. It took him years to do it. He paid the government income tax, which those companies made and then lost. The government won’t write off a loss; he paid that. He finally paid it out probably around 1958. For years, Parks was paying all of these bills off.
That created a situation that with suppliers, Parks Underdown’s word was good. Also, as a contingency, we always have, and still do, give major suppliers a copy of our balance sheet, all the information they need, once a year. We give them audited information once a year without them having to ask. We treat them like people.
Steel and chemical salesmen are like you stamped them out with a press. They have no authority. They’re nice people, and I like them, and we’re friends. They’re welcome, and they’re treated well; they’re treated with respect. They’re not taken advantage of in any way, shape or form. Like I say, we think of them as a part of the company. They’re very necessary to us. If you think about our business, there are not many of them. We never bought foreign steel until we were forced to. We have had a relationship with our suppliers that dates back years and years ago.
For instance, when the big steel strike came in 1959, all the mills were closed down. Our prime supplier was a mill “off-contract,” as they called it.
Their dates were different. They ran 24 hours a day. We got all of the product we wanted and none of our competitors had any product. We loaned one or two of them some product, because they were good people, but we supplied our customers first.
People who were not buying X product but might be buying Y would come to us wanting X. I’d say, “Look, we’re sold out.” One of them said, “Get them to run overtime.”
I said, “Listen, my guys are working six days a week, 24 hours.” He said, “Get them to work Sunday. I’ll pay them.”
He said, “If you do this, I guarantee you 50 percent of that product from now on.”
I said, “I’ll ask them. I’m not going to tell them they’ve got to work on Sunday, because a lot of them are Baptists.” Yes, they were willing to work on Sunday for that particular account because they knew sometime maybe it’d come in handy.
Everything went fine for probably two years. The strike wasn’t over, but that went on for maybe 150, 180 days. Anyway, one day I got a phone call, saying, “Your product is no good.”
I said, “I’ll be right there.” It wasn’t the guy that made the deal; it was a hireling. I said, “I want you to show me.” He showed me what he was talking about. I said, “Yes, uh-huh, I see.” I said, “I want to tell you something. I want somebody in this room when I tell you.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Call the lady in here just so she hears what I’m going to say.” I knew her, of course. She came in. I said, “Here’s the thing. You’re handing me this product and saying it’s no good. I want you to know that I agree with you 110 percent. It is no good! I also want you to know that it’s not my product! If you think this is going to give you an excuse not to live up to a commitment made by the owner of this company, it’s not going to work, because the owner of this company is an honest man.” I said, “The reason I wanted the lady in here to hear it was so that the owner of the company is not going to get anything false about what I just finished saying.”
Finally I lost that customer. It was several years after that. Anytime you have to jack one of these guys up, they are going to get you.
INTERVIEWER: Generally, you have had good relationships with the suppliers?
BUSH: Excellent relationships with the suppliers. Like I said, we had the wire when nobody else had it, and we earned that position. The same thing is true with the chemical people. This is a fine example with the chemical people: We started out really dealing with Union Carbide, because they had most everything we needed, and they were good people. DuPont was supporting a competitor of ours, and they really didn’t want to sell us. They told us we were too little to go into business with. So we bought a lot from Union Carbide.
Some of the management at Union Carbide decided they would purchase a mattress and bedding company named Englander. Ira Pink died, so Union Carbide bought it and put one of their vice presidents in charge of Englander. We had been selling most of their plants a fair amount, not everything they used, but a fair amount. Within three months, all the plant managers got a pink slip saying to buy everything from a competitor. I kind of hit the ceiling. We were making foam, and we were selling them foam. The next thing I know, the plant managers get a pink slip saying to buy everything from Hudson Cush-N-Foam. It boiled all over me, so I went to see the person. He was the vice president of Union Carbide and the president of Englander. I said, “Is this your doing?”
He said, “Yes, I’m part of it.”
I said, “You’re the president of this company, therefore the buck stops here. Isn’t that right?” He said yes. I said, “Are you going to leave it this way?”
He said, “Well, yes.”
I said, “Fine. Now put your Union Carbide vice president hat on, and kiss my ass.” We quit buying from them; that was big bucks. Even back in those days, you don’t buy chemicals that aren’t big bucks. That was a whole lot more bucks than we ever thought about selling Englander.
But our relationship with the suppliers basically has been good. When J&L Steel Company crapped on us during that strike (they didn’t ship us our portion of the allotment we had), we quit buying from them. They had been our only supplier other than the other company. We never bought from them again. It works two ways. If you’re not going to be part of us, we don’t want you around.
Neil and I used to go around the world to different places a lot to play golf with these guys. We invited them on different things like that. We didn’t take customers much. We just didn’t do that. We took suppliers. But remember, we’ve only got four or five possibilities for suppliers, just like today. Steel is very, very tight in this country. We’re having a hell of a time just getting enough at any price.
INTERVIEWER: Is that steel overall?
BUSH: There is no domestic steel. That’s overall.
INTERVIEWER: What about relationships with your customers?
BUSH: Our company is a fantastic service company. We’re an honest company; we don’t try to short-ship or overcharge. If we find an error in our books to credit to our customers, we give it to the customers. A lot of times we find an undercharge to the customer. We think about it really hard before we ask them for it, because they’ve already made their plans without paying it. Unless it’s something that they should have picked up, we probably won’t go try to seek it back.
We answer their questions honestly and fairly. They’ll say, “I saw that oil went down. Why hasn’t your price gone down?” I’ll say, “Real simple. When chemicals go up, your price goes up. When chemicals go down, your price goes up.” How do you explain that? The chemical companies explain it to me by charging the price they charge. If they don’t reduce the price, I cannot reduce the price. We don’t have 50 percent margin.
Our relationship with customers has always been one primarily built on honesty, on keeping our word. If we say we’re going to be there at 7 o’clock, we’ll be there at 7 o’clock. If we tell them that the proper product is on the truck, it’ll be on the truck. We just don’t con them. We try to do a good, clean, honest, fair job, and we expect the same thing in return. That’s about the best I can say about our customer relationships.
Do I play or have I played golf with customers? Yes, you can believe I have. Carl Clark used to love to play golf. He’d call me and say, “Meet me at so and so at such and such time,” and we’d go up in the mountains and play golf. He’d pay; I didn’t pay on that kind of a deal. If I invited them, I paid. But very seldom did I invite customers on anything – out to dinner, sure.
I always had a credo about Christmas gifts in the old days: Give them something they can eat. Nobody can complain about giving somebody food. Now a bottle of liquor – you do not give a bottle of liquor. You go out and buy him all he wants to drink, but don’t give him a bottle of liquor. Some of my guys would sneak around and take the shipping and receiving clerks a bottle, and I’m not going to say I didn’t know it, because I did.
INTERVIEWER: What were your greatest problems with suppliers and customers? You pretty well went into that on suppliers. How about customers?
BUSH: The biggest problem with customers is really getting them to understand where they’re missing opportunities, because you cannot act like a teacher to the customers. Kelly Bullard was as fine a spring man as you’ll ever meet, particularly with the bedding springs, and he did a great job for us. He worked for us 10 years to the day. But Kelly Bullard, if he walked into your place, was going to tell you how to do business. Some people like that; some people don’t like that. I talked to a lot of people who said, “Don’t you ever let him call on me again, or I won’t ever buy from you.”
So we don’t try to teach people something, but we have something to offer, and we make the offer in a way we hope that they’ll recognize the benefits of it and buy it. When they don’t, does it upset me? Yes, it does, because that means I wasted effort. Generally speaking, if we created a new product, I would think of which customer it would benefit the most. It may be Broyhill every time, but it may not ever be Broyhill. It may be Bassett or Pearson. I try to think of the customer it’d be the most benefit to and go to him first, because exclusivity in the furniture game has always been a good sales tool.
I’d take this idea to somebody, and they would mull it over. Finally they’d say, “No, we’re not interested.” Normally by then it’s ruined, because they’ve told every competitor you’ve got, and the product has suffered from that. If we take it to somebody else, they’ll say, “You already offered that to Broyhill. I’m not interested.”
It’s not dishonesty, but it’s certainly not respecting the relationship. You present to them so that they can have this on an exclusive basis, but it isn’t out to the trade. They were always told properly to keep it quiet. I lost several good ideas that could have made our company some more money and that I thought would have been good for the customer that way.
Other than that, my relationships with customers were generally good. We had a few that tried to cheat us, saying that the trucks were loaded wrong, something wasn’t on the truck, the buns are not as big as you claim they are, and so forth and so on.
I’m not saying we were always correct; we weren’t. In fact, I had one customer that we never shipped a load to properly. I loaded it myself, padlocked it, unloaded it, and it wasn’t correct. Generally speaking, our measurements were fair, and we hoped more than fair.
When people tried to do those things, I just quit selling them. There wasn’t any sense in me worrying with it; it just wasn’t worth it. I don’t want to fight with my customer. I told many people, “Let’s quit doing business together and stay friends because we can’t do business together. I can see that now.”
That covers what I think of our relationships with our customers and our suppliers both. What we are is the middleman between our suppliers and customers. That’s what it boils down to.
INTERVIEWER: You’re more than just a middleman because you’re not just buying here and selling there.
BUSH: No, it’s not a buy-and-sell operation.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in industry trade associations.
BUSH: We’ve been members of the old National Association of Bedding Manufacturers since before I got out of school. I think we’re the longest continuously showing company in the conventions. Leggett & Platt bought Kay and claims that that makes them there longer than us, but as far as an existing company, we’re the longest. We’ve always been there.
My first display area at the bedding show at the Conrad Hilton was where the roll-around fire extinguisher went. We rented that, put a little table in front of it, and that was it.
The old furniture supply association thing was NAFM before they merged with AFMA. They showed in Louisville and so forth. There are also AIM, American Innerspring Manufacturers, AFMA, the suppliers division of AFMA and UFAC.
INTERVIEWER: With AFMA, you were first involved in setting up an independent supplier association to wake them up.
BUSH: That’s exactly right. I don’t remember the name of it though.
As a company, we have subscribed to the Furniture Library and the American Furniture Hall of Fame. As a company, we have tried to be participants in anything and everything we felt affected our customers. We’ve gone to a great extent to do that. I’ve been to these little furniture Markets they put on here, there and yonder, all over the country. You get to know a lot of fine people that way, so there was benefit from it, but a lot of it was a wasted effort. I knew it to start with, but we still participated.
We don’t have to be in the majority to go along and do something; we can be the minority. From the standpoint of participation, I don’t think there is a company in the United States that can say that they’ve been more participative in the industry than Hickory Springs, at least in the last 50-some years that I’ve been involved in it. Now we’re in a lot of these wire associations. You may not think that’s part of the furniture industry, but it is. The chemical end of our business, the polyethylenes and so forth, are certainly part of the business too, because a great portion of your fire-retardant welt cord comes right out of that plant.
We belong to all these different organizations and represent those things – the packaging business and furniture, the old testing operations and so on. What do they call the Atlanta show?
INTERVIEWER: The International Woodworking and Furniture Supply Fair.
BUSH: We’ve participated in that ever since they’ve had it. That was the one that evolved from Louisville, right?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it moved down there from Louisville – first from Winston-Salem, then from Louisville.
BUSH: Yes, I remember when it was in Winston; it was pretty sorry in Winston.
INTERVIEWER: That was the very genesis of it.
BUSH: We had one in Greensboro.
INTERVIEWER: They still have one in Greensboro.
BUSH: They do?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, coming up this month.
BUSH: I hope my guys aren’t doing that. I think that answers that.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the greatest benefit to you from the trade associations?
BUSH: I would say the greatest benefit to me personally is just meeting a lot of nice people and getting to know them better from a standpoint of not just a customer relationship but a cooperative spirit, trying to accomplish something for the industry. That’s always been my intention. When I’m involved in one of these things, I’m not trying to do it for Hickory Springs; I’m not trying to do it for Bob Bush; I’m trying to do it for the industry or I wouldn’t be there. The personal standpoint comes in that way. The company benefits from it by showing a broader knowledge of Hickory Springs.
A lot of people, for instance, are on the Furniture Hall of Fame board. They don’t know Hickory Springs. They’re not in the business or in the areas that we’re a part of. The same goes for some of these other things. Folks don’t even know we’re involved in these kinds of businesses. It’s not that they’ll do anything about it necessarily, but at least they’re knowledgeable. The company gains from the participation in these things. It’s a lot better advertisement than you can put in the newspaper.
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of?
BUSH: Personally? Basically nothing, because we have a code of conduct that prevents conflict of interest, so nothing other than some ownership of properties, which still involves primarily Hickory Springs people.
INTERVIEWER: Like the glue factory that was set up in Lenoir and the particleboard thing up in Martinsville.
BUSH: No, we’ve never joined in on any of those kinds of ventures. I’ve never joined in any of these. I’ve never bought anything that is in competition with our customers or the furniture industry or in competition with our company, Hickory Springs. I’m not part of an LLC. I’m a retired Hickory Springs employee. I’ve never had anything through the years; I’m not just talking about right now.
INTERVIEWER: For instance, John Christian Bernhardt was involved in these. Five of them set up the glue factory in Lenoir.
BUSH: Yes, and they tried to sell it to me, just like Paul tried to sell me that plastic operation, but I sold him ours.
That’s personal, not company, because the company does have some joint ventures that have worked out extremely well. We’ve had some joint ventures with an English company, and we have joint ventures with some local people here in the chemical end of the business. We have some scientific data exchange ventures with companies in Japan, Australia and several other places.
INTERVIEWER: This means you, not the company.
BUSH: Then the answer is zero.
INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry has changed over the years that you have been active.
BUSH: The furniture industry has changed tremendously since I’ve been involved with it since I was a boy. My father sprinklered most of the furniture factories in the Lenoir-Hickory area. I would go with him and see furniture being made and all the factory carts backed up, pieces here and pieces there and so forth. Having worked in the industry for over 50 years, I’ve seen it change a lot, moving toward better mechanization, more mechanization. I used to see a lot of old-line drive systems, where they had the power all coming down one main shaft and belting coming off of it.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a line shaft.
BUSH: Those are hard to find anymore, although I did see one in Maine in a small furniture factory the summer before last. They make Hitchcock chairs up there.
The changes have been more in the mechanical additions. Certainly some better concepts of the business, like eliminating some of the wooden parts, the standardizing of some features, have come about. They could do that using more highly skilled personnel, although some people won’t agree with that; they called the old-timers “craftsmen.” In our world today, whether you like it or not, production is essential, and you have to have production people. Therefore, you have to have people who can think as well as do.
The biggest change has been in mechanization. That involves everything in manufacturing upholstered furniture on a big-scale basis. I would say one other basic change that has happened through the years is that a certain amount of integrity in the furniture business has been lost due to pressures.
INTERVIEWER: Are you talking about wood or upholstery?
BUSH: Both. There are pressures from the retailer and on down the line. It used to be that a man would say, “My word is my bond,” and live up to it. He’ll say that now and won’t live up to it. That basically covers the kind of change I’m talking about that’s occurred in the industry. That’s about all, really. When you live in something, you don’t really see the changes as much as when you are outside.
INTERVIEWER: You do, but you don’t realize it.
BUSH: That’s right. You go through them, so you’re used to them.
INTERVIEWER: What about the difference between the way we make upholstery in North Carolina, where one guy builds the seat, then puts the arm on, and the next guy finishes the arm, and the next guy builds the back and so forth, versus what Morrie Futorian started in Mississippi, where the piece goes down the line, and there are nine people on the line, and each one of them has to do exactly 1/9 of the work? Otherwise, it gets bottlenecked at his station.
BUSH: That’s probably the thought concept I threw in previously. You’ve got to have thinking people as well as doing. That’s eliminating the craftsman skill to put it into a mode like that. Henry Ford started that and Morrie adapted it to furniture.
It used to be when I first started working in the upholstery business that they didn’t do it the way that you were describing – doing the seat and so on. It was originally done all on one buck by one man. He did the whole piece from scratch to go. Then it started into what you’re talking about, and that didn’t really start until probably in the mid-1950s. They didn’t do it around here very much. Then along comes the line concept. Some old boys over in Tennessee were doing stuff before Morrie did, but they were making junk furniture and didn’t get any recognition for it. Then Morrie came with the assembly line concept.
That’s a major change in production: you’ve got excellent quality.
INTERVIEWER: Morrie said, “People don’t do what you expect them to do; they’ll do what you inspect them to do.”
BUSH: That’s part of it. I don’t agree with that because if you train them right and supervise them properly, you get quality without adding inspecting into it.
INTERVIEWER: It seems to me that the next step is making it in pieces and putting it together some time later.
BUSH: Yes, down the road, I think that’s a development that will come. It’s certainly not here to any marked extent except in the case goods field. But I think upholstered furniture, eventually, will be a sofa-in-a-box concept.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t think they would save much space in a container by putting upholstery in there in pieces for later assembly.
BUSH: Oh, yes they would, definitely. They’ll save a tremendous amount of space. Those foam cushions and everything take up a lot of room, and they’re going to be vacuum packed. They’re going to be flat as pancakes. As far as the other products are concerned, they will be compressed to the point that they need to be. In other words, if it’s a big overstuffed arm feature, they’ll simply compress it. They’ll put a plastic bag around it and take the air out of it. It will be basically like stacking lumber.
INTERVIEWER: In case goods furniture, by-and-large, there’s a factor of something like 1 to 8. When it is assembled, you get eight truckloads of this flat-pack furniture in a container. I don’t think it would be that high in upholstery.
BUSH: Oh, yes, I doubt it’ll be that high. But think about something: There’s a fellow in High Point who has been in the upholstery business forever, and he measures his trucks. Then he makes his furniture to fit as a cube in those trucks, and he’s done it for years and years. His furniture, instead of being 72 inches outside to outside, might be 70 inches. Or it might be 73 inches. He makes it so it’s a solid cube, and therefore he can use a minimal number of packaging pads, have no damage at all, and get the maximum load possible in the truck. He has a great many concepts that would blow your mind.
I see some future things, but they may not come to pass or they may come to pass. It’s kind of like some of the computer ideas: for instance, the palm pilot, which they came out with a year or two ago; the new smart telephones are putting the palm pilots out of business. It’s been here three years and it’s already out technologically. Furniture doesn’t change that fast because women’s ideas of fashion don’t change that fast.
INTERVIEWER: The industry has changed over the years in production. How about in the market?
BUSH: That’s led to a lot of what I consider problems in the industry. The consolidation in the retail business has been fantastic and has created a consolidation therefore, in the manufacturing end of it and in the supply game.
When I got out of school in 1953, there were approximately 25,000 factories that made upholstered furniture or bedding, all different companies. Now you have to really scratch to find 4,000 plants, even counting the smallest in the world and that includes mattresses and everything else. It creates larger retail outlets, like Rooms To Go, which creates a larger supplier, because they have to buy in the volume they need. It’s like Sears, Roebuck. Sears, Roebuck wouldn’t go regional; they had to have national sources. They were the world’s largest in furniture sales for a long time. I believe at one time they had 22 percent of the total volume. But they would just basically choke a manufacturer. They put a lot of good companies out of business.
These things came down the pipe, so the manufacturers realized that they shouldn’t sell one outlet all of their production. They had to get bigger, so they got bigger. When they got bigger, they had to have a bigger supplier. They couldn’t depend on 42 sources of supply. They wanted somebody they could buy from on a national scale.
La-Z-Boy is another example. They will buy plant-by-plant from their suppliers, which is unusual, but they want a company that can supply them nationally if necessary. They wanted someone who could supply them on a national scale, so if a supplier let them down, they would have somebody to pick up their lost marbles. If they had more than one supplier, they’d always have a backup in case one of their suppliers let them down. They had tried a single-supplier concept several times; we were one of them at one time. But plant managers like to have more say-so than that gives them. There are these internal struggles in these larger companies.
Generally, those are the changes in the supply end of things. It’s a more intense competition because of fewer competitors. That doesn’t sound right, but that’s exactly true. The price on sleeper units, as an example, has decreased humongously since there has only been Hickory Springs and Leggett & Platt involved. It’s the same thing with recliner hardware. It’s an interesting thing. The competition becomes a different nature of competition.
INTERVIEWER: How many people are making recliner hardware now?
BUSH: Just two large ones: Hickory Springs and Leggett & Platt. Leggett bought Omega and some of the rest of them. Well, of course, Action makes their own at Royal Development. I’m not speaking of any in-house productivity by a manufacturer.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today in the short-term?
BUSH: Short-term, it’s definitely imports.
I think that the second major problem facing the industry today is credit – financing. Because we’ve got companies in the retail division selling furniture today in 2004 to customers who don’t even start paying for it until 2007! I realize that this is a situation of finance that they’re going through. They’ve got it in the pricing, supposedly, but the pressure to be sure that they have it in the pricing pushes back to the manufacturer of the furniture, and he puts the pressure back to the supplier.
We’re dealing with people wanting more and more and longer and longer terms in our industry. If a competitor of yours is willing to do that, the pressure is on you to do it. We have a competitor who is quite willing to do that, but we’re not. We pretty well hold our line on credit. But the pressure builds there.
The financial situation of the furniture industry today is really rugged. I think it’s a threat; I really think it’s a threat to the entire industry because they’re getting tempted now. It started out where they did it for six months, and then it’s a year, then a year and a half, and now its two years. They’ve got one out now that’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s not accomplishing anything. It’s like the car people now, financing a car for six years. People don’t keep cars for six years! It’s a roll over; it’s a finance game.
We’ve continued to increase the exposure. It used to be that people wanted to make furniture that’d last for 18 months – low-end furniture. Do you know why? Because at the end of 18 months, $2 a week would’ve paid for it, and they wanted it to fall apart the day they got it paid for. I’ve had people tell me, “We don’t want that.” It’s an interesting cycle that we go through, and I’m concerned. Just like I think that all this credit card debt trouble that consumers get into is a dangerous thing for our country; I think that this is a dangerous trend for our industry.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, but it works pretty well.
BUSH: Yep. Sure does. Those are the things that I see that are immediate problems. I think the importation of furniture will be a continuing problem, but it will be on a different basis. The importation of wood furniture right now is being handled by the manufacturers. That’s not going to stay that way at all. Once the retailer found out he didn’t need the manufacturer, he started going to China or wherever himself and bringing the stuff in container loads. The problem he ran into was a lack of talented personnel to see that they didn’t get crap. It doesn’t take them long to learn how to overcome that.
The people like Wal-Mart may not be doing it as directly as everybody thinks they are, but they’ve got brokers who are doing it, who are responsible for the things and responsible for the kickback. Wal-Mart says to customers, “You buy this from us. You can keep it a year, and all of a sudden you don’t like the color, bring it back and we’ll give you your money back. Not an exchange, we’ll give you your money back.” When that upholstered furniture comes back a year from now, with cigarette burns or whatever it is, the manufacturer gets it back.
If it’s a piece of foam, and the foam has the cigarette burn, then the foam is a problem.
This is the kind of thing that is going to lead to a different type of importation problem. There are manufacturers right now who think they’re in high cotton, and they’re the ones who are fighting John Bassett’s idea of levying the import duties. They are doing it because they bring it in, and right now, they are doing well at it so they are going to continue to fight import duties. It eventually is going to come down the road as being the dog that killed it. It’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back one of these days.
Do we really need furniture manufacturing in the United States? It’s certainly something we could do very well without. Do we need shoe manufacturing in the United States? We are doing without. I can also make a parallel between World War I and World War II.
We were not efficient from a price and quality standpoint in the optics business, so basically our country got out of optics entirely. World War II came along and we didn’t have any optics for periscopes, bomb sites or anything else.
Bausch & Lomb was a little bitty thing that was doing some fancy stuff. All of a sudden they were called upon to really get in the game and do the business. We had several instances of that; that’s just one I happened to think about.
The same thing is going to be here in furniture. There will always be some furniture manufacturers in the United States. I’m not saying that there won’t be. The Americans are pretty ingenious. They’ll come up with something to counter this kind of movement. But is it going to be straight factory to retail? That’s what the furniture manufacturers are betting on in opening retail stores.
INTERVIEWER: I think merchandising is what we’re going to hang on to.
BUSH: That’s why they think they need to have their own stores. That’s what I’m driving at. “OK, you retailers think you’re going to import direct; we manufacturers are going to kick your rear in the marketplace by having our own stores.” This is what I see going on. That’s what I see coming down the pike, and there are going to be big changes.
INTERVIEWER: Bassett opened a company store on Wendover Avenue in Greensboro. In the Triad, Bassett, at one time, sold everybody. Whether they are selling more the way they do it now...
BUSH: No, of course not! You look at the report.
INTERVIEWER: They’re not making more money.
BUSH: No, no. The money that Bassett has made for probably the last 10 years has been off of their investments. They’ve got so much cash. That’s how they make a profit.
INTERVIEWER: Last year, Bassett made more money off the furniture building in High Point than they made manufacturing furniture!
BUSH: That’s investment! That and interest on the rest of their money. They’re a cash cow. What is their current ratio? Some humongous figure like 7 to 1. We’re about 3 to 1, and that means we’re not utilizing our capital – let’s just be fair about it.
I think that it’s going to be quite a struggle. I think that’s going to be a really dramatic change. Is it going to gradually occur, or is it going to slap us in the face one day? Gradually, of course. Over a period of 10 years, I think you’ll see a marked difference in how things are done.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your own greatest contribution to our industry?
BUSH: If I contributed anything, it’s been an attempt to enhance the furniture industry, to increase the industry’s take of the consumer dollar. All of these organizations that we’ve taken the time and trouble to be a part of have that at the base. Can I say that about the Furniture Library? No, but that’s a philosophical thing. UFAC, I can say that about.
INTERVIEWER: I think that UFAC was something that was imposed on us by the government.
BUSH: The Upholstered Furniture Action Council was forced upon us, but we undertook it as an industry to sell more furniture. Basically it was because, assuming that they really stomped down on fire retardancy, we wouldn’t have sold nearly as much furniture because the pricing would have been out of this world. I think that was done for increased percentage of profit.
Other than that, I think a lot of my methods were good and have been copied by a lot of competitors and a lot of customers too, as far as that’s concerned. My concept of selling on account lists only, the concept of putting small plants everywhere – I did those way before anybody else in our industry did. It’s difficult to do, but on the other hand, it satisfies a very definite purpose. It used to be that at the board of directors meetings, I’d have a list of where I was going to go put plants. The next week, I’d be in one town I was going to work on, trying to find a building or piece of land, and E.R. Carpenter would be there. I got paranoid!
We had a man who was our general manager when I got out of school named Jack Tunnell; he’s a great guy. On company cars, Jack wanted something on the sides of the doors, like “Joe’s Sausage” or something. I said, “You aren’t putting anything on my car! I don’t want anybody trailing me!” Neil and Bob, one year, got together and got a license plate for my car, and it said “Hi-Co 1” I said, “Guys, you’re super, and I appreciate it, but that doesn’t help. I don’t want people to know where I am.” I would never put a sign on a factory if I could avoid it. Or on a truck. The law now is that you have to put them on a truck. But I never put a sign up on a factory. Not me.
INTERVIEWER: You said that there are certain operations you can’t go small on. They’ve got to be big.
BUSH: Yes, but they don’t have to have a sign!
INTERVIEWER: Ha, ha, all right. But they do have a sign, don’t they?
BUSH: Now, yes. I’m just saying I wouldn’t put one up.
I’ve put a lot of time into the industry, which I thought was for industry purposes through the years. I hope it was for industry purposes and did the industry some good. That’s about it, because when you’re working in and for a company, you have to do enough with that company to make a legitimate profit, and you balance the rest of your time between your personal life and the industry programs. My good wife suffered greatly through these years because I spent a great deal of my total time involved either in the company or in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any furniture executives, industry-wide, worth a salary of $1.2 million a year?
BUSH: Yes, very definitely. Any CEO of any company should be paid based on his contribution to that company. It should be based on the amount of money he earns for his stockholders in an honest, equitable fashion.
You heard me say that a man worth his salt won’t work for a salary. Absolutely. Nine out of 10 times, when I took a commissioned person and made a manager out of him, he flopped. There was no challenge. “Here’s my paycheck. That’s wonderful; I got a paycheck.” The other guy would say, “Shucks, I don’t have a paycheck; I got an empty pocket. I better get my butt out there and go to work!” Frank Ridge, one of the most wonderful men in the world, made big money working with me. Frank Ridge was the hungriest salesman you’ll ever meet in your life. He always, always had an account in his pocket. Frank would say, “Look, you’re going to pay me what you want to pay me. You’re going to control my income by the price that you allow me to use and by shipping my customers or telling me you’re sold out of the item.” He said, “You’re gonna pay me what you’re gonna pay me; I’m smart enough to know that. So, no, I’m not going to turn all these accounts in at one time. I’m going to turn them in when I need them.”
You asked, “Is there anyone worth a million-two?” In my honest opinion, absolutely, yes. It’s done on a preset basis, approved by the owners of the company. They say, “Right now we’re making 10 cents a share. If you make us a dollar a share, we’ll give you half of the 90 cents.”
INTERVIEWER: That’s a bargain.
BUSH: So why does everybody bitch about it? I don’t understand. Is he worth 12,000 times the lowest-paid employee in the company? Yes. I’m sorry, but there’s only one of him.
INTERVIEWER: I think in the U.K. there’s a limitation that the chief executive officer can only make 30 times what the lowest employee makes.
BUSH: I think that’s bull. They figured out how to get around it anyway.
INTERVIEWER: The CEO, then, is supposed to figure out some way to give the low guy more money.
BUSH: It isn’t going to work that way. He’ll figure his way around it. If he’s smart enough to be CEO, then he’s smart enough to beat anything they’re going to come up with. But limiting someone’s pay?
The way I paid my salesmen was that I gave them a base salary. Here’s how it worked: When they started to work, I paid them nothing – $400 a month. Frank Ridge? $400 a month. He never had a raise because I don’t give raises. It was just a car, expenses, and $400 a month. I took the $400, the car, the cost of the car, and the expenses that I guessed at. Let’s say that I came up with $5,000. I multiplied that by 33 and 1/3. That was a man’s quota for the year. Let’s say it turns out to be $280,000. Every quarter, I would pay him 1.5 percent for sales over that quota. I did it on a quarterly basis, so he couldn’t short-ship and long-ship; I didn’t have time to fool with trying to police that.
I wouldn’t pay them. They did not get draws; they didn’t get anything. I loaned them money only at the beginning, and then let them build from there. They didn’t have a floor, so therefore you can’t put a ceiling. If you make a floor, then you make a ceiling. But when you do that, you just ask to buy and keep mediocrity, and I don’t believe in mediocrity. I never relented. I always wished we could pay those salesmen 10 times as much. I set the prices. That’s where profit and loss is determined. Set the prices, give the man a chore, and say, “Go do it.” Just make sure he doesn’t cheat anybody, make sure he stays honest. I’ve had salesmen who didn’t stay honest.
INTERVIEWER: They don’t get away with that, do they?
BUSH: Yes, they do. You’d be shocked.
INTERVIEWER: How much of this contribution that we’ve been talking about is built on already-existing techniques and methods?
BUSH: As far as creating new products and so forth, certainly I was responsible for doing a lot of that. As far as the creativity of new products and things, how much was already there? The good country boys that worked for us knew how to bend a piece of baling wire, and they learned that by experience. Not many people know that if you bend a round corner in a piece of wire, it takes more wire than a square corner. But these old-timers knew because they bent wire. They had all of this knowledge. I could get with them and explain something that I wanted to do. They were the ones who pulled in the concept; they were the ones who did the contributions. I did the facilitating. From that standpoint, how much was the base responsible for and how much was I responsible for? The base was totally responsible, but I manipulated the base. That’s what it boils down to.
INTERVIEWER: How much of your contribution came from innovation that you originated or put into use before most companies did?
BUSH: A great many of our innovations were probably prompted by me more than created by me. Our people created them, just like Code Red foam; that was a real breaker in the foam industry. A lot of foam things that we are doing are total breakthroughs – patented, properly done breakthroughs. Those were created by other people, but the need for those items was created in a reasonable part by me, because I knew what the market needed and I could translate it back to them. The same thing happened in the spring and metal products. We’ve had wonderful innovations in the metal business, but did I do them physically? No, not many of them. It was like that little sleeper chair that I was talking about – a piece of junk but something that serves a purpose. It was something that people never thought of doing. That kind of stuff that comes along in the furniture game does pay off.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else?
BUSH: Not really. A lot of the concepts I had that I was working on weren’t worth a nickel and never did come to pass.
INTERVIEWER: Determination has an awful lot to do with it.
BUSH: I’ve been determined to a great degree on these things, and I’ve driven some of them that weren’t worth a dang. But a lot of them have been, a lot of them are what we’re built on today.
INTERVIEWER: The idea has been put out there, and it’s lain there until it froze.
BUSH: When we talked about something, I always wanted to know what happened to it. I didn’t leave something lying unless I thought it was dead.
INTERVIEWER: Elmer Klein was vice president at Futorian. All Elmer ever did was say “no” to Morrie. He saved Futorian millions of dollars.
BUSH: I filled that function to a degree for Mr. Underdown. Parks was such a nice person, if somebody said, “Why don’t you make this?” Parks would say “OK.” He’d bring them in and say, “Let’s make this.” I’d say, “Parks, what’s it going to sell for?”
This thing I’m thinking about was a little swivel. Percy Monroe was the guy that wanted him to do this, paying 46 cents to a company in Charlotte. I looked at it, took it, did a little work on it. The main thing I did was just throw it on a set of postage scales. I got the weight, did a little quick math, and I said, “Parks, 46 cents is less money than we can buy the metal for.” He said, “If they can do it, we can.” I said, “No, we can’t. We can’t.”
Old Rome Jones at Prestige Chair had an idea a week. He’d call Parks on his ideas. Parks would come in, want to do this, want to do that. We weren’t selling him anything. Parks would say, “Let’s make this.” I’d say, “Parks, we can’t make this. We’d have to buy a four-side machine and so on and so forth. We just can’t do it unless we spend a lot of money. Is he going to give us a guarantee? Is he going to pay for all of the development? What’s going to happen?” The company didn’t have any money. We went through that kind of stuff quite a bit.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by the Depression?
BUSH: We didn’t live through the Depression. Our company didn’t start until 1944. We certainly didn’t feel the Depression.
The recessions that occurred through the period generally made us stronger because everybody who has employees has soft spots. During a recession, when you really have to measure your total outlay of money, you find your soft spots. You get rid of them during the recession, whether you want to or not. You will do it but only if you have to. Hickory Springs is a very soft-hearted company; the only one who would fire people was me. We would build up some real fat while the times were good, but we cleaned them out during the recessions. I’d say if anything, we benefited. We got off our butts, got out and got more customers.
Always in the fall of the year, we were sold out in the upholstery end. In the spring of the year, we didn’t have anything to do. We would get to the point where we’d take enough business to run full in the spring, and I’d worry about how to fill those orders in the fall. I filled them very easily by raising the price to the people I wanted to quit selling, the people who weren’t paying their bills, whatever. I did it simply by price. They cannot complain because they won’t pay you your price. We didn’t lose the customers forever by getting rid of them when we didn’t need them.
INTERVIEWER: Isn’t that sort of illegal?
BUSH: No. The Robinson-Patman Act, is that what you’re driving at?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, everybody pays the same price for the same product.
BUSH: If you really pay attention to that Act, which I have, everything has to be equal when you make that statement. That was enacted against the A&P. That was the whole proposition: The A&P was buying stuff cheaper than the mom-and-pop store, and therefore selling it cheaper than the mom-and-pop store, and that made it unfair. Robinson-Patman says that if you’re going to sell a product to a lot of different customers, then it must be priced the same in the same quantity. Quantity is the word. Do you know any two companies that buy exactly the same quantities?
INTERVIEWER: Of course not.
BUSH: OK. Another consideration that was in there was the financial condition of the purchaser. Do you know any two companies that have the same credit rating?
INTERVIEWER: Of course not.
BUSH: Walk on down the path all you want to, I can show you at least 400 or 500 things. The intent of the law was to make it an open field. We always had a printed price list. That merchandise was available always on a quantity breakdown; merchandise was available at those prices. Our terms were up there in very plain English, 2/10 net 30.
Now, if the guy didn’t take the 2 percent, we charged him 2 percent more than we charged the other guy, didn’t we? Are we breaking the law? Think about it. No, I’ve spent time being taught by lawyers. Sherman, Robinson, I’m very familiar with them. I don’t think I ever broke the law.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by World War II?
BUSH: It wasn’t. The war was over. The war ended in 1945, so the company was just a fledging little company. 1946 to ’48 were years of shortages. The effects were shortages of materials to make product. Along came Korea, and that was a different story. The company was in business during the Korean situation and the shortages were very, very real. It called for good planning on the company’s part, something that they may not necessarily have had to do had there not been that war. They had to maximize utilization of those raw materials to get the most return without being a thief. I think that even a terrible thing like the Korean War had a definite positive bearing on Hickory Springs. I wasn’t there; I’m not taking any credit for it. Then came Vietnam, and that was a different situation altogether. There were no shortages in this country; there were no deprivations of any kind in this country. That didn’t contribute at all except for the loss of some wonderful people.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by racial attitudes?
BUSH: We have always had a wonderful racial situation. Ever since 1944, when this company was first started, there have been blacks. The oldest supervisor in the company was a black man; he worked black, white, green and orange, men and women. We had separate bathrooms; we had four separate facilities – black women, white women, black men and white men. The State of North Carolina required it.
Maybe it was a federal law; I know the state required it, but we got around that. In the first major plant we built, we put in single bathrooms, and we painted the doors different colors, but it didn’t say anything. Pink, blue, orange, green – there wasn’t anything about color involved; we did it so they knew where the bathrooms were. We put in a light bulb like in a refrigerator; if somebody was in there, the light came on. It could be a man or a woman, a black or a white or who cares. So we beat that.
We always had black supervisors, and all of our supervisors always worked anybody and everybody – men, women and so forth – and they still do. We’ve always had the same pay rate – same product, same pay rate; it doesn’t matter who is doing it. I think we’ve got probably as fine a race relationship as any company that’s ever been around, because personally, I believe in the competition between the races myself, and I think it helped our productivity. That’s pretty crass, but I mean it. I can put a white man across the table from a black man, and they’ll try and show each other up.
INTERVIEWER: What about Hispanics?
BUSH: We’ve done well with Hispanics. Our Hickory plant would not be in business without the foreign culture that we have now. I think in that plant they speak 11 or 12 languages – here in Hickory! We’re not progressive people who are trying to create diversity. What we are trying to do is create a workforce – a loyal, decent, honest workforce. We don’t care what you are. We love to have them work. They’ll work.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by women’s issues?
BUSH: I don’t think we have any problems. We have women supervisors; we’ve always had women supervisors. They were highly paid people and still are. They’ve worked with us for years. Ms. Butler, a lady that worked with me for 46 years, has retired, has a wonderful retirement program, which she earned working at Hickory Springs, and is getting along very nicely. I’ve had lady salesmen for years and years. They are salesmen.
INTERVIEWER: Look what Linda’s done.
BUSH: Yes, Linda Simmons is an example; she happened to be family. I think our female group has done and continues to do well. We have some brilliant women working with us, just as we have some brilliant men working with us. Not all the men are smart; not all the women are smart, but we have some darn good ones and we’re proud of them. They’re in positions of trust. Our lady that takes care of all the retirement, benefits, and 401(k) is a walking genius. She’s paid as a walking genius. Just up and down the line it’s the same: Our nurses are all great; there are a lot of lady supervisors, human resources.
INTERVIEWER: Where males and females work in the same environment, everybody says you’re going to get some surprises with what dumb things people will do sexually.
BUSH: Oh, no question about it. I think in the history of our company, we’ve had two accusations of sexual harassment. In one case, I think it was correct. In the other case, it was hands-down no. But that’s going to happen.
INTERVIEWER: Some people say they’ve had some very, very awkward situations, where they’ve had to let very good people go because of just dumb things.
BUSH: Any supervisor who cohorts with an employee, whichever sex, both are gone. I had a lady plant manager in Memphis, Tennessee, who just had to seduce the truck driver. I just had to fire them both. That was years ago, before they called it sexual harassment. It’s just like a salesman. I tell the salesmen that a lot of the receptionists and secretaries for the boss are good looking and come in dressed to the nines every day, but you never know when you’re messing with the boss’s turf. I knew a lot of secretaries who wound up running the company. I said, “If I ever catch you messing with somebody’s woman, you’re gone.” The same thing goes with the guys. You just don’t do this because you never go to the bathroom where you eat.
I personally feel that our company is probably the most fairly balanced operation from a personnel standpoint – men, women, black, white, Indian, etcetera. I think any and all of them have an equal opportunity at doing as much as they want to do and being as big as they can be. If we make a mistake, it’s promoting people to a job that they are not capable of. I think we’re guilty of that; we’re guilty of that because it hurts our conscience. Here’s a man that’s been with us 15 years doing this job, just absolutely fantastic, the best that anybody can do, so he deserves a reward. You ask him if he’d like to be supervisor. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, but you ought to be able to tell who can and who can’t, and generally speaking, I think we can. We’ve made some very bad mistakes, though, because you cannot demote a man once you promote him. He becomes a real sore; all he’s going to do is down the company all the time. If you promote a good man into a job he can’t do, then you have to let him go and you lost a good man.
INTERVIEWER: How have shipments of your products affected your company?
BUSH: Hickory Springs primarily is a self-delivered company, and so very few of the public transportation modes are used to any extent by Hickory Springs in any location. We have a humongous truck fleet, a tremendous truck fleet. Certainly it’s cheaper to do it other ways. The reason why we do this is because if we commit to deliver a load in New York City tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock, it’s going to be there at 7 o’clock. It’ll probably be there by 5:30. It’s going to be there. You cannot do that with any of the carriers that I’m familiar with.
We do use the one-way haulers these days, but basically those go from one of our plants to another plant. We can do that because we don’t make the promise of being there on exactly the minute. We’ve only started doing that in the last few years.
This coming Saturday is the 7th of February. We have our Drivers’ Awards meeting; we have one every year. We have it at the Holiday Inn and it’s a very nice affair. Our insurance carrier has their representative there; our truck leasing agency is there. We lease the long-haul tractors in most all locations. We own all the short-haul tractors, all the short-haul trucks and all the trailers. I’m talking about hundreds.
The trucking operations I’ve always looked at are the drivers; our truck drivers are considered part of upper management. That may be unusual, but the reason why is that they are what our customer sees. We want them looking good, acting right. We have a very fine insurance situation that includes them. Of course, we also have a good accident policy on top of that for people in their category. Being a driver at Hickory Springs has been a very fine job through the years and it still is.
The transportation mode is not very applicable to us. It would be to a furniture manufacturer, although they deliver a lot in their own trucks now. But in our case, it’s almost essential that we do most of it in our own way. We have compression trailers for the foam. We mash up five loads of foam into one load, and you can’t just let somebody who doesn’t know what he’s doing do that.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the effect of environmental regulations?
BUSH: Tremendous. Environmental regulations for the last few years have been almost totally ridiculous. Bobby Bush, Jr. has spent a great deal of his last 15 years in dealing with the government agencies, the courts, etcetera, particularly in California. He was out running our plants there. He really is an expert.
We use acetone; we have a patent on the use of acetone in the manufacture of foam. Acetone is a totally inert product as far as the atmosphere is concerned. It was on the list of 100 things – the bad list. We got it off the list because there was nothing to it, just like methylene chloride; they got the worst deal in the world. Anyway, we have a patent on that and several other things. We’ve had to make sure that we don’t screw these environmental concepts up, even if we don’t agree with most of them, and we don’t agree with most of them. It’s just like methylene chloride – that’s manure. It’s been used to decaffeinate my coffee and it still is, but it’s going to kill everybody.
A lot of these things we’ve fought, and a lot of them we’ve had to go along with. As far as the plant is concerned, we have a gentleman who monitors all of our operations all of the time. We have testing facilities in operation all the time. We test everything we know how to test and make sure that we’re not putting out anything that may be harmful to somebody.
When we used a lot of different kinds of finishes, the lacquers and so forth, those weren’t restricted in those days. But we went to water-based finishes way before we had to. Water base is not a good finishing material for metal. For wood, I think it does a great job but not for metal. We learned how to use it and get it satisfactory. We have joined the environmental situations, rather than plain out-and-out fighting it. We fought it where we knew they were so totally wrong that it was ridiculous. Basically we’ve joined, and I think we do a fantastic job.
Our environmental manager knew more about this stuff than the government people did. He could talk. He did a great job for us. We have an environmental committee at each location, and they have meetings regularly. They ask for, solicit information from employees or anybody else, and they act upon these things. It’s increased our costs, but on the other end, we probably have gotten benefits in manufacturing costs by paying attention to some of them. Acetone is cheaper than methylene chloride, for instance.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the involvement of your family business in your community?
BUSH: Hickory Springs is strictly a family business, and I think that the effect on the community has been one, once again, of cooperation.
INTERVIEWER: You’re in a lot of communities.
BUSH: We are, and in each community I think we have been a contributor to the community – our people have. We don’t insist that they belong to a Lions club or the Kiwanis or whatever, but we certainly encourage it if they want to do it and provide the time that’s necessary for those things. Don Coleman, the president of Hickory Springs, for instance, is the director of the Hickory Chorus, which is a very famous situation; it’s even on TV now. Bobby Bush is the one that does all of the work, and we have seven or eight company members that are part of the chorus. The company has allowed our trucks to be used in parades for different groups and things. We have a budget that we donate with, and it’s controlled by employees, basically. They select different people that they’re going to support with that amount of money for these years.
INTERVIEWER: The amount of money is a management decision?
BUSH: The amount of money is an ownership decision, not management; Don’s not an owner. Don Coleman has no stock at all; only family has stock. That’s a problem for a company. Jimmy’s on that committee, and he happens to be an owner, but that doesn’t get you on the committee.
We built a special deal for the YMCA here. We support the chorus, the library and this, that and the other. I think the company has been very participative in the community, certainly as members of different boards and things. The Heart Fund this year is being run by Mike Simmons and his wife, and several of our people are members of the board. The March of Dimes Walk and all those kinds of things are well-organized around the plant and around the country. We belong to some of the different organizations in the city that support industry. I personally am opposed to belonging to most of them because all they’re going to do is bring in new industry, charge them no tax, and let them be a competitor for our labor, and I disagree with that kind of stuff totally; it goes against my grain.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in social, civic and business activity outside the furniture industry.
BUSH: To be very honest about it, I don’t have any. I’ve always spent my life in the business and in the industry. My so-called vacations generally were at one of these meetings, like AFMA’s board at the nice places they go to. I would take my wife and that would be our vacation. Socially, certainly we have good friends that are not in the industry, but not a lot of social activity, because we’re not socialites. If someone invites us, nine out of 10 times we tell them we’re sorry we can’t make it. We’ve got other things that we like to do.
I joined the Lions Club when I first moved to Hickory. Jack Tunnell, our manager at that time, was a big Lion and talked me into joining. I did. It was a wonderful group – sold brooms and raised money for buying glasses for kids. I thought it was fantastic, but I was traveling. I left on Sunday and came back home on Saturday. I was gone five full days out of the week, so I was missing these meetings, and I’d have to make them up in Arkansas or something like that. People were kind and nice and said, “happy to have you,” and all that kind of stuff, but when you go into a meeting with a bunch of total strangers, you have no idea what they’re working on. After about a year of that, I said, “I’m really not contributing to this and I just can’t do it,” so I resigned. I’ve never been in another non-business organization.
I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to drive to High Point to make those 7 a.m. meetings for the Hall of Fame.
INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?
BUSH: My favorite charity has been Duke University all through the years, because Riverside wouldn’t accept donations. Duke University was very kind to me. The next ones are the Furniture Library and more recently the American Furniture Hall of Fame and the American Furniture Hall of Fame Foundation.
INTERVIEWER: You took business at Duke?
INTERVIEWER: At the Fuqua School of Business?
BUSH: Yes. The first dean was my fraternity brother and classmate, Tom Keller, who is a wonderful person. He’s the one who got Fuqua to give him the money. It was not the Fuqua School when he took over. Jimmy Bush graduated from the Fuqua School, as well as Duke. Of course, Bobby wanted to get married, so Bobby got out and got married. Jimmy wanted to stay and watch good basketball. Gminsky was there playing ball that year, and Jimmy wanted to go to business school, so Jimmy stayed. They don’t like a kid to come straight out of college into the business school, but Tom was very kind to him.
I’ve always supported the Fuqua School; that is one of the divisions of the school that I support. I support the Athletic Association. With my grandson in engineering school this year, I started supporting the engineering school this year. Other than that, we support the Hickory Chorus, the Heart Fund, just different local organizations. In a great many locations we support Hospice. I think they’re a wonderful organization. I’ve been in and out of Caldwell Memorial Hospital several times over the years and I support them. Jane has her own little group of things: the historical society and the art society here in town – things of that nature. Basically, my prime interest has been at Duke and the Furniture Library, the Furniture Hall of Fame and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principle leisure-time activity?
BUSH: I have a great many. My principle leisure-time, year-round, day-night activity would be stamp collecting. I play golf. I used to play tennis before my heart told me I couldn’t. I enjoy reading. I have a tremendous amount of activities that I enjoy and participate in as much as I can.
INTERVIEWER: I have a friend who collects stamps. He has a bookcase full of ring binders, and every time the post office gets a new stamp, they put a full page aside for him.
BUSH: That’s what’s in there. I get a full sheet of everything American. I get stamps from Liechtenstein. I maintain a bank account in Liechtenstein, and they just draw against it and send me two sets of theirs. My mother died when I was 8, and a very kind lady got me started. I’m 73 almost, so that’s 65 years.
INTERVIEWER: What’s been your greatest success in this activity?
BUSH: Oh, I’ve had some fairly decent stamps. I buy some at auctions; sometimes I think I’ve got a decent buy.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t have any upside-down airplanes, do you?
BUSH: No, I don’t. I have other upside-downs, but I don’t have the airplane. Inverted stamps, I’ve got quite a few. That’s one of my favorite things to do. In the foreign category, I primarily collect defunct nations, because you can collect all of those if you’re lucky; you can get every one of their stamps because they’ve been out of business a long time, and it’s very interesting to follow the history. In those African countries, some of them have been 38 different names.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your best one experience in this activity.
BUSH: I stopped at an antique store up in Verona, Virginia, with my entire family many years ago, and while they were looking at cannonballs and everything, I saw a barrel of old envelopes. There were some with letters in them, some without letters in them, but they were stamped envelopes. They were ten for a dollar or something like that. It looked to me like maybe there were maybe 100 in there or something like that. I said, “Will you take $5 for the whole barrel?” So I loaded all these up. After I’d packed them down, there wasn’t any room in the car. I brought them home, went through them for years before I finally got all the way through them. There were several really good stamps in that bunch.
A friend of mine here named Ralph Shell ran a coin shop, traded coins and knives. He called me one day and said, “I hear you’re a stamp collector.” I said, “Yeah, I am.” He said, “I just bought a guy’s hobby shop to get the coins, and I got a dang truckload of this junk that he had in stamps. How about coming over here and making me an offer on it?” I went over there. He had albums stacked up; he had full sheets of American stamps, brand new. He had tons and tons of the display books that dealers use full of stamps – just a humongous amount of stuff. I don’t remember what I offered him; I think it was $100. I was driving, and this was probably in 1964, 1965 when you had those great big Oldsmobiles. I filled the trunk, the back floorboards, the back seat, the right front floorboard, the right seat, and I had to go back and make another trip. Of course, that took years to go through, because I wasn’t here much, and it got to where I was carrying most of that with me. At nighttime, if I wasn’t helping a customer or something, I’d work on it in the motel. Those two buys were probably my most fun.
INTERVIEWER: That was a wonderful experience.
BUSH: I still have a sheet of 7-cent Hawaii airmail stamps that was in that lot from Ralph Shell.
INTERVIEWER: What was the date of your retirement?
BUSH: January 17, 2001. That was my official retirement date by Hickory Springs. I consulted for them later, but that was strictly an outside employment.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the industry?
BUSH: I still attend the Furniture Hall of Fame meetings. I did resign from the Furniture Library board, but I attend the Hall of Fame. I still go to the furniture supply show. I usually come down maybe one day for the High Point Market if some customer wants me to. I still participate to that extent. Not for pay, but I still help Hickory Springs some with the credit and sales concepts. After all, I do own a little bit of it.
Am I fully retired? Yes, I’m fully retired. Am I completely absolved from Hickory Springs? No. I don’t ever intend to be. I would still be working by my choice. Everything in this room belongs to Hickory Springs, at least all of the office space. This is what was downtown, and they don’t pay the rent on this place; this is my house. But they do provide the fax machine and the switchboard service because I use that for credits.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done in other businesses?
BUSH: Nothing. I’ve never been in any other business except this.
I’m thinking about one that is totally different and removed but would be filling a need that I know exists out there. In my case, it’s been very difficult for me to solve some problems, and it could solve a lot of problems for other people. If you’ve ever had a bad cement floor, you’ve got a problem. We had lots of them, because they didn’t pack the ground right. It’s inconvenient if you have to go in, break it up, pick up the pieces, dig it out and start from scratch. Replacing a floor is about three times as expensive as making a new floor. I’m onto a methodology of putting cement on cement without having to go four inches thick or something like that.
INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting. What have you done in your leisure time?
BUSH: We have a little place in Hilton Head. When Jane feels like it, we go down and spend a little time in Hilton Head. Unfortunately, we haven’t been since last Labor Day simply because of health reasons for one or the other of us. I certainly enjoy doing that, and I get out and ride my bicycle all over the island because it’s flat land; I can do it on the flat land; I can’t do it here. That’s good heart exercise for me. Other than that, I don’t have a great deal of leisure or what I call leisure. I still have a little bit of an investment, not a lot of money or anything, but I work on it, and I work very diligently on it, because once something is my money, I’m quite interested in it.
INTERVIEWER: Well, we’ve reached the end of the interview. Thank you for taking so much time for this important contribution to honor the furniture industry. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. What would you like to add in summary?
BUSH: I think this was a good experience. I certainly know that what I’ve given you the last couple of days is nothing compared to some of the interviews that you’ve had that have some great importance to the industry. Mine is an oblique view of our industry. I’m most interested in seeing, reading or hearing some of the interviews with some of the people that you’ve interviewed because they did contribute so much to the industry.
That was something else I was going to talk about. We were one of the founders of the Furniture Hall of Fame and also, the Polyurethane Foam Association. I didn’t mention that in some of the organizations that we belong to, but I was one of the seven originators of that. Bobby Bush was one of the first presidents of it. That’s one organization I never served as an officer, because Bobby was old enough to be participatory in it, just like Jimmy is now in bedding. Jimmy has been in some official capacity in the bedding industry for the last 15, 18, 20 years.
I did serve there, but not since Jimmy’s been capable.
I don’t think I contributed anything to our total stock of industry knowledge, but I do think more accumulation of people’s thoughts and concepts that we can get and put down in proper order is going to be very valuable.
I’ve enjoyed it. I appreciate you doing it, appreciate you coming up.
INTERVIEWER: I do thank you. You have gone way beyond the call of duty, and I am grateful.
BUSH: It was a privilege.