charles r. sligh, jr.; sligh furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
SEPTEMBER 8 & 20, 1988
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN
OFFICE OF CHARLES R. SLIGH, JR
Gordon L. Olson, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is an interview conducted by Gordon Olson with Charles Sligh Jr., Thursday, September 8, 1988, in Mr. Sligh’s office at the company headquarters. The purpose of the interview is to gather biographical information and Mr. Sligh’s recollections and insights into the furniture industry for purposes of placing the tape at The American Furniture Hall of Fame.
I think, Mr. Sligh, the best way to begin this tape is with real basic information, if you will. For the record, tell me when you were born, where, and a bit about your earliest days, and we’ll go from there.
SLIGH: I was born on January 8, 1906, at 31 Prospect Street, SE in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in my father’s and mother’s home at the time, and lived there until I was about 7 years old. Then we moved up to 455 Fulton Street East. I lived there until I was married and then I built a home on Briarwood Avenue. I lived there until I moved to Holland in 1937 after having started with Mr. O.W. Lowry the Charles R. Sligh Company as it was called at that time. We started that in 1933.
INTERVIEWER: You grew up then in what is today, in Grand Rapids, known as the Heritage Hill area?
SLIGH: That is correct.
INTERVIEWER: You were there around your father and other families of the furniture industry as well?
SLIGH: Yes. Next door to us in later years when we were located at 455 Fulton Street, Robert W. Irwin lived next door to us. Mr. Gay of the Berkey and Gay Company lived catty-corner from us on the corner of Gay and Fulton Street. Mr. Shanahan lived next door. Mr. John W. Blodgett, who I remember of course, lived on the corner of Prospect and Fulton Street on the northeast corner. There were quite a few furniture people in that general area.
INTERVIEWER: It is fair to say then that when you were growing up, you grew up hearing about the furniture industry, and hearing it discussed not only in your own home but even among the people you were growing up with?
SLIGH: That’s right, yes.
INTERVIEWER: So that it’s almost a logical thing that you would stay in the industry then, I would think.
SLIGH: Yes, I never can remember thinking of going into any other field; it just seemed foreordained that I would be in the furniture business in some capacity. During those early years when I was in high school, at Central High School, I used to go down to the factory during the July furniture market and I was given the opportunity to sell furniture to the buyers. If the salesman for that particular territory was busy, I would be able to talk to the buyer and, hopefully get an order, for which my father would give me 1 percent commission. It was a special one for me because he still had to pay the original salesman his regular commission.
INTERVIEWER: What would be a regular commission?
SLIGH: Well it varied. I think, at that time, it was usually around 6 to 7 percent, something of that kind. In those days too, our factory had our own salesmen who normally didn’t have other lines. They worked for the Sligh Furniture Company entirely. Some of them, I think most of them at that time, were on salary and a commission. They had rather large territories. In order to make a decent living in those days they had to cover large territories, in order to make it worth their while.
INTERVIEWER: Their job, then, would be to visit dealers in, say, Western states, or something like that?
SLIGH: Yes, we had a salesman, Art Morgenstern, out in California and that whole Western area, and Van Knox, who was in the Southern-Southwestern part of the country.
INTERVIEWER: This is about the time you were in high school?
INTERVIEWER: What date?
SLIGH: Well, it was about 1922, ’23 and ’24.
INTERVIEWER: Were there a few other salesmen working then, too?
SLIGH: Harry Story was our salesman in New York City, which at that time was the most profitable territory; George Wright in New England; Irving McClave in the Midwest; and Milton McClave in the Philadelphia area – that particular area. Both of the McClave men were brothers of Norman McClave who was, at that time, vice ¬president of the Sligh Furniture Company. My father was the president.
INTERVIEWER: Norman McClave was a son-in-law?
SLIGH: Norman McClave was my father’s son-in-law, married to my youngest half sister. My father was married twice. His first wife died and two or three years after that he married my mother. I suddenly found myself with three sisters, each of whom was old enough to be my mother. Their husbands were Norman McClave, who married Lorraine; Milton Miller, who married Edith; and Yale Henry, who married Adeline. Yale Henry had gone out to the coast and was in the lumber business in a company that my father had helped him to establish.
INTERVIEWER: So, at that point, your father had both the furniture company, and then to support that, he also was involved in the lumber business?
SLIGH: Actually, the lumber business was not connected with the furniture company.
INTERVIEWER: It wasn’t?
SLIGH: It was different lumber than we used in the furniture business. He did that, I think, mainly to get my brother-in-law started in business out there after he had married my half-sister Adeline. My father did have some rather large holdings in forestland out in Oregon, which was eventually sold after his death to Weyerhaeuser Company. He had real estate in Florida and, in Grand Rapids, the farm, a 160-acre farm out on Plainfield Road, which is now part of the Sligh Boulevard area out there. It’s in the center, I think, of that particular plot. At the time it was just a farm and we kept some horses out there, and so on. He had holdings in other fields than furniture. But furniture was his main business. He started in 1880 with the help of his brother-in-law, Mr. Louis Hawkins. Randall Hawkins, Mr. Hawkins’ son, was in our company, in a comparatively minor capacity, until his death. My father eventually owned the con¬trolling interest in the Sligh Furniture Company three or four years after the start of it in 1880.
INTERVIEWER: It eventually became the biggest of the Grand Rapids companies, didn’t it?
SLIGH: Berkey and Gay, I think, was bigger.
INTERVIEWER: Was it?
SLIGH: Yes, but Sligh Furniture Company at that time, I think, was the largest manufacturer of exclusively bedroom furniture in the country. Berkey and Gay made living room, bedroom, and dining room furniture and had about three or four plants in the city. My father’s company was just one factory on Logan Street in Grand Rapids.
INTERVIEWER: That’s something that I’ve been interested in and have been meaning to ask you about. If you don’t remember the first time you went to a factory I’m sure you have recollections of going there as a youngster, going down to your father’s factory. What was it like?
SLIGH: It was a very modest office, compared to most offices today, including this one, a plant which is much smaller. But we didn’t have all the rules, regulations, forms and problems that we have today. They had very modest offices. My father was the only one that had an enclosed office. My brothers-in-law were out in the main office space with the office staff and the sales manager was also out there. It was a very modest looking office as compared to what you see in most places today. However, the volume of business they did in those days was, well, in today’s dollars would probably be around $50 million. That was in a year. But the plant itself was 612,000 square feet of space.
INTERVIEWER: That was a big plant.
SLIGH: It was a big plant. A lot of it was four and five story buildings. I’ve often thought that, perhaps, if we hadn’t built the last two of those five-story buildings, we might have been able to get through the Depression. In those days everything was booming there, around 1921 and ’25, that era.
INTERVIEWER: Where exactly was that plant located?
SLIGH: On Logan Street at the railroad tracks – the railroad tracks running north and south there. It’s still there. In fact, every once in awhile somebody asks me if that plant that they’ve seen down there with the Sligh Furniture Company name on it was the one that my father had owned. It was. I guess they’ve tried to sandblast the name off since, but it’s still evidently visible.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t recall right now what’s in the building today, if it’s used at all.
SLIGH: I don’t know either.
INTERVIEWER: I guess I’ll have to drive by again and take a look.
SLIGH: For a time, it was used for storage. However, the floor load capacity in those days in a furniture factory was not very heavy. Somebody that bought the building, or rented it, loaded the top floor of one of those five-story buildings with rolls of paper, which eventually went down through a couple of floors of the building. It had to be light manufacturing and light storage.
INTERVIEWER: At this point, talking for a moment more about the original factory – your father’s factory. This was all men working in the factory?
SLIGH: No, we had some women working there, especially in the decorating department. At that time there was a lot of hand decoration on the furniture – enamel furniture with painting on it. We had quite a few women that worked in that department.
INTERVIEWER: Would they be paid on a piecework basis, then?
SLIGH: No, I think they were paid, you’re getting back now to my early days, but I think most of it was hourly wage in those days. Today it seems ridiculous but I think we were paying about 35 cents an hour then. However, the factories in the South were paying much less than that, which was one of the problems the Northern factories had. They had to compete with much lower labor costs and, also, the Southern factories had a lot of lumber available to them that was brought in by the farmers and measured by the manufacturers themselves, which, I think probably, gave some of them a little advantage. But, today that 35 cents an hour would be at least $3.50 to $4 an hour.
INTERVIEWER: And probably more.
SLIGH: Probably our wages are far above that here. I always divide today’s prices by 10 and figure that’s the way I stay sane when I buy a meal for $40. I think, “Well, now that isn’t too bad. It was $4 in 1932.”
INTERVIEWER: It’s a good philosophy and an accurate one. That’s the kind of multiplication that’s taken place. All people have to do is know what a home costs, for example, 60 years ago, and today’s prices are put in a better perspective.
SLIGH: Right, yes.
INTERVIEWER: That’s very close. The other thing that you’ve mentioned when we were talking initially about those early days in Grand Rapids was the annual furniture exhibition.
SLIGH: Furniture markets.
INTERVIEWER: The furniture markets that were held in Grand Rapids?
SLIGH: They were actually four times a year, in those days. January and July were the big ones. Then we had a May and an October-November market that were usually smaller. The markets were very important in those days because dealers came to Grand Rapids with the intention of buying several months supply of furniture. It would be shipped to them and they would store it until they had sold it out and then they would start reordering, or once they’d sold part of it. Today is different in that, I think, most of the dealers come with the intention to buy as little as they can but with the hope of being able to reorder and have prompt shipment from the factory. So we have a bigger problem with the inventory situation.
INTERVIEWER: The dealers want you to hold the inventory rather than them?
SLIGH: That’s right. In those days, an order from big stores would sometimes be many carloads of furniture. Today, I suppose, from some plants in the South, especially, that, perhaps, is still true. But in this area, it is not normally the way it is sold.
INTERVIEWER: They make a selection of pieces of furniture now.
SLIGH: They select the pieces, with some supply behind it. They hope that we will have enough stock that they can get fairly prompt shipment. We do actually set up a group of pieces which we guarantee we can ship in a period of, say, two weeks or something of that kind.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, in fact, you eventually set up a system for that, didn’t you?
INTERVIEWER: In my notes, someplace, I have you gave it an acronym, even. I don’t remember what it is right now. The idea was – or the assurance was that –
SLIGH: I think you are referring to “The Preferred Warehouse Plan” or “PWP.” Under that plan furniture would be shipped within 24 hours of the receipt of the order.
INTERVIEWER: Those markets that were in Grand Rapids must have flooded the town with buyers, at least the two big ones?
SLIGH: We did and that was a problem. That’s why the Pantlind Hotel was built, why the Rowe Hotel was built, and why the Morton House was always filled. Those same hotels ... Manufacturers, mainly furniture manufacturers, I think, bought the bonds to build those hotels and, of course, when the furniture markets weren’t on, the hotels were hard put to fill up the rooms or even get enough business to warrant the hotels. So, the bonds, I think, several times failed. They had to be refinanced. The large manufacturers in Grand Rapids had their own dining rooms, very excellent cooks.
INTERVIEWER: In the hotel they had these?
SLIGH: No, in the factories. The buyers would come in around lunchtime and we’d feed them, give them an excellent meal at noon. Then they’d stay on to buy after that. Or they’d come in the morning and stay until lunchtime. It was a big help to those factories that had the dining rooms, but the out-of-town manufacturers that came in had to find whatever space they could find available. The Waters building was one of those buildings. They did not have, in the main building, any dining rooms. They were, more or less, at a disadvantage. I think way back in those days Colonel Whiting of Chicago, I believe, was hired to come to Grand Rapids and study the market and make a recommendation as to what could be done to make a better market out of it. It is my understanding that when he finished his survey he recommended that a large building be built in Grand Rapids to house not only the Grand Rapids factories but the factories from the South that were coming up here and finding lofts, and so on, in which to display their furniture. I guess the manufacturers in those days that had the dining rooms and the facilities and were getting the buyers, thought that by doing that, they might lose their advantage, in which I think they were mistaken.
The result was that Whiting went back and built the American Furniture Mart in Chicago, which eventually started to drain the Grand Rapids Market. Because of market conditions, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago was made available to furniture manufacturers and that, in turn, took a lot of people from the American Furniture Mart. In the meantime, Grand Rapids was becoming less and less of a market center. We still had a lot of factories here but many of us decided we had to go to Chicago to show our goods. Now that was not true of my father’s factory because we stopped manufacturing there in 1932. When I started with the Charles R. Sligh Company with Mr. Lowry in 1933 here in Holland, we still showed in Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild was still there which included a lot of the factories in Grand Rapids. We continued the market but it was pretty plain that eventually we were going to have to move to Chicago which we finally did. We moved our showroom to Chicago in the American Furniture Mart and then eventually we moved into the Merchandise Mart. Now we’ve had to go down to High Point. There is no furniture market with permanent showrooms in Grand Rapids.
INTERVIEWER: I guess it was as late as 1950 when there were bits and pieces here and talk of revitalizing but it never really got anywhere.
INTERVIEWER: By then the competition was too strong in other places.
SLIGH: It was too strong and my own feeling has always been that Chicago really was the logical place – in the center of the country and available by air, rail and automobile.
INTERVIEWER: It’s hard to call High Point the center of anything.
SLIGH: Yes, but it is today, the center of the home furniture market business in the country, with Dallas second, and I guess Atlanta is trying to get something going there. Grand Rapids couldn’t hold it against Chicago, and I can understand that with Chicago’s hotels.
The people in Chicago, the managers of the buildings over there became a little dictatorial as to when the markets should be held and so on. A lot of the Southern furniture manufacturers decided that that was not to their advantage, and they started moving their showrooms down to their factories in the South, which became sort of the same situation that we had had in Grand Rapids years before, only now the Grand Rapids manufac¬turers were the interlopers coming into the High Point area. They had to scrounge around for proper space, and hotel facilities were terrible, and they had to scatter all around the countryside to find a place to stay. Even now it’s a real problem down there in High Point. We have to rent a house down there every market to house at least our officers and factory people in order to find a place for them to stay.
INTERVIEWER: That’s where it’s all centered now, so you go where the market is.
SLIGH: Go where the business is.
INTERVIEWER: You have no choice in that. In reading the history of the Sligh Company that was written a few years ago, or the Sligh companies I guess is really the fair way to say it, it strikes me that one could make the statement that the 1920s were in some ways both the high point and the low point for your father’s company and what grew out of it.
SLIGH: Right. Yes, the ’20s. Oh, I can’t tell you exactly, but about 1925 or ’26 was about the peak volume year. I know in 1927 my father went to Europe in the summer, and I was then working in the factory, when he left he told me that he’d never seen the furniture business in such a bad state as it was at that time. He said, “When I return there are going to be a lot of changes made in our operation.” Unfortunately, he died on shipboard on the way back from Europe. He never had the opportunity to do any of the things he must have had in his mind.
INTERVIEWER: He didn’t share those thoughts with you before he left? He was still thinking about them?
SLIGH: No, if he had, of course, I was only 21 years old at the time. I had worked in the factory as a laborer for quite a few months and then had gone on the road as a salesman under Harry Story in our New York office. I was working in that area in New England when my father died on shipboard. I was in New York to meet him at the boat, of course, and got word he had died on shipboard. So that made everything much more difficult for the company. In 1932, after a couple of very bad years, although the company was not out of funds, it was very evident that we were losing money rapidly and that it didn’t seem that there was any way to recoup. There was some dissension in the family between the brothers-in-law and my mother and myself.
INTERVIEWER: It was about how to proceed?
SLIGH: Yes, about what should be done. We finally decided that the only thing that could be done was to liquidate the company and at least come out with something, rather than see the whole thing go up in smoke.
INTERVIEWER: How was that done then? You liquidated both the inventory and all of the assets of the company as well?
SLIGH: All the assets were liquidated, everything including the Sligh Realty Company which included the farm, and we were subdividing that farm at the time. Mr. Miller pretty well handled that part of it, and Mr. McClave handled the liquidation of the factory and all the materials and everything that were part of that. Mr. Miller also handled the Florida real estate which consisted of about 10,000 acres of land in Florida, a lot on Miami Beach and an apartment house in Miami, and so on. All of which went at ridiculous prices, of course, as we look back from today. It seemed at the time to be the only thing to do. As part of the liquidation I bought the name Sligh Furniture Company. I paid $5,000 for the name.
INTERVIEWER: What was your thought in doing that? Were you already thinking about …?
SLIGH: The liquidation started in ’32 but went on for several years, and I had to do something, I didn’t have a job anymore. I had to do something. Mr. Lowry had been an employee of the Sligh Furniture Company.
INTERVIEWER: O.W. Lowry?
SLIGH: O.W. Lowry. He and I decided to start looking around to see if we could find a furniture company or a building really to start a furniture company. We looked all over the western part of Michigan, in different towns, thinking that in those days when many people were out of work, cities and small communities might be interested in getting a factory started and either giving the factory to us or giving us one at a very low price. Mr. Lowry at the time was down in the South and had been working as a consultant for several different factories down there. I started looking around up here for a community to get into, and one of the places I came to was Holland, Michigan. I went to the mayor, Mayor Bosch, and talked to him about the possibility of getting a plant there. Baker had just come in here and had taken over the Bush and Lane Piano factory in a very, very favorable deal. I think what they did was traded their old plant in Allegan for the plant here in Holland, which was a wonderful deal for them. It turned out to be a fine deal for Holland. There wasn’t a plant as large as that available when we came, but there was a small plant that was empty and had been working in the woodworking field for several years. At that time, about three years before in 1930, the company that was buying radio cabinets from them suddenly called one day and said, “Don’t ship anymore, we’re going broke.” So the plant was there, had three stockholders, but had no employees, no business, so they had walked out one day and had left everything just as it was – the sawdust on the floor, equipment, machinery. Of course it was belt-driven machinery at that time.
INTERVIEWER: Electric motor or steam yet?
SLIGH: Steam engine. Don Matheson, who was at that time head of the bank here in Holland, which is now First of America – Don Matheson, Sr., was the president of it and a very sharp man. He wanted to help. I saw the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, and they put me in touch with Mr. Matheson. We worked out a plan. The bank had impounded funds and the man, the three men that had owned this plant had owed the bank money. So they took the impounded funds of the city and applied it to the loans of these men and obtained the plant for the Industrial Commission of Holland. Then they made a deal with us and said that we could take over the plant, and that for every $7 of payroll that we created, they would chalk up $1 paid on the price of the plant without any transfer of funds. They gave us seven years in which to come up with the full payment of the plant, which was, I will admit, very low.
INTERVIEWER: How low?
SLIGH: Well, frankly, my memory is a little bit dim on it, but I think it was around $10,000. In about three years we had chalked up enough marks on the paper to own the plant. Of course we operated in it until we built this one.
INTERVIEWER: What was the location of that one? That was here in Holland?
SLIGH: That was on 12th Street – 11th and 12th Streets in Holland. At the time, I made a change after Mr. Lowry had left. I owned the property myself and rented it to the company. I gave that property to Hope College and it’s now their art center. They’ve done a very nice job of changing it into an art center, leaving much of the old factory as it was and adding some new features that made it very good for their purpose. We built this plant out here.
INTERVIEWER: From the time that your father died in 1927, the brothers-in-law, your mother, and you were the owners?
SLIGH: Norman McClave was the president of the company at that time. Milton Miller was the secretary and vice president. They made me the treasurer, which at that time didn’t mean much.
INTERVIEWER: You were a very young man.
SLIGH: I was 21 when my dad died. I went to college for about six months.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you go?
SLIGH: Colgate. I came back and was married. I have 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren at the moment. If I’d had a full college education, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
INTERVIEWER: You’d have started a little later. By the 1930s, you were out on your own, and worked out a pretty good deal with the city of Holland.
SLIGH: Very good. All the people in that plant that had been working there, none of them had been working for three years.
INTERVIEWER: Did you hire back the workers?
SLIGH: We hired many of them back. We had a very fine relationship with all of our workers in the plant. We started them out at 35 cents an hour, and Mr. Lowry and I were getting $35 a week, and went on from there.
INTERVIEWER: How did you select the product line?
SLIGH: Well that was interesting. We got drawings of a maple bedroom suite that had been very successful from the Sligh Furniture Company. Macy, R.H. Macy Company, in New York had handled that suite and liked it very much. Mr. Harry Story, who had worked for my dad’s factory, was the first salesman I hired when we started down here. He went to Macy even before we had actually gotten the deed for the plant and sold them two carloads of maple bedroom furniture.
INTERVIEWER: That would have been a nice telegram to get.
SLIGH: Very, very nice. We got a very nice letter from Mr. Shaughnessy, who was then the buyer of R. H. Macy’s, saying that he had always greatly appreciated the product that the Sligh Furniture Company shipped to them and they were very happy that we were going to be in the business and that he would give us whatever business he could. That was the way we got into that. Then we made other bedroom furniture designed ourselves.
INTERVIEWER: At this point you didn’t have a designer on staff as such?
SLIGH: At that point we didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: How did you build up your…?
SLIGH: The maple bedroom furniture we had the drawings and everything for that. We had a detail maker that had been employed by my father’s company. I went to see him one day to see if he would design a Louis XVI bedroom suite for us. He took me upstairs to his drawing board where he worked and his son was up there. His son had gone through the 10th grade in school and never worked for anybody, but had a real skill. I looked at his drawings and his designs that he was working on and decided that he had real potential. I told him that although I couldn’t pay him anything at the time, if he wanted to come with us I would take him around on my trips and let him go to the stores and see what was being sold and so on. We paid his expenses on the trips and eventually we would pay him a salary, although a small one. So he accepted that.
INTERVIEWER: What was his name?
SLIGH: His name was Herbert TenHave, who eventually became the head designer for Baker Furniture Company. He worked for us for many years. He did a very good job. We sent him to the Art Institute in New York for a year. He did two years work in that year, and when he came back he was our designer. He continued in that capacity until about 1956 or ’57. He worked for us not only here but also when we took over the Grand Rapids Chair Company. Then Baker bought the Grand Rapids Chair Company from us. He decided (he lived in Grand Rapids) to stay with Baker full-time rather than work one week a month for us and three weeks a month for Baker. So he then became the primary head designer for Baker. He had been our designer pretty much exclusively. Once in awhile, we had a freelance designer do something special, but Herb was our designer for many years. He did a very good job. He designed our group at the chair company which was called “Cross Country,” which was a very successful group. I met with a lady from House Beautiful magazine, Elizabeth Gordon, the editor, I think, of that magazine, and she agreed to work with us on developing a line of furniture that was especially suitable to a ranch house of that day, which was the main type of housing. She had another woman there that was going throughout the country looking at various homes and so on, especially in the West. I arranged to have Herb TenHave go with her on that trip, and then when he came back, he started working on a design that would suit Elizabeth Gordon and me for the Grand Rapids Chair Company to produce. He did that, and House Beautiful ran, I think it was six or eight or 10 pages, in their magazine on this new group, and it was very successful. Herb, in addition to that, did all of our other designing at the Grand Rapids Chair Company. He designed all of our desks and other things that we made at Charles R. Sligh Company, and eventually the Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company, which we had started in 1940 when we bought a plant in Zeeland. In that plant we made a lower-priced desk line than we made in the Charles R. Sligh Company in Holland. Herb also designed for that company.
INTERVIEWER: The desk was one of the, if not the, first products that came out of the Charles R. Sligh Company, too, right, the kneehole desk?
SLIGH: Bill Lowry was over in Chicago one time. His family lived in that area so he’d go over there from time to time. He was in the store one day in Chicago and asked a buyer what he needed and what he needed at a price. The buyer said he’d like to have a knee-hole desk that was lower-priced than desks were at that particular time. So Bill worked on that and came up with a desk which we made and sold to the dealers for $14 or $13.50 if they bought a quantity of six or something like that. Everybody told us a desk couldn’t be made at that price, which was so far under everybody. But we did make it and it became very popular. Then we began to get some competition. So then we brought out another desk for $11.95. I had a platform built on the back of my Plymouth sedan and I put the desk on it. It had a canvas cover on it to cover the desk, and I took that around. I’d carry the thing into the store and show the buyer and I took orders for it.
INTERVIEWER: How wide an area did you cover with the desk on the back of your sedan?
SLIGH: Well mostly in the Midwest throughout Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and around.
INTERVIEWER: This was in the ’30s?
SLIGH: In the ’30s, yes.
INTERVIEWER: It was cheaper to go around like that?
SLIGH: Well, it was an unusual way and created a lot of attention. I went into a store in Dayton, Ohio, and carried the desk into the store. I took it up to the fifth floor, I think, the furniture department, and carried it to the buyer’s office and showed it to him. He wanted to know how I got it in there. I told him I carried it in. He said, “Oh, I’d love to buy that desk, it’s a great buy, but I haven’t got any open to buy.” He said, “I really, really need it, but I just don’t have any open to buy. Wait a minute, let me call the merchandise manager.” So he called the merchandise manager. The merchandise manager came down to his office and John Young, who was the buyer, said, “Chuck Sligh just carried this desk in.”
INTERVIEWER: You carried it in all by yourself. It was light enough to do that?
SLIGH: Yes. John said, “I want it, but I don’t have any open to buy.” The merchandise man said, “What do you mean? He actually carried this desk in here and brought it up to the fifth floor to show you?” He said, “Yes, he did.” And he said, “Well in that case, he deserves an order. You can buy it.” So he bought, I forget, 29 or 39 of them. I got a lot of, well, you know, it created a lot of attention. Those two desks were really the start.
INTERVIEWER: One of them was called the Thompson Desk at one time?
SLIGH: At first, we didn’t want to put the Sligh name on this inexpensive desk. So we thought we’d call that the Thompson Desk. We had it in a room at the back of our showroom separate from the other merchandise. Finally it became so popular, we were glad to include it as a Sligh product. We have the original desk that we made here in our factory. That really was the start of our desk business. Then we branched out into other designs and finally got out a very high-grade line of six desks that were especially good. One of those is one that we gave to Mamie Eisenhower and Ike when he was running for president and which eventually went into the Gettysburg Farm. My wife and I visited Mamie down there, and she showed us the desk very proudly. She said, “Well, when I go, that desk is going to Julie, Nixon’s daughter.” My wife, Betty, and I, were the last ones to visit Mamie at the Gettysburg Farm there on Sunday. We had lunch with her that day and spent about three hours with her. She died that week. She was a wonderful person. I enjoyed being with her very much. She loved that desk and she passed it onto Julie. Then the people that are in charge of the Gettysburg Farm, which is now a national shrine or whatever you call them, they called us and asked us if we could possibly send them another desk.
We sent down from here another desk – we didn’t have one like the one Mamie Eisenhower had and enjoyed so much – but we sent her another that was sort of similar and that is still there at the Gettysburg Farm where the original was. She was very, very pleasant while we were there. Mamie loved that desk very much and had all of Ike’s pictures on it. She was very pleased with it.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve had a chance to meet a lot of different, interesting national figures like that. We’re going to talk about that a little bit, but I want to focus back on the company right now a little bit more. One of the things that strikes me as a little interesting and I’ll address it specifically is that you and Mr. Lowry divided the responsibilities of the Charles R. Sligh Company very specifically. If you were driving around the Midwest with a desk on the back of your car, you were obviously in the marketing and sales side of it. He was back on production, was he not?
SLIGH: That’s right. He was a graduate of Northwestern and also MIT and a very capable, very smart man. I was president of the company and in charge of sales and administration. He was in charge of manufacturing the product. We got along from 1933 until 1968, when I finally bought him out. We had our differences, as everybody does, but we were really close and good friends, and I think we worked well together, part of it certainly because we did have very different interests and stepped into our own niche rather than each of us trying to run both sides of the business. We had a very good relationship. I bought him out in 1968. He had a son, but we had spun-off a little company in Grand Rapids – from Sligh-Lowry. The little company was called Ply-Curves, which made curved plywood. We spun that off, sold it to Bill Lowry, Jr. O.W., Sr. had no interest especially in maintaining his interest in the company. He had a daughter, but she wasn’t interested, of course, in coming into the business. I had three sons. Two of them were already working in the business when I bought Mr. Lowry out, so that it seemed the logical thing to do. Of course the name Sligh Furniture Company we had never used except in a broad way – advertising and so on – the Grand Rapids Chair Company, the Charles R. Sligh Company, and the Sligh-Lowry Company would advertise and just use the words Sligh Furniture and so on.
INTERVIEWER: You were continuing to use the Grand Rapids Chair Company name during this time?
SLIGH: Yes. Eventually when I bought Bill out, then I changed the name of the Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company, which was then the operating company. We had changed the Charles R. Sligh Company into a holding company, into real estate and so on. I changed the name to Sligh Furniture Company, which hurt Mr. Lowry considerably, but he finally got over it. He, I think, wanted the name Sligh-Lowry to continue, but …
INTERVIEWER: He perhaps felt he had some investment in its establishment.
SLIGH: I had paid $5,000 for the name back in 1933 and held it all those years. I thought that with two sons in the business and I was in the business, that it would be a good idea to use that name, which we had done, of course, from back then on up.
INTERVIEWER: While I’m thinking of it, let’s take a couple names that you’ve mentioned and have you describe as best you can their character, their personalities, people you’ve been associated with. The first person I’d like to do that with is your father. If someone said describe him, what characteristics would you say he had?
SLIGH: He died when I was 21. He was a very fine man, I thought. He was born in 1850. He worked for the Foster & Stevens hardware store in Grand Rapids and had wanted to buy into that operation, but Foster and Stevens had sons of their own that they wanted to bring into the business so they didn’t want to sell him stock in it. Eventually he went to work, as I understand it, for Berkey and Gay Company, first in the finishing room. He became a salesman for Berkey and Gay and was one of the, certainly one of the, first to sell furniture by photograph. Otherwise, they used to take a carload of furniture down to, say, St. Louis, and call the buyers and arrange beforehand that they’d have the buyers there. They’d sell the furniture right out of the car. He worked for Berkey and Gay from, I think it was 1874 or ’75 to 1880, when with financial help from his brother-in-law, Lewis Hawkins, he started the Sligh Furniture Company. We have a picture of the original – I guess it may be in the book – the original plant. It was very successful. Mr. Hawkins had been a very wealthy man but lost all of his money in other ventures, and unfortunately became very poor. He lived with his daughter for several years afterward, Julia Hawkins March Hart. My dad then controlled the company and he brought in his sons-in-law. I frankly don’t know if they bought stock or not, but they did buy stock over a period of time after they came to work for him. As I mentioned, Mr. Norman McClave also had two brothers, Irving McClave and Milton McClave, that worked for the company as salesmen, and then eventually both worked for me when I came to Holland.
INTERVIEWER: So they came with you?
SLIGH: Most of the salesmen that worked for the old company, the old plant, came with me when I started in Holland and sold for me in Holland or around the country.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember your father as a man with a sense of humor, a lively conversationalist, a quiet fellow?
SLIGH: He had a sense of humor and he was a very hard worker. He was a very patriotic man, very civic-minded. He ran for governor of Michigan in 1896 as a silver candidate and lost to Pingree, whom he later told me was the best governor Michigan ever had. When Teddy Roosevelt came on the scene, he changed from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. He knew Teddy’s son at Plattsburg Training Camp during World War I. About 1922, I think it was, ’20 or ’22, he became a senator in Michigan legislature. He was in there for a couple of years and then ran for the Republican nomination for governor, unfortunately in a year when they had, I don’t know how many, but I guess four or six candidates for the Republican nomination, among them was C.S. Mott of Flint and many others. Groesbeck was the candidate. In those days if you won the nomination on the Republican ticket, you were in. Groesbeck was the big candidate at that time, opposed by these four of five others. The vote was split badly and, although my dad did very well in the number of counties he won, he did not win Wayne County and the eastern part of the state, and he was defeated. He was a very hard worker. Unfortunately, we never found a history he was supposedly writing of the furniture industry. Many evenings he’d go down, we had a billiard room in the basement in our house on Fulton Street with a big desk down there, and work on this history. We never found the history, and what happened, I don’t know. There are conjectures as to what happened to it, but nobody ever knew for sure. As far as we could find out, none of the relatives knew where it went, which was too bad because he spent an awful lot of time on it. He was very patriotic. I’ll show you a clear picture. He went to Plattsburg Training Camp during World War I in which you had to be 55 or younger to get in.
INTERVIEWER: Wait a minute now, you said he was born when?
SLIGH: We’re coming to that. He went there and got in. His picture is in that picture of people that were there at Plattsburg. All in uniform. Somebody finally told on him. He was 66 years old instead of 55. So they kicked him out.
INTERVIEWER: This was going to be a reserve for World War I, I take it?
SLIGH: Officer training. After that –
INTERVIEWER: That does say something about his character, doesn’t it?
SLIGH: His father was killed in the Civil War. His older brother was a captain in the Civil War, as was his father. Both of them were captains. The brother went in when he was 16. My dad had a family during the Spanish-American War. He had three daughters and a business and everything, and didn’t go at that time, but he was always determined to get into World War I. He didn’t make it for the reason I mentioned. After they got him out of the Plattsburg Training Camp, he did go to Washington as a major in the — well they bought lumber for the Allied Air Force in World War I, they bought spruce lumber for that.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder if he was involved in — there was an outfit called the Grand Rapids Airplane Company, formed during World War I by several furniture manufacturers in Grand Rapids that actually built the parts, everything but the motor for a bomber plane. I wonder if his company was involved in that.
SLIGH: I didn’t know about that, but perhaps that’s one of the things he was buying the lumber for. He was a major. However, he found, at least in his opinion, there was some skullduggery going on in that field, and he was very much upset about it. Colonel Deeds of Dayton, Ohio, was my dad’s superior and he thought that Deeds was connected in some way with this scandal. I guess there was quite a lot of publicity on it during the war, right after the war, investigations and so on. So he resigned at that time because he just didn’t like what was going on. He came back to Grand Rapids then. We lived in Washington for a year during that period.
INTERVIEWER: The company was running itself almost.
SLIGH: He had two sons-in-law there.
INTERVIEWER: They were doing that while he was serving his country in another capacity. Interesting man, a very interesting man.
SLIGH: He also ran for mayor of Grand Rapids, I think. I think the year I was born. But he didn’t make that either.
INTERVIEWER: So he obviously had strong convictions if he was determined –
SLIGH: He was written up in a state publication here about last year I think in connection with trying to get the government to make Grand River a navigable body of water. In fact his father came to Grand Rapids from Rochester, New York, via water, landed in Grand Rapids from Rochester. His mother came the following year by train. His father was, I think, in the clothing business in Grand Rapids during those years – 1837 to the time he was killed in the Civil War.
INTERVIEWER: Your family has long been connected with this West Michigan area.
SLIGH: From 1837 until now.
INTERVIEWER: That’s 151 years. A fairly interesting history. We’ve gotten ourselves diverged just a little bit, which is fine.
SLIGH: Bring me back.
INTERVIEWER: I took you off in that direction, so I guess it’s my job to bring you back. We really haven’t finished the ’30s and the founding of the Charles R. Sligh Company. You established the company. The product line, when we were talking about it, consisted of a bedroom suite, a couple desks and —
SLIGH: First we started with a bedroom suite. Then Herb TenHave, whom I’d hired as our designer, designed the first bedroom suite that we designed and manufactured. That was very successful.
INTERVIEWER: What were your directions to Herb as far as the type of design you were looking for?
SLIGH: We wanted something different for that particular suite and something that was modern in style. So he designed this bedroom suite. We made it in two finishes. One was walnut with a zebrawood band around the top. The other was a white finish, an enamel finish, with that same design. That was very successful. In fact, my father never saved the first piece he made. He did not preserve it, as far as I know. I wanted to be sure that we did. We still have the desk, the first desk we made, the first one that came out of the plant. Then I had the first bedroom suite we designed and made. I had that in my home, which unfortunately the whole house burned down and burned that with it, and burned the maple bedroom suite that we had made, and another suite that my father had made in his plant. I just picked up the other day one that was made in the plant, my father’s plant, in 1925. An antique dealer called from Grand Rapids and said he had this bedroom suite and wondered if we might be interested in buying it. My wife was in Grand Rapids and went to see it. She loved it, so we bought it. Now it’s in our bedroom here in Holland. But that’s the only thing that my father made that I have and a very nice one.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t have any of the original bedroom suites that you made here then anymore because of the fire?
SLIGH: No, because of the fire. That fire did us in.
In the spring of 1933, I guess 1932; I was out of a job until the fall of 1933.
INTERVIEWER: Desks were a popular item for you.
INTERVIEWER: A good, successful item. When you decided to found the company, did you have it in mind that desks were going to be the –
SLIGH: No, none. The thing we were going to do was make bedroom furniture. But the plant was very small and difficult to make bedroom furniture and have a place to store enough of it. We were getting our orders in quantities that we knew exactly what we’d make if we were getting two carloads – if we had an order for two carloads we might make two and a quarter carloads, thinking we’d probably sell the others to somebody else. The same with desks. We started out with that first order that was something like 50 desks. So we decided to make 100 and hoped that we could sell the other 50, which we not only did, but we’ve been selling them ever since. Still are, but the business now has changed considerably.
INTERVIEWER: But there was a fair period of time in there when desks were the main product line.
SLIGH: The main product. That was true until we took over the Grand Rapids Chair Company
INTERVIEWER: That was in the ’50s?
SLIGH: Yes, well, no that was ’45 or ’46.
INTERVIEWER: ’45 or ’46, you’re right. It was desks that got you through the Depression?
SLIGH: Well, desks, and they crowded out the bedroom suite idea as we got going on it.
INTERVIEWER: What led to the decision in 1940 to form Sligh-Lowry Company?
SLIGH: The plant became available in Zeeland, Dutch Woodcraft Shop. We went down there and looked it all over and found that we could buy it at a very reasonable price. Mr. Lowry and I got 55 percent of the stock for a total of $5,000. Then our salesmen (most of them), our lawyer, our designer, and others decided they’d like some of the stock, so they bought 55 percent of the stock. Mr. George Piper came to the furniture market that January just when we had bought the company. I’d never met him before. He came into our showroom – our salesman had suggested that we meet him and that he was a very fine man – a very fine gentlemen and he asked me if I would take him to our home here in Holland as a guest over the weekend if he came to the market. I said I would be glad to. On the way to Holland we stopped. I said I’d like to stop just a minute and see how they’re getting along cleaning up the new building that we had just bought. I told him that we were starting this company, the Sligh-Lowry Company. He went through the plant with me, and then we got back in the car and drove on down to Holland – this was in January during the market. As we walked into our house, in the entrance area he said, “I’d like to buy some stock in your company.” I said, “Well, gosh, it’s all sold, its all spoken for.” He said, “Well isn’t there some that I could get.” I said, “One of our salesmen bought $5,000 worth and he might – I don’t know, but he might be willing to sell some of that to you.” He said, “Well I’d like to buy it. In fact, I’d buy the whole 5,000, and I’d be glad to pay him 10 percent extra.” Though he hadn’t even bought the stock yet. So I called him up right then from my house to Chicago, or Grand Rapids I guess it was, at the market. That was Irving McClave, our salesman in the Midwest. I told him, “Irv, I’ve got a man here, George Piper, that would like to buy some stock. Would you be willing to sell some at 10 percent profit?” He hadn’t paid for any yet. He said, “Well, yes, I’ll sell him $4,000 worth for $4,400.” I told Mr. Piper, and he said, “That’s fine. I’ll be glad to do that,” which he did. He was in the furniture business, he imported furniture from France, Jacques Bodart Inc. He eventually wanted to make a product in this country, in addition to the furniture he imported. He wanted somebody to make it. We decided we would make it for him. We made Jacques Bodart, or rather we made Bodart furniture. Jacques Bodart was the import, Bodart Furniture was the one we made here in Grand Rapids. We made it in our Zeeland plant. Then finally he took part of one floor or half a floor of Berkey and Gay and started making this. It was just an empty factory at the time.
INTERVIEWER: The factory in Grand Rapids?
SLIGH: Yes, he started manufacturing Bodart there. We were close friends for many, many years. We weren’t paying any dividends because we were putting everything right back into the business. Finally, some of the boys began to want some dividends. So we bought their stock at book, or transferred it into preferred stock which would pay dividends. Mr. Piper was one of those that was in that deal. So finally we bought up that preferred stock, and Mr. Lowry and I owned the company completely.
INTERVIEWER: Eventually you then bought it.
SLIGH: Eventually we transferred the manufacturing out of the Charles R. Sligh Company, to the Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company. The Charles R. Sligh Company became a holding company with stocks, and real estate, and the factories we operated in, and the old pickle factory – or not pickle factory – but the sugar beet factory here in Holland that we had bought – that all became part of Charles R. Sligh Company. When we finally – I took over all the real estate and Mr. Lowry took over the … we divided it equally. Mr. Lowry took over the stocks and so on, which I’m sure he thought was the best deal at the time. It turned out that it wasn’t because the pickle, or the sugar beet factory and the property down by the lake which the factory owned and our plant and so on became more valuable than the stocks. I traded the waterfront property, and the sugar beet property, and paid the city $5,000 for the 20 acres that we have here now.
INTERVIEWER: So that’s how you got your current site out here now?
SLIGH: Yes. We got a little off base here.
INTERVIEWER: What we did is a good sort of chronology of what Sligh-Lowry started out as and what it became. You manufactured a little for Bodart down there. What else were you manufacturing in that facility?
SLIGH: We were manufacturing desks, again, basically.
INTERVIEWER: So you just needed more space?
SLIGH: We wanted more business, and Bodart gave us more business. In addition, we made some bookcases and things like that, but it was mainly desks – both plants. We made some tables at one time. We were getting into the table business but found that wasn’t as good a field for us as the desks and bookcases. Of course now we’ve gone into wall units, and office furniture, and all that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Which is all a post-World War II phenomenon, but in the meantime, you no sooner started Sligh-Lowry then you were confronted with World War II and all the problems that created for furniture.
SLIGH: Well, yes. In Zeeland, we started making war things. We made wooden platforms that they put piles of material on.
SLIGH: Pallets. We were in the pallet business.
INTERVIEWER: That’s kind of a come-down for a furniture manufacturer, isn’t it?
SLIGH: Well, it kept us going and kept us eating. That’s important, too. We were able to keep going on that. We made some desks. Price controls came in which were very difficult too, and one of our biggest competitors during those years was a desk manufacturer that had never been in desks at all. It was just one of the quirks of the rulings and so on. He was able to get in the business and price his stuff higher than we could price because of price controls. We were competing with him – in those days it wasn’t a matter of how low you sell a product, it was a case of how much can you charge for it. He was able to charge more than we were, and therefore, he was also able to make more desks than we were because we had to get some more work. I became the president then of Holland Industries. Baker was part of the Grand Rapids Industries. The furniture companies, and the Zeeland Casket Company, and others were members of the Holland Industries, of which I was president for several years. Our company was also in that.
INTERVIEWER: How did Holland Industries work then?
SLIGH: We didn’t have the control that Grand Rapids Industries did, but we had this group of factories that wanted war work. My job was to get war work for them and parcel it out if they wanted to do it. That was really the way it worked. It was sort of a lightly bound set-up.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a legal entity? Did it exist as a separate legal entity?
SLIGH: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: How did you go about getting war work for them?
SLIGH: We’d just go out after it and make bids on different products. We were starting to make some sleds. During the very end we were getting into the sled business. We never knew exactly why or what they were going to do with these things. They didn’t tell us what they were going to be used for – just what they were going to do, I still don’t know. It wasn’t a great big deal. Grand Rapids made the glider parts. That was really a terrible thing. I mean from the standpoint of the poor boys who had to ride in them. An awful lot of people were killed in those.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, that was one of those ideas that didn’t work real well.
SLIGH: Not through any fault of the glider, but just the idea – coming in at night in these things and hitting God-knows-what. On the way in, I guess if they came in daylight, they were sitting ducks.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have to go to Washington during those years to track down possible contracts?
SLIGH: Yes, Bill and I went down one time together to see if the armed services wanted either one of us. If so, the other one was going to stay and try to run the business, but the services weren’t very much interested in either one of us. So we stayed in the business.
INTERVIEWER: You and your father have something in common then. It sounded like in both of your cases your ages were such that you had passed the point where the military was all that interested.
SLIGH: I had a draft card for a few months, but then I became too old. I had a family with children, the business, and everything. I never tried to get out of the draft, but they never called me.
INTERVIEWER: They were calling younger men at that point. Do you remember any particularly unusual product that you ended up making here during those war years? You hear stories all the time about companies making parachutes and just about anything they could lay their hands on.
SLIGH: We never got into anything like that. Beach Gill was the parachute man in Grand Rapids, who was a friend of mine. Also, we’d bid on furniture. We never got any because we got so upset because they were designing this stuff and putting out specifications which required, for instance, mahogany core, mahogany veneer, cross-banding veneers, and mahogany base veneers, and mahogany edges, and all that. We said, “Look this is ridiculous. There’s a war going on so why should we be spending all this money for officer’s furniture when a gumwood or a particle core or any number of things would be just as good. All this is made this way. None of this is mahogany all the way through.” They were just being ridiculous about it. We raised the devil about it with the result that we never got any business.
INTERVIEWER: They wanted, in their minds, what constituted quality material.
SLIGH: Beyond all reason. Nobody made furniture that way.
INTERVIEWER: So whoever was writing the specifications for them didn’t know what there were doing?
SLIGH: Well, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they knew what they were doing, but they certainly were doing something that was totally unnecessary and very expensive for the government. We raised enough hell about it that we weren’t very popular when it came to getting orders for furniture.
INTERVIEWER: So you didn’t make furniture for the government?
INTERVIEWER: Did you have problems getting enough workers during those years?
SLIGH: No, not especially as I remember it, because most of our workers, or an awful lot of them at that time, were older people. Now we’re getting a lot of younger people in the business, but in those days the furniture workers were mainly people that had been in the business for a long time and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Some women come into the factories? In some cases that happened?
SLIGH: We’ve always had some women.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t have to go out and recruit women?
INTERVIEWER: Your biggest problem was getting contracts, finding work?
INTERVIEWER: How about materials? A good deal of the materials were rationed.
SLIGH: Yes, that was all rationed, too, and if you didn’t have it – and the ruling as to the price on furniture made it very, very tough. As I said, this other fellow that had come into the business after the war started and after all the regulations were in, someone new in the business could raise his price up to a level for which we could not get approval. As soon as the war was over the guy went out of business. He couldn’t compete.
INTERVIEWER: He sure could for a little while, though.
SLIGH: Yes, he could compete in getting higher prices, but he couldn’t compete in selling to the public for the low price.
INTERVIEWER: During the war it didn’t matter that much. Demand was such that if you had the product people would buy it. The law of supply and demand was not operable for a while there.
INTERVIEWER: Did I read in one place that you also, to get some raw materials right around here to build some desks, found a small wooded area?
SLIGH: Yes, Bill did that. He got some wood that way and had it cut up and so on.
INTERVIEWER: That would have been hardwood that you needed for your desks?
SLIGH: Well, yes, hardwood that we used. I remember we also had a fellow that would go out to get these trees and grade them. Bill one time took him out, and I came back in later in the day, and Bill had run into a train with the car. I said, “My God, Bill, how? How in the world did you happen to do that? Why would you run into the side of a train?” Bill said, “Well, I blew my horn!” He had a perfect sense of humor.
INTERVIEWER: The train didn’t get out of the way, didn’t give him the right-of-way?
SLIGH: Didn’t move, at least, out of the way.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your company’s position coming into the war? That had to be the next big period in the company’s history.
SLIGH: Yes, well, of course, we were still small. We weren’t feeling any pain.
INTERVIEWER: You had enough business so that …
SLIGH: Yes, we were going along all right. Right after the war there was a time when price wasn’t important. When price control went off, that’s when we brought out our best line of desks at the time. We brought out six desks at the top, the price was $250 for a kidney-shaped desk. That’s the desk that we gave to the Eisenhowers. We’ve got one here in the plant, someplace, I don’t know where they put it now. That was another thing that we saved, one of those.
INTERVIEWER: Was it earlier than this that you had built that “Aqua” desk?
SLIGH: Yes, that was when we were making these desks that didn’t have dust-proof partitions. They were very good buys, but they didn’t have dust-proof partitions and a couple other things. The buyers would come in, they’d pull it out and say, “This doesn’t have a dust-proof partition.” There was a desk for maybe $29 or so. So I got a hold of Herb TenHave one day, and I said, “Let‘s have some fun now. We’ll build a desk and we’ll put dust-proof partitions in it. Not only will they be dust-proof partitions, they will be satinwood veneer on the edges and on both sides of the partitions. We’ll make all the drawers satinwood, and on and on.” I said, “We’ll do it so that nobody can criticize the way they were built, nor the materials with which it was built.” So we did. We made this oval desk, and we had a fishbowl on each end of it. We had a radio in it, and we had a secret drawer in the center, you could push a little button and the drawer would open. It was a beautiful desk. We’ve still got that, too.
INTERVIEWER: You never sold it?
SLIGH: Never sold it, but we got lots of advertising out of it.
INTERVIEWER: Did anyone try to buy it?
SLIGH: No. We charged, I think it was, $500. Something like that today, it would cost several thousand dollars to build that desk. But we had it and had it at the market, and people could come in, look it all over. They’d say, “How much is it?” “$500.” “$500!” I said, “Well, look, it’s got dust-proof partitions.” It’s got all this stuff that they’d been asking for. I said, “You can get this, with all this stuff, or you can buy a regular desk for $29.50.” So it was a terrific ad, and it was so unusual, and so good that we had stores that would pay for it to be shipped to the stores and they would display it in their window or on the floor. They’d ship it back, and we’d ship it to Macy’s or Marshall Field, all these stores would want to have it as an eye-catcher, you know. It worked out beautifully. We got tremendous advertising on it.
INTERVIEWER: I bet it generated a lot of news stories, that desk with the fishbowl on it. With all the interest in aquariums in offices these days, you’d better think about bringing that desk back out.
SLIGH: The only trouble was we were in the desk business and not in the aquarium business. We had it on the floor of the showroom and we had goldfish in it. Every couple of days the goldfish would die. We didn’t think that you had to have air going into these bowls and all that sort of stuff. It was sort of a messy aquarium.
INTERVIEWER: You’d have to redesign the desk a little if you were going to bring it back.
SLIGH: We had a gal there that was a showgirl from Chicago that – I was president of the Furniture Salesmen Club in Grand Rapids at the time and we had these shows every night at the Pantlind Hotel.
INTERVIEWER: This was during one of the furniture markets?
SLIGH: Yes, for several years we did this. We had this new desk, and we got this gal to come in. She was a very statuesque blond. We had her sitting on the desk or standing on the desk or something, photographed, and we got publicity. Then another way – our best publicity in those years were little gadgets like that, for instance carrying that desk on the back of the Plymouth on a rack, you know. Then another one was I had a trailer built, the days when trailers were not around – it was very unusual to see a trailer – I had this one built. It was very nice. It had a nice little living room up in front with a linoleum map of the state of Michigan with a star to show where Holland was and so on. We had several pieces of our furniture, a desk and some chairs and a little cocktail table and so on in the living room area. We had hot and cold running water and a system that was called a winged home – the back wings would come out the side and we had a bed on each side, a 4-foot, 6-inch size bed, and a couple upper bunks. We could sleep six or eight people in the thing, but we never did except once with my family. The rest of the time I traveled in that trailer, all through New England and the Midwest. The son of one of the owners of the original Thompson Manufacturing Company that we took over was working his way through dental school, or I mean through the University of Michigan – he became an ear, nose and throat man in Grand Rapids. He was working his way through school so I took him with me to make the beds, serve drinks to customers and make sandwiches for them and so on. I called the Davis Company in Chicago one day, I called the buyer, and told them I was coming over and would like them to see my trailer and the furniture and have lunch with me. I said the only trouble is I don’t know where to park this thing. He said, “Oh, I know the fellow who owns all the parking lots down here. I’ll call him up and get it set up for you.” So he did. He was the buyer for the Davis Company, which was our first desk customer. He came down and he thought that was just great, you know. I swear for 20 years afterward every time I saw him he had to talk to me about this trailer. It brought us tremendous publicity among the buyers for a song, really because it served as my hotel room when I went. I used that for two or three years anyway. I wrote a little diary here of a little trip I took, a sales trip. That’s a picture of the trailer in the back of that. I found out that things like that in those days would get you an awful lot of publicity which was very nearly free.
INTERVIEWER: Would that kind of publicity work today at all do you think?
SLIGH: I don’t think so, really. It might, but I’m not going to try it. No, I think today it’s more sophisticated. I think the buyers are smarter. Just a different feeling somehow. In those days, in the Depression, things of that kind went over big. They liked that, but today they want a different ... They want to be taken to the best hotel and fed there.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you got attention. Maybe that’s what it was – people wanted something a little out of the ordinary in their lives. The daily routine was a little unpleasant sometimes.
SLIGH: The best thing we had going for us, which I’ve never forgotten when we started, was the name – Sligh. My dad had done a wonderful job. The company was known all over the country … I don’t know, I’d say, probably hundreds of hotels all over the country. In New England you could hardly walk into a nice hotel that didn’t have Sligh furniture. Until just a little while ago … I didn’t know about it or I would have done something about it, not too long ago Bob (Robert Sligh) got a call from somebody in New York and said they had 1,140 bedroom suites and wondered if we would want them. Unfortunately, Bob said no. I say unfortunately; I’d be happy if we hadn’t. He said no, we didn’t want them. They came from the Astor Hotel. We furnished the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and many other hotels in New England and, in fact, all over the United States. A lot of them we furnished two or three times. They’d keep furniture for 10 to 15 years and order replacements.
INTERVIEWER: All of the name recognition, it was out there waiting for you.
SLIGH: All our dealers
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t have exclusive dealers at all? These were dealers who dealt in –
SLIGH: Berkey and Gay was the one that had most of the exclusive dealers. They’d go into town and sign the dealer up and say, “OK, you’re the Berkey and Gay dealer in this town.” Nobody else would get it. We’d go in and sell other dealers and there wouldn’t be much if any with … Berkey and Gay. We would be in business with the other big stores in town.
INTERVIEWER: That’s still the case. Today you don’t have exclusive dealers?
SLIGH: No, we don’t. I won’t tell you we don’t have any because I’m not now close enough to that end to know. I’m now chairman emeritus.
INTERVIEWER: There’s only one way you can get to that level.
SLIGH: Yes, and I’ve only been that for a few months. Sometime you’ve got to lay off. For many years now, I really haven’t called many of the shots, though I controlled the company until a few months ago. My son, Bob has, done, I think, a wonderful job and I hope he can continue to do it.
INTERVIEWER: This interview is being conducted by Gordon Olson with Charles Sligh, Jr. on Tuesday, September 20, 1988, in Mr. Sligh’s office at the Sligh Furniture Company in Holland, Michigan. The interview is for the Furniture Manufacturers’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the interview is to discuss with Mr. Sligh his career in the furniture manufacturing industry and his perspectives on some of the significant developments that have taken place in that industry over the past fifty and more years that he has been involved.
We got through World War II in our last session.
I think we need to talk a little bit about what happened in the post-war period. What was the situation for the company once the war was over? Was the company in pretty good shape? It had gotten through the war in very good shape?
SLIGH: Yes. One thing that I don’t think I mentioned before was the Grand Rapids Chair Company and the fact that I arranged, with the help of Howard Sluyter (he was in the factoring business in Grand Rapids at that time), and through his suggestion, I made an arrangement with him and Mr. Baker, not Hollis Baker but Bert Baker, he was with the Grand Rapids Industries during the war. He and I got into the Grand Rapids Chair Company and I arranged to get 55 percent of the stock. The other 45 percent went to various people; some of them were former stockholders in the Grand Rapids Chair Company.
INTERVIEWER: What was the …?
SLIGH: It had been in Grand Rapids Industries and had been going through the war in that capacity.
INTERVIEWER: Grand Rapids Industries had been formed for various war contracts, like Holland.
SLIGH: Yes, right. Mr. Dexter, who was the secretary/treasurer of the Grand Rapids Chair Company, and the head of the Imperial Furniture Company, Stuart Foote, was the president of Grand Rapids Chair Company, at this time Mr. Dexter was president of the Imperial Furniture Company, a family arrangement. They agreed that Julius Amberg, who was also a stockholder and a lawyer in Grand Rapids, a very successful one, they all agreed that Mr. Bert Baker and I could buy those shares for $1 a share. The rest of them paid $5 a share for the other 45 percent. We took over control of the company. Mr. Bill Lowry hadn’t been anxious to go into that deal at first, but when he found out what a good deal it was, he decided he wanted to go in. So he and Mr. Baker had, I think it was, less than a quarter of the stock each, and I had about 55 percent. I had control of the company in that period. We produced there the bedroom furniture, dining room furniture, living room furniture. It was not connected directly with the Charles R. Sligh Company or the Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company. It was separate.
INTERVIEWER: It produced under the Grand Rapids Chair Company name?
SLIGH: Yes, the Grand Rapids Chair Company name. However, we eventually used the name Sligh Furniture in advertising and so on, as a sort of a cover-all company but not Sligh Furniture Company, just the name. I think I did mention that Herb TenHave was the designer for us. He went out on the road with the lady from House Beautiful to figure out what type of furniture would be best suited for ranch-type homes in that era right after the war. That was very successful furniture – the “Cross Country” line was a very successful product, as far as sales went. We did have some troubles with it because we were the first ones that put in an electronic gluing process for the veneer, like gluing veneer to the solid wood, the core. That caused quite a bit of trouble in the end because we had always been very proud of our drying of the core lumber to 24 or 25 percent moisture content. Nobody knew, including the people that produced the adhesive or the people that produced veneer or any part of the product, none of them realized that that low moisture content in the wood under electronic pressure would cause the glue to be dried before it would have been and just sucked into that dry wood. We had a lot of furniture coming back, whenever we could carry it all. None of our customers suffered seriously by it, but it was a problem to us. We finally found out that wood that should have been dried to about 7 percent moisture content to keep that glue from disappearing in the dry wood before it could get the heater to it. We went on with the company until 1957 when I left for the NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) in New York. At that time, Mr. Lowry took over as president of the company.
INTERVIEWER: As president of?
SLIGH: Grand Rapids Chair Company, and also of Sligh-Lowry Furniture and Charles R. Sligh Company while I was gone. Finally in 1957 or ’58 I guess it was, he dealt with Baker Furniture Company who was interested in buying our company. Mr. Lowry wasn’t too much interested in continuing to handle that as well as Charles R. Sligh and Sligh-Lowry. The result was that we then sold the company to the Baker Furniture Company. Everybody came out of it, I think, pretty well. Those of us who had paid $1 for the stock got $7 when we sold out, and those who paid $5 for their stock also got $7 for their stock. It was profitable to all concerned.
INTERVIEWER: It had been a profitable company during the intervening years?
SLIGH: Yes, we had a year of loss, but generally it was, well, I think indicated by the price it was sold for, it was profit making.
INTERVIEWER: You said it was a good deal to buy the company. Were you looking ahead at that point to a much-expanded market in furniture after World War II? Was that part of your thinking in buying that company?
SLIGH: It was part of it. We felt we had very good designs. We never had a union in the plant; although we eventually were struck – well not struck – we were picketed by the union. We had fired a man that had been caught smoking in the plant three times. They made an issue of that. They started picketing the plant and claiming we had fired him unfairly, and so on. Finally I agreed to have an election, which they had demanded. I wrote a letter to the organizer of the union and told him that we would agree to an election and that I’d hold a meeting of all the employees. We would each have a half hour. He would tell the employees why he thought they ought to join the union, and I would have an opportunity to tell the employees why they didn’t need to join a union. During this meeting I would pay all the employees the average hourly wage that they had received the week before the meeting. He accepted that. He called me on the phone saying he would accept that and appreciated it, and that of course, he figured that I would speak first and then he would speak. I said, “No, you’re my guest. You will speak first, and then I will speak.” So that’s the way it worked out. We had minutes taken of the entire meeting. Afterward, it was sort of interesting, because after the meeting was over (it was in the morning or early afternoon) – at 14:00 we were going to have the election. We had the election. As I was waiting with our officers in my office for the results of the election, I looked out the door and saw the two union men that had come to take part in the election and the meeting. I went out and they saw that my hat was on the table, and I asked them if they wanted to come in and wait for the election results. They said, yes, that they would be glad to. They came in and they said, “What’s the hat for?” I said, “Each of us are putting in $5 to make a guess on what the vote is going to be – what percentage the vote will be.” I said, “Want to get in on this?” They said, “Sure, we’d love to.” I said, “Well put your $5 in the hat,” which they did. They voted, of course, that the union was going to win the election, which it didn’t. We beat them by, I think it was, three or two to one. We won the election and took the $5 in addition, which couldn’t help but please me. An interesting thing in that connection was that, at that time, I was chairman of the Kent County Republican Committee. We had our office in the building there.
INTERVIEWER: It was there in the factory?
SLIGH: In the factory, yes, on the second floor where the meeting had been that day. Also, I had been elected the regional vice president of NAM. I’m sure that those two things gave them a lot of encouragement as to the possibility of winning that election because here are two things, at that time, that labor leaders didn’t think were very popular. Actually, we won anyway.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think your workers voted so overwhelmingly not to join it?
SLIGH: Some of them had been in a union previously and didn’t like it at all. When it came to the question and answer period in the meeting, some of the men asked some questions of the union organizers – for instance, supposing we’d have a strike to get this plan that you’re talking about. He said, “What’s the union going to do? I’ve got a family. I’ve got to support a family. What’s the union going to do to help?” They said, “Oh, we’re going to give you an allowance.” He said, “How much?” I think they said, if I remember, something like $15 a week. This man said, “$15 a week and you expect me to support my family with that? I’ve been in the union, and I know where all that money goes. It goes into the union leaders’ pockets.” We had several other people that asked questions like that, and they weren’t prompted by us. We have always tried to be fair to the workers, giving them increased wages and so on. They were getting more from us than most of the union plants in Grand Rapids in the furniture industry were getting with the union. So it really wasn’t much sense in them paying dues to get what they already had. Then December of that same year, I think that election was in October …
INTERVIEWER: What year was that?
SLIGH: I think it was, wait a minute, 1952.
INTERVIEWER: In that turmoil right after the war, there were a lot of adjustments with unions going on in that period.
SLIGH: Anyway, at that time, I was elected president of NAM. It was interesting to me that the first congratulatory telegram I received was from the organizer of the union. The first letter I wrote thanking for a congratulatory message was to that labor organizer. Unfortunately for him, the union fired him, because he lost the election. But I’ll say that was one of the most pleasant experiences I had, I think, during that period – to have won that meeting.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like you were dealing with people who approached the thing rather straight-forward, which helped a little bit.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any other experiences with unions along the way?
SLIGH: Yes, we had another election there and won. But the only election that we ever lost was back in 1937 when Governor Murphy and President Roosevelt were doing everything they could to get everybody to join a union. We lost an election in Holland to the union. It was called the Christian Labor Association. That was interesting, too, because we had had no trouble with our employees. Everything had been fine with them. In fact, we’d had a Charles R. Sligh Company picnic at which we all attended. I was young enough then to still do a little boxing and playing basketball with them and all that sort of thing. After the picnic was over, I was sitting in the car with my wife just about ready to leave when several of the boys came up and said, “Chuck, we just threw Bill Lowry in Lake Michigan, and we’re afraid we’re going to have to do the same to you.” There wasn’t anything that I could do. There were four or five of them. So I took the money out of my pocket and my watch off. They took me down to Lake Michigan and tossed me in. After they had done that, they came up and said, “Well, we just want to tell you that we think you’re a pretty good boss – anybody that would take that and not get mad about it.” I said, “Well, no sense in getting mad about it.”
Later the strike in Flint took place and that sort of keyed everybody to doing something in the plants concerning the labor situation. One of the men hit another member of the workforce in our plant because he wouldn’t join the union – knocked him down and so on. That indicates the terrific change in a few weeks that took place there in the thinking of the people in the plant. We lost the election.
INTERVIEWER: Fairly close election?
SLIGH: No, I think it was fairly good, I forget the numbers, but we lost to them. We decided we had to have a bargaining session with the head of the union. In the meantime, we had hired three men who we found out afterwards had been the ones that had stirred up all the trouble in the plant. They were the members of the bargaining committee with the head of the union. Bill Lowry came to me and said, “Don’t you think we ought to try to get a couple of the other fellows out in the plant to sit in on this meeting?” I said, “Well, sure, that’d be fine with me.” We didn’t know whether they were members of the union or not, literally, but we asked them. We told them what time we were having the meeting and to come on in and maybe they’d like to see just what goes on in a meeting of this kind. They came in. This union organizer wasn’t very smart because when he got into the meeting with his three stooges and there were two men sitting there that he didn’t know, and he said, “Well, what are these men doing here?” I said, “Well, they’re out in the plant, we just thought perhaps they’d like to see what goes on in one of these bargaining sessions.” He said, “Well, who are they? What do they do in the plant?” I said, “Well, they work on machines out there.” He said, “Are they part of management?” I said, “No, they’re not part of management, they’re laborers out in the plant.” “Well,” he said, “we don’t want any common laborers in this meeting.” I said, “Well, gentlemen, evidently your elected representative doesn’t think as much of you as we do. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave this meeting.” That was the last meeting we ever had. The plant very quickly went out of the union, right then and there. Then the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against us. We had an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) man come into the plant. He wanted – I told him, “Before we talk, why don’t we go out through the plant. I’d just like to have you get the feeling of how our employees feel about us and how we feel about them.” So I took him through the plant. We started in our shipping room, which was nearest to the office. I noticed that one of these fellows that had been on the committee was no longer there. I knew he was no longer there, but I asked one of the fellows next to him, “So what happened to – whatever his name was – Jim, who used to work beside you here.” He said, “Oh, you remember that, you fired him. “ I said, “Oh, what was that about?” He said, “Oh, well, don’t you remember? We put our name on the bottom of a drawer when we cleaned up a piece, and he took my name off and put his name on. He was cheating me, and you fired him.” I said, “Oh, yes, I remember that.” So then we went into another department where there was another fellow that had been on the committee who was no longer there. I asked about him and had a similar response from the man I spoke to there. We went into one more place, and another man that had been a member of the committee was no longer there. I asked about him, and one of our employees said, “Oh, you remember. He was the fellow that you caught taking tools out under his jacket, and you fired him.” I said, “Oh, yes, I remember that.” So when we got back in, I talked to the man from NLRB, and he said, “Oh, well, forget this, you haven’t committed anything. You did nothing wrong there. Those fellows didn’t have anything, they were just trying to take you.” So that was the last we ever had of the NLRB.
But afterward we had another election down here in Holland. We won that one. We had, all together, just three or four elections in two plants, but we won all but that first one in 1937. That wasn’t anything serious for us at all because the union lasted, oh I don’t know, maybe a month at that.
INTERVIEWER: You’re non-union now?
SLIGH: We’re non-union. Hope to stay that way, but we don’t take things for granted.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a secret to staying non-union?
SLIGH: I think you’ve got to treat the workers right. You’ve got to make their work worthwhile to them. For instance we have Scanlon which assures the workers of bonuses if their production is up, and so on, and if we have a profitable period. Each department has a representative on the Scanlon committee, and they meet frequently to give us their ideas and their thoughts on how we can increase production. We have a plan that asks for recommendations, that asks for how we can improve the production and make a better company for all of us. I had one member of the management of another company tell me one day (we met in a restaurant just by chance), “Well, I understand you’re sort of asking for trouble in one of your plants.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you took somebody from our plant that I don’t think you’re going to like very well.” In other words, evidently somebody that had been in the union in this other plant. They thought that he’d probably cause us a lot of trouble. So far there’s been no trouble whatsoever. In fact, the man is a very good worker. I think we found out that actually one of the reasons that he left the other plant was because of the union. I think it’s been very helpful to us. We pay well compared to other furniture companies. We have all the benefits they have. As I said, in Grand Rapids, actually, our company had more benefits for the employees than the union companies did.
INTERVIEWER: Sometimes it’s more economical to give a little more that way than to have to deal with the union.
SLIGH: As long as they produce, yes.
INTERVIEWER: I didn’t mean to get off on the union from the present course so much, but it’s certainly an important part of the whole operation. I sometimes wonder if personnel isn’t the most important part of running a business.
SLIGH: Well, it’s certainly a very big part.
INTERVIEWER: For a period, in addition to the Grand Rapids Chair Company, you got yourself involved in some other companies as well. It wasn’t too many years later then and you were involved with Ply-Curves. If my notes are correct, there was Trend Clock and some others.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get involved with Ply-Curves? What was that story?
SLIGH: That was Bill Lowry’s idea. We were using a lot of curved plywood at that time. We had a garage building on the Grand Rapids Chair property that had been used by the officers and so on to keep their cars in, and they had a mechanic there. We decided to take that building and use it to produce our own curved plywood and also produce it for others that might need it. For instance, I think American Seating Company, as I remember it, was one of our customers.
INTERVIEWER: For school desks and things like that?
SLIGH: And church pews, which were curved. Then my son, Bob, who is now head of our company, and a friend of his, both of whom were ardent water-skiers at the time, decided that they could use some of that curved plywood to make water skis. The name of the skis were the Bob-Lew Skis – Bob Sligh and Lew Withey of Grand Rapids, both of whom had been national water ski champions.
INTERVIEWER: Were you also a water-skier?
INTERVIEWER: I thought I remembered that.
SLIGH: I was the water ski champion, but my title was lost to this 16-year-old Lew Withey. Then my son won it from him later. They bought blanks of plywood, curved by Ply-Curves, then cut them in three parts, with each part making a water ski. Then they put the hardware on the fins and so on. Then both of them went into the service, so that pretty much ended the Bob-Lew business.
INTERVIEWER: Was this during Korea?
SLIGH: Yes, so that was the end of the Bob-Lew Skis. I sort of wish we hadn’t let that be the end because water skiing, of course, is a booming business. However, now they’re making the skis out of fiberglass and so on. Very few wooden skis are made now.
INTERVIEWER: The case of wood period, it seems, even in furniture for that matter.
INTERVIEWER: Was there also, for a time, a contract company that you were involved with?
SLIGH: We made contract furniture. That was largely Sligh Furniture, or Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company.
INTERVIEWER: It was not a separate …
SLIGH: We made dormitory furniture under the name Sligh-Lowry Contract Furniture Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sligh-Lowry Furniture Company, for an awful lot of schools around the country. That was very successful while we did it, but finally money dried up. It was during that period that schools were growing by leaps and bounds.
INTERVIEWER: After the war?
SLIGH: Yes, and they had to build new dormitories all over. Now many places are closing some dormitories, but in those days it was a case of building them. We did a lot of contract business in that field.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like that period was, first of all, an incredibly busy period, and, secondly, one where there were a lot of different opportunities where you had to, in fact, pick from among them and one of the biggest challenges was deciding which potential opportunity to pursue.
SLIGH: In that particular field, the contract field, we finally decided to get out of it entirely and concentrate on our own line of desks and bookcases and things of that kind.
INTERVIEWER: Something like the Cross Country line? That was a big success for you. Did you have any similar lines you tried that didn’t work out so well?
SLIGH: I would say none of them were as popular as Cross Country. No individual line other than Cross Country. We made a lot of different styles of bedroom suites and dining room furniture and so on and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: No real clinkers in there at all?
SLIGH: No. One thing that we did do very well for a long time was what we call the high-low table. The idea was brought to us by a man from New York that had tried to figure out furniture pieces that would be especially suitable to apartment houses and would serve dual purposes. This table was one that would look like a cocktail table or coffee table and could be raised to the height of a dining table just by lifting it up and lowering it back down once you’re finished. We did very well with that for a while. It had a patent pending on it, though it was finally patented. We did very well with that for quite a few years, but when the patent ran out others got into it including Baker Furniture Company. We were making it in the Grand Rapids plant, and Baker then was able to make it after we had sold the Grand Rapids Chair Company to them. It finally sort of died on the vine. We found one of the main problems was the retail furniture salesmen just didn’t take the time to show a customer this low table that could easily become a high table with very little effort or trouble.
INTERVIEWER: So people walked right past it then?
SLIGH: People would walk past it, look at it, and see the price, and think, “Gee, for a cocktail table that seems to cost a lot of money.” I used to say that the retail salesmen were the iron curtain between us and the consumer. We finally had an order to show the dealer, or the consumer, what that table would do. I suggested to Bill Lowry that we have our mechanic in the plant put a motor in it that would raise and lower it. We did that, and dealers then put it in the store window. The table would go up and down and up and down, which showed it. But even then if something went wrong with the motor or the mechanism and it didn’t work for a while, instead of fixing it and getting some sales out of it again, they just put it back in the corner and let it go. It just became something that we couldn’t really make profitably.
INTERVIEWER: But it once again fit into the whole post-war period of some real new needs in furniture that had been met one way or the other — different architecture on the one hand, with Cross Country — and a lot of people living in small apartments.
SLIGH: We made quite a few things we called dual purpose furniture in an effort to produce things that were needed for apartment living, small-home living.
INTERVIEWER: Do you recall any of the other pieces?
SLIGH: We had the tables that were the size of a card table, for instance, that had a double top, and the top could slide one way and the second layer of the top could be opened up for a six-foot long table.
INTERVIEWER: A dining-size table?
SLIGH: Yes, in fact, we’ve got some of those right here in the plant now that we make for offices, boardrooms, and so on. You can use them individually or put them all together in a large group – a director’s table and a conference table and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Some of these furnishings come around again, as trends switch back and forth. What was once a good idea may be again someday.
INTERVIEWER: During the time that this is going on, you’ve bought the Grand Rapids Chair Company and there’s a lot of new products, new markets out there. At the same time, though, Grand Rapids as a residential furniture manufacturing center is really in decline, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: It had lost its prominence. The market has left Grand Rapids.
SLIGH: Well, not quite then, but it certainly has by now. It was a slow trip down. The Sligh Furniture Company, for instance, I think the biggest year we ever had there, if I remember it, was 1926. From there on, things in Grand Rapids began to go down. Baker did pretty well during those years. They had a lot of highly styled furniture that was very good, and they didn’t have a large plant. They had a small plant in Allegan. They were able to weather that Depression very well. But those large plants like the one my father started, which I didn’t mention that before, I think, was 612,000 square feet. With the labor market such as it was in Grand Rapids as compared to the South and then raw material supply, it just didn’t seem to be in the cards to weather the storm.
INTERVIEWER: Literally, because you see it as a big share of the reason — for the decline had to do with the size of the factory, the …
SLIGH: I think so, the size of the plant and the design of it. In other words, five-story buildings, generally speaking, wasn’t the way, and if you had a five-story building you couldn’t buck the 10 cents an hour labor cost of the South compared to the 35 cents an hour labor cost in Grand Rapids. And perhaps because when I was only 19 or 20 years old at the time … I think some of that perhaps was due to the fact that probably Grand Rapids manufacturers didn’t improve their methods as much as they should have in that period. They were paying high salaries and, perhaps, taking a lot out of the business that should have been put back into the business in order to make it more productive.
INTERVIEWER: That’s almost a common trait it seems among businesses, that there will be a generation of entrepreneurs, then a generation of building, and, at some point, it’s very hard to put money back in and build again. Isn’t it?
SLIGH: When the Depression came, people were getting comparatively high salaries for many years in the furniture industry. I know my father’s company at that time, I think, the salaries of officers and so on ranged from $40 to $50,000 to $100,000, which in today’s market would be a $1 million. So instead of putting money back into the business to get better equipment or new buildings, perhaps more advertising – a lot of different things that with hindsight you might have done, but it wasn’t done.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the same kind of a situation for a company that is now in its fifties, the one you—
SLIGH: We started out with a company that had a basement and a first floor with belt-driven machinery and line-shafts and so on here in Holland. Now, of course, we have none of that. We have single-floor plants and so forth because we have put money back into the business. Hopefully we can continue to do that. It’s always a temptation to take it out and live a little better than maybe you should.
INTERVIEWER: You pay the price of yesterday.
INTERVIEWER: Another one of the innovations, the things that you worked on that I’m a little bit more interested in, is the warehouse plan that seems to have worked quite well. It comes a little later.
SLIGH: That does come later. My son, Bob, and my son, Charlie, would be much better able to describe that to you. However, the whole idea was to have a limited number of products that we could ship within a 24-hour period if the consumer, if the store, bought enough of those products to show on the floor and would guarantee to keep them on the floor as samples rather than sell the samples off the floor. That used to be a big problem. They’d buy one or two or three or four or five of a desk, and sell them all. Then it might be a long time before they would get any more of that pattern. So we developed this plan to give them an incentive to carry those samples, a limited number of them, and keep the samples on the floor. For that we guaranteed to ship those pieces within a 24-hour period.
INTERVIEWER: It worked.
SLIGH: I think it worked very well.
INTERVIEWER: You’re still using it?
SLIGH: Yes, a variation of it.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the Scanlon plan a little earlier, something else that might be fairly recent, but so far novel in your history. First of all, what is it and, secondly, what led to putting it into place? I guess there were other plants, for instance, the Donnelly Company in Holland that had that plan and other companies that we knew about. I think the originator of the plan in the state of Michigan, if I remember it, was a professor from Michigan State University. He was the one that developed the plan and brought it into our practice, and Donnelly and others.
Whose idea was it to bring it in here?
SLIGH: It wasn’t mine. I think it was my son, Bob’s idea, probably.
INTERVIEWER: And once again it’s still being used?
SLIGH: Yes, it’s still being used.
INTERVIEWER: Another whole side of your career is, I think, service. A little like your father, you’re very much interested in and involved in things outside furniture manufacturing. As you told me, he was involved in politics a number of times, seeking elected office but also …
SLIGH: Three times that I know of – twice the governorship and once as mayor, maybe once or twice as mayor; but he didn’t win. He was a state senator.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve done your share of service to local, state and national organizations and that sort of thing as well, going back to the Grand Rapids Furniture Salesmen Club.
SLIGH: That was a club that started in Grand Rapids to try to help hold the market in Grand Rapids. A lot of the buyers came in there and said, “Well, there’s nothing to do. We have nothing to do. There’s no entertainment. Nothing like last year, and Chicago is much livelier with a lot of places to go and things to do.” So we tried to develop some way of making it a little more interesting for them to come to the Grand Rapids Market. So at the old Pantlind Hotel, which is now the Amway Grand Plaza, each night we had entertainment, shows with entertainers from Chicago and Detroit and so on. We’d have them come into Grand Rapids and put on nightly entertainment in the Pantlind Hotel. That not only kept the buyers happier but also the sales managers. It gave the salesmen something they could offer the buyers and be together with the buyers during the evening. It worked pretty well. I was chair of that for 10 or 12 years, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the ’30s when you were doing this?
SLIGH: Yes, let me see, I would say ’35, ’37, around in there when we did that.
INTERVIEWER: It gave you a chance to meet some interesting people when you were setting up the various shows.
SLIGH: Yes, yes, a lot of very nice people, entertainers from Chicago, one who’s last name was Howard from Detroit that I still get a Christmas card from every year. He was quite a character and very interesting, and did a good job and kept the people entertained.
INTERVIEWER: When the market moved to Chicago, then, you continued to be involved. You were involved with the market in Chicago?
SLIGH: We had our space, our showroom in Chicago, but I wasn’t part of the governing body.
INTERVIEWER: I guess they voted you “Man of the Year” a couple times?
SLIGH: Twice, yes, two years in a row. One of them – I think was that I started the furniture course, it’s called, at the University of Michigan. I went over there one time for a seminar on the use of wood and so on. They had a forestry school there. When I was there, I think it was only for a day at that time. I know I stayed. They had this laboratory at the time in the forestry school. The furniture industry had never really taken advantage of it in any way. As I listened to the people there I thought: why aren’t we making use of this facility? With that thought in mind, it just kind of developed in my mind. In a way I hate to admit it but, I’m not a college graduate. I was in school for about six months and left school and got married and had four children. I happen to be a great-grandfather of 15 at this time. Anyway, as I thought this over I developed the idea in my mind that I ought to try to get the University of Michigan to start a course that would be aimed primarily at the furniture industry. I figured they needed some engineering, some financial courses, and they needed design, and business administration. As the thing developed in my mind, I thought: we don’t want to send a man through the course that would take two or three years of design. What we need is maybe a six-month course that would make the president of a company or the manager of a company able to more intelligently talk to a designer and the same in other fields. I talked it over with the dean of the school of forestry down there and gave him my thoughts on it. He said, “Well, I’ll set up a dinner meeting with the deans of the business school, the school of design, the engineering school, and so on.” So, I went down there and sat at a table one night with the deans from the various schools. I think there was about six of them. I told them I’d never been as close to a dean before, in a pleasant way, as I was that evening, but I outlined to them what I had in mind and they all bought the idea. As a result, they started, I think it was ’45 or ’46, the so-called furniture course in the school of forestry, but these other courses were included. My son, Bob, was one of the first attendees that went through the four years of the course. There were others that did likewise – Karges down in Indiana had a furniture company. He’s the head of a company now, his father was at the time, and others, some of them that had gone into the retail business wanted to know how furniture was manufactured and such. Today, I sure would like to know the number of graduates that are presidents of companies and managers of companies. Charles Kindel of Grand Rapids was one of the ones that helped very materially to develop that. He was an engineer himself and took a great interest in this project. He was very helpful. When we decided it would be good to have these young students go through furniture factories around the country, it was arranged to have them do it in their junior year or their senior year. They came to Grand Rapids with a couple of the new professors, and they studied in Grand Rapids in various factories. They’d go to one factory to see how they would operate, design and engineering, and so on. They would take several days in each of these plants. The professors would work with them. Then at the end of that time they arranged to have them take a bus and go to outstanding plants. At that time, Kroehler Furniture Company was interested. They went to that company, and other plants had them visit. They had already been to the plants in Grand Rapids. Then they went down South and toured the plants. I think all of them that took the course felt it was a good project, that it did them a lot of good, and many became leaders in the industry. Eventually the University of Michigan decided that it was too concentrated on one industry. They gave it up and Michigan State picked it up.
The name of the man who called me from North Carolina was Henry Foscue. He became the head of the exhibition building down there. He wanted to know about the furniture course that was started up here. He liked it so well that he started one in North Carolina, at North Carolina State. Theirs was cued more at the superintendent level, you know, rather than the head of a company. However, they did have a man who was one of the vice presidents of Henry Foscue’s own company as a University of Michigan furniture course graduate and others down in the South that went through the University of Michigan course. Henry started this course that was aimed more at the foreman and superintendent level. That is still in business, as far as I know. It’s done very, very well.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds to me like it was one of your goals to teach others what you’d learned from experience, through the course.
SLIGH: Well, to learn better than I have learned. A lot of the things that the University of Michigan taught were far beyond what I had experienced myself, including engineering and production matters, and marketing and sales, and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe you were identifying all the areas you’d had to have, that were shortcomings in your own training. If you had learned it now-
SLIGH: That’s right. It would be a big help to anybody that wanted to go into the business, whether it was retail or manufacturing. In fact, two of the Forslund boys in Grand Rapids, Carl Forslund — two of those boys took the furniture courses at the University of Michigan.
They have a dual purpose there in manufacturing, in a way, and also in sales with a very good business and different catalogs, and things. They have a store there and a showroom and the old exhibitors building. Both of them, I think, would say that they have received very good training from the furniture course.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting how the course has almost moved around the country with the industry. And where the core of the industry is, that’s where the strongest interest and need for the course is. You also were involved in The National Association of Furniture Manufacturers?
SLIGH: Yes, I was president of that and enjoyed that very much. I always thought that it should be one association instead of two. At that time, the South just wasn’t ready to join the North and having one association rather than two associations – the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers and the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association. That has now been corrected; and now there is an American Furniture Manufacturers Association. The other two were combined.
INTERVIEWER: That took some doing, though.
SLIGH: A lot of doing, a lot of years.
INTERVIEWER: You made some efforts toward that during your presidency.
SLIGH: We talked about it but just couldn’t really get to first base in those days. There were some people, especially in the South, that didn’t want any part of joining up. I think the Northern people were much more interested in having one association with cooperation between the North and the South.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you go to the National Association of Manufacturers? I think it was in 1953 you became president and the next …
SLIGH: I was in Grand Rapids at the Grand Rapids Chair Company, and the National Association of Manufacturers began a program in Grand Rapids. It was a program concerning some of the industry problems, and it was a program to help develop speakers – people that could express themselves in front of a group and do it better than they had in the past. They sent a man to Grand Rapids to take care of that program for a week. I was one of the men that took that course. There were others there that did the same thing and we all liked it. The course ended up with everybody having to get up for, I forget, five or 10 minutes, and make their talk to the other members of the group. I was interested in it and thought it was productive, and that, I think, impressed me to help with the NAM ... for people in the industry, and so on. Then a man from Grand Haven Hatton Leather Company (Eagle Ottawa Leather Company), president of Hatton Leather Company, Mr. Julian Hatton, without my knowledge, got, I think it was something like, 15 members of NAM in the area to sign a request that I be nominated as a director of NAM. I didn’t know anything about that, but I didn’t get it. The next year I was nominated by NAM for a directorship, but they had three openings and four running for it. One was Mr. Upton of the company in Benton Harbor.
SLIGH: Whirlpool Corporation. I was nominated, and then there were a couple others from the eastern part of the state. The members of NAM voted on that nomination. I won and Mr. Upton didn’t. That was sad in one way because a couple years later the Whirlpool Corporation resigned from NAM. I became a director in 1948. My first meeting was in New York, at the Congress of American Industry in December. It was a wonderful experience. We had, at that time, still a lot of the really big name manufacturers that were on the board. Mr. DuPont, for instance, and others giants in the industry and, really, who still ran their companies. I met them all and found that they were very fine men and not at all the men that labor had pictured them to be, with top hats or gray vests and striped pants and frock coats. They were dressed the same way I was and talked the same language. My first meeting was a dinner meeting, when we were all installed as members of the board. Then Mr. DuPont sat right across from me at the table. I was tremendously impressed by him and his modesty. That was my first board meeting. Then we had the next meeting in February in Boca Raton, which I attended. I became very much interested in it. I was suggested as a member of a committee to study the bylaws, and everything, of NAM, and make suggestions for changes. I served on that committee for a year. Of course, it brought me in contact, again, with a lot of the “name” people. So, I continued, as I said, as a director until about 1954, I think it was. I was a member of the labor committee, industrial relations committee for a year. Then I was asked to serve as the chairman of the tax committee, which astounded me because what I didn’t know about taxes was a tremendous amount. I called the managing director of NAM and told him that I’d gotten this request from all our staff members to serve as chairman of that committee and I said, “There’s got to be a mistake someplace because I haven’t served in any capacity in connection with taxes.” And he said, “Well, it wasn’t a mistake. We meant to ask you. We wanted somebody that could help to sell a tax program that NAM is espousing – the uniform manufacturers’ excise tax.” This was a tax that we thought should be put into effect during the Korean War, if we needed additional money for that purpose, rather than some increased income taxes, and so on. So I went around the country at that time debating and speaking on that subject quite a lot. That particular job was one that brought me into contact with Walter Reuther and Senator Humphrey and Senator O’Mahoney from Wyoming and others. Bohn Aluminum Corporation at that time had the American Forum of the Air on TV and in that capacity I debated Senator O’Mahoney and Walter Reuther on the nationalized program. Then I debated him two other times, once from New York on a comparatively local program, and then another time out in San Francisco, California. And then Senator Humphrey on a two-hour program with David Susskind. So I became really involved and I was very interested in it all. I didn’t miss any board meetings of NAM for many years. I’m still on the board as a member for life because in 1952, as I think I mentioned previously, when the union tried to organize us in Grand Rapids at the Grand Rapids Chair Company that December, I was elected president of NAM. The next year I slept in my own bed, I think, 12 times. The rest of the time I was traveling all over the country and Europe. I had a tremendously interesting, challenging experience doing all that. Then in 1954, I was chairman of the board, then chairman of the executive committee, and, finally, chairman of the finance committee, which is the normal procedure. When I was chairman of the finance committee, the board asked me to become the staff head of NAM. That was sort of interesting because that meeting was in Hot Springs, Virginia, and after meeting with the executive committee and being offered this position, I went back down the stairs to my room and the telephone rang and it was Lothair Teeter from Ohio, who was then Assistant Secretary of Commerce in Washington, asking me to be an Assistant Secretary of Commerce because he was retiring from that position and asked me if I would serve. I said, “Well, I can’t, sir, because I just took this offer by NAM.” And he said, “Well, who can I get to do this job? Who do you think would be good?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know whether he will do it, but I think he could do it, and that’s Fritz Mueller from Grand Rapids.” So he said, “Well, who’s he? What does he do?” And I said, “Well, he’s been a furniture manufacturer, he was president of Grand Rapids Industries during the war, and he’s a graduate of Michigan State College in engineering. I think he’d be a good man.” So he said, “Well, where can I get in touch with him?” I told him. He became the Assistant Secretary of Commerce because the senate refused to approve the acting head at that time. The acting head had not been approved by the senate and was not approved by the senate. At that time Eisenhower asked Fritz Mueller to step in as Secretary of Commerce, which he did. That was Lewis Strauss. Strauss was the man that was, I think, the Atomic Energy Commission chairman, or something of that kind. He was a very smart man and probably would have made an excellent man for the job, but the Senate refused to take him. So, Fritz was put in his place. I instead went in as the executive vice president of NAM, which, at that time, was the top staff job. We had about 400 employees at that time scattered all over the country. We had about 200 in the combination of New York and Washington. Another one that I brought into that picture was Steve Dunn, who was a lawyer in Grand Rapids. I suggested him as a man for the Department of Commerce General Council. He went down and took that job. Then later he decided he wanted to get out of government, go back into Grand Rapids, and make some money to send his kids to school and everything, which he did. A couple of years later, he came to me and said, “You know, it isn’t as good back in Grand Rapids as I thought it would be. I miss Washington. Is there anything you have that I might be able to do down there?” Well at that time we had lost the head of our Washington office, he had died in an accident. I took Stephen Dunn down there as vice president of NAM in charge of government relations. He did a very fine job for us, but then eventually was taken from us by the National Coal Association, which gave him nearly twice as much money a year as I could give him. They called me and asked if I would be willing to let him go for that purpose. I said, “Well, I certainly couldn’t stand in his way when he had that opportunity.” He went in as the president of the National Coal Association and stayed there in that until his retirement. He has since died, but he was a very, very good man, very helpful. I’ve been on the board of NAM ever since that time. I guess I’ve missed maybe six or seven meetings in forty years.
INTERVIEWER: Not bad.
SLIGH: Forty years this December. But I’m starting to think of missing a few more meetings now. However, we aren’t having the meetings that we used to have. I was shocked, myself – this last year I happened to see a document that mentioned that we’d had seven board meetings in, I think it was, 1948 or ’49. Now we have about two a year, two or three a year. The board sets policy, but the day-to-day decisions are in the hands of the president who is now a staff man rather than a layman. He, with the approval of the executive committee, runs the thing on a day-to-day basis, while the board has to have a two-thirds vote on policy matters. Our board has increased in size tremendously. We now have well over 100 members on the board.
INTERVIEWER: Aside from structural changes like that in the National Association of Manufacturers over the years – a bigger board, different policy-making and operating – has that organization changed in other ways that you’ve seen over the years?
SLIGH: I don’t know just what you’re suggesting.
INTERVIEWER: I guess I’m curious to know if it’s taking on different types of issues than it did when you were first involved. Is it still following basically the same function?
SLIGH: There are more issues, more avenues to go down, but generally it’s an organization that is working for the manufacturing industry. There’s the thought that the manufacturing industry is vital to the welfare of the country and our input is important. At one time there was a cry to join with the United States Chamber of Commerce. I was opposed to that and it has fallen by the wayside. The two organizations have not joined. My thinking on that and others in that area was that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a much different membership – lawyers, doctors, local chambers of commerce. It is an entirely different group than the NAM, which is made up of manufacturers. We also have the national trade associations that work with us, the state manufacturers associations that are connected with us, the local manufacturers associations that are working with us. So their membership is much broader than the manufacturers that are members of NAM as such. We have now about 13,000 members, which is way down from when I was running it – not because I was running it, but we had about 21,000 members at that time. Since then there have been tremendous inroads as far as the numbers go because of mergers and so on that have taken place which started back about the time that I left, which was 1963. I stepped down, retired as the chief staff officer. The inroads that were made by mergers … in one case we had 10 members that we lost because of one merger. The idea being that a company would pay on the basis of the worth of that company. When a company came in and bought them out, one of their reasons was to cut costs so they dropped the membership of that company and just retained the membership of the parent company. We lost, not all of them just because of that, but I would say most of them.
INTERVIEWER: That’s kind of an interesting thing that’s been going on in this country for quite a while. Is it a healthy thing?
SLIGH: I don’t think some of it is, no. I think that takeovers not wanted by the company involved, hostile takeovers, are very, very disastrous for a company. A lot of these companies that smell a takeover coming heavily go into debt just so the company that’s after them won’t be as interested in them. The company that’s taking them over goes into junk bonds and everything else. I think in many cases the men that are taking them over are not really interested in improving them, they’re interested in selling off a lot of the assets. The one where General Motors took over the electrical ...
INTERVIEWER: Texas Instruments?
SLIGH: No, the other one. The famous guy who rescued his men over in Europe.
INTERVIEWER: That’s Ross Perot.
SLIGH: Ross Perot. They paid him millions just to get rid of him as director eventually. What good is that? He might have helped General Motors a lot if he’d stayed on the board. They bought him out for millions and millions of dollars, having already paid millions for his company. I think a lot of that is unfortu¬nate. I don’t say that all takeovers are bad, but certainly a lot of them are (bad) for the country.
INTERVIEWER: Tends to cut down on competition, doesn’t it? Or perhaps more properly stated, entrepreneurship?
INTERVIEWER: Do you recall during that period when you were most actively involved with NAM, when you were chief of staff, what key issues you had to deal with? What big ones were on your table?
SLIGH: One thing, well it was even before I was there, Section 14B, I think it is, of the Taft-Hartley Law (Act), that was up for grabs. Truman had just come into office and everybody thought that the Taft-Hartley Law, Section 14B, had very little chance of surviving. There were going to be hearings on the bill and labor was represented by many, many people down there to defeat the bill. I was not a staff member nor was I an officer at that time, but we had a meeting in Hot Springs, Virginia and Andy Anderson, of Aluminum Corporation came into that meeting as chairman of the industrial relations committee and gave a talk. One of the main points was that we were in deep trouble because labor figured they’d won the election for Truman and they were down in Washington getting ready to lick their chops over the defeat of the Section 14B especially. There were only two witnesses that had signed up to oppose the bill. One of them was a Seventh-Day Adventist, for what reason I don’t know, and another was some other organization. Andy stood there and said, “There’s no manufacturer that has signed up to appear before the committee and oppose that bill. I don’t say that I can blame any of you. It’s going to be tough. You don’t want to get down there and speak your piece in front of the labor committee. I don’t think we can probably get anybody to go down there and testify.” Fred Crawford, who was then head of what is now TRW, then named Thompson Products Company, was a fantastic speaker and had been president of NAM. Crawford spoke up and said, “Well, I’ll try.” “No”, Andy said, “I’ll bet $5 that none of you would want to do that.” Fred Crawford said, “Well, I’ll take that bet.” Andy said, “Well, maybe I’m wrong. How many of you would get up or see that some member of your industry would go to Washington and testify? Raise your hands.” I raised mine. I had no idea who I’d get to go down there that I thought was capable of doing the job, but I raised my hand. They took notes of everybody whose hand was raised, and rightfully everybody did raise their hands – this was on the labor relations committee, the industrial relations committee. That night when I went to get my key, there was a note in my box – It read: Dear Chuck, Here is the $5 I owe you and I appreciate very much your willingness to arrange for somebody to go to Washington to testify for the Section 14B.” Well, I took that note back and the $5 and put it on my desk. I was in Grand Rapids at the time, and looked at that every day for quite a few days trying to figure out who I was going to get. I finally got Steve Dunn, who was then the counsel for the Furniture Manufacturers Association, and George Copeland, who was head of a company here in Holland. Both of them went down and did an excellent job. As a result of that meeting in Hot Springs, there were something like 150 applications to give testimony. We won, and it’s still in effect. I think it’s a tremendous impact over the years and it’s still in effect. There were a lot of things like that that NAM did. At that time, when I was an officer, we were not a lobbying organization. We had a couple of people who were lobbyists, but we did not lobby and we had proven that satisfactorily to the government several times. Now, however, we’ve just registered as a lobbying organization.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a change in the direction.
SLIGH: Yes, a change. Another change is, strangely, in those days, as far as I know, all of our staff members were Republicans, and probably most of our members were, and members of the board except from the South who voted Democratic in the South on local matters and voted Republican on national matters. That was the case for many, many years. We had some very good Southern legislators who were very close to NAM and worked very hard for the things we were in favor of – senators, congressmen, and so on. Now, our two top staff men have been, whether they still are I can’t tell you, registered Democrats. One of them was, well our top man was Secretary of Commerce, Sandy Trowbridge, under Johnson I think it was. Jasinowski, our executive vice president, who was author of the Humphrey-Hawkins bill. I say the author — I’m sure that he was working for Humphrey at the time and Humphrey said write a bill and do this and do that, and he followed instructions and did it. To have those two men now as the two top staff men of NAM is quite a switch. However, I will admit that I was very much concerned about that, especially about Jasinowski when he first came in. He has really done a very good job, both of them have, for NAM. Jasinowski is an economist and is a well-thought-of economist. He has written a lot of articles and papers and so on, that certainly advocate the type of things that NAM is for, economically – in the field of economics. Our membership is much smaller, and we do lobby, and both of those men, because of what they’ve done for and with NAM, the Republicans in Congress generally speak well of them. And because of their background and everything, they have an entry to many Democrats, which has helped materially. When we have our Congress of American Industry meetings in Washington, we invariably get the top people in the administration to come and speak. That was not always the case. When I was there as an officer, we had General MacArthur and John Kennedy and a lot of the top people. One that we never could get in the eight years while I was there, and I was there for six of those, was Eisenhower. We had him speak to the board in Washington a couple times, but he’d never speak to the Congress of American Industry. When I was running the show, I checked the speeches he had made to labor organizations, and there were a lot of them. It always burned me up a little that he wouldn’t speak to NAM. However, the year after he left the presidency, he spoke to the Congress of American Industry in New York. I was at the head table with him, and I remember the fellow to the back of me, I heard him say when Ike was talking, he made a lot of good points and so on, and this man behind me said, “I wish he’d known all that when he was in the White House.” You know that picture up there was signed by him.
So, NAM has been really a big experience in a way.
INTERVIEWER: One thing you mentioned earlier this afternoon that I don’t think we touched on was the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild. We probably ought to go back and say a couple of words about that.
SLIGH: That was started by Ed Weir. He was a remarkable guy. It was limited to Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers so we here in Holland were not any part of it until I took over the Grand Rapids Chair Company. Then I became a member of the board and eventually president of it. Ed Weir was the spark plug and what kept it together.
INTERVIEWER: What was its purpose?
SLIGH: The membership was made up of just Grand Rapids manufacturers. We advertised as a group, and we had certain policies as a group, quality for instance, our determination to back up our product in every way. We had a guild insignia that was used in stores all over the country. It was just a group of manufacturers banded together, each guaranteeing the product of the other one. It proved their determination to have a quality product. It was very interesting.
INTERVIEWER: When did he form this?
SLIGH: I think it was right after the war, I believe. Well, wait a minute, I think it was started before that.
INTERVIEWER: It lasted on into the ’50s?
SLIGH: Yes, it lasted on into the ’50s. But as things sort of broke up and went to Chicago, it just sort of disintegrated.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like it was just one more effort to hold onto that Grand Rapids name and the image of Grand Rapids-made furniture.
SLIGH: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Some wrap-up questions that have occurred to me along the way. One that stands out to me is that you’ve been in this manufacturing industry all of your life. Did you ever consider any other?
SLIGH: Never, no, except the couple of things like NAM and politics and so on. No, my dad was in it, and I was brought up really with the thought that someday I would be in it, and head the Sligh Furniture Company of Grand Rapids. Of course, I didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: But you kept the name alive.
SLIGH: I bought the name and kept it alive. I just never had any idea that I would ever be in anything but the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: It must give you a certain amount of satisfaction and pride then to have turned that onto the next generation of Slighs.
SLIGH: Yes, I hope that will always be something I will be glad I have done. My father was so deep in it, and my whole family. I have sisters and two of their husbands were in it right up until the end, they had been in it for years. I now have people, workmen, that would come to the house in Grand Rapids when I was working, I always like to talk with them and so on. Every once in awhile somebody would say, “Oh, he don’t have to worry about it, you’l1 be president of Sligh Furniture Company some time.” Of course that time never came in those days. I’ve always thought of that as probably the best thing that ever happened to me, the fact that my father’s company went out of business, because up until then, I didn’t have much to worry about. It was a sure thing that I’d be president of Sligh Furniture Company – a pretty good job. Suddenly I not only wasn’t president of Sligh Furniture Company, I wasn’t even working for them. I was out of a job in 1932. I didn’t have a job until around 1933 in the fall when I started the job with my company.
INTERVIEWER: What made you think you could make a company go during the depths of the Depression? You’re not the only one who did it. Other people started companies, but it had to be …
SLIGH: Bill Lowry and I both thought we could make furniture a lot less expensively than it was being made by the companies we knew about, and we did. Of course we weren’t getting the pay that the heads of those other companies were getting. As I said, a lot of them were making $50,000 to $100,000 a year. Bill and I started out at $35 dollars a week. There’s quite a difference. Each of us had to have a job. We had to do something, we couldn’t just sit there. So it seemed like a good idea.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know that the Depression was going to last for another eight years?
SLIGH: Actually, no. Well, I don’t know. We realized ’33 was the bottom. Everything from there on was up because we made it that way, not because we knew it was going to be that way. That’s the way it was. Fortunately for us, in the first year we sold something like $140,000 worth of furniture. We made something like $12,000 or $14,000 profit. In fact, Don Matheson got back five times what he paid for it in a period of four years.
INTERVIEWER: It worked?
SLIGH: It worked. Bill and I often said that if we’d known as much as we know now, we’d have known that it couldn’t be done. Fortunately we didn’t know that back then.
INTERVIEWER: You went ahead and did it?
SLIGH: So we did it.
INTERVIEWER: Just a couple other thoughts. First of all, if you had to point to one thing that was a high point for you, what would that be?
SLIGH: That’s pretty hard, unless you’ve got choices I can choose from I think the high point …
INTERVIEWER: I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t when you put the Sligh name back on the whole. I get the feeling that was very important to you.
SLIGH: It was. That name, we registered it every year and kept it alive. I paid $5,000 for it, which today would have been $50,000 or $60,000; $5,000 in 1933 meant a lot more than it does today. In fact, $5,000 was within $1,000 dollars of what I put in Sligh Furniture … the Charles R. Sligh Company It was a big decision to buy the name. Fortunately it worked out. I’m glad that we still have it
INTERVIEWER: How about the other side of that coin? Any real downside or dark points that you can recall? Maybe wrong decisions?
SLIGH: No, I don’t think I ever had that. Maybe because I’m so much older now I see the problems that existed in those days and I sometimes wonder if they don’t still exist. In other words, everybody was going along in great shape in ’24 and ’25; my dad was getting over $100,000 a year from the business and the sons-in-law were right up there at $75,000 a year. Nobody was thinking then of 1932 and 1933. I have always been aware, maybe too much, that it could happen again. You wonder if it will, and if so, when it will.
INTERVIEWER: And what can you do about it?
SLIGH: And what can you do about it? Last October’s drop in the market was similar to ’29, and a lot of people say, “Well, what-the-heck, we had that, so what? We’ve been doing well since.” But ’32 didn’t come until three years after 1929.
INTERVIEWER: They forget that after the drop the market recovered, too, for quite awhile.
SLIGH: Those are questions that now naturally are on my mind a lot. I hope that we did the right things.
INTERVIEWER: Any fundamental principles, as you look forward to the future for this company? Are there some basic rules that they’ve got to follow to continue their success?
SLIGH: I think, in spite of the fact that they’ve never seen that 1929-1932 period, I think they’ve got to keep in mind that there’s nothing that’s for sure, ever. I think they’ve got to remember the mistakes that probably were made by people running businesses in ’32. The fact that you’ve got to keep your operation up-to-date. You’ve got to be willing to go back down there or over there, if necessary, which is hard to do … Our aim when we started the business – our first thought was, well, we want to be safe. We’ll just go along with our production; if demands for production get higher than what’s been produced in the facilities, we would raise the prices a little. We’re not going to try to grow along with the big ones … not that we’re big, but I found that the firm would have to grow or stagnate… Do what we thought we had to do at that time. Secondly, if a six-month period ever existed without our making a profit we would immediately take strong steps until the situation changed materially. We had one period like that; I think it was 1937.
INTERVIEWER: That was what they call the second depression.
SLIGH: We had a period there for six months when we lost money. Bill and I immediately cut our salaries off completely, and cut everybody’s pay in the plant 10 percent. We told the employees that when things turned the corner, if we could, we would give them back that 10 percent. At the end of the year, we had made a profit so we paid everybody back the 10 percent that they had lost, and Bill and I both got our salaries back. I wonder if new management will have the guts to do the same thing.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a good thing. Those are gutsy moves, and maybe you have to have gone through the other experiences to be prepared to make them.
SLIGH: I think that’s probably true. Not that I haven’t told them, but —
INTERVIEWER: It isn’t quite the same, anymore than you could have told them all the things you’d learned along the way. You’ve got to learn them as you do them.
You have given an interesting interview.
SLIGH: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for the time you’ve taken to talk to me.
SLIGH: Well, I’m glad to.