Douglas Brackett; american furniture manufacturers association
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 22, 2009
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME OFFICE
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: I’m interviewing Doug Brackett, the long-time and now retired executive director of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, one of our industry’s major trade groups. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and when?
BRACKETT: I was born in the classic Southern mill town of Lawndale, which is about 35 miles south of Hickory, North Carolina. It was basically in the middle of cotton growing and processing country. You either worked in the mill or you farmed. For most young folks coming along, not many stayed around. The end of the line was somewhere nearby, and they left. I was one of the ones that went too.
INTERVIEWER: Were your parents associated with the textile industry?
BRACKETT: Yes, everybody in my family worked in the cotton mill. No management positions, just hourly employees. It was an interesting time. The mill owned everything in town, including housing and utilities. My dad decided he’d had enough of mill work, and he went to work for a mill supply firm. In those days, when the primary breadwinner, a man, left the mill, you had to move out of the mill house. So we had to pack up and leave, although my mother was still working at the mill. It was a totally different era and attitude that prevailed in how you deal with employees and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the 1930s?
BRACKETT: I was born in 1938. Dad probably left the mill in ’52 or ’53, by the time I was 14 or 15. It’s not ancient history, but that sort of thing occurred. In fact, there was a lawsuit in Kannapolis (North Carolina) that broke up the mills’ ownership of housing because they were discriminating against minorities. At that point, most of the mill owners began to sell off the housing to the employees to get out of that legal situation.
INTERVIEWER: In Lawndale, there were no furniture factories?
BRACKETT: No. Probably the nearest factory was in Hickory. There were a number of people from Lawndale that worked in furniture in both Hickory and Morganton. Driving 40 or 50 miles to work was not uncommon. That’s what you had to do if you weren’t working in the cotton mill. I had no affiliation with the furniture industry at all until I was here in High Point. That was an accident, literally. I was an accounting major in school and fully intended to be a CPA. I was in a job I wasn’t happy with. My wife had one more year in college to wrap up. An opening came up at the furniture manufacturers association office in High Point. A young man working there got drafted to go to Vietnam. It was an office manager sort of job that I took over with the understanding that at the close of his year of service, he’d come back and I would leave.
As it turned out, he fell in love with flying helicopters and made the military a career. I fell in love with the association and made association work a career. Up to that point, I had no affiliation whatsoever either with the furniture industry or associations.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s back up a little. You graduated from high school in Lawndale or some nearby community?
BRACKETT: In Lawndale. It was a great big graduating class of 17 bodies.
INTERVIEWER: Then you went off to college?
BRACKETT: I went to Brevard Junior College for the first two years.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the western part of North Carolina?
BRACKETT: In the mountains. I was enrolled in Wake Forest (in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) for the final two years, which would have been ’57 to ’59. Unfortunately, there was a deep recession at that point in time. I didn’t have a job. There was a draft, so I volunteered for the draft to get military service out of the way. I spent two years in the Nike missile program, schooled in Huntsville, Alabama. I wound up in New Mexico sleeping across the aisle from a boy from Thomasville who had graduated from High Point College, now High Point University. He convinced me I should try High Point. I came back in the summer to take one class. I was one class short of enrolling in the fall as a full junior. So I came. I stayed, and I’ve been here since 1959.
INTERVIEWER: So you graduated with a degree in accounting. You got married somewhere along in there?
BRACKETT: In 1962. I wound up staying in High Point because of my wife, primarily. We never intended to live in High Point. We were bound for Greensboro. She was a religious education major in college, on a scholarship which forgave the scholarship loan for every year she worked in the church. She got a job here in town (High Point), which as far as we were concerned was merely delaying the trip to Greensboro. In the interim, I wound up at the association. We’ve been here ever since.
INTERVIEWER: So were you always kind of a numbers person? How did you choose accounting as your major?
BRACKETT: In all honesty, of all the business courses I took, that’s the area I found the most challenging and the most rewarding. All of the other stuff about management and so forth seemed to me to be simple common sense. Accounting had a good set of rules, a strict set of objectives you had to attain on a quarterly, semiannual or annual basis, and reports that had to be filed. I didn’t mind the detail work. I guess it sort of flowed right on through. Maybe it’s in the genes. Who knows?
INTERVIEWER: You weren’t interested in working in a cotton mill, but you seem to have been business oriented.
BRACKETT: My dad was one of those Depression-era children who quit school every year until he got to the sixth grade, when he quit for good. He was a very ambitious and industrious man. He wound up running his own small business that provided a living for the family. There was never any question in our household about what happens after high school. My dad was a strong education advocate. It didn’t matter where you went or what you majored in, but you were going to college. That’s just the way it was going to be. Once I got there, I found out it wasn’t such a bad life after all. I enjoyed the college years very much. But it was just not an option at the end of the day of whether you’d go to work or college when you finished high school.
INTERVIEWER: So you were the first generation of your family to attend college?
INTERVIEWER: Your father, although having a minimal formal education, was certainly convinced of the value of an education. But he didn’t urge you in any particular direction.
BRACKETT: No, nor did he point me to any particular school. He was at a loss as to how to go about the process. I had no guidance from home in the whole process other than, “You’re going.” I was fortunate to have a high school teacher who taught chorus, which I participated in but I wasn’t really good. She took an interest in most of the kids in school. She in fact helped with the entire process of getting enrolled and knowing where to look for scholarship money. That’s where the real guidance came from as far as going to college.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any important mentors during your college years that pointed you towards business or accounting, or influenced your life in any significant way?
BRACKETT: No, not particularly. The first two years were the basic courses. It was an interesting experience there. My preparation out of high school was not very good. I ended up taking three remedial courses the first year. One was remedial English. I had to take a course in how to study, which I’d never done. I had to take a course in how to write a composition, which I’d never done. But fortunately, I was there with a whole bunch of guys returning from Korea on the GI bill. I was in a class of 45 remedial students, all male.
With those guys at that age, it was a good experience for me. I found out very quickly that I was at least as smart as they were. They were knocking down As and Bs, and I was knocking down Cs and Ds. It suddenly dawned on me that when those guys sat down to study, they sat down to study. When I sat down to study, I waited for the next opportunity to come along to go do something else. Once I got that straightened out, then grades weren’t a problem. It was the influence of the veterans coming back from Korea that showed me that.
INTERVIEWER: Did they influence you to enroll in the military when you did?
BRACKETT: No, there was a mandatory draft back then. It didn’t appear it was ever going to end. I didn’t have the money to go on. I enrolled in the Army. I came back to High Point and worked in a grocery store 40 hours a week. With what I saved and made, I was able to finish up the education on time.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me a little more about how your first association job happened. This would have been the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, the SFMA. They’re headquartered in High Point. You were here in High Point.
BRACKETT: I had taken a job in High Point. It was just not a good fit. In those days, young people didn’t hop from job to job like today. I stuck it out for 18 months. I decided I was going to leave and saw an ad in the paper, for somebody for a job with a role that was really sort of vaguely described. You could read almost anything into it. It was somewhat like an office manager, statistical reporting, and those kinds of things. So I got the job. The vacancy was there because the young man named Frasier Vereen had gotten drafted and was going to be gone for a year. After that, he’d come back and take the job.
By that time, my wife would have finished her obligation. We’d have gone to Greensboro, and to whatever my career path might have been. He didn’t come back. He stayed and made the military a career. I became very much enamored with the association field at that point. I was still able to utilize my interest areas in terms of working for the association, doing all the statistical reporting and those kinds of things. As time went by and personnel changed, I survived and ultimately had the job as executive vice president.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your first boss? Who hired you for this job?
BRACKETT: A man named Bob Spelman, not to be confused with Spilman (the leader of Bassett Furniture for many years). Bob came to High Point from an organization called the Wood Office Furniture Institute, which was the precursor or forerunner of the National Office Products Association. Bob had been an airline pilot for American Airlines. I’m not sure how he wandered into the association management business. He was based in Washington, where most trade associations were based. Bob was a great boss. I learned a great deal from Bob. His approach was, “Doug, here is your project. I need it by October 31st.” Then he got out of the way and let me do the project how I felt it should be done.
That’s pretty much the way I tried to run things once I became the boss. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to micromanage somebody’s performance. I didn’t feel that they learned anything if I said you are going to do this and that, because there’s no learning experience in that. Bob got at cross purposes somehow with the powers that be. I was pretty far removed
from the power center at that point. He was summarily dismissed.
Another young man who had been there three or four years when I arrived, Doug Kerr, was named as the executive vice president. I moved to the position of corporate secretary at that point. A few years later, Doug got at cross purposes with the powers that be, and he was dismissed. And I was named in his stead as the executive vice president.
INTERVIEWER: Let me go back. What was the approximate date when you joined the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association?
BRACKETT: October of ’66.
INTERVIEWER: And the association was actually based in Washington, where Bob Spelman was?
BRACKETT: No. The association was always based here in High Point, but Bob worked mostly in Washington. There was another association called the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers. They were based in Chicago and, roughly, the membership in the two groups fell north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Ethan Allen, La-Z-Boy and other Northern manufacturers were primarily members of the national group. The Broyhills, Bassetts, Stanleys and so forth were members of the Southern group. A few, like Norwalk and Tell City, belonged to both groups; maybe five or six companies did that. There were a lot of animosities that preceded my arrival that I never quite understood because they were old animosities. Eventually, the leaders of the industry and external influences pushed a merger between the national group and Southern group, and hence the American Furniture Manufacturers Association was formed. That took place in 1984.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember what your first project or assignment was when you joined the SFMA?
BRACKETT: Interestingly enough, other than maintaining the job that Frasier had been doing before being drafted, one thing I had very little interest in at the time was traveling as part of the job. I was assured there would be no traveling, but within 30 days, I was on a cruise ship headed for Caracas, Venezuela, because the association had decided to get the membership together on this cruise ship. That was a 14-day experience that was wonderful for me because I was literally sequestered with 200 members for 14 days. I don’t know how long it would normally take an association guy to get to know 200 members, but it’d be a heck of a lot longer than 14 days, that’s for sure. So it turned out to be a great experience. Not only from the travel point of view, but from the point of view of assimilating into the organization and getting to know the more influential members at that time.
INTERVIEWER: Who were some of the major people that stand out in your mind as interesting and important people in those first days?
BRACKETT: There were a lot, some of whom you probably have never heard of because they filled the ranks in areas other than marketing or as CEOs. Among the leadership group, there were some truly interesting people that unfortunately passed away before the American Furniture Hall of Fame got going. One I recall was Richard Johnston. He got started at American Drew, which was ultimately sold to LADD. He was a very dapper fellow and always had a bow tie on. Most positive guy you’ve ever seen in your life. At one time, he held the air speed record for flying jet planes. The amazing thing to me about our group, and I don’t know how pervasive this would be in the industry, is how many were pilots in World War II. There were a number of them, who were all pilots in World War II. Smith Young of Lexington was a commander in the Navy. A number of people who had leadership positions in the military also had some role in the development of some of the companies in the furniture industry.
John Christian Bernhardt was one of the most amazing guys I had the opportunity to watch in action. He had the ability to take the most complex emotional issue and reduce it to a simple sentence that took all the heat and all the fervor out of the discussion and made it a simple “yes” or “no”. Just absolutely amazing. I can’t remember who ran the commercial, but the tagline was that when so-and-so speaks, everyone listens. John Christian was that man.
Clyde Hooker was another outstanding guy. He was probably the best people person in the industry. He knew every employee in every one of his plants by name. His production manager told me that the first thing he did every day was go by the personnel office to find out who was newly hired because, before the day was over, Clyde Hooker was going to want to know how so-and-so was doing over in the sanding department. He was just that kind of man. He had a photographic memory. I don’t think anyone I ran into had more knowledge about all sorts of details than he did. He was a very low-key guy, but spend 20 minutes with him, and you knew you were talking to someone special.
Smith Young was probably the most direct and outspoken guy I had an opportunity to work with. I loved Smith. He was just a great guy. I was in his office one day and his secretary said that so-and-so was on the line. Smith said, “I need to take this call.” Lexington, or Dixie as it was called at the time, had the reputation that if you’ve got the money, you can carry the line. It was open to anybody, and there were no exceptions for anybody. This retailer was on the phone, and obviously was asking for an exclusive on a certain suit. Smith said, “Yes sir, you can have an exclusive on that suit. But let me ask you a question: What are you going to do with 500 suits?” The guy said, “I don’t want 500 suits.” Smith said: “That’s the entire cutting. If you want an exclusive, you buy the whole damn cutting. If you don’t, you buy what you need.” He just didn’t mince words with anybody.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell what the retailer’s response was?
BRACKETT: I think it was dead silence.
INTERVIEWER: You’re talking about some of the giants of the industry here.
BRACKETT: Some of the more colorful people were guys who were down the line. I’ve always been fascinated with manufacturing. I like to talk to the people about what a machine does, how it fits in, what the problems and advantages are. There was a production manager at Bernhardt, Colin Prestwood that was just a colorful character. There was a regulation passed about what you do with wipe rags out of the finish room, which soaked up all kinds of finishing material. The local laundries wouldn’t take them. The state wouldn’t let the factories bury them in landfills for obvious reasons.
So, Colin was burning them in the furnace. One of the air pollution inspection guys was passing by and saw black smoke coming from the plant. He stopped, went down to the boiler room, and said, “You’ve got to stop that.” Colin said, “What am I supposed to do with them?” He said, “I don’t care what you do with them, but you can’t burn them.” Colin said, “I’m going to burn them.” The guy said, “I’m going to write you a citation for every one you throw in there.” Colin said, “You better get a sharp pencil because I’m going to work your ass off this afternoon.” He kept throwing the rags in. I don’t know if the guy wrote the citations or not.
These production guys were, early on, dominant forces at the plant. Plant managers were kind of king. In some companies, the company president didn’t go into the plant until he told the manager he was coming. They controlled production, controlled the employees, controlled the costs. They were among the most important people in the industry who got very little recognition outside their company or peer group.
INTERVIEWER: When you joined the SFMA office, describe the operation. How many people were actually working in the High Point office?
BRACKETT: There were eight or nine. Our structure was different from most associations. If you put our organization chart against a furniture company’s organization chart, they’d pretty much dovetail. Our managing group was made up of CEOs who set the policy and so forth. Under that, we also had divisions that covered the five big areas: manufacturing, human resources, finance, transportation and distribution, and marketing.
Each of those divisions had its own board of directors and committee structure made up of people who filled those job responsibilities at their respective companies. Our HR group was made up of HR managers, production managers for manufacturing, transportation managers and so forth. That made it very easy for the staff to identify problems that were going to affect the industry, and to have a pool of people who were going to be affected by the regulation, and would know the impact of the regulation, and know more about how to solve that particular problem than the CEOs.
This was just the way the organization had grown up. I thought it was among the more effective structures in association work that I had seen, and it was very different from the associations for the kitchen cabinet guys, the bedding manufacturers, and to some extent, the retailers. They all had totally different structures and worked almost exclusively with the CEOs.
When you put EPA (environmental) problems on the table, the first thing you have to do is educate the CEOs most of the time. When you get to engineers, they knew everything there was to be known about the problem, and you didn’t have that education process to go through. They would develop the recommendations for how you handle the problem. They’d make a recommendation to the SFMA board of directors. After questions and discussions and so forth, the board would say, “Yeah, that’s the way we ought to attack that problem.” That’s pretty much the way we worked.
Although, certainly, there have been enough changes in the industry to alter the manufacturing and personnel functions. Much of the production is moving to China, Vietnam, the Philippines, wherever the product is coming from. I don’t know exactly how they’re managing those functions today. Certainly, that’s one of the big changes that had to take place within the association. Organization structure had to evolve differently.
INTERVIEWER: So you got associated particularly with the manufacturing and production function?
BRACKETT: Manufacturing was the area that interested me. At one time or another, I had the direct responsibility for each of the divisions. It was an education at every level. I knew zero about the transportation function especially when dealing with guys like Burlington who had a huge transportation function in both furniture and textiles. Lane had a huge transportation function. Broyhill had a huge transportation function. Most of the upholstery guys ran their own trucks. It was an opportunity to learn far more about that end of the business than I ever would have known otherwise.
Most of these functions turned out to be very fascinating and far more complex than you’d think from looking on the surface.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t mention a sales and marketing division.
BRACKETT: I neglected to mention that. There was a sales and marketing division in the SFMA.
INTERVIEWER: That was there when you arrived and wasn’t created later?
BRACKETT: When I arrived, there was the production cost division, which was later changed to manufacturing. The cost part was spun off into the finance division as the job responsibility evolved. It became the finance division. And there was the sales and marketing division. The original association actually began as a transportation organization primarily to struggle with and fight against what were seen as transportation cost inequities between shipping north and shipping south.
I’m not sure how that all started, but as an example, if Baker was shipping a chair from Grand Rapids (Michigan) to Charlotte (North Carolina), the cost might be a dollar. If Broyhill was shipping a chair from Charlotte to Grand Rapids, it was $2. So the Southern guys banded together to fight what they perceived as, and in fact were, inequities in the cost of distributing the product. Once that became more marginalized if not outright changed, then the low-cost labor and ready availability of lumber in the South really came into play. But transportation was still critical. Many, if not most, of these early furniture companies in the South were all built along railroads because that was the primary method of distributing the product then. The availability of timber and labor — because they were shifting from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy at that time in the South — gave the Southern furniture factories a pretty substantial edge, particularly in popular priced merchandise.
INTERVIEWER: When you joined in 1966, can you remember approximately what the membership was, and the dues structure?
BRACKETT: The membership in the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association was probably around 350 to 400 companies. Many of those still survive today under another name. The dues structure capped out, if I remember correctly, at $10,000. That was the maximum dues that the biggest guy paid, no matter how much he sold. It was all based on sales volume. No matter how large your sales grew, you paid no more than that.
One of the constant struggles any trade association had was raising dues. It’s like trying to raise taxes. Nobody likes that. We finally moved to a scale that kept us more in line with what was needed, particularly in the Carter years where inflation was so high that if you stayed static, you were losing ground. As long as we were able to show that the services we provided were commensurate with the increase, we were OK. When we opened the Washington office, that was a rather substantial hit to the budget that had to be covered by a dues increase.
Once we merged with the NAFM, the Northern factory group, the woodworking machinery show became a very important source of revenue for the association. In fact, that show pretty much eliminated the need for dues increases for a long time after the show moved to Atlanta and absolutely exploded, not only in the square footage it occupied, but the amount of money that was thrown off. You may or may not even know this, but the Cahners Group (which acquired Furniture/Today in the late 1980s) was the first manager of the machinery show, in conjunction with the machine manufacturers associations, who were the minority partners in the show.
After two shows, for whatever reason, Cahners was replaced by an in-house management team who ran the show from that point forward.
INTERVIEWER: How would these 350 to 400 SFMA members have been recruited? Was it a constant effort that had to be made, or did they naturally flock to the association?
BRACKETT: No, nobody flocked. The services being provided were important because, with the structure we were using, we were able to develop programs that solved many of the problems each company otherwise would have had to solve on their own. Like when OSHA passed hearing conservation regulations for factory floors. You had to have a plan and a real program for what you were going to do about that. Working with the committees and some engineers from N.C. State University, we put together a program. If you followed this program, you had this thing whipped. That was the case in a lot of areas, particularly with health and safety regulations becoming more and more important.
The UFAC (Upholstered Furniture Action Council) is a classic example, probably the best example any trade association will ever have for holding the government at bay and saving its members money. It was started probably within three or four years after I arrived. That’s probably going on 40 years. There’s still no flammability regulation on upholstered furniture as far as I know.
I don’t know what it would have cost any given furniture manufacturer to comply with some of the cockamamie ideas some folks put forward in the name of fire safety, but working with some testing laboratories and upholstery experts and foam manufacturers, we were able to stop them at every turn. If you can save a guy $10,000 a year, that pays his dues forever and a day. Particularly an average, smaller-sized company. There’s no reason not to join anymore. It was a clear case of benefits far exceeding costs. Obviously, the bigger the companies became, some felt there was less and less need for the association because they could hire all this stuff on their own.
When that took place, they were then exposed on their own. As long as they were a member of the association, they could say I’m participating in this committee or that committee or this activity, and we’re trying to develop this solution to that problem. When they decided to strike out on their own, they were being picked off one at a time. A few did leave, but they came back for that very reason. The cover the association provided was worth whatever the dues were.
INTERVIEWER: You described the Upholstered Furniture Action Council, or UFAC as we refer to it in the industry. Were you personally involved in creating that program?
BRACKETT: Yes. It started out really as a joint effort between the NAFM and the SFMA. We had co-chairmen, Bill Stevens from Broyhill and Bob Cortelyou from Mohasco. As time went by, it became apparent that the smart thing to do was to put this on its own footing. So UFAC actually was incorporated and spun off as a separate entity. Roy Briggs was the secretary for a long time. It was still made up primarily of representatives from the upholstered furniture industry, with some advice from foam companies, and guys who produced backing for upholstery fabric.
The government tried to say that the mattress industry can do this (make a product less likely to catch on fire). Except with a mattress, you’ve got a flat surface and a welt, and that’s about it. With upholstery, you’ve got sides, backs, tufts, arms and 100 different kinds of fabrics. The bedding people primarily used one fabric.
It’s just an example of what an industry can do if a program is structured properly and has the interest of the industry at heart. Too many association activities are totally staff driven. They reflect what the staff thinks of the problem as opposed to what the industry might think is the problem. One of the things that we’ve really tried to focus on is making sure we’re not out front saying this, that or the other, when the industry is back here saying, “Wait a minute.” We wanted to be at the same place the industry was in addressing any issues.
INTERVIEWER: So one of the major functions of the association was to defend the industry against state and federal regulations?
BRACKETT: Absolutely. That’s what led to the opening of the Washington office. That probably took place maybe a year or so before the merger of the two groups. We first tried to manage the Washington office like we tried to manage UFAC. It became pretty apparent that was an exercise in futility. You were not going to be able to have two leaders supervising one office. That was one of the precursors that pushed the merger of the two groups. Don Belgrad of Schnadig was probably the person who took the first major step towards merging.
INTERVIEWER: He would have been with the Northern group. Schnadig was based in Chicago, right?
BRACKETT: They had plants in a couple of places. Don was president of NAFM at the time.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the early ’80s?
BRACKETT: Yes. Probably late ’82, early ’83. The merger was consummated on January 1, 1984. Don on his own went to Washington and fired the NAFM staff. I’m not sure how that reverberated in the NAFM membership, but it certainly opened the door for merger discussions. That went on probably for a year. There was an awful lot of heat early on concerning the merger. A lot of it was animosity that I didn’t understand, that happened years ago. “They put my furniture out on the street in Grand Rapids. I’ll be damned if I ever have anything to do with those guys,” a Southern guy might say. That sort of old, 40-years-ago stuff. And once the talks got started, it became apparent that these guys really didn’t need to talk much about association membership because there were a lot of friendships between NAFM members and SFMA members. They began to look at it in a more personal way: “Tony is a member of NAFM, and he’s a nice guy. I get along well with him.”
So that went along for a year or so. We had a couple of get-to-know gatherings, particularly at the Dallas Market, since that was sort of neutral territory. We found out that they did have a lot of these relationships across the Mason-Dixon Line. When it came time to vote, I can’t remember precisely, but at our annual meeting, when we voted on the merger, I think there were 107 companies represented at that meeting, and of those 107, 101 voted for the merger. It was kind of an unprecedented action on the Southern side because the six or seven who voted against the merger were companies like Lane, Bassett, Broyhill.
INTERVIEWER: The big guys.
BRACKETT: Yes. Before then, any coalition of those guys would probably have put the issue on the back burner or up for further study. But at that point, it was approved. Hamp Powell, to his unending credit...
INTERVIEWER: He was the head of Lane?
BRACKETT: Right. Another interesting man. Hamp basically stood up and said, “It’s over. We’ve got an industry to protect. We’ve got things we must do as an industry. That’s not the way I would have wanted it to happen, but it’s how it’s happening. I’m going to be first in line.” Nobody that I know of in the industry put his money where his mouth was as much as Hamp Powell did.
INTERVIEWER: So he initially opposed the merger of the Southern and Northern factory groups on what basis?
BRACKETT: Old animosities like the Hatfields and McCoys, apparently. It all predated me. I never quite could figure it out. There were market issues that apparently got pretty rowdy. Chicago had become the big market, overtaking the Grand Rapids market, where many of the Northern producers were once concentrated. Many of the Southern guys supported the move to Chicago, but some apparently didn’t feel they were treated fairly at either of these markets. There were stories about setting one or two of them out on the street in Chicago at the market. Those vendor feelings die hard, I suppose.
Getting back to Hamp Powell. When the upholstered flammability issue cropped up in California, Mr. Powell got on an airplane and rounded up five or six guys in the industry, went to California, stayed three or four weeks, paid for the whole thing out of Lane’s treasury, I guess. He just was a guy that when it came time to move, he moved. If it took his own money to get it done, that’s what he did.
We were having trouble with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission up in Washington. I don’t remember if that was flammability or not. Mr. Powell made four or five trips to Washington on his own to talk to these people. Of course, he could never get an appointment, but he was persevering. He found out what time the chairman of the commission came to work and where he parked his car. When he came to work, Mr. Powell was parked right beside him. Instead of having an appointment, he made his points in the parking garage, in the elevator, and on the way to the office.
He was just that kind of guy. When he thought something needed to be done, he just moved on out. He was not always right, but he certainly moved out and would shake the bushes and things would happen as a result of that.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Don Belgrad of Schnadig on the Northern side. Who were the pro-merger leaders in the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association that got the job done? You mentioned Hamp Powell coming around, but he obviously wasn’t in favor of this.
BRACKETT: The leadership at the time was Don Hunziker, John Boardman with Sam Moore Chair, Larry Whalen with Berkline, and I can’t remember the fourth member of the executive committee of the association at the time.
INTERVIEWER: Would it have been Alex Bernhardt?
BRACKETT: It may well have been.
INTERVIEWER: I thought he was one of the Southern people involved in pushing the merger.
BRACKETT: He certainly was in favor. I can’t remember exactly who the members of the executive committee were. But the two executive committees would meet. A host of issues had to be ironed out. With Don kind of leading the charge, he just made sure that there were no real issues that the Southern group had that weren’t resolved in their favor.
I’m reluctant to say this, but it almost was a NAFM surrender. Of all the issues that were to be resolved — staff, office location, and so on, every one of them were resolved in favor of the Southern position. We would be incorporated in Washington, but everything else, who would be the bankers, the auditors, the office location, all that stuff wound up here in High Point, the things the Southern group was doing. To their credit, all that went smoothly. No board member was thrown off at first. The Southern group elected a group of board members the first year, and so did the NAFM, so the first year, we had a board of 90 or 100 people.
INTERVIEWER: Which was very unwieldy.
BRACKETT: The second year, we just elected 11. Third year, we elected 11. Fourth year, we elected 11 and wound up with a board of 33, which I assume is where it is today. That’s still a big board, but when you look at the industry, you’ve not only got case goods and upholstery, occasional tables, lamps and mirrors, but you’ve got price points that have to be considered as well. The Bakers didn’t care much about what the Broyhills were doing in terms of marketing or anything else. They were in the same business, but operating in a different category all together.
You had to try to get all these constituents represented. It worked out pretty well. It was a little laborious at times when you had an issue that everybody wanted to talk about, but by and large, it worked pretty well.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any people in the Northern group that simply refused to go along? You described it almost as a surrender. Were you aware of any of the die-hards that Mr. Belgrad may have had to deal with in the Northern group?
BRACKETT: I’m not. I’m sure there were some because they were having their own meetings and discussions back and forth. I’m sure there were some hard feelings. Probably the most contentious thing from the NAFM side would have been the woodworking machinery show. It literally was the cash cow. No ifs, ands or buts about that.
INTERVIEWER: If I recall, this was being sponsored largely by the Northern group, the Atlanta show that became known as the IWF (International Woodworking Fair). Every other year, machinery and equipment suppliers would show at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.
BRACKETT: Before that, it was at the fairgrounds in Louisville. The machinery guys, who were basically the exhibitors, hated Louisville. It was a union shop. They weren’t allowed to bring in their own operators or lift trucks. They’d say, “I’ve got a half-a-million-dollar piece of machinery here and you’ve got some jackleg to unload this thing. He doesn’t know squat about where the balance points are, how it should be handled.”
Within the machinery suppliers segment, there were two groups. One was the Woodworking Machinery Manufacturers of America, who were basically U.S. manufacturers. Then there was the Woodworking Machinery Importers Association, who basically brought in Italian, German, Japanese stuff. The importers group was so furious at Louisville that they broke off and became the first to take the show to Atlanta. They were aligned with the World Congress Center, which ran the show. They had two shows in Atlanta. The first was modestly successful. The second was a disaster.
This would have been about 1980. After that, again, discussions took place between the machinery groups. NAFM was the majority owner of the machine show; they owned two-thirds of it. The machinery guys owned a third. They had discussions back and forth and decided they’d move the whole show to Atlanta. At the same time, we were involved with NAFM with merger discussions.
They had the show and we had the big machinery users. It sort of became a stalemate there. Who would have the biggest advantage in that particular negotiation? Don Belgrad pointed out that if you’ve had one association, all the money goes to one association, and that would provide benefits for all the members. So it worked out well. Of course, when they hired the professional staff to run the IWF show, it just ballooned and became unbelievably successful. Looking back, everybody was happy with the way things worked out.
INTERVIEWER: Did the Southern manufacturers ever try to create their own machinery show?
BRACKETT: When they were finishing the renovation of the Tomlinson factory in High Point, which became Market Square, we had a little machinery show over there. Then, later, we had one in Greensboro. With that little show in the basement level of Tomlinson, for the first time, we showed our members what a show could do. We put it together in less than 90 days, gave away two pickup trucks to try to induce attendance, gave away two paid family vacations to Disney World, and still walked away with about $50,000. We did that, in part, because in the early stages of the merger discussions, the NAFM wasn’t disclosing anything about their finances. In the basement of Tomlinson, in 90 days, we put together a show that paid all those expenses and still had $50,000 leftover. Let’s face it, $50,000 was a pretty attractive number in those days. So our members became more interested in the IWF show. It has turned out to be a godsend for the entire industry and it helps the association keep its dues modest.
INTERVIEWER: Would it be a fair description to say that by the early ’80s, the center of gravity in the furniture manufacturing industry had pretty much shifted to the South? There were still some significant Northern manufacturers, but not many compared to...
BRACKETT: They also had plants in the South, which helped facilitate things.
INTERVIEWER: Which was why some were members of both groups, I assume.
BRACKETT: Ethan Allen had a huge plant up around Old Fort (North Carolina). La-Z-Boy had plants in Tennessee and Mississippi. The industry was beginning to become more homogenized through the natural order of things. Then, when a merger wave came in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was literally a circus all of a sudden. The guys told me they were getting calls from company’s just cold calling and asking, “Are you interested in selling your company?”
INTERVIEWER: Were these brokers, investment banks?
BRACKETT: Some were companies, like Mohasco, which was basically a carpet company that decided they were going into home furnishings. There was a list at one time, I think (industry analyst) Jerry Epperson or maybe somebody else compiled it, of all the various companies that had been in and out of the furniture industry. It was absolutely amazing. It was insane.
There was a guy with Fortune magazine who wrote an article in April of ’67. I can’t remember the exact number he used, but it was like 5,280 companies, a screwed up furniture industry. It had a picture of all the Bassett management team standing on a railroad track in Virginia. He called them the daddy rabbits of the furniture industry. His premise, and I’m sure that’s what drove this merger mania mainly...was that if these idiots, who knew almost nothing about management and sophisticated manufacturing, could make 10 percent after-tax profit, just imagine what could happen if you come in with your sophisticated management techniques and your understanding of automation and marketing.
Then all the sudden, it was just insane. Champion Paper bought Drexel. Georgia Pacific bought Williams. Burlington bought United. It was just a smorgasbord of people who had little connection with the industry, other than Burlington which made textiles, and Mead and Champion used lumber to make paper.
I remember a guy from Mead Paper came down after they had bought Stanley. He wanted to know how many king-sized beds, queen-sized beds, single beds, trundle beds, bunk beds and chests were made every year. I said, “I don’t have any idea.” He said: “What? You don’t know? I can tell you how many reams of paper were produced by the paper industry last year.” I said, “I suspect you can because you’re all publicly held.” None of our guys to speak of were publicly held. I said, “If you think they’re going to tell you anything about how many beds or chests or dressers they make, you’re nuts. They won’t even tell me.” So you wound up with some frustrated people who bought into the industry without doing their homework first, who wanted to know all this detailed marketing information.
It would have been wonderful for anybody to have known. We did a monthly statistical report that you may have remembered seeing. Ken Smith at Smith Leonard (formerly BDO Seidman) does it now. We had guys who participated in that who wouldn’t even allow us to disclose that they had participated. Not to tell what their numbers were, but that I had about 60 companies that participated, and you’d have just been listed as one of the 60 companies who participated in this report. “If you tell them, we won’t participate anymore.”
So a lot of people outside the industry looked at us like we were a bunch of idiots. But in order to get the information we were able to get, we had to guarantee that there would be total anonymity. It was an interesting mentality that prevailed about that sort of thing. Every time you lost an employee, your information went right along with it to your competitor.
INTERVIEWER: So there was a lot of knowledge within the industry, but no one was ever willing to pool all the data in a single source, except through the SFMA.
BRACKETT: And then in a totally anonymous way. We had a group of guys (this was just when computers were coming in) that put together a code that would have given all that information, except it was so laborious to put together that it never flew. In today’s environment, I see no reason why it couldn’t work. I think there was a nine-digit code. You had one digit for market segment: residential, commercial, hotel, motel. You had another digit for style: traditional, contemporary. There were three digits for individual products. It could be done very easily now, except you’ve got so many corporate entities involved today. I don’t know if they’d go to the trouble of doing it or not. The smaller, independent companies could have. If everything had remained static and computers had advanced to the rather simple stage they’re in today as far as industry utilization is concerned, we could have had a report that told you how many Early American queen-size beds with a maple finish had been made, or whatever else the code would cover. We ran a few sample reports of three or four companies working on the committee and it worked, but it took six months to do the last quarter’s work which was too laborious at the time.
INTERVIEWER: How did this early wave of mergers and acquisitions affect the SFMA? Did it make it harder to recruit and maintain membership?
BRACKETT: No, not materially. Most of them just bought the management team of the particular companies.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t see association dues as an unneeded expense? They weren’t out to get the company out of the association?
BRACKETT: In fact, a lot of them brought companies to the party who weren’t members. They considered the dues a nominal expense. We derived a great deal of benefit in some areas from these mergers. They brought professional and environmental people into the association. They had to learn whatever they had to learn with on-the-job experience. These guys were trained in those areas and helped a great deal on some of the very technical issues that cropped up, like water-based finishes.
The government was absolutely convinced that you could make a product with water-based finishes that looked as good as one with an oil-based finish. We fought and fought with them. Finally, under their supervision, we had about 10 plants volunteer to make their product with conventional finishes and with water-based finishes. We put them on the stage at the theater in High Point during a Market. Then we called retailers in at random off the street to judge the product. Universally, the water-based finishes were rejected.
To the bureaucrat’s eye, one looked as good as the other because they had no idea. But to the trained retail eye, they just rejected the water-based finish out of hand. Then the EPA accused us of stacking the deck and bringing in people who were prompted. They’re still working on water-based finishes, although the finishing houses have apparently done a pretty good job on that issue. Like other kinds of things that come out of left field all of a sudden, no one company stood a chance of defeating that. Collectively, with all the brainpower that was available through the individual companies, and with assistance from the finishing houses, we were able to put on a pretty good case and hold that thing at bay.
I don’t know if it’s still at bay or not, but it’s just another case in point of where mergers were a benefit to the industry, and where the associations were a benefit to everybody who used finishing materials.
INTERVIEWER: So the key was the association offered the services the membership needed. It didn’t matter who owned the company, it sounds like.
BRACKETT: Pretty much, because most of the outsiders really didn’t understand the furniture industry and how it worked. Take a company like Georgia Pacific, which had tremendous stands of timber. Their process was, we cut trees one day, we make pulp the next day, we make paper the next day, and we ship the next day. They could never grasp why a furniture maker had oak lumber sitting in the yard for four, five, six months, air-drying. Invariably, they’d get down to the end of the quarter, and they would need cash or need to adjust inventory, and they would tell the furniture guys to sell the lumber. The guys would protest, “But we were going to put that into a cutting next month.” They’d say: “It doesn’t matter. We need the cash now and need to adjust inventory. Sell the lumber.” They’d sell the lumber. Now, to start the cutting, they’d have to go buy somebody else’s lumber. The bean counter doesn’t understand now why his lumber variance is out of sync, because kiln-dried costs more than air-dried lumber. There seemed to be a never-ending cycle of people flowing into the industry that had no basic understanding of the industry and tried to push the industry into their business model, which didn’t work very well.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s focus on your career, which went from joining the SFMA as a neophyte in 1966 to becoming the executive vice president or executive director of a merged national American Furniture Manufacturers Association. Describe the steps along the way as you moved up the ranks.
BRACKETT: Actually, there were only two steps. One was when Bob Spelman was removed. I moved into the corporate secretary position, which automatically expanded my role. This was probably ’71, ’72.
INTERVIEWER: So you’d been there for five or six years and had done a bunch of studies and gotten into a lot of furniture plants, things like that. As corporate secretary, what were your duties?
BRACKETT: I was responsible for most of the official documents of the organization. The minutes, the filing of tax returns, and other kinds of government reports, as well as my old job, which continued. Being corporate secretary put me into a broader sphere of out-of-the-office stuff, like testifying in Washington on certain issues that came up, where everybody felt the association ought to speak as opposed to individual companies. There was some concern about an individual company being too high profile. They were afraid they’d get targeted by the federal government.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the first time you went to Washington to testify in front of a congressional group?
BRACKETT: It was a regulatory hearing on hearing conservation.
INTERVIEWER: An auditory issue?
BRACKETT: Obviously, furniture plants are noisy. That would have been a hearing before OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Again, the recommendations the government had come down with were cumbersome and questionable in effectiveness. They wanted us to build houses on the plant floors around some of the noisier machines. Some of those machines can’t operate in a closed environment, and that also would capture all the noise for the machine operator. They proposed a host of screwy things.
We were using a group of North Carolina State University professors to conduct training on how to conduct hearing tests, and how to interpret them. For example, no matter what you did to a saw blade, it made less noise than it did coming from the saw blade manufacturer. You could put felt around it, bend it, make it thinner. Anything would be less noisy.
This group out of N.C. State was made up of production engineers and mechanical engineers. We also had a consulting firm. I went to Washington to testify on behalf of the furniture industry, and lo and behold, there are those same guys making money on the side because they were N.C. State professors lobbying for noise control. Obviously, they were going to make a lot more money if there was some regulation the factories had to adhere to, and they would be hired to help meet the rules. I wound up in a confrontation with them in front of this group over that very issue. They shouldn’t have been working both sides of the street, helping industry and lobbying for more regulation on the industry, which would feather their own nest.
That was just one of the hearings where I testified. We had many administrative hearings with project managers over things like water-based finishes. It wasn’t always a full-blown hearing in Washington, but you always had to meet with these guys and explain what was going on from the industry’s point of view. There was a lot of that going on. It just seemed like every regulation they proposed for a while hit the furniture industry squarely between the eyes.
The regulators, not knowing any more than they knew about the industry, had what they believed to be perfectly good proposed answers to problems. Once you got down to the nitty-gritty, they weren’t answers at all. They were just further problems. Like building a house around a machine to control noise. The guy running the machine is going to go nuts. As time went by, there seemed to be more and more of that.
INTERVIEWER: Did the federal regulators, the staffs of the commissions in Washington, go to any furniture plants to take a quick look around?
BRACKETT: Only after the industry raised its head.
INTERVIEWER: So these regulations came from theories?
BRACKETT: There was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina who wrote his master’s thesis about nasal cancer in workers at furniture manufacturers. This guy studied counties in North Carolina which had at least 3 percent employment in the furniture industry over a 20-year period. He found 37 cases of nasal cancer in those counties over this 20-year period. Nobody in the industry had ever even heard of nasal cancer. We requested the death certificates of these 37 people. They were farmers or housewives or schoolteachers, all kinds of other careers. There were five who had an association with the furniture industry. Statistically, according to this report, if you work in the furniture industry, you’re four times more likely to get nasal cancer than the population at large. Is that a big problem? Five cases in 20 years out of 40,000 employees? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration decided that it was. Now we’re talking about dust control in the furniture plant. If you’ve ever been in a furniture plant, it’s darn near impossible to avoid dust. We spent Lord knows how much time fooling around with that until we finally...
INTERVIEWER: There already were dust collection systems in the plants at that point?
BRACKETT: Yes, there were. At the point the blade hits the wood, you’ve got a certain amount of residue that will go hither and yon. This issue not only got the furniture industry’s interest, but everybody in the wood business, including Georgia Pacific and so forth. The same issue with formaldehyde cropped up. We had to go through all this testing and angst and researching other industries all around the world for nasal cancer. Long story short, except for a few people in the government who would have regulated anything they could regulate, everybody concluded that wood dust as a nasal cancer problem, wasn’t a problem.
The latent period from exposure to dust to development of nasal cancer is 40 years. In that 40 year span, these were not people who worked in the furniture industry all of the time. One of them happened to be a woman who worked as a clerical person in the office. Didn’t get in the factory, but she was affiliated with the furniture industry. It was those kinds of things that kept everybody up in the air, and a lot of time, money and energy was wasted on addressing those non-issue issues.
INTERVIEWER: Did the SFMA have enough staff people to do all this?
BRACKETT: We relied quite heavily on the division structures with those people who were mechanical engineers or industrial engineers and knew how to address these issues. If I read one of those regulations and tried to say, “There is going to be this impact on the furniture industry,” I may or may not be 50 percent right. These guys who were there every day could read that and say, “This is a major problem.” That’s where we got the information and did most of the assessing, at that level.
Where the rubber meets the road, be it affirmative action in employment, or if you let 50-foot trailers ride on the highways ... you name it. We had guys in place who were going to have to live with regulations, who knew the issues and provided pretty good guidance.
INTERVIEWER: So you pooled the industry’s expertise and focused it in Washington?
BRACKETT: Yes. For me, personally, it turned out to be a terrific education in just how loony the federal government could be, and the state governments too. It was over really non-issue issues. The nasal cancer thing probably being the most blatant we got involved with.
INTERVIEWER: Day to day as corporate secretary, you were supervising the creation of documents and the pooling of industry knowledge to write reports for various regulatory bodies. How else would you describe your duties at that point?
BRACKETT: We had a lot of meetings that we had to participate in, set up, and that sort of thing. That took a fair amount of time – on occasion, traveling to Tennessee, spending all day and night, and driving back the next day. You had some time constraints that got imposed in the normal routine with trying to address these issues.
INTERVIEWER: So you did a fair amount of traveling.
BRACKETT: Yes, not long-distance, not long-term, but trips to Washington pretty regularly and down to Mississippi to talk with those guys. I would go to the markets and stay two or three days to solicit memberships and visit people. Some companies that showed in Dallas, who were maybe from Colorado or New Mexico, didn’t come to High Point so we had a chance to say hello and remind them that we were still there. They wouldn’t send people all the way here for meetings and so forth unless there was something that really impacted them significantly.
INTERVIEWER: Was there a fairly constant churning of the membership, or were things fairly stable?
BRACKETT: Very stable. In fact, if we got a company into the membership for, say, two years, most of the time they’d stay. You always had a lot of startups who, because we were a repository of all kinds of information, might join so they could get whatever information they thought they needed. Most of them were under-capitalized and didn’t last more than two years. We had some turnover with those kinds of companies, but not the guys who were established and had been in business five or 10 years, or many of the founding companies like Lane and Thomasville. We didn’t have much trouble with those guys.
Every now and again, you’d get one of the corporate raider types that would come in and pull them out. But once they were divested, the guys came back in. There were a lot of accusations that took place. The outsiders usually came to realize that this (industry) is an animal they didn’t understand. They’d walk away, and we’d get those guys back.
INTERVIEWER: So in ’71, ’72, you were corporate secretary. That was the first of only two steps?
BRACKETT: That’s true.
INTERVIEWER: Take us to the next step.
BRACKETT: The next step happened when Doug Kerr and the guy who ran the Washington office got in a pissing contest. Each had their supporters.
INTERVIEWER: What was the disagreement about?
BRACKETT: How the Washington office was being run. The guy in the Washington office was supposed to be an exclusive employee of ours, but was representing other companies as well. That was the bone of contention, but nothing could ever be proven. The board had a late-night meeting when we were having the annual board of directors meeting and decided that the only resolution was to fire both men. I had supporters and detractors, as you might imagine. They wanted to make me the acting vice president. This would have been ’79, maybe.
I said: “No, you just leave my title alone. I’ll do whatever you want me to do in terms of running the organization, but don’t give me half a promotion and then turn around and give me half a demotion if I don’t get the job. Just call me the secretary, and I’ll run the show as well as I can run it. You guys decide after I’ve been at it for a while whether I’m the man or not. If I’m not, then I don’t get embarrassed by being moved back down, and nobody gets their hopes up by being given half a promotion. Leave things alone. I’ll do what I can. At the end of the day, if I get it, fine. If I don’t, I’ll decide what I’m going to do next.”
That went on for about nine months. Then I was named executive vice president. Interestingly enough, one of the guys said: “Other than being the general manager of a country club, I can’t think of any more tenuous position than running a trade association. You’ve got 350 prima donnas out here who think their problem is the worst in the world.” I’m sure not everybody was always happy with everything we did, but in the time I was there, we literally didn’t have any major flaps involving the staff.
INTERVIEWER: How were you able to get along with these 350 prima donnas?
BRACKETT: I tended to listen. If I disagreed, I made sure I had a valid reason for disagreeing. I could point factually to things that members would propose. I never took the “you’ve-got-to-be-the-dumbest-guy-in-the-world-to-believe-that attitude, which some association managers do. Mostly, I tried to just be steady. That is, I was not way out in front of everybody saying, “Hey guys, this is where we’ve got to go.” And I certainly did not want to be behind where they were going. I tried to stay right where they were all the time. If it was an issue that was affecting a lot of people, I was trying to learn everything I could and gain all the information I could gain. So if it went this way, I could still be maybe slightly ahead. I didn’t want to be way out here crying in the wilderness. Mostly just trying to be steady and trying to make sure that what we were doing was in concert with what the board wanted us to do.
INTERVIEWER: You must have maintained very good relationships with the board and its chairman.
BRACKETT: I did have good relationships with just about everybody that was on the board, and certainly with the executive committee. I worked so much more closely with them. I got to know them better, and they got to know me better. The other thing is most of the people in the furniture industry were generally nice people. Yeah, there are a few guys that thought their ideas were far better than anybody else’s. But they were few and far between and usually on isolated issues. It wasn’t like the neighborhood bully, who every time he saw you, wanted to pick on you.
Sometimes a guy would have a unique situation within his operation that made what he needed to have done different than what the rest of the industry needed to have done. In those instances, you tried to find a way to help him get it done, and at the same time, do what was right for the rest of the industry.
INTERVIEWER: So there wasn’t a lot of inherent conflict among the board about what the association should be doing.
BRACKETT: That was an interesting phenomenon within our group. I don’t think I can take credit for it. We spent, early on, a heck of a lot of time and money on upholstery and flammability.
INTERVIEWER: The UFAC program.
BRACKETT: Yes. Basically, it was run out of our office. Early on, before they came up with the hangtags, the manufacturing associations were funding UFAC. We had guys there who had never made a piece of upholstery, but they never complained about the money being spent on it. We had other issues come along like dust and formaldehyde, which were mostly case goods-related issues, but the upholstery guys never complained about the amount of time, energy and money spent on those issues.
From talking to some of my association cohorts in the field, that wasn’t the way it was in many cases. Each of them looked at their compartment as being the only thing they really wanted to fund. If there was another product segment within the industry that needed funding, that segment would fund that. All of our funds always came out of the general treasury. No conflicts over that ever surfaced in any meeting.
Early on, we spent a lot of money in California. The city of Los Angeles, of all places, had a regulation about wiring in china cabinets and other cabinets you might put lighting and wires in, like a computer desk and that sort of thing. It was an expensive proposition out there. Not everybody put lighting in those things, but we spent a lot of money and time out there. Nobody ever raised a question about, “Why am I helping to pay for that?” I can imagine that in the printing industry, if you’ve got business newspapers and general newspapers and technical publications, you might have issues arise that only affect business papers, and those other folks might not be thrilled about having to help pay for that. It was never an issue with us.
INTERVIEWER: Take us further along in you career. You became the executive vice president of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association. By then, the northern-southern association merger issue was already on the table.
BRACKETT: UFAC had brought a lot of cooperation between the two associations. It was an issue that knew no boundaries. NAFM had a really capable guy named Mike Sherman running that association, who succeeded the carnage after Don Belgrad got rid of the other folks.
INTERVIEWER: He would have been in Chicago when NAFM was still based in Chicago, or had they already moved to Washington?
BRACKETT: They had moved to Washington. John Snow, who had run NAFM for a long time and was the founder of the machinery show, had retired. They then hired a guy by the name of Fred Williford who, from what I gather, irritated a lot of their members with an “I know best” attitude. Mike Sherman was the guy who succeeded Williford.
Mike and I were friends. We’d known each other as sub staffers early on. I liked Mike and I think he liked me. In fact, we got together while the merger thing was going on. We agreed that whoever it – he wanted it and I wanted it – whoever got the job would have the full support of the other. We’d each stay on working for the other. I think it could have worked. It lasted maybe six months, then Mike started his own company, doing a lot of statistical reporting for the association industry at large in Washington, and probably made a heck of a lot more money than I did. Anyway, we were committed to the merger. We weren’t trying to protect our own turf and queer the deal.
INTERVIEWER: That’s pretty amazing. That wouldn’t have happened normally.
BRACKETT: We were both fairly young and had been underlings and knew what it was to see things transpire. We could have worked together, there’s no question about that. As things worked out, I got the job, and over about a six-month period, most of the NAFM staff was phased out. The membership was kind to those folks. They didn’t just summarily dismiss them. They gave them six months to try to relocate.
At the same time, I was trying to convince Mike to relocate to High Point. He was Jewish. His wife was from a very strong Jewish background and didn’t feel comfortable moving to the South. I think that’s what led Mike to leave and start his own business.
We struggled through this period of combined boards for three years. At the same time, we were consolidating the situation with the machinery show moving from Louisville to Atlanta and working out a new arrangement with the importers. At the time the show was in Louisville, the NAFM owned the show. The importers had no equity position, but the importers had locked up the Georgia World Congress Center for a number of years. In order to get that facility, we had to concede some equity position to them.
All of that worked out pretty well. Everybody was pretty happy, except the importers always wanted the rates for exhibitors to be as low as they could possibly be. Their association wasn’t really an association in the same sense that ours was, so they didn’t need to make money from the machinery show. What they really wanted was a break-even show so they spent not a dime more than they had to. I don’t blame them for that, but the show couldn’t be a money-making venture on that basis.
The other two associations wanted to make as much money as they could from the show. There was conflict all along over what the rates would be, how long the contract would last and so forth. In the end, all saw it was to everybody’s benefit to have the show in Atlanta because it was a huge success there, with 50,000 people or so attending. Every two years, the profit was like 55 percent of the gross, which is a pretty good day’s work anywhere you go. All in all, it worked out OK. But it did take a lot of aggravation, and lawyer’s time, writing the merger documents and the operational documents.
Then, the hiring of a professional staff to run the machinery show was the best thing that could have happened. NAFM had tried to run the show out of their office in the past, and that was only modestly successful. It would be like me trying to run Furniture/Today as opposed to Joe Carroll or Steve Pond who had expertise in that area. So the professional staff maximized revenue generation at just about every turn. So it turned out to be a huge success. Everybody was generally happy
INTERVIEWER: The exhibitors must have been doing enough business at the show that they were willing to pay the rents to give you a 55 percent gross margin. It made business sense all around.
BRACKETT: Yeah, although there was always a contentious element about the way the promotion was done or the way the registration was done. They’d always find something to bellyache about. But by and large, it worked out very well.
INTERVIEWER: It certainly wasn’t a thorn in your side.
BRACKETT: Interestingly, we had a couple of guys in our association who thought we shouldn’t be in the show-organizing business. I went to two meetings a year that lasted three days. I couldn’t think of anything I could possibly do that could generate as much money for this organization as those three days of the IWF show. Fortunately, there were only one or two guys that believed that we should be focusing on the issues we’re concerned about and not running a trade show. But without the revenue from the machine show, we wouldn’t have had the resources to deal with the issues they were concerned about. Anyway, it’s always interesting to see the take some guy has on any issue. It has always been an interesting phenomenon to me.
INTERVIEWER: This might be a good time for you to discuss in more detail the Washington lobbyists of the furniture industry.
BRACKETT: We had a couple of aborted attempts at establishing the Washington office.
INTERVIEWER: You’re talking about the SFMA?
BRACKETT: Yes, and the AFMA as well. We had the situation that I explained to you earlier about the guy who was running the Washington office. Then we hired another guy who was a perfectly likable fellow, but we found out he also liked Scotch a lot too. We fired him and temporarily closed the office.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the early ’80s?
BRACKETT: About ’85 when we reopened the Washington office. That’s when we hired Joe Gerard. He came to us from Ford Motor Company. Joe became a very good friend of mine and he visits when he’s in this area. He retired in Arkansas and we’ve been there a couple of times to visit with Joe. We had a wonderful working relationship. He was a hard worker.
INTERVIEWER: How did you connect with Joe?
BRACKETT: It would have been at the end of the Carter administration, so a little earlier than I had it placed before. We put the word out that we were looking for somebody to head our Washington office. We worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to an extent. The head of their congressional liaison office was a guy from Greensboro. So we let him know we were looking for somebody. We got six or eight paper boxes full of resumes. You’d look at the resumes, and this one was a magna cum laude from Princeton, this one a summa cum laude from Yale, this one a valedictorian from Harvard, The University of Chicago, and Stanford. Every one of them had impeccable credentials.
I can’t remember the Chamber guy’s last name but I called him Dixie. I went over and sat down with Dixie one day and I said: “We’re overwhelmed and inundated with guys with credentials that are beyond belief. We don’t know how to go about sorting them out. We’re going to ask you for a personal recommendation of somebody that you spotted that you think has real talent, who is a hard worker, and who can survive without somebody standing over him all day pointing out what he needs to do.”
He said, “Well, there’s a young guy over at Ford Motor Company named Joe Gerard. I think you’d do well to interview Joe.” I talked to Joe, and I was impressed with not only his ability, but his interest in the furniture industry. He wanted to know everything there was to be known about the furniture industry.
I also talked with a few other guys, most of them first wanted to know, “What’s my salary, what’s my fringe benefits package, and how many days vacation do I get?” That was not the three things I was looking for. I talked to one guy, and he said: “I don’t know why I even bothered to come over today. I know you can’t match what I’m going to want to make. I am tired of doing good, and I want to start doing well.”
Anyway, Joe decided he wanted a further interview. The association was having a meeting here, so I told him to come to High Point. I guess Buck Shuford of Century was the president at that time. Joe came down and interviewed. They all agreed that they liked Joe and would give him a try. They hired him, and he stayed until he retired. He did a wonderful job. We had a great working relationship. He would say, “I’m hearing something about X, Y or Z in my meetings on the Hill and talking to other lobbyists. Find out if our guys know anything about that.” I would get in touch with the appropriate people, and we’d talk about it a little bit.
I’d tell them what Joe had heard, and they’d say: “Yeah, that has the potential to be a real problem. Tell Joe to keep his eyes out and ears open on that subject.” Which he did. Most of the time we were ahead of the game.
One of the ways you can judge whether a Washington person is sitting on his butt in the office or out working the Hill is the reception you get when you walk into an elected official’s office. I never walked into an office with Joe where the secretary didn’t say, “Mr. Gerard, how are you?”
He knew the staff people. That was the telltale sign that he was not spending all his time in the office but was actually over there, talking to people, finding out what’s what. He was very good. Between him being the eyes and ears in Washington and me being able to connect with the industry directly here, we won most all the battles.
Joe ran our political action committee. We raised about $200,000 every two years, every election cycle. We were not a partisan political action committee. We contributed to both Democrats and Republicans, although we contributed more to Republicans than Democrats because they were more of the pro-business ilk. We had good relationships with both sides, with a lot of Washington political offices. Every other year, we had our board of directors meeting in Washington in May. Joe was able, because of his hard work, to line up an unbelievable list of speakers for our board. Newt Gingrich, if you remember when the Republicans took over the House in 1994, had this 10-point Contract with America. He read this off of a piece of notebook paper to our group, which I think was the first public exposure it got. He took it out of his pocket and unfolded a piece of notebook paper. We had Jack Kemp speak when he was hot. Vice President Bush spoke. Bob Dole spoke. A number of high-profile congressmen and senators spoke to the board.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with a guy named Charlie Cook. He’s a political pollster. His record inside the beltway is impeccable as far as picking who is going to win or lose. He spoke four or five times about upcoming elections. Because we were always meeting in May, and the elections were always in November, he was pretty good at pinpointing who was going to win and what their positions on certain things were likely to be that might affect us, so that we could assess whether we wanted to support that guy or not.
It was pretty impressive for a small operation. We had three people in the Washington office: a clerical person, Joe, and a research guy who would dig into the issues at that level as they were being formulated.
It was important to get in the game early. Once things got on paper, they were pretty hard to change. Again, that’s one of the roles that the lobbyists perform. I’m not talking about the highly-placed insiders who raise millions of dollars, who are basically partners in major law firms in Washington, many of whom have been members of either the bureaucracy or Congress themselves. They know where all the bodies are buried. In organizations like ours, where you’ve just got a couple of guys who are trying to protect the flanks of the industry, it was a really important element as government became more and more intrusive. When I first assumed the role of executive vice president, the amount of time I gave to government-related activity was probably less than 10 percent. By the time I retired, it was closer to 80 or 85 percent. It was just like rain. There was stuff coming from everywhere.
Joe, in my opinion, and I think he’d agree, just got burned out. He retired early. He got burned out with the sheer volume of stuff that was coming down all the time.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever recommend to the board that you needed another guy? That Joe by himself wasn’t enough in Washington?
BRACKETT: We had another guy, but Joe was one of those guys that, if there’s an issue, he’s into it up to his armpits. That was just his nature.
INTERVIEWER: He had a hard time delegating is what you’re saying.
BRACKETT: Exactly. He delegated, but he still wanted to be there. He would have said, “Get all this stuff together.” At the close of the day, he’s right there. It was almost more than he could handle
INTERVIEWER: Take us through some of the highlights of your career after the two associations became the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.
BRACKETT: I consider the merger the highlight, simply because it was by far the best thing for the industry. I was personally, deeply involved in that.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anytime where you thought it wouldn’t happen because of too much animosity between the groups?
BRACKETT: At the very beginning, I had questions simply because of the companies who expressed opposition to it. But as time went by, it became apparent that because of the many close friendships and relationships that were already established, it would have become very difficult to say I don’t want to associate with you anymore. I found in Dallas, particularly, that the showrooms of many companies in the two associations were side by side. They were connecting with each other out in the lobby area. This was prior to the various merger meetings. At that point, they weren’t aware of whom each other was relative to the associations.
I put together a series of position papers we’d use for discussion with the Northern group. I consider the merger the absolute single most important thing to happen while I was in the executive vice president’s post
INTERVIEWER: Were you and Mike Sherman close at that point? Were you both working on some of these proposals and talking with each other?
BRACKETT: Actually, Mike was working for his group, I was working for ours. In the final analysis, my assumption is that, behind closed doors, Don Belgrad was saying, “This isn’t worth fighting over for us.” That’s what I assume.
INTERVIEWER: He was saying that to his Northern board?
BRACKETT: Yes. The other project that was a major activity – and this was primarily John Bassett’s idea – was the development of the $1 million advertising campaign, which was done right before I left. As I understand it, it died shortly thereafter. But the idea of bringing together all the major players in the industry and convincing them that this is something that the industry needed to do, I thought was another high-water mark. Again, most of the credit for getting that done goes to John Bassett.
The third thing that I think was important was when Rick Barentine retired as the head of the marketing association that promoted the High Point Market. It sort of fell to our association to take that on for a short while. During that time, we had Nancy High leading that effort. She came to me one day and said: “I’ve gotten into this thing. There is so much more potential here than I ever realized. I think this needs to be its own entity.” We looked at it and talked about it. Believe it or not, there were people who had an allegiance to the San Francisco Market, the Dallas Market, and the Atlanta Market. They didn’t like the idea that the association would be in the business of promoting the High Point Market, perhaps to the detriment of the other markets. I think that’s a stretch, but there was that feeling.
So we organized a couple of meetings that involved officials from Thomasville and Greensboro, as well as High Point, to talk about the concept of market-to-market promotion. Out of that came the idea that we should create a separate entity that was supported by all of these groups, including the big market showroom buildings. I was part of a search committee to locate somebody to run it.
INTERVIEWER: You’re talking about the creation of the High Point Market Authority. This would have been back in the early 2000s?
BRACKETT: I retired on January 1, 2002. This would have been in the late ’90s. The idea of the High Point Market Authority as it evolved came out of our organization, largely to Nancy High’s credit.
We had our hand in many issues at that point. There were numerous regulatory legislative battles that we fought and won. Most of the CEOs had bounced all this stuff off to their engineers, manufacturing people and their HR people. As long as it got taken care of, they didn’t much care. They didn’t get directly involved in those things.
There were numerous individuals from various companies who took leadership roles. The companies, fortunately for us and themselves, made these people available to travel to Washington and all over to deal with both state and federal regulators on a wide variety of issues.
We made an abortive attempt to bring the California furniture manufacturers into the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. We met with them a couple of times. They felt they were so unique on the West Coast that there really wasn’t much hope we could ever get together. In my opinion, there were a couple of really small guys who were fairly big fish in the California pond who just didn’t want to give up that position. We were successful in incorporating the Southwestern manufacturing group as part of the association. So overall, with the exception of the California group, most of the residential furniture manufacturing industry was brought under the umbrella of the AFMA. We even had a few office furniture people who stayed with us. Many of the regulatory problems like formaldehyde were common. The Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association is a thriving group within the American Home Furnishings Alliance, which was the name the AFMA adopted after I’d retired, and imports became more and more important. All of that was done during the period that I was involved with the association. As with any association activity, it’s very subtle and no one person can take credit for any major happening. There’s always a committee or some group that’s also involved to make things happen. I take a lot of pride in the fact that we were successful in handling most every external influence that came down the pike.
I got out just before the Chinese took over our manufacturing industry. I’m not sure I’d know which way to turn if I went back to the industry today. I’m not sure I understand what the long-term ramifications of that are going to be.
INTERVIEWER: Imports were really taking off during the ’90s.
BRACKETT: Nothing like today. We weren’t having plants close like they have in the past few years. It really all started with Universal and Taiwan 30 years ago, but the idea of Broyhill having no U.S. manufacturing facilities, or Thomasville having no U.S. manufacturing facilities, that didn’t happen until quite recently. I’m not sure what happens next if the longshoremen on the West Coast say, “We’re not unloading any more boats from China.”
INTERVIEWER: A strike would disrupt the entire industry virtually overnight.
BRACKETT: I don’t know who bought it, and maybe it was just for scrap metal, but nearly all the materials and machinery in these closed U.S. plants have been sold. What if World War III cranks up? The wood industry can’t possibly get up to speed fast enough to meet whatever demand might be out there. The wood industry is just totally vulnerable now to the whims of the Chinese. Lord knows, we’ve got a leader over there that doesn’t seem to care for us.
I can see a scenario where Brand X has all its production committed to a plant overseas. The overseas plant owner walks in one day and says: “We aren’t going to produce anything more for you. We want to hire all your sales reps. And sales reps’ commissions are now 3 percent instead of 6 percent.” Then what happens? I’ve been told that your position in the production scheme in China is secure only as long as your order is bigger than the guy behind you. If the guy behind you raises his order, you drop back. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Universally, I get the feeling that the Chinese aren’t really very honorable business people. I’ve never had to deal with them, but if that be the case, it seems to me the U.S. guys have just put all of their eggs in their basket, closed every plant they’ve got, sold every machine they had and are dead ducks.
INTERVIEWER: As you were working through the ’90s and into the early 2000s, was the membership in the American Furniture Manufacturers Association slowly declining as more production moved offshore?
BRACKETT: No, in fact, we were picking up. I’m not sure I can answer that question truthfully. We were picking up a few guys who had left and started their own importing business. There were a lot of those. Now I look at Furniture/Today and see all of those two-, four- and six-page ads of companies I’ve never even heard of. We’re talking about from ’02 to now, which isn’t a really long time in the life of a company. I just find it extraordinary that things have moved as rapidly as they have.
As I understand it, all of the finishing materials guys now have major manufacturing facilities in China, which eliminates the need for transportation and the need for complying with U.S. environmental regulations. The EPA forced them to reformulate, which wound up as an increased cost. If I had to bet, I’d bet you 50 to 1 that in China, they’ve gone back to the older formulations, which are cheaper for them to make. It gets a better finish, but they’re still charging the Chinese the same thing they’re charging here.
It’s been hectic since I’ve retired, and I’ve been standing outside the circle and have had very little contact with anybody. It’s been dizzying to watch.
INTERVIEWER: And you didn’t see this coming?
BRACKETT: I saw it coming, but certainly not with the rapidity with which it arrived. I don’t think anybody did.
INTERVIEWER: There must have been a so-called tipping point reached somewhere. Furniture/Today has tracked and reported on imports for many years. I can remember when Taiwan was the No. 1 importer. Canada had its day in the sun. Then all of a sudden, things shifted to Southeast Asia, not only China but mostly China. Some tipping point must have been reached.
BRACKETT: I don’t know how to define that. Everybody knew that imports were growing a little every year, but all of a sudden, boom. It’s really big. I don’t remember the year, but it really dramatically ramped up there for a two-to-three-year period.
A friend of mine runs an upholstery company. I asked him just before I retired, “What are you doing in the way of imports?” He said, “We’re buying cut-and-sewn hides overseas.” I said, “How much did you buy?” He said, “This year, we bought $7.5 million worth.” I said, “What about the future?” He said, “Next year, we’ll buy $15 million worth.” He’s a significant player in the industry, but he’s not a major player. Here he’s going to buy $15 million worth of cut-and-sewn hides for upholstered furniture. Two or three years of that doubling of the business is very rapid.
The quality seems to be pretty good. I’ve got a number of friends who are retired from Thomasville and one used to be the head of finishing. I asked him how the finish looks from China compared to what they used to do at Thomasville. He said: “It’s not a Thomasville finish, but it’s pretty darn good. It’s a lot better than a lot of the second- or third-tier manufacturers were putting on in the states.” The Chinese are making progress and using the latest technology and processes. Of course, it’s like Germany and Japan after World War II in the steel business. They started with brand new factories with brand new equipment and the latest technology.
I’m told there is something amiss in the Chinese equation, and I’m not sure I know what it is. Guy Walters, who was the senior vice president of manufacturing at Broyhill, told me that Broyhill made cases and didn’t put any labor into the cost but couldn’t make them as cheap as they could buy them from China. Chinese buy lumber out of the eastern United States, ship it 90 days on the water to get it there, process it, and then ship it 90 days to get it back. Labor is a major factor. If you don’t put labor costs into it at all, there has to be something else in the equation. I think it’s the Chinese government subsidizing those factories. In fact, one guy told me they had suppliers there who were going to build a big factory, a 1 million-square-foot factory, which is an enormous factory by our standards. The Chinese government said, “Go ahead. We’ll subsidize it until you get enough volume to run a million and a half square feet of production.” I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I was told. So there’s more to the story than just labor costs.
INTERVIEWER: During the ’90s, when some major American companies were starting to do imports themselves, of either components or tables or other pieces of finished furniture, did the American Furniture Manufacturers Association ever have any of its members telling you that maybe we need a little protectionism here?
BRACKETT: No. They may have been talking among themselves, but we didn’t hear it. After I retired, they did go through that antidumping process. I haven’t spoken with Andy (Counts, the current executive vice president of AHFA) about it, but from what I understand, that kind of split the membership. There were a lot of them that went in thinking the protection thing was a good idea. Those who were heavily importing felt that they were being penalized by their own trade association. I don’t know what happened to the membership as a result of that, whether we lost any or not.
But protectionism is always a two-edged sword when it happens. We looked at it probably in the ’80s. Mostly, it was just a pissing contest between Universal and U.S. Furniture Industries. USFI was importing stuff from Yugoslavia. Universal was importing stuff from Taiwan. Yugoslavia had most-favored-nation trading status with the United States. I forget whether Universal wanted that lifted for U.S. Furniture Industries or wanted it for themselves in Taiwan, but there was a conflict between those two member companies, which is something you never want as an association manager if you can possibly avoid it. That was resolved without any major flak.
This recent antidumping issue, where some of these guys are collecting millions of dollars from importers of Chinese-made wooden bedroom furniture ... companies like Furniture Brands International were fairly upset about the whole process. Their suppliers were slapped with 30 or 40 percent tariffs. It never really arose in that form during my time at AFMA, but it was coming. Ron Wanek of Ashley, of all people, was raising the question as I was retiring. Ron has been in China for 20 years. I think it’s amazing that, for whatever reason, he raised the issue of the antidumping petition. That was just as I was leaving, so it wound up on Andy’s plate. I’m not sure how he dealt with Ron on that one. It does seem a little unusual because he had a tremendous advantage for a long time over other companies, in large part because of imports. But I do know Ron has a strong, strong patriotic streak, and he he probably would rather have had the jobs here in the U.S. rather than overseas.
INTERVIEWER: You’re talking about the founder and head of Ashley Furniture, which got involved in imports in the early ’80s, but apparently was on both sides of the fence and talking about possible protectionism in some form. He was worried about imports?
BRACKETT: I’m not sure what his real concern was. I think if it was anything, it had to do with his feeling of patriotism. You know, he has created a war veteran’s park up in Arcadia, Wisconsin, where Ashley is based, with his own sculptures as a major element in the park. He does that sort of thing a lot. He was beginning to ask questions about the process just as I was walking out the door. Russell Batson (who had taken Joe Gerard’s place in Washington) and Ron were corresponding back and forth about the process to get antidumping duties imposed on imports. It ultimately came to a head at some point in time after I left
INTERVIEWER: What prompted you to retire?
BRACKETT: I had always determined that, if at all possible, I was not going to work until the day I died the way most of my family had. Unfortunately, my dad died last year just about this time from Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to suffer through that if possible. I told my wife I was going to find Bruno and Luigi, and if and when I was diagnosed, they would take care of the Alzheimer’s problem. Most everybody in my family never had the prerogative of retiring. My mom worked until she was about 70 or so.
INTERVIEWER: In a cotton mill?
BRACKETT: No, she worked about the last 25 years for PPG Industries. They opened a plant in western Cleveland County. They were good to all their employees. They provide her insurance even today. She just turned 90. She has a little pension that is enough to live on and she has a few dollars left over every month. For her 25 years with the cotton mill, all she got was that. My goal always has been to work until I’m 63-and-a-half years old, and then cover my health insurance for 18 months until I can get on Medicare. That’s what I did.
INTERVIEWER: So there weren’t any health issues? No family issues?
INTERVIEWER: You weren’t burned out?
BRACKETT: I may well have been. I don’t know if you recognize that you’re burned out. I just knew at 63 and a half, I planned to retire. We planned it that way and we tried to get the staff in place. We knew Andy Counts would take my job, so we hired Bill Purdue to take over the environmental issues for Andy when he moved up. It was planned pretty much all the way. As far as I know, it went pretty smoothly. I try not to get in Andy’s way. I see him once or twice a year and that’s about it.
INTERVIEWER: So you and the board were able to plan, because you had a date certain in mind for your retirement, and the board knew that. Your successor was Andy Counts. How did you handle the succession?
BRACKETT: It was not very easy because we had a really good staff. They were all good people, and two or three of them perhaps could have handled the job. Nancy High could have handled the job, but she chose not to put her hat in the ring. Andy was extremely smart and also extremely personable. Watching Andy deal with the members over the three years before I left, I saw he got along very well with them. He was not reluctant to step up and talk to members, not afraid to make friends with their wives. When you start talking about the annual meetings, they are almost as much social as they are business. Not pissing the wives off is pretty important. I noticed that when we had free time at these meetings, other staff guys would take their wives and go motor biking, or they’d go fishing. Which is fine. It’s free time. Andy always made sure he was dealing with members during that time. I thought that was a trait, in addition to his basic ability as an individual, that would stand him in good stead. But I stayed out of the selection process.
INTERVIEWER: How did Andy arrive? You hired Andy. How did that happen?
BRACKETT: It happened because the environmental regulations situation was getting really bad on a number of fronts. Andy was working for the Virginia Environmental Department. Early on, he had worked for an environmental consulting firm we were dealing with, and we had some dealings with Andy.
INTERVIEWER: But he had no trade association background?
BRACKETT: He did not. He assimilated well and quickly. He made a very favorable impression on the members of the executive committee as we went along. We were spending $300,000 or $400,000 a year on environmental issues. Andy was the guy leading that. He had a way of explaining it – I was out of my element trying to explain the nuances of environmental issues – to the executive committee so that the expenditures made sense. He demonstrated a lot of the characteristics that are going to hold him in good stead when trying to run an organization that is totally voluntary. A couple of other guys put their name in the hat as well. Joe Logan from the staff, and Larry Runyon from the staff. The biggest concern that I had – and I guess at least one member of the selection committee had – about Andy was that he was relatively young. He had been with us for several years, but he was still only 33 or 34. Apparently, that hasn’t been a problem as time has passed because he’s still there, and it’s nearly eight years later. Now he’s probably 40 or thereabouts, and seasoned as an association guy.
INTERVIEWER: So you saw your way clear to retirement at 63 and a half. I take it that you’ve maintained only minimal relationships in the furniture industry since that time. When you retired, you retired.
INTERVIEWER: Have you done any charitable work?
BRACKETT: I served on the board of the Industries for the Blind in Winston-Salem for six years, which is a phenomenal organization. If you’ve never visited their operation, you ought to go by. They love to have people come through. Go tell them you’d like to take a tour of the facility. The blind manufacture every mattress that goes on a U.S. ship. If you watch these guys on TV in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they have this rolled-up thing on their back, that’s called a poncho liner, for whatever reason. It serves a million purposes for the military. They make every one of those in Asheville, North Carolina. They do about $90 million a year in volume, mostly with the government making military stuff. It’s just unbelievable to go through that plant and watch all these blind folks doing these things. If you’ve got a soul, you will be uplifted. They’re the most positive people you’ll ever meet. They’re proud of what they’re doing.
They have a facility in Winston-Salem, a facility in Asheville, and one in Puerto Rico. Eighty percent or so of those who work in these plants are legally blind. They also make eyeglasses for military veterans. Remember the jacket President Bush had on the ship when he basically said, “Bring it on?” That was made in Winston-Salem. It’s amazing what the blind can do. They’ve got one guy who is blind who built a deck onto his house using power tools. There’s no limit to what a human can do when he decides he’s going to. It’s just phenomenal. I'm also on the board of the Y here...
INTERVIEWER: In High Point?
BRACKETT: Yes. We’ve also done a little traveling, which is one reason I wanted to retire early. If you’ve never been to Denali in Alaska, if you’ve got a bucket list, put it on the list. It’s unbelievable. Absolutely breathtaking. We were through Wasilla the week before they announced Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential candidate. It’s 40 miles from Anchorage. That was a little interesting sidelight. I also saw things that I had never seen before. I’d never seen an eagle before. They’re everywhere. Never seen a whale before. They’re everywhere. It’s just bears galore. Moose. It’s unbelievable. It’s so magnificent that if there is one thing you want to do before you die, it’s go to Denali National Park and see that big mountain up there.
INTERVIEWER: They say global warming is playing havoc with some of that stuff. Were carbon dioxide emissions something the furniture industry has had to worry about?
BRACKETT: No, not during my career. A major issue was the so-called volatile organic compounds, VOCs, that were emitted by wood finishing operations.
To whet your appetite about going to Alaska, I’ll tell you one story. The busiest airport in the world, so they say, is in Alaska. It’s in a little town. So much of the Alaskan population is dispersed over an area two-and-a-half times the size of Texas that these little airplanes, 24/7, are flying supplies into the boondocks all the time from this airport. These bush pilots, as they call them, just do all kinds of things. There was a guy named Don Sheldon. He was an early bush pilot. He got to be so familiar with Mount McKinley, or Denali, that the Air Force relied on him to tell them when it was safe to fly. He knew how the winds blew, where the clouds were, all that stuff. They tell the story that a group of Coast Guard guys came up the river to the little airport town. They were going to map the river. Sheldon told them he didn’t think they ought to do that because he didn’t think they can get up the river. So, a couple of days later, he’s flying supplies out to a climbing expedition and decides to fly up the river to see how these guys are doing.
There are eight of them and they’re all out in the water clinging to rocks. The boat had smashed. He knew the water was so swift that he couldn’t land below them. So he went above them, landed, coasted back down the river, and with the force of his propeller was able to slow the plane enough to get the guys off the rocks. He could take two guys aboard. Then he turned the plane around, took off and flew them to safety. He did this three more times and rescued all eight guys.
The stories about Alaska are unbelievable. If you’ve got a bucket list, it’s got to go on there
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you some of the questions we ask all interviewees. What do you remember about the first furniture market you attended?
BRACKETT: I can’t remember whether it was the first one or not, but there were some memorable ones there. Early on, one thing that was always the subject of conversation was who all was going to get to go to the press party. That was the biggy. I remember things like Wayne Burris bringing Playmates of the Month to the market. I remember having Mickey Mantle at the market. I remember Lane once brought a bunch of sand painters from the Navajo reservation to market. Just trying to figure out who was hot and who was not was one of the games everybody played. The other was where the wildest import was. The markets weren't all about furniture, because people wanted to have fun, have something to talk about. Like Ben Jarnagin of Bean Station bringing in buffaloes, or the Oscar Meyer wiener truck.
But I really can’t tell you what my first market was. It would have been right at the time I was joining the association. Our office was right on the main floor of the main showroom building.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever attend any of the markets that were still going on in Chicago?
BRACKETT: I went to Chicago a couple of times. It was in decline at that point. I went to Atlanta numerous times, Dallas numerous times, and San Francisco a few times. Every time I went to San Francisco, I wondered how any of these guys could stand it. There is never anything going on in San Francisco. There was a while there when Dallas was going wide open, and lots of activity was going on down there. The Dallas showrooms, by comparison, were so much smaller than the ones in High Point. The way the building was built, you’d almost have to take an entire floor to get as much showroom space as some of these guys had in High Point. Atlanta was pretty busy in the early days. It was always here in High Point that the real action took place.
INTERVIEWER: You described some of your involvement in the creation of the High Point Market Authority. Wasn't that essentially a reaction to the announcement that a big furniture market was in the works at Las Vegas?
BRACKETT: It coincided, but that was not really the reason. Rick Barentine had run the Furniture Factories Marketing Association for 20 years, essentially by himself. It was really the perception that more professionalism was needed than a one-man office could ever deliver. Rick had managed to cultivate relationships with the police department, all the police departments in and around High Point, and with all the Chambers of Commerce around, and with the hotel operators and so forth, to sort of keep things going on an even keel. But the money was too limited, and there wasn’t enough Rick to go around. So when he left, it became pretty apparent that there was a bigger staff needed. That was what resulted in the creation of the High Point Market Authority.
INTERVIEWER: What are your views on the High Point versus Las Vegas situation?
BRACKETT: I’ve never been to Vegas. I’ve heard two or three stories that I find a little distressing. One guy told me they took a major showroom out there and expected their build-out costs to be a quarter of a million dollars. With all the delays and union labor, it was closer to three quarters of a million, which will have a dampening effect on their growth if that’s a true story. I think the reports you read about going to Vegas and preferring Vegas ... well, I’ve never heard any manufacturer of any consequence say that.
My guess is the retailers that are saying that are mostly the mom-and-pops, the smaller stores, who use that as an opportunity to write off a vacation. Perhaps some sales reps feel that way, and Vegas gives them an opportunity to really try to wine and dine a customer because they don’t have much opportunity to do that here in High Point. When Ron Wanek starts commenting like that, or Albert Prillaman (of Stanley Furniture Company) starts commenting like that, I’ll start thinking there’s a lot more substance to it than I believe now. I think it’s probably the smaller people who are looking for a write-off on a nice weekend in Vegas.
INTERVIEWER: Looking at the furniture industry as a whole, over the course of your career, what major changes did you see in furniture manufacturing that are critical for the industry? What were some of the key changes and developments?
BRACKETT: Are you talking about on the plant floor or marketing, style and so forth?
INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with the plant floor.
BRACKETT: To me, the biggest thing is automatic controls, computer controls and technology. The other thing is the development of far, far, far better man-made boards. Early particleboard stuff, you were lucky if you could get it home. Bolts or screws would tear out. That’s big because there’s so much particleboard and man-made board being used. There’s also been improved finishing technology.
INTERVIEWER: Were the big ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturers members of AFMA?
BRACKETT: Yes. Sauder held out for a pretty good while, but most of the other guys were already in. It got to the point where Sauder was really being impacted by all the environmental regulations. Lord knows how much formaldehyde they emit in their products. That sort of brought them to the table.
The industry has made huge strides in all kinds of things. Lumber grading improvements, x-ray vision of boards to find where defects are and get rid of bad stuff, improved drying technology. Everyone is always talking about the furniture industry being backwards. No. We’ve got some use for robots, but nothing like the automobile industry has. Plus, robots are slow. There are some things a human can do 10 times faster. Finishing would be one thing that a robot could do. But if you watch a guy with a spray gun, he’ll do probably three cases before a robot does one. Sure, the robot can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The trick is getting the thing regulated so it’s spraying the whole piece and not just half the piece, depending on where the piece stops and where the electric eye goes off.
Many of the things that are really kind of neat aren’t used on a broad basis. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen involved getting dust off the case before it went into the finishing area. A little manufacturer had a line with the case piece coming out of the sanding room and going into the finishing room. Between them, he had built a horseshoe-like thing over the line. He put these little valves in it and attached little flexible pieces of rubber hose to the valves. When the piece got to that point in the line, there was an electric eye that released compressed air into the horseshoe device. The case piece got clean as a whistle. Some guy at the factory thought that one up.
INTERVIEWER: Another knock you often hear about the furniture industry is that it has never been very good at marketing. What are your thoughts on the marketing of furniture?
BRACKETT: I think there’s some validity to that. However, in order to carry out an elaborate marketing campaign, you’ve got to have a lot of money. Most of the manufacturing guys operate on a fairly slim margin. What we’ve really done is left the marketing of the product to the retailer. If you don’t get them in the store, you’re not selling anything. A guy doing $300 million was a pretty good-sized guy. But $300 million is like spitting in the ocean in terms of reaching a huge number of buyers.
So I think there’s validity to the criticism on the one hand. On the other hand, I don’t see how it would have really been possible to do a big marketing campaign. Perhaps you could have done more with your print advertising, but that’s what everybody did. You were just one of millions in print advertising. I see Ethan Allen and Thomasville run some TV ads. Nobody I’m aware of in the furniture industry has the wherewithal to have a sustained program where, when you hear “ring around the collar,” you know who is advertising. Or see the silver bullet, and you know they’re advertising Coors Beer.
INTERVIEWER: AFMA was involved in the Home Furnishings Council, I believe. You described a bit of that. It was one of our industry’s attempts to get together and get past the fact that, individually, companies don’t have enough money to advertise effectively. But the industry has never quite been able to pull off a common effort like that. Why is that?
BRACKETT: Part of the Home Furnishings Council’s efforts involved carpeting and bedding and so forth. Everyone wants to make sure their stuff is being promoted. It was always a complicated issue. That’s why I was so excited when John Bassett was able to get all these guys, pretty much all the really heavy hitters in the industry, in one room and have them agree, “Yeah, we need to do this.”
INTERVIEWER: When was this, roughly? Was this the National Furniture Sale, which I think was spearheaded by Bassett?
BRACKETT: No, this was the mid ’90s. Exclusively an AFMA project. John was the chairman, and he bludgeoned all these guys into attending the meetings. They all agreed, and it was going to be a million dollar deal. It was coming to fruition as I was leaving. Farooq Kathwari of Ethan Allen was the AFMA president the year after I left. From my understanding, he came up with this idea that we’d have a humongous marketing campaign that would involve paint, wallpaper, carpets, towels, everything, Home Depot, Lowe’s. That’s the last I heard of it.
We started out with $1 million. We employed a PR firm out of D.C., whose name escapes me. The last I heard, that $1 million was down to a quarter of a million, out of which was to come the salaries for a small staff, which probably leaves $50,000 or $75,000 to spend on actual advertising. That would likely have such a small impact that you might as well just put it in the bank. I don’t know that it’s possible to get our industry together to do something like this really well.
We had talked earlier about market segmentation and just what would be shown in any national advertising, and John Bassett said: “I don’t care if everything we show is Baker or Stickley. I don’t care because everybody can’t buy that. When they go to shop, I want to be in there amongst the others, fighting for my piece. What I want is stimulus that will make people interested in furniture and get them in the stores. Then they’ll realize they can’t afford a $15,000 dining room suit from Baker, but they can afford a $1,500 dining room suit from me.”
The point is, if you get them interested, everybody is going to benefit. I think the idea had merit.
In 1967, I guess, I went to an all-industry conference in Washington. This was all on the backside of my arrival, so I had no idea what had gone on before or how much money was spent. They had done three major consumer research studies that were available at that conference. It was supposed to be the bible to getting a bigger piece of the consumer’s disposable dollar.
There were a few companies who tried to implement parts of it, but overall, it was so massive that if you had $1 million collectively, you probably could have done something at that point but there wasn’t $1 million. There were three documents that were handed to attendees, and in my opinion, probably wound up as the biggest dust collectors the industry ever saw. They were just documents. They were too massive. Nobody had the money to back it up
INTERVIEWER: Getting the nuts, bolts and money together has always been the biggest challenge. It probably always will be. Are there particular people in the industry who have given you critical support or important mentoring?
BRACKETT: Dick Udouj of Riverside was the biggest cheerleader when I got the job. He was president of the association at that time. As I’ve already mentioned, I learned an awful lot from listening to Smith Young and watching Hamp Powell in action. He did impressive things at Lane. For example, I had a standing request from Hamp Powell: “Anytime a resume hits your desk that looks like it has promise, forward it to me.” I’ve known him to hire guys and have them on special projects for two or three years because he had no immediate place for them to go. That’s one of the unique things about investing in your company because he did look out for people.
John Vaughan was probably the most gracious man that was ever president of the association. He was very gracious to the entire staff. Don Hunziker was the guy who taught me that, when somebody brings up an issue, to first say, “What do you think?” Every time I went to him with an issue that was his thing: “What do you think?” If it made sense, it was, “Let’s do it.” I tried to use the same approach because I thought it was valid. Anybody that recognizes the problem at least has some idea about what they think probably ought to be done about it.
In terms of personal relations, I already mentioned Clyde Hooker and his approach to knowing everybody in the plant. In terms of just total dedication to his business, probably Smith Young. In terms of being industry minded in just about any respect, Charles Gordon with Gordon’s Table over in Tennessee. They ultimately sold the company to Thomasville. So there were a lot of people who shared a lot of insights, and who gave me some guidance, although they probably didn’t realize it at the time. Anyway, a lot of people gave me some input into how you ought to handle people and situations.
INTERVIEWER: In general, how did you go about hiring your staff at SFMA and AFMA?
BRACKETT: Most of the hiring was done on the basis of a skill set. When we needed an administrator for the HR group, I hired a guy out of a company personnel department to do that job. He had also been an under secretary of commerce with the state of North Carolina. He was fairly well connected in Raleigh because of that and he sort of did double duty for us. He was the HR guy, running the HR division. He was also our state liaison guy. He brought those two skill sets. That’s pretty much the way the staff was built.
Joe Logan had an MBA from Duke. He was a finance major there. We hired Joe to take on the finance division and run those related programs. Nancy High was the consumer specialist for the peanut growers association. We hired her to be the consumer specialist for the association. Jackie Hirschhaut – you knew Jackie from the days you worked at Furniture/Today. She was a reporter who had a tremendous following in the media. So we hired Jackie to head our PR activity. I must have gotten a dozen letters from members of the media – from the Miami Herald and other people she knew – telling me what a great move it was to hire Jackie to run our PR.
That was kind of the way we did it. My approach was pretty much hands off. Jackie knew more about PR than I ever did. My general approach was to try to arrive at a plan with them on whatever the issue was, garner the resources to do whatever needed to be done, and then evaluate with them on how things were going. Were we on track or off track? Was it a dead end? What was going to be the ultimate result?
INTERVIEWER: Over the years, what kind of relationships did you have with the retailer association and with individual furniture retailers?
BRACKETT: Not much. I dealt with the National Home Furnishings Association staff a lot, but as far as individual retailers, not a lot. That got to be a little tighter situation my last four to five years. We began to have meetings between the executive committees of the two groups at lunch during the markets. It became apparent as time went by that more and more of our guys were getting in the retail business – and a few of their guys secretly owned manufacturing plants – so it became sort of an obvious kind of activity that probably ought to take place.
Then we would have their president come make a quick report on what they were doing at our annual meeting, and our president would make a report to their meeting as to what we were doing. I don’t know that we ever helped them appreciably or they ever helped us appreciably on certain issues. There were times when, if we needed a contact with a congressman from Pennsylvania, some retailer there might know the guy on a personal basis. He might call and say, “Joe Gerard wants to come by and talk to your staff,” about whatever the issue was.
There was some give and take and some residual benefits to both groups from that perspective.
INTERVIEWER: Were there ever any regulatory issues that brought the manufacturers and retailers together?
BRACKETT: Flammability, primarily. There were some that brought them in conflict. Fortunately, they weren’t too big at the national level. The biggest brouhaha happened between retailers and manufacturers in North Carolina over the telephone sales issue, but we were able to get past that eventually. I heard mostly the manufacturers’ side of it. I remember one of the guys telling me retailer accounts were putting pressure on him not to sell to the North Carolina discounters. He said to them, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll stop selling to North Carolina retailers if you give me 10 percent more business than you gave me last year. That’s what I get out of North Carolina. I can’t afford to just lose 10 percent of my business. If all my other customers will agree to take 10 percent more, I’ll stop selling them.” He said that not one retailer agreed.
Interestingly enough, that whole thing was precipitated by the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. Their head was from a furniture retailing family in the state. We believed, because some of his major suppliers had cut the family off, that it might be a personal vendetta. He ran the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, and he wanted the telephone sales stopped because his people were suffering just like retailers were suffering everywhere. He had a good reputation in Raleigh, and he sold certain members of the legislature on the need for this before anybody really knew what was happening. There was already a piece of legislation in the hopper that would ban telephone sales of furniture to out-of-state consumers. You could say we were asleep at the wheel on that, but it was all – you hear about closed-door meetings in Washington – done pretty much in secret. The bill was introduced and so forth before anybody outside a small circle had any idea what was going on.
INTERVIEWER: From your perspective, what has been the influence of racial attitudes on the industry? Any severe racial problems? In Mississippi, perhaps?
BRACKETT: No. If it took place, I don’t know about it. I read in the papers about a few charges of discrimination here and there. I think the latest one I heard involved Franklin, which got hit pretty heavily with discrimination charges. I don’t remember it ever being a big problem. It was discussed fairly frequently at our HR division meetings. That is where that responsibility resided, and they talked about how to make sure you’re in compliance with all the EEOC regulations and so forth. Our HR people participated in those meetings, including a number of minorities.
I can’t recall there being many minorities in the Manufacturing Division. There were a few women. I guess they were considered a minority in our Marketing Division. There were several women in the Finance Division and a lot of women in the Transportation Division
INTERVIEWER: So women’s issues were never critical problems?
BRACKETT: Nothing other than discussing the possibility that you might get into an EEOC situation with women. It was never discussed at any meetings about how you would treat women separately from the men, but I think it sort of gravitated more naturally along certain kinds of lines. Most women are at least painted with the “we’re not very technical” brush. Maybe right, maybe wrong. They weren’t in the manufacturing or engineering disciplines at all, at least not that I can remember.
INTERVIEWER: We often hear that women make most of the home furnishings purchasing decisions, but that might be more of a concern for retailing than manufacturing.
BRACKETT: As our guys were producing point-of-sale materials, which the retailers always were wanting, they had to factor in that situation.
INTERVIEWER: From what you said, a disproportionate number of women were involved in furniture transportation, which surprised me. Transportation has changed quite a bit over the years, as you alluded to briefly. What was the dynamic going on there as far as you could see?
BRACKETT: By and large, it was, at least early on, pretty much a clerical kind of position – arranging for pickups and deliveries and billings and those kinds of things. But certainly with the passage of time, and the need to maximize the number of shipping cubes in the truck, we had a lot of computer programs come into play, from how you load your truck, to where you put this, where you put that, to balance of weight. All kinds of things. It seemed that that apparently fell more to the kind of skill sets women had as opposed to men.
Most of the companies that ran their own trucks, those jobs were filled with guys who managed the fleets
INTERVIEWER: And rail transportation has pretty much gone by the boards for most companies?
BRACKETT: Pretty much. Our traffic manager was a railroad guy. He said – and I think I agree with him – that so many of these trucks run because retailers believe they’ve got to have the goods as fast as possible. We can run a truck from here to the West Coast probably two days faster than it can run on rail. I never believed that two days was that critical myself. Apparently, the retailers did and they convinced the manufacturers that it was. Harry Shoe, our traffic guy, continually talked about the use of rail, but you couldn’t get these guys off the trucks, particularly after they’d already bought them.
INTERVIEWER: Stores need trucks to come to their stores.
BRACKETT: That’s the problem on the receiving end. Someone had to pick it up. Harry had a formula that I don’t know if I can remember. As far as moving furniture by rail, I think the formula was that you can ship 100 pounds 100 miles for $1. If you can talk anybody into buying something, you could almost calculate the freight charge standing there. If this thing weights 500 pounds, it’s going to cost you $5 to go 100 miles. If you go 1,000 miles, it’ll cost you $50. You can do the arithmetic pretty quickly.
INTERVIEWER: The cost has probably gone up since then.
BRACKETT: Yeah. One of the real characters in the industry was Wyatt Exum, John Bassett’s father-in-law. Wyatt would say to a retailer: “If I could ship you two more dressers with no additional freight cost, would you be interested in that?” “Just the cost of the dresser? Yeah.” Wyatt knew he had already maxed out what his freight cost would be on the previous order. He could put more stuff on for the same cost. He sold off that. Not many people paid a heck of a lot of attention to the cost of transportation. They knew retailers would pay it.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say are the most serious issues facing the furniture industry today?
BRACKETT: I’d say sales, today. From what I’m reading, it’s pretty dire. I’ve got a son who works here in High Point for an upholstery company. He says one day recently they made just 35 pieces.
INTERVIEWER: The industry has always been cyclical, and has always been able to handle the downturns. I’m noticing now a few public companies are reporting profits, even though their sales are still way down.
BRACKETT: That’s because they’ve been able to adjust their operations and size. That was always one of the advantages that privately-held companies had, in my opinion. They didn’t have to worry about what the stock market was going to say at the end of the quarter, so they could do whatever they needed to do. This recession, at least in my working career, is about the only one that has affected the high-dollar people just like it has affected the low-dollar people. The high-end manufacturers always suffered a little bit during downturns, but they weren’t suffering like right now. The people who had millions would spend even during down times.
Now, a guy who had $10 million two years ago is pretty lucky to have $6 million today. Everybody, I think, gears their lifestyle to their revenue stream. When the revenue stream gets affected, what they do thereafter is also affected. These high-dollar guys – I don’t know what Baker is doing or any of those guys, but I know what this company here in town is doing. They’ve had three or four layoffs. The people that get laid off, their skill level is typically unbelievable high. The company is worried that if the economy picks back up and picks back up rapidly, they won’t have skilled people to maintain their high quality.
So for that reason, they’ve been reluctant to lay off as many as they should have. Their reputation is built on quality. Companies die in a hurry if you mess up the quality.
INTERVIEWER: Have you read Mike Dugan’s recent book, The Furniture Wars?
BRACKETT: I did.
INTERVIEWER: What’s your take? Did he get the big picture right?
BRACKETT: I love Mike. I’ve known Mike a long time. I think there was an element of sour grapes in there. He had it right to a point, but I always thought that Mike felt that the graduate school folks who came into the industry were probably sharper than the home-grown guys, but they were never given the opportunity to show what they could do. That may be an erroneous statement, and I’ll probably wish somewhere along the way I hadn’t made it since it’ll show up in print. I do think the world of Mike.
INTERVIEWER: You think he overdid the insider-outsider conflict in the furniture industry?
BRACKETT: I do.
INTERVIEWER: As you mentioned, a lot of outsiders did try to come into the industry and found out it wasn’t the easy pickings they thought.
BRACKETT: The guys who came in weren’t exactly schmucks. They ran good businesses. Take Masco for instance. Before they came into the industry, they made net 10 percent for 30 consecutive years. They came into the industry, and they never did it again until they got out of the industry. First year out, they were back over net 10. These guys weren’t idiots. They knew how to run companies. The same thing with a lot of these guys that were the insiders, if you will. There is something in a guy who is a successful upholstery manufacturer that gives him the ability to say, “If I put that fabric on that frame, it’ll sell.” I don’t think you can be taught that. I think that’s just something innate. I’ve known a lot of guys who were extraordinarily successful as upholstery guys who were no more than of average intelligence, but they had that innate ability. That fabric on that frame, and away they go. I’ve known guys who bought a business, kept the same personnel in place except for the boss, and it went right in the toilet because there was nobody there who had that fabric-to-frame ability. I don’t think you can learn it. I think it’s innate.
INTERVIEWER: Anything equivalent on the case goods side?
BRACKETT: I don’t think so.
INTERVIEWER: So putting that finish on that case doesn’t count in the same way that putting that fabric on that frame does?
BRACKETT: It might, but the difference is, you can change that finish pretty easily. You can’t change so easily if you’ve already bought 1,000 yards of fabric. You’re stuck with it. But they can wash that finish off if it doesn’t look right, and put something.
INTERVIEWER: Did the insider-outsider issue ever create any problems for the AFMA?
BRACKETT: The only incident occurred at our board meeting in the early ’70s. I can’t remember the guy’s last name. Ed something. He was the acquisitions guy for Mohasco. He came to one of our meetings and sat down beside Smith Young. You could see the guy say, “Hey, how do you do?” Smith got up and moved. After the meeting, I said, “Smith, what’s going on with you and Ed?” He said, “He told me he was in charge of mergers and acquisitions at Mohasco. I just got up and moved.” I said, “Why?” He said, “If you don’t want to merge, don’t talk.” That’s about the only thing I can remember.
There was always, not conflict really, but differences of opinion about how you do things. Some of those guys had a different opinion on one thing or another. I can remember when Burlington bought United. Burlington was a superbly engineered textile company, but they over-engineered United Furniture. One of the United guys told me that Burlington had a standard for how many staples they put in the back of a mirror, and they had a line item for them on their cost sheet. He said, “I told them we just put in however many we want. Then we just add $3 at the bottom of the cost sheet to cover all that stuff. Here you are having us count the staples.”
I thought when Burlington came into the industry that we were going to see a coordinated package that included their upholstery fabrics, carpets, drapes, towels, sheets, bed covers. A total package, a Rooms To Go approach with the Burlington look, all integrated, wrapped around the furniture. As far as I know, they never attempted it. I don’t know whether they were smart or stupid or not to do that. It seemed to me to be the natural evolution of things, to tie all that together.
Apparently, there was a lot of over-engineering, over-structuring, or over- reporting or over whatever with some of these companies. It may well have been necessary in their primary business, but not in the furniture industry. Over-meeting certainly was one. Robert Philpot, who ran United, said, “I spent three days in New York, and the only thing we decided was when we’d meet next.”
INTERVIEWER: You yourself must have spent 80 percent of your time in meetings.
BRACKETT: One way or the other. That’s the way the train moves. There are staff- driven associations where, for whatever reason, the staff does whatever they think ought to be done, and let the devil take the hindmost. That was not the way we were structured or ran.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your career or experience?
BRACKETT: Working in the trade association business is a wonderful way to make a living. You never get rich, but you keep the wolves away from the door. I think there’s a lot more management expertise in the furniture industry than most people want to acknowledge. Overall, it was as nice a group of people as you could ask for. I never saw any of my bosses explode over this, that or the other. I never saw that side of some of them, if they had it. By and large, they were courteous to the staff. Nobody tried to harass us, which I understand is fairly common.
Overall, it was an exciting 35 years. I’d do it again if it were in the same time period. I don’t think I want to be involved in it in today’s environment. I wouldn’t know where to start.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much. We appreciate your time.
BRACKETT: Pleased to have the opportunity. I love the industry and still like to talk about it.