E. Leroy Briggs; consultant



FEBRUARY 7, 2008


E. Leroy Briggs, Interviewer

INTERVIEWER: When were you born? Where?

BRIGGS: I was born in High Point, North Carolina on February 15, 1923.

INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture? In-laws? Tell us about them.

BRIGGS: My father owned and operated what would today be considered a rather small upholstery factory, but he was a very smart guy and he operated well. He didn’t make a million dollars but he made a good living. It was called Briggs Manufacturing Company. We made upholstered furniture in High Point.

None of my in-laws – two sets – were ever in furniture but I can tell you about my own family in furniture. The business was originated back in the 1880s as a manufacturer of horse-drawn buggies. This was out in the country at Deep River, toward Greensboro. It was a very successful enterprise. The business people in High Point – a lot of them Quakers, as my family was – prevailed upon my grandfather, who was running that factory with his two brothers, to move the business to High Point, which they did in 1898, in return for which the city gave them what was then a very nice factory. It was brand new.

The buggy business, before the move to High Point and for several years after, was very, very successful. I found the old corporate minute books among my father’s papers and gave them to the High Point Museum. The enterprise made money and had a very active board of directors, all High Point citizens. They would meet twice a year and declare a 100 percent dividend or 200 percent. That meant that that percent of the money, each stockowner had invested in the business. The buggy business, with the advent of the automobile, died out fairly rapidly.

My father went to Guilford College and got his degree in ’04, I think. He decided he wanted to go to Harvard to get himself a Master of Business Administration degree, which he did. He was well equipped as a businessman with basic intelligence and education. He did go to Harvard, and while he was there, he met my mother who was a Bostonian, and they were eventually married. He did not go to Harvard intending to stay in the buggy business. In fact, he worked for the New Haven Railroad, and then he went to Enfield, down near Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and ran a hosiery mill for several years, very successfully.

About the time I was born in 1923, his father persuaded him to come back to High Point and take over the family business, which was near expiration. My father saw what needed to be done, and he transformed it into a company manufacturing upholstered furniture. The buggies, of course, were mechanical, but not very because horses did all the work. Much of the labor of building a buggy was upholstery, so it was an easy conversion into upholstered furniture. In High Point at that time, there was a good deal of furniture manufacturing, both upholstery and wood case goods.

He started in about 1923, and survived over the years. Some of those years were good, but then starting in ’29, it was pretty rough through the ’30s. But he ran the business and did a good job of it, and made a satisfactory living. I basically grew up in the furniture factory.

INTERVIEWER: Do you still have family in furniture? Who?

BRIGGS: The answer is no; just I’ve been in it.

The furniture business, over my tenure, which started when I was 13 years old, has changed very, very radically, from a very small southeastern area, to fully national. For the last 15 to 20 years it has gone global. In that process, it’s largely gone out of the Southeastern part of the United States – the manufacturing part of it. It’s been a very, very fast track and there have been a lot of changes. I think as we go through this interview format, there’ll be a lot of insight into what has happened in the furniture industry in my years.

I want to be sure and state that this interview format was first written down and formalized when I started doing oral histories in 1994. The first several Hall of Fame interviews were not in this structure of questions. The first thing I did when I got into it was go through the existing few interviews by other people and develop a list of questions. Since then, every single interview has been based on these same questions which give them a structure that anybody can use later on to research what these people went through in the process of their furniture careers. The questions, because of the early primary involvement of manufacturing people, are very much aimed at manufacturing. That’s inevitable. In fact, it can’t be changed because if we change the format we lose the whole structure. The questions lean heavily toward experience in the manufacture of furniture, and to a degree in sales, merchandising and promotions.

INTERVIEWER: Describe your growing-up years.

BRIGGS: As I said, my father owned the factory and I spent a lot of time there as a child. At that time it was legal for a high school boy to work in manufacturing, provided there was no direct involvement with dangerous machinery. When I was 13 years old in school – junior high, I guess – in the summer of that year, I worked the whole summer in the furniture factory. My dad – I don’t know that I liked it, but the job that I got was in the lumberyard, which was a good starting point. In those days the handling of lumber was plank by plank, by hand. We stacked the boards on pallets – movable rail-mounted pallets. The lumber came to us by motor truck from a lumber area around High Point – most of it in fact was from up in Virginia. The logger’s trucks came and dumped the planks off and we had to pick them up one by one, stack them on pallets and we rolled them on rails around the yard. We had dry kilns, and we rolled the pallets into the kilns. All of our lumber went through this drying process, which meant that our furniture was of higher quality than most of our competitors. We had two sets of kilns and we alternated back and forth, putting the lumber into the kiln to go through the drying process. We would then take it out in several days and reload the kiln. The heat needed to run the dry kilns was a lot. As it happens, working the wood generated – and still does generate – a lot of sawdust and sander dust, defective furniture parts, and in fact, scraps of wood. All of that went into the boiler to provide heat for the buildings and to operate the dry kilns. It was a nice balance.

There was really never enough wood waste to handle a whole job, but as I got further into buying what the factory needed, I bought a good amount of scrap coal from local coal merchants to make up the difference in the energy need.

I grew up in the factory being in and out in general, and working there from age 13. I grew up like everybody else did in High Point. It was a small city at that time of less than 40,000 people, and it was a very pleasant place in which to grow up.

My mother was very active in our Quaker congregation. She grew up in New England as a Congregationalist, but when she came to High Point where my father had been a Quaker all of his life, she took over the family religion. My dad said frequently he put his religion in his wife’s name. She certainly had me there every time the church door was open, and that has been a very valuable part of my life, for all of it.

INTERVIEWER: Where did you go to college? What was your major?

BRIGGS: My father and my grandmother both went to Guilford College. I didn’t because I was inclined to the technical side of things. The manufacturing of furniture was becoming increasingly technical. I went to North Carolina State University in Raleigh. I majored in mechanical engineering, which was inappropriate because then, and still, most of the engineering in furniture is not mechanical, but industrial. Industrial engineering in that day, which was 1940, was nowhere near as developed as it is today. NC State did not even have a course in industrial engineering, so the closest I could come was mechanical.

Not incidentally, mechanical engineering is vastly more technical and more difficult than industrial. But I survived and I managed to get through in four years, and I graduated with honors. More importantly, the fact that I was studying mechanical engineering was impressive to the Draft Board, and they let me stay in college until I finished. The war started in 1941. I didn’t graduate until ’44, but I was able to stay in and finish on schedule.

INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings in college have affected your life?

BRIGGS: The course of mechanical engineering then didn’t leave much time for anything but mechanical engineering. I had to work very, very hard, long, difficult hours to keep my standing in school. There was not a whole lot of socializing going on, particularly because there was a war going on. There was the emphasis of social things in college. I joined the Sigma Chi social fraternity, and became one of the leaders of the group. In fact, I was the house steward, which meant that I bought all of the food, paid the rent and managed the house. Actually, I learned more from that job as house manager – practical life experiences – than I did as a student. Also, I made practically all of the major friendships of my life from the fraternity in college. We did have a good time. We worked hard. We were a very scholastic group of guys. We were consistently the best on campus.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have military experience? Describe it briefly.

BRIGGS: Yes, of course. When I graduated, it was in ’44. In fact, I went into the service on June 3, 1944, and you’ll remember that D-Day was June the 6th. Whatever military experience I had was on the downside, but it was still during the war.

Because of my Quaker background, I guess, I had a total reluctance to go anywhere and have to shoot people. I wound up, rather than in the armed services – the Army, Navy or Marines – I went into the Maritime Service, which is the merchant marine. I was a naval reserve officer, inactive, but that kept me from being drafted into something else. I spent 28 months as a Cadet-Midshipman first and then I went to sea as an officer on major cargo ships. I was in the engine department.

The first ships that I was on were both steamships, and midshipman served to watch just exactly like the other engineers. I did that for a year, and then went back to the Merchant Marine Academy for a semester to finish out their requirements. I graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy, and I also became an officer. Both in the Maritime Service and in the Naval Reserve, I was a ship’s officer. As it happened, because of my educational background, which was away from steam engines and into internal combustion, most of my ship service was actually on diesel ships – still major cargo carriers, but smaller than some. They were powered by two diesel engines directly driving the propellers through electromagnetic clutches.

On the ship as a Cadet-Midshipman, I sailed from New Orleans first. My basic training was on the Mississippi Coast in a little place called Pass Christian, which was practically wiped out this last year by the hurricane that also took away New Orleans. Basic training was a good experience.

On the steamship, the first trip I made was from New Orleans to Marseilles in southern France, in a big, big convoy across the north Atlantic, which was still actively populated by German submarines. We sailed along in a great big convoy. We were in a formation – rows of ships and columns of ships – a great big square that sailed along. Our cargo on that ship was one full shipload of tank ammunition to Marseilles. Then it went just as fast as they could move it up to General Patton, who was moving up through Europe at a great rate. Of course at the same time, they were fighting on two fronts. General Patton went up through Italy, and the bigger allied force landed on Normandy and they both gradually pressed on and up through Europe to Berlin.

Then Hitler killed himself, and that was pretty much the end of the war. But from 1944 to Hiroshima in 1946 – it was a big fight. We discharged our cargo of tank ammunition and sailed for home. As it happened, it was a brand new, very big steamship and one of the fastest on the ocean.

Just before Christmas of 1944, we were in Marseilles and our destination was New York City. Our captain lived up in the Bronx. It was just before Christmas and he wanted to be home for Christmas. He talked the military people into letting us come back across the ocean by ourselves, and we were quite empty, which on a ship can mean you get a very bumpy ride. But we were also, perhaps, the fastest merchant ship on the ocean, so it only took us five days to come back, and the captain was home for Christmas.

Then from New York, on the same ship, we went back to Europe with a solid shipload of tank ammo – gasoline in five gallon jerry cans. In that one, which left early in 1945, we were in the biggest convoy that was ever assembled. Because of what we had aboard, they put us in the very middle of the convoy so that it was very unlikely that the submarines would be able to get to us.

The only attack method the submarines had was to go as fast as we could, or faster, underwater but not on the surface. They had to run ahead and hope they were in the right place. They would surface and wait for the ship – any ship – to come by, and they’d give them a couple of torpedoes. We got across all right, although I can remember in the middle of the night – and this was during the winter on the north Atlantic, but in the middle of the convoy, we could hear and see them blowing up ships around the edges.

It was an exciting experience, but I got back. Then, that summer of ’45 I went back to the Merchant Marine Academy and got my degree. Then I had another year or two to go as a commissioned officer, this time on a diesel ship. Then, of course the war had ended in the summer of ’45, and from then on there wasn’t anything like the traffic going to Europe. It happened that the ship I was on belonged to Grace Line, which was very important in the traffic of South America. The rest of the time was between New Orleans and the northern coast of South America and New York City, and then back the other way to South America and back to New Orleans. We carried all kinds of general cargo, and in those days it wasn’t handled in containers at all. It was just loose on pallets, and each of these pallets had to be loaded.

It took about five days to load the ship, pallet by pallet. Then we would go south, and we stopped first in La Guaira, Venezuela, which is the port of Caracas. We also stopped at a little place called Puerto Cabello. We went to Maracaibo, Columbia, which is a big lake connected to the ocean but was all full of oil wells. We would take fuel from Maracaibo – back to New Orleans. That’s the way the war wound down.

INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job?

BRIGGS: As I have described, handling lumber, plank by plank, hand over hand. It was pretty splintery, rough lumber, and gloves didn’t do a bit of good because a pair of gloves, in that use, wouldn’t last a day. We just did it bare-handed, and we had two or three break times for coffee and for lunch, and that was when we sat and picked the splinters out of our hands.

INTERVIEWER: How was your boss? Tell us about your work then.

BRIGGS: My boss at that time was the head of the yard crew. His name was Manly Woodruff. He was black, as were all the guys in the lumberyard except for me. He was a very, very fair guy. The lumberyard was closely associated with the machine room, and I moved into them in the summers that I worked there. As I got older, I could work with hazardous machinery.

I went into the woodworking operation, and by that time I was learning some engineering at State. I was able to put that into work, doing time-and-motion study, and what little engineering was actually being used in the furniture factory. I eventually became the factory engineer. I wasn’t able to graduate from college and go to work. I graduated right into the military, but when I came back home, I worked in the factory office and did purchasing, a certain amount of merchandising, and styling of furniture.

INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the industry at that time. Who did you work with?

BRIGGS: When I first started working at the age of 13, we had two Markets a year in High Point. One in January and one in July. My first summer, my dad offered me a job during the two-week Market, up in the furniture building. As an alternate to working in the lumberyard, I was happy to grab that. My first Market was at age 13 in our showroom in the big furniture building in High Point. It was a very lucky circumstance that had developed.

As I have said, the U.S. furniture business in those days was, to a very large extent, centered in the southeast. Our best salesman covered the state of West Virginia. In High Point, at that time, we had a big, big successful show with an attendance of 5,000 people. Which with a population of 10,000 was a lot of people, same as it is today. That is only one tenth of the size it is now.

Mr. Charlie was under the pressure of all these people. The stress got to him and he couldn’t write legibly. He could still sell, and he did, but someone had to follow him and his customers around, and write his orders. That, over the years, had become the job of one of the girls in the factory office – a different girl every time probably. But that’s the job that I was offered, and as an alternate to working in the lumberyard, I grabbed it. I worked my first High Point Market at 13, which would have been 1936. That has incidentally resulted in my being able to brag at this time of my life that I have probably been to more High Point Markets than any other person. Now, the last one was number 128 as nearly as I can guess. Although I have very little consistency in what my work was, it’s always been furniture connected and has required me to go to Market.

I have been to Market a lot, and there have been a lot of changes. Our industry in 1936 was much, much smaller, and much, much more local. We had a Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association that was based here in High Point. All of the furniture manufacturers knew each other, they were friends and cousins, and lived together. Some of us went to the Chicago Market, and some of us went to New York. We also had Markets in Boston and eventually, years later, in Dallas. I’ve also been to a San Francisco Market. There have been a lot of Markets, but the first one I went to was in High Point. The whole Market, at that point, was in the big Southern Furniture Exposition Building. Our space was on the 11th floor, and it was a large space for those days at 2,000 square feet. We were right next door to the Bassett space, which I think was the biggest in the building, and it was 6,000 or 8,000 square feet. The building itself was not at all well decorated or anything like that. No draperies on the windows. No air conditioning. Most of the spaces had either open access in the fronts or had glass fronts with doors. The side partitions between the spaces only went up 8 feet, and there was about 3 or 4 feet above them. Practically every word that was spoken in the Bassett space was audible to us, and vice versa. The floors were all battleship linoleum – no carpet. There was no attempt at all to accessorize the furniture and make it attractive or home-like.

We made sofas, and we showed a sofa, and then behind that another sofa, and then another sofa. Chairs, chairs, and more chairs were crammed into that little space, but nobody had anything better. It started gradually being made to look like room settings, but even the photography was plain.

Alderman Studios was just getting started. Sidney Gayle had come back from the war. His brother Miles, who had been the heir up until then, had died early, and Sidney became the head of Alderman Studios. Then furniture photography was done (a lot of it) up in the furniture building at night during Market.

Alderman Studios was just a big old warehouse down on North Hamilton Street. They would photograph a sofa, and then they had a whole department of women in there painting out the background on the negative with light blocking paint so that all you saw was the piece of furniture. The salesman’s photographs were printed on heavy paper, probably cardstock. It would be a picture of a sofa, and there was nothing else on the page. No floor, no accessories, nothing, and that was the way the salesman presented his goods. It was a whole lot different from the way it’s done today.

Sidney Gayle, in fact, was a very young head of Alderman Studios, and then his younger brother Bob came in with him. They began showing furniture in room settings with carpets on the floor and other furniture. They would have pictures on the wall, and windows with draperies. Alderman eventually built and moved into an enormous building south of town which is still the biggest. They didn’t call it a movie studio, but a still studio. They had thousands and thousands of dollars worth of accessories that they could bring in. Lamps and things. They stored them in the warehouse and they’d use them over and over again. They made the room settings, and radically changed the business of photographing furniture

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about the changes since your first furniture Market?

BRIGGS: Believe me, there have been more changes than I could cover in the next week. Back in the early days we had the Market in High Point. There was a Market twice a year in Chicago which was the new national Market. There was one in New York which was more local to the northeast. They were in buildings that were considered enormous in those days, including the Merchandise Mart in Chicago which devoted two complete floors to furniture. Today, it would be considered totally inadequate as far as enough space to show furniture. The idea of showing it was to let the retail buyers come and see and feel and sit in the product. Not at all incidentally, the Market phenomenon that grew first in Chicago got bigger and bigger, through almost a fluky set of circumstances.

There was an interesting person named Burt Tuxford who was from Jamestown, New York. His wife, Peggy, was a member of the Bergquist family who owned one of the important factories in Jamestown called Monitor Furniture. Burt had been with that family business and was hired as sales manager for Drexel, up in Morganton, North Carolina. He came down here, and well there was a general agreement that the Market timing in January/July had been all right for many years because they were good times for travel. Also, January and July are very slow months in the retail furniture business, but they were not at all suited to the selling of furniture at retail.

From my early times in High Point, the Market became more and more of a national institution. By the time I got back from the service and went to work, I had to go to the Markets here in High Point, Chicago and New York. At that time, the dominant furniture customers of the factories were the big department stores. At the top of the stack were Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward – but under them, a whole category of big city department stores: Macy’s in New York; Lord & Taylor, Filene’s and Jordan Marsh in Boston; John Wanamaker’s, Gimbles and Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia; and Gimbles and Joseph Horne in Pittsburgh. We had Hecht Company in Washington, and another Hecht Company in Baltimore, which were two different companies owned by the same family.

Every big city in the United States had one, two or three big, big department stores who sold furniture. There was more furniture sold, I’m sure, by the department stores than any other retail category. They dominated the furniture industry. Burt Tuxford properly deduced that the big sale month for these department stores was August, when they would put furniture on sale to stimulate business leading into the fall. The other big sale month was February, when they had to put on sales. If it hadn’t been for the sales, they wouldn’t have sold anything during the cold winter time.

The furniture stores couldn’t come to Market in July and buy for the August sale. The furniture wouldn’t get there in time, nor would it in January for the February sales.

Burt Tuxford correctly understood that they needed to be able to shop for furniture about three months earlier. Burt started inviting his best department store customers to come down to the Drexel factory in the spring – a very pleasant time to come, and in October, to look at what was being developed for the January/July Markets. Very quickly the development time was pushed back to let the merchants come down to the factory and look which gave them a wonderful opportunity to see what was coming and to commit for purchasing new styles, and also structure what they were going to do for these big sales. Burt’s customers would come down to Morganton and Hickory.

Burt had brought with him from Jamestown a very nice Chris-Craft boat that was big enough to take a group out at night on Lake Hickory, and then feed them. Other factories followed suit, so they enjoyed the social aspects of being in Hickory, Morganton and Lenoir, North Carolina. Because the big building was in High Point, some of the factories – Broyhill, Bernhardt, Drexel and Century – could take a part of their factory and remodel it into a showroom. In Hickory, two or three big buildings were constructed for factory showrooms. But the Market building and space that these manufacturers had already paid rent for was here in High Point. Very rapidly, very soon after the war was over, what was called a “mid-market” developed in the spring and fall.

Fairly rapidly, department store customers from all over the country decided to come here, and that’s what led to the big spring and fall Markets of today. It got bigger and bigger, and the store buyers liked it. The manufacturing people liked it. It was less expensive to show in a converted warehouse in the factory in Morganton than it was to go to Chicago. That became more and more prevalent. In fact, it took about 20 years. The “mid-market” started small and at the very outset, it was just a few buyers, but more and more came. The factories would invite them, and they’d have a very pleasant time.

The High Point building reluctantly started opening during April and October early on. Reluctantly, because it was an extra expense, but as long as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, The Hecht Company, and Rich’s in Atlanta – all of them were in the area, they would go up to Hickory. But they also wanted to go to High Point and naturally the manufacturers responded. If the customers were going to come here, they were willing to set-up the showrooms. They did, and the “mid-market” grew and grew.

As I said, it was over 20 years in the transition, but from having the July and January Markets with “mid-markets” in April and October, eventually the “mid-markets” became the real Markets and finally, High Point discontinued the July and January events altogether. This also resulted in the discontinuance of the Chicago Market, both winter and summer, and the New York Market. The Dallas Market, at one point, grew to threaten the Chicago Market, but Dallas and Atlanta (Markets) were too far down the curve. The Chicago Market was dead, so the Market came to North Carolina. It was very improbable but it happened. The Market grew into a figure eight configuration on the North Carolina map. The western loop was Hickory, Morganton and Lenoir, and then back to High Point through Statesville, Lexington and Thomasville. It was called the Figure Eight Highway. Buyers from all over the country would come down and rent a car and go through that circuit. It was inefficient, but it was very effective. It got the job done when the buyers saw the furniture and made their commitments. They were able to plan their retail programs three months ahead. Eventually, it came to a showdown between these two lobes of the figure eight, the lazy eight.

At the critical moment in the alignment of the southern Market, the Tomlinson family decided to close their company and sell the factory buildings in downtown High Point. The purchasers were a group of investors who very successfully turned the entire property into a showroom complex. They named it Market Square, built a high-rise office structure adjacent to it, and rented it all out in a remarkably short time.

Led by Century Furniture of Hickory – one of the purchaser-investors – enough western companies rented or built in High Point to consolidate Market and eliminate the Figure Eight Highway. Southern Market became spring and fall only. Chicago, New York, Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco Markets became regional affairs, and High Point assumed the function of the national furniture market.

INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the beginnings of your company (or companies).

BRIGGS: I never had a major company. What I did have was too small to be successful, but I worked for several very, very successful people.

I first went to work with Sam Wexler and Mendy Selig. Their company was Selig Manufacturing Company, and their specialty was modern furniture. All of their upholstery was made up in Leominster, Massachusetts. When the department stores started coming South for “mid-market”, Selig had to come down here and rent a space in the furniture building. I sold for Selig in this area for six years.

I later took a job with Morrie Futorian. Believe me, Morrie was a powerhouse. I was with him for three years, and I learned more from him than I did in college, mostly about the wrong way to do things. Morrie was an absolutely determined person. If he decided to make a concrete airplane, he would have made it fly without any question. I went through much of the beginning of his company. With him, I was stationed in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He built a factory there to make reclining chairs. We were already making Stratolounger recliners, and Barcalo was making Barcaloungers. Morrie bought Barcalo, which was an old company to have a major step-up line. But, as far as merchandising was concerned, it was a very good strategy.

Both Selig and Futorian were very, very strong growth companies. One of my best friends at Futorian was the factory manager. He was a corporate factory manager, which included, I think, seven factories. His name was Bo Bland, and he was a very wonderful guy with whom I have done a fascinating oral history interview. For our plant in Rocky Mount, Bo selected a young gentleman, who had just graduated from Mississippi State University, to come and be our plant engineer. This was way up the line from my early days in furniture engineering. This job was totally industrial engineering (related), and so the guy from Mississippi was an industrial engineer. His name was Mickey Holliman. We in Rocky Mount had a wonderful and successful time working there with those guys.

Bo came up one week a month, and Mickey was there; he lived in Rocky Mount. He is now just retiring as chairman of Furniture Brands International, one of the biggest companies in the industry. After I moved on, Mickey and Bo got together – they were friends from way back. They pulled away from Futorian and started their own company named Action Industries. It was located in Verona, the next town south of Tupelo, Mississippi. They started making recliners only. Just seven months later they were approached by Hampton Powell of the Lane Company who bought their company. It’s now Action Industries, or Action-Lane, with Bo and Mickey as substantial stockholders. Since Bo and Mickey were both in Tupelo, they moved that whole Lane operation to Tupelo. I don’t think Lane manufactures anything anymore, and the name Lane has lost its importance. In Altavista, Virginia, where Lane was an old, old company, there is no furniture there today.

That’s about the beginning of Selig and Futorian. Incidentally, I guess, I should have noted that in about 1950, my father and I had an opportunity to sell our company, which I thought was not the thing to do, but he did it. That’s how I came to work for these other men.

INTERVIEWER: How has growth been affected by labor?

BRIGGS: I can’t speak much to any specific company history because I wasn’t directly associated with top management. I was in sales from the time we sold our business to the time that I temporarily pulled out of the industry. I was offered a faculty position at North Carolina State University. Although, I got out of any furniture company involvement, I was still very much in the industry because NC State, at that time, had a very active curriculum in Furniture Manufacturing and Management.

I was a faculty member at NC State, and we who were in that department, which was the Industrial Extension Service, we did not teach full time. Most of us had a special class or two that we taught, as I did, and we had to be classified as faculty to be able to park on campus, which is justification enough.

Labor has been, certainly in the South, never much of a problem or an influence on corporate policy. There was plenty of labor all along, and there are essentially no unions in the southern furniture industry. There are some in the North, but not a very high percentage of all the employees. Southern furniture labor was inexpensive. People had rather low costs of living, and my experience with labor in furniture factories has been that most workers were all natives who had come in off the farm. Most of them, through inheritance, had acquired some farmland, more or less depending on a lot of factors. They practically all did some farming, had some animals and were able therefore to live on a whole lot less earned income. This was very much a factor of the furniture industry gradually moving into the South.

This was an equilibrium totally upset when furniture imports started coming in about 15 to 20 years ago. For the same reason that furniture manufacturing moved to the South, it moved out of the United States, primarily to China because of the low labor costs. Although there has been furniture made in Taiwan, a lot is now from Vietnam and other Asian countries, as well as South America.

INTERVIEWER: How has growth been affected by style and design?

BRIGGS: This – not speaking for any one company, but for the whole industry – has been a very major change over the years that I have been in furniture. At first, back in the ’30s, there simply were no known furniture designers. There were people who studied design, and who worked for companies and did designing. But with two or three notable exceptions, nobody knew who the designer was of any given piece of furniture.

Very, very gradually over at least 50 years, the first furniture designer who was widely known was named Edmond Spence, and he principally worked for Coleman Furniture, which is gone now but was up in Pulaski, Virginia. He did a lot of design work, and it was sold based upon his name as the designer. From that there were a lot of evolutions, such as Norman Heckler in High Point who did very, very well. Norman designed on percentage. He didn’t charge a design fee. He just took a percentage of sales, and he did very well.

Now, of course, we have whole groups and whole companies’ lines of furniture sold because of who the designer is. Preeminent among these is Martha Stewart, and design has become much, much more important. This is true in the mid- to upper-price ranges. In the very low price ranges, design is still very much the way it was 50 years ago.

INTERVIEWER: How has growth been affected by advertising?

BRIGGS: It’s very interesting because back in the ’30s there simply was no national advertising of furniture. The retailers did advertise in the local newspapers, but they paid for it and had it all done themselves. In fact, it was a long time before the manufacturers started giving the retailers things like newspaper mats and other equipment devices that were needed to make ads. Big retailers made their own ads, took their own photography, and had mats and everything made.

Bassett was one of the very first, I think, to begin advertising furniture nationally. Kroehler, I believe, was the very first because Peter Kroehler made a commitment to himself and his dealers way, way back; I think he agreed to 10 percent. He set aside 10 percent of his sales – wholesale value of his furniture, and he spent all of that money on advertising, and that proved to be a very successful approach for him.

Another factor is what we call cooperative advertising. That’s when the retailer actually places the ad in a local newspaper (not in a national magazine), and the manufacturer agrees to pay part of the cost. I would say that even now, with national advertising, there’s probably more money being spent on co-op local advertising than on any other kind in our industry.

INTERVIEWER: What jobs have you held in furniture companies?

BRIGGS: I can say that in the upholstery side of the business, I’ve held every job in the factory. I started in my father’s factory and worked in the lumberyard with a large crew of black men, handling lumber plank by plank. From there I worked in the factory.

Then I worked in the showroom starting when I was 13 years old. I went to college and studied engineering, but not the right kind. I went into the service for three years, and when I finally got out, I went back to my father’s factory.

My first assignment was to set-up a system to accurately estimate the cost of our furniture products, which he never had. Each piece of furniture had to be costed separately. Listing all the materials that went into it was no problem. Labor time was different. Although much of the labor was piecework, in which we knew the cost of each piece of furniture, there was a great deal of hourly work, and all you could do was guess at that. But we did as well as we could. I also did all of the purchasing for the company. This was not a big, big job, but I learned very much about the materials that went into it because I bought them all. I did have a time when I was an officer of my own company, which didn’t turn out at all well. But when we sold our original family company, I didn’t want to go to work in anybody else’s factory, and so I went out as a wholesale salesman and took on several lines of non-conflicting furniture.

I traveled for 11 years in North and South Carolina, East Tennessee, and Virginia. I must say, I enjoyed that probably as much as anything I ever did. I was always on the go, and it was new scenery every day.

It did take me two or three years to discover that all of my sales success was with people I liked, and who liked me. My friends – they became my friends.

I traveled throughout the year, but it was never practical to travel to sell furniture in December, so all the furniture salesmen stayed home in December.

In my second December in sales, I was thinking about things. Some of my customers I liked and some I disliked. Many of them liked me, and a number of them didn’t. I decided right then that I was not going to spend another minute trying to sell furniture to people I didn’t like. From then on I went around, and this was not really anything you could call work. All I was doing was visiting with my friends. But that turned out to be the secret of being a successful furniture salesman, and I suspect the same for practically every other consumer product.

I found, incidentally, that the second most important thing is keeping accurate records of sales. That same December, I designed a sort of bookkeeping system. I had a page for each of my customers, and every single piece of furniture they bought was entered on that page. As I would go around to see them, I could show them right in black and white, what they had been buying from me, selling and making money on. That made an enormous difference in my success as a salesman.

Eventually I went from Selig over to Futorian, and I was a sales manager then, not a salesman. I found that the typical successful salesman is not very well organized. I was very well organized, and I had a crew from eight to 11 salesmen in the northeastern United States from North Carolina, west to Pittsburgh, and north to Canada. I went out and worked with my salesmen, but I didn’t work with them and their customers nearly as much as I worked with the salesmen to get them organized.

Once they were organized, in a very similar way that I had organized my own sales territory, we became very successful.

I was a regional sales manager. There were six regions in the United States, and when I took the job, ours was number six at the bottom. Futorian had a policy. At every summer Market, they would give prizes for sales performance amongst the teams. We went from the number six team to the number one team in the first year. One of my guys was the best salesman in the company and we did very well. But it was not salesmanship. It was organization.

In fact, I was required, as a prospective Futorian employee, to go through a psychological evaluation and I spent three days in Chicago with an industrial psychologist. I spent a day and a half taking a written examination of my personality, characteristics, and this, that, and the other. He wrote this up as a multipage evaluation which was given to Morrie Futorian to make his decision. I was not supposed to have seen this, but I used a little ingenuity, and got myself a copy of the whole results summary. What the psychologist said at the end of the report was, and this is an accurate quote: “It’s difficult to see how Mr. Briggs was able to make a living as a salesman because his profile is not of a salesman. But the obvious success he’s known was because he was so well organized, he didn’t have to be a salesman.” I kept that, and have been very proud of it.

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in production?

BRIGGS: The big change is today the production is not that wholly, but very, very substantially, production is gone. It’s no more. Furniture is simply not produced, any major part of it, in the United States. The overseas people are very much using the same process and procedure, but they will work for much, much cheaper because their cost of living is cheaper. In upholstery particularly, there has been a very major change from way back, and it was largely motivated by Morrie Futorian, who was my boss for three years.

In upholstery, at the beginning of my career, we had a wooden frame for each piece of furniture. It would be in the factory and be given to one man who would put the frame up on a pair of sawbucks, like a platform. Then he would install all of the springs in the frame, and tie them with sisal rope. He would use webbing to cover the springs and to span over the open areas in the frame so that cotton padding and some other materials, such as Spanish moss that you see draped on the oak trees in the South, palm fiber, and sisal fibers, all covered over on the surface with cotton batting. Then the springer put in all the springs and he would set the piece of furniture off and it would go down the line. The next person would put it up on his bucks, and put all of the padding in it and around it, and then shape it to whatever the design required.

In finer furniture, padding and springs would be covered with muslin fabric but in the less expensive lines, the exterior cover fabric would go right over the filler padding material. Then the upholsterer would shape the whole piece of furniture. Using tacks and a magnetic hammer, he’d take a mouthful of tacks and move them around with his tongue to put the head out and pick it with a hammer and “bam”. That’s the way the upholstery was put on. Then after the upholsterer was through, he’d take it off the bucks. The next person, an outsider, would pick it up. He’d stretch the fabric all around the outside arms and the outside backs. If there was any skirt or fringe on the bottom, he would apply that, and there was a piece of furniture all ready to pack and ship.

In North Carolina, this was simply the way it was done. That was true in the North too. Each of these operations were done for a piecework price, and the worker got paid for how many pieces he did. They had a whole system of tickets that went through with the piece of furniture, and the tickets were handed in every week and were paid off to the upholsterer. Morrie had a very successful upper-medium, high-priced upholstery company in Chicago. He was flying somewhere once, and he happened to find himself seated next to a vice president of General Motors. They began to talk, and Morrie said, “Well, tell me something. You make Chevrolets, and you make Cadillacs.” He says, “A two-door Chevrolet hardtop is not really very different from a two-door Cadillac hardtop, but of course you sell them for a whole lot more. What’s the difference in cost between a two-door Cadillac and a two-door Chevrolet?”

The man said, “About $800.” The wholesale price was $2,000 more.

Morrie got all excited. He arranged with the vice president a tour of GM’s automobile factory in Michigan. What he saw there were automobiles going down an assembly line starting as a metal frame, and then piece by piece as it went along, the workers would add all of the parts. They put the wheels on, the engine in, and then at a certain right time, down from the ceiling would come a whole body with the seats and everything already in it. They then bolted that onto the chassis, and at the end of the line, they started the car and drove it off.

He said he immediately decided he could do that – if they could build automobiles like that, he could build furniture. He went back and worked on it. He soon was reminded that he had a union in his plant in Chicago. He realized he’d never do what he wanted there, so he decided he would have to go to the South. He didn’t want to go to North Carolina because there were too many factories there. For whatever reason, I never learned, he called up the governor of Mississippi. This was before all of the race problems in Mississippi. The governor’s name was Ross Barnett, who became very famous later in the integration – I don’t want to say battle, but conflict. Morrie went down, and they talked.

Ross Barnett sent him to Tupelo, which was a very small town up in the northeast corner of Mississippi. The primary crop of that region was cotton, and all the farms for miles and miles grew cotton. Every so often there was a cotton gin, and they’d take it down there and have it ginned and baled and would then ship it. This had been the way it was in Mississippi since way, way back, well before the Civil War. In fact, I have heard that in the year 1855, before the Civil War, the one town in the United States with the most millionaires was Natchez, Mississippi because of the cotton brokerage.

Morrie went to Tupelo and there were two factories there. They were not into furniture at all; both assembled lawnmowers. But Morrie rented a big old warehouse, and put a furniture factory in there to make furniture the way he’d seen them making automobiles in Michigan. He had a very capable helper to do this, whose name was Bill Taymon, and together they made that thing work. They made furniture by putting a frame up on a line, and the line was not powered the way the automobile plant was. Instead the laborers themselves lifted the pieces onto the bucks and did their part of the work. Then they and the next guy moved it to the next position, and the next, and the next. Thirteen people on a production line would make a piece of furniture. It was very, very successful. Each piece came off at the end of the line just exactly like the one before it and the one after.

If anybody down the line was doing anything wrong, it was no problem for an inspector to find it because every single piece was made the same way and all you had to do was go back and straighten out the one person who was doing it wrong, which took a matter of minutes; so there weren’t very many defective pieces of furniture.

Tupelo went from there – if it hadn’t been for Morrie, Tupelo would have been famous for only one thing: Elvis Presley was born there. But in Tupelo (the northeast part of Mississippi), it came to a point where more pieces of furniture were made there than in North Carolina. All were nearly perfect furniture.

All of my work has been in the production of upholstery. It has totally changed. The Mississippians expanded, and now there are more and more companies there. The upholstery companies in North Carolina stayed about the same size, and still made upholstery the same way they did 50 years ago. They do right now, but the Mississippians all do it by the assembly line.

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in purchasing?

BRIGGS: There have not been many changes except of course the materials that were used in upholstery in the early days of my career. Padding material was horse hair and Spanish moss and others things and they covered it over with cotton batting. The filling material now is pretty well totally moved over to polyurethane foam covered over with synthetic polyester batting. It is much easier to control, more comfortable and very much more satisfactory. The changes in purchasing have been a matter of different materials, not of any substantially different procedure.

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in sales and merchandising?

BRIGGS: Except for the influence of advertising of all kinds, it’s not very different at all. Even before my time, there was no switch in the selling procedure since the very beginning of the furniture industry in England. One way or another, whoever purchased furniture at wholesale or retail went somewhere to look at it. Nobody until today has ever learned how to sell furniture without showing furniture. That’s why we have an enormous furniture Market in High Point, because in spite of all the other changes in the industry, the people who buy the furniture have to go and look at it, feel it, and see what it’s made of. If it’s upholstery, they have to sit in it. That applies retail-wise too, and that’s why even people like Sears, Roebuck never were really successful selling upholstery or furniture from a catalog. People have to see it. Furniture for sale has been shown starting in New England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1830s.

To make multiple pieces of furniture, you needed power machinery. The only way they could develop consistent power machinery was first, with water power. New England was unique in that there, the hills came right down to the sea. It was possible to build dams and lakes, and to have water power to turn shafts to run machinery to manufacture products rather than having to do it by hand. Very early on, in the beginning, they’d have a factory up in the hills of Vermont or Massachusetts or New Hampshire, fairly close to Boston. They’d build up a wagonload of furniture. Wood furniture or upholstery, and they’d take it down in the wagon to Boston and sell it to dealers, and go back home.

Then somebody said, “Let’s have a furniture exhibition in Boston.” They did, and people looked and bought their furniture. Single pieces. The buyers – storeowners – came from all around and picked out what they wanted and they wrote orders. That’s the way it’s still done. Buyers would have to see it and feel it, and so the Boston Market was quite successful. At one point a group of furniture manufacturers chartered a sailing ship, and they sailed up and down the coast of New England with all their samples on the ship, and it was a sailing showroom.

Before very long there were a bunch of Swedes up around Jamestown, New York, who were craftsmen – woodcraftsmen from the old country. They opened several factories, and the first thing you know, the Swedes built a furniture exhibition building in Jamestown. There was one in New York City all along, but it wasn’t long after the Swedes in Jamestown that the Dutch out in Michigan around Grand Rapids established several factories. They had a showroom built in Grand Rapids, which grew because of the geographical proximity to the Chicago Market. A building in Chicago, which was centrally located, was a big advantage, and it became the biggest furniture Market in the country. People still wanted to come and see the furniture, and we have a magnificent Market in High Point because many people would even come to this little place in order to see, touch and feel the furniture.

A very interesting sidelight to that is the fact that there was a man in Greensboro who had a photography studio. The legend is that he looked out his window one day, and saw a well-dressed man with a wagonload of furniture going down the street. He checked it out, and found out that the man was selling furniture to the stores. He brought his samples around to let the dealer look at it and feel it. Mr. Alderman said, “Why do that? We can take pictures, and you can carry the pictures around.” That turned out to be an excellent idea, and it spawned a big furniture photography industry in and around High Point and other furniture centers.

A secondary transition came about, and this was directly from Sidney Gayle, who was Mr. Alderman’s grandson. Sidney, by that time, had become the head of Alderman Studios in High Point. It’s still the largest non-motion picture studio in the world. He got the idea of not just showing pictures of pieces of furniture. Sidney got the idea of making what they call room settings, in which the furniture would be placed in a simulated room with draperies, carpet, lamps and pictures. In a fairly short time he totally revolutionized the furniture photography business.

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in finance?

BRIGGS: Finance, that was never something that I was much involved with, but probably the greatest change is that today, to a very large extent, wholesale furniture is sold and paid for by a process called factoring, in which the furniture manufacturer has a relationship with a factor who is a banker. Every day the manufacturer receives pay for the furniture he has shipped, and the factor assumes the job of collecting from the retailer. This involves a great deal of recordkeeping, reporting, credit ratings and all that, which bankers do better than furniture makers.

INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in management?

BRIGGS: Changes in management have not been major, but management has become more and more professional. Business management in general has become much more professional. If you’re going to be a successful sales executive or a business manager, you have to go to college and earn yourself a Master of Business Administration. Management is much more professional than it used to be, and people are educated in management. The early furniture people, the Hall of Fame inductees, have largely been uneducated factory people until fairly recently.

INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you personally have received from people in our industry.

BRIGGS: As far as personally, I would have to say that of course I got a lot of support from my father. Also in particular, I will always remember Henry Foscue, who was vice president of Globe Parlor Furniture Company and the big High Point Market buildings. He helped me in many ways, particularly with advice. He was a very competent man, and I respected him tremendously. I remember William Allan Tomlinson, who was president of Tomlinson of High Point and was a good friend and counselor. I had a best friend, Charles M. Carey, who was vice president of Drexel. A wonderful man.

I also remember William E. Stevens, who was vice president of Broyhill. With Charlie Carey and Bill Stevens, and many other people, we went through a nearly 20 year struggle in the organization called UFAC - the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. We challenged the federal government of the United States in an effort to have us make upholstered furniture cigarette proof. That’s a whole other story which maybe we can handle in some other venue. But there still is no federal standard needed to make sofas cigarette proof.

Those two men, and Bill Richman of Futorian, Bob Cortelyou of Mohasco, Bob Wilkes of Bastrop, Texas, and Bob Spilman of Bassett - we all got together and my technical education proved very valuable because this was a mechanical process. But rather than have a very clumsy, awkward, expensive, restrictive federal way to make furniture, we invented a voluntary program which we tested and proved to be effective. It didn’t make furniture totally cigarette proof, but it did on a percentage basis make it much more cigarette resistant. We sold this to the industry, who almost 100 percent adopted our manufacturing method. It was fairly simple using the right kind of materials in the right way. The upholstery did indeed, become more cigarette resistant. The industry voluntarily adopted it, and we sold the federal regulators on letting us do it, and to not have a mandatory regulation, which would have been a financial disaster in our industry.

INTERVIEWER: Describe the support your company has received.

BRIGGS: I did not have a company. I did, after I went through my selling experience and sales management, go back to NC State. On the faculty, in their industrial extension service, I worked with the industrial engineering department in their program of Furniture Manufacturing Management.

Later when I was with UFAC, I was actually employed by the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, which later became the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. Those organizations, UFAC and AFMA, received a great deal of support from the furniture industry. All of us working together to solve a very, very major problem.

One of our innovations in construction turned out very well. As you know, if you look at a piece of upholstered furniture, practically all pieces have a welt cord around all of the edges of the cushions to emphasize design features. The welt cord is a small diameter cord used in the sewing of the fabric, to cover up the seams and then bring out whatever design features the designer wants. We did an awful lot of different testing with cigarettes. We came up with a test method of making up a small replica of the seat with a horizontal/vertical surface, and we would put a cigarette in the crevice and the construction had to resist a cigarette. It would not ignite.

We found that on a piece of furniture in a home, a cigarette put anywhere or thrown at a sofa, had a very strong tendency to roll over into a corner and be against a welt cord – parallel to the cord. A rather high percentage of ignitions took place right there since the fabric was there. The filling material, padding material underneath the fabric, and the welt cord material were also ignitable. I did some thinking on the one product – melamine, which is well known. Plastic countertops and tabletops are made to be “cigarette resistant.” They’re not inclined to go up in flames the way a sofa is. But, if a cigarette is placed or accidentally discarded on the melamine, it would burn down and it would make a big black mark on the tabletop.

Those people solved that problem in the lamination process. They would have the tabletop substrate, probably wood, onto which they veneered the melamine. Layered in between, they installed a printed paper with the print of a wood grain on it. They found they could add to that assembly. Between the wood and printed paper, they put a sheet of aluminum foil. The effect that it had was that when a cigarette was placed on the surface, the aluminum foil, thin as it was, had plenty of conductivity to conduct the heat away from the cigarette so there was no damage to the tabletop. In fact, it would very often conduct the heat away so that the cigarette would go out for lack of enough heat to sustain combustion of the cigarette.

I thought about that and the welt cord, and I said, “Why can’t we wrap the welt cord underneath the fabric with aluminum foil and do the same thing?”

We tried that, very crudely by hand, and it worked fine against the cigarettes. But it was very clumsy, and we found that you didn’t have to wrap the whole welt cord. A strand of foil – a ribbon of foil, built into the welt cord did the job just as well. We had an ignition resistant welt cord called UFAC welt, and I was given the patent for it because the original idea was mine. But that was basically an engineering solution.

INTERVIEWER: What have you done for other people?

BRIGGS: I have to say that I have received vastly much more than I have given in this industry. But I can site, for instance, the Futorian experience with the group of salesmen that I had working with me. I had the system for handling orders, complaints and problems, and I had the authority to make the salesmen do what I suggested. It turned out to be something that was very strongly needed, and the results showed that in one year we went from the number six team in the country to number one.

That’s something I did for other people. There weren’t many opportunities, as it has happened in the way my career has gone, to mentor younger people or help them with business problems. Our industry being quite competitive as it is … anytime any of us found a solution to a problem, we didn’t go out and spread it very much. We’ve had a tendency to keep it in our own company. My work with the associations – originally there were two national associations – the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, SFMA, which was the bigger one because much of the industry was in the South. The other one was the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, in Chicago first and then in Washington. Although they were presumably the national association, we at SFMA were much bigger. The associations did a certain amount of exchange of practices and methods and so forth, but we were still competitive, and information sharing was minimal.

INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategies and management techniques.

BRIGGS: I guess in the military you have strategy and military tactics. The strategy is the thinking that’s done beforehand and the tactics are when the troops are touching each other. Not very often in my career was I called upon to create any strategy, but certainly management techniques. If you’re going to use an idea to supervise people, then that requires techniques or tactics. I think that I’m a competent teacher, so every opportunity I’ve had, I’ve made like a teacher. As a sales manager, I was primarily a teacher.

In the association business and in UFAC, primarily with the flammability conflict, there was a great deal of teaching involved to sell our voluntary program to the industry so that the industry would use it, and the government would accept it as a solution. The government did accept it with our management technique, and we’ve been 35 years with no cigarette standard for upholstered furniture. A very major factor in that aspect has been that cigarette smoking has declined drastically, and reduced the whole exposure of upholstery to cigarette ignition. But there were a lot of management techniques involved in bringing people together for that purpose.

INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in business?

BRIGGS: As I have gone through these oral history interviews with a lot of people, I believe that this has been the most difficult question for most business leaders to answer because they feel that they were not primarily motivated to make money. They made money, and some of them made a great deal of money, but that was not their primary purpose. In an industry where people work as closely together as some of us have, there’s a great deal of satisfaction

in working with people and doing what we’ve talked about here – helping each other.

My personal goal has never been primarily financial, and most of the people in this industry that I’ve worked with have made a great deal more money than I have. Money was not my personal goal in the furniture business, but I did get a great deal of satisfaction from the work I have done and the people I have worked with and the things we have accomplished.

I will say about the money that while I made a good living in the furniture business, I only made enough to enjoy a good life. Fortunately, I had a side interest in real estate. From way back, I have bought houses, sold them and traded them, and have been fairly active in the real estate business. Every bit of net worth that I have made – that I have wound up with – has come from real estate in which I have been very fortunate.

I didn’t sacrifice any financial goals in the furniture business. I just didn’t make that my primary thrust because I was doing it elsewhere. I would say that given the two activities – furniture and real estate – I’ve achieved my goal rather fairly well.

INTERVIEWER: What has been your company goal? How well was it achieved?

BRIGGS: There again, I haven’t had a company of my own. I’ve been a part of several organizations, and we’ve had various goals and objectives that have been well achieved. Not a single company, but several corporate organizations.

INTERVIEWER: What was the overriding business philosophy of your company? Yourself?

BRIGGS: I’ve been with several organizations: my family’s business; the companies I’ve represented as a salesman and as a sales manager; with NC State; and then with SFMA and UFAC. There have been differing business philosophies in all of those organizations. In none of them was I the person responsible for the business philosophy of the organization. My personal furniture business philosophy has been to do the best I could for the organization, and to receive personal satisfaction from doing it. That’s not a very solid philosophy at all because I have been dependent on somebody else to set the goal.

INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationships with your suppliers and your customers.

BRIGGS: I believe I’ve been very diligent in supporting the organizations I was with, and conducting relationships with the people I’ve worked with in order to do what the organization wanted and needed.

I can say that in all of the problems that I’ve described here, they’ve been personal problems with the people I have worked with, and there have not been very many conflicting situations. The worst of all, by far, was with the federal government because working with bureaucrats is totally different from working with people with the kind of thinking processes that we’re accustomed to. Believe me, federal and I’m sure state and local bureaucrats, are absolutely unanimous. Each one of them has one overriding purpose which is “Keep my job.” Then the number one corollary to that is “Make it bigger.”

I can remember Jesse Helms used to say – I don’t know where he got the statistic, but he said the average federal bureaucrat in Washington, in addition to his employment expense, costs us federal citizens $350,000 a year. That is $350,000 a year to comply with whatever it is that he’s working to accomplish. This is all of them – the people who are collecting the taxes, the people who are waging war in the Pentagon, and the people who are regulating lead in paint, and all of these other things. The bureaucrats are primarily working to keep their job and to make it bigger.

INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in industry trade associations.

BRIGGS: I think I’ve well covered my involvement with industry trade associations: the SFMA which grew into the AFMA, and its sub-organization, UFAC, the Upholstered Furniture Action Council.

INTERVIEWER: What has been the greatest benefit from that activity?

BRIGGS: I’ve benefited in that I’ve had a very interesting life working with an aesthetically very satisfactory furniture product, and with very intelligent, superior people.

I believe that the effort I have expended through all of this has benefited the industry. The only measurable cash value that I can attribute to is from the UFAC work because we did indeed save the furniture industry many, many millions of dollars in expenses that would have largely been ineffective and counter to the interests of our industry in selling what our customers wanted.

INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of? How did they work out?

BRIGGS: While still at the AFMA, I was assigned to go to Hickory and participate in the original group that founded the American Furniture Academy and the American Furniture Hall of Fame. I was also part of the original board of directors of that organization in 1976. I have been on the board ever since.

This goes back to the outset and is the group that Leroy Lail and several others started. We had very ambitious plans at the beginning including a big kick-off gala and dinner at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem; we had engaged as a speaker, Gerald Ford, who was then the immediate past vice president of the United States. Unfortunately, that was during the time of the Lazy Eight Furniture Highway and some of the investors in the High Point showrooms were not happy with the Hickory people’s involvement, and they were strong enough to get that whole effort shot down and the banquet never took place. Several years passed before Bob Spelman and the lawyer in Washington succeeded in starting it up again, this time successfully. Although all of the legal papers, as I understand, lead to the fact that ours was the beginning of the Furniture Hall of Fame; not the revived version centered in High Point later on.

I also was a founding director of the Furniture Library in High Point, and still am because board membership is for life. The Furniture Library is a very successful operation started by Sandy Bienenstock and adequately endowed so that is continuing very nicely. It has been quite an effective force in the industry, particularly in the matter of a very heavy weight for keeping the furniture industry located in High Point.

INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry has changed over the years that you’ve been active, in terms of manufacturing in the marketplace and in your own businesses.

BRIGGS: Obviously Morrie Futorian’s success in founding a whole furniture industry in northeast Mississippi, as well as the manufacturing of upholstered furniture on an assembly line with some 13 people moving a piece down the line from the installation of springs to placing the finished piece in the shipping cart.

Wood furniture over this same period of time, while I wasn’t directly involved, I know didn’t change very much. The big, big change has been from the industries going global beginning with case goods. Today, of all the furniture sold in the United States, over 80 percent is manufactured overseas and shipped to the United States in containers.

Upholstered furniture has not gone overseas at the same rate but an increasing percentage is going overseas. The reason for the difference is that, in the top half of the price range, upholstered furniture has very much been made to order in that the lady retail customer can pick from the furniture samples on the floor, (or from photographs to a much more limited extent), the frame style she wants, and then select from a large assortment of fabrics, patterns and colors in the store. It is then manufactured for her and shipped to the store. This, with a large selection of fabrics, is simply impossible to do when there’s a three-week shipping time in addition to the four to six weeks normal manufacturing time.

When the industries first started going global, imported upholstery was primarily offered in leather. The reason for that is that as an offering at retail, a very large selection can be made with several different frame styles and perhaps 30 to 40 different leathers, patterns and colors. With this narrow selection of covers, orders could be made up and shipped in advance, which is not possible with a typical 350 item selection of cover fabrics offered by each upholstery manufacturer. Leather furniture, which is now close to 20 percent of the upholstered furniture market, very rapidly moved to China and South America. It started with Italy, almost totally by Natuzzi who was and still is a factor; however, their pricing is not at all competitive with the other overseas sources. The only way to make upholstery at that distance is to change the whole marketing system, making up a selection of frame styles and fabrics in advance, and shipping that inventory here. This was principally pioneered by Rooms To Go and preceded somewhat by the Castro Group in the New York City area. As that idea became practiced and recognized, upholstery has increasingly been made overseas and now probably over 50 percent of all upholstery is made overseas, and that percentage is increasing. Incidentally, the big factor in making this possible was the invention of ocean-going containers which made it possible to ship furniture more or less in the same way that it had been shipped for many, many years in boxcars.

The ocean-going container was invented by Malcolm MacLean in Winston-Salem who was the head of MacLean Trucking Company for many years. At one point, MacLean Trucking bought a steamship company in Miami which was called Sea Land. This company only shipped from Miami to Cuba and they had two or three ships which didn’t have holds in them like regular ships – they had rail tracks. In Miami, with regular railcars carrying any kind of commodity – the ships were docked in such a way that the railcars could be rolled right onto the tracks on the ship. They had a one-day trip to Havana, where they were very quickly unloaded and shipped back empty, or loaded with sugar or a Cuban commodity for the United States in boxcars.

MacLean bought that steamship company and it was a successful operation for them. He conceived the idea of not rolling railcars onto the ship, but of making a metal box the same size as the railcar, loading the boxes onto the ship and piling them up – some in the holds of the ship, with four or five layers of them on the ship’s deck. This was a total revolution in ocean shipping.

I was in the Maritime Service during the war. Ocean shipping at that time was done by simply piling product on pallets and every ship was equipped with a total set of deck, masts and booms by which these pallets would be lifted into the holds of the ship with no packaging at all. This was never very satisfactory because there was no protection for the product, and pilferage was enormous by the Stevedores primarily in the U.S. ports. With the onset of container shipment, the containers could be packed in China, South America or Italy. They could be sealed and locked up, and then put onto a ship to send to the U.S. port and from there, to the U.S. warehouse and never be opened between the factory and the warehouse which is much, much more satisfactory for many reasons.

The ocean transport time was the same but the dock time was probably reduced by 75 percent. I can remember when it would take us five days to unload a cargo ship in New York or Europe. A typical container ship today can be totally unloaded and reloaded in one or two days with no pilferage and very little damage. It is much less expensive; and this is what actually motivated much of the migration of the furniture manufacturing overseas – a very, very important factor in our industry.

INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today, both short-term and long-term?

BRIGGS: By far the most serious problem is the migration of furniture manufacturing overseas. Imports have revolutionized our industry and will continue until a certain saturation point is reached and that is well on toward 100 percent. There will always be some furniture, 10 to 20 percent, that will be manufactured in the United States for various aesthetic and quality reasons (both wood furniture and upholstery), but the low labor costs elsewhere will force that to be favorable to overseas manufacturing.

There are many, many problems associated with that procedure. Number one is quality because the overseas people will get away with every quality shortcut they can, and that means in some way a reliable inspection, by human beings, has to be set-up for practically every piece of furniture that goes into the container overseas. That will require either recruiting loyal people over there or shipping U.S. people over to do the inspections – which is not easy in either case.

Financing is also a problem with overseas manufacturing because the amount of furniture in a typical container is probably worth $15,000 to $40,000 per container. All kinds of safeguards have to be put into place to be sure that the overseas manufacturer is paid, and that the U.S. purchaser receives perfect product for his money which is not easy. Imports are the most serious problem facing our industry in the short-term and long-term.

Another very serious problem is the competitive Market situation that has developed in the last three or four years between the well-established High Point Market twice a year and the Las Vegas Market complex built to compete with High Point. This is very serious business for many reasons, and whether it can be done is questionable. The Las Vegas Market today in 2008, is only something like half as big in square feet as the High Point Market, but the Las Vegas Market is in major modern buildings fairly close together so that the buyers can move through all with ease. High Point, on the other hand, has 12 to 13 million square feet, most of it built 80 years ago and long ago written off of the corporate books, so the rental rates are much, much less. Bob Spilman told me in his oral history interview (he’s president of the big building in High Point) that their rental rate for showroom space is 1/7 of what the exhibitors pay in Las Vegas. Another big factor is that Las Vegas is a very, very strong union town, just as Chicago was. As a participant in the Chicago Markets, I know very well that the union domination of everything in Chicago was a major factor in the movement away from Chicago. There’s going to be a very serious competition between the two showroom venues and different factors will have different levels of importance. That is a serious problem and it may be many years before it is resolved if ever at all.

The third important problem is our share of the consumer’s money to spend. In other words, our market share. There have come into the marketplace so many products that were never present before. Enormous amounts of desirable things, principally electronics – televisions, computer devices and games – that customers can spend their money on rather than furniture. Automobiles are pretty well frozen at 20 some percent of the consumer dollar; travel is much more competitive with furniture. All of these things are taking consumer dollars.

Another big problem, which many people don’t realize, is the extent to which furniture is being sold in places other than traditional furniture stores. As I’ve said before, the department stores at one time were the big dominant players in the marketplace and that is pretty well gone. Sears, Wards, and J.C. Penneys, were once the keystones of the market. Wards is totally gone, Penneys is flirting with bankruptcy and now Sears, having taking over Kmart, is having financial difficulties. Now the big discount stores, primarily Wal-Mart, are selling increasing amounts of furniture. Wal-Mart is now the biggest furniture merchant in the United States; Target also is very big; Kmart is still a factor; the stores that sell office supplies – Office Depot and Staples, sell an astonishing amount of furniture for offices and home offices. Working at home with computers and so forth is now a much bigger factor than it ever has been in the past.

The furniture market is now split up. The food markets are selling furniture. Jerry Epperson says it’s practically impossible to get a total sales figure for the furniture market because there are so many different retailers now involved. All of these things are making the furniture industry a very volatile field. For years and years, Paul Broyhill has been quoted saying, “The total retail furniture market is quite constant, and the only question is how much money is the furniture customer willing to spend and where is she willing to go to buy the furniture.”

These are all serious problems and it makes the furniture industry practically impossible to forecast.

INTERVIEWER: What has been your own greatest contribution to our industry? Describe your other most important contributions.

BRIGGS: I think without question my most important contribution was in UFAC – working to solve the upholstered furniture flammability issue, with my invention of the heat-conducting welt cord which was truly effective. Not maybe to the extent that the regulators wanted, but it was easily understood and was sold to them as an effective partial answer, and all that’s been needed for 35 years. There’s increasing effort nowadays to get back into this field primarily engineered by the bureaucrats at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but strongly urged by the Fire Marshals Association and some other groups. Most people don’t realize this, but a fire marshal is not responsible in any way for putting out fires; he’s responsible for preventing fires and that’s why they have always been our opponents in making upholstery “fireproof.”

I strongly believe that UFAC was a major contributor to the well-being of the upholstery industry. Our voluntary program was accepted.

INTERVIEWER: How much of this contribution was built on already existing techniques and methods? How much came from innovations which you originated or put into use before most other companies did?

BRIGGS: The quick answer to that is the existing technique of the counter and tabletop melamine surface people who originated the idea of cigarette-resistant tabletops using the metal foil layer. Together, we were smart enough to take that and adapt it to the upholstered furniture ingredient mix in a way that was salable to the federal bureaucrats. I am very proud of my part in that and my patent on the heat-conducting welt cord.

INTERVIEWER: Talk about the influence of outside factors on the furniture industry. How was your company affected by the Depression? World War II? Racial attitudes? Women’s issues?

BRIGGS: The Depression was a long time ago now, but it was very, very serious and there were many, many furniture companies who did not survive. Business was way off and it was the people who were able to adapt to hunger rations that could keep their factories running. But a lot of factories that managed to survive are very, very successful today. Companies were affected by World War II. Wood was used widely then in a lot of military materials. Furniture, to be practically salable, required metal springs and all the metal was commandeered for the war effort.

World War II took a very large percentage of the young men away from the factories, and as a result, where we had previously employed very few women in upholstery (primarily as sewers), practically no women worked in wood furniture production. Today, I would say that because of the wartime change, 50 percent of the upholstery factory employees are female.

Racial attitudes had a big effect but not nearly as much as a lot of people would have us believe. I remember many, many years ago when I was still working in our family factory, I was called on by a bureaucrat doing a study on how the racial employment had changed. He wanted to know when we started employing black supervisors. I said, “As long as I’ve been in this business, we’ve always had black supervisors.” He wouldn’t believe me. I said, “Now, we didn’t have black people supervising white people but probably a third of our employees were black, and the black people to a very large extent were supervised by black people.” I don’t think I ever persuaded him that I was telling the truth. I never saw any serious racial problems in the time before the war, and I was right there in the middle of it.

There were not many racial problems in the North because there were not many black people at work in the North. After the war, there was a tremendous migration of black people to the North, when prosperity started coming back, particularly to the big cities: New York, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago. The black people liked unions; they joined the unions and became a real factor. There were more racial problems in the North as a result of those things than there ever were in the South. It got so bad, I don’t remember the year, but for two or three years we had racial riots in Philadelphia and on 9th Street in Washington, D.C. After that, the black people, to an interesting extent, began coming back to the South and there’s been a reverse net migration over the years on that account.

The next effect on companies was women’s issues. For both upholstery and wood furniture, women were no factor at all in furniture manufacturing. When all of the men went away to World War II, the women went to work in the factories and it wasn’t only in the furniture factories, it was in the shipyards. In the textile business there were always a lot of women working because it was not very heavy duty work – there wasn’t a lot of lifting and it was much cleaner. Textile factories could be air-conditioned; furniture factories could too but it was much more expensive. Women’s issues affected the furniture industry.

INTERVIEWER: How has shipment of your products affected your company by rail and by truck?

BRIGGS: When I first came into the industry, rail shipment was the primary method of delivery. Every furniture factory had a number of rail sidings by which they made shipments to major customers by boxcars. This had many advantages: the furniture was securely packed in the boxcars; the doors were locked; there was no pilferage; and no damage. Even what we called LCL (less than carload), the railroads themselves had depots in every single major shipping town. We had two in High Point, two different railroads, and in our own factory trucks, we would take the furniture down to the depot and they would load the mixed cars to Chicago, New York or Baltimore – wherever they were going. When the car got to that destination they would take the furniture out and deliver it to the stores. That was I guess, to a large extent, accelerated by the war. After the war, the flexibility and convenience of highway trucks, caused rail shipment of furniture to go down to essentially nothing. That was also promoted by the advent of the container which is essentially the same as a boxcar except that it can be handled more quickly and at a higher cost.

The railroad is still the cheapest way available to get any product from the factory to a customer. The containers fit right into that. There’s an enormous amount of shipment of furniture, not only in overseas containers, but in stateside containers and a part of that movement was the exponential growth of the factory-owned trucks. We have furniture companies here in North Carolina who have been forced into the trucking business and they own thousands of tractor-trailers, moving their own products all over the country. This has a lot of disadvantages, primarily the cost of the empty backhaul, because where a factory truck is used, there are severe limitations on getting freight to ship in the reverse direction. Most furniture companies, if they have a truck fleet, have someone who arranges backhauls. Probably the principal of which is fresh produce, oranges from Florida, potatoes from Maine, but a lot of other products too. Every bit of this truck shipment has reduced the amount of rail shipment.

Another less important factor is that the overseas containers for inland shipment are very easily put onto railcars to go from North Carolina to anywhere on the Eastern seaboard, Syracuse, Buffalo or elsewhere. There’s about a week’s difference in the transport time. If a shipload of furniture containers can come into Los Angeles and be distributed across the United States by highway truck, there’s no problem at all in taking a marine container and placing it on a metal chassis to make a highway trailer out of it temporarily. There have been very many changes in the shipment of furniture products.

INTERVIEWER: What has been the effect of the environmental regulations?

BRIGGS: There has been a lot. In the manufacture of furniture, of course in woodworking, there is shaping, sawing and cutting and a lot of particulate matter, like sawdust and sander dust that’s generated. For many years, every furniture factory has had a vacuum system for sucking the air out of the factory including the sawdust which is very easily gathered that way. You can recognize woodworking factories anywhere because of the big silos that you see out in the back into which this particulate matter is being blown and collected. It’s not a bad deal because there is a certain amount of processing and sorting that is required, but all of that wood particulate can be mixed with glue and made into hardboard or particleboard of many, many different kinds and qualities.

Even the cut-off pieces of wood that can’t be worked into the furniture can be put into a grinder and reduced to particulate and made into particleboard. There is a limit to the fineness of the particles that can be used because the finer the particles, the more glue that is required. It comes to a point at which the glue costs more than the waste wood. The alternative, or the next step, is to collect the fine particles and blow them down to the boiler and heat the factory with them or use them to run the dry kilns. As I mentioned earlier, in our factory we (before particleboard) burned every bit of our waste wood and we heated the facility and ran our kilns. In fact, we even made enough steam to run a steam air compressor. Compressed air for upholstery has become more and more important because of the use of staple guns and air-operated hand tools; so compressed air can be a very important ingredient in the furniture itself.

I was in a factory once, this was fairly early on, and I noticed that all of the workers were using hand tools – drills and screwdrivers, powered by air. I asked the plant manager, “Why are you using air tools which cost about twice the cost of electric tools?” He said: “Well you realize that everybody here has electricity at home but practically nobody has compressed air. In other words, the pilferage of tools is a good deal less with air tools. But the cost of putting in all this dust collection and to a lesser extent, the particulate from sprayed finishing material, has been a considerable cost of doing business.”

Not unimportant in environmental regulations on a global basis, is the deforestation of original growth woods in jungles in South America. Square miles have been cleared in Brazil to grow soybeans which have reduced the amount of tropical hardwood available. There’s a lack of statistical knowledge, but in the United States alone, the Appalachian hardwood people for instance, and other parallel organizations, have stoutly maintained that we are growing here species by species – more lumber than we’re using. The people who cut the forest are planting new trees. There is a fairly long, 30 to 40 year cycle, between planting a walnut tree and cutting it down and making furniture out of it; but there’s an awful lot of forestland in the United States that is being very carefully managed. Overseas the tropical hardwoods – mahogany, ebony and a number of very popular tropical hardwoods – are being indiscriminately cut in order to grow soybeans (you see pictures in the paper of people picketing furniture stores because of the tropical woods). All of these are really environmental considerations and with global warming, trees become very important because when any fuel is burned (it doesn’t have to be a fossil fuel it can be wood), the oxygen in the air turns into carbon dioxide which is recognized as a very potent pollutant. Environmental regulations have been and will grow as having an effect on both upholstery and wood furniture.

INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in social, civic and business activities outside of the furniture industry.

BRIGGS: My principal outside activity has been in my Quaker meeting. High Point happens to have a very strong level of Quaker activity. We have five Quaker meetings in High Point and the one I belong to is the largest. We have at our Quaker meeting – the High Point Monthly Meeting – a High Point Friends School, which is a very excellent Christian school. We’ve had it for some 30 years. For most of that time, it has been a pre-school and kindergarten but over the last eight years, one year at a time, we have added grade school. I’ve been on the school board since long before the school existed.

I also served two terms on the Southeast Regional Board of the American Friends Service Committee, which globally, has helped people of all kinds in practically all sorts of ways, by promoting peace, as well as providing such things as fresh water. An astonishing percentage of all the people on the face of the earth have no access to clean, fresh water, and the Quakers in one way or another have been very active in finding fresh water for these people.

I’d say the most important civic activity in my life came about when I moved to Raleigh and served on the faculty of NC State University.

Then my position with the former Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, later called UFAC, where we worked very hard for 22 years to avert the challenge of the federal government’s bureaucratic idea of making upholstered furniture cigarette-proof.

Later, my family moved back to High Point, where for many years we’ve had a very important local hospital which has grown as the city has grown. Back in the ’70s or ’80s, the trustees of the hospital decided that rather than continue to enlarge the hospital, they would not tear it down but simply abandon the current structure, and go three and a half miles out into the northern countryside and build a brand new hospital complex. There were a lot of us residents who didn’t think that it was a good idea. My wife and I put an ad in the paper one Sunday asking for anyone who didn’t think the hospital should be moved to call us. We put in a special telephone for that occasion and we had 78 phone calls from which I was able to recruit a committee of concerned people who organized, not to oppose the hospital board, but to challenge their decision. We were very careful not to oppose them, but we simply challenged the idea.

It took us three and a half years and we went through five different chairmen of the board of trustees, but we finally came up with a local chairman who was president of a furniture factory. He changed the board in something like six months. They totally abandoned the idea of moving the hospital; they tore down the old one, built a new one and we now have an enormous High Point Regional Health System with 400 beds, all of the doctors’ offices around and various medical facilities right in the center of High Point where it ought to be. I am very proud that while I obviously didn’t do the work, that I was able to have organized the challenge and helped prevent the hospital from moving.

INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?

BRIGGS: My favorite charity is the Quaker meeting and the Quaker organization. We have many thousands of Quakers in North Carolina, a yearly meeting with a big organization behind that, and 200 or 300 local Quaker meetings in our state. Not only have I contributed money, but I’ve also contributed my time and effort to the meeting and other Quaker organizations, in addition to the school.

I also have been an enthusiastic contributor to C-A-R-E over the years, which is an organization that has always specialized in effectively using contributed money to help people overseas by efficiently buying large amounts of things that they need and helping them in many, many ways.

INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure time activity?

BRIGGS: My principal leisure time activity is reading. I very faithfully read the Greensboro paper every day and I read the High Point paper on Sunday. I also read books and always have two or three books underway that I read principally in the evening. I work out twice a week, and walk 30 to 45 minutes every day.

I’ve probably spent more leisure time in my pursuit of real estate than anything else, and starting very early in my 20s, I’ve owned old houses which I’ve bought, restored, rented, sold and traded. I’ve managed to put a lot of real estate together (not incidentally most of my real estate has been in the hospital area). Real estate has a big advantage over most forms of investment in that, “they ain’t making anymore of it” and I have always understood and approved it myself. It’s practically impossible to lose money in real estate. I had a good friend in the real estate business who said it’s impossible to pay too much money for a piece of real estate. The worst you could do is buy it a little bit too soon. In other words, if you just hang on, the price continues to go up, and up, and up. My family and I have $3 million or $4 million worth of real estate, every bit of which was acquired while I was employed in the furniture industry.

INTERVIEWER: If you are retired, what was the date?

BRIGGS: The date was June 30, 1992, when I was 69 years old.

INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the industry? In other business? In your leisure time?

BRIGGS: What I have done primarily in the industry is my activity with the American Furniture Hall of Fame. My greatest involvement in the Hall of Fame has been as a corporate officer and board member, but I very early on took over the oral history program. We had a historian from a college in Maryland do a few oral histories. Also, John Tobin, my good friend in the furniture business, and Bob Spelman, who is now retired in Florida, he did a few interviews, but I think we have nearly 40 and I have done almost all of them. I have been very, very proud of our oral history program.

Also our management succession has been resolved. Joanna Maitland, who did a wonderful job for 12 years managing this organization, came to the realization that she simply had to retire. Through a great deal of maneuvering, we found the best possible candidate to be our executive director and I’m looking forward to the prosperity of the oral history program.

As for other business, I’ve continued in real estate.

INTERVIEWER: What would you like to add in summary?

BRIGGS: In summary, it’s been a fascinating activity to see this interview from the other side of the fence and I have been told by practically every interviewee that they’ve been surprised that I could get so much out of them. I state now that I am surprised that I have been able to get so much out of myself, with this very wonderful set of questions slightly askew by the fact that they were originally created with the idea that most of the interviewees would be furniture manufacturers which simply has not worked out although most of them have been. Now with the furniture manufacturing going the other way, overseas, I think there will be increasingly interviews of salespeople and designers and other administrative people.

As the instructions to interviewers say, this is simply an outline. These questions are an outline to give uniformity to the record. I have always in all of my interviews followed my own inclination in other matters which are important to the person being interviewed. Because we have had a fascinating assortment of people interviewed for our oral history program, and I have, including this interview of myself, I’ve made sure that the client feels free to talk always. We have gotten a world of information from our interviewees about their various furniture and outside activities. It has been a fascinating experience.