howard o. walker; hickory furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
FEBRUARY 5, 1993
HICKORY, NORTH CAROLINA
HOME OF HOWARD O. WALKER
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
Charles Carey, Observer
INTERVIEWER: When were you born?
WALKER: I was born in September 1923. I’ll be 70 next September.
INTERVIEWER: ’23 was a good year.
WALKER: Born in Hillsborough, North Carolina, which at that time didn’t have a U-G-H on the end of it. H-I-L-L-S-B-O-R-O. It’s a very historic town. Since I left there, they’ve decided to go back to the historic spelling of the word. So they put a U-G-H on the end of it.
INTERVIEWER: You know, that was a very large problem to change Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.
WALKER: They changed that also, did they?
INTERVIEWER: When I was in college, it was B-O-R-O Street.
WALKER: Yes, it was because when I was in college, the town was B-O-R-O.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture?
WALKER: No, my father was a rural mail carrier. And on both sides of the family, my grandparents were farmers.
INTERVIEWER: How about any of your in-laws?
WALKER: No connection to the furniture industry at all.
INTERVIEWER: Anything that we ought to cover about your family?
CAREY: They must have done a pretty good job.
WALKER: Well, I’m very prejudice. Of course, I think they were the finest parents in the world. We were of very modest means; there were five children in the family. Since my father was a civil service employee, he did not lose any employment during the Depression, although he took cuts in pay, as even government employees did those days.
Recessions don’t apply to government employees anymore.
CAREY: Are any of your brothers or sisters in the furniture business?
WALKER: No, no connection. There wasn’t any real furniture in our area. White was up in Mebane, which was 10 miles away. That was the nearest furniture company. There was a cabinet shop in Hillsborough, which White eventually acquired, after I left Hillsborough. Those were the only furniture companies in that area. White eventually acquired that plant in Hillsborough. But they were not there when I was there.
INTERVIEWER: What about Craftique? Were they there?
WALKER: Yes, Craftique was in Mebane. I’m not exactly sure where they were originally, but when I was a child, one of the big events in the fall was the Mebane Fair. When the fair went out of business, Craftique acquired the old facilities of the Mebane Fair. And as you can imagine, those were strictly frame-type, very unsubstantial buildings, with no insulation and probably even no heating, because the fair was in September, or October, and didn’t require any heating. But they made a furniture factory out of it.
INTERVIEWER: What was his name that had …
WALKER: Mr. Best.
CAREY: Was he the same Best that ended up in Shelby?
WALKER: No, no. No, he operated Craftique until they sold out to Pulaski within the last five years — or sometime or another, I guess. His name was Mr. L. P. Best.
INTERVIEWER: He had a remarkable business.
WALKER: He had a niche business. If any of our companies had had the finishes he had, they would have died on the market. But there was just enough of a niche demand to support that plant. I was reminded, when we looked at Davis Cabinet over in Nashville, it was in trouble and on the way out of business. It was for sale. We went over there and looked at that with a possible eye of buying it. And they had a line which had been sold for longer than any other group of furniture. It was called, “The Lillian Russell Group.” It had a very non-commercial finish: red mahogany.
There’s just enough of a little niche market out there to keep that volume going. If anyone else had done a million dollars worth on a product line that had at least 50 pieces in it, they would have dropped it. But they kept going. I thought the Craftique line was a little bit like that. The people that bought it, their dealers, didn’t want them to change the finish. There was enough of a little niche market for that type of furniture. And Davis Cabinet reminded me a little bit of Craftique.
INTERVIEWER: His salesman would go around, and if he saw a piece of furniture in the store that had deteriorated or anything, he’d say, “We’ll bring you another breakfront and take that one back.” He did that many times.
WALKER: We looked at Craftique. I didn’t really go over there personally, but some of our people looked at Craftique a time or two, after we acquired White in Mebane. Mr. Best was getting way on up there in years. I think he had a little bit of a grudge or resentment or something toward the people at White. Not our people at White, but the old White group. Maybe there was just a little intercity competition. I really don’t know. He wouldn’t talk to anybody that had anything to do with White when he was talking about selling out. He was cordial, but he wouldn’t talk about selling to White. He didn’t want his company to fall into their hands.
INTERVIEWER: He had a family business. He was very much oriented in favor of his employees.
Howard, do you still have any family in the furniture business?
WALKER: No, just a lot of friends.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us what you’d like to about your growing-up years.
WALKER: Well, I attended the schools in Hillsborough. I spent my summers on my grandfather’s, and eventually my uncles’, farm, which was basically a tobacco farm.
I used to tell my children when they were in school that working on a tobacco farm was enough to make you study hard in school to make sure you weren’t a farmer when you grew up. That was very hard work and long hours.
INTERVIEWER: You actually worked in the field?
WALKER: Yes, in the summers. From about the time that I was, well … 1932 was the first year that I had a brother, who was just about 20 months older than I. We had a little tobacco patch all our own.
My uncles — my grandfather and then my uncles — had four tenant families. (We didn’t talk about acres then. We’d talk about how many “hills” of tobacco, which was how many tobacco plants.) So they probably had about 20,000 hills each. It was sharecropping. They got so much of the proceeds and the owners, which were my grandfather and uncles, got their share. My brother and I started in 1932. It was 1,000 hills of tobacco we had. It was kept separate and when it went to auction, it came to us. In 1932, that tobacco did not bring enough to pay for the fertilizer. In the first place, it was bad weather and in the second place, it was the Depression. The same thing probably happened to the whole farm. They not only raised tobacco, they raised corn and wheat. They had big gardens and they raised chickens, hogs, cows, etc. So, they didn’t starve to death. That was our first tobacco crop. After that, until the time I was a year or two in college, that was my summer job. We’d ride our bicycles out to the farm on Sunday night and we’d work ‘till Saturday, and then on Saturday afternoon, we’d ride them back to Hillsborough, to spend the weekend at home.
INTERVIEWER: How far was that?
WALKER: It was about eight miles. So, I spent my summers on the farm.
After I entered Chapel Hill, I had a job one year measuring land for the Agriculture Department. Each farmer was entitled to plant so many acres of each crop. So I measured land. When they started building Camp Butner, which was between my junior and senior years in college, I worked as a carpenter at Camp Butner during the summer.
This is getting too far away from the subject, but I started out with one construction company which was building the frame barracks and chapels and all the various buildings. There was a union job which was building the hospital, and it was brick veneer, and they were paying a little more. So I got a job there. They told me I had to join the union. And I replied “I haven’t got any money, I can’t join the union.”
“Well, you pay later.” I went all summer long and never did pay them anything.
Finally, they came to me (it was like mid-August) and told me there was a union meeting that night and if I hadn’t paid my dues by that night, I was going to be kicked out. It was only about two weeks before school was to start again. So I went to my foreman, who was a real gentleman and a real fine guy to work for. He had been real kind to me all summer. By that time, they were laying off workers anyway. The job was almost completed and I got him to give me a pink slip that afternoon. I went by and got paid. I guess I got kicked out of the union that night. So I’m an ex-union member who never paid a penny in dues.
INTERVIEWER: Apparently then, the union couldn’t withhold — what do they call that? Check off.
WALKER: They did not have a check off. I can’t even remember the name of the construction company. The one I worked for originally was named Triangle Construction Co. I remember them, but I don’t remember the name of the company building the hospital
INTERVIEWER: Where’d you go to college then? UNC?
WALKER: I went to UNC-Chapel Hill. It was just the University of North Carolina at that point. There were three campuses at that time. They called the one in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina. The one in Greensboro was called WC, which was Women’s College of the University of North Carolina. The one in Raleigh was called NC State, which it still is. Except it was a college instead of a university. The one in Chapel Hill was called a university and the ones in Raleigh and Greensboro were called colleges.
I was born in September and at that time we only had 11 grades. I covered the fourth and fifth grades in one year. At that time, they had Grade 1A and Grade 1B and so forth. The students who were a little bit faster were put in the upper level and the others were put in the second. They don’t do that anymore. I’m not sure it wasn’t a good thing because it enabled you to move at your own pace rather than moving at the pace of those who took more time. Almost all of the Grade 4A were taught fourth grade work for half a year and then taught fifth grade work for a half-year. So, I went through school in 10 years, and since I had started just a few days before I was 6, I ended up finishing high school at age 15. And I ended up finishing at Carolina at age 19.
INTERVIEWER: So what year did you start at Carolina?
WALKER: Started in ’39, finished in ’43. And I finished June ’43 and I wasn’t 20 until September ’43. That had its disadvantages. For instance, in high school I was smaller than most of my classmates. I really wasn’t competitive in athletics. I’m not very athletic to start with but I’d have had a better chance if I’d been a year or two older as I moved up. At Chapel Hill, I was younger than my classmates. For instance, the school in Durham at that time had 12 grades. I was two years younger than people who were coming out of those schools. It was very fortunate in another way, in that I was able to get through, and finish my college education before I had to go into service. Most of the students those days who were in my classes had their education interrupted and had to go into service and complete it after they came out. I was not on the verge of being drafted, but in September of my senior year I did enroll in the Navy, joining the V-7 program, which was an officer candidate program, not knowing whether I would be left in school until I graduated in June. Fortunately, I was. I was not called to report until September 1st. I had all summer after I graduated.
When I was in college, I worked originally in the News Bureau which was the publicity department. A fellow named Bob Madry, who was kind of a legend at Chapel Hill, ran that department and everybody else in that department were journalism majors.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major?
WALKER: My major was accounting, business. I enjoyed that work and even though I had no intention of staying in journalism, it was a fun job for me. I loved sports and a lot of the publicity was on sports.
INTERVIEWER: This was just part-time work?
WALKER: This was working my way through school. I worked with some other self-help students who gained a certain amount of fame of their own in that area.
One of my colleagues was Horace Carter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for some of his anti-Ku Klux Klan articles down in Tabor City. One was Kays Gary, who was a Charlotte Observer columnist for years and years.
We worked with Hugh Morton a whole lot. He was not on the payroll at $3.50 an hour, as we were. Hugh was at that time already a freelance photographer. But he was our photographer. He was paid by the number of shots that he took and that we used. So he made more money than we did. He didn’t make a whole lot, but he made more than we did. One co-worker was named H. C. Cranford. I don’t know what’s become of H.C., but I used to read articles of his in The New Yorker magazine and other major publications. It was kind of interesting to follow those people that I’d worked with on that job.
I graduated in 1943. The last year I was there, instead of working in the news bureau, I was a lab assistant in accounting, which means that I conducted the accounting labs for students in introductory accounting and graded all the papers that were turned in. When I graduated the first of June, and had not been called into the Navy (they had a shortage of faculty), I taught Accounting in summer school at Chapel Hill that summer. When I accepted the job, I told them, “I may be called any week.” They said, “Well, we’re in a hole.” It turned out that I was able to complete the summer school term before I had to report to the Navy. I went to midshipman school up at Northwestern in Chicago — that’s the downtown campus, rather than out at Evanston.
INTERVIEWER: Right next to the furniture building.
WALKER: Right. Actually, I was in Tower Hall, which is right over by the Water Tower. But the other building was there. Abbott Hall was right next to the American Furniture Mart.
INTERVIEWER: During the furniture market, they would take furniture people to stay in Abbott Hall. And I spent a lot of summers there.
WALKER: Did they really?
INTERVIEWER: It was very cheap. Two in a room. They were just dormitories.
WALKER: Tower Hall, which I think is now part of LaSalle University, was right at the Water Tower.
INTERVIEWER: What did the Navy train you to be?
WALKER: They trained us to be ensigns. They did not train us there to be anything specific. And then we got all sorts of different assignments when we got out. Unfortunately, or fortunately as things turned out, I got what was probably the lowest scum assignment there was, and that was with the amphibious forces, operating landing barges. I was sent to Little Creek, Virginia for the month of January. It can be pretty cold on Chesapeake Bay in January. They taught us there for 30 days how to operate landing barges. Then they sent us to Fort Pierce, Florida, where we got crews and we taught the crews how to run landing barges.
INTERVIEWER: Before we get too far, was there anything else at Chapel Hill of significance that affected your life?
WALKER: Well, I’m sure that college, the total college life, affects your life. I can’t think of any significant events. I think the experience I had in the news bureau and the experience I had in the accounting work probably helped me an awful lot. As did the instructing and teaching. I was fortunate when I took my CPA exam to pass it on the first crack, which not too many people did at that time.
INTERVIEWER: What’s the percentage? Do you know?
WALKER: One or two, probably, at that point. I often said, when somebody would comment to me on that, “I think my experience grading papers the last year I was in college probably trained me for how to take an examination.” I really think it was probably more how to take exams than it was knowing more about accounting that somebody else might have known.
When I was about to finish midshipman school and get my commission, I was called in one night to a whole room full of officers, and they started asking me all sorts of questions. Throughout my youth, I had a problem which I continued to have at that time. I stuttered some, particularly when I was excited. I didn’t know what the session was all about. It was just a day or two before I was to be commissioned. Finally, at the end of the session, somebody said to me — and I’m not sure this was true — they said to me, “Do you realize that if we commission you …”(And I thought to myself, “What’s this ‘if’ business? I’ve got good grades and a good record.”) “… if we commission you, you’ll be the youngest officer in the Navy?”
INTERVIEWER: Is that right?
WALKER: I don’t know if that was true.
CAREY: How old were you?
WALKER: Well, I had just turned 20. As I said, it shook me up, that business about “if” because I’d done the work I thought was as good as the average, at least. But, they commissioned me.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s take one more flashback to Chapel Hill. Of course, a lot of interesting people went to Chapel Hill. You mentioned the athletes you knew. Is there anybody who later, other than Kays Gary, who you knew at Chapel Hill, either in terms of athletics or any furniture people you might have worked with in the furniture business?
WALKER: I don’t recall anybody that I know in the furniture business who was at Chapel Hill when I was. I have run into people.
For instance, Charlie — I didn’t know him at Chapel Hill, but Livingston Vernon was in my class at Chapel Hill. I have run across other people. I got fairly close recently with a classmate who I did know, but wasn’t close to there.
A fellow named Cecil Hill from up in Brevard, who was a judge — he’s now retired — but he was a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. I run across people, but I really haven’t been really close to any of the people who were my good friends there. One of my close friends in the Navy — we went through midshipmanship school together, then we went through the amphibs together, and we went to Normandy together — was a fellow named Jack Saunders from Williamston, North Carolina. I knew Jack at Chapel Hill. I didn’t know him well there, but the fact that we knew each other sort of brought us close then and he was in my wedding. I’ve kind of lost touch with him since then. He was out of state.
INTERVIEWER: All right, now. So, we’re down to where you received your Naval commission as the youngest commissioned officer, presumably. Then you went to Little Creek.
WALKER: And then we went to Fort Pierce, Florida where we trained our landing barge crews.
INTERVIEWER: When you were in Little Creek, I guess, it was at that time, a Naval hospital or something, that Ben Willis later bought and converted into a fairly magnificent furniture store. Does that stir your memory?
WALKER: I didn’t know anything about it at that time. In fact, I did not realize that Ben Willis’ store was a former Naval hospital. Of course, I’m very familiar with Ben Willis and his operation. No, I did not know that. I knew very little about that area at Little Creek. It was a busy time. I was in Norfolk a couple of times on weekend leave, but I was only there a month and seemed like I was on duty at least half the weekends during that period of time. So I didn’t know very much about the area.
INTERVIEWER: That hospital was within a half a mile, max, of where Virginia Beach Boulevard crosses Little Creek. It was a great big building when he took it over and reworked it into a Colonial mansion. And it’s still there.
All right. Describe your military experience at Little Creek and then in Florida?
WALKER: We went to Fort Pierce, Florida and each officer was assigned 16 men, which would make up four landing barge crews. We trained those crews there. Then they shipped us to England. We landed in Liverpool on June 1, 1944.
We were scheduled to be involved in D-Day. We didn’t know it at the time. D-Day at that time was supposed to have been June 5. They shipped us by train from Liverpool down to the south coast of England. But our landing barges, which had been on the same ship we crossed the Atlantic on, were sent down around Land’s End to the South coast. A really bad storm came up. I guess it was the same storm which delayed D-Day by one day, but it delayed our landing barges getting down there by more than that and caused us to miss D-Day.
I remember D-Day very well, because I wasn’t going to cross the channel, they put me on shore patrol that night. We picked up some sailor who was AWOL from a ship or base up at Plymouth, England. The next day, I was sent to carry him back there. All night long the sky was full of bombers going over, and I mean full of them. I was never as impressed as I was on that drive on June 6. We were at a little town named Poole which isn’t far from Southampton. We drove to Plymouth. The fields and the roadsides and the woods were just packed with troops, trucks, tanks, everything. People waiting to go. They were obviously not in the first wave, because the first waves had already landed.
INTERVIEWER: You weren’t aware of what was really going on?
WALKER: Oh, yeah. Oh, I was by then.
WALKER: I wasn’t aware all night long, but when we heard the sky so full of the bombers, etc., we suspected it. By the next morning, it had been announced that the invasion had taken place.
The sky was also full of barrage balloons. I had never seen so many barrage balloons. It was a joke among the American servicemen that the island was so packed with American soldiers and tanks and all, that if it wasn’t for those barrage balloons, it would have sunk. It was a real educational experience.
At the time, we were disappointed that we didn’t make D-Day. In retrospect, you probably think we were lucky. A few days after D-Day, we were expected at any time to go on over there but a storm tore up the breakwaters. They had created some artificial breakwaters by sinking ships and all sorts of stuff over there at Normandy Beach. The storm had torn that up so badly, they were having trouble getting in there and unloading. They decided that the strategic thing to do would be to take Cherbourg. That had not been in the original plan. Use that as a disembarkation point. The Army turned and went up the Cherbourg Peninsula. About that time, they had assigned Jack Saunders (that I originally mentioned as one of my classmates at Chapel Hill) and me, along with our crews, to go to Normandy Beach and take what they called “smoke boats.” They were not landing barges, but were relatively small craft.
We were to go around with these smoke pots and whenever Germans came over to bomb the landing area, we were to send up smoke and camouflage so they couldn’t have any accuracy with their bombing or strafing. So we went to Normandy Beach for that purpose. Had not much more than gotten there when the Army did take Cherbourg. So they sent us up with our smoke boats so that we could send smoke up to camouflage Cherbourg Harbor. As fortune would have it, the whole time we were at Normandy and the whole time we were at Cherbourg, the Germans never came to bomb.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else that you would like to say about your military experience? Then we’ll go into furniture.
WALKER: After being at Cherbourg awhile, I was sent back to England and was one of three operations officers who were in charge of lining up and dispatching the convoys over to cross the Channel each night. I continued to do that until the end of the war in Europe.
This same Jack Saunders, the fellow who was at Chapel Hill, was one of the others. The third was William E. Webb, Jr. from Statesville (North Carolina), who was also a Carolina alumnus.
One of the friendships I struck up during that period of time was with a former famous athlete at Carolina named Harry Montgomery. He had played with Don Jackson on the Carolina football team back in 1935, when everybody thought Carolina was going to the Rose Bowl. But Ace Parker returned a kick-off for 105 yards and Duke beat us 25 to 0, and that was the end of the Rose Bowl. It was going to be a toss-up who made All-American, whether it was going to be Harry Montgomery or Don Jackson. When we got beat 25 to nothing and didn’t go to the Rose Bowl, neither one of them made All-American. He was the captain of one of the LCIs that crossed the channel.
One of my favorite stories from Harry Montgomery was that on D-Day, just before he got ready to sail, here came this soldier on board his ship. And Harry said, “What are you doing here?”
And the soldier says, “I see here to take care of the barrage balloon.” Harry didn’t know much about it, and he said, “Fine.” So the guy inflated his barrage balloon and they crossed the channel. Soldiers disembarked and went ashore and the fellow with his barrage balloon disembarked and went ashore with them.
Harry took his ship back out and was rendezvousing, getting ready for the convoy to go back to England. He gets this flash over the blinker system, “Where’s your barrage balloon?” Well, it turns out the fellow was supposed to bring the barrage balloon on board, to leave it and not even cross the channel with him; just bring it on board and put it up. He certainly wasn’t supposed to take it ashore. But that was a kind of experience.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s say a word about the purpose of barrage balloons.
WALKER: Well, the barrage balloon was to prevent any low level strafing …
INTERVIEWER: Each one had a cable on it. As long as they had to worry about those cables, they couldn’t come in and fly close.
CAREY: I’ve never read an account, though, where a plane hit one of them or anything. Have you?
WALKER: Maybe it was all preventive.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else about the military?
WALKER: No, I believe we’ve overdone that one.
INTERVIEWER: Now let’s talk about your furniture industry background. What was your first furniture industry job?
WALKER: I think maybe I should point out, and I think we said earlier, that I was an accounting major. So when I got out of the service …
INTERVIEWER: Which was when?
WALKER: In August of ’46. I went to work for a CPA firm then named Ernst & Ernst. It has changed names several times since then. It’s now Ernst & Young. This was at the Winston-Salem office located in the old RJ Reynolds building (it wasn’t old then). It’s the one in Winston-Salem which was the model for the Empire State Building. The biggest client of that office was, by far, Reynolds, but we had a substantial number of furniture clients. I was single at the time, and it suited me, as well as other members of the staff, that I had an awful lot of out-of-town clients. I was happy enough to be on the road on an expense account. Those who were married were happy enough to work on the in-town clients so they could be home at night. I worked on several furniture accounts, one of which was Drexel.
The first work at Drexel was some systems work, putting in a McBee keysort system for stock control, back before computers.
I did audits of Morgan Manufacturing Company in Black Mountain, and then their sister company, Morgan Furniture Company over in Woodfin, near Asheville.
I did audits of a company by the name of J. C. Spach Wagon Works, which we now know as Unique Furniture Makers. They have been sold and operate under a different name — Collingwood. After working at Drexel, first on the systems installation, I became assigned to that audit. And eventually was in charge of the Drexel audit which led to my employment by Drexel. I worked at Ernst & Ernst from 1946 until I was married in 1952, and at that point, I decided I was ready to quit the traveling, too.
CAREY: Who at Drexel hired you?
WALKER: I was hired by Rob Connelly, who was the chief financial officer.
INTERVIEWER: When was that?
WALKER: I went to work there in April of 1952. A couple years earlier, the folks at Drexel told one of my bosses at Ernst & Ernst, John McArthur, that they didn’t want to steal me, but if they saw that I was about to leave that firm, not to leave until I had talked to them. John didn’t tell me that at the time, but when he left the firm, he did tell me that. When he told me, I wasn’t ready to leave the firm, so I didn’t pay any attention to it. But when I was on the verge of getting married and thought I wanted to quit the traveling, then I did tell Drexel that I was considering leaving the firm and if they wanted to talk to me that I’d be glad to talk to them. And they did make me an offer.
CAREY: I guess you knew that Rob Connelly is in pretty bad condition.
WALKER: I heard he had had a stroke and is in a rest home.
INTERVIEWER: Before we move over now to Drexel, did Ernst & Ernst — you mentioned they had a number of furniture clients. Who were they? Even though you didn’t work with those companies.
WALKER: They did B.F. Huntley in Winston-Salem. They did Morganton Furniture Company in Morganton, which was acquired by Drexel eventually, but I was not involved in that audit. They got the Thomasville audit after I left. I never did work on that Thomasville audit.
INTERVIEWER: Anybody in High Point, Bassett or Martinsville?
WALKER: The Richmond office of Ernst & Ernst had Bassett. I was sent to Bassett one time and that had to do with some systems work. That was in 1949, the only year, I believe, Bassett ever lost money. I don’t know whether you can blame me for their losing money or credit me for the fact that they never lost again.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe you straightened them out.
WALKER: I’m sure I had nothing to do with either one. Either their losing or coming out of it. Bassett was audited by the Richmond office.
INTERVIEWER: Any of the showroom buildings or anything like that?
WALKER: One little job I had related to the furniture industry was Alderman Photo. And that was when Alderman was in the Hamilton-Wrenn area.
They were a very small outfit then. I went over there and put in a cost accounting system for them. And did some tax work for them. I never did do an audit. I don’t know that they needed an audit. Alderman had been very prosperous, but during the War, they weren’t needed. Furniture companies could sell all they could make. They didn’t need to spend any money bringing out new lines or anything like that. Sid Gayle got out of service and bought it out of bankruptcy. His grandfather, I guess, had started the business, and I did some work for Sid.
INTERVIEWER: Well, Sidney somehow was himself discharged from the service in order to come back because his brother, Miles, was killed in the war.
WALKER: I recall something about that.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know why, but Sidney was prematurely released in order to save the company. About that time, the furniture people started needing to sell stuff, and that’s when he became successful.
WALKER: At the time I was doing some work for Sidney at Alderman, his brother, Bob, was a professional musician. As I understand it, he wasn’t making a living.
INTERVIEWER: In New York.
WALKER: So, Sidney brought him into the business, which, I understand, was just sort of a way to enable him to make a living. I thought it was kind of ironic that they eventually had a falling out. I guess in the end, Bob kicked Sidney out of the business. I don’t know any details of that.
INTERVIEWER: They did have a falling out, and they sold the business. But you did some work for Alderman, then?
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any further involvements with any other furniture manufacturers when you were working with Alderman?
WALKER: Well, nothing in relation to Alderman. At the same time, I was doing the audits of some of these other companies like Drexel, Unique and the Morgans. I also did audits of other companies — hosiery companies and different types of clients.
INTERVIEWER: What about Morgan? Do you remember anything about Bob Morgan or his father or whatever?
WALKER: Yes, I knew Mr. David Morgan, Sr. and David Morgan, Jr., who is Bob’s brother, and also Bob himself. At the time I was there, Bob was running Morgan Manufacturing Company. His father lived on the premises. There was what they called a cabin there on the premises.
INTERVIEWER: That was in Black Mountain.
WALKER: In Black Mountain. Mr. David Morgan, Sr. lived on the premises. David Morgan, Jr. was running Morgan Furniture Company at Woodfin. One of the investors in Morgan Furniture Company was Harley Shuford. He may have been a roommate, I’m not completely sure, of David Morgan, Jr.’s at Chapel Hill. I know they were both tennis players down there. David Morgan, Jr. was married to, as I recall, a Russian countess or something. They lived back up behind The Manor Inn, a lovely old inn on Charlotte Street in Asheville.
CAREY: What she claims anyway.
INTERVIEWER: Is this Harvey Shuford, Jr. or Senior?
WALKER: This is Senior. They made chairs. They made Century’s chairs for many years in that plant at Woodfin. And eventually Century started Century Chair Company, which was operated for many years by Snyder Garrison.
INTERVIEWER: There was a Gordon involved in it.
WALKER: They finally sold it to Eddie Gordon who had been furniture merchandise manager at Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia for many, many years. So, he bought the plant and I believe the Shufords were still involved there. Eddie came down to Asheville with his son, Dick, and they ran that plant. They operated under the name of R & E Gordon.
INTERVIEWER: What did they make?
WALKER: I think it was primarily chairs, but I’m not completely sure of that.
CAREY: They continued to make chairs and I think later they got into bedroom furniture.
WALKER: Was it Gordon’s at the time Drexel bought it?
INTERVIEWER: No, Gordon and Shuford were involved in it.
WALKER: When Drexel bought the Woodfin plant, Eddie Gordon bought a retail furniture store in Asheville called Morrison’s. A very fine retail furniture store. I guess he ran that almost until his death. I’m not completely sure. He was pretty old when he died. I’m sure he didn’t run it until his death.
INTERVIEWER: Well, was it called Morrison’s at that time?
WALKER: It was called Morrison’s.
INTERVIEWER: It was started by Graham Morrison who came out of Morrison-Neese in Greensboro, which was there for many years.
WALKER: I didn’t realize he came from Morrison-Neese. But it was a fine store. I was in it many times. I used to have my little disagreements with Eddie, but we always respected each other a lot. When word came out that I was joining Hickory, Hib Johnson, who had hired me, didn’t really know me all that well. Eddie and Hib were friends.
Eddie Gordon sent him a handwritten letter and he overdid it, telling him what a great move he’d made and all that sort of thing. Since Eddie and I hadn’t always agreed on a lot of things, I thought it was a class act.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this Woodfin plant, is that still Drexel?
WALKER: I don’t know what became of it. I mean it was a real fire trap when the Morgans and later the Gordons operated it. Drexel built a big plant, and about the time it was being finished, it burned.
CAREY: It burned to the ground.
WALKER: What became of it after the fire, Charlie?
CAREY: Broyhill now — is it Broyhill? Broyhill now owns it. And makes parts up there for some of their other…
WALKER: Makes parts?
CAREY: They bought what was left of it and did some rebuilding and they make parts for some of the other furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Now Morgan, also in Black Mountain, had a factory right next door to Morgan Manufacturing Company, I guess. It was called David Robert, after the two sons.
WALKER: Were there two sons? I knew David Morgan III was involved.
INTERVIEWER: … was David Robert.
CAREY: Right next to the …
INTERVIEWER: It was right across the railroad track. They made parts and took them on the factory truck across to this other plant.
CAREY: That plant became a particleboard plant. They sold it to somebody else, and somebody got in the business with the intention of making particleboard with sawdust from the Morgan Manufacturing Company plants. They never got enough dust, and it wasn’t the right kind of dust, and they eventually went out of business.
INTERVIEWER: John Christian Bernhardt went over some very interesting stuff with their particleboard plant over in Lenoir, which was a cooperative venture between three of them.
WALKER: Yes, Drexel was part of that for a while.
INTERVIEWER: All right. Then what about Unique?
WALKER: I audited Unique for several years. Mr. Charles Creech, Sr. was still around, but was not a major factor in the management at that time. When I first started auditing them, Charles Creech, Jr. was the president and was in charge of manufacturing. John Creech was the marketing person and carried a title of vice president. Maybe his term ran out, so John became the president and Charles became the vice president. The jobs didn’t change. I guess one brother had been president for a while, so it was time for the other brother to be president. They made solid furniture at that time. The company was originally named J. C. Spach Wagon Works.
They had had an old, old plant in the Waughtown section — I can’t name the street. They made furniture there and they had the plant on Stadium Drive. I believe the company had been 50 percent owned by the Spach family and 50 percent owned by the Creeches. They had some differences.
The Creeches wanted to stay in the furniture business and the Spachs basically wanted money, so they split up. The Spachs took the old plant and some other assets and the Creeches took the Stadium Drive plant. The furniture business had been running under the name of Unique Furniture Makers, but that was not the corporate name. The corporate name was J. C. Spach Wagon Works. Originally that old plant had been a wagon plant. The Spachs rented that old facility to a plumbing supply concern called the Noland Company. They were operating there as long as I knew what was there. It may still be, I don’t know. The Creeches ran the Stadium Drive plant and were very successful. They were not interested in growing. They always had a good backlog and just chugged along.
One of my other audit clients at the time was Drexel. Every time that Drexel got a little splurge of business, they’d go out and build an addition to a plant. But Unique, no, no, they just wanted to run whatever they were doing. I don’t remember the volume they were doing, but it wasn’t really big. But it was steady. And they did a nice job.
INTERVIEWER: All right. So then you started at Drexel. When did you begin working at Drexel?
WALKER: I was married April 6, 1952, and I went to work for Drexel about three weeks after that. I resigned from Ernst the same time I got married. I went on a honeymoon and came back and had a couple of weeks to sort of clean up things.
So, I went to work for Drexel in April of 1952. There were a lot of things going on at Drexel at that time. The company had made a decision to go from a commissioned sales force, with salesman carrying other lines, as well as the Drexel line, to a salaried sales force carrying Drexel exclusively.
INTERVIEWER: Fanjoy and Bowles.
WALKER: They were certainly among the outstanding ones. But Drexel didn’t do it all at once. Fanjoy and Bowles stayed as commissioned salesmen for a long time. They weren’t going to change, and Drexel didn’t want to lose them. The same thing applied out in the Rocky Mountain area, and it applied for a long time to some of the West Coast salesmen. But they had a lot of new additions to the sales force, and they were salaried. Dave Brunn and I went to work for Drexel the same day.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I didn’t know that.
WALKER: Dave Brunn, who had been at W. & J. Sloane in the retail business in New York, went to work as the eastern regional sales manager for Drexel. Drexel named three regional sales managers, and Dave was the first one in the East and had an office in New York City. There was one in Chicago and Cliff Curtis, a senior salesman in Denver, was the first western regional sales manager.
INTERVIEWER: His office stayed in Denver, then.
WALKER: Yes, that office was in Denver, and the Chicago office was located in what was then the Chicago showroom.
INTERVIEWER: Which was where?
WALKER: In the Merchandise Mart. This is a little aside, but it’s kind of ironic that Drexel’s space was on the 16th floor right at the elevator landing. Drexel discontinued their Chicago showroom sometime in the late ’60s. When I came to work for Hickory in 1972, Hickory had the same space. So I was involved with two companies that had Chicago showrooms in the same space. They were completely unrelated companies.
INTERVIEWER: Now the Merchandise Mart had — what was it, three floors that were devoted to furniture?
WALKER: I believe so — 16th, 17th and 18th. Yeah, I’m pretty sure 18 was one of them. I think Henredon was on 18, and I’m sure a lot of the other people we knew.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, when you say three floors in the Merchandise Mart …
WALKER: You’re talking about a lot of space.
CAREY: A lot of acreage.
INTERVIEWER: They were enormous. Who was your first boss at Drexel?
WALKER: My first boss was Rob Connelly, who was the financial officer. After the departure of Henry Wilson, Don VanNoppen and Ralph Edwards, Mr. R.O. Huffman, who had spent his life in the hosiery business, became the president. I think he’d been the president even before, but he became more active. He did not become full time furniture, because he continued to operate three different hosiery companies: Drexel Knitting Mills was across the railroad track from Drexel’s main office; Morganton Full Fashion Hosiery in Morganton; and then Huffman Hosiery in Morganton. He continued to head those companies. He put together an organization headed by Burt Tuxford, a former New England sales representative, as the marketing manager; Maurice Hill as the manufacturing executive; and Rob Connelly, who was the financial officer.
INTERVIEWER: Now Burt had some Jamestown connections. Wasn’t Peggy (Burt Tuxford’s wife) from Jamestown?
WALKER: I’m not sure where Peggy was from. Burt owned a good chunk of a company named Monitor Furniture Company in Jamestown. Was Bergquist the other owner of that?
INTERVIEWER: Bob Bergquist.
WALKER: Bergquist, yes.
INTERVIEWER: It was family there, either through Burt’s mother or Peggy. I’m not sure exactly.
WALKER: I think he also owned a piece of a company named Birds Eye Veneer in Escanaba, Michigan. But his own occupation had been the New England sales representative.
INTERVIEWER: Of Drexel?
WALKER: Yes, of Drexel. I don’t know whether he had other lines or not. Some of those salesmen did have. So he was brought in to head the marketing because Henry Wilson, Ralph Edwards and Don VanNoppen all left at the same time. And so Mr. Huffman had to put a whole new team together.
INTERVIEWER: You might say a quick word about where they went.
WALKER: I don’t know. After they left Drexel, Charlie may know a lot more than I do about the circumstances. There were some conflicts between them, at least between Henry Wilson and Mr. Huffman. I think there were some insinuations of some conflicts of interests, but I don’t really know. The people at Drexel didn’t talk about it. I worked there for 20 years and I never found out what happened.
CAREY: It carried over to the employees, too. And even in the manufacturing area. They never visited.
INTERVIEWER: You mean their employees at their new association, which we need to mention. Where’d they go, Howard?
CAREY: In manufacturing for example, it was unheard of for people from Drexel to go visit the people in Henredon. Or vice versa. They just couldn’t or didn’t do that.
WALKER: They started Henredon after they left Drexel. I don’t know that they had any plans to start a company and left because of that reason. When they left Drexel, they started Henredon. The name was a contraction of the three names: Henry Wilson, Don VanNoppen and the R-E was Ralph Edwards. As Charlie said, even though personally the Drexel and Henredon people could be friendly on a social basis, they did not welcome each other in their plants and showrooms. I remember going to the Chicago market one time — you mentioned they had been on the 18th floor of the Merchandise Mart. A couple of us (and I was new and they didn’t know me from anything) went up to the Henredon showroom and Don VanNoppen greeted us as if we were the best customers they had, and “It’s so good to see you.”
We chatted there around the reception desk and then he walked us to the front door, and said, “We appreciate you coming in.”
We did not get past the reception desk. We were treated very cordially, but we did not get past the reception desk. And they didn’t bother to come to our space.
This is a very friendly industry. If you’ve got a problem, your competitor down the street will tell you how he solved that problem, etc. But that was not the case between Drexel and Henredon. There was a bitterness underneath somewhere or another.
CAREY: I think I was one of the very, very few, one of the first manufacturing people to ever visit Henredon and that was through Maurice Talley. He and I got quite friendly and he took me on a tour of his plant.
WALKER: He was the manufacturing executive. A real gentleman.
INTERVIEWER: All right. At Drexel, what was your first job? What did you do? What was your work?
WALKER: It was in the financial end. My background was financial. My original title was internal auditor. My work really didn’t have a whole lot to do with internal auditing. It was general financial-type assignments. There was some auditing involved, but I, probably more than anyone else in the financial end of the business, took more of an interest in the other activities.
I got involved in market activities and whatever else happened to be going on. Anything that had to do with pension plans and profit sharing plans, insurance, taxes, and things like that came to me naturally through the financial assignments. I got more involved in the other aspects of the business than the typical financial junior executive. That turned out to be both an educational process about the whole company, and I became pretty well acquainted with what was going on throughout. I liked that. I felt like my specialty may have been financial, but my principal interest probably was somewhere else.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us then about the industry at that time. We’ve gotten a little bit into that on the Chicago Market and the Merchandise Mart and the beginning of Henredon.
WALKER: The industry at that time was dominated by family companies. The Lanes ran Lane and the Whites ran White (well, the Whites, the Millenders and the Beans), the Bassetts ran Bassett, the Broyhills ran Broyhill, the Finches ran Thomasville. If you went down the list of companies, whether they were big companies or small companies, they were mostly owned and operated by families. There was a great tendency for the management succession to be the family members.
Drexel was different in that respect. Mr. Huffman was the only person at Drexel who had any relationship to prior management.
Henry Wilson, Ralph Edwards and Don VanNoppen didn’t get their jobs because of to whom they were kin. Drexel was sort of an exception in that respect.
INTERVIEWER: How did it start?
WALKER: Drexel started as a window and sash company.
INTERVIEWER: At what time?
INTERVIEWER: And in Drexel.
WALKER: In Drexel. I’m told that the town, Drexel, didn’t have a name at that time. They built this plant there and they needed a name for it. They had someone from the Southern Railway — I guess they were getting a siding or station or something there — somebody from Southern Railway made some suggestions of names and maybe one of the major stockholding families of Southern Railway was named Drexel (I’ve heard it as an officer, but one official from Southern Railway told me, “We’ve never had an officer named Drexel.”) So among this list of names suggested was Drexel and they liked that. That was short, easy to spell and easy to pronounce. So they picked Drexel for the railroad siding and then they named the company the same thing.
INTERVIEWER: The town and the company were named at the same time.
WALKER: That’s right. The plant burned, I believe, in 1906.
CAREY: Caught fire from the boiler room.
WALKER: ... but they rebuilt immediately. Apparently, the main reason for having a furniture factory was the supply of lumber. It was kind of a natural.
Drexel had become a publicly-owned company a few years before I went to work there. I’m not sure what year, but the stock was put on the market sometime in the ’40s and probably the late ’40s. They had registered the stock with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it was traded over the counter. Bassett was a publicly- owned company at that time, although an awful large percentage of the stock was in the family, but the stock was traded. There weren’t a whole lot of other publicly-owned furniture companies. Heywood-Wakefield, I remember, up in New England, was a publicly owned company.
Thomasville did register their stock soon after I went to Drexel. I’m not sure what year, but they were not registered at that point. Drexel eventually went on the New York Stock Exchange. Very shortly after Drexel went on the New York Stock Exchange, Thomasville went on the New York Stock Exchange.
INTERVIEWER: About what year was that?
WALKER: June 1964. Drexel was acquired by U. S. Plywood-Champion Papers in 1968 and we’d been on the New York Stock Exchange for four years at that time.
Thomasville came on the New York Stock Exchange very shortly after Drexel did, and then Thomasville was acquired by Armstrong very shortly after Drexel was acquired by USP-CP. We were talking about Ernst & Ernst awhile ago – prior to their acquisitions, Ernst & Ernst had both the Thomasville and Drexel accounts, both New York Stock Exchange companies. But they lost both of them with the acquisitions, because Plywood Champion had Arthur Anderson as their auditors and they became Drexel’s auditors. I don’t know who had Thomasville, but whoever had Armstrong, of course, was selected. So Ernst & Ernst lost both accounts. And that’s gotten to be a rather normal thing in the accounting industry, when things go crazy merger-wise.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you mentioned that although your primary responsibility was financial, you were very much interested in marketing. Did you go to Markets?
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the first Market you went to. Where was it and what happened?
WALKER: The first Market I went to was in Chicago. I remember flying Piedmont out of Hickory and stopping at Tri-Cities on the way to Cincinnati, where we changed planes, and going on to Chicago. Many of the furniture executives in the area traveled to Chicago by train.
Markets were sort of festive occasions. I guess to some extent they still are, but it seemed like they were more so then. A lot of people went to Markets that didn’t need to go to Markets. Maybe I was one of them. But we had board of directors’ meetings in Chicago and there couldn’t be a worst place to have a serious board of directors’ meeting. But people liked to go to Markets. I don’t think that’s quite so much the case now as it used to be.
INTERVIEWER: Was the first one in the winter or in the summer?
WALKER: The first one I went to was in the summer because I went to work for Drexel in late April, just after the April Market. They had begun to have the southern Markets when I went to Drexel.
INTERVIEWER: And where did Drexel show at the southern Markets?
WALKER: Drexel showed in a showroom in the same building that the office was in.
INTERVIEWER: And Burt Tuxford was in the same building.
WALKER: Burt Tuxford was the marketing person. When I went to work there, Drexel had just introduced a group named Perspective, which was a very, very modern group, far more so than anything they had done before. Designed by Milo Baughman, who of course, has made
a big name for himself. What’s the name of the High Point company … ?
INTERVIEWER: Thayer Coggin.
WALKER: Thayer Coggin is his … it has sort of been his home. In April 1952, Drexel took a home in Morganton owned by the infamous Bill Cobb (of the two-wife notoriety), and furnished it completely in Perspective, and hauled all the customers who came to Market out to that home to see that group of furniture.
It brought a lot of publicity — got all sorts of editorial support. The group was ahead of itself. The market was not ready for furniture quite that drastic. It was really a beautifully done group of furniture, but it was just ahead of itself. If it had come along a few years later, I think it would have been much more of a success. Sometimes — I learned this a lot later in my career — sometimes you gain a whole lot by being a leader, even though that particular group of furniture isn’t always the biggest success profit-wise. You get your name in the forefront and really attract the attention. After you do something like that, the dealers will keep coming back to see you. That wasn’t a problem at Drexel like it is with companies that are not quite as well known. The Drexel dealers are going to come to Drexel. But that was a milestone in design, even though it wasn’t that successful of a group over the years.
INTERVIEWER: It was introduced in April?
WALKER: It was introduced in April of ’52 and I went to work there in late April ’52. I went to work there at the end of the month and the Market had just ended.
INTERVIEWER: Then when you went to Chicago …
WALKER: I went to Chicago in July. I can’t remember whether it was June or July then. Chicago summer markets ended up being in June, later on.
INTERVIEWER: So, you went to the July Market in Chicago and Perspective was very much there.
WALKER: One of the biggest sellers we had at that time was Precedent. You see that piece over there against the wall, and this little coffee table here – they were out of that. My wife refinished that one. It wasn’t in that finish. At that time, 18th century mahogany was the dominant pattern, and Drexel’s biggest seller was a group called Travis Court, which they had for years and years. They had a very successful and profitable French group called Touraine, which was good at that time. But Markets are to sell new goods. And at that time, Perspective was it. That was the April, 1952 introduction.
INTERVIEWER: Precedent was before that?
INTERVIEWER: Was that the name that Rome Jones took for his upholstery plant?
WALKER: Yes, it was.
INTERVIEWER: He got sued over it and had to change it to …
WALKER: He wouldn’t have been sued by Drexel, would he? They had abandoned
INTERVIEWER: They made him change the name of it …
WALKER: I didn’t know that.
INTERVIEWER: … to Prestige.
WALKER: Now wait a minute. OK, Rome Jones. There is a Precedent now.
WALKER: Since that time. That was Wilfred Sigmon instead of Rome Jones who started that one. Down out of Newton.
INTERVIEWER: Rome Jones’ company was first called Precedent.
CAREY: And you say Drexel sued him?
INTERVIEWER: They made him quit using the name. I remember that well. And he changed it to Prestige. And it was Prestige ‘till he sold it to Bassett.
WALKER: Speaking of lawsuits, I thought about this the other day — the first time I ever heard of Drexel Furniture Company, was when I was in school at Chapel Hill. I was taking a course in business law under a very beloved professor named R. J. M. Hobbs. The case that we studied was Drexel versus Bailey. Josiah W. Bailey had been a collector of Internal Revenue in Greensboro. He later became United States Senator.
WALKER: Congress had passed a law prohibiting child employment, and the Supreme Court had declared that law unconstitutional. So, Congress passed a law putting a tax on employers who hired child labor. And that tax was assessed against Drexel because they used child labor. Drexel sued to get that tax back. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot do through taxation what they cannot do by other laws. So if child labor laws were unconstitutional, then a tax, which in effect, prohibited child labor, was also unconstitutional. I had never heard of Drexel Furniture Company until we studied that case. I’d heard of them before I went to work for Ernst & Ernst and was sent up there to do work. But that’s all I knew about them.
Now, when you think of how they’re practically trying to outlaw cigarette smoking by the high taxes they put on it, they’re doing the very thing that the Supreme Court back then said you couldn’t do.
INTERVIEWER: What year was that?
WALKER: I don’t know, but Bailey was the United States Senator when I was in school, which was in the ’30s and early ’40s, so it must have been earlier than that when he was collector for Internal Revenue.
INTERVIEWER: Back to the Chicago Market in ’52. What can you tell us about the Market? Who was there? And what did you do? And what happened in Chicago after 5:00?
WALKER: It was a party town. I don’t know that I did all that much. Although I remember going up to one of those night spots and seeing Jimmy Durante perform.
Another show that I remember well was Vaudeville star Ted Lewis, who danced to the tune “Me and My Shadow” and had a black dancer behind him with the identical moves. But I guess that the “girlie” shows were the customers’ favorite way to be entertained. The most risqué ones were in a suburb outside of Chicago proper, on Howard Street, I believe. I was new. I can’t say that I did a whole lot at the Market.
INTERVIEWER: Where’d you stay?
WALKER: Stayed at the old LaSalle Hotel.
INTERVIEWER: Did you to go every Market after that?
WALKER: No, not every market. Probably once a year.
INTERVIEWER: Preferably in the summer?
WALKER: Well, I was there in some winters. I had been in Chicago in midshipman school and was very fond of Chicago. They were awfully kind to us then.
INTERVIEWER: In uniform, they sure were.
WALKER: If you were in midshipman school, then you were college graduates and I guess they felt comfortable. They’d invite us out to their homes and to go to dances down at the yacht club and things like that. I loved Chicago from my days in midshipman school. I remember having the duty on Thanksgiving Day. I cannot tell you how many times that telephone rang with families inviting somebody to come out. Everybody that was going had already gone.
And they’d say, “Well, can’t you come?”
“Well, I’m on duty.”
“What time do you get off duty?”
It was a wonderful town. I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in Markets over the years? Of course, you went to Markets for a lot of years.
WALKER: The main change was the de-emphasis of Chicago and the gaining in strength of the southern market. As long as I was at Drexel, we showed at Drexel. We enlarged the showroom there and it was a major event. The dealers were there at 8:00 a.m. on opening day. If you were a Drexel dealer, Drexel was probably your major line. They came to Drexel first. And we showed a lot of southern hospitality during the Markets. We took dealers and put them up in our own homes. They were pretty well entertained every night they were in town. We served a very fine lunch. At that time, the showrooms were not open on Sunday morning. We would open our dining room at noon for lunch and then the showroom would open at one o’clock. Thomasville didn’t open at all on Sunday.
WALKER: But we opened at one o’clock on Sunday. Sunday was a big day for North Carolina dealers.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah.
WALKER: They would arrive at Drexel at twelve o’clock, have their big lunch, and we did serve a good one. And then they’d spend the afternoon in a showroom. They might leave us and go to Henredon, or go to Broyhill or Bernhardt.
INTERVIEWER: Was this in April or October?
INTERVIEWER: How about July and January?
WALKER: No, we didn’t show then. There was a High Point Market then, but we did not participate.
INTERVIEWER: In High Point?
WALKER: During my time at Drexel, Drexel did not show at the High Point Markets in January and July. They had in the past. They had pulled out before I went to work there.
CAREY: Didn’t think it would ever come to anything, did they?
WALKER: Well, that had been the Market. That had been the High Point Market.
INTERVIEWER: On the fourth floor.
WALKER: That was before the April-October Markets got started. But after they built the showroom at Drexel for the April-October Markets, Drexel quit showing in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: Howard, you can date this, but I well recall a friend of mine took me down to the Drexel space and he was buying a desk for himself. It was a Profile desk.
WALKER: I was there when we brought out Profile, so if he bought Profile, and bought it out of High Point, then we were still there. I never did go to one of those Markets. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t remember them.
INTERVIEWER: I remember it had a big pointy nose on it. It was Profile.
CAREY: Of course, Profile could have come out earlier and was still being shown or something.
WALKER: No, Profile came out after I went to work for Drexel. I recall that prior to its introduction. Carl Poteat, longtime superintendent of the Marion Plant, was concerned they could manufacture it as it was designed. But he had one consolation, “It’ll never sell,” he was sure. But it sold. And did it sell!
His Marion plant produced millions and millions of dollars of Profile, and made millions of dollars in profit on Profile. Up to that point, it was the biggest Market success Drexel had ever had.
INTERVIEWER: For Drexel, the big change in the Market was they eventually moved from showing in Drexel to showing in their own building in High Point, right?
WALKER: About the time I left the company, the Drexel and Heritage lines were put together with a common sales force. The showroom was moved to the Heritage English Street location and that building was enlarged enough to show both lines. The offices were combined at Drexel and the showrooms were combined at High Point.
INTERVIEWER: About what year was that?
WALKER: It was ’72, because it was ’72 that I left Drexel and came to Hickory. And the first market that Drexel showed in High Point was April ’72.
INTERVIEWER: And that was after Drexel acquired Heritage.
WALKER: We merged with Heritage in ’57, but the sales forces were not put together until ’72 and that’s when the Drexel Heritage Showcase Stores were begun. There were separate sales forces from ’57 up until ’72. We bought Heritage and Morganton Furniture Company in 1957. The Morganton Furniture Company plant was turned over to the Heritage management as a case goods facility. Heritage had had a joint marketing arrangement with Henredon — Henredon making the case goods and Heritage making the upholstery and occasional tables.
INTERVIEWER: That was pretty much the outset of Henredon.
INTERVIEWER: They marketed Heritage and Henredon together.
WALKER: That’s correct. There was some crossover ownership between the stock of Heritage and Henredon. It was no more than 20 percent, I think, either way. I’m not sure whether it was that high or not. But when they split in ’57, and Heritage and Drexel merged, they worked out some deal where they swapped off their crossover ownership. So, Heritage operated the Morganton Furniture Company plant, and they had a complete line of case goods, as well as upholstery and occasional tables.
Heritage was acquired in 1957. Elliott headed the Heritage and Morganton Furniture Company operations.
They operated completely separate from Drexel. Heritage and Morganton were subsidiaries. Eventually the corporate structure was set up so that Drexel Enterprises was the parent company, and Drexel Furniture Company was a subsidiary and Heritage-Morganton was a subsidiary.
INTERVIEWER: What about the table plant in Mocksville?
WALKER: The table plant in Mocksville had been a part of Heritage before Heritage was merged with Drexel. It came with Heritage. Heritage had been in the occasional table business and that’s where they made the occasional tables.
CAREY: And Elliott wanted to continue this independence.
WALKER: Elliott really didn’t want to be a part of a larger organization. He was a great operator, but he probably shouldn’t have sold his company. I’ve told that to people. In several cases, people would come to me and talk about mergers. And I would say, “That company you’re talking about is a fine company. But don’t sell out until you’re ready to get out.” I told a good CPA friend of mine the same thing. He asked me about that and I told him the firm he was talking to was an outstanding firm, but don’t sell out until you’re ready to get out. Well, about five years later, he sold out to them and got out. So he took my advice.
I think Elliott, when he was splitting with Henredon, was looking for case goods capability because he felt like he needed it. And that’s probably the reason he agreed to the merger with Drexel. But he really didn’t want a boss. I admire the man. I love him. I just think he’s a great operator and a real gentleman. Two years ago, I wanted to nominate Elliott for the Hall of Fame, and I think he’d have been a shoo in.
INTERVIEWER: No question.
WALKER: Maybe it was a mistake, but I wanted to spend a day with him to get some history that I didn’t know everything about. You know, he was one of the co-founders of Founders Furniture, along with Ed Thrower. He owned half of that company for years. I got a hold of Lib Knight, who used to be Elliott’s secretary, and she told me how to get hold of Elliott. He was down at the Country Club of North Carolina. But she also told me that she thought Elliott had a little bit of a feeling about our organization, related to one of these interviews he did or something. I’m not quite sure what it was. But I called Elliott and talked to him, and he said, “No, I don’t want to.”
INTERVIEWER: You say, “our organization.”
WALKER: American Furniture Hall of Fame.
WALKER: He was, as always, a real gentleman. He just said he didn’t think he wanted to do that. He said, “I wouldn’t be elected.” I said, “Well, let me worry about that.” He agreed to let me send him some information.
I sent him a lot of information on the American Furniture Hall of Fame and told him I’d call him back after he got a chance to review it. He would not agree to give his consent to being nominated. I wish, at the time, I’d done it without asking him. But after what he said, I wasn’t going to nominate him when he didn’t want to be nominated. Now he definitely wouldn’t run for it. I mean, that’s the last thing he would do. But he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
CAREY: Has he been interviewed?
WALKER: Yes, John Tobin interviewed him, I think.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know who did it. We have the interview.
WALKER: I read the interview and he had apparently given them some material which had an awful lot of the background and the history of the things he’d done. I didn’t see that, so as you read the interview, he’d say, “That’s all in there.” He kept saying, “That’s all in there.”
The written material would be more important than the interview. And I sure hope you’ve got that.
Elliott was certainly one of the key persons in the total concept. As we thought of who would succeed Mr. R. O. Huffman as the chief executive officer at Drexel Enterprises, he would certainly be right at the top of the list, along with Maurice Hill, and perhaps Bob Connelly. But Elliott had his differences. I know they merged the Drexel and Heritage profit-sharing and pension plans, and Elliott didn’t like that.
CAREY: That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.
WALKER: I don’t know the full facts, but he probably laid down some kind of ultimatum or just refused to go along with something and ended up separating. That’s one thing you did not do with Mr. R. O. Huffman. You could have your word with him, but you didn’t lay down any ultimatums.
So, Elliott left the company. Charlie Shaughnessy, Sr., who had been the senior furniture man at Macy’s, had retired from that and had become the New York salesman for Morganton Furniture Company. When the two companies, Morganton and Heritage, were put together, he was the New York sales representative for Heritage and Morganton. He retired from that. Then when Elliott Wood left, Charlie was hired to be president of Heritage and Morganton. Later, he retired from that and then when Dave Brunn left, he was brought into Drexel to be senior marketing vice president of the total organization. He retired from that. He regained the company as president after Maurice Hill left and Charles Carey served a term as acting CEO. He was President of Drexel Enterprises when I left there.
INTERVIEWER: We’re going to move over to Hickory, but have you anything else that we need to cover on the Drexel background?
WALKER: Drexel was acquired in 1968 by U. S. Plywood-Champion Paper. Maurice Hill had become president and chief executive officer of Drexel, and he was the key person who negotiated that. He had previously negotiated a merger with Stanley Furniture Company. The Drexel board turned it down, which was quite a setback. Then he arranged this merger with U. S. Plywood-Champion Paper. Unfortunately, as has been the case with so many acquisitions of furniture companies by non-furniture companies, they gave us more help than we could stand. In about one year, our profits dropped from about $10 million to $1 million. It wasn’t because they were draining the company. You know some companies do this by taking big management fees and all that sort of thing. That was not the case. We just quit doing the things the way that good hands-on management had operated in this industry. I think it’s very essential in this industry to not take a year or two to get a capital expenditure approved. We had to go through reports, reports, and reports. Being in the financial department at that time was a real nightmare. You really felt like you were spending your lifetime making reports that nobody would ever read. And you weren’t doing what was needed to run the furniture business.
CAREY: So much effort is expended unnecessarily to satisfy the people.
WALKER: They had so many staff people. There was a flood of them. Somebody would come down who was supposed to be an expert on traffic. Or somebody who was supposed to be an expert on purchasing. Well, they didn’t know beans about purchasing materials for a furniture manufacturer.
CAREY: The same thing’s happening now with Masco.
WALKER: I can imagine.
CAREY: Only more so.
WALKER: One of my favorite stories — and I don’t know whether this is true or not — but I was a good friend (not close but very friendly, we played golf at SFMA (Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association) meetings and kept in touch), with Dick Johnston up at American Drew. They were acquired by S&H (Sperry & Hutchinson) Green Stamps. And apparently, S&H kept sending these people who would appear on the scene to give them all this “help.” The story, as I heard it, was that one day a bunch of them showed up unexpectedly and Dick had other things to do.
I don’t know whether he either told the people there, or he got on the telephone to the headquarters, that the next time somebody showed up at that plant unexpectedly, he was going to hand them the key and he was going to leave. Dick’s just the guy that would. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. I think that’s what a lot of these companies needed who were acquired by other companies. One of the real sad cases of acquisitions was the Interco ownership of Lane and Broyhill. I got the impression those furniture companies were pretty much permitted to operate and were doing a beautiful job.
CAREY: They’ll tell you that. They left them alone.
WALKER: They were doing a beautiful job. I guess they still are, for that matter.
CAREY: That’s what saved them.
WALKER: The company went through that leveraged buyout, paid a ridiculous price and entered into all that big junk debt, junk bonds, etc. Interco collapsed but the furniture companies continued to do well. The figures published on them certainly indicate that in the economic climate we’ve had for the last four or five years, they have done well.
INTERVIEWER: Done very well.
WALKER: Many of the companies, certainly Plywood-Champion and S & H Green Stamps, if my story is correct, and many others, I use the term, “They gave us more help than we could stand.”
There was a general exodus of a lot of good people from Drexel after that. Drexel was a fine company. Most of the management was homegrown, not hired from the outside for top jobs. There were some good people that were hired and brought in there. I remember in the Elliott Wood interview, which I read, he referred Bill Hartman, who was a “screwball,” but a marketing genius.
WALKER: Burt Tuxford had hired Bill and he did some of the crazy things, but some real fine things. But, basically, the Drexel people were homegrown. People like Charlie who came out of college and went to work for Drexel. I came out of the accounting business and went to work for Drexel. There were some that were hired from other companies. There was a real camaraderie there. I don’t think there was much intra-company politics. I never felt like anybody was trying to undercut anybody else. There was real team work in my opinion. And there were an awful lot of good people there. A lot of good people left, but there were still a lot of good people remaining. When Champion sold it — and Charlie can speak to this better than I can — apparently Dominick let the furniture people run the furniture business. They just turned that thing right back around again and did just the same fine job they’d done back when they were allowed to run it before Champion. I had become the chief financial officer. One of the things these companies like to do is to have one of their own in that job. Even though we did all these reports and all they required us to do (and it was a great distraction from running the furniture business), they decided that they wanted to put one of their own men in there as chief financial officer.
So I moved to the contract department. I had been very involved in contract previously. I served a couple of years there and enjoyed it. That was total marketing and I had liked marketing. But I knew that my future with Drexel was limited. There’s a story told there about one of the middle management people. When he left Drexel, his letter of resignation said, “I’ve got one thing in common with Mr. Huffman, who’s president of the company. The two of us have gone as far as we’re going in this company.” So he resigned and went elsewhere. To some extent, I knew that was my situation at Drexel after Champion came there. So I decided to leave. I went from Drexel to Hickory.
INTERVIEWER: And when was that?
WALKER: In 1972. Drexel’s pension plan at that time required that you have 20 years of service before you were vested. The ERISA laws at that time were quite different than what they are now. Hickory Furniture Company was founded when Hib Johnson was running Hickory Manufacturing Company. He had been hired by Alex Shuford.
INTERVIEWER: What about the relationship between Hickory Manufacturing and Hickory Chair Company, which Shuford owned, didn’t he?
WALKER: No. There had been a series — and I’m not an expert on this — but there’d been a series of companies located in that part of town. Hickory Chair was one of them, and right across the street was, originally I think, called Hickory Furniture Company. And right across the railroad track on the same piece of property, but on the other side of the siding, was a company called Martin Furniture. Between the Shufords and the Menzies, Buzz Fennell and Ralph Bowman, they ended up kind of merging at one time. Then they kind of split up again. And what had been Hickory Furniture Company and Martin Furniture became Hickory Manufacturing. Buzz Fennell was an officer in both of them. I think he was the chief executive. For some reason, Hickory Manufacturing hired Hib Johnson to come in and manage that company.
INTERVIEWER: He was from Jamestown, New York.
WALKER: He was originally from Jamestown. He had been at Fancher. He’d been part owner of Fancher, along with the Ericksons. They had gotten some kind of a small business loan. No, I think the loan had to do with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They built a big fancy plant on an Indian reservation. Anyway, they were to hire a lot of Indians. I don’t think Hib particularly favored what they did. He ended up selling out to them and was hired to run Sandhill Furniture down in West End, North Carolina. He moved to Southern Pines. The VonCannons owned the plant. They were making beds.
INTERVIEWER: Bunk beds. They were big into bunk beds.
WALKER: I think they made all sorts of beds — bunk beds being one of them. Hib was running Sandhill and when they were looking for somebody to run Hickory Manufacturing, they hired him. One condition he made with them was that if they ever decided to sell the place, they would give him first crack at it.
Alex Shuford decided at one point he was going to sell it. I think Alex lost an awful lot of money down at Cape Canaveral and needed cash. He had bought a lot of real estate down there. And that thing was really booming. Then Lyndon B. Johnson got in and moved the space program to Houston.
After Alex died, one of the trust officers at the local bank spent an awful lot of his time trying to clean up all those holdings down there. He was going to sell Hickory Manufacturing to American Enka. Hib had put in a profit-sharing plan and one of the conditions that he laid down to American Enka was that it must be left alone. To him that was a big key. It was more of a bonus program for supervisors and management, although it did include a profit sharing pension plan, but there was a bonus plan also. Enka would not agree that they’d leave that untouched. So he told Alex Shuford, number one, he wouldn’t stay if it was sold to them, and number two, he reminded him of his commitment to him when he was hired that he would get first crack at it. So Alex said, “Ok. You’ve got a crack at it.” Hib got hold of a group of people who created Hickory Furniture Company, sold stock and raised enough money to buy Hickory Manufacturing Company. Hickory Manufacturing Company was the sole subsidiary of Hickory Furniture Company. Hickory Furniture Company had one employee and that was Hib Johnson. Everybody else worked for Hickory Manufacturing Company.
INTERVIEWER: Now, was this the company from Chicago?
WALKER: No, they came along later.
WALKER: So they went public, sold the stock, and the company was doing very well. A year or two later, they acquired what’s now Chaircraft. It had a different name then. The Whiteners owned it and Hickory acquired it. A year or two later, they acquired KayLyn in High Point. He had a good board of directors, essentially the people that had put the thing together to start with. They began to push him to have some sort of a management succession plan. They were concerned about what would happen if something happened to Hib. He heard about me and approached me. I said, “No, I can’t afford to leave.”
I was at Drexel. I said, “I’ve got about 19 years here.” (Even though the pension I’m getting looks awfully small now, right then it looked pretty big.) I said, “I’ve got to stay here until I get that pension vested.” He didn’t really want to hire anybody anyway. He just wanted to get the board of directors off his back. He told them that he had a man lined up who couldn’t come for another year. That satisfied them, and he was happy. I hadn’t agreed to come. I just said I’d consider it. I stayed another year and he knew the date. He got back in touch with me two or three months before my 20 years was to run out. We ended up agreeing to a deal. About the day that my 20 years was up, I went into Charlie Shaughnessy and resigned. They were very nice, as they always were.
That doubled the staff of Hickory Furniture Company. It had had one employee and now they had two. I used to tease Hib. I said, “Heck, I outrank you. I’m second from the top and you’re second from the bottom.”
I lived in Morganton for two years after that. You never know when you make that kind of step whether things are going to work out or not. Hib and I hit it off real well. If he had a weak area, it was finance, and if I had a strong area, I guess it was finance. He would always listen to me, on anything. He didn’t always agree with me.
I told Hib, “I don’t always have to have my way, but I like to have my say.” We got along real fine. He hated dealing with stockbrokers and stock analysts and stockholders. I mean that business of being a publicly-owned company he hated. I pretty well took over all of that, as well as working on the other operational matters. So it worked out.
Two years later, we decided it was time to move to Hickory. We moved here then. We had Hickory Manufacturing, KayLyn and Chaircraft, and our board was awfully anxious for us to keep acquiring companies.
It wasn’t a real good time to acquire companies. We looked at an awful lot of them. The next one we bought was John Widdicomb in Grand Rapids, which at that time we understood was the second oldest manufacturer of household furniture in the country. Heywood-Wakefield being the oldest.
Heywood-Wakefield no longer manufactures household furniture. I’m not completely sure whether they’re in business. They switched to all contract. I believe that, as of right now, John Widdicomb is the oldest.
We enjoyed John Widdicomb. I think it gave us some prestige. We made satisfactory profits at times, but from time to time, we didn’t make satisfactory profits there. It took a disproportionate amount of our time just because of the location. It was a business which was completely strange to me, but not quite as strange to Hib because of his Fancher background. It had an enormously high ratio of labor to sales dollar. The marketing was primarily through wholesale showrooms rather than through retail dealers. The nature of the product included an enormous number of finishes. Everything was made (very small cuttings to start with) and stored in the white [finish]]]] and finished to the customer order. It was a very old facility. Real fine people. They had a union, which we weren’t used to, but they got along well with the union. It wasn’t a national union, it was John Widdicomb’s Employees Association. Michigan is a terrible place to operate a labor-intensive business.
CAREY: How large a company was it?
WALKER: They were doing maybe $3 million when we got them and $5 million when we got rid of them. We weren’t going anywhere with the company. Our other companies were growing and profits were growing. We really weren’t making any progress there. They had a very obnoxious contract with their New York distributor. The contract was signed in 1933. It was a 50-year contract. It gave John Stuart in New York exclusive distribution and sales rights in the East — everything from Virginia up the East Coast. They sold to them at 10 percent less than they sold to anybody else.
The volume they were getting out of that territory was ridiculously low. When you look at that type of furniture, you’d think the East Coast. New England down through Washington ought to produce a third of the business in the country almost. You know, your decorator showroom type of thing. We weren’t getting half of that.
In 1933, the company was about to go broke, and the people in New York offered to open up a showroom featuring this John Widdicomb line. But John Widdicomb had to agree to that contract. The contract may have saved the company in ’33, but it was a real noose and we had a lot of difficulty. I was sorry Hib Johnson didn’t live until that contract expired, because he just hated that contract with a passion. He died on the last day of 1980 and the contract expired in ’83. I negotiated a renewal of the contract, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. But they did have a beautiful showroom in New York and displayed the line well.
They still didn’t do the volume we thought they ought to do. But we had the right to open other accounts and the price break was not continued.
We decided in the mid-‘80s that we would dispose of that company. We sold it to a group headed by a former executive at Charlotte Chair, of Charlotte, Michigan. It was an independent group. They’re still operating it. I don’t know how well they’re doing. But they’re still in the same showroom in High Point that we had down there.
We had continued to look for acquisitions. I don’t know how many companies we looked at as possible acquisitions. One that excited us was White of Mebane.
My friend, Ralph Stump, presented it to us and we went down there. White was a fine old company with fine product, etc. It was started 100 and some years ago –maybe not that long. It started before the turn of the century and had been really built by a second generation. The second generation, of course, being Steve Millender, Steve White and Fonse Bean. I know Millender and White were both second generation. I’m not sure if Fonse Bean was second generation. And then they turned it over to a third generation and it was not doing well. The third generation did not have the capabilities that the second generation had. They were not getting along with each other. The marketing offices were upstairs and the administrative offices were downstairs. They didn’t speak to each other.
The company had a nice product line. Their biggest seller was an Oriental group named Shansi, which sold for its finish, but they couldn’t do the finish. They were spending tremendous hours trying to do the finish that had been offered. Despite all sorts of things that could be improved upon, they were essentially breaking even.
I think they lost a little money, but they’d cut out the dividends. They had a number of shareholders, most of which had inherited it down through the third and fourth generation. The stockholders were discontent. Dividends quit coming.
So, we ended up buying that company. I believe our initial offer was $5 million but it had some conditions, some holdbacks if the net worth dropped below a certain figure when they had an audit as of the sale date. We ended up buying it for about $4.5 million.
INTERVIEWER: What was the date?
WALKER: June 1985. We went in there and did some other drastic things. In the first two and a half years, we made that $4.5 million, pretax.
CAREY: Is that right?
WALKER: We had identified, in our business plan when we were trying to get our directors to approve the purchase of White, steps we could take that would result in a couple million dollars a year improvement in the bottom line. Since they were breaking even, it worked out. Things don’t usually work out according to plan.
Not everything we identified came through, but we found other things. We called them “opportunities” when we’d find something that we thought was an unnecessary expense or potential income.
INTERVIEWER: Right. This was ’85. Of course, it was well beyond Hib’s …
WALKER: Hib died the last day of 1980, and I took over at that time.
INTERVIEWER: So you were, at this time, president?
WALKER: Yes, I hired Richard Henkel for a different assignment, but put him down there as president of White. It was very successful for us during those periods. They had a separate sales force and their sales force did have other lines. When we bought them, business was not good. We needed business. But they had an enormous backlog. Mostly because they weren’t producing like they should have. It was taking too long to get it out. Inventory was ridiculously high. You walked through the machine room and you couldn’t see anything except for parts stacked everywhere. They had a very inefficient manufacturing situation, with the biggest bottleneck being trying to finish that Shansi group. They had the plant in Mebane and the plant in Hillsborough.
It was a very successful acquisition for us at that time. We acquired it about the time we disposed of John Widdicomb. We didn’t get $5 million for John Widdicomb, but we got more than half of that. It wasn’t quite a trade off, but we went from a very marginal profit producer to a real good profit producer.
WALKER: I’ve got to report the bad one, too. Schoolfield Furniture down in Mullins, South Carolina went bankrupt. Hib had wanted to get into that area, primarily printed things. We didn’t really put anything much in it, but we took it over. Unfortunately, after we agreed to acquire it, it took so long for the company to get through all of its bankruptcy proceedings, that the situation had deteriorated immensely. The unsecured creditors got only 15 percent.
INTERVIEWER: This is Schoolfield?
WALKER: Yes, Schoolfield. We bought it out of bankruptcy, and made the mistake of leaving the old management in. We sent some people down there, but didn’t put them in charge. We never were able to turn it around. We finally gave up on it. It went back into bankruptcy and got liquidated. It’s no longer a furniture factory. John Adams, the guy who’d been running it, went over and was running a company called Dillon over in Dillon, South Carolina. He took a lot of the product line over there. He’s dead now. I don’t know whether Dillon is still in business or successful. Schoolfield had a good product line, but it just wasn’t well managed. And it was half-owned by the New York sales rep and, I think, it was a third owned by John Adams, who was running the place. A group headed by Wheat First Securities owned the balance. The trouble was the New York sales representative was setting the prices.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, kiss of death.
CAREY: You mentioned Richard Henkel.
INTERVIEWER: Richard Henkel went to White?
WALKER: Yes, and did a real fine job down there. Richard was a tremendously hard worker. He had a lot of brainstorm kind of ideas, many of which were good, many of which you had to sort of filter through. He had done such a good job down there that when I retired, he was put in charge of the whole thing. When Hib died, we changed very little. Hib and I’d been operating as a team. We understood each other pretty well. He respected my ideas and put in many of them.
The ones he didn’t put in, I understood. We operated very well as a team. Our business was so different from Drexel. We were essentially a secondary supplier to small and medium size stores. The store might have Drexel, Thomasville, Henredon, or some other primary line. We would probably be the secondary line. They would have two or three of our suites of furniture. But they were good loyal dealers. We had a lot of personal contact with them, which I think most successful furniture companies do. We weren’t any different from the other companies in that regard.
We had an excellent customer service department and real fine relationships. Furniture is a personal business; it’s not a commodity. It’s a personal business and the dealer, in our category, isn’t buying on price. He’s not necessarily buying the style that is the best in the world. But he wants to buy quality, and he wants to buy service. He likes that personal relationship. As you said about Craftique, they’d send the thing back. Well, if a dealer was unhappy with something, we took it back, whether we thought it was good or bad. You know, the old Sears “satisfaction guaranteed” thing. It didn’t always apply, but it was pretty much the rule we operated under. Whereas your department stores and big stores have feast or famine kinds of economics, we didn’t have any recessions in our business. These little mom-and-pop stores didn’t buy for inventory. They bought what they sold. If their business dropped off 10 percent, then our business dropped off 10 percent. But if you’ve got an outfit that’s loading up the warehouses, and then sales slow down and all of a sudden there’s no open to buy (even if something it’s selling), they won’t replace it until they get that inventory down. It drops off a 100 percent.
Chaircraft wasn’t quite that way; but most of our companies were dealing with the small- and medium-priced stores. After I retired, Richard was seeing the success of the Thomasville, the Drexel and the Henredon gallery programs. So he put both sales forces together, just as Drexel and Heritage had put their sales forces together.
WALKER: White’s sales forces and the sales force that was selling Hickory Manufacturing, Chaircraft and KayLyn. We had a common sales force for those three. They were exclusive, they didn’t sell for anybody else. White had a separate force, which was not exclusive. So they got rid of half the salesmen, consolidated all the customer service in High Point, and lost all the relationships these fine customer-service people had with our customers at Hickory and Chaircraft. Some of the White people commuted to the High Point office. They dropped the small dealers and tried to go to biggies. You do business with those biggies and they want a special price and want you to decorate their showroom for them. They want dating and all that sort of stuff. The small, medium-sized dealers didn’t demand that kind of treatment. We didn’t have it built into our prices.
As luck would have it, the economic situation soured about the same time, and so the company has suffered. They’ve had an awful lot of short time. They sold the Hillsborough plant from White two or three years ago, and now they’re closing the Mebane plant.
Those plants had made us $4.5 million in two and a half years. Now they’re out of business and taking big write-offs.
WALKER: He’s gone. He moved to Burlington when he took over White, and continued to live in Burlington after they moved all the offices to High Point. I heard he was doing some work with Pulaski and whether that was at Craftique or where it was, I don’t know. I haven’t heard from him lately. Randy Austin took over at the first of ’92. They cut off so many accounts that were really good, faithful accounts to try to get the big gallery operators. And half the sales force.
Randy inherited that. They’re already gone. You don’t just come in, even if you want to. (I don’t know what he would like to do.)
INTERVIEWER: We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit in this but we’ve started talking about beginnings, and sort of gravitated to White of Mebane. But meanwhile, there were beginnings with Chaircraft and KayLyn. Can you dwell on those a little bit?
WALKER: Yes, Skyline was a plant over in the Bethlehem community of Alexander County, just across the Catawba River from Hickory. It was operated by two brothers, Murl and Ray Whitener. I don’t know how many years they operated, probably four or five. The company was basically broke. So, Hickory bought Skyline in 1970, and changed the name to Chaircraft.
INTERVIEWER: They made junior dining room, as I recall.
WALKER: Yes, and occasional chairs. It was an all-laminated product. Everything was made of bent plywood, well, out of plywood. If it was curved, it was bent plywood. All chair legs and rails were curved. They made occasional tub chairs and junior dining room.
CAREY: All chairs, wasn’t it?
WALKER: No, they made tables.
CAREY: They made tables?
WALKER: Eventually we made some cases, but we were not very good at it. Chinas and servers. It’s an excellent product because you have so many fewer joints in a curved plywood product than you do in something made out of lumber. It was a good value. They were doing very well. At one point, they were our biggest moneymaker. They were making more money then than Hickory Manufacturing. They were hurt really bad by Taiwan. The Universals and the Hyundais and all those kind of people. They were able to come and sell at the prices below ours, and it hurt that junior dining room business. And Chaircraft began to gravitate more and more to contract. And were very good at it. They did a tremendous amount of business with the hotel-motel industry and the nursing home industry.
WALKER: Since I retired, they have now gone to all contract. They’ve dropped their household lines. We had gotten to almost 50/50 contract at the time I retired. One of the problems of going all contract is that contract can be so “feast-or-famine.” You get an order and you’ve got to get it out in 90 days or something. Then when that one gets out, you may or may not have another order to run the plant on. You can’t build any inventory for contract. You’re building to customer specifications. When we were 50 percent household, we could operate on a reasonably level rate. Household delivery deadlines are not quite as critical. Chaircraft was a product line that the stores would buy for inventory. They would buy 50 units. We had special pricing for 50 units or more, and generally our orders were that. Dealers had some in their warehouse and delivery wasn’t quite as critical.
INTERVIEWER: When did you acquire Chaircraft?
WALKER: 1950. I came to the company in ’52. In 1951, they acquired KayLyn. At that time, KayLyn was owned 50/50 by Sammy Lambeth, who ran the place, and Bruce Gurian, who was their New York sales representative. They made promotional upholstery, but after Hickory acquired them, there was a complete shift in the product line. Not a 100 percent shift at one time, but it was shifted over. They made upholstery which was compatible with the Hickory Manufacturing Company’s case goods line, which was somewhere in the Drexel to Henredon price category. They ended up doing an awful lot of their business with decorator showrooms. We operated decorator showrooms in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and in Dallas, and those were very successful for a long time.
We not only sold our product, but our markup covered all the expenses of the rent and the other expenses in connection with the showroom. With rent increases, we finally had to cut way back on the size of our showroom there, and I think it’s been closed since I retired. Dallas has had a rough economy, and I’m not even sure whether they’ve got that showroom. Those were very successful outlets, particularly for the KayLyn line.
Bruce continued to represent KayLyn in New York for a number of years and then left. Sammy was president of KayLyn until his death, which was about six months before Hib’s death.
In the summer of 1980, Sammy died. Les Flippo succeeded Sammy as president of KayLyn. He was there as a marketing executive.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that KayLyn and Hickory together were somewhat patterned after the Heritage-Henredon-Drexel gallery sort of thing?
WALKER: No, we didn’t go for galleries. But we did have those two showrooms. And it turned out (and more so for KayLyn than for Hickory), that they did sell a lot of their products. Their line was very high-styled. And KayLyn sold a lot to wholesale showrooms, not just KayLyn or Hickory showrooms. They were people like Decorator’s Walk, or George Kempler, the ones who catered to the decorator trade.
I would say that the KayLyn price line was compatible to Hickory’s price line. They were comparable to Henredon, both of them. KayLyn had been very promotional when we bought them.
INTERVIEWER: They were the world’s best knock-off artists.
WALKER: Oh, yeah, but that changed pretty quickly after the acquisition by Hickory. The sales forces were put together and they had been selling to a different trade. One of the purposes of acquiring them was to get an upholstery line compatible with Hickory’s line. It was rather natural. Their promotional stuff was very much more competitive and price sensitive than the highly styled lines.
INTERVIEWER: It’s my perception that Hib was certainly interested in Sherrill at about the same time as KayLyn.
WALKER: Well, I’m sure he was interested, but Sherrill was so much bigger. Hickory could not have absorbed a Sherrill.
One of the first possible mergers that I was involved in after I came to Hickory was with Kincaid. Wade Kincaid was interested, and Vic Pipes was his manufacturing man. But if we had merged with Kincaid, it would have been questionable who was acquiring who. A little bit like the Drexel-Stanley thing, I think. Kincaid was about as big as Hickory. So it would’ve had to have been for stock. We didn’t have that kind of money or borrowing power. So, if we’d issued stock for Kincaid, they’d have had about 50 percent of the ownership.
INTERVIEWER: Well, there was some involvement of Kincaid and Bernhardt. Where did that come around?
WALKER: I’m not familiar with that. I just don’t know.
CAREY: When they did away with the White plant, did they continue to make the White furniture in the other plant?
WALKER: It’s being moved right now. They announced last October or so that they were going to close it. Now you have to give 90-day notification when you’re closing a plant. So they announced they were going to close it in January. There’s still some manufacturing going on there, but the product line is being moved to Hickory Manufacturing. It’s going to make an awfully long product line for one case goods plant. They may call it two plants, but it’s one. The machine room is in one location.
At the time we acquired KayLyn, KayLyn owned 50 percent of a company called Sedgefield. The other 50 percent was owned by Directional, which is a marketing concern. The plant was located right across Pendleton Road from the KayLyn plant. Sedgefield also owned a frame company called Pendleton Frame. But the relationship with Directional … 50/50 ownership is a very difficult situation.
CAREY: Who’s the boss?
WALKER: Directional was doing the selling and the designing. They wanted to set the prices. So that was not very successful. We needed the frame facility, so we split Sedgefield in two. Directional took the upholstery plant and renamed it Directional of North Carolina, and we kept the Pendleton Frame plant. I’m not exactly sure what year it was, but sometime in the late ’70s, I had a visit from a fellow named Clyde Engle in Chicago.
Well, actually, I had a visit from Charles Newbill who was working for him. He didn’t tell me for whom he was working.
INTERVIEWER: That’s when Hib was still alive?
WALKER: Hib was still alive. Hib happened to be out of town when he came. I thought Charles Newbill was a stock analyst, which is what he was. Instead of working for a stockbroker, he was working for Clyde Engle. It’s kind of ironic that on that particular trip, he was visiting two companies. He visited Hickory Furniture Company and he visited Alba-Waldensian. (I was an outside director at Alba-Waldensian at that time, and an inside director at Hickory Furniture Company.) I didn’t think very much about it. We had stock analysts visiting us all the time. The only reason I knew he was visiting Alba-Waldensian was that he asked me how to get there.
I don’t know whether he knew I was a director or not. He probably did. If he’d done any homework, he’d probably seen my name on that. So, we gave him the usual courtesies, which, if you’re a publicly-owned company, you give to stock analysts. You don’t give them any information that isn’t public information. But they can probably read from you whether you’re feeling good about the future or not feeling good. Then a few months after that, I had this visit. Charles Newbill came back and he had Clyde Engle with him.
He notified us that he had acquired 15 percent of our stock and would be filing a 13D report with the SEC, which was required of anybody who gets 5 percent of the stock of an SEC registered company. It was the usual friendly kind of thing. “We’re just investors.” And all this kind of stuff. We treated him nicely, we thought. But we kept getting additional 13Ds.
Every time they’d add another percent they’d have to file another one. He kept building it up until he was in the ’20s. So Hib invited him to attend one of our director’s meetings. He expressed an interest in joining the board. We believed that anyone who owns 20 percent of your stock is entitled to a seat on the board. We told him we didn’t have any vacancies. He found one of the directors (one of those guys that was with the company when it was originally created and went public) who was interested in selling. That director told him, “If you’ll buy me out, then I’ll resign and there will be a seat on the board.”
So Engle joined the board. This would have been, probably about ’77 or’ 78.
INTERVIEWER: Who did he replace?
WALKER: His name was Leo Brinkley, from Jacksonville, Florida. The last time I heard of Brinkley, he was running a company called Major Realty, which owned a whole lot of real estate around Disney World, somewhere or another. Brinkley seldom attended our board meetings. Most of those directors were very loyal, very interested in the company, and always attended, even though for years, we didn’t pay director’s fees. They were big stockholders, so they were interested in the company. But Brinkley seldom attended them. He wasn’t what you’d call a very active director.
Engle kept buying. In the meantime, he started buying stock in other companies. He bought stock in American of Martinsville. He scared them. They ended up literally fighting him off. He bought quite a bit of stock in Kewanee Technical, which has a plant down here by the highway in Statesville. He started buying stock in Alba-Waldensian He bought stock in Wellco, the shoe company up in Waynesville. I think he bought some Pulaski for a while. I don’t believe he ever got very heavy into Pulaski.
But he kept buying Hickory. Finally, he was approaching 50 percent. Hib approached him and told him he didn’t like it. He had essentially promised Hib a time or two that he’d quit buying, but then he’d come back and buy.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, the stock price kept going up as he was buying, too.
WALKER: Yes, he was responsible for some of that. But the stock never was overpriced, if you looked at the earnings. But when somebody’s buying up that much of whatever float there is … he wasn’t buying mine, he wasn’t buying Hib’s, and he wasn’t buying the insiders. There was some in our profit-sharing plan and he wasn’t buying that. So the float wasn’t all that great. He was absorbing about all that came on the market. Hib told him when he neared 50 percent that he didn’t like the situation and he wanted to either have him buy it all, or sell out.
Stock at that time was around $8 or $8.50 a share. He came back and said he didn’t want to sell. He would buy the rest of it, but he didn’t have the cash. He’d issue bonds. A price of $15 a share was agreed upon. That’s the price we gave him. We said, “We’ll either pay you $15 a share or you buy everybody else out for $15 a share.” So that price was agreed on as a fair price, even though the market had been a little more than half of that. So he registered an issue of bonds, 18 3/8 percent bonds. And offered ...
INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
WALKER: It was 1980, just before Hib died. In fact, it was in process when Hib died, but the bonds hadn’t actually been issued at the end of ’80. Michael Milken underwrote them.
INTERVIEWER: That I didn’t know.
WALKER: Drexel, Burnham, Lambert.
WALKER: So he put out a tender offer. It was really agreed to before Hib died, but it didn’t happen until after Hib died. He put out a tender offer in early ’81, offering $15 a share in those 18 3/8 percent bonds for the outstanding shares. He had reached about 50 percent and got in an additional 30. That was his key point. Because 80 percent enables you to file consolidated tax returns. Hickory was very profitable and we were paying a godly chunk of income tax. He had all sorts of loss carryovers in other companies he’d acquired…
INTERVIEWER: Telco Leasing?
WALKER: Yes. He had all sorts of loss-carry-forwards, so Hickory entered into a tax treaty, whereby in lieu of paying taxes to the Federal IRS, we would pay to Telco, 80 percent of the amount we would have owed to the IRS. That gave the rest of Hickory stockholders a break. If our taxes would have been $2 million a year, instead of paying $2 million, we’d pay $1.6 million. So we’ve got $400,000 more cash than we would have had otherwise. He got $1.6 million in cash basically for nothing. He was using up his tax carryovers. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. When he got control, we were a cash cow. We were making good money.
WALKER: We had a bunch of short-term cash investments, CDs, etc., from our excess cash. We didn’t owe anybody anything, and we had a lot of borrowing power. He immediately began to use, not only our excess cash, but our borrowing power.
INTERVIEWER: Now this was after Hib was gone?
WALKER: Yes, after Hib was gone and after he had 80 percent of the stock. He put in his own directors. He didn’t fire any directors, we just added some. When a man owns 80 percent of the stock, if he wants to make investments — you can disagree with them, but he’s got control. So he started an investment program. Hickory owned 30 percent of Alba-Waldensian. And he bought a company that ended up being named Acton, which is down in Raleigh. They own an insurance company, a cable TV system up in Maryland, and they own a bunch of real estate enterprises. It was a real estate company originally. We ended up mortgaging everything. We had a very good financial arrangement with Wachovia, up to $27 million. We were paying all the interest on that out of the furniture operation. But that’s all right, he let us run the furniture business. It wasn’t jeopardizing that. And we kept paying dividends. We didn’t increase the dividends anymore, but we kept paying them. That went along, reasonably satisfactory. When I decided we wanted to buy White, we did all our due diligence. We laid it before him: “Go for it.” Of course, Wachovia put up all the money. We had a real fine relationship with Wachovia. But he kept wanting to borrow more. He needed money for the insurance company. He wanted to issue $10 million in some junk bonds of Hickory Furniture Company. I think our credit line with Wachovia was around $27 million, but it had some covenants which said we couldn’t incur anymore debt without their consent. That is the only way anybody’s going to loan you that kind of money.
WALKER: Any number of times, we had gone to Wachovia and we’d get waivers on some of those covenants. They were great people to do business with. I’m prejudiced. I’ve been on their local board for years and years. (Was on the one in Morganton.) I’ve got a great relationship with them. But finally they said no, “We’re not going to continue this line of credit and let you go out and borrow another $10 million. So he said, “Ok, in that case, if you won’t agree to that, we’ll just pay you off and borrow it all from junk bonds.” I ended up going to Beverly Hills — Drexel, Burnham, Lambert and Mr. Milken’s office. I didn’t meet Mr. Milken, but I briefed their junk bond experts on Hickory. And we sold a bunch of junk bonds and paid off Wachovia.
INTERVIEWER: What was the interest on the junk bonds?
WALKER: It was a crazy deal. It was called increasing interest. It started out at a fairly reasonable level, but it went up a half of a percent every quarter. And his explanation, “We’re going to pay this off in a year or two. That won’t amount to anything. We’ll pay that off.” They had a long maturity on them, but they did have provisions for prepayment, but they weren’t even paid off the day they matured. Which was after I retired, thank goodness. They came due, but they went into default. They were eventually paid off. In the meantime, he bought up a bunch of them at a discount, so he made money on that, too. When those bonds matured, he went shopping for a new lender. I don’t know how many banks they visited in Hickory. This was after I retired. It had started before I retired, but nobody would loan him that kind of money.
CAREY: How much was he looking for that time?
WALKER: He was probably looking for $30 million. I doubt that he got $20 million. I’m not sure what he ended up getting. The company has been strapped since then. Creditors aren’t in jeopardy, but they’re not getting paid on time. And I think that has cost the company. You pay a lower price for lumber if you’re going to pay in 10 days, than you do if you’re going to pay in 90 days. They have had to reduce the inventories enormously because of the cash situation. They have had, since I retired, a lot of burdens on them that I didn’t have. Now, I think they did some things wrong, by abandoning the old distribution system, etc., but they’ve had hardships which I didn’t have.
He would call me up, “How’s your cash situation? Can you spare a half a million dollars?” or something like that. I’m a very conservative person. If I’ve got a major expenditure coming due three weeks down the road, such as a profit-sharing payout, I like to have it in the bank three weeks ahead of time. But if I saw that we had cash which we weren’t going to be needing in the foreseeable future, I’d tell him so. I don’t know who he dealt with after I retired, whether he dealt with Richard or the financial people, but I think he sort of took without asking. He uses all these companies like a pyramid. He moves assets. If he needs money in one company, he’ll sell something from that company to another. He sold all the Alba-Waldensian stock, for example, out of Hickory into the insurance companies. Insurance companies have lots of money. He did the same thing with the Wellco stock. We owned a lot of that, in Hickory. He moved that. Then about a year and a half after I retired, Hickory Furniture Company sold the furniture companies – Hickory Manufacturing, KayLyn, Chaircraft and White – to Acton, the outfit in Raleigh. Now, Hickory Furniture owned a majority of Acton. I said it’s sort of like the old song, “I’m My Own Grandma,” or something.
So now the furniture companies were subsidiaries of Acton, and Acton was a subsidiary of Hickory Furniture Company. Hickory Furniture was now a holding company, and he moved that to Chicago. We had a million dollars worth of subordinated bonds outstanding which we’d exchanged for our stock. I think he may have been on the board then, but he had nothing to do with that exchange. Some stockholders wanted more income. We paid a very low dividend. Seems like we were paying 30 cents a share and the stock was selling for about $10. That’s 3 percent. We offered $10 per share of 12 percent bonds in exchange for the stock, and issued about a million dollars worth of it, which retired almost 10 percent of the outstanding stock at the time. It increased our earnings per share.
Those bonds matured a year ago and he hasn’t paid them. They’re in default now.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered the beginnings of the companies and the merger. The next question is about the growth of your companies. First, can you go from year to year and put it in terms of dollar volume, maybe?
WALKER: I’m going to give you a copy of a book named “Reflections” which was the history of Drexel printed in 1963. I helped prepare that book. Drexel was 60 years old; it’s 90 years old this year. So this is the first two-thirds of their history to this date.
Speaking of sales growth, Drexel’s sales in 1940 were $3.5 million. By 1946, they were $8.8 million. The first year that I started auditing Drexel (the year I was in charge of it) was 1949. They did $13 million that year. I joined Drexel in 1952, and they did $19 million that year. Five years later, in ’57, it was up to $34 million. In 1961, we did $49.5 million. This book was published in ’63, and we did $61 million that year.
I joined Hickory in 1972, and at that time, Hickory Furniture had Hickory Manufacturing, Chaircraft and KayLyn. We did $15 million that year. And after that: ’73 we did $20 million; ’74 we did $25 million; in ’75 it dropped back to $22.5 million; and then back up to $24 million in ’76; $25.5 million in ’77; $30 million in ’78; $35 million in ’79. We had a short year in ’81 because we converted from a July 30 fiscal year to calendar year when we were acquired. But in 1980, we did $40 million. That was the year Hib died. He died the last day of 1980. And then … $43 million in ’81; back to $39 million in ’82; $41 million in ’83; almost $48 million in ’84; $55 million in ’85. That was the year we acquired White and sold John Widdicomb in the middle of the year. And $62 million in ’86; $66 million in ’87. I didn’t retire until the end of ’88, but I wasn’t there when the financial reports came out.
INTERVIEWER: So, where is it now, do you know, roughly?
WALKER: No, I don’t.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that’s quite a growth record.
WALKER: Inflation does a lot for sales.
INTERVIEWER: Now, versus these dollar growths, how would you rate the labor situation? Anything you can say about that, over this period of time, in terms of people employed and output per employee. Anything that would go in the labor category.
WALKER: Well, we have had satisfactory labor relations. When business is good, the labor supply gets tough. You go through those periods where you really struggle to keep your plant manned.
The locations that our plants are in have been good places for labor. The quality of labor is pretty good. We’ve been very fortunate. Like most everybody else, we had a certain amount of turnover, most of which comes in the first six months. The longer an employee stays with you, the longer they are likely to be with you. Our output per employee is improving because of the machinery investments we’ve had. I cannot say that they’re working any harder than they did before. But the productivity is greater, primarily because (I’m leaving inflation out; I’m talking about units) as you buy better, faster and more automated equipment, you get more output per employee.
CAREY: And you feel that the machinery and everything has been pretty much kept up to date?
WALKER: Yes, when I said Engle let me run the furniture business, he let me make capital expenditures. I believe heavily in capital expenditures. I really think the under-appreciated, underrated part of the furniture industry is the manufacturing segment. All the glamour seems to go with marketing.
But the companies I’ve seen (and I looked at a lot of companies for sale), most of the companies for sale are the ones that aren’t doing well. I see at least as much correlation between good manufacturing management and good performance, than I do with marketing. You’ve got to have decent designs and you’ve got to have decent service, but I really think the underrated part of this industry is manufacturing. This includes not only labor productivity, but inventory management; and plant cleanliness goes right along with it. You just don’t have good performance in a sloppy atmosphere.
INTERVIEWER: What about styles?
WALKER: Hickory has been primarily a traditional line. Our strongest group by far is our 18th century mahogany, and our second strongest group by far is the Country French. That was the case for most of the time that I was with the company. We made one big style statement during my tenure. We used a design firm called Gear. In fact, that book right there on the table is written by Raymond Waites, chief creative designer. American Artech was the name of that group. I mentioned earlier that sometimes you have to do bold things that maybe aren’t as big of a profit contributor as some more traditional things. That was probably the most bold statement we did style-wise. It gave us an awful lot of attention, brought an awful lot of people into our showroom, and enabled us to pick up some dealers that we’d been trying to do business with for a long time. The group itself didn’t have that long of a life, and not that big a volume, in view of its length of line. But it did a lot for the company. It was a joint venture: Hickory Manufacturing, Chaircraft and KayLyn all participated in it.
Even though the life of the group wasn’t that long, the volume wasn’t sensational, and it wasn’t as good as other things we’ve done, it probably did for us more style-wise than anything else. It let people know that we weren’t knock-off artists with just more of the same old thing.
CAREY: What style was it?
WALKER: It was eclectic. It had a lot of things. It had Shaker — it was basically early American. I don’t mean Colonial, but early American. It had some maple things in it, some mahogany things, and it had a lot of inlays, etc.
CAREY: Is it still in the line?
WALKER: No, it’s gone. It was brought out, probably, about ’84 or ’85. And was a big hit at the market.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it was.
WALKER: It didn’t sell all that well at retail. It was reasonable, but not big, not up to what we had hoped. It was a little like Drexel’s Perspective. And there have been a lot of people to knock it off, too. But some of them did a better job, made it a little more practical — not quite as “far out.”
INTERVIEWER: What about advertising? You’ve never done a whole lot of advertising.
WALKER: Not a whole lot. We had an advertising program. One of our problems — and it had its pluses and its minuses — but one of the problems operating with four or five brand names was you couldn’t really promote any of them. We had Hickory Manufacturing, KayLyn, Chaircraft, John Widdicomb, White, etc. We all did some advertising, but each was advertising its own name. One of the purposes when they put it all together and called it Hickory-White, was so that they could promote one name. They probably did as much the first year as we’d done in all the companies put together. But I think the cash crunch got them on that, too.
We advertised in trade publications and shelter magazines. The dollars just don’t go very far at $50,000 a page, in some of the Better Homes & Gardens and large circulation publications.
INTERVIEWER: Alright. What do you want to tell us about changes in furniture production?
WALKER: I don’t think I would be the one particularly qualified for that.
CAREY: You made one very significant statement, though, that you believed in capital expenditures.
WALKER: Yes, I was always a proponent of modernization. Just think what the cost of labor is now versus what it was. Not just wages, but all the fringes and everything that goes with it. This industry went through a long period of time when there wasn’t a whole lot of improvement in the equipment available. We basically had the same old stuff. Sure your master carver had more spindles on it than they had earlier. Or your molders, your double end tenoners. In the last 15, 20 years, there’s just so much out there now. These computer-operated — I guess we started out calling them routers — but they’re work centers. They’re so much more accurate. Your fittings are so much better. You put an item on a work station there and it does the shaping, the boring and drilling, and everything. It’s completely accurate so your fittings are better. You don’t move a part near as many times to damage it. Plus there’s the labor savings. I’m a strong believer that nobody’s going to be able to keep up if they can’t use that kind of equipment.
A fellow named Manley Fuller in Hickory owned a carving facility called Carving Craft, and we used them. We had all of our carvings done on the outside. We didn’t have a carving shop.
One month we’d be making heavily carved stuff and then the next month we didn’t need it. I remember talking to him one time. I said, “You ought to expand beyond carving and get into these other kinds of things.” Because the typical one case goods plant company, like a Hickory Manufacturing, can’t afford it. This equipment needs to be run 24 hours a day. It shouldn’t be run eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. It ought to be run 24 hours a day because the investment is in capital equipment.
The only way to get your money out of it is to run it. I said, “You can serve 10 customers with one piece of equipment, but we can’t afford it. Even if we could run it 40 hours a week, we can’t afford it.” But we bought equipment at Hickory Manufacturing that we didn’t run 20 hours a week. We didn’t need but a fraction of its capacity.
You go through any furniture factory machine room, and you see at least half the equipment is idle. Maybe that isn’t too bad. If it’s a spindle carver, you don’t have much investment. But if it’s a half million dollar piece of equipment, you can’t afford it sitting idle.
INTERVIEWER: What rule of thumb did you have for payback on capital expenditures?
WALKER: Some capital expenditures will pay back and others will not. Some items just wear out and you’ve got to have them. If it was a labor-saving piece of equipment (if it was bought primarily to be labor saving), or to keep from having to buy something on the outside, three years was a rule of thumb. But that was flexible. It definitely was not any fixed in concrete.
We bought a big press in Germany. One of the main uses was dining room table tops. We just had so many culls in dining room table tops. I know we weren’t alone. It’s a problem, particularly when you get into fancy veneers, etc. The purpose of that almost was to reduce culls. It was an expensive piece of equipment. Of course, it did things we couldn’t have done otherwise and was for other uses.
CAREY: Did it solve that problem for you?
WALKER: No, it didn’t solve it, but it got better.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in purchasing?
WALKER: I don’t have anything to add to that, I believe.
CAREY: They may be thinking there about the efforts toward just-in-time purchases and things like that. I don’t know of anybody that’s made a success of that yet.
INTERVIEWER: Which company was it that you mentioned you were in a plant and you couldn’t see through the place because …
WALKER: That was White, when we bought White.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, and all the work in process …
WALKER: Another thing they were doing was ridiculous. When we walked through that machine room the first time we went down there, I’d never seen so many drawer sides in my life. Drawer sides don’t take a lot of machining, but they’d start work on that at the same time they started work on the elaborate parts. That’s a scheduling deficiency. They’d get those drawer sides in there, and could have those ready to be assembled in a day or two. But they’d start work on that the same time they’d start cutting the lumber to send out for carvings.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any other comment you would like to make on changes in sales and merchandising?
WALKER: I would just reemphasize the statement that we’re in a fashion business. I think product design is such a major factor determining what an item will sell for in the marketplace. Or whether it will sell. I think we do too much of our pricing based on our cost. Coming from a financial end of the business, this is a strange thing for me to say. An item really ought to be priced at what it’ll sell for. Then if you can’t make it for that, forget it. We get stuck in this habit of costing an item out and then telling the sales department what it ought to sell for. I really believe (and I never was able to practice this, tried it a few times, but not too successfully) in letting the marketing people price an item without seeing its cost. Trouble is, they always came out too low.
I heard Elliott Wood make that statement. And Elliott probably practiced it.
INTERVIEWER: I bet he did. What about the emphasis that we sell on retail price points? That never was the case, say 20 years ago. You didn’t talk about $499 and $599 sofas.
WALKER: I was never in that business. Maybe at Chaircraft those junior dinettes had to meet certain price categories, or even a tub chair. But price points were meaningless at Drexel and Hickory.
INTERVIEWER: You could make an increase and have it stick.
WALKER: That’s right. We would go into a market and we’d add up — dresser, mirror, chest, bed — is so much. At times, we might merchandise in such a way that it came in at … in our case, you may be talking $999 instead of $299. But it was meaningless. The dealer didn’t buy it that way, and the consumer didn’t buy it that way.
I got involved one time, personally. I didn’t usually jump in on the operations of our specific divisions that much. I participated in the pricing, but I didn’t normally get deeply involved in the product planning. I was involved as an interested spectator and observer.
I tried to merchandise a junior dining room at Chaircraft one time when we were getting beat up because of the competition from Taiwan. We went in and tried to use less plies of veneer for our table rims, and did some banding of tables instead of shaped edges and things of that type. Really tried to hit a specific price on the things. It was cheaper than anything we had, but it wasn’t what our dealers wanted from us. They could buy that from Universal. Or buy it from us. They already had a source for that. I think that’s a mistake that a lot of companies make when they try to, not only knock off somebody else, but they try to do it at a certain price. Stores have their suppliers. They have suppliers for each category of goods they sell. If we at Hickory tried to get into modern, we’d go to them and ask, “What’s selling? What should we introduce?” Certain ones would tell us that we should do a modern design, but most of our dealers would look at our new modern group and tell us, “We’re looking to you for traditional furniture.”
INTERVIEWER: Under finance now, you mentioned early on that at first this was an industry of family companies. But then we got into, particularly with the Telco stuff, financing in the public companies and things like junk bonds, which those old guys would have been worse than original sin with some of that stuff.
WALKER: Absolutely. You know, the southern furniture industry is basically a conservative group of businesspeople. They didn’t like to borrow money period. Much less junk kind of stuff, and high interest rates that are being paid by these leveraged buyout-type people. I remember Mr. R. O. Huffman when I first audited Drexel. At that time, I think Drexel was doing $13 million a year. He always wanted a million dollars in the bank. That’s a month’s cash needs.
He wasn’t comfortable if we didn’t have a million dollars in the bank. I’m not even talking about in CDs or government bonds that were going to mature. He wanted that much in the checking account.
I would say that, “Yes, I’d like to be covered for the next three weeks. But I’m perfectly happy to have it over here in a CD that’s going to mature in plenty of time.” Look at Bassett’s balance sheet — half of their profits, some of these years, have been coming from the cash investments.
INTERVIEWER: You spoke at one point about the friendliness and cooperation between companies long ago. You mentioned visiting and solving each other’s problems, which to some degree translates to personal support. Describe the support you personally received from people in this industry.
WALKER: I have always found an amazing amount of both, especially when you consider that we’re competitors. I think our affiliation with the Southern and later the American Furniture Manufacturers Association led to a lot of this because you attend the meetings and you participate in social affairs. You may not talk business at all. But business usually comes up. Then you feel like you know the person.
We work together on industry projects, such as lobbying, government regulation, and things of that type. We’re all in it together on those kinds of things. We develop enough closeness so that if we’ve got a problem with our tabletops, the folks out at Century (our neighbors who are direct competitors, same style, same price brackets and everything else), there’s no hesitancy for our manufacturing executive to call theirs and discuss that problem. If they’ve solved it, they share it.
And the reverse is true. We enjoy helping them. It’s just a delightful kind of situation to be in.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done in support of other people of this sort?
WALKER: Well, I’d say the same thing. It’s been mutual. I personally haven’t solved any manufacturing problems for them, but I have encouraged people in our company to do that. I have talked to other companies about the banking relationships, about pension plans, things that I personally handle about stockholder relations, SEC matters, etc. We’ve benefited from the same kind of exchanges.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategy.
WALKER: My strategy has probably been heavily financial-oriented. We have operated under a business plan, which has been a five year rolling, long range plan. Being a publicly-owned company (both companies I worked for) we’re very “bottom-line” oriented. And that’s not bad. Sometimes it puts a little pressure on you for the short term when you’d rather write off a bad year and get something behind you. But there is that earnings-per-share problem that you have with a publicly-owned company that you would not have if you were privately-owned. We have always tried to plan for growth. I always hope we can grow more than the plan. We might plan a 10 percent increase in sales, half of which would be inflation and half of which would be volume, always hoping we could really do 10 percent more volume, under similar economic circumstances. Tried to plan the financing for that kind of growth. One of our directors, when I first came to Hickory, who was involved with a number of companies, insurance and other type industries, made a statement at one of our directors meetings, one of the first ones I attended. A company he had been with had been growing at about 30 percent a year and all of a sudden, they had inadequate working capital. He made a statement, “I don’t ever want to be involved again with a company growing more than 15 percent a year.”
They didn’t imagine that they could grow too fast, but he found out they could. They could not make enough money to grow their working capital that fast. And mine has been a little bit of a, “Let’s grow, but let’s do it in a conservative fashion.”
INTERVIEWER: What has been your personal goal in business? That’s hard to express sometimes.
WALKER: I like to think that my personal goal has been to do what’s best for the customer, the employee, the stockholder. Money has never been real important to me. I didn’t have much when I was growing up. I have earned more than I need.
My standard of living is a comfortable one, but my extravagances are not large. I think I grew up where the family is supreme. It hasn’t bothered me a whole lot whether I’ve made a lot of money, because I’ve been comfortable with what I have made. So I like to think that I’ve had a bigger interest in those other areas than I have myself. Obviously, we want to be successful. We don’t want to fail in our job But the success of the company gives me all
the personal satisfaction I need without any glory for myself.
INTERVIEWER: So then, in response to how well have you achieved it, you’ve got to say, “Rather well.”
WALKER: I would say I’m pleased.
INTERVIEWER: What was your company goal?
WALKER: I think the company goal was to continue to increase market share profitably.
INTERVIEWER: Was that true under all of the changes of the management, the ownership and so forth?
WALKER: As long as I was there it was. This was true at Drexel. I wasn’t in a position to set the company goal at Drexel, but I think that was Drexel’s philosophy and Drexel’s goal. And that was mine when I assumed a role with that responsibility.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a difference between, say a company’s goal and a company’s philosophy?
WALKER: I think philosophy has a lot to do with your relationships. A goal is where are we headed and a philosophy is, to some extent, how are you going to get there. But I think we’ve covered both of them. I think our relationships with customers and with employees is part of the philosophy.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationships with your suppliers.
WALKER: I believe we had good relationships with our suppliers. We bought lumber (our major raw material) from a lot of people. We had some local lumber suppliers, which came right from the saw mills; that was green lumber. But we bought a lot of the other. Most furniture manufacturers have one finishing material supplier. They have people on the job and we had a real fine relationship there. We were able, during my time, to pay our bills within the supplier’s terms. At times, we were holding a few checks in the drawer, if, for some reason or another, we had a cash flow problem. We would try to communicate with them and let them know what was happening. And if they called and said they were hurting, we would always be able to let a particular check go. Unfortunately, I don’t think Hickory has the same kind of situation now because they’ve been riding the suppliers some.
INTERVIEWER: You said at one point that you got better lumber prices when you were paying in 10 days than you did when you were paying in 60 days.
INTERVIEWER: And that’s a hidden cost …
WALKER: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: ... as far as accounting is concerned.
WALKER: That’s right. Just being able to buy this local lumber. We were using a lot of oak. We got a lot of it from these local saw millers. We bought most of our core stock from the local people. That is considerably cheaper than buying from dealers. Of course, you’re getting green lumber. You’ve got to hold it a little longer and air dry it a little longer and so forth when you do that. But it’s a major difference with lumber being such a big part of the cost of furniture.
INTERVIEWER: How about your relationships with your customers?
WALKER: They were outstanding. We had a very personal relationship with our customers. That was a major priority of Hib Johnson’s, and we did not let it decline. It was all the way from the top management right down to even the truck drivers. We delivered a lot of our furniture in the eastern part of the United States on our own trucks. You can’t imagine how many dealers, either when we were in their stores or they were in our showrooms, would have such nice things to say about our truck drivers. Our customer services representatives, we just had an outstanding group of young ladies. Some of them young, some of them not so young. They were truly friends of our customers. It’s a personal business. And these mom and pops that we dealt with, particularly. That was so important to our company.
If you’re dealing with a big department store, the person who’s buying furniture this week is likely to be buying lingerie next week. That isn’t that big a deal. But if you’re dealing with the mom-and-pop who own the store, or their daughter-in-law, or somebody like that, it caused them to put our products on the floor instead of somebody else’s, I’m convinced.
INTERVIEWER: What was your greatest problem with your suppliers?
WALKER: I don’t really recall any. Sometimes you had scarcity, slow delivery. The greatest thing I can recall right now is long deliveries on fabric. And that’s sporadic. I guess the dealers would say their greatest problem with us was long deliveries on furniture. As business got good, the supply lines got long.
INTERVIEWER: What was your greatest problem with your customers?
WALKER: Well, they probably thought we were too late in delivering. We had a lot of problems with department stores. Department stores were not a big factor in our distribution. They were very impersonal-type customers.
They were very demanding. They made charge backs that may or may not have been appropriate, but they didn’t give us an opportunity to really evaluate them etc. Maybe that’s one reason we emphasized the furniture store so much more than the department store.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in industry trade associations.
WALKER: I was not active in the industry trade associations at Drexel. I did become active almost immediately when I joined Hickory. I attended both the meetings of the parent organization and of some of the divisions. I became a director of SFMA and then AFMA (American Furniture Manufacturers Association) after I became chief executive officer of the company. I served on several committees. I was one of the initial so-called “select committee” that resulted in the formation of the Home Furnishings Council, along with Nat Ancell, Bob Spilman, and Don Belgrad. We met with the NHFA [National Home Furnishings Association]]]] (we originally planned for it to be a joint situation), but it all ended up falling back on the manufacturers. Now it’s being spread out to other industries.
INTERVIEWER: This you already answered, but you may want to comment further. What has been the greatest benefit from this activity?
WALKER: I think that benefit number one was we worked together on industry problems, and those were primarily in Washington. Although, there were transportation problems and things which were not in Washington. But certainly the ones in Washington stand out. Then there were the friendships that developed which enabled us to consult each other and help each other on problems that were either our problems or their problems.
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been a part of? Like being on the board at Alba-Waldensian, for instance.
WALKER: I have been on the local board of Wachovia, first in Morganton. Then when they opened in Hickory, I was on the initial local board, and remained chairman of that board until I retired. Ordinarily you retire from Wachovia’s board when you retire from your job, but they made an exception and asked me to stay on. I did step down from the chairmanship. At one time, I was a charter member, and later president, of an organization called Tax Executives Institute, which is an organization of corporate tax administrators. That was during my Drexel days when I was in finance. I served as president of the Chamber of Commerce in Burke County and on many other committees. I was chairman of industrial recruitment there for a number of years and helped bring a number of industries into Morganton. I’ve been active in the Lutheran Church, both in Morganton and in Hickory. And I’m involved in some Lenoir-Rhyne College fundraising activities.
INTERVIEWER: We briefly touched on the particleboard enterprise — the joint venture in Lenoir of the three or four companies.
WALKER: A company called Nuwoods was the one in Lenoir. Drexel, Thomasville and Bernhardt were in that at one time. And perhaps Kent Coffey and Blowing Rock. I don’t believe Broyhill was in it. There were about five of them. I had nothing to do with that.
INTERVIEWER: Anything like it? Any kind of joint venture?
WALKER: We mentioned the situation we had with Directional down in High Point. That was sort of a joint venture. I am currently a director of High Point Furniture Industries, which is Harry Samet’s company. Do you know Skipper Gates?
INTERVIEWER: Quite well.
WALKER: Skipper represented the landlords of the KayLyn plant, and I had some dealings with Skipper on some other things back before I retired. Harry Samet and Larry Robinson started High Point Furniture Industries – a 50/50 venture. They did a great job. They built it up to about $40 million making beaucoup money. Then all of a sudden they began to have their differences. They couldn’t get along with each other. They each hired high powered lawyers to fight each other. I’m not talking about Skipper. He was the company counsel. One of them hired Ace Walker and the other one hired Russell Robinson of the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson firm in Charlotte. They finally decided that they were going to have a third director, who would be a tie-breaker. I’d always been on the other side of the table from Skipper. But Skipper recommended some other people for that role. Howard Haworth was one of those recommended, but Howard didn’t want it. They finally settled on me.
INTERVIEWER: Just the three directors, then.
WALKER: Yes, both of them had their wives on there, so really five, but for all practical purposes, there were three. Just about the time I was to go on the board, Larry died. The one smart thing they’d done was they’d taken out life insurance policies on both their lives. The company had taken out life insurance policies. They’d entered into a buy-sell agreement. When Larry died, Harry owned the company. They didn’t need me anymore. So I resigned, almost by the time I got elected. But Harry had some health problems and took a leave of absence. We created an executive committee and sort of ran the company there for the best part of the year. I’ve resigned again, but he hasn’t accepted it. For a while, I was fairly active – I was down there at least once a week. I’m not there anymore except to attend the directors meeting.
INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry changed over the years that you’ve been active.
WALKER: Well, to me the biggest change is this shift from the family-operated company to the ownership by outsiders.
There’ve been a lot of other changes, but that’s the one that to me, has impacted the industry most significantly. We went through the period in the late ’50s, when the Plywood Champions, the Armstrongs, the Mead Papers, and the S&H Green Stamps and all those people got in the industry. And essentially all failed. I guess Armstrong never did give up completely. They never admitted it, but the company certainly wasn’t the same company that it had been when the Finches owned it. We got out of that and now we’ve gone back into it again. I don’t know how long this one’s going to last. I just don’t think the companies are as good as they were back when they were owner-operated.
We also went through the warehouse showroom thing. We’ve still got Levitz. We had a bunch of others, the Wickes and some others there for a while. Now we’re going through the gallery era. One of the things that concerns me about the marketplace is that the cost of distributing furniture is just too high. Suggested retail was 200 percent of wholesale and now it’s roughly 250 percent. That’s too high!
WALKER: Even though not too much furniture is sold at suggested retail anymore. I continue to be concerned that it’s just not right (not that the dealers are getting rich), that the dealer markup is equal to those who grew the trees, harvested the trees, transported them, cut them up, assembled it, and finished it. You do all of that for $100 and then you need another $100 to get it to the customer. Now it’s even more than that. I have thought about this thing many times, and I’m not in the retail business, so I haven’t thought about it to try to do anything. That’s one of the real needs of this industry — to find out some way or another to reduce that margin between the wholesale price of furniture and the retail price.
INTERVIEWER: Relate that, then, to the phenomenon of the discount showrooms throughout North Carolina who are expanding like mushrooms with a discount of 40 percent. That means they’re making a profit of 20 percent.
CAREY: 40 percent from where?
WALKER: It’s 40 percent from $250, though. No, they’re making up 50 percent. That’s 40 percent from $250 which means they’re selling it for $150?
WALKER: Well, that’s a whole lot better than selling it for $200.
INTERVIEWER: Sure it is.
WALKER: I have a lot of empathy for them. I am alarmed because the other dealers are getting $100 to $150, which I think is ridiculously high, even though they’re not making that much money. I’m sympathetic to the people who want to buy from Rose or Furnitureland South. We were very big in Edgar B when I retired and the dealers fuss about it. Hickory cut off Edgar B, but the big dealers still aren’t buying Hickory-White.
Jerry Epperson always had a notion, and I’d had this same kind of notion, even before I heard him say it. I’m not sure there shouldn’t be some kind of trade-in for furniture, like there is for automobiles. I have a friend here in Hickory that used to operate a used furniture store. And, boy, he had a big turnover. He put stuff in there and it moved out. I don’t know the answer. It’s got to be done by retailers, not by manufacturers. That old buffet sitting in the corner over there was part of a dining room set that we replaced probably 15 years after we bought it. It was over 40 years ago that we bought it. I tried to sell it, and I couldn’t get anything for it. Of course, it’s modern and completely outdated.
But I think that people would get a new dining room set if they could get anything for the old one.
I think that used furniture would sell if somebody was in the business to sell it. It’s got to be done at the retail level, not the manufacturing level. I heard Jerry Epperson mention it a couple of times. Nobody’s taken him up on it.
I’m with him on it. People will not throw out their bedroom set for a new one. I just traded in an eight-year-old car. I say I traded it, but I ended up buying a new one and giving that one to my daughter. You wouldn’t dispose of one if you couldn’t get something for it.
WALKER: I couldn’t get anything for that credenza over there. I happen to have a basement I could keep it in. But if I hadn’t been in the furniture business, I’d probably still have that in my dining room.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing this industry today?
WALKER: Government regulation.
INTERVIEWER: That’s pretty broad. Government regulations are oppressive, and they’re talked about and fought against, long before they’re put into effect.
WALKER: I’m not just talking about the furniture industry. I’m talking about industry in general. Our government is making it so difficult to compete. Markets are world markets now. The automobile industry thought they could give in to the labor unions and just keep raising prices. They found out, too late, they couldn’t. I don’t think the furniture people are going to succumb to that. But the environmental regulations and the employee relations regulations get tougher every year.
We got a new law today. To me, it’s not a very big thing, because I don’t know of anybody that wouldn’t give an employee 12 weeks off if they had an emergency. Certainly any employer with 50 or more people.
I can understand if I was a lawyer and my secretary said she had a sick mother and had to be out 12 weeks. How’s he going to operate an office? But that law applies to employers of 50 or more people. That law is symptomatic of everything else that’s going to come. They’re making it so hard for industry in this country to compete. Now we’re going to have free trade with Mexico. You know what’s going to happen to the furniture industry if we have free trade with Mexico? It’s going to go to Mexico. Enough of it’s gone to Taiwan already. Now that they’ve got some inflation there, that isn’t quite as big a deal as it was.
CAREY: Do you know AFMA has pushed that thing?
WALKER: That free trade thing?
WALKER: I’m not close to it, but now that Hickory White is closing the plant in Mebane, they were going to put it on the market for sale. It’s an old plant, but it’s useful.
I don’t know the details, but I think the government is saying, “You can’t sell that property.” There’s been a furniture factory there for 100 years, roughly. You know how much oil has been poured on the ground? How much finishing material is on the ground? Somebody could take that plant and run it as a furniture plant and use those skilled employees. But you can’t sell it. You’ve got to environmentally clean up a piece of property before you can sell it now.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, my.
WALKER: So, what’s going to happen? They’ll close it. Nobody can use it. I don’t know the details, whether they could rent it or not. But they can operate it as long as they want to, but they can’t sell it. I remember reading when Masco bought Lexington and there was a whole bunch of money reserved because of a possible environmental problem at one of those plants. I don’t know what the outcome of it was. Let’s go back again to the problems of the industry. I never worked for an owner-operated company, but I think there was so much good about it. With this ownership by the Champions, Mascos, Intercos, whoever they are, I just don’t think the industry is going to be as vibrant as it was when owner-operated. They do have the resources (I’ve talked about my advocacy of capital expenditures), which some of the owner-operated places might not have. By the way, when I talk about owner-operated, I put a company like LADD, and like Hickory was when I was there, close to that category. LADD is a publicly-owned company, and we were a publicly-owned company, but we were managed, and LADD is managed, by furniture people.
INTERVIEWER: What was your own most important contribution to this industry?
WALKER: I think sound management. My management style was to let other people do their job. They were expected to operate within our business plan (which they helped develop), to observe our standards such as inventory levels, and to operate within our budgets.
INTERVIEWER: How much of this contribution was built on already existing technology, methods, management? And how much of it came from new techniques or innovations that you yourself originated before most people in the industry were using them?
WALKER: Somewhere between 98 and 99 percent were the already established things.
INTERVIEWER: All right, what’s your favorite charity? This is a totally different tack.
WALKER: Right at the moment I would say it is the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, which is in Columbia, South Carolina. I am a member of the board of visitors. I am involved, number one, in recruitment, and number two, in fundraising.
I would put Lenoir-Rhyne College as a very close second. At the present time, I have no function at Lenoir-Rhyne College, except as a donor. Betty and I have established a professorship there, which we’re endowing. Betty is an alumnus of Lenoir-Rhyne. And Lenoir-Rhyne is very important to the community of Hickory where we reside and have earned a living.
CAREY: Do you ever see John Sigmon?
WALKER: Yes, I see him frequently, usually at funerals or some college activity. Ball games frequently.
CAREY: He was minister at the Lutheran Church in Morganton.
INTERVIEWER: What’s your principal leisure time activity?
WALKER: Golf and travel.
INTERVIEWER: What’s been your greatest success in golf?
CAREY: How many holes-in-one?
WALKER: I’ve had three holes-in-one.
INTERVIEWER: That’s amazing.
WALKER: I should show you before you leave, Roy. We used to have a little tournament at Drexel, and we had an old German carver who carved a little wooden trophy of a golfer. I could have posed for the picture. He’s got a big rear end sticking out.
And during my time at Drexel, I won two of those tournaments. We use them as a pair of bookends. If we think about it, I’ll show them to you.
INTERVIEWER: What about travel? What did you enjoy most?
WALKER: One of the retirement gifts I was given by Hickory was a trip to Scotland to play six of the famous golf courses.
INTERVIEWER: Is that where you got your cap?
WALKER: That’s where I got the cap. The trip was for Betty and me. She doesn’t play golf, but it included tours of castles and different places for non-golfers. We took that trip in September of 1981. It wasn’t part of the gift, but while we were there, we went back and retraced some of my steps in England where I was based from 1944 until 1946.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes.
WALKER: We have made a number of trips since we’ve retired. We’ve been to Hawaii, and made a trip to France. We went to Alaska last summer. We cruised this past fall from New York up around New England and then up the St. Laurence River to Quebec and Montreal. We’re going to sail out of Montego Bay, Jamaica next month and go to the Panama Canal and Aruba and some places. We decided while our health’s good, we’d better do it fast.
INTERVIEWER: Any other leisure time activity besides golf and travel?
WALKER: I stay so busy, I sometimes think I’m going to have to hire somebody to help me, but it’s not very productive.
INTERVIEWER: What was the date of your retirement?
WALKER: December 31, 1988. It’s kind of ironic — Hib died December 31, 1980. I had really been serving while he’d been ill, but I was officially elected on the day Reagan was inaugurated. And then I retired when he went out. Although he probably didn’t go out until the 20th or so. Reagan and I served simultaneous terms.
INTERVIEWER: This you’ve also covered, but since you’ve retired, what have you done in this industry?
WALKER: The High Point Furniture Industries assignment. I stayed on Hickory’s board for a year and half or so, and then I decided they didn’t really want my input. I didn’t want the responsibility of being a director if I wasn’t going to have any input. So I resigned from that. I had accepted this thing with High Point. I had told the Hickory people that I was planning to do that, and I didn’t think there was any conflict, since one was office furniture and the other one was household furniture. There was no problem doing both, but when they sold the furniture operations to Acton, I resigned from that board. I remained on the Alba-Waldensian board until a year and a half ago.
In the meantime, Mr. Engle had gotten control of that company. He didn’t have a majority. There was about a nine or 10 member board with three-year terms. My term, along with two of the other directors, one a former chairman of the board of the company and the other the company’s attorney in Valdese, were coming up in 1991. We were nominated by the board for re-election and went in the proxy statement. But Mr. Engle decided that he wanted to sell a certain asset that he had in one of his other companies to Alba-Waldensian. We didn’t approve of that move. So he bought more stock to make sure he had enough votes to not re-elect us and then nominated three of his own people. And so I’ve been off of that board almost two years now, along with Harold Mitchell and Louis Garrou.
INTERVIEWER: Well, in summary, we thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to the furniture industry. We’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. What would you like to add in summary?
WALKER: Don’t thank me, because I’ve enjoyed the visit with the two of you. We can thank each other. I’m very interested in the American Furniture Hall of Fame, both for the history that is being accumulated and in recognizing some of the heroes of the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Such as Elliott Wood.
WALKER: I’d like Elliott Wood to be among them. If somebody decides they want to sponsor him, despite his comments, I’ll be glad to second the nomination and to vote for him. I’m not a significant part of the history, but I think these companies that I have been affiliated with are. I’m glad to get something down in the records about them. I’ve got several items here which I would like to contribute to the AFHF (American Furniture Hall of Fame), a couple of books, this little history of Drexel, two or three newspaper clippings and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: And we sure do thank you. We enjoyed it.