hyman meyers; heilig meyers
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
JUNE 10, 1996
RESIDENCE OF HYMAN MEYERS
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: We’ll start with your personal background. When were you born?
MEYERS: September 17, 1911.
MEYERS: Goldsboro, North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Goldsboro, that’s where I met you.
MEYERS: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture?
MEYERS: My father started the furniture business in 1913. He came to this country from Europe and had some relatives in Cleveland. They promised him a job so he went down there and they said, “Yes, we’ll be glad to give you a job.” My father was a very well educated man from Europe.
INTERVIEWER: Cleveland, Ohio?
MEYERS: Yes, my father was very desirable. They said, “If you want this job we’ve got a niece we want you to meet.” He took a look at the niece and said, “I’ll pass the job.” He took a job as a milkman. My mother’s sister lived in Cleveland. She went to visit them. My father met my mother while he was delivering milk and they fell in love. My mother had two brothers and a sister that lived in Goldsboro. She went to Goldsboro and my father sold his milk route for $200 and went to Goldsboro and they got married. He became a peddler, you know, like a lot of foreigners did. At the end of two years, he had a lot of accounts because he sold on credit.
INTERVIEWER: He was selling furniture?
MEYERS: No, he was selling piece goods and cloth, you know, clothing type things. At the end of two years he said he’d like to sell something that he could repossess. In 1913, he went into partnership with my mother’s sister’s husband, Mr. Heilig, and they opened a furniture store in 1913 when I was 2 years old.
INTERVIEWER: That was in Goldsboro?
INTERVIEWER: What country in Europe was he from?
MEYERS: He was from Latvia. My mother was from Estonia. They’re right there, together – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all really one basic country. They ought to be one country but they aren’t. Every once in awhile I get the urge to go over there and look at it, but I haven’t ever done it.
INTERVIEWER: Your family was in furniture.
MEYERS: That’s right. My father and my uncle went into business together in 1913, and they opened a small store on John Street in Goldsboro. They did pretty good. Always short of money, your typical furniture business. My father always used to preach to me about manufacturers that had extended him credit because that was the key to his business. Pretty soon World War I broke out and during that period they did pretty fair. Then in 1920, or thereabouts, the bottom dropped out. My father had a real intense feeling about going bankrupt and he never wanted to go bankrupt. I think it was Mr. Wrenn of Wrenn Furniture Company, but I could be wrong on that …
INTERVIEWER: Tom Wrenn.
MEYERS: … he came down and said, “Matt, you ought to go broke and start all over again. I’ll give you all the credit you want.” My father said, “No, I want you to help me convince all the creditors to wait and I’ll pay them off.” They did that and everybody but two people went along. They paid off those two people.
INTERVIEWER: Who were they, do you know?
MEYERS: One of them was whoever sold Congoleum. I think it was
Earling or whatever.
INTERVIEWER: Chandler, in Charlotte.
MEYERS: Right. I don’t know who the other one was. But, anyway, in nine months time he paid them all off, and from that time on, our credit was fantastic. That was a wonderful move on my father’s part.
INTERVIEWER: A little bit of history of Mr. Heilig.
MEYERS: Mr. Heilig was one of 13 children and they were from Pocomoke, Maryland. He married Mrs. Heilig and moved to Goldsboro because her two brothers were there. Mr. Heilig was
working for one of them in the clothing business, you know, a small town department store like thing. That’s how he was there. He could speak English so much better than my father so they thought it was a pretty good idea to put them together. They went into business together and were reasonably successful.
INTERVIEWER: How long were they in business together?
MEYERS: We divided up on January 1, 1946. In the meantime, Mr. Heilig had one child and she married Albert Levine. Mr. Heilig wanted Albert to be the boss. I went into the Army for four years. When I came back, Albert had come into the furniture business in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Mr. Heilig wanted Albert to be the boss. My father wanted his children to be the boss. We divided up so we could both be bosses. In the division – we had five stores at that time, they had the two large ones and we took the three little ones. Mr. Heilig got Raleigh and Kinston, and we got Goldsboro, Wilson and Rocky Mount. Mr. Heilig was glad to relinquish the name and we wanted the name, so he changed his stores’ name to Heilig-Levine and Company.
INTERVIEWER: Is any of your family still in the furniture business?
MEYERS: My son still works for Heilig-Meyers. He’s a buyer here in Richmond, Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: Sidney is retired too, right?
INTERVIEWER: I knew Sidney a little bit better than I knew you.
MEYERS: Right, because I was the merchandise manager for 20 years, but then as the business got big, I relinquished the job and turned it over to Sidney. I quit going to the markets because the only way you can let people really develop is to give them a free hand. That was a fine thing, but then people lost contact with me because of that.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about your growing up years in Goldsboro.
MEYERS: I was in Norfolk yesterday and one of my nephew’s sons was graduating from high school. I asked him how many children were in his graduating class and he said 440. When I graduated from Goldsboro High School there were 37 in the graduating class. Goldsboro is a little town and the advantage of a little town, as everybody knows, is you have an identity. Everybody knew everybody. I grew up there and Goldsboro only had 11 grades, so I graduated at 16 and then I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated there in 1932.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major?
MEYERS: I had a B.S. in Commerce. I majored in retail merchandising.
INTERVIEWER: That was just about as specific as you could get.
MEYERS: I knew that I was going into the furniture business. I graduated at 20 and my father said that a father can’t train a son. I had to go to work for somebody else. I went to work for the National Manufacturing Store Corporation right out of Carolina. I graduated on Monday and the next Monday I went to work at Huntley-Hill-Stockton Company in Durham. I worked for them for a year and a half and boy, they really worked me hard. At the end of a year and a half, I guess I must have done pretty good. They made me the manager of a store in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I moved to Winston-Salem, stayed there for six months and I must have done pretty good. My father didn’t like to use the telephone so he sent me a telegram. He said, “It looks like you’ve done pretty good, and now I’m willing to take a chance on you. I rented a store in Wilson and I’d like you to come and be the manager.” That’s how I came to be with Heilig-Meyers. That was in 1934. I opened the Wilson store and ran that for two years. Then I went to Raleigh and I opened the Raleigh store. From then on, I opened really all of the Heilig-Meyers stores. I wasn’t the manager anymore, just in those two stores. I opened the Rocky Mount store and all the stores we opened from then on out. I really supervised the opening of all the stores.
INTERVIEWER: You stayed there about two years?
MEYERS: No, I didn’t stay there. We always had the promotion from within concept. We’d take an employee from one of our other stores and put them in there as managers. We never hired anybody from the outside to be the manager of our stores. It was always promoting people from within.
That’s a wonderful thing but what happens is that when you get big, you may not have the talent in your company. We still do that. We don’t hire any outside managers now. We have a training program, which I’ll talk to you about later.
We do make exceptions. If we need an advertising manager and we don’t have anybody in our company that’s good enough to be the advertising manager, we’ll go outside and hire him. The same thing is true if we need a comptroller, a chief financial officer. But to the extent that we possibly can, we like to develop people in the company and promote them because then they know exactly the culture of Heilig-Meyers, which is very important because we do have a very definite and specific culture that is very valuable.
INTERVIEWER: No question. Were there significant happenings back in college in the early days that have affected your life since? Any particular incidents, other than the telegram from your father?
MEYERS: I graduated college in a nondescript fashion I would say. I made pretty good grades but I wasn’t outstanding. I especially made good grades in the courses that were pertaining to business. I was a tennis player in college, but when I finished college I gave that up for some reason or another. I’m sorry I did that because tennis is really a wonderful game in that you can get a lot of exercise in a short period of time, whereas golf takes up a lot of time.
I lived in a dormitory when I was going to college. There was a gambling den and my parents never played any cards. When I went there I learned how to play poker and bridge. They did me in good stead. I became friendly with a group of people who were checker players and they studied the book. When I graduated college, I had been playing checkers all my life because my father and my uncle were chess players and checker players, and I’d always played chess and checkers.
But when I graduated college, without being too modest, I was a crack jack checker player, and I could take on anybody because these guys were very good. When you play with real good players and if you study the business, too, how to do it, you become good. Checkers is not anywhere near as complicated as chess. Therefore, you can learn most all of the moves that are required for you to be a good player. The chess business … I’ve always been a chess player too, and when I got in the Army and they sent me overseas, I bought a chess book and I studied that. We were on the boat for 19 days and it was a very boring thing. I studied that chess book all 19 days and that helped me a whole lot.
I did meet one good checker player who was my sergeant major, but chess was a big help to me in the Army in that I met a lot of people. Then as I traveled around – when I was in Cairo, I went to see the chess club in Cairo and I was the only American there. They had all these Egyptians with red fezzes and they served us coffee that was like syrup, you know. It was a very nice experience and I met a lot of nice people.
INTERVIEWER: No language barrier at all?
MEYERS: No, everybody speaks English everywhere.
Then I went to Israel while I was in Cairo. I was playing sidewalk chess there and a man came and pushed my opponent aside and he began to play. He was like an assistant secretary of commerce. The reason he was an assistant is that the British had all the top jobs. He invited me to travel around Israel with him and I did for three days.
INTERVIEWER: Excuse me – this is when it was still Palestine, right?
MEYERS: Right, in 1943. Let me tell you it was really a fantastic experience. I enjoyed it immensely and became very friendly with this fellow. He had a 15-year-old son and I remember it like yesterday. He said, “I’m going to send my son to agricultural school because agriculture is the key to Israel’s future.” Until very recently, that was right. They’re so diversified. It’s a big country so things have changed.
INTERVIEWER: Who was he?
MEYERS: I don’t remember his name. I made a mistake – a big mistake. I met so many wonderful people. I lived with a French family in Tunis for four months, and I met this fellow, and I met a lot of other people. I was young and foolish, and I didn’t keep the names and addresses of all these people and now, I deeply regret that.
INTERVIEWER: Oh. But he didn’t show up in the news coming out of Israel?
INTERVIEWER: Did anything come from the chess and checkers other than just being able to meet people as you did in Israel?
MEYERS: No, that’s all that came from that, but I will tell you
about my military experience whenever you want.
INTERVIEWER: Why don’t we start?
MEYERS: I was drafted. I was the manager of the Raleigh store and I was drafted. In those days …
INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
MEYERS: 1942, early in ’42. I went to Fort Bragg on February 10, 1942. In those days, people didn’t know much about the Army. I didn’t know anything about the Army. The first question I was asked after I got over the preliminaries was which branch of service I would like to be in. It was absolutely stupid of me to say what I said, but I said, “Wherever you need me and that’s fine.” This is where luck played a part, and boy, I’m going to tell you that my Army career was just fantastic and filled with luck.
They put me in the Air Force and sent me to Keesler Field, very close to Tupelo. I was at Keesler Field and I looked on the bulletin board one day, and they said that I was scheduled to go to airplane mechanics school. All my fingers are thumbs and I didn’t have any mechanical ability and I didn’t have any interest in that. I said, “How did you happen to pick me for that?” “Well,” they said, “we gave you a test on mechanical abilities and you scored real high so we’re sending you there.” I said, “No, I don’t want to go. Give me some alternates.” They said, “We have a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colorado.” I said, “I’ll take that.”
I got sent to clerical school and, academically, I was real good. I was one of the best in the class – not the best, but you had to type 25 words a minute without a mistake in order to graduate. With all my fingers being thumbs, the guys who never even graduated from high school were typing like wizards in a short order. But for seven weeks I worked every afternoon learning how to type and at the end of that time, I was able to do that 25 words a minute so I did finish that school. That was a wonderful thing because it gave me a very good education. Do you want me to keep talking about my military experience?
From there they sent me to Tinker Field, in Oklahoma City. From there my unit was sent overseas and we went to Camp Kilmer, I believe it was, in New Jersey and we were supposed to stay there about 30 days and do all the processing that’s necessary.
Instead of staying there for 30 days, we spent 23 hours, and we found a boat in Brooklyn for Bombay, India going by South America and around the Cape.
I want to back up a little bit. I became a payroll clerk when I got to Oklahoma City, and that was the most boring thing you ever saw. I was really bored with that. I looked around and I noticed that everybody was – we were always getting letters about the mix up in insurance and allotments and all that kind of stuff. The people didn’t want to be bothered with that and so they put it in the bottom drawer.
I went up to the sergeant major and I told him what I just told you. I said, “I’d like for you to take me out of payroll and just give me all of these letters and let me work on straightening them out.” He was tickled to death with that. That’s what I did and that gave me a fabulous education and I knew a whole lot.
I’m going to come to a story that backs this up. We got overseas and we spent about six weeks in India, but we didn’t do anything there. We were just waiting because we were on the USS West Point. They were afraid for the USS West Point to take us to Egypt because he might bomb a big ship like that. We spent six weeks in India and then we got on some small British ships and they took us to Egypt.
INTERVIEWER: Did you go around the Horn of Africa or did you go through to Cape Town?
MEYERS: No, we went around the Cape. We couldn’t go through the
INTERVIEWER: You couldn’t go through the Suez Canal?
MEYERS: No, it was too dangerous because the Germans were right there.
We got to Egypt, and since I’d had this experience, the lieutenant adjunct of our outfit who had been using me for special assignments, asked me to process all of our people when we got to Egypt, which was a job of a lieutenant really, and I was just a corporal, but I knew it all and I was good at it. I did that. I sold a million dollars of insurance in one day. It was very easy to do because all these people went overseas so fast and we didn’t have time to do all that. I gave them a pitch and they bought it.
Anyway, we were in Cairo one day and I walked into the office and I saw the lieutenant, his name was Joseph Clusker. I saw that he was very upset. We worked for a very demanding, kind of harsh colonel. I said, “Lieutenant, what’s the trouble?” He said, “Well, Colonel Geiske wants to see a memo why you can take a sergeant, where that’s the position in the company, but this memo permits you to promote that sergeant to staff sergeant by just special dispensation of the war department and I can’t find it.”
I said to him, “I believe if you’ll look up 436 War Department Regulation 1943, you’ll find that.” I remember the look on Lieutenant Clusker’s face right now. He thought I was nuts, but he looked it up and that was it. The next day I was promoted to sergeant. See, I learned that because of my experience with all those problems.
In the meantime, I was doing a lot of special projects for Lieutenant Clusker. One day he came up to me and said, “Hyman, how would you like to be a second lieutenant?” I said that would be fine.
In a few days I met with a board of one colonel and eight majors, and there were 10 people there to be interviewed. I took inventory of all these 10 folks and I was the only college graduate among them. I felt like I had a good chance. Anyway, I went before that board that day and the next day I was a second lieutenant.
INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful. This was still in Cairo?
MEYERS: Yes, then I was moved. In the meantime, my unit had moved to Tunis. I rejoined them as a second lieutenant and I moved down to Tunis, too.
INTERVIEWER: They were pushing on?
MEYERS: I got to Cairo by November of ’42. See, I didn’t spend much time in the States. I was overseas. It was just about maybe a week after we got there that Montgomery began to push Rommel back, and he kept pushing him. I got to Tripoli and Tripoli was a big city. There wasn’t a single soul living in Tripoli when I got there. Every house, every store was boarded up. There was nobody there because Rommel was backing up and Montgomery was coming forward and all the people were scared and I don’t blame them. The American supply lines hadn’t caught up with us so we didn’t have any food, but we had some rolls. We went out and bought us some of these beautiful onions and that’s what we ate for two days, those rolls and those onions. Let me tell you, they tasted pretty good.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a great story. Briefly, what happened during the rest of the war?
MEYERS: Then I went to Tunis and I was with the 17th Air Depot Group. What we did was we ran a big depot that supplied all the parts and everything that was needed to keep the airplanes flying. That was our job. While I was there, the Air Force was expanding and an outfit called Second Sack, which later became the 15th Air Force, called up our outfit and said they needed us to send a second lieutenant who was knowledgeable on personnel as a temporary assistant to them in the personnel department.
The adjunct at the time, who was not Lieutenant Clusker anymore, he sent me up there. When I got there I worked for Colonel Slacker and he liked me. He wouldn’t let them send me back. When my time was up he said he was not going to let me go back. They transferred me to that Second Sack, which later began the 15th Air Force Service Command, and that’s where I spent the rest of the time. Eventually I became the head of enlisted personnel. When my time in grade was up, I got promoted to first lieutenant. When my time in grade was up, I got promoted to captain.
I’d been running a furniture store so I had a little management experience. I handled about – we had about 15,000 enlisted troops and then we had about 17,000 civilian people working for us. At one time I was in charge of all of them plus I ran a cooking school on the side. What happened was, about the time I was given these assignments, we had a lot of college graduates come in. I looked them over and I took the smartest ones and made them my assistants. They were young guys, but they were really, really smart and they were the ones that ran all of these projects for me under my supervision.
Then when the war was winding down one of my side duties was to write up citations for medals. The general that ran the 15th Air Force Service Command told Colonel Slacker one day that he wanted to give his aid a bronze star medal. Slacker called me in and said he wanted me to write this up. I said, “What do I write?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “How about going in and asking the chief of staff what he wants to say?” He said, “No, I’m not going to do it. If you want to, you go ask him.” I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Smoke a little opium.” I smoked a little opium and I noticed this guy (he was a major) that had been in Sicily when the invasion was going on. I wrote the best one I’d ever written. I’d written a lot of them, but that was the best one. I wrote how this guy guided the planes in under all kinds of fire and everything, and how his life was in danger and how the thing was so successful and everything. I turned it into Colonel Slacker, and I said, “Do you think the general will sign this?” I didn’t know this guy. I never knew this guy from Adam. I just looked at his paper. Colonel Slacker took it in and said he was going to present it and see what happened. Fifteen minutes later he came in and said that it was signed and he got it.
When the war was breaking down, you got five points for a bronze star, and you needed those points to get out early and to get transferred to where you wanted to go and all that. It was important. While I had a lot of points, I decided I would like to have five more. I wrote up one for myself, a bronze star, and while I had done a pretty good job, I didn’t think I deserved a bronze star, but I wrote it up. Lo and behold, I got a bronze star and I’ve got a picture of the general pinning it on me.
I’m going to tell you one more story and then I’m going to get off the Army business. The war was winding down and we got orders to send some people to the Pacific Theater. By that time, I was in charge of officers and enlisted people.
This was in Bari, Italy. We developed a philosophy – last over, first out. We took the newest people and sent them to the Pacific by MOS numbers. I did that. We issued the orders, and three full colonels hopped on their plane. They ran our units out into the field, and lo and behold, they came to headquarters to see – by this time Colonel Slacker had gone back to the United States and he had a new colonel – and they went into see him and he said to go see Hyman. He did this.
INTERVIEWER: What was your rank then?
MEYERS: Captain. I’m facing these three fellows and they are really giving me hell. They said, “If you take all these people from me we can’t accomplish our mission.” I knew that was bologna because the war was winding down and they didn’t really need these people as much as they said.
I explained to them the method we’d used and how we selected all these people and they kept arguing. Then I said to them, “Why don’t you go in and talk to General Milson?” After all, I worked with him, and while I did all this work, it was really under his authority. They looked at me and they got on the plane and went back because they knew it was done fast and, therefore, they didn’t have anything to say. But I enjoyed that.
I came back on August 18th, which was V-J Day.
That’s when I hit Patrick Henry. Really I came on the 17th and I was taking a bunch of troops down to Fayetteville and we stopped in Weldon, North Carolina on the train and that’s when they were celebrating V-J Day. Boy, that was a wonderful day.
Anyway, by that time I had 92 points. When I got to Fort Bragg they discharged me, but I was in the Army until December something because of the way the Army operates. Then I went back to work in the furniture business on January 1, 1946, when we divided up with the Heiligs.
It was a very interesting thing having been out of the furniture business for four years – a lot of inflation and other things had taken place. I went to the market in January and I felt absolutely lost, and it took me a little while to get back into the swing. In the meantime, we had these three little stores and my father was delighted to turn them over to me to run. Sidney was still in the Army. He hadn’t gotten out yet.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you go? Where did you start, which store?
MEYERS: I was the manager of the Goldsboro store and I supervised Wilson and Rocky Mount.
We had a board meeting every day at lunch. I was living at home and I wasn’t married. One day we were talking and my father and I made two wonderful decisions. First, we decided we’d like to build as big a business as we could and we were going to do it in little towns.
The second decision we made was – I had worked all during my high school years and even when I was going to college – I had worked for Belk in Goldsboro. I worked on Saturdays and holidays and all. I was very familiar with the two types of operations that you have to run a chain. One, you let every store (you have a common ownership), but each store is run by the manager. Or, you could run like J.C. Penney did at that time. They had a central office and the central office ran all the stores. We sat down and we discussed these two techniques and we decided to go the J.C. Penney way and we’d run it from a central office. Both of these decisions were super important in the success and growth of Heilig-Meyers and they were both the right decisions.
We made one exception to that. My sister and her husband – her husband was a pharmacist and he opened a drugstore in Charlotte. My father wanted an excuse to go down there. We were passing by a furniture store one day and I walked in there and said, “How would you like to sell your store?” The manager said, “I don’t want to sell it.” I gave him a card and said if he ever decided he wanted to sell it, to let me know.
Two months later I got a call from this guy who said he was ready to sell. We went down there and we bought it. Then a couple of years later, my brother-in-law sold his two drugstores and came to work in the furniture business. At that time, he moved to Richmond so my father didn’t have a need to go to Charlotte anymore. About that time, they reorganized downtown Charlotte and they tore down our building. We just liquidated our store and sold our accounts to Kimbrell’s, and we got out of Charlotte. From that time on, for a long, long time, we never went into any city that was over 50,000.
INTERVIEWER: Your first furniture job then was in Durham. Who was your boss?
MEYERS: Mr. Schoenfell.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting to me that I’ve never met anybody who couldn’t instantly remember who his first boss was.
MEYERS: That’s right, Mr. Schoenfell.
INTERVIEWER: I can assure you Mr. Schoenfell is unaware of this.
MEYERS: That’s right. I remember just like yesterday the credit manager’s name, Mr. Anderson.
Then I worked there for a year and a half and then they promoted me to manager of a store in Winston-Salem named Huntley-Hill-Stockton. Since they’ve gone out of business, it’s all right to tell this story. I go there and they had a very erudite man, an African-American, who worked in the warehouse and he worked a lot on stoves. We became friendly, and one day he said to me, “If you want to commit mall suicide you tell people you work for Huntley-Hill-Stockton.” I got a marvelous education from them. They were masterminds. They were a very progressive and very aggressive company, and were ahead of their times. They had a credit service charge way back then when nobody else had it. We were the only store in town that did it.
When I went to Durham, Mr. Schoenberg ran a very good store –morally and ethically fine. No shenanigans.
When I went to Winston-Salem, that store – they did everything that you could possibly think of wrong. A lady would buy something and they would say, “If you don’t like it we’ll give you your money back.” She’d come back and she could never find anybody that would talk to her. They would sell you a bed and charge you extra for the rails. Of course, I changed all that. I was highly ethical and I ran it right and we did pretty good. We had two stores in Winston-Salem, and I ran one and Mr. Peak ran the other one.
: I’ll tell you some stories that illustrate the fact that when you’re honest it’s worthwhile.
Once I sold a lady a radio, I think it was $29, and he checked on her credit and couldn’t find anything out about her. He said, “Hyman, you go out to this lady and see what you can find out and report back to me.” I went out there in the morning and I was 20 years old and was very inexperienced and rather naïve. I had never been in a place like that before. This was a house of ill repute. There were two or three men there and they were all drinking and you know what was going on.
I went back and I said to Mr. Anderson, “Mr. Anderson, this lady is running a house of ill repute and I don’t think that’s a nice kind of people to do business with. Therefore, I recommend you turn her down.” Mr. Anderson looked at me, and I can see his face right now, and he smiled and said, “Yhey’re the best payers we’ve got.” Then he turned that contract over, signed it, and we delivered it in the next few minutes. The other experience I had was entirely different.
INTERVIEWER: She didn’t have to buy a time radio, did she?
MEYERS: You realize that this was 1932 and boy, money was tight. She probably paid $3 down and paid $4 a month or something like that.
Anyway, a lady walked in one day and wanted to buy some baby furniture, and we didn’t have what she wanted. I told her that I would get a catalog and come out to her house and show it to her. I did and she picked out a really nice crib, a mattress, and a chest of drawers.
Then she said, “I need some springs and mattresses.” She wanted two twin bed mattresses and two twin box springs. I told her about the Beautyrest and she said, “Yes, I’ll take that.” I sold her that. In those days a Beautyrest sold for $39.95 so the whole bill was maybe $275 or something like that.
I brought that contract back and I showed it to Mr. Schoenberg. He said, “I’m sorry but we can’t send this out.” I said, “What’s the trouble?” He said, “You didn’t get the lady to sign the contract.” I sold it to her for 30 days, you know, to pay for it in 30 days. About that time, Mr. Anderson came up to his desk and he was looking over his shoulder and he looked down at it and said, “Mr. Schoenberg, do you know who that is?” He said, “No, I don’t know who that is.” He said, “That’s the president of American Bible College.”
Anyway, from that time on, that lady became a good customer. She bought a lot of summer furniture and a lot of things from me all the way. Anyway, that was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot from all that.
At Huntley-Hill-Stockton they also required you (remember this was ’32 and business was terrible), to call 10 people cold turkey on the telephone every day. I did that. Let me tell you, all of this was just wonderful experience.
In the meantime, I’m a student type and so I became an expert on selling washing machines. We sold wringer washers and we advertised them for $39.95. That wringer washer had a half agitator. We bought one of them when we bought a carload of washers. We bought one of those because no one would buy it. But we advertised it for $39.95 and you know how you stepped them up. I knew all the features and I strutted that. I really was good at it.
I got transferred to Winston-Salem. The first thing that Mr. Peak said when I reported to him was, “We’ve got a man here who sold a washing machine on trial, and the lady has called up and said she wants to send it back. I want you to take him and go out there and sell her because I heard you were a hot washing machine salesman.” I made up my mind that that lady was going to have to buy that washing machine. I went out there, and to make a long story short, I sold her that washing machine and she paid me $5 down and from then on, I didn’t have any problems with the people in Winston-Salem.
I left Winston-Salem in July. I was in Winston-Salem for six months. At the end of six months, I went to Wilson and I opened our store in Wilson.
INTERVIEWER: Now we have to back up. You came back after the war and started where?
MEYERS: I started living in Goldsboro, and I ran the Goldsboro store and I supervised Wilson and Rocky Mount.
INTERVIEWER: This was still under the J.C. Penney pattern where you ran from central?
MEYERS: Of course, at that time we were still running it like we always did. Every store would have a common ownership, but it was run like the Belk business. Everybody was their own. But we made that decision and we didn’t put it in overnight. Gradually, we put in the central warehouse concept.
INTERVIEWER: We go to another favorite subject: furniture markets. You’ve been to a lot of furniture markets. When you first started out, let’s see now ... your father had a couple of years before World War I when you were first born and there were markets in High Point.
MEYERS: Right. Mr. Heilig became … I don’t know when, but eventually my father took over, what I call, the financing of the operation of the business, and Mr. Heilig became the merchandise man and the buyer. He went to the markets. In the beginning, they both went but eventually by the time that I came in the business, Mr. Heilig was the buyer and he went to the market; and Mr. Heilig’s brother, Morris. In the meantime, Heilig-Meyers had opened the second store in Kinston and Mr. Heilig’s brother was the manager there so those two went to the market.
INTERVIEWER: This was in what year?
MEYERS: This was about ’30. We opened that store in ’28.
INTERVIEWER: The building in High Point had sort of sporadic markets, which were suspended for World War I. Then they built the building and it was opened in 1920.
MEYERS: This was about ’30. Then when I came into the business in ’34 I went to the market. The three of us went to the market – Mr. Heilig, his brother and myself.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about High Point in 1934.
MEYERS: High Point was a very – well, the building was there. There wasn’t a whole lot of – they didn’t have a tremendous amount of people showing and you could shop the market pretty good in two or three days. That’s what we did. I’ll stop right there. Do you want me to just kind of talk about what happened?
INTERVIEWER: There’s a lot of interest in the market – what went on at the market. I don’t know when you started going to Chicago, but whatever you can tell us about that.
MEYERS: Yes, I’ll talk about that. I went to the market and in those days, business was very slow, you know, it was still the Depression in ’34. The market was a real pleasure because everybody was catering to you and it was fantastic.
INTERVIEWER: There’s a lot of difference between the winter and the summer markets, too.
MEYERS: Oh, yeah, tremendous.
INTERVIEWER: In Eastern Carolina you did what, 80 percent of your business in the last six months of the year?
MEYERS: In the last three months, from September the 15th until Christmas, we did all the business just about. I was a kind of creative, more imaginative person than Mr. Heilig and his brother. They always bought – I’ll give you a cedar chest as an illustration. They’d buy two mahoganies, two maples, two waterfalls and two of all different kinds of models. They bought the heaters the same way, and bought the bedroom suites the same way.
After I’d been in business for about a year or a year and a half we went to market, and I said to Uncle Willie (that’s Mr. Heilig), I said, “I want to buy a solid truckload of this one bedroom suite.” He said, “We’ve never done that before. Don’t you think that’s too risky?” I said, “No, I’d like to do that.” He said, “All right.” I bought that suite and then I went out and found me another suite without the rail. All the suites in those days were four poster beds, but this one didn’t have a rail on the front – it just had the bottom panel board. I paid $19 for it, and I made a deal to get them to deliver it for $1 a suite in solid truckloads.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember who the manufacturer was?
INTERVIEWER: Webb, in Galax?
MEYERS: That cost me $19 a suite. Without the rail on it, it cost me $21. But I didn’t buy but three of them. I priced that suite, the one without the rail, for $39.95.
INTERVIEWER: By this you mean the blanket rail in between the posts?
MEYERS: Yes, that was missing. I priced that at $39.95 and priced this other suite at $49 and we sold everybody that $49 suite.
I did a lot of peculiar things like that, you know. Mr. Heilig said, “This business ran along real smoothly until you got in it.” Because I wanted to try things and I’d dream up things like this one right here. I sold three truckloads of that from the first of September until Christmas that fall.
INTERVIEWER: They were probably dancing in the streets of Galax to get an order for a truckload.
MEYERS: Yes, that was a lot of business in those days. Anyway, that was my thing. I did the same thing when I went to Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: What year was your first Chicago Market?
MEYERS: I went to Chicago in 1939. I came back and my father said, “Show me what you bought.” I bought cedar chests. I was running the Raleigh store by this time. We opened the Raleigh store in 1935. I had bought two maples, two mahoganies, two walnuts, and two or three other styles. Then I bought 50 waterfall cedar chests. That was the big seller. My father said, “Hmm ...this is a crazy way to buy it. Do you think you know what you’re doing?” I explained to him that everybody else was going to be sold out because they were going to buy like Uncle Willie bought, you know, three of this, two of this, and one of this. I told him, “Everybody in town is going to come to our store and buy those cedar chests because we’re going to have them, and you can’t reorder because you won’t get them in time.” We did it.
INTERVIEWER: If you bought at the summer market it was good business.
MEYERS: For fall, right. Sure enough it happened just like I said. We sold every cedar chest we had. After that they didn’t argue with me too much.
INTERVIEWER: I guess not. But you went to Chicago then and bought from Lane?
INTERVIEWER: But Lane showed in High Point?
MEYERS: That’s right, but the reason why I did that was that Lane had a much bigger display in Chicago. Everything was big. I put in Kroehler and I bought a few things like that. See, Heilig-Meyers in Goldsboro had graded up. We had some cheap furniture, too. We sold Continental and we sold Tomlinson, and we sold a lot of lines like that. When I came to Raleigh I had two lines that were terrific and one of them was Drexel. Ed Fango was the salesman and he taught me how to sell high-end goods like that and he taught me how to display it and everything. Then we sold Cushman Maple. Are you familiar with Cushman?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, indeed.
MEYERS: I fell in love with Cushman Maple. It was being sold by
Montgomery Ward and I became friendly with the Montgomery Ward buyer. One day he told me that they were going to discontinue that, and he recommend that we take it on because he said it was terrific. I took that on and it was wonderful.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t show in High Point?
INTERVIEWER: That had to be in Chicago.
MEYERS: Yes. Then I’ll jump a little ahead of myself and tell you, when I came out of the Army we decided we were going to try to make this into a big business. I studied the business awhile and I decided that we couldn’t train people fast enough and good enough to sell high-end furniture, and that we’d be better off to be in the medium to low business. I went to my father and told him what I just told you and he said, “Man, that’s a radical thing. We spent all these years building the prestige of our stores to where we can sell this good furniture and here you’re going to throw it all out overnight.”
I told him to think about it. He thought about it. We discussed it several times and we decided we’d do it. Overnight we kicked out everything like that that we’d done. We went into the medium to low business and that’s really the beginning of the present Heilig-Meyers company.
I had another fascinating thing happen. I went to my father one day and said, “I’d like to put carpet on the floor of one of our stores.” He said, “You can’t do that. You’d run away every farmer we’ve got. They won’t feel comfortable.” Our business was 80 percent farmers. I said, “With television and cars and everything, this is a changing world.” My father was always an adventuresome soul, too, but he never made a fast decision. He’d have to think about it.
INTERVIEWER: He lived in Goldsboro.
MEYERS: Yes, we both lived in Goldsboro at that time. See, I was still single.
INTERVIEWER: This is when you had the noon board meetings.
MEYERS: That’s right, every day at lunch.
He said, “Let’s try it at one store.” We did it and good God almighty the reception was fabulous, you know. Everybody wanted a pretty store.
INTERVIEWER: Which store was that?
MEYERS: We put it in at the Rocky Mount store. I’ve forgotten where we tried that. No, that’s not right. We didn’t open any new stores when I first came back because I just wasn’t adjusted to the business. I took over the business on January 1, 1946. In September – I’m trying to think of the guy’s name – a man in Scotland Neck wanted to sell his store so we went over and bought that. Then we bought a store in Williamston. We tried out this carpet thing in Williamston. The next store we opened was in Roanoke Rapids.
The next thing I did about a year after we opened up those stores in Roanoke Rapids and Scotland Neck was say to my father, “I’d like to change.” At that time, we were paying our store managers a salary and a percentage of sales. I told him that was really basically unsound. I said, “I’d like for our store managers to be partners with us. I’d give them the same basic salary, but give them a percentage of the net profit before tax. My father looked at me and said, “No sir, I’d be scared to death to show any manager a P&L statement because then he’d want to go into business for himself when he sees how much money we’re making.” We were making lots of money in those days.
We talked it over and talked it over, and finally we said we’d try it in one store. We tried it in Scotland Neck. A little while after we’d put it in, my father and I went to Scotland Neck to visit the store. James Andrews was the manager. My father looked at that store and said, “James, this store looks dingy. We ought to repaint the whole thing.” It cost about $500 or $600 to do that. We talked it over and finally we decided to do it. But we had a hard time convincing James to do it. We were riding back to Goldsboro and my father said, “Putting James on a percentage of the profits was the best thing you ever suggested. I looked at James when we talked about it and I could see in his mind that he was saying 20 percent of that $500 is my money. This is going to be great for expenses.”
That’s how we developed the system we have today which is, we pay every manager a basic salary based on the sales of his company, and then we have a graduated deal based on his profits and we also have a graduated bonus based on his collection efforts. We show every single store manager, in fact, everybody in our business, who’d like to see it – we show them the P&L statement or anything they want to see. We don’t have any secrets in our business.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else that we should cover about the growth of your company since that’s been one of the most significant factors in Heilig-Meyers’ success? Of course, this profit sharing is part of the growth.
MEYERS: We not only had that method of paying, but all of our credit managers and warehouse managers – everybody – was on the profit-sharing program. In the meantime, we put in this promotion from within the program and we kept opening stores on this basis.
At that point, I developed something else that was unique at the time. I think everybody does it today. I noticed at the market that Phillip Levy had a notebook in which he listed all of the factories that he was buying from. I wasn’t proud so I copied it. Then as I studied that book, I realized there was a better way to do it. I added a cover sheet which was a summary where you could see your lineup – it was very smooth and easy, whereas, when you have each manufacturer on a sheet, you might be buying $129 from this manufacturer, and $149 from this one, and $169 from this one, you didn’t get a real clear picture of the way the lineup was going to look on the floor. But with the cover sheet, you saw exactly how it was going to be displayed on the floor in price line arrangement and where it was going to come from. That revolutionized our way of buying merchandise.
See it didn’t matter what the cost was – we went strictly by retail. It really was a wonderful thing for a chain business because it not only organized the buyer, but the supervisor would come along and he only had to look at that one page – the cover sheet, which showed him whether the buyer knew what he was doing and how well he was doing it. It showed you what the markup was going to be. It was a terrific thing.
That’s the key to the chain business – having a system that makes it easy for the supervisor to know whether the person who’s doing the actual job is doing it right or not. We built that into our whole business. That’s in everything we do now. I’ll come to that whenever the time comes.
I made a speech once to Mohasco salesmen in Amsterdam or wherever they had it. The theme of my speech was “Think Retail.” I wasn’t as sophisticated then as I am today and I’m not sure … I know they liked my speech fairly well, but today I could do it a lot better – let’s put it that way. But you’re right, wholesale people and manufacturers need to think retail because that’s all that counts.
: It’s just like I preach to all of our people. It’s not what you like or the way you want to do it. You’ve got to make it easy for the salesmen to sell and easy for the customer to buy. If it doesn’t fit that yardstick, then you’re not doing it right.
There’s another thing manufacturers ought to do. Remember, first it’s a highly promotional business. You’ve got to bring the customer from her house to your store. When you get her there a lot of times you price the merchandise you put in the paper at too low a markup for you to make any real money out of it so now you’ve got to give an alternate selection. Some people call them “step ups,” but we call them “alternate selections” because it sounds so much nicer.
: Where the manufacturer can be of tremendous help to you is that he makes the alternate selection with add-on features that are easy to say, that are easy for the salesman to see, and you’re going to pay $3 more and sell it for $10 more. But you can only do that if you’ve got these good alternate features that a salesman can pitch, and they’ve got to be what the customer really wants.
By the way, I think in terms of $10, but today, of course, they don’t do that. They think in terms of $40 or $50 now. There’s no such thing as a $10 step up anymore. It’s $30 to $50 now.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go back a little bit to the market. Your first High Point Market was in 1934 and Chicago in ’39.
INTERVIEWER: What was it like?
MEYERS: High Point today is massive.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, sure, 70,000 market visitors.
MEYERS: Right, we covered the market very thoroughly. We worked
really hard on the market both day and night. It took the whole market time to really do this. We decided early on that spending time at the market was a wonderful thing because you came out of it with a lineup that was organized to do your business. You could do it by the fact that High Point was small enough in those days so you could go to the same manufacturer three or four times and check it all out and it wasn’t like Chicago. Chicago was so big it was hard to go back to manufacturers. You could go back once but you couldn’t go back a lot of times because you’d waste all your time.
But High Point, you know, it was a pleasure because you could really check everything out thoroughly. I don’t know whether you could still do this or not, but I assume you can. In those days, you know, we had a favorite manufacturer and we would say why don’t you change this or change this because we had seen this in some other place, but we were buying from this guy so we’d get him to change to fit the program.
But we did that at the market, and the manufacturers thought we weren’t big enough in those days to really make an influence like we are today. But we’d make these suggestions and if they thought they were good they would do it.
INTERVIEWER: In a lot of cases they’d do it just for you, but not in their regular line.
MEYERS: Right. In upholstered goods you can do all kinds of things. In the wood furniture business, they’ve got to do it for everybody because, you know, everybody got to where they were running a fair amount of suites at one time.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you stay in High Point?
We always stayed in High Point at the Sheridan Hotel. We’d make the reservations from one market to the next because we knew we were going to be there.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, the Sheridan was not a very big hotel.
MEYERS: No, but we didn’t take many people to the market either in those days. Today we’ve got a problem but in those days there wasn’t any problem.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember where you had dinner at night and things like that?
MEYERS: We’d eat at those restaurants up and down the street.
INTERVIEWER: How about Chicago, where did you stay?
MEYERS: In the beginning we stayed at the Hilton.
Then we moved over to that hotel that was the Towers or something, you know. It was a much smaller hotel but it was well located and it was nice. The Hilton was so big you were lost.
INTERVIEWER: The Sheridan was kind of a high-rise up on Michigan Boulevard.
MEYERS: No, we never stayed at the Sheridan.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t remember any of them that were particularly high up. Of course, the Chicago Market is gone.
High Point is so big, it’s not the same anymore.
MEYERS: Right. I’ve been to High Point recently. High Point is gigantic and it’s impossible to shop because it’s so spread out.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t do any going back.
MEYERS: You’ve got to plan who you’re going to see very carefully, otherwise you’ll walk yourself to death.
INTERVIEWER: This question is more for manufacturers, but I think you can give us an interesting, different viewpoint. How has the growth of your company been affected by labor? See, labor is not as big a factor for you probably as it is for Bassett or Webb. You mentioned internal promotions and training sales people.
MEYERS: We have two types of employees. Managers, salesmen, credit managers and warehouse managers. Then we have office clerks and warehouse people. In this first category, we have very little turnover. They make a fair amount of money and we treat them nice. We don’t have any turnover hardly at all. In the clerical category, it’s mostly girls. All you have to do is come and work for us, and we guarantee you’ll get pregnant. We lost a lot on that basis. Of course, now they take off and come back
Then we have a fair amount of turnover in the warehouse because we are not as competitive as we should be.
Today we must have 125, but we started out with 5 or 10 people that we didn’t need. These were trainees and what we did was when we promoted from within, we took our credit manager or salesman and sent him to a new store. We might also send another. salesman or another credit manager there to help him out. We took these trainees and put them in those slots and therefore, we didn’t take a green person and put them in that slot. We already had somebody who was trained and we didn’t lose too much in the store that we took this good man out of. That was one of the best things we ever did. Today we must spend $1 million or $2 million on trainees because we’re opening 50 or 60 stores a year and we need a lot of trainees. We’re still doing that.
We also put in another thing. We tried to make the decision at the lowest possible level. Once upon a time, I dreamt up that we ought to give the truck drivers some authority and responsibility, and it would make them feel a lot better about their jobs.
I went to a store, and you see, the value of a chain business is that you can experiment without it costing you a whole lot. I went to a store and I told the store manager and warehouse manager that I wanted the truck driver to buy all the tires for the truck. They said, “Oh, no, we can buy it so much better than he can. He’s just a truck driver.” I said, “You’re right you probably can, but this is going to give him respect for himself and he’s going to feel good about the company.” We tried it in that store and it was terrific. The truck driver felt like he was somebody. From that, we try our best today to make every decision at the lowest possible level we can make it.
I don’t care who you are. You can be the CEO or you can be the lady who is cleaning the store. You want to be important and you want to be respected. You want people to respect you. The way to do that is to give the people responsibility and authority. The more you give them authority the better they like it.
INTERVIEWER: How has your growth been affected by style and design? This goes back to your watershed when you decided not to sell high-end furniture, but to stay middle and low.
MEYERS: Well, let me say this – that’s been a radical change. When we made that decision way back then, we mostly sold walnut bedroom furniture and that’s about all we sold. Today, you’ve got to sell six, or eight or 10 styles in order to satisfy the customer. This applies to every category. I remember when we sold metal dinette suites, and all we had were six colors and all the suites looked very much alike. Today, there are an infinite number of styles and you’d better have a big selection of chairs and tables otherwise you don’t get the business. As a result, it requires more and more floor space, and also it requires buyers to have a better style sense than they had in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say buyers are born not made – that you have to have an innate ability? Or do you learn it?
MEYERS: No, it’s just like ball players. If you have a tremendous natural ability you become a Cal Ripken or Joe DiMaggio or somebody like that. But if you don’t, you can work really hard and you can be a pretty good ball player. You’ve got to have a little natural ability, but you don’t have to be a superstar. You can be a good ball player. The same thing is true in buyers. You can make most any intelligent person who’s got a little innate color sense to be a good buyer, but if you want a superstar he’s got to be born with a little talent.
INTERVIEWER: It’s got to be a major strength of what you’re doing.
MEYERS: Of the chain business, that’s right. The chain business has a lot of disadvantages, but it has a lot of advantages, too.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, you can’t have an infinite amount of floor space. You have a reputation of making the most of the floor space. Generally your stores are not great big stores.
MEYERS: Right, 20,000 square feet of display space is the ideal. We have several that are a little smaller and some a little bigger, but that’s the ideal.
INTERVIEWER: But you’re not like Levitz who has – what’s their typical store?
MEYERS: 55,000 square feet of display space. They may be a little bigger now, but that’s what they started out doing. See, we utilize our space really well and our stores are organized. The posts are on 20 foot spacing and you can put four groupings around each post and you have the electrical outlets on that post. That organizes it so that your display people find it easy to do.
In the low end like we are, we have fluorescent lighting, but in each one of these four bays around each post, we have a spotlight that either is on the sofa, or on the bed or on the chairs. That gives us the best lighting of both – the fluorescent, which gives us a lot of light, and the incandescent that spotlights the thing and makes it pretty. That’s the way our stores are designed.
INTERVIEWER: What about advertising? How has that affected you over time? Because I’m sure when you started buying truckloads of cedar chests you had to advertise them to let people know you had them.
MEYERS: Oh, yeah. We always advertised, from the day I came into the business. I had learned from Huntley-Hill-Stockton that you’ve got to be promotional. From the day I came into Heilig-Meyers, we always advertised. In the beginning in Wilson, I advertised with handbills. We used to print up ones with like a wardrobe and then just put it on every car around the tobacco warehouses.
The problem in little towns was that the newspapers didn’t cover your market. We went into the circular business in order to cover all the people. Today in all these little towns, we deliver a circular once a month to every house in our trading area.
We have two mailing lists today. One, we have this occupant/resident mailing list. Then we have our own current and paid out customer list. We send out a different promotion to them than we do this other. The business we have – 65 percent of our business at the store is three years old and comes from current and paid out customers.
Remember, we’re in little towns. If we don’t sell to the same customers over and over again, we don’t do the business.
It’s not like when you’re in a market like Norfolk where the turnover is every three years and the whole population turns over. It’s a different ball game.
We decided to build an in-house advertising department. We have an advertising manager and started out, of course, with just one artist. Today we’ve got 10 or 15 in the advertising department, and we have artists that can do line drawings and really pretty things. Then we have artists that are really good at presenting borax furniture. We have copywriters and everything now. We’ve got a complete advertising department. When we first started we had an advertising manager, and from the very beginning, he serviced the whole chain. As we grew, this department grew, too.
INTERVIEWER: Do you use any other media like television and radio?
MEYERS: Yes, we use that. We use everything. Our advertising department does that, but now occasionally, if we really want a sophisticated thing we’ll hire an outside agency to help us develop a television program or a radio program for anything that’s really special; our people are just good on the basics.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else about advertising? Next we’ll move onto the industry as a whole.
MEYERS: What we developed is a controlled business and the way we control it is the buyer makes the lineup. At the moment, we have seven warehouses and most of them are from 275 to 375,000 square feet. We service from 100 to 125 stores. A store is really nothing but a showroom and we deliver to every store twice a week. You can guarantee delivery to your customer in four days or less. Let’s take Scotland Neck again. We once had a French living room suite. I said, “Scotland Neck will never sell many of these,” but all of a sudden he sold two in one day. We were able to do this because we had those French living room suites at the warehouse. All he had to do was order it and the next time the truck came, he had his French living room suite.
When we run a promotion on let’s say a bedroom suite, he’ll just have the sample. If he sold 10, he would just call them up, and the central warehouse would deliver the 10 suites on the next truck and he would deliver them. That’s one of the keys to our business because we went out and checked the McMahan’s stores out on the West Coast. They didn’t have a central warehouse at all. Each store had a little bigger warehouse than we had, but when they ran a promotion – if they had four bedroom suites, when he sold his four bedroom suites, he was out of business.
They had a central advertising program so the other store ran out, too. We bought one of the McMahan’s chains, which had 92 stores. We put in a central warehouse out there and it’s revolutionized the thinking of all their people. They’re tickled to death with it because now the salesman can sell unlimited amounts of the best sellers. Of course, it creates a problem for us, too, when you have a super hot special – you never buy enough. When you have a dud you’ve bought too many. This is one of the problems with a promotional business – there’s nothing you can do about it, but do the best you can. But this is the way to get the maximum return on what you’re doing.
There’s a new trend today of letting the manufacturers carry the brunt and that’s fine, but the manufacturer is going to charge you a little extra and then you don’t have control like you do when you have it. When you have the goods in your store, in your warehouse, you’ve got control of the situation and that makes a lot of difference.
We go to manufacturers today and we say to them, “We’re going to run this suite for 12 months and we’re not going to ask you for much. We’re going to send you an order every two weeks. In return we want two things: one, we want the lowest price you can give us, two, we want a guaranteed turnaround time,” because the furniture business hasn’t changed. The manufacturer has more production than he needs in the spring and not enough in the fall. It’s more important for us that in the spring, let’s say with upholstered goods, there’s a six-week turnaround time. From the time you get the order, in six weeks, we want the goods. In the fall we want that same six weeks, and if you have to let somebody else wait they’ll have to wait, but you’ve got to give us 12 months of service if you want our business. That has done wonders for our business, as you can see and understand. We do send you that order every two weeks unless we sell fast, and then we’ll send you an order more often. But that’s our program – to check everything every two weeks and buy whatever we need, and that keeps the goods coming on a regular basis. We have what we try to have and we’ve come fairly close. Most of the time, we’re never out of the best sellers, and that’s the way you get the maximum volume.
What we do is say to them that we’re going to run this for a year – you can gamble a little bit. Since its upholstered goods you can buy four or five extra bolts of cloth because you know. When I was the dinette buyer, I used to go for the Dixie Dinette, which is located here in Richmond. I noticed that if he could make, say 50 suites a day, and on this day he only had orders for 40 suites, he’d made up 10 suites of Heilig-Meyers’ best sellers, and he’d put them aside because he knew that he was going to get some orders for those 10 suites. If he didn’t get them that week he’d get them next week, but in the meantime, he had a full day’s production going.
Every manufacturer can do the same thing. Let’s take mattresses. You know what the tick is going to be. You know that we’re going to send you an order every two weeks so you can buy on that basis. You can buy the same thing. You can buy your springs. You can buy your filling material. You can buy everything on that basis because you know what you’re going to do.
We used to do this and maybe we’re still doing it, I don’t know. We used to say to the manufacturer, “We’re not going to send anything back to you. We’re going to repair everything ourselves at no charge to you. The only thing we want you to do is to send us the parts. For a chest of drawers, if the top splits we want a new top. If we have a hole in the side of a sofa we want the material on the side.”
: This enables the manufacturer to know what his costs are. See, when you don’t have this policy the manufacturer is always worried that he’s going to send you the goods and the next thing you know he’s got to give you a $10 a suite allowance because he made a mistake.
What we do is this: If there’s anything wrong with one or two suites, we don’t do anything. But if he sent us a truckload, like Daylight Furniture Company once sent us where all the fronts were made out of green lumber so we had to send the whole doggone truckload back, but that’s the only exception we make. We don’t send any one thing back.
We used to never ask you for an advertising allowance. We don’t want that. We’re going to negotiate the price. After all, there’s no such thing as anything for free. You as the manufacturer know what your costs are. You know what you’re trying to make, and you’ve got to add all these costs in and that’s the way you arrive at the retail price that you’re going to sell to the retailer.
By designing this thing so that you know exactly what your costs are, you can give us the lowest possible price and maintain it. This made it easy for us and it made us a very desirable customer.
I’ll tell you something else. We believe, and this applies to all towns but it’s especially important for little towns, that when a customer complains you have to satisfy them. You’re a big ticket business so it’s very important. We developed a four point program where we taught all of our people how to handle complaints. One of the keys to Heilig-Meyers’ success is an educational program and I’ll get into that a little later, but I’m going to tell you about this one thing.
We developed this program and it’s a four point program. We have it on videotape, we have it in the store manual, we have it everywhere so that everybody in our store knows about it. A customer walks in and the first point is you must listen to the customer’s thoughts without interrupting. Let them talk until they finish. When they finish, and this is the key to the whole thing, you must say this exactly like I’m saying it, “Ms. Jones, if I were you, I would have complained also.” Ms. Jones is on your side. The third step is to say, “Ms. Jones, what is it going to take to make you happy?” The fourth step is to do it in 48 hours.
Let me tell you that that has brought us more business than anything I know of. In many ways that’s more important than the advertising program.
The customer is always right in that program. I’ll give you one illustration and this happened in Washington, North Carolina. A lady and her husband walked in and bought a two-piece living room suite. They had their truck there and we put it on the truck and the salesman said, “Wait a minute. Before you leave I want to tie down the chair and the sofa so they won’t fall off.” The lady said, “Oh, no, it’s not going to fall off,” and she drove off. The first bridge she passes over, you know, the chair fell off and busted all to pieces.
Two days later she comes in and she says, “Mr. Store Manager,” I forgot what his name was, “your people didn’t tie the chair down. It was 100 percent your fault. It fell off and it broke to smithereens. What are you going to do for me?” The store manager said, “Ms. Jones, I don’t blame you one bit. If I’d been you I would have complained, too. Here’s a chair just like the one you bought. If you’ve got your truck with you we’ll put it on there and we’ll tie it down this time.” We gave the lady that chair and we handled it just like I’m telling you. That lady turned out to be a big talker and our store manager told me that he believed we got $10,000 worth of publicity from that one lady. But that’s typical of our complaint handling process and let me tell you, it works.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else? This is great stuff.
MEYERS: Well, let me see what else. I’m sure there are hundreds of other things. I’m trying to think of things that we do that are of interest. I’m going to tell you several other things. One thing, when I came into this business, all the chains had two supervisors. One was a merchandise supervisor, and the other one was a collection supervisor. I looked over the business as we grew and I thought that was wrong because the merchandise supervisor goes in and says, “Mr. Store Manager, I want you to do so and so.” Two days later the collection supervisor comes in and says, “I want you to do so and so”; and these two things conflict. What is the store manager going to do?
With that thought in mind, I eliminated all the credit supervisors. We had a training program and we trained every supervisor to handle both credits and merchandise. We also reorganized our management training program so that every manager was trained. He’s a crackerjack collector and a crackerjack seller.
Our whole business is operated on that principle today and we still do that. That was a fantastic plus. I don’t know how other stores do it today because most people don’t handle their own accounts. We still handle our own accounts and we still have this – right on up the line, from the CEO down – everybody’s responsible for both of these functions. There’s no overlap.
At the same time we put that in, we put in our “one man, one boss” policy. Nobody in our company from the bottom to the top has but one boss. Our whole business is organized so you know who your boss is, and that one boss is the only man that gives you instructions.
Anyway, that’s one thing. There’s one other thing I wanted to tell you. Everybody in the credit business used to age their accounts based on the last 12 months. We changed this, and did so for a philosophical reason. We’re in the low-end business. You could get sick, your wife could get sick, you could be out of a job for a month or two and then, all of a sudden, you miss three payments or four payments in a row. Since that time, you’ve picked it up and you’ve paid regularly, and now you want to add onto your account or buy something new. We used to look at the last 12 months and say, “Hmmm, this guy missed three payments in a row here. We ought not to sell to him.” Then we decided that that was wrong for our business. If you are in the high-end business, maybe it’s different; but in our business, we knew that was wrong.
We changed this. We don’t have any 12-month analysis. We have what we call a four-month delinquent report, and we judge you on the way you paid the last four months. We don’t care what you did prior to that. We forget about it. We age our accounts based on four out of four, three out four, two out of four, one out of four, and zero out of four. That’s the way we run our business. It has made extending credit to our people infinitely more efficient and more satisfactory all around. We’re able to sell a lot more people with good accounts.
What I’m trying to show you are the little things that make Heilig-Meyers different than all other stores, and how a little creativity and a little imagination has created our ability to run the business and have control. See, this four-page delinquent report, I can look at that and in a minute and a half I know whether I need to go to your store or give you some more education, or whether I need to leave you alone because you’re doing really well. Along with that we’ve put in another thing. The front of our collection card has the payments. On the back it’s organized this way.
INTERVIEWER: This is the card of each customer’s account?
MEYERS: Yes, that’s the customer’s card. We do it on a computer now but it’s the same identical thing. It’s better to talk to you because you’re of my generation. You remember cards, you don’t remember computers. There are three things that we judge your collection efforts by. Did you send the notices out on time? Did you follow up every promise to pay in 48 hours? After two broken promises to pay, did you bring your account to a climax? Then we have a little section on there for complaints because a lot of times people will complain about a television set as a method. There’s nothing wrong with the television set, but it’s a method of not paying this month.
We can turn over the back of that card and see if you followed this program. If you show that the notices are going out in seven-day intervals, and if you’re not sending them out, we know you’re not on the ball. If you’re not following up on every promise to pay within 48 hours or less, you’re not on the ball. If you’re letting accounts ride after two promises to pay, you’re not doing it right.
You can go to our store and pick up the cards. You have to punch a computer key, but it gives you the same information. You can turn over the back of the cards and just by picking 15 accounts at random, and it takes say 10 minutes to look at these 15 accounts, you can tell whether that credit report and that store is doing well or not, and why he’s not doing it. This is what I mean by control.
I give a speech called “Posdec.” It takes about 45 minutes. Posdec stands for plan, organize, staff, direct, educate, control. The first four – everybody does them and that’s nothing, but I stress mostly education and control because the key to a successful business is to educate every employee on exactly what you want him to do so that he can do it well. Two, you’ve got to have control. Control means your technique for knowing whether he’s doing like you told him to or not.
What I just finished telling you about the collection business is the perfect illustration of control. You’ve educated them to do these three things and now you’ve designed the card so you can check and see if he’s doing it and you can check it fast.
We developed a lot of little tools and one of them is what we call the 10 minute syndrome. We have about 10 items and it takes you two weeks to cover them all as a store manager. You do one every day – either the first thing in the morning or the last thing at night, and you should do it in 10 minutes or less.
What it is, is this – let’s take the collection thing I just talked about – that’s one of the items. You check the accounts and see if they’re following your program. If they’re not, you know what you’ve got to do to educate them to get them to do it. Let’s assume that in your store you should have 23 bedroom suites on the floor. In 10 minutes you can check to see if you’ve got those 23 suites on the floor and if not, then why not.
That’s what the 10 minute syndrome is all about. This is what I call organizing everybody. Say you’re the store supervisor and you go in there to check and you see that these 23 suites aren’t on the floor. Then you check and see if the manager is following the 10 minute syndrome. We’ve got these 10 things on a sheet of paper and you’ve got a little box in which you put down the date that you did it. He can look at that and tell you. It’s the little things like this that has made Heilig-Meyers expand like it has. Management has control of the business and continues to make the profits like you’re trying to make them.
Oh, I’ll tell you one more thing and then I’ll quit talking. We decided early on that we couldn’t educate you a whole lot at one time. We developed a program – we have seven categories of employees and I’ll only give you one example. I’m going to take a cashier in the office for example. We asked our three best cashiers to come to Richmond and we listed the 30 most important things to teach a cashier. Then these cashiers went back home and this is the program we put into place from this. We loaded up each one of these 30 things on a sheet of paper and it was always way less than one sheet of paper.
When a new cashier comes to work on the first day, she is just there and meets everybody and just gets comfortable. Beginning the second day, another cashier or credit manager is assigned to her and every morning for the next 30 days, you go over one of these 30 things and it must take 15 minutes or less.
At the end of the 30 days we discovered that in the first 15 days, that lady was so new that she didn’t really absorb what we told her. Then we would take the next 30 days and repeat the process exactly. At the end of 60 days we have a marvelously trained cashier. By the way, we discovered we thought this out just as an educational program, but we discovered it had a wonderful side benefit. When a cashier comes to work for us and she goes through this process she says to herself (and we’ve had a lot of cashiers tell us this), “This company cares about me because look at how much time and effort they’re spending to train me to be a good cashier.” We found that to be the best way. I talked to someone else who said they take a new cashier and she goes to school for two weeks before she starts cashiering. I believe our program is infinitely better because she can’t absorb it in two weeks. This way, she’s learning as she works. There’s a lot more that she has to learn, but she knows the basics really well at the end of 60 days.
INTERVIEWER: We’re going to switch gears unless you want to add anything else.
MEYERS: No, I’m through.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s move onto industry involvement.
What can you tell us about changes in the industry? Earlier we talked about how manufacturers are now carrying inventory. That’s certainly a major change.
MEYERS: The big change in my lifetime is the fact that furniture has become a production line effort now where you make 10,000 bedroom suites at a time. They’ve tried to do the same thing with living room furniture, but it’s only been partially successful. I also think that the variety of styles has made a big difference in the furniture business. There are a tremendous variety of styles today as compared to 30 years ago.
INTERVIEWER: What about production?
MEYERS: As you get bigger you run into all kinds of real problems. We used to have a chair manufacturer that was absolutely fabulous. He made a little barrel chair and we sold hundreds and hundreds of them. As we got bigger we went to him and said, “How about expanding your factory?” He said he didn’t want to get a bit bigger. Eventually we had to quit him. The problem with bigness is that, especially when you’re a promotional company, they’ve got to have real production in order to back us up. We had a mattress manufacturer in Fayetteville that manufactured in his backyard. We began to buy from him. He sold us the goods at a very good price. Then he sold to all of his other customers and he charged them $4 or $5 extra. He could run his factory on our orders and all that was plus business and he made a lot of money out of it. One day he came up here and said he wanted to raise our price $1. I’m trying to remember his name. I said, “When you started coming up here the first time, you used to come up here in an old ramshackle Ford. I look out there and you’re driving a Cadillac. You don’t need $1 more.” But he insisted on the $1 and we gave it to him.
INTERVIEWER: What about purchasing?
MEYERS: We have to be very careful today in negotiating because we’ve got so much power that we’ve got to be sensible. We don’t want to ask for more than we’re entitled to, and still we would like to get the right price. It creates a very sensitive situation where you’ve got to be aware of what I just finished saying, and negotiate on that purpose. Because we want you to stay in business, we want you to make a profit because otherwise we’re losing a good source of supply. Still we’ve got to buy it cheap enough so that we can be hot with our competitor because our competitor is a mom-and-pop store and his expense picture is different than ours. He really can beat us if it’s necessary. All of these little problems create situations and you’ve got to be knowledgeable and sensitive to them in order to be a good operator at this level.
INTERVIEWER: Sears, Roebuck used to have a policy that they wouldn’t buy from any one manufacturer, any more than 28 percent of his production.
MEYERS: That’s a smart move.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t want to be big enough that they would be responsible if he folded up.
MEYERS: Right, that’s very good. I know State Farm invests in Heilig-Meyers and they must buy less than 10 percent of any company, and they don’t buy unless they’re going to stay with you a minimum of 5 years. The last time I talked with them they only had $8 billion to invest and he said, “We just don’t have the time to buy and sell.” Let me tell you – they’ve been with us 25 years, I guess. Whenever we break out a new issue they have about 8 percent of our company and they buy the 8 percent. If we’re going to sell a million shares, they’ll buy 80,000.
INTERVIEWER: What about the use of computers in purchasing?
MEYERS: Yes, we’ve got it all on computer. We know exactly what we’re selling every day. We’re going back, to what I call, the basic stock concept. Therefore, we will only overstock and under stock because of one factor: promotion. When we guess right, it’s wonderful; when we guess wrong, it’s terrible. In between when you guess really wrong, you make a lot of customers mad and that has nothing to do with computers. That’s entirely promotion clicks. But the computer really has revolutionized the buying business.
Our business has gone computer-based. In fact, we use the same thing that the grocery stores do – it’s just that we have a little wand and in the warehouse, when we’re loading the truck … the barcode concept – we don’t count anything. That barcode is counting it for us all the time. It’s all mechanized and simplified, and it really makes running a big business infinitely easier than it used to be.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s move onto sales and merchandising. We’ve talked about that, but what about changes?
MEYERS: The biggest problem as you get bigger is that you lose flexibility. A one location, mom-and-pop store can turnaround on a nickel. We have a hard time turning around on a $10 bill because when you run with a central warehouse concept and you change a suite, you’ve got to take it out of a lot of stores and you’ve got to put in the new one and it doesn’t sell the same in every store so it’s a real problem. Therefore, this requires a lot more thought and merchandising technique than it does in a mom-and-pop store. The second facet of this is promotion. We can’t very often superimpose suites, you know, in a lineup. Let’s say we’ve got 25 bedroom suites. If we superimpose you a suite, the store has a problem. He’s allocated space for 25 suites. Now you’ve got 26. Second, when that promotion is over, it’s what to do with what’s left over in the central warehouse and in the stores. We try – and we’re fairly successful with this – to make the merchandise lineup contain the promotional numbers we’re going to advertise. That way we don’t have this problem. We add little extra goods. You’ve got to have it, but we try to add as little goods as we can to the merchandise lineup.
INTERVIEWER: What about finance?
MEYERS: We had a marvelous program before we went public. I’ll tell you an interesting story. We’ve always borrowed lots of money because we’ve carried our own accounts. We decided that we needed to develop an insurance company because when you borrow all the money from banks, if they call the money for whatever reason, you couldn’t pay them back.
We decided we ought to have about 50 or 60 percent of our needs from a long range source and we picked an insurance company. I wrote to Metropolitan and they sent a man down here. I showed him around. I showed him the central warehouse. I showed him a whole multi-floor store and I showed him one of our modern prototype stores. He was really impressed.
He said to me, “How much money would you like to borrow?” I said, “$6 million.” He said, “I certainly am sorry I’ve wasted your time and mine, but the minimum that we loan is $10 million.” I said, “I don’t need that other $4 million now. Heilig-Meyers is a growing company and one of these days we’ll be a big user and so you ought to waive that requirement.” He said, “I’ll go back to New York and I’ll let you know.”
He went back to New York and sure enough they waived it and they loaned me the $6 million. We made a second deal with them every two years. They’d send somebody down here and they’d analyze our needs and loan us whatever we needed on the basis of that 60 percent concept. I noticed the other day we borrowed $50 million from them. We’ve been doing that. We don’t borrow the money every two years, but we analyze it and whenever we need it … I’m sure we’ve been a wonderful customer for them, but they’ve been a marvelous source for us. That’s the way we financed our business then.
Now we’re in a different league. We went public because we knew we’d need money. When we really need money, we sell a million shares to the public and that’s the way we finance the business now. We’re big enough now that we’re getting ready to sell bonds and things like that directly to the public. Our whole borrowing structure is going to change because we’re a big company.
INTERVIEWER: You said the 60 percent concept and then maybe I missed something.
MEYERS: Yes, what we did was we had eight banks and what we used to do was we’d borrow from you for three months and then when the time was up, we didn’t have any money to pay you so we borrowed the same amount from the next bank and paid you off. We just kept doing that so that we had twice as much credit as we really needed. But we got scared because the banks might call in the money.
That’s when we went to the fact that we’d like about 60 percent of our needs. Let’s say we needed $50 million, and we’d like for $30 million of this to be long range ended. But when we first started we were borrowing money for 15 years. Metropolitan won’t loan you any money for 15 years. I think we’re borrowing money now for mostly seven to 10 years. But we’ve still got the long range concept. We worked it out.
The reason why we picked 60 percent was if the bank called every dollar we owed them, we could organize our business so that we could pay you back in nine months. We’d maybe have to quit selling a little bit, but we’d collect the money and pay you back, and then we wouldn’t have to pay that 60 percent off except the 1/15 or whatever it was per year. We did that for safety sake. That’s the way we ran our business for a long, long time. Today we’ve still got that concept but we’re adding other concepts to it as business requires.
INTERVIEWER: What about management?
MEYERS: We’ve got the two people who run Heilig-Meyers now: Bill DeRusha came to work for us when he was 19 and Troy Peery was 22. They were with the company a long time and then they took over the reins. They’re both really smart. They’re young – both of them are under 50. They’ve been very dynamic and have done an outstanding job. The key to our business … Bill DeRusha is important, Troy’s important, the comptroller and the finance manager are important, but the most important man in our business is the store manager. He’s the guy who really makes or breaks the business. Don’t misunderstand me, all these other people are important, too, but he’s the key guy. You can take any store we’ve got and you can put in a crackerjack store manager and he’ll make that store hum.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you have personally received from people in our industry.
MEYERS: I would say that one of the things that has been of tremendous benefit to me is having salespeople who are creative and who understand the retail business. Those salespeople who call on many, many retailers and glean the best ideas from each one of them. If you know how to ask the right questions, and you’re willing to listen, it’s amazing how much you can learn.
When I’m talking about this, I’m not talking about gossip, I’m talking about promotional ideas and presentation ideas, and how to really and truly run your business from a merchandising angle. Most people talk against salesmen. They say how they’re a nuisance and they’re this, that and the other. But if you understand how to use salesmen, they can be your best ally.
INTERVIEWER: Have you had any problems with suppliers?
MEYERS: I’d say our biggest problem is that suppliers have a hard time selling and thinking in terms of retail. You go to them and say, “Here’s what we need. What can you do to solve this need?” They couldn’t think of stuff from our point of view. All they could think of was, in order to do that, this is the manufacturing problem it’s going to create for me. They’re right but they’ve got to solve the problem because we’re the people who really run that factory. Our customers run that factory, and the better they’re able to assist us to meet the customer’s needs, the better everybody’s going to do.
INTERVIEWER: Right, thinking in terms of retail – that’s the most important. What have been your greatest problems with your customers?
MEYERS: Getting enough of them.
INTERVIEWER: Your customer service manual probably solves most any problem that comes along, doesn’t it?
MEYERS: We covered most everything. We really don’t have any real problems with customers, you know, just the normal problems. The big problem in the small cities and in the installment retail business is how to get lots and lots of customers.
INTERVIEWER: The Depression, its unbelievable what went on then.
MEYERS: Yes, it was. We were lucky in that Heilig-Meyers, at the beginning of the Depression, had a three rating. At the end of the Depression, we had a one rating.
The reason for that was when we collected our accounts, we didn’t buy anything so we were able to pay all of our bills. Therefore, when ’33 rolled around – the price of tobacco had been 5 cents and the price of cotton had been 5 cents a pound, and all of a sudden it went up a little bit. They had a good crop and therefore, we had a lot of business. In 1934, we sold 10 carloads in these two stores of wooden coal ranges. The reason we did that was that nobody else, at least in North Carolina, had a really good rating. Therefore, we got the goods and they didn’t always get the goods. We bought from Dixie Foundry, which is Magic Chef today.
INTERVIEWER: That’s right, yeah. See that’s a reverse – a good consequence rather than a bad one.
INTERVIEWER: There were other consequences at home while you were away. Some of the towns you were in got to be very important.
MEYERS: Bigger, they grew.
INTERVIEWER: Like Goldsboro.
MEYERS: Right. I really don’t think World War II had a major impact on our business, except that we stagnated during that period because both Sidney and I went into the Army and therefore, Heilig-Meyers wasn’t interested in opening any new stores.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any problems with being able to get merchandise to sell?
MEYERS: I wasn’t here but I understand it was a real problem.
INTERVIEWER: It sure was. My dad had some wooden springs. Do you remember wooden springs?
MEYERS: Yes, I do. I just listened to my father talk about it. He said, “We didn’t have much merchandise and if I was waiting on a customer at 12 o’clock when the news came on, it didn’t matter to me that this customer didn’t want to buy the bedroom suite. I had 10 other customers waiting.” He said, “I always told the people, ‘Excuse me, let’s go down and listen to the news. My two sons are in the Army and I want to hear what’s going on.’” He said that’s what they always did. But I understand that was a real problem. But I wasn’t here so I didn’t have that problem.
INTERVIEWER: What about operational attitudes over the years?
MEYERS: We’re a liberal company and we wanted to promote – we always had plenty of black employees, but we wanted to make a black manager. We also wanted to make a black (employee) a salesman so we set up a yardstick of how to do it and when to do it. We decided that the day that Belk put in a black salesman we would do the same. When they did, we did, too. We waited until we had the right man and we made a black man named Johnny Wills a manager. We put him in the Roanoke Rapids store and he’s still there. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s well accepted by everybody and it’s been a wonderful thing.
Today it’s no problem, except for finding enough good minority people to promote. We have a lot of women managers, a lot of black managers, and a few Mexican managers because we’re in areas now where there are a lot of Mexican employees. Around Lumberton, there are a lot of Indians and we have a few Indian managers. We believe in assisting minorities, but you’ve also got to be sensible and get quality people and not just promote them because they’re there.
INTERVIEWER: Tied into this is the subject of women’s issues. Do you have any comments there?
MEYERS: The same thing. We got our first woman manager who’s probably smarter than anybody in our company at that level. We tried our best to make her a store supervisor. She doesn’t want to move and you can’t be a store supervisor without moving. She’s still a store manager and she does an outstanding job. We have quite a few women managers today.
INTERVIEWER: How has shipment of your product affected your company? You mentioned buying a truckload of cedar chests, which given the year, surprised me because I thought that most shipments back in that time were by rail.
INTERVIEWER: I know in the ’30s and throughout the war, most shipments were by rail.
MEYERS: No, we bought things by rail, too, but most of the things we bought were by truckloads, even from 1934 on. It’s so much more convenient to do it that way. See, we didn’t have railroad sidings everywhere, whereas truckloads could go to your store without going to your warehouse. Today, of course, with all these warehouses, we don’t have one of these central warehouses which doesn’t have a railroad siding. We get a fair amount of goods by rail, but we still get more by truck than by rail.
INTERVIEWER: What effect have you seen from environmental regulations?
MEYERS: One of the things we’ve seen is that we wouldn’t dare buy a piece of property or run a store without getting an environmental survey done. We’ve run into some problems not only in buying property, but in property that already exists – when we get ready to sell and the other guy does it and they find problems. We bought a few places that used to be filling stations long before we got there, and lo and behold, we didn’t realize it had a tank in there and it was a real problem. We had a few of these situations and while it cost a few dollars, we’ve never had one that’s been so cost prohibitive to do business with, but it could happen.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the company’s involvement in your communities? You mentioned that anybody who comes in looking for contributions gets it.
MEYERS: We encourage our managers and his people to become involved in community activities. We’ve encouraged our people at the general office to do the same. We like to be part of the community and we’re aware of the fact that this is a fine thing for us to do and we do it reasonably well.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s move onto your personal civic and social involvement. Describe your own involvement in civic and business activities outside of the furniture industry.
MEYERS: I hate to mention how many fundraising things I’ve done, but it’s been a lot. I’ve been on the board of directors of many organizations. I’m quite involved. Even right now I’m on two advisory committees. One is Massey Cancer Center and the other is the dental association.
Then for six years I was on the advisory committee of the school of social workers at Virginia Commonwealth University. That was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done because they had 15 people on that board and 13 of them were in the social work field and two of them weren’t. I was a really strange person to be on there, but they taught me a lot, and I taught them a lot too, because I asked a lot of questions and I tried to steer them in a different way than they were going because I took a more practical approach to social work. But that was fascinating. Let me tell you, they had the same words that I had but every word had a different meaning. You had to learn what the words meant in order to listen to them with intelligence. It took me a couple of years before I got to know all of these words. I asked them questions like, you know … at one time they were adopting a lot of children from Romania. I said if I decided to go to Romania and adopt a child, but I came to your school of social work and said, “What would you advise me to do? What would you tell me?” They said, “We’ll let you know at the next meeting.”
Maybe they’re right – I really don’t know, but I wanted them to be more practical in their approach to solving the social problems, and they wanted to be more academic. I don’t want to say that they’re wrong, but you’ve got to have a practical approach all they time. I don’t care what you’re doing. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing I’ve done and my term is up on that.
My term is up on the Massey Cancer Center, too, which I’ve been on quite a few years, because you see, my wife died of cancer so I had a real interest in that. I’m on two foundations. Each one of them gives away about $2.5 million a year and I enjoy that because we’ll have $5 or $6 million worth of requests and we’ve got to decide where we’re going to put the money. It’s really interesting to do and a pleasure to give other people’s money away.
INTERVIEWER: I guess you’ve answered what your favorite charity is. Would you say it is the Massey Cancer Center?
MEYERS: I guess that’s a favorite as any. I try to give away a fair amount of money every year and it changes from time to time. I’m really interested in what I call Jewish activities. Israel is one of my favorite charities and it’s beginning to change now. Israel did need money badly, but Israel has become fairly close to economically self sufficient, unless they were to have a big influx of immigrants which doesn’t look like they’re going to have at the moment.
INTERVIEWER: There’s no place for them to come from anymore.
MEYERS: That’s right. Then they don’t need a lot of money anymore. You’ve got to be constantly reevaluating your charities if you’re giving a few extra dollars.
INTERVIEWER: What’s your principle leisure time activity?
MEYERS: First, I play golf five days a week. I’m a really avid bridge player. From time to time, I take a few dance lessons and I like to go dancing. I like, what I call, social life in general. Going out in the evening, going out to dinner. I’m trying to learn a new thing now – I’m trying to learn about art. I do that two ways. One, I read a lot. I talk to a lot of people who are very knowledgeable and who have been doing it a lot longer than I have. I also visit museums. Last week I was in Philadelphia and I went to the Cézanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and brother, I’ll tell you, he was some artist. Then the next day I went to see the Barnes Foundation. Have you ever heard of that? Mr. Barnes was a pharmacist who invented Argyrol. He made a fortune but he also knew a lot about art. Mr. Barnes is dead now, but his house and his things are there and he had a collection of art that’s unbelievable. He had lots of different people, mostly impressionists, but he also had people like Moreau in there, you know abstract art and he had a tremendous variety and a lot of it. Do you know who Jake Brown is? He’s a man who lives in Richmond that I play golf with. He asked me about it and I said I’m cultured out. I spent two whole days looking at these things and that’s a lot.
INTERVIEWER: Is this Barnes thing in Philly?
MEYERS: Yes, and I’ve done a lot of this. I spend six months now in Florida and so I’ve got plenty of leisure time. Florida is a place with a lot of art galleries and so I’ve enjoyed doing that.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your best experience in your leisure time activity?
MEYERS: When my wife was living, the thing I liked the most was travel. As you can tell by my conversation, I have a philosophy on everything and we developed a marvelous philosophy. I was working so hard that I needed to take a vacation every once in awhile so I would take 20 days off. We’d go to Europe, pick out five cities and then we’d spend four days in each city. We left each city at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we arrived in the new city in time to have dinner. The next morning you’re out sightseeing and then the fourth day in that city was not completely wasted because you went late in the afternoon. That’s what we did. We had some wonderful trips. I really thoroughly enjoyed that.
INTERVIEWER: What was the date of your retirement?
MEYERS: June 30, 1984. Let’s see if that was right. I was 73 years old. Does that make it right? Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the industry?
MEYERS: Nothing for the industry.
INTERVIEWER: You sure have stayed close to Heilig-Meyers.
MEYERS: Oh, yes I’m on the board of Heilig-Meyers. I’m on the executive committee of Heilig-Meyers, but I tell you what challenges me the most is Burnley Krumbein, my brother-in-law. Mr. Krumbein, my father-in-law, left Burnley and Raymond two stores. I was a consultant to my brother-in-law, Burnley, who took over from his father. He died and now his son has taken over and it’s been a real pleasure for me to help train his son. I’ve enjoyed that immensely. That’s been very stimulating because it has required a lot of thought on my part and he’s doing pretty good.
All of their stores are in the tidewater area. Norfolk is a different community than anyplace else because of the Navy. The credit problems are vastly different. The whole business is different because of the Navy.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to our furniture industry. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.
What would you like to add in final summary?
MEYERS: I’d like to repeat something I said in my speech at the American Furniture Hall of Fame Banquet. That is, I was born in the business and I had a tremendous wealth of experience before I got into my father’s business. I’m one of these very fortunate individuals that really found the furniture business most enjoyable. I worked for Heilig-Meyers for 54 years and can truthfully say that I never saw a long day. That’s a tribute to the interest of the furniture business, and to the fact that the furniture industry is made up of a lot of unusually nice people. From most of my relatives being in the clothing business, I’m quite familiar with that. Just talking about these two industries, there’s no comparison in the morals, the ethics, and the outlook of people in the furniture business than those in businesses like the clothing business. With that thought in mind, I’ll close and say I certainly have enjoyed this interview because it was very nostalgic and I’ll also enjoy making a contribution to the furniture industry if I can.