John r. "jack" gerken, jr.; norwalk furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 7, 1993
AIRPORT MARRIOTT HOTEL
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: It’s October 7, 1993. I’m in Cleveland at the Airport Marriott Hotel with Jack Gerken of Norwalk. We’re going to do an oral history interview. Jack, I have my questions here and we’ll just talk about them, but anything in the world that you want to say, that’s the name of the game.
First, we’ll talk about you. When and where were you born?
GERKEN: In Norwalk, Ohio. August 7, 1926.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in the furniture business at that time?
GERKEN: Yes, my grandfather started the business
INTERVIEWER: In Norwalk?
GERKEN: No, in Toledo. He and a partner, John Galpin, started the business in 1902. My grandfather, Edward Gerken, was an upholsterer for one of the furniture stores there when they made their own furniture in the back room.
INTERVIEWER: In Toledo.
GERKEN: In Toledo. His partner, John Galpin, was a buggy seat maker at Willys-Overland in Toledo (when they made buggies), before they started making automobiles. They started in 1902 making the same high-quality furniture that they did at Radclif Company, which was the furniture store. However, after the first year, they checked all of their inventory, their assets and liabilities, and found out they barely made their wages. Then they switched over to more mass-produced type furniture.
My grandfather had come from Germany with his family when he was 7 years old, and during the First World War, there was a strong anti-German feeling in Toledo. He was harassed pretty badly, so they moved the company to a little town outside of Toledo on the Maumee River called Grand Rapids, Ohio. The company was called Grand Rapids Upholstery. They were there two years and then in 1919, they moved to Norwalk, because their frame supplier, Schauss Company, gave them extended credit terms if they would buy their frames from them and move to Norwalk. That’s when they came to Norwalk, in 1919.
INTERVIEWER: The frame plant was in Norwalk?
GERKEN: Yes, the frame plant was in Norwalk.
INTERVIEWER: How far was that from Grand Rapids, Ohio?
GERKEN: About 65 miles. My father was 17 when they moved to Norwalk.
INTERVIEWER: That 65 miles, of course, was far away from the market near Toledo. Was that any barrier? I know there was no shipment in those days like we have now.
GERKEN: It was halfway — Norwalk is halfway between Toledo and Cleveland, and they had a good freight line. The first factory they had in Norwalk was right out on the railroad line, so they could load the cars. They started hauling in trucks, I would guess it was in the early ’20s. We’ve been in the trucking business hauling furniture for quite a while.
INTERVIEWER: You had your own trucks in 1920?
GERKEN: No. We started out using a local delivery man’s trucks. He had trucks that would run back and forth into Cleveland. Then we bought our own trucks, I would guess, about 1924 or ’25.
INTERVIEWER: You were pretty well the first in the industry to do that, weren’t you?
GERKEN: I really don’t know. I remember going with my father on several wrecks. Back then, there weren’t good roads and there weren’t good drivers. We had a number of truck wrecks that we were involved with. I remember he’d take me along when he had to go down and take care of the driver and see that the wrecker got the place cleaned up. I’d ride along with him.
One of my early memories is riding with him to collect accounts receivables that were overdue from some of the furniture stores.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of a radius were you selling to at that time?
GERKEN: Mostly in Ohio and Michigan, Detroit and Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus, those areas.
INTERVIEWER: That was a gold mine territory then.
GERKEN: Yes, we sold through a distributor. Let me go in the corporate minutes books here. We sold through a selling organization called O.K. Wheelock. He was our sole selling agent.
INTERVIEWER: Where was he?
GERKEN: I think he was out of Cleveland — Cleveland or Toledo. It was at a Grand Rapids Michigan Market that he and my grandfather had a falling out over a very small difference of opinion on the price of a sofa. Wheelock told him that he could get it made for less money from somebody else. My grandfather told him that that was as low as he could go. They parted company and my grandfather then had to sell the product himself.
INTERVIEWER: In what year?
GERKEN: That was in 1924.
INTERVIEWER: And your grandfather started doing the selling himself?
GERKEN: He started, but only in big quantities at less money than he had bargained with Wheelock.
Then he started his own sales organization. My father, Ray Gerken — let’s talk a little bit about his early life. He graduated from Norwalk High School in 1920.
INTERVIEWER: Your father?
GERKEN: Yes. He attended Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan, and Northwestern, and was just never satisfied with college. At that time, the oil boom was on around Dallas and he went out to make his mark in the oil fields. He got hurt in one of the oil fields and was hospitalized for several months. Then he came back to Norwalk.
INTERVIEWER: This was mid-’20s, then?
GERKEN: Yes, 1923, ’24. My father started the marketing organization owned by Norwalk Furniture as a salesman calling on stores in Ohio.
INTERVIEWER: This was a separate company?
GERKEN: No, it was just sales reps. He started as a representative for Norwalk Furniture, selling in Ohio. Since then, after the falling out with Wheelock, we’ve always had our own sales organization.
My father’s first attempt at selling furniture is an interesting story. It was when the company was in Toledo. A customer in Perrysburg, which was probably 10 or 15 miles from the factory, needed to buy some furniture. My dad took the swatches and photographs on the interurban out to Perrysburg. He was only about 10 years old. My grandfather couldn’t go out, so he had Dad take the samples and photographs. Dad said, “I sat on his lap while he wrote up the order from what I had brought along.”
INTERVIEWER: That would have been about 1910?
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any in-laws in the furniture business?
INTERVIEWER: Do you still have family in furniture? I think this would be a good time, and I believe it’s important, to give us a genealogy of the Gerken family.
GERKEN: My grandfather, Edward Gerken, founded the company. My father, Raymond Gerken, was next in line. There were two sisters whose stock the company bought so that my father owned all the stock. I have a brother, Ned. We both have muscular dystrophy and he retired a few years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Is Ned short for Edward?
INTERVIEWER: Edward. Is it the same name as Junior, the III, and so forth?
INTERVIEWER: Eddie doesn’t use that.
GERKEN: The first one was Charles Edward; then John Raymond; and Ned was Edward James. He’s retired. I retired in 1987. He has three sons in the business — Ed Junior, Bob and Bill. I have a son in the business — Jim. There are four in the fourth generation that are involved in the business.
INTERVIEWER: What are the prospects for future Gerkens?
GERKEN: There’s a bunch of them around.
INTERVIEWER: Are they interested in the business?
GERKEN: They’re too young to really have any choice.
INTERVIEWER: That’s the whole family. Describe your growing-up years, particularly as related to the factory.
GERKEN: I was growing up during World War II. Because of the War Production Board directive, we couldn’t use any steel in our product. All the steel had to go to the war effort. We discontinued making furniture and we made a variety of war products. We made jungle hammocks, locker boxes, mallets, pack boards, and radar antennas on different contracts from the federal government. I was involved in doing all sorts of activities on the jungle hammocks, from cutting to grommetting — all the little tasks like that. On the locker box project, I was involved in finishing and sanding while I was in high school.
Then I went into the Navy and got out of the Navy in ’45. I went to college — graduated in ’47 from Colgate. Then I started to work at the factory, first as an industrial engineer and then as a sales rep.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major in college?
INTERVIEWER: At Colgate?
INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings were there in college which affected your life later on?
GERKEN: I can’t think of anything. I went into the Navy as a flyer, in the V-S Program. It required four semesters to go to pre-flight school. I took three semesters at Colgate, which was a year. In June of ’45, I’d completed the three semesters at Colgate. Then I went to the University of North Carolina to their pre-flight school. I got in a semester there before the war ended. All those credits transferred to Colgate, so when I went back in the fall of ’45, I was a junior and I had just the two years to complete then.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned military experience, starting with the Navy in ’45, and you went through the V-S Program …
GERKEN: I started in ’44 in the Navy.
INTERVIEWER: And ’45 was when you finished at …
GERKEN: Colgate, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Fourth semester. Did you serve actively in the Navy?
GERKEN: No, four semesters in the Navy. We didn’t know enough and weren’t far enough along for them to keep us. They kicked us out pretty quick.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get any flight training?
GERKEN: No, I didn’t get that far. Just pre-flight at Chapel Hill.
INTERVIEWER: You were too young.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: All right, now, your background in the furniture industry: What was your first job in the furniture factory?
GERKEN: I would say running a grommet machine for the jungle hammocks.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your boss on that job?
GERKEN: Don Weydinger was his name. He eventually became superintendent of the factory later on.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting — nobody ever forgets the name of their first boss.
GERKEN: Yes, I can believe that.
INTERVIEWER: What else did you do around the factory? You were how old at that point?
GERKEN: Let’s see. I was 16.
INTERVIEWER: You were still in high school, working during the summertime?
INTERVIEWER: What else did you do?
GERKEN: I pretty well covered it with the war projects.
INTERVIEWER: We were talking earlier about the tow pickers. Did you have the privilege of running one of those?
GERKEN: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: That was one privilege I had. I started in the lumberyard and that was one board at a time.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s where Ed started, in the lumberyard.
INTERVIEWER: That’s learning it the hard way.
GERKEN: Yes, you didn’t really know whether you wanted to stay in the furniture business or not after that.
INTERVIEWER: All right. After you graduated from Colgate, you went back to the factory and did time study. Tell us a little bit about that.
GERKEN: Right, well, it was the summer of 1947. My father thought the best way for me to learn the furniture business was doing time study, which I did. One of my early experiences was when I was time studying one of the upholsterers. He snipped off the tie that I was wearing with his scissors (or shears). Since then, I never wore a tie around the factory.
In the fall of ’47, after I’d spent probably three months on time study, I then took over the upstate Michigan territory, and the Northern Ohio territory. I started selling then.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the whole industry at that time. First, as far as manufacturing and then as far as selling. Other than just Norwalk, how was furniture made? How did other people do it? Talk about whatever you might have seen at that time on the factory side.
GERKEN: At that time we had piecework. We had the start of section work in upholstering, where one person would put on the arms, one, the backs, one, the seats. That was starting then. The frame company that drew us to Norwalk in 1919 went out of business during World War II, so we bought our frames from other frame makers then. One of them was a buggy manufacturer in Cincinnati called Ohio Seat. About 1946, a designer and engineer with ... I can’t think of the name … they were in Newton Falls, Ohio. They have since moved to Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: Do you mean the frame manufacturer?
GERKEN: Yes, very prominent.
GERKEN: Chervan, right.
INTERVIEWER: He’s now in Bedford, Virginia.
GERKEN: When they moved to Bedford, this fellow’s name was Rudy Becker, he talked to Dad …
INTERVIEWER: He was the designer?
GERKEN: Yes, he was the designer and engineer with Chervan. And he came to Norwalk and we set up our own mill, and we started making our own frames then.
INTERVIEWER: Did he come to Norwalk as an employee?
GERKEN: Yes, in charge. He was our designer and supervisor of the mill room.
INTERVIEWER: Was that set up as a separate company or as an extension?
GERKEN: No, just a department in the factory.
Let’s go back a little bit and talk about the facilities we had. When we moved to Norwalk in 1919, we took over a factory. I don’t remember what they made, but it was a small factory. We did our upholstering there.
INTERVIEWER: How many stories were there in this factory?
GERKEN: There were two stories. Then, in 1937, my grandfather had died and my father bought an old piano factory, which was in the same block as the present one, but was much bigger. It was four stories including the basement. We only used part of that prior to World War II. We expanded into about two-thirds of it during the war with our different war contracts.
INTERVIEWER: Was this physically close enough that you were able to tie the operation together, around the block?
GERKEN: Yes, we abandoned the original building. The fellows that worked at the factory who were not eligible to go into the war effort worked on tearing down the old factory as something for them to do until my father procured enough war contracts for them to work in production. They tore down the old factory. It probably took them about six months, and they sold off the lumber and so forth. But the new factory gave us plenty of room. We had lots of room in the basement for our mill operation that started up in ’47.
INTERVIEWER: You had your woodworking in the basement?
GERKEN: Right, there were elevators and lifts to move the finished product up. We had our finishing room on the top floor.
INTERVIEWER: Then did you finish the frames, or the exposed wood?
GERKEN: Exposed wood parts.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you do the upholstering?
GERKEN: The upholstering was done on the second floor. The first floor was primarily shipping and warehouse.
INTERVIEWER: I’m curious, because the way we did it — we made the frames on the first floor, then we moved the frames up to the top, and it was gravity from then on, going down.
GERKEN: We moved the frame parts to the top and assembled our frames on the top floor.
INTERVIEWER: And finished on the top floor?
GERKEN: Yes, and finished on the top floor. And it was gravity from then on. Slides and ...
INTERVIEWER: Right back down to the loading dock on the ground level. Very common. You mentioned the Tomlinson factory — that’s the way it was set up. On the manufacturing side, now, was there anybody outside the company that you can remember, in the other businesses that you worked with?
GERKEN: No, there was a distributor of fabrics and vinyl in Cleveland called Sol Batler, and every summer he had an outing for his customers. At that time, Northeast Ohio had several furniture factories. There was Norwalk, Kenmar, Pittsburgh Chair and Franklin. Sol would get us together every summer for a golf outing. There was a little bit of collaboration on different problems or techniques. Usually at the manufacturing level, there’s a lot less competition than at the marketing level. They seem to be more cooperative at the manufacturing level than at the marketing level.
INTERVIEWER: Then you went into sales in Michigan and Ohio. Tell us about how selling was done in those days.
GERKEN: You’d have your bag of swatches and photographs, and start out Monday morning, bright and early, and go to it. You would call on the stores and develop personal relationships with the buyers. They were important.
Let’s see, it was in 1950 when my brother graduated from Washington and Lee and came into the business. He took over my Ohio territory. So from ’50 to ’55, I only had the Michigan territory.
In 1950, we started showing at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, up on the mezzanine floor. We were there about five years. Space in the American Furniture Mart was at a premium then. In 1956, we finally were able to get a space in the Furniture Mart, and we were there until it closed. We moved down to High Point, I think it was, in ’73.
INTERVIEWER: But you were in Chicago after that for a while, until they closed it?
GERKEN: Yes, right.
INTERVIEWER: When you were selling in Michigan, did you have any of the Detroit customers, like Hudson’s or ...
GERKEN: No, we don’t sell to department stores. Strictly furniture stores. We had a Detroit sales rep, and had State Sample, People’s Outfitting, and those types of customers in Detroit.
INTERVIEWER: People’s Outfitting was a remarkable operation.
GERKEN: Yes, it was big. In 1963, my brother and I decided that we would do some experimenting at the retail level. We didn’t have any customers in Buffalo. We bought all of our cotton batting from Buffalo Batt. We decided to open a retail store in the Buffalo market, and then we could backhaul our cotton products from Buffalo. We called it Love Furniture. That’s where we sold just Norwalk Furniture products in this store, plus tables and lamps that we bought. We had two stores in Buffalo.
Originally, we started out trying to duplicate the marketing of food products in grocery stores, where we’d have a real low markup and we’d just check-out the customers. They would select what they’d want. We just had one clerk in there that would write up the order. It was not successful. We analyzed it and it’s an infrequent shopping experience — purchasing furniture. And the consumer needs help in making the selection. With our product line, it just wasn’t possible for them to grasp and make the proper selection. So we raised our prices and hired salespeople.
That was the start of our franchise operation, which is now Norwalk — The Furniture Idea. We started in ’64 with that franchising, changed names around a little bit, trying to find the right name that would identify us in the marketplace. The names we’ve used are: Love Furniture, Sofas and Chairs; Choice Seating; and then Norwalk — The Furniture Idea. One of our customers in Houston had a totally dedicated store there and called it The Furniture Idea. That was a very successful name, so we used that. That started, I think, in 1991.
Now we have Norwalk — The Furniture Idea stores. I think there are 44 or 45 of them now — two in Canada (in Ottawa and Vancouver). Our marketing now is directed toward franchised furniture stores in the major metropolitan areas, and home fashion galleries in the smaller markets.
INTERVIEWER: Now, who owns the home fashion galleries?
GERKEN: They’re retailer-owned. And they also own …
GERKEN: No, it’s a license.
INTERVIEWER: I see.
GERKEN: The franchisees own their own Norwalk — The Furniture Idea stores, with the exception of two markets — Memphis and Atlanta; Norwalk Furniture owns those stores.
INTERVIEWER: Back in ’64, was anybody else doing this sort of thing?
GERKEN: Nat Ancell was getting started at it.
INTERVIEWER: With Ethan Allen?
INTERVIEWER: Now, let’s see. He had been only briefly doing it.
GERKEN: Yes, we were both getting started about the same time.
INTERVIEWER: Ethan Allen Galleries?
INTERVIEWER: Your selling technique was sort of different between the metropolitan areas and the less populated.
GERKEN: Originally, it was not different, other than we had representatives that concentrated in the metropolitan areas, and then other representatives that had the rural areas. Now it’s different, in that the same product line is offered, but the franchised stores receive a lot more help in training, advertising and display. We have regional vice presidents that serve the franchised stores and regular sales reps that service the home fashion galleries in the less populated areas.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a provision for someone to graduate from one group to the other, as their conditions change or as they build stronger ties to Norwalk?
GERKEN: It depends on the geographical area. In a large metropolitan area, there’s enough furniture sold that a retail store can concentrate on a specialty item, like upholstered furniture, and still have enough volume to make it successful. In the less populated areas, the store needs more product to sell to generate the volume to make a profit. That’s why we have the galleries. The stores that have the furniture galleries also can have other competing lines for case goods, bedding and dining to give them a broader product for the limited market.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, back in the days when you started, the typical small-town furniture store carried radios and …
GERKEN: Lawn mowers. Anything that would turn a buck.
INTERVIEWER: What we called “rugs” down South. Did any of your people carry rugs?
INTERVIEWER: There’s quite a difference between the small-town situation and the big-city situation. You even had separate salespeople.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first Market you attended? We want all the detail we can get on that Market.
GERKEN: That was in Chicago in 1950 at the Drake Hotel. As long as we had a customer, we’d be open. We took turns opening in the morning, and we’d stay as late as they wanted to stay at night. Then we stayed right up above there. We could go up the back stairs to our room if we needed to.
INTERVIEWER: You stayed at the Drake, too?
GERKEN: Yes, right.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you show at the Drake?
GERKEN: We were there six years.
INTERVIEWER: Six years. Then you moved into 666 Lake Shore Drive?
INTERVIEWER: The American Furniture Mart.
INTERVIEWER: Where were you there?
GERKEN: We started on the 17th floor and we shared a space with Rock-Ola. Rock-Ola manufactured jukeboxes. We had half the space and they had half.
INTERVIEWER: That was the same floor as the Furniture Club, wasn’t it?
GERKEN: It was just down the hall from the Furniture Club.
INTERVIEWER: On the 17th floor.
GERKEN: Yes, right. Then we went from there to the third floor, then up to the seventh floor, and then we ended up on the first floor, across from Kroehler.
INTERVIEWER: In progressively larger spaces, I assume.
INTERVIEWER: I was with Selig on the fourth floor, and I had Jamestown Sterling on the second floor, and I used to shag up and down the steps.
INTERVIEWER: Who else was there at the Market at that time?
GERKEN: In the Drake?
INTERVIEWER: In the Drake and at the Furniture Market.
GERKEN: At the Drake, Globe Furniture was there; they showed in the mezzanine. And Berne Furniture. The three of us were there for a number of years. Of course, the big names in the Furniture Mart were Kroehler, Bassett and International (or Schnadig).
INTERVIEWER: Now, Kroehler and International both were on the ground floor, were they not?
GERKEN: Yes, Flexsteel was down on the first floor, also.
INTERVIEWER: Which one had the very nice little vignettes in their show windows on the first floor? Had little miniature furniture. Was it Kroehler.
GERKEN: Probably Kroehler.
INTERVIEWER: Kroehler was up on the side toward the lake.
GERKEN: They had the whole north side, and Schnadig had the south side. But, not the whole south side, just to the elevator banks.
INTERVIEWER: You were in the American Furniture Mart until it closed, and meanwhile, you opened in High Point, I assume in the same space in the little Merchandise Mart that you’re in now.
GERKEN: Right, when Futorian moved out, they went over to the big building. Mr. Taylor at that time was showing across from us in Chicago. We’d gotten to know him, and he asked us if we’d like that space on the third floor of his building. We said we would, so we moved down there the year that Futorian moved out. We’ve been there ever since. This Market coming up, we’ll have the top and the second floors. We’ll have two floors now.
INTERVIEWER: And Crestline, what is …
GERKEN: Hickory Hill.
INTERVIEWER: Any details that you can remember about the first Markets, the early Markets in Chicago?
GERKEN: The first Market I went to was in June of 1950. That was just when the Korean War started. I can remember that was a very busy market, and we sold an awful lot of furniture that first Market.
INTERVIEWER: Over in the Furniture Building, did you find that you did more business or less, or about the same?
GERKEN: I would say about the same, but our business was growing as we expanded our territories geographically.
A lot of people came over to the Drake, but it was so inconvenient, setting up. When we finished up the last day of Market, we’d all put on — especially in January — our ear muffs and big coats, and the salesmen would have to load the truck after we finished at night on the last day. It was a lot easier when we had a space in the Furniture Mart.
INTERVIEWER: Easier in a way. I always had problems in the Furniture Mart. They wouldn’t let you do a thing by yourself. You couldn’t even plug a lamp in the wall. The building had to send somebody to do it. If you shipped samples in there, they’d put them off on the dock downstairs and it might be pouring rain — they didn’t care. But you went down there and slipped somebody $20 and your furniture was upstairs in 10 minutes. It was amazing what a little bit of grease would do.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s a big city. We had to do the same thing at the Drake. We could plug our lights in and things like that, but a little bit of money got things moving in good shape.
INTERVIEWER: I went to the Furniture Mart and there’d be trucks lined up all the way around the block. And for $20, you went to the head of the line.
GERKEN: Yes, right. Twenty dollars also got you a room when they were all sold out.
INTERVIEWER: Thinking of that, what about in Chicago, the night life? Of course, when you were at the Drake, I guess you didn’t have any.
GERKEN: There wasn’t any.
INTERVIEWER: When you went into the Furniture Mart, did you get out?
GERKEN: Oh, not too much. Used to go over to Rush Street and listen to some of the bands over there. They always had good music over there.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, we used to go to a place called the Red Star, up on the North side, to a German restaurant.
GERKEN: Two restaurants that we enjoyed were Agostino’s Ristorante for Italian food and Don the Beachcomber for Chinese food.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, Chinese, Polynesian. Anything else about the Chicago Market? It was a major part of everybody’s life for a lot of years.
GERKEN: Yes, I remember the cold in the winter.
INTERVIEWER: And the heat in the summer.
GERKEN: Yes, it was hot in the summer. And the excitement of a Market, like it is at High Point this coming week. It’s an exciting time. New products and new customers.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Agostino’s and Don the Beachcomber.
GERKEN: Really, we didn’t do that much nightlife. We’d go out to eat, and usually, we had a suite of rooms with a bar set up and we’d go back and play pinochle, or visit.
INTERVIEWER: That was in the Drake.
GERKEN: Yes, right.
INTERVIEWER: Can you contrast this in any way with High Point, which is now pretty much the preeminent Market?
INTERVIEWER: Are there similarities or differences? You mentioned the excitement. It’s still there.
GERKEN: Yes, I think it’s a Market. It’s a good place to get ideas and show your wares, and get to meet with your customers. I don’t see that much difference between High Point and Chicago, other than the vast size of the Market in High Point now. Of course, then the Merchandise Mart and the Furniture Mart were both going big in Chicago and they had a lot of space.
INTERVIEWER: Had two full floors at the Merchandise Mart.
GERKEN: Yes, but you know, there’s a lot more similarities between the two of them than there are differences.
INTERVIEWER: That’s very interesting.
GERKEN: Yes, High Point is a good, viable Market that is very important to the marketing of furniture.
INTERVIEWER: It’s essential, critical. Furniture is an unusual product. For instance, a guy who sells hosiery has a big case and he carries one sock of each. All the clothing guys have seven-passenger Cadillacs and carry all the stuff hanging in the back. They can take their samples. Furniture has always been a marketing problem in that you simply can’t carry your product to your customers. It’s much easier and more efficient to bring the customer to the furniture.
GERKEN: Yes, yes. And we’ve shown in Atlanta and Dallas and ... where else?
INTERVIEWER: Did you show in New York?
GERKEN: No, we never showed in New York. Our only showroom now is in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: There’s going to be a lot of studying done one day about the marketing of furniture and how unusual it is from most products. Now furniture, bedding and rugs are somewhat related, and of course, accessories are totally sold separately.
GERKEN: Yes, everybody is critical of the marketing of furniture, with square footage that’s only used two Markets a year. But I was chairman of the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair in Atlanta, and it costs as much to rent space at that show for their annual show. But the annual costs of renting space at the Woodworking show are as much as we pay in High Point. While it seems inefficient to have it sitting idle 50 weeks out of the year, economically, it’s as good if not better than temporary space in a temporary show, such as the Woodworking Show, or temporary shows as they have in Europe.
INTERVIEWER: Or such as you had at the Drake.
INTERVIEWER: Where the whole sales force had to stay the last day to help you move out.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you’ve pretty well covered the beginning of your company, I think, from Toledo to Grand Rapids, Ohio, and then to Norwalk. Is there anything that we have not gone over? We talked about moving the frame plant to Norwalk.
GERKEN: Right, and starting that up. Times were awful tough during the Depression, but that’s not news to anybody.
INTERVIEWER: Everybody had that. Your company moved into the piano factory. Are you still in that factory?
GERKEN: No, in 1970 we built a new factory. What I tried to do then was, rather than sell a building, I wanted to sell a company. We started a company called Interior Design Systems. Its focus or customer was the mobile home industry. We built products and marketed products …
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes. You were well situated because of Elkhart, Indiana, and everything that’s over there.
GERKEN: Right, our theory was to build a good product to market the lamps, tables, and all the loose things that went into a mobile home, and load them in such a way that the mobile home furniture manufacturer didn’t have to carry any inventory.
INTERVIEWER: They couldn’t — they had no room for it.
GERKEN: We would load our trucks according to their production schedule. It would just come off our trucks, right into their mobile home. But they were never willing to pay the price for that product and service. We were in it for about three or four years and we realized that if we were going to do a big business there, we either had to cheat somewhere — the customer, the employees, or somewhere — to get the price down, because prices were so competitive. We discontinued that business and then sold the building. It was an interesting experiment that didn’t work.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, you just about invented what is now called “just-in-time,” although that term hadn’t been invented.
GERKEN: A week from Saturday, we will receive the retailer award for the number one choice of a company that delivers their product when they say they’re going to. It’s the “First Arrows Award.”
INTERVIEWER: Excellent. Congratulations.
GERKEN: I’m really proud of that. Pat Carroll was taking Hans Klaussner around the Market, and he came up and I visited with him for quite a while. That was before he bought Stuart. He was looking for a furniture factory in this country. Yes, he’s done a great job.
INTERVIEWER: The company now must be four or five times as big as it was then.
INTERVIEWER: How has the growth of your company been affected by labor? Your labor situation, I’m sure, is quite different from what it is in, say, Asheboro, North Carolina, but in what way?
GERKEN: We’re unionized. We have really high productivity on a piecework system. Labor isn’t all that big a percentage of the selling price in upholstered furniture.
INTERVIEWER: What is it, in your case?
GERKEN: Oh, 12 percent, maybe. I think the cost of labor, North versus South, union versus non-union, is not as big a factor as the furniture industry thinks it is. Because if you were able to save 30 percent, that represents only 2 or 3 percent of the selling price of your product. So that’s not that important.
INTERVIEWER: What about style and design in this business? They’ve changed mightily and have made a great big difference.
GERKEN: I would say that as the consumer becomes more educated and possibly has more money, their tastes vary. They’re looking for better design. They’re more critical in what they purchase. I think an educated consumer is good for the industry. It has made us all improve our taste level and our design level.
INTERVIEWER: Norwalk, in my mind, always has been associated with design-level medium and upwards. Certainly you never did any so-called borax stuff, like Sears, Roebuck used to sell, with the big, wide arms.
GERKEN: We had that.
INTERVIEWER: Like International and …
GERKEN: Yes, we had that through the ’70s. We competed with all the fancy, heavy pieces. Now that Market is dominated by Mississippi manufacturers.
INTERVIEWER: And really, although they call it something different, you look at the basic piece of furniture and it’s not a great distance removed from the borax.
GERKEN: Not at all. The goal is to make it look worth the money.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, big and impressive.
INTERVIEWER: What about fabric?
GERKEN: I think, with the advent of good synthetic fabrics — nylon and olefins — it has allowed the designers to do a lot more, and have a lot more flexibility in design. The backing that they’re putting on the fabrics has allowed them to cut down the number of picks — probably, so they don’t need to hold the cloth together with weaves as much with the backing.
I think the fabric mills have done a great job in providing a value product.
Because it represents such a big percentage of the cost of upholstered furniture, it has allowed us to have annual increases in price less than the CPI. I applaud the fabric industry for what they’ve done in keeping us competitive.
INTERVIEWER: When you first went out on the road, what was the fabric price range of Norwalk? What was the cheapest fabric you had, per yard? What did it cost?
GERKEN: I don’t remember, Roy. I’d just guess $2 a yard. That was almost 50 years ago. About 45 years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, and how high did they go?
GERKEN: We didn’t get much after $4. That was pretty expensive.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember government-standard mohair?
GERKEN: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: How much was it?
GERKEN: That was before my time. I don’t know, but that was necessary to have in the line. Well, you know the story of how government-standard came about, don’t you?
INTERVIEWER: No, tell me.
GERKEN: Mohair was a very popular fabric in the ’20s. And then everybody started cheating and cheating.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this was a pile fabric?
GERKEN: Right. A cut pile.
INTERVIEWER: A velvet?
GERKEN: A cut pile fabric, but made with mohair yarn. The mills kept cutting it to get another nickel or penny a yard out of it. And all of a sudden, it was just a disaster for the furniture manufacturers. My dad always told me that all we did was trade customers. They’d get mad at Kroehler and buy Norwalk, and Norwalk dealers would get mad at us and buy Kroehler, until the government established a standard for mohair fabrics, and they had to meet those standards. That was when it was called “government-standard mohair.”
INTERVIEWER: Was this in terms of picks?
GERKEN: I think picks and the quality of the mohair.
INTERVIEWER: Right. The length of pile, I guess.
GERKEN: Yes, and the dying. What they did was use some cheap dyes, I think, and got the heat too hot, and with the low standard, it didn’t last very long. It was just a real disaster. I think it was in the ’20s or early ’30s. But none of the manufacturers would stand by their product because it would have just put everybody under.
INTERVIEWER: What about advertising as a factor in the growth of Norwalk?
GERKEN: We’ve never done any consumer advertising. We did very little advertising in the way of dealer aids, newspaper ads and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: You mean co-op advertising?
GERKEN: Yes, we didn’t do any co-op advertising. During the ’70s we reached out and expanded our distribution to the country east of the Rockies. Well, east of the line from Houston to Omaha and up to Minneapolis. We wanted to get our distribution, which we did.
Now we’re doing more advertising that concentrates on Norwalk — the name Norwalk. I think we’re featured in the latest issue of Woman’s Day. On October 19, we’re assisting Oprah Winfrey with her program on consumer value and we’ll get some credit there. I think we’re also advertising in some of the shelter magazines now. We’re starting to build the Norwalk furniture name.
INTERVIEWER: You did indeed advertise in the industry publications, like Home Furnishings Daily and Furniture/Today.
GERKEN: Right, and those were pretty much directed at the retailer, and not the consumer.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else specifically about Norwalk that we haven’t covered that ought to be part of the record?
GERKEN: Let’s look at our mill room. That’s an interesting ...
INTERVIEWER: By that, you mean woodworking?
GERKEN: Woodworking, right. We bought strips of gum from Bailey Manufacturing Bailey Lumber & Supply Company in Meridian, Missouri. It would come in by boxcar. There were specified widths of 2, 2½, 3, 3½, 4, 5, and 6 inches. Then we would put them in bins and that was our frame stock.
INTERVIEWER: Now, were they cut to length?
GERKEN: No, we cut them to length.
INTERVIEWER: They came to you, in what, 12 feet?
GERKEN: Any width, any length.
INTERVIEWER: Log length.
GERKEN: Yes. Then, in 1956, we bought a company in Cookeville, Tennessee that made frame parts.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, we need to bring that in, too.
GERKEN: We then left Bailey and bought our frame parts from Tennessee; Lowe Furniture was the name of the company. We discontinued that after several years; it didn’t work out. We then went back to Bailey and bought strips again from them. Then we started our own wood plant. This was just the rough end of the wood mill over in Verda, Kentucky, in Harlan County. That was a pretty rough area and so, in 1973, we bought a Standard Oil of Ohio plant in Cookeville, Tennessee. That plant made brooms, both plastic- and wooden-headed brooms. We bought that plant and moved our lumber operation from Verda, Kentucky, to Cookeville, Tennessee, in ’73. We started our own sawmill then. And that’s been a very good venture. We still have our own sawmill. The higher grade we sell; the lower grade we use for our frame stock. We buy the logs and debark them, and have a really efficient wood processing plant there.
INTERVIEWER: Do you rip to width there, too?
GERKEN: Yes, right.
INTERVIEWER: What do you ship to the upholstery factory? Just strips?
GERKEN: Completed frames, unassembled.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, completed frames.
GERKEN: Yes, we ran our mill in Norwalk after we moved out of the old piano factory in 1970. We ran it until about ’72, and then we transferred that down to Cookeville in ’73. They ship us the parts already doweled and ready to assemble.
In the mid-’60s, we started a chair plant in Cookeville, Tennessee and transferred that chair department out of Norwalk toTennessee, and started a chair factory for upholstered chairs.
INTERVIEWER: How do you differentiate between a chair that goes to Tennessee and a chair ... I’m sure you must make chairs in Norwalk?
GERKEN: Yes, these were small swivel rockers. They weren’t part of a suite.
INTERVIEWER: Not occasional chairs, like this?
GERKEN: Yes, those. But they weren’t matching chairs to the sofa. Those were made in Norwalk.
A few years later, we bought a large factory in Cookeville, and went after the — this was in the middle ’70s — large retailers of upholstered furniture, in contrast to where Norwalk was marketing its products. That did not work out, so about, I think it was in the early ’80s, we sold that operation to an employee who moved it (by then it was quite small) into another operation. We took the products that Norwalk was selling back to Ohio and made them there, and sold that large upholstering plant. At the smaller plant, where we made our chairs, we then started a company called Norco, which serviced the unfinished furniture business. They used the better grade of product from the wood mill right there in town to service the unfinished furniture business. Last year, we sold that building and moved Norco in with the woodworking operation in the old Standard Oil building that we bought in Cookeville in ’73.
In ’91, we bought two plants from Corson Manufacturing, called Hickory Hill. Of course, it was in bankruptcy, and we bought two plants called Hickory Hill — one in Valdese, North Carolina, and one in Fulton, Mississippi. We now focus on the top 100 retailers with the Hickory Hill line, and the specialty furniture retailers with the Norwalk line. Hickory Hill is making some products for Norwalk that we market to the county-seat towns, called Hampton House. There’s less style, less fabrics, less service for that line, and it’s a lower price line than Norwalk. Our Norwalk salesmen sell that product. Our marketing is pretty tightly focused today.
INTERVIEWER: It sure is. All right, now, so we’ve covered the Hickory Hill acquisition. One thing I want to discuss — you mentioned buying lumber in strips. I’ve had several discussions lately on whether it’s better to cut first or rip first in furniture frame operations. Now, what you’re doing is essentially a rip-first operation?
GERKEN: We gang-rip at Cookeville. But for the trim part, it depends what the end product is. And the trim parts, we cut off first, and then rip later. We have two rough mills, or two rough lines in Cookeville. One is the strip, gang-rip operation.
INTERVIEWER: That’s for frames that are going to be covered?
GERKEN: Right, and then for the show wood, we cut off first and then rip.
INTERVIEWER: All right. You did some engineering studies that back that up?
GERKEN: Oh, yes, mostly yield studies. We use a better grade of lumber for the show wood, naturally. We can get a better yield by ripping first for frame stock.
INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting. I’ve always used cut-first. But since I have gotten out of manufacturing, I’m a total convert to rip-first for frames.
GERKEN: Yes, we’ve even taken it as far as into the sawmill, and we’re sizing the boards there for the frame stock. They can come from there right into the gang-rip. It requires a discipline in design, because we standardize a lot of our parts, so they’re interchangeable and have the same widths, so we don’t have to keep changing the gang-rip too much.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, you standardize on a few standard widths and stick with it.
GERKEN: Yes, right.
INTERVIEWER: Very smart. Comparatively, what kind of lumber yield do you get? How much improvement?
GERKEN: That’s too technical a question for me to answer. I used to know, but I’ve been away from it for six years. I just don’t have that detail.
INTERVIEWER: Now, we’ll get into a much broader context — the whole furniture industry. I know you’ve been very active in industry things. The first question, which doesn’t apply, is what jobs have you held in furniture companies? You’ve been in one furniture company all your life. And had the privilege, I guess, of being involved in practically every aspect of the company.
GERKEN: Yes, through NAFM (National Association of Furniture Manufacturers), Norma and I got to be very good friends with the Hardens and the Slighs. Dave Harden lost his wife last year from cancer. Last week, we visited Dave, both Bob and Lois Sligh, and Norma and I. It was interesting that there were three furniture companies there. We were the youngest, being founded in 1902. Harden was founded in 1844. Next year they’ll celebrate their 150th anniversary. Sligh was founded in 1888. Here’s a company that’s 91 years old and we were the youngest one. They’re all being managed by fourth- and fifth-generation families. They’re all still privately-held and all producing a good quality product. All are very viable companies. It was interesting. We were talking about that — the three of us.
INTERVIEWER: You should have many stories out of that.
GERKEN: Yes, and how unique it was. We were trying to think of any other furniture manufacturers that are that old and still in the same family and not publicly-held.
INTERVIEWER: You won’t find many in the South.
INTERVIEWER: In your time, what have you seen as far as changes in the production of upholstery? You mentioned a little bit about going into section work. You still work on piecework.
GERKEN: Right. I don’t think there’s been too much change. There’s been a lot of change in the materials, with the advent of polyurethane. The goal has always been to keep as much of the labor away from the upholsterer and put it into sewing or pre-fabricating foam, cotton or whatever, so he doesn’t have to spend so much time tufting or making the different artistic characteristics. Trying to get it into the sewing room or prefabricating as much as possible.
INTERVIEWER: Do you, for instance, cut batting to size for the upholsterer?
INTERVIEWER: He doesn’t have a roll of batting up on his bench?
GERKEN: Not anymore, no. It’s all cut to size. The foam is all preformed even. We even glue so he just has to put it on over the arm and tack it down. I would say the advent of new materials has changed that part of it. And of course, the stapler. When I started, it was the tack hammer. The staplers were just coming on. That’s changed the productivity of the upholsterer.
INTERVIEWER: Totally. And of course, in a typical upholstery factory now, you’ll have five or six different kinds of staplers.
GERKEN: Oh, yes, depending on the job that has to be done.
INTERVIEWER: Staple in webbing, or staple in springs?
GERKEN: The needle nose on the outsides.
INTERVIEWER: When you first started, what was the padding material of preference?
GERKEN: It was cotton.
INTERVIEWER: The cotton batting has always been a textile waste product, and you buy a blend of all of these different wastes. What kind of quality did Norwalk specify back then?
GERKEN: We bought from Buffalo Batt and we used their quality standards. I don’t think we specified.
INTERVIEWER: They all had grades of materials, depending on how many motes were in it.
GERKEN: Right. Dad was always suspicious of buying from someone he didn’t trust, because with the cotton batting, they could fool you so easily with the filling material, or the waste they’d put in. We stuck with Buffalo Batt as long as they were in business because we could depend on their quality and their integrity.
INTERVIEWER: Do you use any cotton at all now?
GERKEN: I think so, Roy, but I don’t know for sure. We use a lot of Dacron and, of course,
polyurethane. I don’t know whether we use any cotton or not.
INTERVIEWER: Many people simply don’t use any cotton anymore, because the various polyesters (and Dacron is a polyester) coming out of the pop bottles and things like that, they have come down to the point that they have a very low
price and a much more consistent product.
GERKEN: I imagine with our textile business declining in this country, the product for the batting was textile waste. As that has gone overseas, there’s probably less product available, also.
INTERVIEWER: Fabric itself has gone toward polyester in a very major way. There is mill waste from polyester. So you get the short staples and stuff, which comes from the same source as the cotton batting waste. But there’s a very pronounced move. Do you remember Spanish moss as a filling?
GERKEN: Oh, yes. And what’s the one from milkweed?
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Kapok.
GERKEN: Kapok, yes.
INTERVIEWER: OK, that’s a good one, which in a way, down replaced.
GERKEN: Yes, it didn’t last very long. Ground itself up to dust.
INTERVIEWER: We used to use palm fiber, lots of it. We
used coco fiber, which is nothing in the world but coconut hulls shredded up.
GERKEN: Hog hair and horse hair, a latex hair pad.
INTERVIEWER: Right, only in the higher end. What about purchasing? How has that changed over the years, in the whole, total industry?
GERKEN: I see a change, but it’s more a philosophical change. We used to be more loyal to our vendors than I think we are today.
INTERVIEWER: Now, that’s interesting.
GERKEN: I think that’s probably a philosophical change between the purchaser then and the purchaser now.
INTERVIEWER: But it certainly affects the way you do business, being consistent with a vendor …
GERKEN: I think what changed that point of view ... we were very loyal to a spring manufacturer I won’t mention the name, and they really burned us bad on lower quality steel. They weren’t heating it and setting it right, and we had a lot of problems. At that time, we realized that our dead-end loyalty was hurting our quality, and since then, we’ve been more conscious of more vendors, and our dealing with more vendors than we used to.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see much movement totally away from using springs to elastic webbing, for instance?
GERKEN: No, not in our product. No.
INTERVIEWER: There’s nothing that can enclose more air than metal springs.
Now, what about sales and merchandising? We’ve touched on that a bit, where you had the Love Furniture in Buffalo, which was basically a franchise thing in which you were absolutely a pioneer
GERKEN: I do, too.
INTERVIEWER: And he said, “You wouldn’t have any salespeople traveling at all. You’d have a bookkeeper coming around once a month to close the books. You’d have an advertising guy come around once a month with the local newspapers to set up your advertising. You’d have a display person and every store would have the same display.”
GERKEN: Right, and a training person.
INTERVIEWER: Is that anything like what you had?
GERKEN: Oh, yes, very much so. We have lots of support people do a lot of training; a lot of advertising help for the franchisees; and a lot of display help.
INTERVIEWER: Anything of an architectural nature, like Howard Johnson’s? Now he was intending to have a pattern store. This is when Ancell came around, not much after.
INTERVIEWER: But Howard Johnson ... you go through 400 Howard Johnson stands at one time. They were all alike.
GERKEN: Right. No, we haven’t. We’ve considered it, but have not adopted that. I would say the biggest deterrent to that is getting the right location at the right price, and the really short-lived maximization of the retail location with today’s mobile consumer. A location can go sour in 10 or 15 years as shopping patterns change. You need the flexibility to move with the shopping patterns.
INTERVIEWER: Your company salespeople, are they on commission?
INTERVIEWER: Is that historic — have they been all along?
GERKEN: Yes, I’ll tell you an interesting story. My mother died in July, and in August, I was going through some of the things my father and mother had. In one of them was a note from my grandfather to my father when he came off the road and took a position in the factory. He (my father) felt he should make as much money when he came into the factory as he was making on the road; my grandfather felt that he shouldn’t. My father prevailed. With a wife and young kids, he needed to make the money that he was making on the road. Of course, salesmen, good producers — they make a lot more money than people in the factories, as you are well aware.
INTERVIEWER: Always have.
GERKEN: My grandfather, in deference to the stockholders then, subsidized out of his pocket the difference between what he thought my father should make and how much he paid my father. Then he gave my two aunts a note making up that difference that he owed them.
When he died, this little note was attached to the notes he gave to my two aunts to explain to my father why his estate owed them money and not my father.
INTERVIEWER: Now, when you say notes, do you mean financial notes?
GERKEN: Financial notes, right. I used “notes” in two different ways there. One was a written note and the other was a financial note. We still use commissioned salesmen and they still do very well, those that are hustlers.
INTERVIEWER: How about finance?
GERKEN: We’re privately-held. My three nephews, and my son and I — the five of us — own the company. To finance our growth — this year we’ll do about $95 million — we’ve used industrial revenue bonds to the maximum, which gives us a long pay-off debt at a low interest rate.
INTERVIEWER: Now, is this a local thing, or a state thing?
GERKEN: Both local and state. That has allowed us to finance our growth, leveraging the company with industrial revenue bonds and some bank loans.
INTERVIEWER: All right. You haven’t gotten into the acquisition game, except with the Hickory Hill thing. Was that any different from your previous patterns of growth?
GERKEN: In 1964, we acquired Luxury Rocker, Luxury Furniture in Grand Rapids, and moved that to Norwalk, and integrated.
INTERVIEWER: That’s Grand Rapids, Michigan?
GERKEN: Michigan, right. We integrated their products into our upholstered line. Then in 1991, we acquired Hickory Hill. It’s a way to grow faster. The kids wanted to grow faster. Norwalk is very much focused in their market and they wanted a product line that would be more oriented toward the top 100 retailers. By keeping the two — Hickory Hill and Norwalk — separate from a marketing and manufacturing standpoint, we’re hoping to get more volume in each of the metropolitan areas, by appealing to different retail stores and consumers.
INTERVIEWER: Were these industrial revenue bonds available to you in Valdese, North Carolina?
INTERVIEWER: I have never heard of anybody using them before in North Carolina.
GERKEN: Yes, we use them.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in management? They have been substantial over the 40 years.
GERKEN: Yes, my grandfather was an upholsterer. My father was an entrepreneur. I was an entrepreneur that tried to manage professionally, for the times, as if it was a public company. I didn’t use it as my own personal money machine and take things out. I managed it in a way that brought us into the current phase of management philosophy, which is the team concept. Ed is doing an outstanding job in developing the continuous improvement process in team management.
INTERVIEWER: I’ll bet he is. I can see that as part of his personality.
GERKEN: Yes, and it’s going very well. The times changed. Not only as the size of the company grew, but also the education of the work force improved so the philosophy of management has changed and we’ve tried to keep ahead of others. At least keep up to it, but usually ahead of what good management is.
INTERVIEWER: Speaking industry-wise now, describe the support you personally received from people in our industry. Then describe the support your company has received. I know it happens a great deal, due to how much you and your company have been involved.
GERKEN: I think one thing that’s outstanding to me is that my father toured Europe with a bunch of furniture manufacturers after World War II, or in the early ’50s. In Denmark, he saw a process of upholstering by sections and then assembling the frame after it was upholstered, rather than before. He brought that home and we have perfected that technique, where we have jigs that hold the arms, and jigs that hold the backs, and jigs that hold the seats.
INTERVIEWER: I didn’t know that.
GERKEN: Then we have a collector conveyor that’s loaded at night with the next day’s production. It’s stored up in the ceiling and it goes to the assemblers, who then put the upholstered pieces together.
INTERVIEWER: After they’re upholstered?
GERKEN: Yes, after they’re upholstered.
INTERVIEWER: That’s fascinating. I’d like to see that sometime.
GERKEN: It does cost a little bit more because we have to double-rail some places. But the improvement in productivity of having the work right up in front of you and not having to crawl around the frame, for instance, to do arms, makes up for the double-railing, and the increase on the frame costs. But my dad picked that up on that tour.
From my point of view, being head of NAFM and also being head of the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair.
INTERVIEWER: Which we can talk about later.
GERKEN: Yes, the benefits I got were just fantastic — being invited into other people’s plants and sharing concerns and problems with people. It really helped me an awful lot.
INTERVIEWER: In my experience, I’ve only been in one factory that upholstered parts and then put them together, and that was a factory that Kroehler had in Charlotte, which has long been closed. But they made upholstered furniture doing that. I’ve never seen that done anywhere else.
GERKEN: That was copied from ours.
INTERVIEWER: Was it?
INTERVIEWER: What was the plant manager’s name there?
GERKEN: I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: I remember he went somewhere else. Are you moving that technique over to Hickory Hill, too?
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t do it.
GERKEN: No. If there’s a good idea, we’ll cross-pollinate with them. But we don’t force our techniques on them and they don’t, of course, force their techniques on us. They serve their market and manufacture the product for their market, and Norwalk does it for our market.
INTERVIEWER: If the tailoring hadn’t been good, when Norwalk got in the picture, it would have become good. Because, as long as I can remember from visiting in your show space, your tailoring, everything in there, is impeccable.
INTERVIEWER: Any other support that your company has received from others in the industry? You mentioned visiting among factories and that sort of thing. Have you had problems that you got solutions to from other people?
GERKEN: Oh, UFAC was a good example of serving on the board. I was on the board, and Wayne Klein was and now Ed is. That keeps us up to date on what the government is expecting and the solutions to those problems. I can’t think of anything, Roy, specifically.
INTERVIEWER: The next question is parallel to that: What have you done for other people? And the fact of being involved in UFAC is a matter of your being in a group that was working for the industry, rather than individuals helping each other. It was the group process helping the whole industry.
GERKEN: Right. I think we’ve had that at NAFM and we have that at AFMA; and we’ve participated in that. My father was president of NAFM and I was president of NAFM. When the two (North and South manufacturing groups) merged as AFMA … Ed’s on the board there at AFMA. Dick Nicholi has been president of transportation. Jack Arthur is president of marketing. John Francisco has been president of manufacturing. And Bob Gerken is on the board of the financial group. We’ve participated and have a history of support of associations and contributing, and everybody feels they got more out of it than they put into it.
INTERVIEWER: I think that’s typical, and should be.
GERKEN: Yes, and anybody that will let us come into their plant, we let them come into our plant. We have a lot of cross-plant visits.
INTERVIEWER: This one we’ve covered, but add whatever else you want to say: Describe your business strategy, starting with Love Furniture in Buffalo. That certainly has been an unusual business strategy which has worked quite well for you.
GERKEN: Right, and our vertical integration, from the sawmills all the way through on the frame. Because of our isolated position in the industry in Norwalk, our foam cushioning, for instance, we have to fabricate all of our own foam.
We buy the buns and then have the saws to make our own cushions. And we’ve taken over that technology and are really good at that technology. But we were forced into it because there wasn’t a foam fabricator close to us. And I think most strategies are the result of the environment you’re in and what you have to do to improve your operation, operating in the environment that you’re in.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your management techniques. And I would say you did that very well in your progression into group involvement.
GERKEN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you yourself. What has been your central, personal goal in your business?
GERKEN: I don’t think there’s been any one goal. I enjoy developing people. I enjoy building physical assets. I enjoy being responsible for a product that I can be proud of, both for quality and styling. And the financial rewards will follow the success of those ventures. I don’t put return on investment or financial reward as the primary goal. If you do these things well, that will come along.
INTERVIEWER: How well have you achieved this?
GERKEN: I’m very comfortable. It was interesting, Roy. I took the AMP course at Harvard in ’68 and ’69. Advanced Management. A pseudo-MBA from Harvard is what you end up with. It’s 13 weeks on the campus. My primary goal then was to determine if I wanted to stay in the furniture business. I made that assumption based on a return on equity. I had access to the corporate records of all the public companies in Baker Library. Each of us had to take a project for the 13 weeks, and that was mine. I did an analysis of all the public furniture companies and their return on equity. I analyzed that and was satisfied with what I saw there.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have to write a thesis?
GERKEN: Not a thesis, as such. I had an interview with one of the professors after I was finished. I had my worksheets and things and explained it. Then the second goal of going to Harvard was, having grown up in the business, I wondered how I matched up with my peers. You’re in a very enclosed environment in the family and the business, and I just wondered how good I was. When I graduated from there, I was satisfied that I had the talents to do a good job. I was satisfied that the furniture industry was where I wanted to do it. It was an interesting experience for me.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, so you did achieve that goal?
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any comparisons from it, specifics that you would want to mention in your own accomplishments versus these other companies?
GERKEN: No, it was just daily classroom experiences with them. And there were a lot of big hitters in there.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel your company goal was achieved? How well was it achieved?
GERKEN: In what time frame?
INTERVIEWER: The total, up to your retirement.
GERKEN: Oh, yes, very much so.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a financial schedule, so many shipments this year, next year, a five-year objective, and that kind of thing?
GERKEN: We used to. But with the industry being a cyclical industry, it’s very difficult to project out five years, because there’s so much control in Washington on interest rates and influence on the economy that you almost have to be a political science student today to project much beyond a year or two.
INTERVIEWER: Except that the political science students are so buried in academia that they don’t see the forest for the trees.
GERKEN: That’s true of some. When I was president of NAFM, I read, I think it was in Business Week, one industry that had a model of their industry, an econometric model. I mentioned to John Snow that that would be helpful to the furniture industry, and he agreed. We interviewed three econometric model makers. Seidman & Seidman, they used Grand Valley College outside of Grand Rapids. We talked to them. We talked to the University of Michigan and we talked to Wharton.
After going through the models with them and what they would offer, we selected the University of Michigan model. We interviewed economists and selected Michael Sherman as the person to get our model up and running. He worked with Saul Hyman at the University of Michigan. We used the output from the University of Michigan on the global variables in the economy, and then built a model for the furniture industry. That’s used today quite a bit in predicting. That doesn’t go out too far, either.
INTERVIEWER: Ten years ago, would you have forecast a volume of business at $95 million for Norwalk? You mentioned that earlier.
GERKEN: I always had my sights set pretty high. I think I had projections like that. Yes, I think so.
INTERVIEWER: It seemed to me that that kind of volume 10 years ago would have been really blue-sky stuff.
GERKEN: Yes, there was a really neat guy with Mohasco — he drowned in the Mohawk River …
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Bill ... I was thinking about him the other day. He was a statistician.
GERKEN: He and I were really good friends. He was a very nice person and helped me a lot in our projections.
INTERVIEWER: He was an employee of Mohawk, originally.
INTERVIEWER: And I agree with you about him. He was a remarkable person.
GERKEN: I can’t remember his last name.
INTERVIEWER: It started with a “B.”
GERKEN: Yes. He died in a boating accident.
INTERVIEWER: He did a lot of work, statistical work, for UFAC.
What was the overriding business philosophy of your company? Can that be expressed?
GERKEN: One of the important philosophies is that nobody can own stock unless they work for the company – no family members. Whenever there were sisters or brothers that didn’t work at Norwalk, the company bought out their stock, so that we don’t have minority stockholders that don’t work for the business. I’m the only one, but I’m retired, also. My dad had stock and he was retired, but during the working years, that was one philosophy that he carried through.
INTERVIEWER: You stayed on the board, did you not?
GERKEN: Yes, and we had a philosophy of compulsive honesty to the salesmen. We’d try to have that permeate the whole business.
INTERVIEWER: Can you discriminate between your own overriding philosophy and that of your company?
GERKEN: They are pretty much compatible. I’d say very compatible, because a person’s sense of values, and when you’re the owner and president of the company, they carry over to the company. You just can’t lead two lives.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered this to some degree, but whatever you may want to add: Describe your relationships with your suppliers.
GERKEN: I would say they are very good.
INTERVIEWER: I think that you mentioned Buffalo Batt, with your faithfulness to that company and your problem with the spring company. The tendency has been to have a continuing relationship.
GERKEN: Right, we try to be fair in our evaluation of their products. We pay our bills promptly. We fight to have a good credit rating. I would say they’re very cordial.
INTERVIEWER: How about relationships with your customers?
GERKEN: That’s a very strong bond. Because of our franchising and our galleries, we’re very, very close to our retail customers.
INTERVIEWER: That goes back 30 years.
GERKEN: Yes, in fact, a lot of times, our regional vice presidents will sit in on hiring people, even, to make sure, you know, we get the right person. With our franchisee program, the screening process is very rigid. I would say we turn down more applicants than we accept. We want compatible philosophies. We want somebody that’s not going to reinvent the wheel every week. It’s a number of stages to go through, and by the time we finish, we end up very close to each other.
We had an interesting situation in Seattle, where two people came to us as partners in a franchise. One passed the screening process and one didn’t. The reason the one didn’t was because he was just too entrepreneurial. He wanted to change things and do things differently, and he was just the type of person that would be very successful on his own. He was successful, and had a furniture store. The other person had the money, but didn’t have the furniture experience. We explained to him why his partner was turned down. He said, “Well, I need him for the furniture experience.” And we said, “But that’s what we’re offering you, a turn-key operation.” He understood what we were saying and he is now our franchisee in Seattle, by himself.
INTERVIEWER: But you furnished the furniture experience.
GERKEN: Right. We’re very close to our customers.
INTERVIEWER: What were your greatest problems with your suppliers?
GERKEN: I would say delivery, and an occasional quality problem. But I would say getting it when we need it — that’s probably the biggest problem we have.
INTERVIEWER: Have you made any changes as a result of failed deliveries?
GERKEN: In fabric mills, if they oversell a product, one particular look and don’t have the loom capacity, we’ll make some changes there to make sure we get our fabric when we need it. However, we do have a mathematical equation for forecasting fabric needs. When it comes off the computer, the fellow that’s buying the fabric has a projected figure on when he needs it. He can tweak that for slow mills that are out, five months, for instance. He can manage the flow of the orders there.
INTERVIEWER: Does he have to make the adjustment for slow delivery, or does the computer go back and evaluate the experience with that company?
GERKEN: The computer evaluates that, because we put in the date ordered and the date delivered. When the mill starts to get other looms on that and speeds up delivery, the computer will back off on that. But he can override anything if he sees it’s not working out like he needs it to.
INTERVIEWER: What have been your greatest problems with your customers?
GERKEN: Probably financial problems. There are very few retail stores that survive one generation. We’ve been very loyal to our customers. One of our sales managers once called it “dead-end loyalty.” We would stick with a customer right through his deciding to get out of business or going out of business. We don’t jump around very much with customers.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, they’ve fallen by the wayside in multiples.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s right. I would say credit problems and, up until recently because we were pioneers in the specialty retail upholstered field, we’ve had a lot of trouble over the years getting our concept accepted by the industry.
Now it’s accepted by the industry almost too well. We have a lot of competition out there on the street.
INTERVIEWER: Now we’ll switch gears a little bit: Describe your involvement with industry trade associations. You’ve pretty well gone through that in terms of being president of NAFM.
GERKEN: I think one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of — there are a lot of them — I’m very proud of the econometric model that I was instrumental in developing. But the merger, I was responsible for the negotiations of the move (of the woodworking show) from Louisville to Atlanta, and was involved with Cahners and the importers — the woodworking machinery importers.
INTERVIEWER: This has been something that has been very close and very much a part of your life, that we haven’t touched on, and that is the supply show, machinery show, officially now the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair.
GERKEN: Right. My dad was head of that, and then I was also head of it. I was involved in moving it to Atlanta, and negotiating a very lucrative agreement with the other joint venture partners and the trade show manager, Cahners. And that has given the AFMA a very solid financial picture to survive the mergers of their members that are going on. And there is an upper limit on the dues to AFMA. Every time a big guy swallows up a smaller member, you lose those dues. Fortunately for the woodworking machinery show, AFMA is in a very strong financial position. It hasn’t had to raise dues, and it’s able to survive this merger activity that’s been going on for the past 20 years.
INTERVIEWER: I know the move from Louisville was strictly under NAFM.
INTERVIEWER: Was this other before the merger of the associations or after?
GERKEN: It was before the merger.
INTERVIEWER: Pretty much all of that was fait accompli at the time of the merger.
GERKEN: That’s correct. I think that was one of the influencing factors in SFMA deciding to merge with NAFM. They could see what was going on with the merger of their members, and they could see that this would be a profitable venture to maintain a manufacturing association in this country.
INTERVIEWER: I heard it expressed that the “bride came with a very satisfactory dowry.”
GERKEN: Very satisfactory.
INTERVIEWER: What’s been the greatest benefit from the machinery show activity?
GERKEN: Its emphasis is primarily on woodworking machinery. I was on the board, and now Dick Campbell, who is president of our Tennessee woodworking operation, is on the board. He is also chairman of the “Challenge to Change” awards committee. He knows and is right on the cutting edge of all the new technology that’s coming. We’ve been able to benefit from that knowledge in the direction we’ve taken our woodworking operation. From the supply show end of it, we’ve tried, with the “Challenge to Change” award (“we” meaning the woodworking machinery show), have tried to challenge exhibitors to bring out new products bi-annually — every two years. That has brought, I would say, some new upholstering products onto the scene maybe a little bit faster.
INTERVIEWER: It might be done to induce more upholstery suppliers to come down there, because they certainly are underrepresented.
GERKEN: That was one of the problems that we had because the show was dominated by machinery manufacturers and importers. Now AFMA has the supply membership and I think that will help the upholstery and furniture suppliers get more representation in the decision-making at the fair.
INTERVIEWER: What outside business enterprises or joint ventures have you been a part of, outside of your company? Anything? Any kind of joint venture with other furniture companies?
INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry has changed over the years that you’ve been active in manufacturing — in the marketplace and in your own business. I would say we’ve said it a different way, but is there anything else that ought to be added to changes in the business?
GERKEN: No, I don’t think so. I think we touched on the
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today in the short term?
GERKEN: I would say the decline in our share of the disposable income of the consumer.
INTERVIEWER: Market share, in other words.
GERKEN: Market share to me represents your share of that particular product.
INTERVIEWER: Our whole market, then, has declined as a portion of the consumer’s total spending.
INTERVIEWER: What about in the long term?
GERKEN: I would say it’s probably the same thing.
INTERVIEWER: Everybody else I have talked with has first mentioned what we were talking about coming down the hall.
GERKEN: Oh, yes. That’s a whipping boy for every problem you’ve got. I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of executives like to make it.
INTERVIEWER: Things like EPA and what they’re insisting on.
GERKEN: Those are pendulums. They go back and forth. If enough people get upset, they’ll change the laws.
INTERVIEWER: But meanwhile, how much have you paid for equipment to filter all the dust out of the air?
GERKEN: We don’t have that big of a problem. Oh, there’s no doubt the EPA is a bureaucracy with an awful lot of power. But I think they’ll get their comeuppance. I’m an optimist, Roy.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, you are. What has been your own greatest single contribution to this industry? Not to Norwalk, but to the whole industry.
GERKEN: I think developing the concept of the specialty upholstered furniture store.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the second most important.
GERKEN: I like to think that I helped provide the dowry for the merger of the two furniture factory associations, because it was very important that it be done, and it has worked well. I’m very pleased that the industry and the two manufacturing associations have come together and are cooperating and working so well together.
INTERVIEWER: Do you mean your situation, more or less, as a marriage broker, or the success of the woodworking show, which provided the dowry?
GERKEN: I wasn’t involved in the actual merger. I had moved on at that time.
INTERVIEWER: I see.
GERKEN: My success in developing the fair in Atlanta to provide the dowry, as you said. And the bride came.
INTERVIEWER: Those were not my words, but it was ...
GERKEN: Very appropriate.
INTERVIEWER: How much of this contribution was built on already existing techniques and methods? Now, here we’ve got two contributions, you see. How much came from innovations which you, your self, originated and put into use? Not to put words in your mouth, but the specialty store was an original concept at the time.
GERKEN: That’s correct — that was an innovation. And providing the dowry let’s call it that, was using negotiating skills that I had developed over the years as a manager.
INTERVIEWER: But you did build on the growth of the trade show industry, if you can say that, and you took that and made it something appropriate for our industry.
GERKEN: But that was John Snow who did that. He had the vision.
INTERVIEWER: See, that trade show, the first one was over at Pepper Warehouse in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I don’t know how many years. Then they went down and had a couple of them in Spartanburg, or in Greenville (South Carolina).
GERKEN: Right, Greenville.
INTERVIEWER: Then in Louisville.
GERKEN: Then the supply show was at The Palmer House in Chicago during the NAFM annual convention.
INTERVIEWER: That was the furniture industry taking a technique that wasn’t in this industry at all. The supplier show in Atlanta is the biggest trade show in the world, isn’t it? Certainly in the United States.
GERKEN: It’s the 10th largest trade show in the United States. It’s second to Interzum in Germany as a furniture trade show.
INTERVIEWER: So that really was an already existing technique, which was adapted to our industry.
GERKEN: Right, but that was not my vision — that was John Snow’s vision. But getting the two together and negotiating the arrangement with the show to provide the NAFM, and ultimately the AFMA, with the income to survive the merger of their memberships, the merger of their associations — that I enjoyed doing and I feel was a contribution to the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else about the machinery show and the merger? You are in a unique position, because there aren’t many people who were involved in that. Is there anything we ought to have in here that you’re aware of that nobody else is, that’s unlikely to come into this data bank, from anybody else?
GERKEN: NAFM had two-thirds of the show and WMMA (Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America) had one-third, which was the domestic woodworking machinery trade group. The importers didn’t feel they had a say in Louisville, so they hooked up with Cahners to have a separate show at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Their interest primarily the importers’ interest, was to be involved in the joint show. NAFM and the machinery manufacturers association gave them 10 percent of the show to come together; but gave them a third of the representation on the board. When we developed that strategy, we were then able to divide the importers from Cahners, and in their interest. The importers got what they wanted and then, at that point, the three associations came together to negotiate the arrangement with Cahners. And that was one of the strategies that was used that worked out very well.
INTERVIEWER: I agree with you. That took some masterful negotiation.
GERKEN: But it was fun. I enjoyed it. I spent a lot of time at it, but I enjoyed it. And I had wonderful support from John Snow and Michael Sherman.
INTERVIEWER: Now onto, the influence of outside factors on the furniture industry. We’ve covered a lot of this, but how was your company affected by the Depression?
GERKEN: Disastrous. One year, I think it was ’33, our losses were greater than our sales. Everybody took a cut in pay. We gave stock, preferred stock, in lieu of wages. My grandfather worked for nothing. Because my dad had a young family, he didn’t have to take as much of a cut as the other people. It was a real struggle. I’ve heard stories. The upholsterers would come in the morning and wait until they opened the mail, or the cutting room would, to see what they could cut.
INTERVIEWER: To see the orders.
GERKEN: But we survived.
INTERVIEWER: How about World War II?
GERKEN: Oh, I’ve pretty well covered that.
INTERVIEWER: Have you been affected at all by racial attitudes? I’d say, where you’re located, it’s very doubtful that you would be, even in Tennessee, which isn’t very racial.
GERKEN: There’s plenty of racism up North. There’s a lot of racism.
INTERVIEWER: Is this directed at black people, or Polish people, or something like that?
GERKEN: Yes, minorities. But now, mostly, toward African Americans. I’ve been a very strong advocate of a color-blind society. I was co-founder — no, I was a charter member — of the Norwalk Human Relations Committee. I’ve been as active as I could in trying to promote a color-blind society.
INTERVIEWER: Did that affect your company at all?
INTERVIEWER: The racial attitudes. Racism. Has Norwalk ever been affected by that?
GERKEN: No, if you look beyond the color and look at the person, there isn’t. If there is a problem, it’s with the person and not the color.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, all right. What about women’s issues?
GERKEN: We’ve always had a lot of women working there. No women in the family have ever come into the business.
INTERVIEWER: In the factory, have women been restricted to certain areas, like sewing?
GERKEN: No, they can do any job they want to. In fact, the chair line upholstering was all women at one time.
INTERVIEWER: What about shipment of your products? Now, you mentioned this briefly, and you must have been one of the first ever to have company trucks.
GERKEN: Could have been. Yes, we’ve been doing it for almost 70 years. You see, all of this is because of our isolation up here. We first had what they called “rag tops,” which were canvas-covered.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, with the deck out over the cab.
GERKEN: Yes. South of Norwalk on Route 61, there was a low railroad underpass. One of the accidents I went to with Dad, we were making tilt chairs as they were called then – tilt back and there was an ottoman. We used to load the bottom two decks with chairs and put the ottomans up on the top deck. And the driver went through the underpass, and he couldn’t get through. But the rag top tore apart and we had ottomans about a quarter of a mile down the road. He got through all right, but just tore up the truck and the footstools.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that the first Norwalk plant had a siding, so rail shipment was important. But that was carloads only that you loaded, right?
INTERVIEWER: I assume you had a depot uptown somewhere and they took LTL.
GERKEN: It was called Railway Express.
INTERVIEWER: What about the effect of environmental regulations?
GERKEN: We have one problem that I know of with our wood plant in Tennessee. It’s right along Interstate 40, and the EPA people travel that between Nashville and Knoxville. If we get our cyclone plugged and it’s putting out sawdust out of the top, rather than clean air, they’ll stop in and take a look at it. But it’s a biodegradable product that does get in the air, so we never have too much problem with that.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the involvement of your family company, your business, in your community?
GERKEN: We’re very much involved in charitable enterprises in the community, from the hospital to the Chamber of Commerce. Banks are not charitable, but we’re involved in the bank. The United Way, daycare centers, the school board. We encourage volunteerism among the family members and among the employees.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any particular community venture that your company particularly has sponsored or been involved with?
GERKEN: The daycare center, probably. We started that in 1969.
INTERVIEWER: Is that a publicly-owned daycare?
GERKEN: No. It’s private, non-profit. I was involved in that from the beginning, and the company subsidized it to begin with. It’s a very successful venture for the community.
INTERVIEWER: But it’s publicly-owned?
GERKEN: No, it’s private, but non-profit.
INTERVIEWER: I see.
GERKEN: A self-perpetuating board.
INTERVIEWER: Probably your hospital is somewhat the same.
GERKEN: It’s exactly the same. I’m treasurer of the parent company that owns the hospital, the doctors’ office park, the ambulance service and the rest home. And then my son is on the board of the group that manages the hospital. And my father was very involved in building a new hospital and in managing the old hospital as a board member. The family has been involved in the hospital all along.
INTERVIEWER: What about social activities outside of the furniture industry, i.e. the country club and stuff like that?
GERKEN: My father was a very good golfer. My brother was a good golfer until his muscular dystrophy sidelined him. I belonged to Rotary and Ned belonged to Kiwanis. There are some social clubs that we belong to, a trout club and a …
INTERVIEWER: What was that — trout?
GERKEN: A trout club.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a fishing thing?
GERKEN: Yes, fishing. There are some natural, cold, artesian wells, and they provide excellent trout streams. My dad belonged and my son belongs to that.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, the hospital is civic, and the daycare center.
GERKEN: Right, and the United Way. Dad has been chairman, and I’ve been chairman of it, and my son is on the board there now.
INTERVIEWER: You said earlier, when I talked about joint ventures, that ... I assume you haven’t had any business activity outside of your own company.
GERKEN: No, I’ve just been involved with the bank is all; I was on the board of the bank for a while.
INTERVIEWER: What’s your favorite personal charity?
GERKEN: Probably the United Way.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you’ve been active in the governing of the United Way, in addition to making contributions, I assume you have involved the company in the campaigns and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: Any specific United Way activity on your part, like setting it up, way back when it was a new concept or anything like that?
GERKEN: No. My dad did that. My father did that when it was called the Community Fund.
INTERVIEWER: It was different everywhere.
GERKEN: It used to be called the Community Fund, and then they made it the United Way.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure activity?
GERKEN: At the moment, I enjoy sports. I have some race horses, harness horses. I enjoy watching them race and managing that activity. I enjoy current affairs and read quite a bit. I enjoy reading novels.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your greatest success in your leisure time? I hope your horses did better than this morning.
GERKEN: Last year we had a real winner. This year it’s been a disaster.
INTERVIEWER: That wasn’t your horse this morning?
GERKEN: No, these are friends.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say last year would be your biggest success in harness racing?
GERKEN: Oh, that was a lot of fun. Yes, I’d say so. I also really have enjoyed traveling around the world. It’s been a lot of fun.
An interesting sideline of the furniture fair: A lot of traveling was in conjunction with the furniture fair and with NAFM. A number of years ago in Louisville, a company called Fukami in Nagoya, Japan, developed a bandsaw. They received the “Challenge to Change” award. John Snow and I were in Nagoya at the Japanese Woodworking Machinery Show, soliciting business for the Louisville show. We walked past the Fukami exhibit and there was the prize they’d won in Louisville the previous year. It was really fun to see that.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I’m sure. My next question: Describe your best experience in your leisure activity. Was last year in harness racing your best?
GERKEN: Oh, it’s the friends I’ve met and traveled with. The Fenns, Hardens and the Slighs. Those were very enjoyable trips that I’ll always remember.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned meeting with them last week. Was that just a social gathering?
GERKEN: Yes, we try to get together at least once a year. Dave has had a real disaster with the loss of his wife, and then a very bad stroke. He’s been somewhat limited in his ability to meet with us.
INTERVIEWER: Where do you meet?
GERKEN: All over. This was at his home on Cape Cod last week. We’ve met in Norwalk, Cookeville, McConnellsville, New York, Holland, Michigan, and, of course, when we were on the NAFM board, Honolulu, Puerto Rico and all. Our families are very close.
INTERVIEWER: What was the date of your retirement?
GERKEN: July 1, 1987.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the furniture industry?
GERKEN: Not very much. I’m limited with my disability.
INTERVIEWER: But you’re still on the board of Norwalk?
GERKEN: Right, and on the board of AFMA.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I didn’t realize that. And you haven’t had much involvement with any outside businesses?
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to our furniture industry. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, and I can say that without any qualification. Keep in mind that you may request a follow-up interview later if you wish.
What would you like to add in summary to this whole thing?
GERKEN: It’s a great industry; it’s got great people. And it’s been very good to the Gerken family.
INTERVIEWER: Without question, the Gerken family has been good to the industry.
GERKEN: I hope so.
INTERVIEWER: I totally agree with you on your involvement in the machinery show and everything that has come from that, the dowry and so forth. Very important. Anything else we need to hear about?
GERKEN: No, I thought the interview was going to be about my father. I didn’t realize it was going to be about me and the company so much.
INTERVIEWER: We can put in anything.
GERKEN: Of course, I brought him in quite often, because he’s been such a big part of my life.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, you sure did. And the company, everything about the early part of the company, was him.
GERKEN: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything we should have said that we didn’t about your father? Certainly, we wouldn’t have been here without him.
GERKEN: That’s right he’s the one that was honored by the American Furniture Hall of Fame. He was just a great guy, and left a good, solid base to grow a company on. And he left a good value system for all of us to follow. I think that reflects my grandfather, although I didn’t know him too well.
INTERVIEWER: Have you said everything that you want to say?
GERKEN: Yes, I think I’m talked out, Roy.