Joseph e. richardson, ii; richardson brothers
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
MAY 19, 2002
SHEBOYGAN FALLS, WISCONSIN
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: When were you born?
RICHARDSON: I was born December 18, 1929, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture?
RICHARDSON: Actually, my direct family was not in furniture. Before you leave, Roy, I’ll give you a book that we printed for our sesquicentennial – our 150th anniversary. We hired a good writer who wrote a book for us.
Basically, the company was founded in 1848 by my great-great-grandfather, and at the time, they ran a sawmill. After the Civil War, in which four of his sons fought on the Union side, one of them was killed. The others came back and went into business with their father and they sort of branched out. They started making cheese boxes, and actually, that’s when they started making furniture — in 1870-something. The business grew in furniture and as a retail lumberyard. That’s what my grandfather and father was mostly interested in — that end of it — the other wing of the family was interested in the furniture business. I really didn’t get involved with the furniture business until 1957.
The reason I got into the furniture end of it was that when I graduated from Beloit College in 1951, and because my father was involved with the building material end of Richardson, I went to work for the United States Gypsum Company, which is a big building material manufacturer. I went into sales and I started in their main office in Chicago. Then I was transferred to a district office in Colorado. I got my first territory there and then they moved me to the Salt Lake district in Boise, Idaho. I worked there for a couple of years and then I had a territory of Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho. Then they transferred me to Pocatello and I had Eastern Idaho, Southern Montana and Western Wyoming.
Then I came back with the family business and went on the road with our wholesale company selling to lumber dealers. This was basically what I had been doing with the United States Gypsum Company. Then I got interested in the furniture end of the business, which was up the road a bit. I was suddenly fascinated with the furniture business. There was a fellow in Sheboygan, Frank Jacobson, who had just started an advertising agency and I liked to write, at least I did at that time. He had heard about that, so he came up to me one day and asked me if I’d like to write some copy for some of his clients and I said, “Sure.” Frank and I were talking about the furniture end of the business and he said, “Why don’t we try to get that Richardson Brothers account?” I said, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea.” So we did a lot of research and I really researched the Richardson Brothers and what they were making. We made a presentation to my cousin Bill, who was the other wing of the family and who was the president of Richardson Brothers at the time. We made a brilliant presentation, we thought, and we wanted their advertising, in which they didn’t do that much of, but it was a fairly decent account. We also said that it would be very good for them to have a newsletter. After we made the presentation, we were finally advised that they weren’t going to hire us as their advertising agency, but they thought the newsletter was a great idea and they let us do that. So we did get our foot in the door. Right at that time, the sales manager of Richardson Brothers suddenly quit. I’ll go into that later – it’s a very fascinating story why he quit. Anyway, Bill Richardson, the president, thought of me and said, “Boy, that Joe Richardson really put a lot of work and research into the business so I’ll see if he wants to be the sales manager.” Of course I said, “Yes.” So I started with the Richardson Brothers in August of 1958. I started doing their newsletter in 1957. That’s when and how I got into the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: What about in-laws? Did you have any in-laws in the business?
RICHARDSON: We didn’t have in-laws, but we had lots of cousins. My side of the family, as I said, was in the building materials end of it and the other side (the other family also named Richardson, we were cousins twice removed) basically ran the furniture business. They also had another business called J.S. Richardson down the road that made woodworking machinery. I didn’t have any in-laws in the business, but we did have cousins.
INTERVIEWER: When did the furniture manufacturing company start?
RICHARDSON: We use 1848 as the date of our company’s birth, but I believe, and it will be in the book I will give you, we started making the first furniture in 1881. There was a collection of local newspapers that my father and I bought when they went out of business. We went through all the newspapers and there was a story saying there was a big celebration at Richardson Brothers because they had gone into the chair business, and whenever they got into a new business, they always had a dance. They had had a big dance in 1881 because they were getting into the furniture business, so I think that is a pretty accurate date.
INTERVIEWER: That probably makes your company one of the oldest in the business, doesn’t it?
RICHARDSON: Well, I think we’re the oldest in the business under one family’s ownership. There is a company in New York, I can’t think of it now; they’ve been around forever. They are older than we are.
INTERVIEWER: Somebody called me a couple of years ago, and I can’t remember who it was, and they were claiming to be the oldest. They started in 1889 or something.
RICHARDSON: When we made the claim a few years ago, he called me up (he’s dead now), and said, “I hate to tell you, Joe, but we’re older than you are.” I said, “Just don’t tell anybody, please.”
INTERVIEWER: The first factory in High Point was 1888. That was the second of the southern companies, and they grew out of a lumber company.
RICHARDSON: Well, that makes sense.
INTERVIEWER: As did Bernhardt.
INTERVIEWER: John Christian’s daddy was in the lumber business for a long, long time.
RICHARDSON: Well that’s a natural progression.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your growing-up years.
RICHARDSON: Well, I was born in Sheboygan and was raised in Sheboygan Falls. We had a very normal bringing up, my two brothers and myself. I had twin brothers, David and Charles. We attended the schools in Sheboygan Falls and I graduated from Sheboygan Falls High in 1947, and went to Beloit College. My two brothers graduated in 1950, and they went to different colleges but one graduated from Colorado College, and David graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was just a very normal growing up. We didn’t do anything especially exciting. My father was an avid hunter and fisherman. He spent a good deal of his time hunting and fishing. We raised dogs. It used to boil my brothers and me silly when we had to go to field trials every Sunday. We would have to sit in the car while waiting for his dogs to perform, which was usually at the end of the day. We didn’t particularly enjoy that, but that was the sort of thing we did. My dad, we always admired him; he swore that by the time he was 40, he was going to retire, and he did. He retired in a way that is good because he didn’t sell the business or anything like that; he just had good people and he let them run the business. He was around in case they needed him, and if they did something really stupid, he was on them in a minute. That was the sort of background I always admired because I always said to myself that if I ever get into a position like that, I’m going to be a good delegator, like my father was. When you delegate you also have to be willing to sit back and let them do what they’re doing. Too many people in business like to say that they’re going to delegate but then they watch over somebody’s shoulder to make sure they do it right. My father never did that, but he always had good people. I think that’s the sign of a successful business – hiring good people.
INTERVIEWER: In connection with the company history, why do I have in my mind the name Richardson-Nemschoff?
RICHARDSON: That’s a good story. Right after I came into the business in 1958, in fact as I came into the business in Sheboygan, there was a company called Nemschoff Chairs. They made upholstered furniture. Richardson Brothers made basically dining room furniture. About that time, Larry Peabody designed a group of dining room furniture for us, and designed a group of living room furniture for Nemschoff Chairs. It was quite a success. It was contemporary – something we had never done before. We had never had a designer do anything like this. While this was being done, Bill Richardson and Leonard Nemschoff, who was president of Nemschoff Chairs, said, “Well gosh, we’ve got this nice living room group, and you’ve got this dining room group, why don’t we show together and we’ll be able to be much more than just single manufacturers.” That’s when I got into it.
Leonard Nemschoff and I became very dear, close friends — he’s no longer with us — but he was probably my mentor in this business. We were going to show in the same showroom. We did it in Chicago. We had a sales force and Nemschoff had a sales force. Then Leonard and I said, “Well why not have one salesman and he could sell the entire Peabody Collection?” as we called it. So, we did that.
Then we decided that we’d form a company, Richardson-Nemschoff Sales. We didn’t want to merge the two manufacturing companies because theirs was a family business and ours was a family business. We wanted to arrange it so that the salesman would work for the sales company and we would do all of our marketing and merchandising through the sales company. But, if it should ever happen that we would want to break up and go our separate ways, which eventually we did, it would be a very easy thing to do. That’s how Richardson-Nemschoff came about. The reason it was Richardson-Nemschoff instead of Nemschoff-Richardson was we flipped a coin and I won. Leonard lost and I won.
We had a very successful relationship. We eventually made bedroom and occasional tables, and Larry Peabody, who you are very familiar with, of course, is a marvelous salesman. He would bring the editors into the showroom. It was really a sideshow. We really had fun.
We started out in the American Furniture Mart, but then we went over to the Merchandise Mart. After five or six years, Nemschoff decided they didn’t want to stay in the home furnishings industry anymore. They wanted to get into the contract end of the business. So, we just broke the sales company up and today they’re very successful. They’re still in Sheboygan making contract furniture for institutions and things like that. They went their way and we went ours.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good story. Where did you go to college?
RICHARDSON: I went to Beloit College, which is in southern central Wisconsin right on the Illinois/Wisconsin line. My father actually graduated from Beloit as well. I majored in Economics and English.
I graduated in 1951 and went to work for the U.S. Gypsum Company.
INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings there have affected your life?
RICHARDSON: Really not much, if you get right down to it. My college years were searching years. I really didn’t have much direction until my senior year and then I really got into writing. In fact, I almost was sorry I had a major in Economics because I really got into writing. That’s what I fancied myself as becoming – a writer. Of course, that never happened but that’s one of the reasons I got in with Frank Jacobson when he started his new advertising agency, because I really liked to write.
In a sense, maybe that helped get me into the furniture business since Frank and I decided to go after the Richardson Brothers account. There’s another story there too. I don’t know if this is the place to put it in, but it involves Larry Peabody. He had these designs that Nemschoff Chairs was making, and suddenly our sales manager at Richardson Brothers quit and went with another company that was being formed out in Kingman, Arizona. Lo and behold, they went into business making upholstered furniture using Larry Peabody’s designs that were also being made by Nemschoff Chairs. There was a Navajo tribe out there. The Navajo decided they were going to get into the furniture business, so they contacted our ex-sales manager and a couple of others and lured them out there. They said if they would get them into the furniture business that they would provide the factory. So, that’s what they did.
Our sales manager had been instrumental when Larry came out. I think that was the reason Larry went over to Nemschoff Chairs. Our sales manager literally took Larry’s designs out to Kingman, Arizona. That didn’t make Leonard Nemschoff very happy.
The Kingman operation of the Navajo tribe turned out to be a real disaster. One of the first things they did was charter two DC-3s and flew a number of the future workman of the Navajo Tribe to Chicago to some upholstery plant there to show them how to make upholstered furniture. Unfortunately, the minute the planes landed in Chicago many of the Navajos had other ideas. They never saw them again. The whole operation was a disaster. They marketed in California in the beginning, but the furniture they shipped was terrible. In six months they were out of business. But again, because of that, that’s how I got offered the sales manager job at Richardson Brothers. So it all tied in.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job?
RICHARDSON: My first furniture job was sales manager at Richardson Brothers.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your boss?
RICHARDSON: My boss was Bill Richardson who was the president of Richardson Brothers at the time.
INTERVIEWER: You have told us a little about your work during that time, but is there anything that needs to be added?
RICHARDSON: Well, my first job was sales manager and, of course, my brother, David, was also working at Richardson Brothers. We had a sawmill operation at the time. Our business was sort of interesting because we used our own power. We had a river that ran through the plant which ran a transformer that provided our power.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that?
RICHARDSON: In Sheboygan Falls. We also had a sawmill. In fact, we all said “from log to living room” because we would buy the logs, saw them, dry them – we did the whole thing. That was sort of a unique part of the business.
INTERVIEWER: What were your experiences as a sales manager versus a salesman?
RICHARDSON: I never was a furniture salesman. When I was a salesman, I was selling building materials … when I was on the road and calling on retail accounts and things like that. So, I never really sold furniture either at retail or at the wholesale level. I became a sales manager immediately. There’s a big difference between the two. Management is completely different than doing a task, whether it’s in a factory or wherever. You could have done every job in the factory and still be a lousy manager. A manager is successful because he can manage people and get things done. In the beginning, I certainly was not a real good sales manager because I really didn’t know that much about it. I had to make a lot of changes when I came in.
We had a sales representative that was in his 90s and he had been with us for 50 years. He lived in Wisconsin, and he covered Indiana and Michigan. Well let’s face it; he wasn’t doing a very good job. I let him go and it was quite a scene. He died a few years later. We had a few instances like that.
But again, I would say that in sales management, I learned to be a manager. I wouldn’t have become a good sales manager without Leonard Nemschoff. Leonard was about eight years older than I was, and he was my mentor. I learned from him and he became not just a mentor but a marvelous friend – probably one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the industry at that time. Whom did you work with?
RICHARDSON: The Chicago Market was the only market we showed in at that time. I came in right at the end of the two-week market time. We would show for a week, and then we would get on the train and come home for the weekend. Sunday night we’d head back to Chicago. That was in 1958-59. The two-week markets, I think, didn’t last much beyond 1959.
The industry really wasn’t that much different than it is today except that at the time, Chicago was the big market. High Point had started up then, in fact, it was beginning to be very powerful. Leonard and I went down to try to get a space in High Point and weren’t successful right away.
I guess the industry itself had lots of players in it that aren’t around today. You could pretty well say that about the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. A lot of the players that are around today weren’t around then.
One thing I’m very proud of is that Richardson Brothers is still around. The reason you still stay around is that you’ve got to keep ahead of the curve. I guess we have been successful in doing that. We have not built a giant furniture company. We’re not a giant manufacturer. We’ve had to change through the years and the thing I’m proudest of is the fact that as long as I’ve been with the business, and even before I came with the business, our company has always had a top credit rating. We’ve always paid our bills and you’ll never find a salesman that worked for Richardson Brothers that was ever denied one dime of his commission, and I guess, according to what I hear, that’s kind of rare in our industry. A lot of people are apt to do that.
I would say the business is a lot different today in many respects, but in some respects it’s still pretty much the same. We still use sales representatives. We’re still showing at markets. We have had a lot more markets, and now it’s been shrinking again. Now we’re doing fewer markets.
I’m sure the fact that we still have markets as we do shows that really a lot of the stuff that was around when I started in this business is still there. Our marketing system is the least efficient, cost-ineffective thing that we have going, I think. When I came in the business in 1958, everybody was saying we’ve got to change markets; we don’t need two markets here, we just need one and we need them in one place like they do them in Europe and Asia.
We’ve been talking about it ever since and nobody does anything about it. New markets open up and old ones close down, but they still go chugging merrily on.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first market you attended?
RICHARDSON: That was the Chicago Market and that would have been in 1958. No, excuse me, the first market that I attended was right after I came with the company in August — we showed at the Minneapolis Market. It was just a temporary market they showed in the auditorium there. We were up at our summer place in northern Wisconsin and Bill said, “Why don’t you drive down to Wausau and get on Wisconsin Central’s DC-3 and go over and spend the day at the Minneapolis Market?”
Sharon and I did that. That was the first market we ever attended. They just set up a little space in the auditorium. I don’t know how many other manufacturers were there.
The first big market would have been in Chicago in January of 1959. That was the two-week one I described before.
I think the Chicago Market was much more of an order-writing event than markets since have been. We would have dealers come in who really came specifically to buy, not just to look and place orders when they got home. I think that’s a big difference.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in the market since then?
RICHARDSON: I think that the changes in the market since then are just the fact that there have been markets that have come and existed, and then disappeared – Chicago disappeared, Jamestown disappeared, and Dallas has disappeared. A lot of them have disappeared. Some have come in, like Atlanta, and they’ve gone out. It just continues. Tupelo is now a big, hot market, but who knows what’s going to happen there in another 10 years.
I think more and more manufacturers are pretty much deciding just to show at one place, which makes sense. Let’s face it – maintaining these showrooms is an expensive proposition, and you have your salesman off the road for a lot of time when they could probably be doing more. I’d say the changes have mostly been the frequency and the coming and going of so many locations.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think about John Tobin’s idea that we’re pretty well established with two markets a year in High Point, when one would probably do the job? He suggested for a long time that probably the spring market should become an educational experience rather than primarily sales. Then, the fall market would be the selling market, more so than the spring.
RICHARDSON: First of all, the fall market is not the big selling market for us – it’s the April market. Pretty much what you show in April will be shipping three or four months after that and that gets into the busy season. In October, if you show anything new, it’s going to come in spring or something like that. But again, I’m for any market that there are fewer.
The other thing that I would do is what just about every foreign market does and that is – the last few days of the show after the dealers have been there, they open them up for the general public. That makes marvelous sense. The people can come through and see what’s new. It gets them excited about furniture. Every time we’ve tried to do that in the U.S., of course, the retailers stand up and try to say we’re going to sell direct. Of course that’s not going to happen. I think it portrays a lot of the problems that exist in this industry.
There’s distrust between retailers and manufacturers, if that’s what you want to call it. It’s not a matter of will it work – it does work. It’s been proven all over the world that it works. We’ve never been able to do it here.
INTERVIEWER: As a High Pointer, I would say that nobody has really made a forceful convincing presentation of that. The big building has been solidly against it.
RICHARDSON: The big building has been against it because basically they are owned by, maybe they’re not anymore, Lane and some of the big manufacturers. Every time it’s been made, and I’ve made it a couple of times myself, the retail associations around there just rise up in fear. So, it’ll probably never happen.
INTERVIEWER: I think you’ve covered the beginning of your company or companies. Is there anything that should be added to that?
RICHARDSON: I don’t think so. Since our company has been around since 1840, Roy, there are so many things that are interesting. Under the Richardson Industries umbrella is Richardson Brothers, Richardson Lumber Company and Richco Structures. I think the most interesting thing about our company is that we’ve pretty much stayed in things having to do with the home and building materials for building homes. We were even in the home-building business for a little while, but we got out of that because it scared us to death.
We’ve pretty much stuck to it. Today, we make, besides furniture, structural, roof and floor trusses for builders. We have an organization that sells these in upper Michigan, all of Wisconsin and northern Illinois. We have three truss plants, and today, we’re getting into installed sales of insulation and garage doors. In other words, we’re not trying to compete with Home Depot and Menards. We can’t compete with them, so we go after the contractor business and the installed business.
We’re doing a lot of things like that. I think the biggest thing in the furniture business is that today, we just don’t make furniture in Wisconsin. We import it from China. It’s always changing.
I think that’s the only way you can stick with it – you’ve got to be willing to change. That’s one of the reasons, maybe, that we’re still around – the fact we haven’t been wildly aggressive in trying to grow our business. We would rather be well-capitalized so when changes occur, we are able to take advantage of them.
Speaking of the furniture end of the business, which we’ll talk about a little later on, we’re just getting into importing from China. You have to pay for that stuff right away. There are not a lot of companies in the furniture business that are capitalized that well. Most can’t take advantage of opportunities when they come up. I think that’s one of the benefits of conservative management that we’ve shown through the years. We haven’t grown like, shall I say, cancer, but we’ve managed to change, and we’ve managed to stay in the game.
The sixth generation of our family is now in the business and we may have the seventh before too long. I guess that is testimony to the fact that we’ve done a few things right.
INTERVIEWER: Actually, when this whole operation began, there was no imported furniture.
RICHARDSON: That’s true.
INTERVIEWER: How has this growth been affected by labor?
RICHARDSON: Well that’s a good question, too – labor in the Sheboygan area … Sheboygan has always been a manufacturing area. It’s never had high unemployment. That’s been a hindrance to us at many times when our business was really good. Everyone’s business stays really good. In the Sheboygan area, there are a lot of different industries – Kohler Company, Bemis – and when times are good, everybody’s competing for help.
Because of the level that furniture is at, especially in a highly industrialized area like Sheboygan, paying the kind of wages to compete with Kohler is kind of hard to do. That was always a deterrent. Then there is the other side of the scale, that is, the productivity of the workers in the Sheboygan area is a lot more than the productivity in other parts of the country.
We’ve had a plant in Menominee, Michigan and we had one in Mississippi for a while. We paid a lot less in wages in Mississippi, but we didn’t get the production. We didn’t get the productivity. So, we had to pay more in the Sheboygan area, but it was worth more, too. Labor has played a tremendous part in the expansion here.
That’s why we went to Mississippi. We wanted to find a place where you could get good people and you could get them reasonably. We did it, but we finally bailed out. I blame ourselves. If you can’t train people to do things right, it isn’t the people’s fault, its management’s fault. We fell down there and we weren’t able to do it. So, as our company has done many times in the past (and will probably do many times in the future), when we see something that’s not going to work, we get out. We’re not that stupid. We’re not that proud that, by God, we’re going to make it work even if it busts us. That’s why we got out of the home-building business, and that’s why we got out of Mississippi. We also got out of an operation making moldings up in Menominee, Michigan.
Right now, we have a big wood preserving operation up in the Green Bay area, and it’s become the victim of the environmental wackos. They’ve got it now so that governments are banning wood preservation, even though there’s never been one single proven death because of it. Some people are saying, “By God, we’re going to ride this out.” So, we’re going to close it. There’s no sense in being in it because they’ve destroyed it. So, rather than stick around and watch it just go down the drain, we said let’s close it and get out of it while the getting is good. That’s been a tremendous change there. Labor is always important.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the union situation.
RICHARDSON: We never had a labor union at our furniture plant or in any of our other businesses. Right from the beginning, after I came to work for Richardson Brothers, we would have organizational attempts by the furniture workers union. We were probably successful in preventing them from coming into our business at least five or six times. Then eventually they won, and now we have a union.
You can live with a union mostly if their people are realistic. You can get a bad local union leader that can make things miserable for you. But all in all, we’ve been able to survive with our union and we’ve had very few problems. One of the problems when we moved and bought a plant in Mississippi, was the fact, of course, they didn’t have a union down there. It was an existing plant. They hadn’t been doing very well.
INTERVIEWER: Where was the plant?
RICHARDSON: Winona, Mississippi. The moment we bought the plant, the furniture workers union, who were here, said, “By golly, we’re going to make sure Richardson Brothers has a union in Mississippi.” Well, the first two years in Mississippi we literally spent fighting the union all of the time instead of doing our business. Our business was making bedroom furniture.
We finally decided to admit that it was not working out, we were always fighting. After we beat them in three elections, they would file many, many unfair labor practices and you’re always going on and on and on. In the plant you would have the union people and the non-union people and they were always pushing each other. You just don’t spend time doing what you should be doing which is making good furniture of good quality and everything else.
I think that may be one of the reasons we had an extra hard time in Mississippi because the union was on our back all the time.
The climate for unions in Mississippi is vastly different than in Wisconsin. A lot of the employers there are very adamantly against the unions. They almost have a psychological fear of unions. I think that pretty well exists through much of the South today.
As a result, the union leaders in a state like Mississippi are really tough. They’ve got to be because the people they are up against are equally tough, so you don’t get many breaks in Mississippi. These labor union guys are really tough and most of the ones we were concerned with were black. They would work in through their churches. They would literally have church organizations and it was deadly.
I wonder how we even won the three elections we did. I’ve been in so many union elections now that I know pretty much how to do it. You’ve got to have a lawyer, and you can say certain things and you can’t say other things. But we always managed to win. Then they would tie us up in court for years and years and years. Finally, we said it just isn’t going to work, so we got out of there.
We work with our union in Sheboygan Falls. We tried one attempt to get them out. It didn’t work. So we said, “Look, are we in business to fight the union or are we in business to make good furniture and make a profit?” Well, that’s what we’re in business for. So we’ll get along with the union. The one good thing about it is that you only have to worry about it every two or three years depending on what your contract is. We had a three-year cycle.
INTERVIEWER: I think if you win the election there’s a two-year interval …
RICHARDSON: There’s a one-year interval — after the time it’s been certified. Of course in Mississippi, they never got certified because we were always embroiled in one thing or another. As I said before: “What are we in business to do – fight the union or make a profit and make good products?” That’s what we’re in business for. But of course, we’ll be getting into the imports a little later on, that is one of the big problems.
Should we get into imports a bit now?
INTERVIEWER: Let’s take three more questions. We’re back now to the growth of Richardson Brothers. How has it been affected by labor, style and design?
RICHARDSON: How has Richardson Brothers been affected by style and design? I think obviously the first venture into well-designed furniture was with Larry Peabody. After that, we had John Van Koert who did a group for us and Ruth Clark. We would basically have freelancers to work with. We pretty much stayed in really original designs – mostly contemporary.
We would sell because we offered upholstery and bedroom, dining room, and occasional tables – the whole picture more or less. It was an advantage that neither one of us – as small manufacturers – could have accomplished alone. Because we promoted the Peabody Collection, it was something that nobody else had. They might knock one part of it off or another part, but it worked very successfully for us for quite a few years.
When we parted company, we got into what we called Early American at the time. Since I was the marketing and sales guy, I was more or less in charge of designs. I was not a designer. I was a typical furniture manufacturer who was not a designer; that is, I would go out and see what was selling and we would make something that would look something like it and go forth into the market with that.
Of course, if you’ve got something that looks just like the other guy, the only way he wants to buy from you is if you’re cheaper. So, you’re cutting your profits to get the business.
Eventually, what really got us into where we really had a big jump and success in our business was when Sharon and my oldest son, Joe Richardson III, wanted to be a furniture designer.
The reason he wanted to be a furniture designer was because one time I took him down to Haiti with me to visit Larry and Bette at their house. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Larry’s house in Haiti, but it’s pretty impressive. Joe said, “Dad, what does he do?” I said he’s a furniture designer. He said, “I’m going to be a furniture designer.” So, Larry Peabody is responsible for Joe III getting into that business.
Anyway Joe, after he graduated from the Jiranek School of Furniture Design and Technology, he worked for a wholesale furniture showroom in New York for a while, and then he went and worked for Leo [Jiranek]]]] for four years. I really wanted to get him to come back into the furniture business. We weren’t that big. We didn’t need a full-time designer and, of course, the family would have never sat still for that. I mean, my God, to pay a designer – that’s ridiculous. I finally got Joe to come back, but he came back as a foreman in the plant. He literally worked in the plant as a foreman in the table department for two years.
Gradually, he would do some little designing. He would come to our house in Sheboygan Falls and do the designing in one of the empty bedrooms at the time. He did a couple of things that I just put in the line. One of the things he did, he said, “Dad, we’ve got all these wonderful steam-bending forms down in the basement of the factory. Why aren’t we using any of them?” The reason we weren’t using those things was simple. The people that I was knocking off didn’t use them, so here all this equipment was lying in the basement unused.
Joe said, “Let’s get into bow-back chairs and let’s do some stuff in steam bending that nobody else does.” I said, “Hey, that’s a great idea. That’s a wonderful idea.” So he designed our bow-back chairs. There are millions of them all over the country today, but we were the first ones to come out with the traditional bow-back, U-back chair. We took them to the market in High Point and it was just bananas. It was wonderful. We sold thousands of them. First of all, when Joe came back from that market, everybody in the family said, “Boy, this is wonderful to have a designer … a full-time designer.” All of a sudden it was a great idea. That was fine with me. From that point on, Joe was our full-time designer and he did a lot of wonderful things for us.
Subsequently, I would say that Larry Peabody has had more to do with the success of our company than just about any other single person. Today Larry is still a very dear friend of ours. He comes here, not very often anymore, but he’s still one of our best friends and he’s a great guy.
Design played a big part in what we were doing then, and in what we’re doing now, it plays an even bigger part.
INTERVIEWER: Who is your designer now?
RICHARDSON: Well, it’s kind of interesting, and we’ll get into this again when we get into imports.
Mark Polich was our designer, but he just left us about month ago, just before the High Point Market. He went with Universal.
We’re not going to replace him because again, our whole strategy has changed in the last year. If we need a designer now, we’re going to use a freelancer.
We now have a president at Richardson Brothers that’s not a family guy. He knows the direction he wants to go in and he has a real good idea of what he wants to do. When he wants something done, he will go out and get somebody to do it for him. The big thing that Mark did for us, Mark Polich – now that we’re doing a lot of business in China, he went over there to make darn sure that they were doing it right the first time. He then followed up. Now we’ve got people on our staff that are going to be taking that over.
But design, it’s been a big part of our success in being able to come up with things that are just a little bit different. That’s worked very well for us. I’ll never forget when Joe said, “What does Mr. Peabody do for a living?” “He’s a furniture designer.” “That’s what I’m going to be.” Boy, from that day on, he was just determined. It’s a wonderful thing when a kid knows what he wants to do. It’s like shooting a rifle bullet opposed to a shotgun. From that day on, he knew exactly what he was going to do, and he made it his career, just one step after the other.
INTERVIEWER: The next category is advertising.
RICHARDSON: Well, that’s another kind of interesting story. Frank Jacobson, whose agency is still in Sheboygan, a very successful agency — his son runs it now, and they went onto great heights after my little part-time job with them. As soon as I became sales manager at Richardson Brothers, I fired the Gittens Agency in Milwaukee and hired Jacobson Advertising.
After all, that’s the reason I had this job at Richardson Brothers. Well that made Jake very happy. He only had about two or three clients at the time and he was really in seventh heaven.
Then the Nemschoffs and the Richardsons got together and said, “Look, this is a big thing. We want to sell this nationally. We can’t use a little advertising agency in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. We’ve got to go to New York.” There was an agency in New York, the Harold J. Siesel Company. Al Siesel, he’s still around.
INTERVIEWER: He had the Selig account.
RICHARDSON: He had the Selig account for a while. So, we hired Harold J. Siesel Company. I came home and called Jacobson and asked him to come out to the office. It was awful. We both cried. He was the reason I got this job. I hired him, and a month later I’m firing him. He eventually ended up getting the account back. Harold J. Siesel did a fine job, but having a New York agency is no more. It’s not where you are, it’s what you are.
The Siesel Company did a good job on publicity. Nan Morrison was in charge of their publicity and Frank could never have done that. But as far as catalogs and everything else, Frank did just as good a job, and at half the price, because if you do business with a New York agency, they charge New York prices.
Advertising — and again I’m basically a sales guy and not a manufacturing guy — through the years, it has been a lot better. We had our famous standing on the chair ad, which is important. A lot of people in the furniture business … although they are getting a lot better now, including the Home Furnishings Council and some of the people that did a lot of research on furniture advertising, and how to go about doing it.
For a long time it was, “Why advertise? We can’t afford it.” The furniture business can’t afford to advertise like cigarettes, cars and things like that, so why waste your money on advertising? We didn’t do much consumer advertising. We all advertised to the dealer (magazines) because that was who we were trying to sell, first of all. I think it’s an important part.
There have been times in my career with the company when they’d say, “Why are we doing this advertising? Let’s just knock it off. We’ve got more business now than we know what to do with. Let’s just stop advertising.” I would never let them do it because of the perception. In this business, it takes so long to change your perception. There was a time that we got rid of it. We hired a new agency in Milwaukee, and we’d been running the man on the chair ads and everything else for years. We said, “It’s time to get onto something new, something different.”
They came up with this plan of using dealers of ours where this guy says, “Richardson Brothers Furniture is absolutely great,” and this went on for about two years. Nobody ever saw those ads. They saw them, but they’d still think of us as the man on the chair guy. It’s that way today. So, we said, “That’s good; you don’t have to change because people don’t see it.” I think advertising is very important and merchandising and everything else.
INTERVIEWER: This is partly gossip but, once the word was that Peter Kroehler was the first one to advertise very much in furniture. He committed something like 10 percent of his gross sales to be applied to advertising. He did that and eventually wound up with the best-known brand name in the furniture business for many years.
RICHARDSON: A lot of people do that. I mean, retailers do it. When we were with the Harold J. Siesel Company, that was part of the deal with them. We would spend 4 percent of our sales with the Harold J. Siesel Company for advertising and publicity. Then as we grew and became a $100 million account and everything else, we would go right up with them. Well, it never worked out quite that way. That was the only time that we really did say, “OK, we’re going to take 4 percent of our gross sales and spend it on advertising.” There is nothing wrong with that. You build it into the price and go with it.
I can’t remember the Kroehler thing. I’m sure they had to do some national advertising. But, national advertising costs a lot of money. If you’re just going to run one ad a year, you might as well just throw the money into Lake Michigan because it isn’t going to do any good. Unless you really do a lot of it, and you get into TV, and you get to be a La-Z-Boy or something like that — really get out there and do a job — it isn’t going to do much good.
I’ve always looked at a sales budget and said, “We’re going to take a certain amount and this is it. This is going to be our budget.” I think we still do it to this day we say we’re going to spend this much on advertising.
To this day, we don’t do any consumer advertising. We basically advertise to the trade. We try to give our dealers a lot of sales aids to sell our furniture. That’s where it happens. You don’t get people running into furniture retailers saying, “I saw this wonderful Richardson Brothers Furniture on television and I want to buy it.” They come in and buy Camel cigarettes or Marlboros or something like that – not furniture.
When they come in the store, they are pretty much at the mercy of the retail furniture salesman. If he likes your line and knows how to sell it, you have a pretty good chance of getting that sale. That’s where we (and, I think, most manufacturers) are devoting time this day and age to really give retail salespeople sales help and sales aids to enable them to sell the furniture.
I’ll tell you there’s nothing that will turn your sales down faster than a retailer that you’re in where the sales force suddenly gets sour on your line. The sales just stop. You’ve got to keep them happy. There is a tremendous turnover in retail floor people, so just because you’ve had a sales meeting in a store in January, doesn’t mean you don’t need another one in March. There may be a whole bunch of new players. That’s really where our efforts have been and I think where most other manufacturers’ efforts have been, unless you’re a La-Z-Boy, or some of the others that can afford to really get out and do a lot of advertising.
The other part, since I was basically a sales and marketing guy was, we always had a good manufacturing basis. We had Glenn Dulmes who was our factory guy and was our president for a while. He was just a terrific guy. So, you need everything to be working. I was in sales and, thank God, I never ended up in engineering. It would have been a disaster.
INTERVIEWER: What about finance as a growth factor?
RICHARDSON: Well, again, that’s something that we’ve always considered to be very important. We’ve been financially conservative in our whole business — Richardson Industries, Richardson Brothers — I have seen people and, boy, their sales are going like a skyrocket. I say, “Oh, man.” When you stop and think how much money it takes to do that successfully … a lot of these people didn’t have that kind of money. Their skyrockets burned out and crashed. We’ve never been that way.
We’ve always been very conservative when it comes to finances.
We, to this day, borrow money unsecured from banks because our credit record is spotless. We’ve never had any problems financially because we’ve never asked for too much if we needed to borrow it. We always made sure that we would pay our suppliers on time. That’s been our credo since my father, and I’m sure his father before him. As a result, today … as I was saying before with the imports where we may have millions of dollars of furniture on the water.
As our new president said, the last company wanted to do this but couldn’t. They just didn’t have the financial where-with-all to do it. You don’t get that financial where-with-all suddenly. You’ve got to build a reputation. We’ve always tried to do that. We’ve never beat anybody out of anything and we’ve got a good reputation. I hope that will always be the case.
INTERVIEWER: I did an interview last year with Clyde Hooker.
RICHARDSON: He’s another real success. One of my idols is Clyde Hooker.
INTERVIEWER: The history of his company is very much like what you’re saying – slightly conservative, but so consistent.
RICHARDSON: I tell you, that company’s always amazed me. Frank, Clyde and Paul Toms, the new guy – they are great guys.
INTERVIEWER: Somebody in that company always had a crystal ball. Clyde said, “Well, we were going along and we decided that the business was going to turn down a little bit next year.” So they geared down, and sure enough, it happened. They had 5 percent profit.
RICHARDSON: I’ll tell you, that guy is unbelievable. I’d go down in Atlanta, or wherever I was, and he’d show me through his showroom. He’s just amazing. In fact, I’m the guy who nominated Clyde for the Hall of Fame. I talked to Frank and Frank said he (Clyde) doesn’t want it. We wanted to nominate him and he didn’t want to do it. So, I called Clyde and I said, “I’m going to nominate you, Clyde, whether you like it or not.” He was like, “All right, go ahead.”
INTERVIEWER: Clyde brought it up and said they were making bedroom furniture and decided to make desks. He said everybody wondered why, and he said, “It’s very simple — a double dresser has 300 and some odd parts in it and a desk has 70 parts.”
RICHARDSON: He’s an amazing guy. I guess he’s fully retired now, although I’ll bet he isn’t. I’ll bet he still goes to the office, like me.
INTERVIEWER: If you’ve got the stamina to do it, or we can come back to it, I think this is the time to talk about imports.
RICHARDSON: Exactly. Imports.
INTERVIEWER: Labor more than anything else.
RICHARDSON: Yes, but quality really comes in there, too. We started looking at importing, oh, I’ll bet you, seven to eight years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Way ahead of the game.
RICHARDSON: Some people were doing it. More and more people were doing it. Most of it was in Taiwan then. Some of it was in Malaysia and the Philippines. China wasn’t even around then.
We have a solid wood story — always have — always will. We’re a solid wood company, and that’s what we promote, because solid wood is still perceived by the retail customer as being better than any other kind, even though it isn’t.
Again, perception is reality. So, in most of the cases, the wood had to come from this country. You had to take oak, which we were doing 100 percent seven to eight years ago. You dry it here, take it all the way over to Taiwan and then ship it all the way back. That was a very troublesome thing to do, but we didn’t want rubberwood or the cheap brands of wood that they used. So, as a result, we didn’t do anything in sales.
We really had our eyes on it and we were working with a company in Greensboro, Don Lewis and his company, and they knew exactly what we were looking for. Don said to us, “There’s nothing we can’t get you. We’ll find the kind of furniture you want and need.” He said, “When we can deliver what you need, we’ll be back in touch.” We stayed in touch, and he said, “There’s nothing available yet.”
Finally, maybe two years ago, he said, “We’re ready. We can build you some dining room furniture now that will be what you need and more important, at your quality. Your quality is the big thing.”
So we started sending some designs over there. We started with dining room furniture — just tables and chairs. The quality is incredible. The prices are incredible. The profit margins are incredible. Everything is incredible at this point. We now make bedroom furniture there, and we are now starting to make curios there.
I hate to say this, but their quality is better than we can make in our plant in Wisconsin. You just have to admit it. I just wish it weren’t that way, but that’s the fact. These are not the kind of factories that you’d find in Haiti or someplace like that. These are modern, with all the latest equipment in them. These are better than most of the plants in this country.
INTERVIEWER: They’re in North China, you told me.
RICHARDSON: Well, our bedroom plant is in North China. Our dining room plant is in South China. And there are curios being made in a plant near Shanghai.
We’re working with three different plants now. They’re using their local wood, I think I told you. They bring it down by water to South China because they don’t have railroads and things.
INTERVIEWER: Local from where?
RICHARDSON: Mostly from Russia and North China.
INTERVIEWER: I want to talk about the wood. This is something we’re very much interested in.
RICHARDSON: They do have a wood that looks something like oak. There is a Chinese name for it, which I don’t remember. They’ve got good hardwoods. Their oak look-alike doesn’t have quite the character that ours has, but its close enough, and they dry it beautifully. They pack it beautifully. It comes in as clean as a whistle, and it’s remarkable. The other thing they’ve got is they don’t have government regulations. That’s another big thing in Wisconsin. The regulation has impeded our growth here through the years, and they’re coming out with new things all the time.
Having Republicans in isn’t any better than having Democrats, although not quite as many new things. But the Chinese situation — we’ve tried to fit our Wisconsin manufacturing products in a flow with the Chinese-made products. In other words, the Chinese-made products obviously are at the bottom of the price ladder. Then you go up, and then you finally get into the stuff made in Wisconsin. We’ve been using cherry and maple because their cherry doesn’t look anything like cherry. So we do that.
There are two things that scare us about China: the government controls the banks, and they’ve been making horrible, horrible loans to themselves. This bedroom plant in North China is … I guess there’s nothing like it in the world. They don’t have any business. They built this huge plant. It’s almost a skyscraper for an office, and they don’t have any business. Apparently they’ve done that all over China, not just in furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, they have.
RICHARDSON: So they’ve got some bad, bad debts there because they’re loaning it to themselves. Eventually, it’s going to hurt. The political thing there — you can never can tell what’s going to happen there. There are risks. If it comes tumbling down and you’ve got all your chips in China, you’re going to be gone. So we are trying our very best to keep this thing going in Wisconsin, even though our volume has been coming down, and we’ve been making cuts. We’ve cut our labor way back and everything else. We have to, but we want to succeed. Even if our business would go to nothing here, we wouldn’t sell the plant. We would mothball it, because if anything would happen…
RICHARDSON: Yes, in Wisconsin. If anything would ever happen in China, believe me, that thing will be worth its weight in gold. Every week there’s something in the paper about bad Chinese loans, and we just don’t know what’s going to happen there. But, while it’s going on, it’s been great.
The quality has been unbelievable; the packaging as it comes here is unbelievable; the damage and the complaints are almost nonexistent. It’s wonderful. So right now we’re riding it as hard as we can, and our import sales will probably come close to our domestic sales sometime this year.
RICHARDSON: We’ve been opening new major accounts. It’s really helped us grow. We’re growing again after four or five years of just plateauing.
One of the reasons for that has nothing to do with imports. We got to the point where we said, “Look, we just don’t know what to do next.” We hadn’t gotten into importing yet, and we’d come out with a new group, and it would just go like that.
A big item in our plant was our country oak, which were these bow-backed chairs and the self-storing, pillar-leafed tables; the Chinese knocked those off. For the American market, they knocked it off. So, in some stores there’s our stuff at $1,000, and there’s a perfect knockoff, of better quality, at $500. Well, what the hell would you do? I know what I’d do. I’d buy American, but I’m not going to spend $500 just to be a patriot. So, the thing that had been running our plant for years — the sales had started going down and the new stuff we came into was not replacing it, so we plateaued. We finally said, “We’ve got a problem, and the problem is we don’t know what to do next. We know we’re going to have to get into importing, but we need somebody that’s a game breaker. We need somebody that’ll come in here and give this plant direction.” So, we went out and we hired Dan Masters. He knows everybody in this business, and he’s been with us a little over a year. In the top 100 accounts we have now, we’re selling just about everybody we can sell. It’s a whole new ball game, and Masters knows exactly what he wants to do. It’s been great. It’s been just what we needed.
I give our company credit for saying, “Look at it. We can’t do it ourselves. Let’s find somebody who can do it for us.” We could afford to pay somebody if they’re good. It’ll be cheap in the long run. That’s what we’ll do, even if it isn’t a Richardson — who cares. We’re going to go out and we’re going to, Roy. That’s what we’ve done for 154 years. If our heritage is such that the same ideas are going to continue on into the future, I think we’ll survive into the future. I really do.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the banking system in China. You were concerned about that.
RICHARDSON: The banking situation in China … there is no bank per se in China. The government is the bank. If they’re the bank and they’re the government, and they want to do something, they go ahead and do it — even if there is no chance of a payback. That is their banking business in a nutshell. If we borrow money, we have to pay it back, or the bank builds in a certain amount for failure. But when your main customer is yourself, you’re probably not going to be quite as strict as you would if it were a third party.
As a result, the banks in China have been loaning money to themselves. They’ve been building lots of things, including furniture plants, and I’m sure, plants to make other things that literally have no business. So, how are they going to pay these loans back? The answer: they don’t.
INTERVIEWER: They don’t?
RICHARDSON: If they just start printing money, you’re going to have hyperinflation. At some point, the piper is going to be paid. You can go to Japan — you can look at that. For many years the banks there had loans on their books that were no good. All of a sudden they’ve had to start recognizing that. The economy in Japan has been falling on its face for the last five years. The very same thing could well happen in China. If you have all of your eggs in the Chinese basket, you’re going to have big problems. That’s still one of the biggest problems today. You’re doing business with someone that’s 10,000 miles away.
RICHARDSON: Like the example you gave, Roy, of the drawer fronts coming apart on these dressers. That’s it, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t call up the factory and say, “Quick! Whip up 100 drawers all of a sudden.”
INTERVIEWER: Yes, because the drawers are fitted.
RICHARDSON: Exactly. So the logistics of imports are a lot different. That’s something the United States factories have. We can turn things around. We can get them here. It doesn’t take 60 days — let’s say from 30 to 60 days — to get the containers in. There’s been some talk about the government wanting to check more containers as they come in. Theoretically, a terrorist could put a bomb in one of these containers. If they started doing that, and they start checking one in every 10 containers, boy it’s going to be a mess.
INTERVIEWER: And they do that. If Customs find somebody suspicious, they concentrate on inspecting his stuff.
RICHARDSON: If I were a terrorist, I think that I’d just put a little bomb in one of those containers. Then the government’s going to say, “Well, we’re going to check every other container.” That would double and triple the time it takes to get the merchandise to market. That could really disrupt things. I guess the end of the game is doing business in China is fraught with danger.
RICHARDSON: While it’s not fraught with danger, not to take advantage of it is also fraught with danger. (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: In another article last week, the writer was saying that the next shining star over there is going to be India. India is, to a very large degree, a democracy. Their banking system is quite sound because it’s British.
INTERVIEWER: China today is the largest population on the face of the earth, but India’s going to pass them in less than five years.
RICHARDSON: If suddenly China was shut down and India were to open up, I think that would give you a lot more confidence. The only problem there is getting the raw material. It’s tough enough now to get lumber into South China. Of course, once it’s on a ship, if it’s another 1000 miles, it doesn’t make that much difference.
INTERVIEWER: A few days is all that is.
INTERVIEWER: And into South China. I understand, there’s a world of lumber in Siberia.
RICHARDSON: Yes, that would be great, because again if you can get the quality — that’s the big thing. And I think India could do it.
When I look at the import business, I sort of watch Ron Wanek because there’s a guy that knows what he’s doing. Ron’s been spending a lot of time in South America the last couple of years. I think there’s going to be some opportunities to do it in South America, as well.
It’s a survival thing, Roy. If you’re going to survive in this business, then you’ve got to look at what the customer’s asking for and the prices they’re willing to pay. If you can satisfy that, you’re going to be OK and if you can’t, you’re not.
INTERVIEWER: There’s going to be an awful lot of changes still to come.
RICHARDSON: Oh, boy, is that the truth!
INTERVIEWER: The next category is furniture industry involvement versus actual employment in your company. You’ve already covered what jobs you’ve held in furniture companies. I think that you’ve taken care of that.
RICHARDSON: Yes, the only furniture company I’ve ever worked for is Richardson Brothers.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in production during your tenure?
RICHARDSON: There’s been a lot of changes. I think that the changes in production have come mainly in the machinery area.
Again, I’ve never been an engineering guy, and I’m not a manufacturing guy. I’ve paid for a lot of these machines, and they are very, very expensive. They’re very, very cost effective. The payback is unbelievably good for these machines.
I’ve seen a lot of things in solid wood furniture, which we’re exclusively engaged in making. The big thing is yield. In other words, if you can improve your yield by 1 percent, you’re talking about big, big, big bucks. We’ve, through the years, devoted a lot of time, research and effort to increasing our yield. We even went from using number one common to number two common (and this has been 15 to 20 years ago). Because the price was so much lower, and many times you could get as good a yield out of that as you did out of number one. You really had a good payback. As more people started going for number two, it got to be almost as expensive as number one, because everyone was going to do the same thing.
I think, not just in CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines, but the computer has made such a big difference in manufacturing, as well as, in every other aspect of business.
INTERVIEWER: What is your yield? Do you keep the figures on it?
RICHARDSON: Yes, we do, but I’m not … I could find out tomorrow. I could find out in 30 seconds what it is. We spend a lot of time on it. Another thing that’s going to be happening … we have a lot of kilns and pre-dryers, and a big dimension processing area. It’s getting so much more reasonable to buy your rough dimension that we may end up closing that whole department.
You have to look at when you have to buy the lumber. You dry the lumber, and then you have to cut it up and everything — you’re talking about a big amount of time. With oak, it was almost six months because you had to really baby the oak when you dried it. If you can buy it and put it right into furniture and get it out, you can increase your inventory turn significantly.
In fact, we’re buying our new maple group; we’re buying all of our maple rough dimension — all ready to go. I think that’s why we’re not in the sawmill business anymore. Really, the reason we’re not in the sawmill business is because of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). OSHA was founded by my dear Republican, Bill Steiger, who is now long dead. When they came out with their rules that you had to do this and you had to do that in the sawmill, we just closed her down. (Laughs) It just wasn’t worth it. So that sort of thing is going to be happening, too.
INTERVIEWER: In this same category, what about changes in purchasing?
RICHARDSON: Changes in purchasing … well, it’s been going on for years. I mean it’s having stuff available when you’re ready to use it instead of having to stock six months worth of cartons in the warehouse and things like that. That’s been a big thing.
Just increasing inventory turns is the name of the game today. I think that purchasing has a lot to do with that. Even though I’ve been the CEO and everything else, I’ve had such good production guys that I’ve really not had to get that much involved in the intricacies of production. I’ve been very thankful for that, because that’s not really my area of interest nor my area of talent, if I may call it such.
INTERVIEWER: The next question, which is your area and which you’ve already talked about, is sales and merchandising.
RICHARDSON: Yes, as I’ve always said, and as my father always said to me, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” That’s so true. You can have the greatest plant in the world, and the greatest people, and the greatest everything, and if you don’t have any orders, you’ve got nothing. (Laughs)
Selling and merchandising are extremely important. In fact, that’s been the big difference that Dan Masters has been to us. He knows manufacturing. He’s sort of like I am. He knows enough about manufacturing so that they can’t put anything over on him, but he’s really a sales and marketing guy. He knows how to sell. In fact, when I called his last employer and asked him about Dan, he said, “If you want to have some fun sometime, you go out with Dan on a selling trip.” He said, “That guy will not leave until he gets an order.” I mean he does it in a very good-natured way, but he gets orders.
This last market he called up the top 100 retailers, who, incidentally, I really didn’t want to sell to because these guys can give you a lot of trouble. A lot of them will jerk you around when it comes to paying — they never pay on time, and all that.
INTERVIEWER: Department stores, particularly.
RICHARDSON: Yes, exactly — department stores, particularly. He identified about 35 of the 100 that we could be selling. At the last High Point Market, we had, I think it was 20 of them come in. That has never happened in our space ever before. We are now selling to about 10 of the big guys.
He just went over to Michigan last week and opened up Art Van on our new curios. Just having Art Van stores in Michigan on those curios is going to amount to big, big business in a year’s time. For some reason, we just never did that before, mostly I guess because of me. I’d rather have 100 mom-and-pops who are going to be true blue to you and will pay their bills, than one or two big guys that are going to … every little thing that goes wrong, they’re going to send it back. They’ll pay in 90 days, and still take the 2 percent discount and all those sort of things.
Today, you’ve got to sell those guys. You also have to know how to handle them, and I frankly … Dan knows how to handle them, and I never really did.
Here’s one good story … I had a little line I was making in Haiti on the side, and I was having the Richardson Brothers’ salesman sell it. Our salesman sold $2,000 worth of it, too. They never paid for it. So, I finally … you know, after about six months, I got involved. I’d call, and they’d say, “Oh, we never got it.” And I’d say, “Well, I’ve got your signature.” “Well, send it to us, and we’ll take care of it.” Well, to make a long story short, nearly two years went by — they never paid it. I think we had written it off. All of a sudden, one day, guess what — in comes a check from them paying for it and taking the discount. So I said, “Well, that’s great. How about that? We charged it off, so that’s a pick-up.”
And so I did. I said, “Ahh, now, I’m going to have some fun! If they want their money back, they’re going to have to come out here and beg!” Well, I called, and I asked for this extension. They didn’t have voicemail then. So they told me, “Mr. So-and-So was out to lunch or he’s not here right now.” And I said, “Well, you tell him that Joe Richardson of Richardson Brothers returned his call, and I really want to talk with him.” He never called back and that was it. We kept the money. (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: (Laughs) That’s good. What about one … I don’t know how major it would be, but the tendency to run company stores, as La-Z-Boy and Bassett are doing? That to me is a rather major …
RICHARDSON: Yes, there were times … in fact, we spent in Dallas … we even had a real estate guy out there. In the city of Dallas, back when oak was really running hot and heavy, there was nobody in the city of Dallas or Fort Worth that was really doing it right. So we said, “Well, let’s start our own store down there.” We have a retail store in Sheboygan Falls. (I’ll show you that tomorrow.) And we do … it is not a company store. The company owns it, but they handle other lines and everything else. It’s a full-line furniture store. They do very well. So we thought, “My God, here’s a major, major market. Why couldn’t we start our own store there? We could sell a boatload of furniture and make some money.”
Well, we went down there two or three times and looked into it, and decided finally not to do it. I mean — it’s not our business. We don’t have the where-with-all, you know, to devote a lot of money to it. You’d have to get the right people and everything else. We finally decided it wasn’t us. Whenever we seem to get mixed up in something that isn’t us, it doesn’t seem to work. So, we abandoned it. But we now have a retail store in Sheboygan Falls, and we just opened up a clearance center in Sheboygan and we’ve got a manager.
Again, this is because of the man, not because of the company so much. We’ve got a man running those two. He’s a young man that’s really taken our retail operation and has really built it into something. And he’s looking for more challenges.
We may well put up another store in another area, probably near enough so that he can oversee it — in an area where we don’t really have a real great customer right now. We may do that. I think, as far as these bigger manufacturers opening retail stores, I can see why they want to do it because then you have control over the retail selling. And you make darn sure that your product is going to be pushed — that’s important. I mean this little retail store in Sheboygan Falls is among the top five as far as volume goes. That’s because we’re known around here — not just in the Sheboygan area. The people there love to sell it and everything else.
I can see if I were a La-Z-Boy or all the others that are doing it … and Ron Wanek is doing it. I can see why they’d want to do it. You’re going to get more business out of them. It seems like La-Z-Boy has been able to do it and still retain their regular dealer structure.
INTERVIEWER: That’s what makes me wonder. Bassett opened a very nice store in Greensboro. Everything you read about it is upbeat and positive. But the people who know the retail business in our area … Bassett used to sell everybody. They don’t have any other customers now because the stores aren’t going to compete with Bassett.
RICHARDSON: No. I can tell you what my dad always told me, “Never let anyone get more than 20 percent of your sales. There was a time when Richardson Brothers made other products; we made chairs for other manufacturers. We did that for a lot of Southern California manufactures. We made chairs for Riverside and Temple Stewart, and Crawford in Jamestown.
At one time, Crawford in Jamestown was our biggest customer. All of a sudden, they got up to 10 percent of our production. Every month the orders would come in and everything else. Then all of a sudden, one month they didn’t come in. I called Cline up and I said, “Cline, Joe Richardson here. Say, did our orders get lost in the mail?” And he said, “Oh Joe! I’m sorry — I guess we didn’t tell you. We’re having them made in someplace in Tennessee or someplace like that now.” And I want to tell you, losing 10 percent of your business, just like that — it hurts!
I’d much rather have my eggs spread around than to have them all in one basket. I guess that’s a problem. I’ve never been able to understand how La-Z-Boy has been able to get around it. I mean they put these stores in all over, and they still have their other people doing business for them. I don’t understand it.
Pat [Norton]]]] gave a talk one time at AFMA (American Furniture Manufacturers Association, now American Home Furnishings Alliance) or something or other. Was La-Z-Boy the manufacturer of the year one time or something?
RICHARDSON: Well, Pat gave a talk, and he went into that. I can’t remember just what it was, but they seem to have done it pretty well. Thomasville has also been doing a lot of it.
I’ve never been able to understand Thomasville. They’ll have 20 Thomasville galleries in just one single metropolitan area. They’re all independently owned. I’ve never been able to figure it out. Well, how come — here’s your big line, and you’ve got 20 competitors within 20 miles, and you’re not complaining about that? Never been able to figure that out.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know.
RICHARDSON: Maybe that’s why we never sold the majors when Joe was in charge there — I don’t know. I think Dan knows how to handle them a lot better than Joe would have.
INTERVIEWER: OK. What about changes in finance?
RICHARDSON: There’s been a lot of changes in finance, too. Most of the changes right now have been very positive because interest rates have come down so far. We’re actually borrowing money today (short-term money) for, you know, like under 3 percent.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, wow!
RICHARDSON: I mean if you have to go out and borrow money today. And of course, we don’t have any long-term debt. Just a few years ago, you know you were talking 8, 9 percent. Nobody borrows at the prime rate anymore. I mean that’s something you just don’t do. I guess there are a lot more banks competing. We’ve managed to have one bank as our prime bank — they used to be the only one. We don’t do that anymore. We always have two or three. We have a lead bank, and we make everyone make a pitch every year. Every year we want to hear how it’s going to happen this year. Because of our conservative fiscal policies, we’ve never really had to do a lot of these things that corporations like Enron are doing … putting together these tricky partnerships. We’ve never had to do that.
One time when we were borrowing long term, we did business with an insurance company. I guess that’s one reason we’ve always tried to be conservative fiscally so we don’t have to get these tricky, mirror-directed finance schemes going. I think in the long run, I’d rather be around and not owe a lot of money and be, you know, secure financially, than to owe a lot of money — especially when business turns down as it has from a couple of years ago. Here, these people have these huge long-term debts they have to meet the payments on. Boy, they must lose a lot of sleep at night with having a situation like that.
INTERVIEWER: You know Bassett has been famous for not having any debts. I remember one year they put out a financial statement, and their total indebtedness was in the 2 percent 10 day payments they owed on their purchases. And they were taking the 2 percent. Bassett, in the last two years, has made more money off their investments than they have making furniture.
RICHARDSON: One of the things we learned from buying a furniture plant and then another plant in Menominee, Michigan ... and having them both fail … we’ve made another determination. That is, we got both of those businesses for a song. If we ever buy something again, Roy, I’m going to try to buy the most successful business I can find, and pay twice what I should because in the long run, it’ll be the cheapest investment you’re going to make. Because if you buy something that’s already successful, you have a hell of a lot better chance of continuing success than you do buying something that’s got to be brought back from the dead.
INTERVIEWER: That’s Warren Buffet’s theme song.
RICHARDSON: I’m sure. I’m sure it is.
INTERVIEWER: And then the final question: What about changes in management?
RICHARDSON: I think that there really haven’t been any real changes in management. I think that management has to be more observant and more astute today than it’s had to be in the past, because of all the things that are going on. There’s no doubt about that.
I think that you have to be able to shift with the times. I guess I stand in awe of Ron Wanek. I’ve known Ron for a good many years, and that man, how he grows the way he does … his management style, has got to be good because he’s up there and he’s still paying his bills and everything else. I guess that’s why he’s at nearly a billion, and we’re nowhere near that.
Ron’s the kind of a guy that if you really want to have that as your goal — growth, pure growth — you need a Ron Wanek.
I suspect that our Dan Masters is a little bit that way, too. We need someone like that now. We need someone that … we’ve been concentrating on the bottom line for so long that maybe we need someone that can give us some ascendancy on the top line.
To keep things going and to keep it going up, it isn’t just sales. To have a salesman or a sales-type president is not good enough anymore. You’ve got to have it work all the way around. If you sell something and then you can’t deliver it, or if you deliver it and you don’t put it in the box right, what have you got? You’ve got nothing.
Nothing but trouble with a capital “T.” I guess when it comes to management, it’s no different today. I’ve always said management should do this: We should always be running, even when times are good. You should be running the business like, “You know, I think things are going to get bad tomorrow.”
It’s so much human nature to say, “Hey, things are good. We know we’re a little fat in the overhead there, but times are good. Let’s just wait.” You should do it now; you should never wait. You should keep your sales trimmed, and just like you said with Clyde Hooker – he could see times were going to get bad. He trimmed her right back, and he was all set for it.
That’s the way you survive. That’s the way you get to be a successful business like Hooker. There are a lot of people in the furniture business that haven’t done that, and are no longer with us. There are a lot of these conglomerates. I know one time Bath Industries wanted to buy us. They came in because they figured they could put their shrewd management techniques to work in a business that really needs the sophisticated management techniques. They came in, and two years later, they’re bailing out because it didn’t work. Now is that our industry, or another one?
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure it is.
RICHARDSON: I think it is.
INTERVIEWER: One of the biggest industrial successes is Burlington Industries, the textile company.
RICHARDSON: Uh, huh.
INTERVIEWER: But they started buying furniture companies, and they bombed out, totally.
RICHARDSON: Well, you can go right down ... the only one ... I was looking at Jerry Epperson’s newsletters, and he had a list of, you know, the people that have been in — conglomerates that have been in and gone out. Quite a list!
INTERVIEWER: It sure was.
RICHARDSON: Kroehler’s one of the few that’s still in it. There was Baker and this casual line out in San Francisco, and I guess they’ve got a kitchen cabinet company now, too.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you’ve personally received from people in our industry.
RICHARDSON: Oh, my goodness!
INTERVIEWER: And then the support your company has received, if there is a difference.
RICHARDSON: Well, support I’ve received ... we could go on for the rest of the afternoon about that, I think. The people I’ve mentioned — Leonard Nemschoff. I’ve always been active in the trade associations and the Home Furnishings Council, and people like that. Whenever we’ve needed help, we’ve always gotten it.
There have been a few instances where we haven’t. There are two things that happened that make kind of good stories.
One, and this has been probably 20 years ago … for some reason, the IRS contacted us and said, “We’ve decided that cartoning material for furniture is not a part of the product, and therefore, cannot be considered a business expense.”
INTERVIEWER: Oh my gosh!
RICHARDSON: Well, we were dumbfounded. I mean, we can’t … there is a certain area where you might be able to ship it blanket wrapped. But in order to really get your product from here to there, it’s got to be in a box. Oh no, they weren’t going to do that, and that was it. They sent us a bill for some ridiculous amount. And we decided, “We’ll fight!” I mean we’re not only fighting for us, but we’re fighting for everyone that ships their product in a box, because if the IRS is successful with us, they’re going to go after every manufacturer. So their logic for instance is this — just to show you how off base they were — they said, “Now, if you were a ketchup manufacturer, that would be different because your carton is the bottle it comes in so that’s OK. Apparently the box that the ketchup is put in wouldn’t be OK. We went to the NAFM (National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, now AHFA), and said, “Look it. You’ve got to help. If we get nabbed, all of our members are going to get nabbed.” And they helped.
It went on, Roy, for four years. Finally, NAFM decided they weren’t going to help anymore. So we went out, and we hired the NAFM attorney in Washington. And we fought that ... in fact, we even had expert witnesses. We had to get some guy from the Wharton School of Finance. And we went through it ... it cost us tens of thousands of dollars.
INTERVIEWER: Was this your company?
RICHARDSON: They were after our company. But if they got us, then they would have gone after everybody else. We had the appliance industry writing us encouraging letters, saying, “You’re fighting our battle; and if you need any help, let us know.” Well, I’d say, “Well, how about some money?” Well, they never answered those! But we ended up winning it.
So, there was a case where I was really hoping to get some support for our industry, and we did up to a point, but they wouldn’t carry through. I was a little bit miffed on that because that was a battle that should have been fought by every manufacturer.
Myself ... the times I’ve been helped when I’ve needed help for anything, the people in our industry have just come to the front without fail.
Another time — and I’m speaking about the company now — where we had help … in solid wood tabletops — wood moves. I don’t care if it’s perfectly dried or not, wood will move. We were making, and we still do, solid wood tabletops. Especially in northern climates, when you turn the heater on in the fall, it dries the air out and dries the tabletop out, and it will contract a little bit. And all of sudden, in the middle of the tabletop’s leaf, there’ll be a little gap.
Well, you can’t do that. They said, “We’ve got six tables, and they’ve all got gaps, and we’re sending them back.” “There’s nothing wrong with them.” “Oh, come on now. We won’t accept them. You’re the only manufacturer that does that.”
So one day again, because I knew a lot of these guys, and they were our competitors, I said, “I’m going to get on the telephone, and find out if that’s true or not.” Well, guess what?! Every one of them was having a big problem with this. They would try to explain it, and nobody would listen. “Send them back. We want six more tables,” or whatever. So I said, “Look it.” I called them all back, and I said, “Would you contribute financially if I would get something together that we could present to our dealers for our salesman to use in sales meetings and everything else — something to give to the consumer so they would know there is nothing wrong with this table, because when they turn the furnace off, it will go right back.”
I think I got about 20 of my competitors, and they all said, “OK.” So I got a program together, with the Hardwood Manufacturers Association in Pittsburgh. I went out there and we made a video, showing, not just specifically tabletops, but hardwood in general. And we had a folder, and we put the thing together, and we distributed it to all of us manufacturers. And literally, I would say six months after that, the problem went away.
It really worked just to show people that there’s nothing wrong when this happens. It seemed to work. Again, I think this industry ... I mean Tuck Nichols and Red Cochrane and all those guys ... I mean these are my friends. We were bitter competitors, and we ... you know … if I could take a customer away from Tuck, I would in a minute and he’d do the same to me. We joke about it.
One time with Carl from Crawford — he’s retired now ... we were in Jamestown, and Carl was really mad at us because for some reason, our dealer in the Jamestown area sold our chairs and our remodeling job at Carl’s country club.
So, to have a little fun, Brian and Bruce … from Fancher.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Erickson.
RICHARDSON: Yes, Erickson. They make chairs in their plant in Jamestown for Carl. Carl came out to lunch and around the table were all of his chairs. All the rest of them were Richardson Brothers’ chairs.
That’s the way it is in this industry. We all kid each other, but we all get along, I guess.
If I had more time to think about it, I could probably come up with some other things. There’s one thing that troubles me about this industry and that’s the fact that there aren’t more cooperative efforts made in things, and I use the Home Furnishings Council as a perfect example of that.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, a perfect example.
RICHARDSON: It’s a perfect example of that. The Home Furnishings Council was and still is ... it’s got the AFMA’s blue ribbon panel technique thing beat six ways a Sunday. The thing with AFMA is that it costs a bundle and it’s doing some good, but it isn’t doing enough good.
The Home Furnishings Council had retailers, manufacturers — and not just furniture manufacturers — but everybody — pulling on the same rope. We had more than just ink and newspapers. We had the magazine; we had the television show; we had ways for consumers to find out where they could buy things.
And AFMA has always ... even though I used to be very heavy in the AFMA, wanted everything a 100 percent by themselves. They don’t want to share anything with anybody. And I think that’s a shortsighted thing, especially when it comes to consumer awareness and things like that. You need everybody pulling on the rope.
I think that’s been a failing of our industry because the Home Furnishings Council is no more.
I predict that the AFMA effort in five years … some of these big guys that are paying really big dues now are going to say, “What are we getting for this? Either you stop that, or we’re going to cancel our membership.” Then all of a sudden, that’s going to be out the window, too. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I’d be willing to bet that it will.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done for other people? Or, have you already covered it?
RICHARDSON: Well, I think I’ve covered it. I’ve always been very proactive in things like that. I’ve always felt that was a valuable thing to do. This is an industry I love, and whenever I can help it, and whenever I can do something, I’ve always been happy to do it. I’ve been lucky, I mean, I’ve had the time to do it. If someone would call me today and say, “Would you do something for me?” I’d do it. Absolutely — no doubt about it.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategies and business technique.
RICHARDSON: Well, I’m really not involved in it. One of the nice things about retiring from a family business is that they never can completely kick you out. But by the same token, I’ve always espoused my father’s philosophy, and that is: don’t be second-guessing everybody. If they’re doing a good job, don’t worry about it.
When Sharon and I went to High Point last month ... I hadn’t seen the line in two years, and, my God, the line has completely changed. I mean it was like walking into a strange showroom. I didn’t know anything about anything. I roughly knew a little bit, but I used to be able to give you every model number and everything else. I couldn’t do it.
The other day I took my grandson, Joe III’s boy, to a furniture store. He was saying, “Grandpa, is this made ...” I said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know if it was made by us.”
So I guess I’d have to pass on that one. I’m at the point in my life where I sort of approve. When they say, “Well, this is what we’d like to do. What do you think?” And I say, “Well, seems good to me.” And that’s pretty much my part in strategizing. I’ve tried to use my father’s principles of: “You’ve got someone you’ve hired to do that. So let them do it.” Hopefully, they’ll run it by you, and you’ll say, “Yes. That sounds good.”
But that’s my extent and my participation.
INTERVIEWER: Would that have been true when you were actively running the company?
RICHARDSON: Oh, no. When I was actively running the company, I was actively involved in that. I guess my philosophies, which I’ve touched on already, sort of determine what the company, as far as strategies go, what those are. I mean I was never one for wanting to sell to department stores or get into a big chain store or something like that. I even had J.C. Penney ... we sell to ... their Alaska store in Anchorage is one of our biggest customers, but they buy independently. I actually had the main buyer from J.C. Penney come and say, “Joe, would you like some J.C. Penney business?” And I said, “No, I don’t think we do.” I turned him down because at that time we had 700 or 800 really good small to medium stores. If we’d taken on J.C. Penney, we would have had to give them less service in order to service a big account like J.C. Penney. My philosophy was, “No, I’d rather not have a J.C. Penney, and really service the hell out of these accounts we already have, or the ones that we are going to get.
Today, that’s changed. A lot of these small and medium stores are no more so you’ve got to do business with the big guys. I guess you can say that when I was participating in the strategy and the planning, that I was probably more conservative than maybe I should have been — I don’t know.
But we pay the bills; we make money. I guess maybe I’m too satisfied with just doing that, and not wanting to have the biggest company on the block, or the biggest company in the country.
INTERVIEWER: And that’s a valid strategy. What has been your central personal goal in your business?
RICHARDSON: I guess the personal goal would ... obviously it’s to be around. We want to survive. We have people in our plant that have worked for us for 30, 40, 45 years. You do feel a personal responsibility when somebody’s been with you for that many years, and you have to cut back or something like that. You can’t be as cold-hearted as some of these companies have to be, I guess.
I shudder every time I pick up a paper, and somebody announces they’re going to layoff 5,000 people. Why the hell do they put that in the newspaper? I mean if I would ... if we were going to ... and we’ve had to do it ... we’ve done it a lot in the last couple of years. We don’t call the newspaper up and say, “Get it in the paper tonight. We’re going to layoff 50 people.” If someone calls up and says, “Are you laying people off?” We say, “You know, it’s really none of your business.” But these people, they’re proud of it — well, we’re going to cut 10,000 jobs! We may have to layoff a supervisor, I’ve been told, next week. He’s been doing a good job, but he’s one supervisor too many. But we won’t just give him two weeks pay.
We have a conscience. I guess it’s more important in a small town to do that because you run into these people. You can run into them in a store; you can run into them anywhere. You don’t want somebody to say, “There you are. There’s the guy that laid me off after 25 years of faithful employment and everything else.” I guess there’s a little bit more of that in a small town.
I think other than surviving and making a profit, it’s also to share and protect employees. I guess that’s saying it all.
INTERVIEWER: Then the next question: how well have you achieved it?
RICHARDSON: I can say that over the years, I’ve had to fire a lot of people. It’s never easy, but you never fire somebody because they’re doing a good job. If somebody’s not doing a good job, somewhere in their psyche, they have to know they’re not doing a good job. You just don’t call somebody in and say, “You’re fired.” “Well, why are you firing me?” ‘Well, I’m ...” “Why didn’t you tell me that?” Well, you always talk to somebody, and say, “Look it, I’ll give you a chance.”
Of all the people I’ve had to fire, there’s only one person in this whole world that’s still mad at me. He’ll walk by me, and turn his head. He’ll just go sailing right by me. It’s a sales rep. I let him go because he was doing a horrible job, and he’s never spoken to me since.
Even this old fellow I was telling you that I fired who had Michigan and Indiana. When I fired him that day he said, “Joe, one year from today, I’m going to be in the boneyard. I’ll be dead. And you’ll know, it was because of you.” Oh my goodness!
And Pete didn’t talk to me. We have a 25 Year Club. In fact, we had our banquet last week. Pete came too. He was 84 when I let him go. He’d been selling for us for 50 years. He’d come to every one of our banquets. He’d never talk with me ... never talk to me ... he always turned his head and walked. I’d say, “Hi Pete.” After about five or six years, he said, “Come over here.” He said, “Joe, I’ve been too hard on you. You did the right thing.” (Laughs) And, he was a friend … I took him through the plant the next day, and he was fine from then on.
It’s only old Frank that still won’t talk to me. But you don’t let people go because they’re doing a good job. Most of the time, they’re going to go out and find something they’re going to be happy doing, and there’s no problem. I guess that would be my answer to that question.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your company goal, and is it any different?
RICHARDSON: I think our company goal is a lot different today than it was. Our company goal today in furniture is to survive. We’re trying to survive by mixing imported products with our domestic products. If we can do it successfully, we’ll survive. Now, maybe survival means we’re going to have to become a complete sales and marketing company, and no manufacturing at all — I don’t know. We’re going to try our darndest to keep our domestic facility operating and manufacturing, not just because we want to, but because it’s been there for as long as it has been.
Second of all, because we think that it’s a good insurance policy to have something like that in case things don’t work out somewhere else. So I guess that would be our company’s goal to survive and to find ways of surviving in today’s economy. But it’s still tricky out there. There’s still a lot of things going on that are very tricky. Nothing is easy, and it really was easier 20 years ago.
Someone says, “Oh, man. You think you’ve got it hard. You should have been around 20 years ago.” Hey, 20 years ago it was a pipe compared to the way it is today. Today you’ve got to really do it right, or you’re going to get smothered.
INTERVIEWER: And you’re exchanging one set of problems for another.
RICHARDSON: Exactly. I mean there’s going to come a day when we’re going to get a container, and it’s going to be full of crap. You know it’s going to happen, and when that happens, what are you going to do? We’ve had to do that many times in the past. I’ve had people call up and say, “The 400 chairs you sent us for our restaurant — they’re all falling apart.” What do you do? Say, “Well, finders keepers, losers weepers. Buyer, beware”? No, you take care of it.
You take care of it. In the long run, that’s a good lesson, in fact. We’ve had problems occasionally at Richardson Brothers — we have a finishing problem. And boy, are the phones busy … I mean it happens all the time. So, what you do is make it right. You do what has to be done to keep the customer happy. You replace it — you do whatever has to be done.
We had a run of that a couple of years ago, and that sticks with a lot of people. “You know, boy, I don’t know about Richardson Brothers. You know we had a lot of problems with them a year ago, and maybe we better just wait awhile.”
Dan Masters said it so well. He said, “Yes, Richardson Brothers had some problems. What did they do about it? Well, they took care of it.” Well, what more can you ask for? I mean every manufacturer you’ve ever done business with has had some problems. If they didn’t take care of them, yes, kiss ‘em off. If they take care of you, well that’s all you can do.
That’s what we’ve always tried to do, and we’ll always try to do. I think in the long run that, you know, it’s the golden rule: do unto others. Sometimes it’s very expensive, but it’s more expensive not to do it.
INTERVIEWER: If your company goal is survival, and the question is, how well was that achieved? That answers itself, doesn’t it?
RICHARDSON: Yes, we’re still here. Exactly. (Laughs) I can’t imagine a company operating on the principle that we’re not going to survive, because if you’re operating on that, then it really is a management problem. In order to exist with the least amount of liability, it really takes good management.
When we were looking to try to find an answer to our problems at our furniture company, we retained Ralph Stump and Tim Stump, his son, to come up here and look at our business and just say, “What do we need to do?” We did that with a couple of people like that. It was very interesting, because well the Stumps, for instance, said, “Look it. Nobody wants to buy furniture companies right away today — even the good ones. Nobody wants to buy a furniture company.”
So what you do is you’re going to have to find some way to survive. I mean basically you have to go out and hire somebody (we call them “game breakers”) that can go out and really break the game wide open and do something for you. We went to a headhunter, and we eventually ended up with Dan Masters. It looked like he was the man for the job. We interviewed some others that looked fairly good, but Dan was just so far above the rest of them that there was just no question of it. So, I guess that’s the answer to that one.
INTERVIEWER: There is a lot of overlap, but what was the overriding business philosophy of your company?
RICHARDSON: The overriding business philosophy of our company has been to please our customers by making good products that also make them money, and also make us money, because in order for a business to be successful, your customer has to be successful. If your customer is successful, and you’ve priced your things right, and you make them right, you will be successful. You cannot have one without the other.
INTERVIEWER: That fits exactly. What about yourself — your own business philosophy?
RICHARDSON: I guess it’s the same thing. I’ve never wanted to do anything I would be ashamed of. I’ve always tried to practice the golden rule. I am not an aggressive, driven fellow. I am not that way, and I couldn’t be if I wanted to. I’m not Type A.
I’m extremely positive, more so than I should be, my wife tells me. Most people, including Sharon, say that’s my most endearing factor, the fact that I am eternally optimistic.
It’s interesting because, in my family, my father was a worrier. Even though he was this guy that could delegate, he worried about everything. When business went down, he would worry. When business went up, he would worry. When the debt was too low, he would worry. He’d worry about everything. He was a worrier.
My brother is that way today — he just worries about everything. He just ... oh, man, when things are going good, he’ll say, “Well, wait ‘til tomorrow.” And yes, it’ll come. I mean, as long as I’ve been in business, it’s been like this, you know. The moment you’re on top of the world, I’ll tell you, you can say it, “Tomorrow something’s going to happen that’s going to ...” You’re going to have to prove that you’re a manager again because nothing goes smooth all the time. That’s what managers are for — to manage the ups and the downs. I guess that’s it.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationships with your suppliers.
RICHARDSON: Even when I was active in the business, I really didn’t have a personal relationship with our suppliers because I didn’t do the buying. Once a year, we’d have a suppliers’ golf tournament, a big dinner and everything else. I really didn’t have any real personal relationships with any of our suppliers.
But as a company, yes, we definitely felt that ... not just an appreciation banquet. One of the other things that I’ve always tried to do (and we’re still doing it today) is make our suppliers renew their commitments or renew their vows once a year.
If it’s your carton manufacturer, have a couple of other carton manufacturers come in and quote you. Or if it’s your accounting firm, or whatever it is — you just don’t give it to somebody and then go away and forget about it. You just make them reapply for the job every year, maybe two years in some cases — especially with an accounting firm because the first year, it takes a lot of getting to know you. After that, if you don’t say anything, you’ll find that their fees will be creeping up and creeping up. So then you’ve got to go back and do something about it. So I think that’s something any good manager should do.
INTERVIEWER: Describe you relationships with your customers.
RICHARDSON: I’ve had real good relationships with our customers. It was very interesting. Back in the ’80s, Sharon and I would get in the car in the summertime, and we’d just head off for a different part of the country. I would tell the salesmen that we were going, but I didn’t want them with me. I just wanted to call on our customers — just drop in and introduce myself, and find out how business was doing.
They’d say, “Well, what are you here for?” I’d say, “I want to find out if there’s anything we could be doing better.” “Oh, you’re the best company we deal with. Oh, everything is great.” And I’d say, “No, now come on, come on, be honest with me. That’s the reason I’m here. That’s why I don’t have the salesman. I want to find out, is there something we could be doing a better job with?” And after a few minutes, I’d get, “Well, yes, now that you mention it. Nothing bad, but ...” I think that was very valuable, and I learned a lot. I got to see a lot of things that the customers should be doing — that they were supposed to be doing, and they weren’t.
We had a big gallery program, where if the dealer kept our stuff in a place and accessorized it, they got an incentive. I got out there and found out that a lot of these places that supposedly had a gallery area weren’t keeping it up.
You learned a lot, but mostly it was so much fun because nobody had ever had that happen before. They always came out with a salesman or something like that. “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I want to know what you think of our product and where we could be doing a better job for you.” We really got some good relationships with our customers that way. We did that for about three or four years before Sharon got cancer.
Even for a year after that, we could only be gone ... then we stayed in Ohio and Michigan, so we could come back every week so she could get her treatment. We had our own plane then, and we’d leave our car in Dayton or something; and they’d fly us back on Monday afternoon, and we’d go about our business again. We really enjoyed that — that was a lot of fun. We got to know a lot of customers.
Then the other very interesting phenomenon that we were mixed up in was the unfinished furniture business. The unfinished furniture business started out being, you know, stuff made as cheap as you could get it, and you painted it yourself or stained it yourself. That was it. Then all of a sudden, there was a sudden change in the unfinished furniture business.
They wanted quality. They wanted to get better products, and here we were making solid wood furniture that is really top quality. Nobody was offering anything like that to the unfinished furniture retailer. So we decided to make a play for that business.
They have (or they had — I guess they still have it) a convention. It was a sort of show that was in Reno the first year. We didn’t participate in that one, but it was in Reno the second year. We had a space there, and we were actually showing our things finished.
All the rest of the people showed it all unfinished. We showed our product finished, and then we’d have a couple of things that were unfinished, so they could see the quality and everything else. But we got into this huge convention hall in Reno, and the whole auditorium was filled with unfinished furniture, and it looked like hell. Here’s Richardson Brothers with all this beautiful finished furniture, and we stood out like a beacon. That was one of the best markets I’ve ever been to in my whole life.
Because these unfinished furniture dealers had never seen anything like this offered to them before — our hands were literally weak from writing orders at the end of the day. It was great.
The unfinished furniture dealers were sort of like a fraternity. We’d get a phone call saying, “Well, I just talked to So-in-So in Santa Rosa, and they said you make a great product. I want to buy some.” You know it was out of the grapevine and all over the country. All of a sudden overnight, man, it was just wonderful — it was just great. It was interesting to see the evolution.
The unfinished furniture dealers finally got to the point where they said, “Well, as long as we’re selling it unfinished, let’s also offer it finished.” So, as long as we offered it finished, we could make more money on that. So we said, “Let’s start getting out of the unfinished.” So our good unfinished accounts became good finished accounts. Today, the industry is right back where it started — cheap as they can get — and the cheaper, the better. They don’t make anything in better quality at all anymore. So, there was a whole 360-degree thing ... but while it was on, boy, we were really having fun.
INTERVIEWER: What were your problems with your suppliers?
RICHARDSON: The problems? At some point, you will have problems with any of your suppliers. Probably the biggest problem we’ve had through the years have been with finish suppliers. That’s not something you can just change with the snap of a finger.
I mean to change finish suppliers, there are big things you’ve got to go through. Finish is a devil of a problem, and the problem is that you’ve got to have a single supplier, because if you have one supplier doing it and then if something goes wrong, they’re pointing at each other. It’s always someone else’s fault. That is a big, big problem.
We’ve changed finishers at least three times in the last 20 years. Now everything has been going along really well, but you know any minute it could go wrong. And that is a bad one because that takes years to work out of the system. You’ve got stuff in the warehouse that’s already finished. You’ve got stuff sitting on people’s floors in two different colors and everything else. It takes years to get that worked out. Then after it’s worked out, the perception is still there, and it may take another six months or a year for people to get rid of that perception.
The other big problem in suppliers, I would say, comes with lumber prices. This is particularly true with bigger retailers. When the price of a species suddenly starts climbing, you can’t not pass it on. I mean you have to pass it on. Yet a lot of your big dealers will say, “I won’t pay it. I will not pay it.” The hardwood lumber prices are set by the market.
INTERVIEWER: Sure they are.
RICHARDSON: We came out with a cherry group called Door County a few years — five, six, seven years ago. Cherry was very reasonably priced — nobody was really coming out with cherry. We even padded it a little bit because we figured it would protect us against price increases. We sold the hell out of it. Then (laughs), that was where Lilly screwed us up. We’re still in the line today, but that would have really been big if it would have been finished right.
The point of it is, then everybody started selling cherry, and the price just went like that. Pretty soon, you’re having a price increase every year — sometimes twice a year — to make up for this. Then all of a sudden you’ll have a ... like the gallery in Houston. He said, “I will not pay it. If you want to sell me, you’ve got to hold that price — otherwise, you’re outta here.” Well, finally you get to the point where you say, “Well, we’re outta there.” That’s strictly supply and demand. But it’s a problem — let’s face it.
All of a sudden, you get to a point where the species is so expensive, that it literally has priced you into a different price category. Price categories still matter. You can have a salesman justify the difference between two products that are priced differently, but in the long run, if you’re looking at product, (like I said before at lunch), a $1,000 table and the same table for $500, and the quality is the same – there’s no way on God’s green earth that you’re going to convince someone to pay $500 more for the same thing.
You’ve got to be able to watch yourself there. Now cherry has come down again, so we’ve got another ... our cherry collections. What do you do? You price it to the market, then you figure maybe another 25 percent, and you build that in, and then if it holds — good. That’s a problem, Roy, there’s no doubt about it. And we’ve run up against that an awful lot of times.
Oak is sort of out of demand now. Suddenly, where it used to be really expensive, now it’s cheap as dirt. So, I guess price variances are a big problem with suppliers.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in industry trade associations. You’ve classified that more than once.
RICHARDSON: I was a director of NAFM, and I was the director and the president of the AFMA. I served on the Home Furnishings Council board for as long as it was a board. I started right in the beginning, and followed right through — not quite to the end, because I’ve been pretty much tied to home for the last two years.
I’ve served on all sorts of industry things, and I’ve always felt that goes with the territory. I’ve always thought it was very valuable. I think one of the most valuable things of associations is being able to compare notes with people, and not compare prices or anything like that. There are so many other things that are really important, that you really benefit from in talking to other manufacturers is having an idea, without specifically identifying it, or what their profit is. You know, the figures from companies your size.
What are their sales expenses running? What is a profit leader in this industry? You can use your numbers, and compare it against the rest of the industry which is very, very valuable. In the case of AFMA, one of the most valuable functions they provide … it’s in vogue today to say that lobbying in Washington is evil and it’s corrupt and everything else. Baloney!
If you don’t lobby for yourself in Washington, these guys will roll over you with a steamroller, and you’ll be dead. You’ve got to get out there, and you’ve got to make your influence felt. The mother’s milk of politics is money. If you’ve got to give money to these guys to get an audience with them, by golly, you do that!
The year that I was president and I’d go to Washington, there was no guy in our organization that was more respected and more listened to than Joe Gerard. That man, anywhere we’d go on the Hill ... I mean they would knock themselves out because they ... one guy told me, “You can always count on Joe to give you a straight answer. He’ll give you an honest answer every time, and he states his case and he states it well.” It was a pleasure to travel with that guy. He was just a class act.
I’m sure that Russ is doing a good job today, but it’s going to take a long time to fill Joe Gerard’s shoes, I’ll tell you that. He’s a great guy.
INTERVIEWER: I totally agree with that.
RICHARDSON: But, the government is ... and again we haven’t touched on it today — we’ve been talking about foreign things. One of the biggest problems in the furniture business today is the government.
In our glory days, in Wisconsin, we decided, before the federal government did, that they were going to control formaldehyde emissions. It happened that our finishes had formaldehyde in it. So, we couldn’t expand our finishing room, and that was it. I mean even we were way ahead of the federal government on that.
So here we were, we couldn’t expand — if we had to expand our production here, we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it without getting permits. We finally got permission to file a permit to operate above the state limits of formaldehyde.
We paid another $1,000 to get in on the so called “fast-track.”
And nothing happened; and nothing happened; and nothing happened. A year went by and nothing happened. We called them. They said, “I’m sorry, it’s being considered by Mr. So-and-So, or this and that.” It was almost a year and a half, and nothing happened. We couldn’t get an exception on this.
I was going to call the governor, who I happened to know — Tommy, at the time. And I said, “Now who’s the guy that’s really saying that?” It was Mr. So-and-So in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It was a Friday afternoon, and I called him and I got his voicemail, “Mr. So-and-So is out or busy, but will you please leave a message?”
I don’t do much swearing, but I said, “Mr. Whatever-his-name-was,” (told him who I was) and I said, “I’ll tell you one thing, if you don’t get our permit … if we don’t hear from you by Monday morning,” I said, “I’m calling the papers, and I’m going to give them a story that’s going to burn their ears, and I’m going to make you look like an asshole. We want this approval by Monday.” I was just awful. He called back Friday afternoon and gave us our approval.
Why in the hell didn’t we do that a year ago, you know? Dealing with government is our biggest problem today. The federal government is even worse than the state government because they don’t feel any urgency. They seem to feel that they’re doing a public service by holding us down. Even though you can prove that it’s not going to be that harmful or anything, they just don’t have the same agenda. In the long run, that affects jobs. That affects everything — absolutely everything.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the benefits of trade association involvement and the challenge of government.
RICHARDSON: I was going to use an example of where the union helped us, and this had to do with the trade association. A couple of years ago — more than a couple years — the wood dust thing came up. If the requirements of the federal government or OSHA had been enacted, you would’ve put just about every furniture factory in this country out of business.
They were completely impossible to sustain. We had a meeting with the big mucky-muck in Sheboygan of the furniture workers. One of Joe’s assistants came out, and we met her. We said, “Look, you know the unions are supporting this. They think it’s a great thing because it protects their poor workers.” Again it’s one of these situations, where there’s never been any visible evidence that anybody’s ever gotten nasal cancer or anything like that.
INTERVIEWER: They claimed it was carcinogenic? Do you know how many cases they had of carcinogenesis?
RICHARDSON: They didn’t have any.
RICHARDSON: Zero. They were going on some pre-World War II study in Great Britain, which was done in a plywood factory on softwood.
Like so many of these things in Washington, it was just ridiculous. We had a meeting with the business agent and with the president of the union here. They both said, “Our union is going to support this. It’s good for the workers because a part of our job is representing your workers to make sure of their health ...” We said, “Look, there’s no proof of this. In the years we’ve been working here, we’ve never had a single case of any cancer.” Doesn’t make any difference, you know.
Then a couple members of the union, including one that was working at the headquarter level, came and said, “Look, we disagree with our union on this and we will testify at the federal hearing about it.” That just rocked — especially the unions.
Here the local union is going to testify — in favor of a manufacturer! Isn’t that awful?! My God, that’s terrible! They’re against the worker! As a result (I don’t know if it was because of that, but it certainly could not have done any harm), the federal government just put the whole thing off, and I don’t think they’ve ever come back on it.
Here was a case where, not the leaders of the union, but some of the people down there, said, “Look it. I mean our jobs depend on this. We don’t want to drive our employers out of business. What’s the matter? Are you guys stupid?!” Well, they were stupid, and they are stupid! They don’t care about their workers. They care about being ... they say, “We protect the workers.” Even if the workers don’t have a job. “Well, we protected them, by golly. Isn’t that wonderful?”
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of? This means other business ventures. And how did they work out?
RICHARDSON: Well, of course we have our Richardson Industries, which has retail lumberyards. We used to have three of them — we’re down to one now. That’s simply because we can more economically service this area with one. Why have three, you know, 10 miles apart?
Since our strategy is to service the builder, and not the consumer, it’s all the more important to do that. I’ve been very much associated with that, and that’s been very successful.
Let’s see, what else? What else have I been involved with? I know there’s something else.
INTERVIEWER: The other term is joint ventures.
RICHARDSON: We’ve never really been a joint venture with anybody, other than Nemschoff Chairs — that was a joint venture certainly. But I’ve talked about that before.
INTERVIEWER: You know the people in Lenoir at one time — three of them (Broyhill and Bernhardt, I don’t remember the third one), got together and put up money and started a glue company, which actually was quite successful. Only very recently, in the last month or so, did they sell it. Bassett, and some of the others in the Martinsville area have put together a chip core venture. They bought trailer loads of wood wastes and hauled it up there. As far as I know, they’re still doing that.
RICHARDSON: Well, that could be. I’ve been involved in small things, nothing of any real importance. I guess our own business keeps us pretty busy, and I’ve been involved in five or six very small things.
INTERVIEWER: Have you been involved in other business enterprises or joint ventures?
RICHARDSON: Is that me as a person, or the company as a company?
INTERVIEWER: Either way.
RICHARDSON: Well, I guess this is a good place to bring in historic preservation because I’ve been very much involved with that. I’ve got probably five or six projects that I’ve been associated with that we’ve preserved in Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls. I’ll show you some of them when we do our walking around.
Our furniture store is one of them. There’s another group of buildings downtown. There’s the Rochester Inn, which is in Sheboygan Falls. There’s a beautiful building in downtown Sheboygan, that again, I was a party to.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the theater?
RICHARDSON: No, that’s not the theater.
INTERVIEWER: It’s in Sheboygan — I saw it last night.
RICHARDSON: That is really something to see because they brought back an old theater that still had all the murals on the ceiling and everything else. They’ve really done a fantastic job — it’s really something to see. There’s a building on 8th and New York, right on the same street that the theater is on, that has the New York Avenue Deli on the first floor.
Sheboygan has slowly been coming along. I’ve been involved with all these projects. Historic preservation has been something that I’ve really been deeply devoted to, and have spent a lot of money on. (Laughs) Haven’t got much out, but it’s a labor of love because these things are — as I’m sure your son knows better than anybody else — that these things are never cheap.
My formula has always been you take the highest bid, if you can ever get a bid. A lot of these people say, “I won’t bid on that.” But if you can get a bid, you double it and add 10 percent, and you’re going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of where it’s going to end up costing.
There’s nothing more gratifying than to see an old ramble shack building — the Rochester Inn was a perfect example. It was a boarding house. It was so disreputable, when we walked through it, my wife wouldn’t walk into it. She said, “I don’t want to even be seen standing in front of it.” She went down to the Richard’s Restaurant down there and waited for us to go through it. It was just terrible.
When it was done, people said, “I didn’t realize you could do something like this with it.” Upstairs it’s got four, two-room suites, and a suite and a single room downstairs. It’s just beautiful, just great. That’s been something that I’ve been much involved in.
Maybe someday we’ll sell these buildings and I’ll realize a profit, but you do it for the love of preservation. You don’t do it to make money. That’s for sure.
INTERVIEWER: Now we go to a slightly different category: changes in the furniture industry. And obviously we’ve talked a good deal about it.
RICHARDSON: The change in the industry today is imports, and that is the big thing. You can’t ignore it; you can’t hide from it. You can participate in it or choose not to participate in it. But if you choose not to participate, I don’t know … I just don’t know how you can possibly not participate in it, because the value.
We stopped at Natchitoches, Louisiana, a couple of weeks ago. We walked into this little antique store on the main drag. It was just a little town, very beautiful, historically preserved and everything.
I walked into the store and saw a desk chair, and there was a little wooden desk like the one over there. Here was this magnificent desk! It was carved — it was unbelievable. And she said, “What’s the price on that?” We paid about $1,000 for this antique here. I said, “Sharon, its $320.” It was three times the desk that is. I knew immediately it had to be an import.
We walked in the store, and I was talking with the owner. The whole store was nothing but Chinese imports. Everyone you looked at, my God, how could they make it for that price? It was impossible! So there’s value for you.
To ignore it and to say you can compete with that — I don’t know how you can do it, Roy. I don’t know, if you’re a Baker and … I haven’t talked with anybody at Baker for a long time.
How can you … when you can go out and have a piece that they can get $10,000 for, you could have it made in China for … you know, you could see it for $2,500. How can they stay in business? I don’t know. I wish I could figure it out.
Now, upholstery … everyone says, “Upholstery — at least they can’t do that in China.” I’ve been told Ron Wanek is building a leather upholstery plant in China now.
INTERVIEWER: Well, leather is different.
RICHARDSON: That’s true.
INTERVIEWER: You borrow a fewer selection of covers. Natuzzi runs on 30 to 40 different patterns of leather.
RICHARDSON: Yes, which would be impossible.
INTERVIEWER: That you can do. But in fabric, you can’t do it.
RICHARDSON: I mean when people buy furniture, they’ll get in their car and drive for miles. Hey, if you’re going to spend $3,000 or $4,000 on furniture, you’re not going to just walk in and buy it on the spot. You’re going to look around.
I guess that is the big factor in our business today that you’ve got to consider. Either consider doing it, or find a way not do it and still be able to sell something and make some money.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today — in the short term and the long term?
RICHARDSON: I guess I’d just categorize the problems as government regulation.
There’s just no doubt about it. When you look at all the forms and all the paperwork, and all the things we have to do for OSHA, for this and for that. We have one person in our organization who that’s all they do is make sure all our reports are in and all those things are done right.
If they do come in and check on you, and find something that isn’t right, why they give you a big fine, and then you have to go and fight it. When you get involved with state or federal — like getting this formaldehyde thing — I mean you’ve got to fight and cajole and try to get your case heard. That is short term and long term.
It used to be that the short-term thing was getting good people. That’s one thing a recession does. It makes good people a lot easier to get. Our unemployment rate in the Sheboygan area has always been way below the state average. It has been down as low as 1.5 percent, which means that literally everybody is employed.
In fact, there’s only one place in the state where it’s usually better, and that’s Madison, which is all government workers, (laughs) so they’re never unemployed. That, at times, has been a real short-term problem for us, because when business gets good for us, business usually gets good for everybody — and everybody’s looking for good people.
Definitely government interference, government taxes, government everything ... I mean we’re getting to the point where government is way out of control. It’s no better today than it was two years ago I’m afraid. There’s spending going on; they’re spending like drunken sailors, including Republicans – it’s terrible. I wish I could say it’s going to change. The more that we get, the more business is going to be done in China and India, or wherever. I mean we’re going to survive; most of us are going to survive. If we’re going to survive, we’ve got to do what’s necessary.
INTERVIEWER: Look what going to China does. It probably will not enormously affect the profit of your company because you’re getting product.
INTERVIEWER: But look at the taxes that all your employees aren’t going to be paying.
RICHARDSON: Yes, that’s exactly right.
INTERVIEWER: Therefore, the government is going to have more problems getting the money.
RICHARDSON: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: It’s going to be interesting.
RICHARDSON: I’ll tell you.
INTERVIEWER: It’s not a self-solving problem.
RICHARDSON: No, it’s not.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your own greatest contribution to our industry — your one greatest contribution?
RICHARDSON: I don’t know how to answer that, Roy. I don’t think there’s one thing that I’ve done. I’ve just tried to do a lot of things. I don’t have an answer for that one.
INTERVIEWER: Normally, where you’re talking about contributions to an industry, almost by definition, it has to come through some kind of group, like a trade association.
RICHARDSON: I’ve been very active in all sorts of trade organizations: in AFMA and Home Furnishings Council. There are others that aren’t coming to my mind right now. But what else can you do? I’ve always done that, and I haven’t done it just for the fact that I’m doing something for the industry. It’s been fun! Its fun, and you learn a lot. I’ll never forget when, back in the NAFM days, you’d go to the annual meeting, and it was great. I mean not just the sessions – usually the sessions weren’t the fun part of it.
The fun part of it was talking with your fellow competitors, and saying, “Have you been having this problem?” “Yes.” One year, they had their annual meeting in Las Vegas. It was terrible because nobody wanted to talk. They were all running off to play, gamble and everything else. I said, “Boy, next time there’s an annual meeting in Las Vegas, I’m not going.” I mean I want to be able to sit around and shoot the breeze with the guys, and I don’t think they ever do.
Then we merged with AFMA, and generally speaking, we haven’t had that problem.
There was a big problem with the AFMA when it was the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association – they didn’t feel it was right to invite suppliers. That was asinine! When I was on the executive committee and president, I just hammered at that. Well, actually, it was some of my good friends that saw it that way: “This is terrible. We don’t want these suppliers there. They’re going to be trying to sell us all the time.”
We’ve had suppliers at NAFM meetings for years, and they paid for the best things and everything else. We had a good time, and we had a rule: no selling. They abided by it. We had to go through the torments of hell to get the AFMA to finally let it down. Some of these Southern guys said, “Oh no, we don’t want ...” but the suppliers are part of our business, my God! Without the suppliers, we can’t exist. We want to be on good terms with them. They couldn’t see that. Some of my buddies couldn’t see it. We finally got it through — took a little doing though.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I think that was an important contribution. How much of this contribution to the industry was built on already existing techniques? How much came from innovations which you originated — put into use before most other companies did? One occurs to me very quickly from what you’ve said, and that is your very early use of a designer, when you first started.
RICHARDSON: That’s true. My son was an important addition to the company. He was able to look at our company and see what we could do and then utilize it and do things that other people couldn’t do. Steam-bending was obviously something that not everybody could do, so we started doing it again, and we immediately became successful.
That’s true — there weren’t many companies that used designers. I remember my cousin even bought me a little Japanese camera so when I went to market, I could snap pictures secretly, you know. (Laughs) I never used the damn thing.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any innovations which you originated before most other companies did?
RICHARDSON: I don’t really think so. The only thing that we did was get into the unfinished furniture business. We had a time when nobody in our category was getting into it. That might be something that you could say we did that was innovative. It didn’t take very long. There were a lot of others that were in it, too.
Today, it’s right back where it started from before we got into it. They still have a show, and they still have a magazine.
INTERVIEWER: Now we go to a different set of circumstances — the influence of outside factors on the furniture industry. How was your company affected by the Depression?
RICHARDSON: We were affected by it. I was born in ’29, so I was alive. When my father got out of Beloit College, he went into the flying business. He had a Travelair. He taught lessons, he barnstormed, and he did, you know, that sort of thing. When the Depression came, he sold his airplane. (Laughs) People weren’t paying ... you’d get five bucks for a ride, you know. In the early 30s, that was a lot of money.
INTERVIEWER: It sure was.
RICHARDSON: He went to work as a truck driver at the time that Richardson Brothers ... the furniture factory and the lumberyard were all in one place. After the war, my dad took the lumber — the building material end of it — and built a place about half a mile away, and took it out of the furniture plant. But, what was the question again? (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: The influence of outside factors — the Depression?
RICHARDSON: Yes, OK, the Depression. The conservative survival instincts of the Richardson family — we came through it just fine. I’m sure we had problems, but we continued to do business when there was business. I’m sure the Richardsons around then did what they had to do to survive, and that was “do what you have to do”. Just reading things about what went on then — it must have been tough — but we made it through.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of people didn’t. What about World War II?
RICHARDSON: That was interesting. I remember it very well because my father was just a little too old to go in the service, but my brothers and myself were of the age where we could work, you know, on Saturdays and things like that – and we did things.
Many of our employees, of course, went into the service. In fact, we had a sort of little magazine that we came out with twice a year that we sent to all of our employees that were in the service. They wrote back and sent pictures. I’ve got about 10 of those in our archives. That was very interesting.
Of course, we did war work; in the furniture plant, we made handguards for the M-l rifle out of walnut. We had just a whole line that just made handguards — all automated. We dipped them in a tank of finish and then rolled around. We made millions of those. In fact, we even made them after the war for quite a while.
We did other things. We did little subcontracting deals for parts of packing cases for torpedoes and things like that.
I’m sure we were making furniture then, too. That’s another thing when it came to the Depression. I don’t know when Prohibition came about — I don’t know, was that during the Depression, or was that before?
INTERVIEWER: It was before.
RICHARDSON: It was before.
INTERVIEWER: Of course it extended. Roosevelt canceled Prohibition.
RICHARDSON: What happened, that was ... and I’m sure that happened during the Depression. That was a big boon to us because what happened was the breweries, in order to get distribution when they got this beer (because there weren’t taverns anymore), they started their own taverns, so they’d have places to sell their beer.
They had to order chairs, and in those days there were very few manufacturers that made a complete group of furniture. You’d have chair manufacturers and you’d have this manufacturer ... Well, we made chairs, and we made tables too, but they needed mostly chairs. All of a sudden, we got a big influx of business from the breweries. I guess we sold tables, too. That was a big thing that certainly gave us some impetus during the Depression.
During World War II, it was very difficult to get things. I know my father couldn’t get lumber. Everything was being used for the war effort. He used to go on buying trips up to Canada. He made some connections up in Canada so that he was able to get some lumber during the war. That was a big thing — I mean people couldn’t buy things — so, whatever he could get, he could sell. That was a big challenge to him during World War II to get supplies so he would have something to sell.
I remember that very well, because I was working on Saturdays and after school and everything else. It was always kind of funny, because when you’re the boss’ son, you’ve got to work harder than anybody else.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, tell me about it!
RICHARDSON: You’ve experienced, huh? My father, he had an uncanny ability ... you know, I’d be working like a dog, and then just like that ... he’d go, “What the hell are you doing — sitting around doing nothing?” (Laughs) Why didn’t he come 30 seconds before, or 30 seconds afterwards? He always seemed to crop up just when I was doing nothing at all. Maybe I’ve exaggerated in my memory, and maybe I was loafing, but I don’t think so because you didn’t dare do that.
INTERVIEWER: How has your company been affected by racial attitudes?
RICHARDSON: We’ve never had any problems like that in this plant or in our whole area. We have Hmongs now and Hispanics. We do have black people in Sheboygan County. We just don’t have problems like that around here.
In fact, just recently in one of our truss plants, we had five Hispanic fellows that, you know, had all the necessary papers. Then we found out that they were using false security numbers. They were some of the best workers we had in our truss plant. We hated to lose them.
There really aren’t any racial problems here. We do have some very good Hmongs. We have quite a sizable Hmong population here, and they are very good workers. Hmongs are the people from Cambodia that were 100 percent on the American side – they helped us every chance they could, and we left them high and dry. Most of them were murdered, but a few of them got out. Quite a few of them settled around here, and they are very good workers. In fact, I noticed that the “worker of the month” in the factory last month was a Hmong.
So we don’t really have any problems. There doesn’t seem to be any problem in the plant as far as people. I’m sure that the Hmongs hang out with other Hmongs because they usually speak whatever language it is that they speak.
Then, of course, the problem we had in Mississippi — that was a problem. I don’t know if you want to go into it on tape or not.
INTERVIEWER: Go into it, briefly. Basically it was why he left Mississippi, right?
RICHARDSON: The reason he left Mississippi was our fault obviously. It’s always management’s fault. I mean we’re the ones that didn’t do it right. The black portion of our plant, which we were told we should never let exceed 10 percent (and 20 percent would be getting really dangerous), and for one reason or another, we ended up with over half.
It may have been as high as 60 or 70 percent black. It was a tremendous problem because of the union organizational attempts. The whole black community would join with the organizers — through the church, through their NAACP, and another big national group that also came in — they would have meetings in their local churches. It was an extremely difficult situation.
INTERVIEWER: SCL — Southern Christian Leadership.
RICHARDSON: Yes, that was one. We had them all there. It was really disconcerting. We had three elections, and we won all of them so we obviously did something right. But in the process of trying to defeat the union, we in essence were defeating ourselves, because we weren’t able to spend our time doing what we should have been doing, and that was making a good product at a price that we could make some money. We were spending all of our time trying to convince people not to vote “yes” for a union.
The problems in the plant — the people that were for the union and the people that were against — it was a nightmare. That, I think, probably determined the fact that we weren’t productive. We were paying less for labor there than we are here, but we weren’t getting the productivity. Looking back, if we had to do it all over again, I’m sure we would’ve done it differently. I was told later that this part of Mississippi was basically agriculture, and that there wasn’t much industry. That always has a determination on it. Up in the northeast corner, and Tupelo, and places like that — that’s become an industrial community.
INTERVIEWER: That area was called the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.”
RICHARDSON: In Winona, people said, “Well, you’ve got to hire field hands.” I don’t know who they’re hiring, but they’re making poor products as a result of field hands.
INTERVIEWER: What about the effect of women’s issues?
RICHARDSON: We’ve always had a lot of women working in our furniture plant — always. In fact, one time we even had more women than men. I don’t know what it is today, but there are a lot of women working in the plant.
Women’s issues — we’ve had our share of sex discrimination; we have those all the time. You just deal with them, and most of them are thrown out. They’re mostly groundless. You’ve got to fight them; you’ve got to go the distance; you’ve got to hire somebody; you’ve got to document it.
Even when you can prove somebody’s wrong, they usually end up getting it anyway. I’ve become so cynical when it comes to these government hearings with these hearing examiners (they like to be called judges, but they’re not). They love it when people say, “judge” and they really aren’t. I’ve learned that these people are against the employer, and they will give the employee every possible break and some that they shouldn’t. They will do anything to cap it to the employer.
We’ve had women claiming that their foreman is calling them and asking for dates. In fact, we had to let a personnel director of ours go — a very good man. It turned out that he did try to date this girl, and she turned on him. We let him go — I mean we had to. You just don’t have any choice.
We get OSHA complaints where an employee can anonymously call. They’ll come in and make trouble for you, and most of the time, it’s groundless. We did find (and that’s why we ended up getting somebody that spends all their time on it) that most of the time these government inspectors are more interested in making sure that you’re doing the right paperwork. If you show that you’ve got all the paperwork and that you’ve done all the paperwork, they usually say, “OK, that’s fine.”
If you haven’t done that, then they get testy, and they go out and start looking for things to get you on. We try to keep ahead of that and try to keep the paperwork up to date. That’s another big factor of overhead that, because of our good government, we’ve got to have them.
INTERVIEWER: I guess in the case goods business, this is not true. But in upholstery there was actually a physical limitation that women upholsters couldn’t lift a chair or a sofa.
RICHARDSON: I wouldn’t be surprised.
INTERVIEWER: Morrie Futorian came up with the idea. In Mississippi, the sofas move down the line from station to station. He set it up so that when a sofa had to be moved from one station to the next one, with one woman in each — they would get together and move it. Two people could move it. That didn’t take but a matter of seconds to move it, you see. They just made that part of the furniture and that solved the whole problem.
RICHARDSON: Yes, you have to do something like that.
INTERVIEWER: Generally speaking in every wood furniture plant I’ve ever seen, you never have to lift a whole dresser. They go on conveyers.
RICHARDSON: We’ve really found that through the years, women are very dependable and very good workers.
Next week we’ll want to cut our holiday force back a little bit, and we’ll offer a voluntary lay-off. This time of year, a lot of women like to stay home with their kids when they’re out of school and everything else. We may get the whole thing done with just temporary lay-offs.
INTERVIEWER: But then they can go around to the ESC and draw unemployment.
RICHARDSON: Oh, sure. They’ll draw that, absolutely.
INTERVIEWER: How has shipment of your products affected your company? For instance, there was a time when most furniture moved by rail. Today that’s absolutely zero. Is that the case?
RICHARDSON: When we made chairs for California manufacturers, we would ship chairs back to them in refrigerator cars. In other words, the Californians would ship fruit out to the Midwest and East, and then they would look for something for a back haul, and it was very, very economical. We would just fill up three or four of these big refrigerator cars with chairs. We used to have a railroad siding at the furniture factory but don’t anymore.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, everybody did.
RICHARDSON: Today, we do everything by truck. We have a carrier, W&A Distribution Services, from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. That’s where we also do our import warehousing. They do 90 percent of our hauling in the country. They are a good company, and through the years, we’ve tried to find ways of getting furniture to our customers without having a lot of interhauls and things like that.
There were times in my furniture career that transportation was the big problem. When you got more than 500 miles away from home, all they’d be concerned about was what the freight was going to be. If you were out in California trying to sell your product, unless you had something really good, you couldn’t even talk with them. We would have trade allowances and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see any parallels between shipping product from China by containers versus, or in comparison to the way they used to ship by cars from here? Then, of course, if you’re warehousing it yourself, you’re shipping containers and then shipping individual pieces from your warehouse.
RICHARDSON: Right. Although we’re getting more and more customers that we ship the containers directly to them.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, as you used to ship a car.
RICHARDSON: Right. Now, I honestly don’t even know how the containers come from Long Beach, California — which is where they come in — how they get from there to Chicago and then to Fort Atkinson. I don’t know if maybe those are loaded on trains.
When Sharon and I were coming back from Louisiana, a couple of times we’d see trains — long trains with containers on their flat cars. Maybe some of our containers are hauled by rail from California. I wouldn’t be surprised because that certainly would be a lot cheaper.
INTERVIEWER: That’s increasing.
RICHARDSON: I’d think it’d be a lot more expensive to put two or three on a truck and try to drive them all the way, when on the rail you can put hundreds of them and move them all at once.
INTERVIEWER: Basically, rail shipment costs about one-seventh of what truck shipment does.
RICHARDSON: Now that you ask the question, I’m going to ask Dave — he has an office in the same building as I do. He’s in charge of that. He’s going to be our new man in China, now that Mark has left. He’s going to be the guy that’s going to go over to China and be our bird dog there – make sure everything is good. He’ll do a good job because he’s been in charge of our quality here. I’ll have to ask him — I’m very curious. But, you’re probably right — they probably come from California on a railcar. Then I’ll bet they go from Chicago to Fort Atkinson, which is maybe a hundred miles. As for the rest of the way, well probably W&A. Their own trucks are in there all the time, so they probably pull them back on their own trucks.
INTERVIEWER: The railroads used to do this sort of thing … but the two railroads, the one that brought it into Chicago and the one that goes to Atkinson, would work together. So that the car went through a certain process and would go right up there.
RICHARDSON: That could well be. Yes, I’m going to have to ask Dave about that.
INTERVIEWER: We certainly covered this one, but what has been the effect of environmental regulations? Anything else that you would add to that?
RICHARDSON: I’m sure if I went through my notes from the last 20 years, I could come up with 15 or 20 things where they’ve tried to do something. When we built a new building in the plant — we moved our finishing room — it was a nightmare. All we did was move the booths 100 feet from one side to the other, but it was like moving a mountain.
We had regulations, had to fill out forms and just do all sorts of crazy things. We weren’t doing anything any different or anything like that, but all these thousands of pages of paperwork and permits, and how many cubic feet of this gas and that gas and ...
They wanted to make all of us burn all of our waste in a high temperature furnace or something like that, and we had to fight that one off. It would be very interesting to interview Joe Gerard about all the things they had to do all those years.
I can’t think of a more frustrating job than doing what he did. I wouldn’t do that — you couldn’t pay me a million dollars a year to do what he tried to do — to go in and try to get a reasonable point of view across to these stupid legislators.
INTERVIEWER: Well, he had a natural endowment for it.
RICHARDSON: Yes, he did. He is basically a politician himself.
INTERVIEWER: And then you’ve heard him say, as I have many times, “Politics is the art of compromise.”
RICHARDSON: Yes, and it is; there’s no doubt about that. If we didn’t have somebody in Washington lobbying for us, an “evil” lobbyist ... people just don’t understand how important it is to make sure your point of view is at least heard by these idiots.
INTERVIEWER: Next question: What has been the involvement of your family business in your community?
RICHARDSON: When you’re a local business … and that’s one nice thing about Sheboygan County ... most of our large businesses are all locally owned. That makes a big difference when it comes to supporting local good causes and getting things done. Our business has been very much involved with so many things in the community.
We’re being asked for something almost on a daily basis. If we can do it, we give. We’re involved. I’m involved in local politics.
I’m not running for anything, although I’ve served on the local school board for nine years.
I try to get people elected that will hear business’ requirements. Those who will not be anti-business.
We had a climate in Sheboygan Falls three years ago which was just terrible. We had a city clerk that despised business, and a council that did anything he said they should do. So we formed a little group, and we got people to run for the council. After the first year, we upset three of their people, and the city clerk retired.
I served on the Sheboygan Development Corporation, and we’re very much involved with so many things. I can’t even go into them — it would be boring. We’re a part of this community and we support it — not only with our personal efforts, but with our money.
INTERVIEWER: Now we move onto civic and social involvement. Describe your own involvement in social, civic, and business activities outside of the furniture industry.
RICHARDSON: Well, I think I’ve covered some of them before, but on state things, I’ve been involved with taxpayer groups and have served on the local school board. We encourage our fellow employees to do the same thing.
My son had (especially when our downtown preservation group was really active and a lot of people were re-doing the buildings) a little group of guys – they called themselves the “face-lifters.” They’d go on Saturday, and tear the gimcrack off of the good stuff and get that all done and everything. That was kind of an interesting thing. In fact, there are a couple of projects they are trying to work on today.
There’s another project that we are very much involved with financially, working with the city government. That’s a building in downtown Sheboygan Falls that we’ve been trying to buy for years to get rid of, because it is just going to hell in a hand car. We finally got the guy to sell it and we’re going to make it into a parking lot. Our downtown area desperately needs more parking, so we’re going to add about 30 parking spaces.
We’re working on another project. We’re just working all the time to do things that’ll make our community better. The Sheboygan Development Corporation ... we’re involved with the South Pier District in Sheboygan, and we’re just in all sorts of things. I guess you’re either that way or you aren’t.
I’ve got two sons and a daughter. Joe III is involved in everything, and he’s on all my committees that I do locally. My son, Jim, couldn’t care less — he’s not interested; he doesn’t want to do it. He won’t serve on anything. Well, that’s fine.
I’ve got a daughter. She’s just like me — she’s into this and she’s into that, and she’s involved in everything. So I guess if you like to do things like that, Roy, you’ll do them. There are some people, good people like my son, Jim, who just aren’t interested in doing it.
But I’ve always considered it important. You’ve got to give back. If people want to consider business as important to the community, business has to be an important part of the community. They’ve got to participate in things, and sponsor things – and we do all that.
We (Sharon and I as a couple, my mother and father’s foundation, and our business) give four scholarships every year to Sheboygan Falls High School graduates. We do all sorts of things like that.
In fact, mine and Sharon’s scholarship is a design scholarship. We give it to graduating seniors from Sheboygan Falls High School that want to have a career in design, either graphic design ... one young man, architecture … so we’ve got about five or six of them going now. We support them for four years. Sharon and I enjoy that – to see every one of the kids on the dean’s list – you just feel proud.
INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?
RICHARDSON: Well, I can’t call our church a charity, although ...
INTERVIEWER: It’s a charity.
RICHARDSON: Well, I’ve got a number of things we consider good. We just gave a gift to High Point University for the new building. Sharon and I made a sizable contribution, and they’re going to have the computer room named after us. I gave a nice thing to the endowment for the Hall of Fame. I don’t have a favorite. If somebody needs something and I’ve got it, I’ll give it. (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: You’re a cheerful giver. What’s your principal leisure time activity?
RICHARDSON: Sharon and I used to do a lot of traveling. In fact, we’ve been on all seven continents. We’ve been to the North Pole, and we’ve been to Antarctica twice.
INTERVIEWER: Oh my goodness!
RICHARDSON: We’ve really done a lot of very exotic and very interesting travel. We can’t do that anymore because we’ve got to hang around Sheboygan because of Sharon. So I guess my passion right now is eating and drinking. (Laughs)
Really, Sharon is a fantastic cook, and I love wines. That’s one of the reasons we really enjoyed Louisiana. We went to New Orleans for three nights, and then over to Abbeville. We just enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t play golf. We used to do a lot of cross-country skiing — we can’t do that anymore. We have a very nice summer home (it’s not actually a summer home — it’s a year-round home). We’ve got two of them. Sharon and I have one and right next door, we’ve got a place that our children and their families use. That’s where Joe III is this weekend. He celebrated his 50th birthday yesterday.
INTERVIEWER: Oh my goodness! Wow!
RICHARDSON: We go up there a lot. A sedentary pastime that we both enjoy is reading. We’ve got thousands of books, and we do extensive reading all the time. We don’t go anywhere without going into the bookstores and seeing what’s available. Well, that’s about it. We’d love to be able to travel. Maybe someday we will be able to.
INTERVIEWER: What is your greatest success in traveling?
RICHARDSON: Getting to the North Pole … it’s not like Robert Perry did it, or didn’t do it – according to some people. We went on a Russian icebreaker — a huge, mammoth, atomic-powered icebreaker that was over 100 yards long. It was immense. This thing didn’t just ride up on the ice and crush it — it just went right into it. The noise was unbelievable. You’d go into an ice field (it was fun standing up on the bridge) and you’d watch it go into a solid piece of ice. You’d hit and the shock waves would go streaming out like that. Then the ship would plow into it. These big blocks of ice — we’re talking about five or six or seven meters thick of ice. It would just take chunks of ice the size of a house and throw them this side and that. If you were down where the lecture room was, I mean you had to stop because there was so much noise. It was an unbelievable trip. We flew up to Alaska. Then they flew us over to a Siberian port where we worked our way up the coast to Franz Josef Land islands, and on up to the North Pole, where we had a wonderful party. The North Pole is not on land – it’s on the Arctic Ocean. There were some open lees there. Some of the more adventuresome passengers and crew went swimming – they dived in there and everything else. We didn’t do that. Then we went down and ended up in Murmansk. We worked our way back through St. Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. We actually went around the world on that one. That’s the sort of thing we used to do that we can’t do anymore. But we thank God that we did it, and that will never be taken away from us.
I still say that Antarctica is the most fascinating continent we’ve ever been to because the north, the arctic, has some interesting bird life. As you get into the further northern climates, there’s nothing. You’ll see an occasional polar bear out on the ice a thousand miles from nowhere. Antarctica is just teeming with bird life and animal life and penguins. It’s just the most ruggedly beautiful island. We were mostly on the Antarctica Peninsula. The island of South Georgia is a fascinating place. There’s just so much to see and so much to do. I would say that that was probably the most interesting travel that we’ve ever done — the two trips we’ve made there.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think of the big ice breakdown there?
RICHARDSON: It’s been going on for a long time. We ran into some bergs there.
INTERVIEWER: They had one the other day that was bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
RICHARDSON: Yes, sure. We saw some that would be 30, 40, 50 miles long. They’ll just float around, and slowly get up, and then they’ll melt in the warmer water. It may take a long time for them to do it. There was one guy who was going to make a fortune by pulling a berg like that up and melting it, and using it for fresh water, because the water in these things is ...
INTERVIEWER: Put it in the Gulf of Arabia.
RICHARDSON: Yes. (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: Somehow get it in there, and then it would melt gradually, and flush out the salt water. They would have a dam there and they would have a big, fresh water lake.
RICHARDSON: There you go. You just chip ice off an iceberg and put it in your drink to cool it off. (Laughs) It was fun. We had a good time doing that. We’ve done some wonderful things in our travels. We were saving Europe for our old age, and we did fall in love with Italy.
We were all set to go back there — we were there in ’98 or ’99. We fell so much in love with it, we even had a villa all rented; and I took Italian lessons, and we were all set to go. Then Sharon had some problems, so we’ve had to put that on hold, too. Maybe we’ll get that in there, too, before it’s all over.
INTERVIEWER: If you’re retired, what was the date?
RICHARDSON: I’m still not officially retired. I go into the office usually every day that I’m here, but I don’t do a heck of a lot. I usually read the Wall Street Journal, and if somebody wants to ask my advice on something, I’m there, but most of the time they don’t. As I said right at the beginning of this, Roy, one thing about a family business is that you can still be sort of a part of it. So I’ve got an office, like Clyde. I, officially, don’t really have any duties. So (laughs), I’m retired, but I’m not.
INTERVIEWER: Are you still a corporate officer?
RICHARDSON: I’m president of the company. We do that more for tax purposes, I suppose, than anything else. Joe III is the CEO, but he’s executive vice president. My brother is chairman, and I’m president. Joe is executive vice president and CEO.
INTERVIEWER: Well, so I can’t say, “What have you done since your retirement then?” But since you became ...
RICHARDSON: Good food and wine! That’s what I’ve done since then! (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: What have you done in these three things: the industry, other businesses, and then your leisure time? So, we’ll save food and wine for your leisure time.
RICHARDSON: Yes, and reading. That’s pretty much what we do with our spare time.
INTERVIEWER: You ought to try writing.
RICHARDSON: I’m too lazy for that now, Roy. There was a time when I just loved to do that, but I guess I’m ...
INTERVIEWER: Have you tried since you became less active? Have you done anything in other businesses?
RICHARDSON: I do have some investments in some bed and breakfasts around here. I may be getting a little more active in that — I don’t know. It’s nothing really important. I got involved because of this Rochester Inn that we preserved. The guy that helped me do it has a few. He’s got one in Plymouth, and I ended up buying into that. There’s one in Mayville, and one in Oconomowoc. He’s just started a public company over in Ireland called Harp & Eagle. He has an inn over in central Ireland, which he basically uses. Ninety-nine percent of his business comes from this country.
He’s got a deal with Aer Lingus, the Irish airline that flies from Chicago to Dublin. Then he picks them up and takes them to the inn. It started out, $1,000 for a couple for a week, which is a real good deal. It’s up a little more than that now. He has that place filled all the time.
He built an inn in Milwaukee that’s been fabulously successful called County Clare. All of them have an Irish theme. The company’s just gone public and if he raises enough money, he’s going to build one in Green Bay and another one in Ireland. That depends on how the stock sells. So, I’ve been involved with that, but again, nothing that’ll require a lot of time.
I made my mind up when I turned 60 — and I’ve broken this pledge to myself a couple of times — I said, “I’m not going to do any more public speaking, and I’m not going to do any more fundraising.” I got to the point where people would see me coming, and they’d turn out the lights, (laughs) and pull the shade down. I’ve pretty much done that. I’ve broken it a couple of times.
I’ve turned down more board positions and things in the last three or four years, and I just don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve been asked to be in this and that, and I say, “No thanks.” At my age, I don’t want to have to be someplace at a certain time.
INTERVIEWER: I totally agree with that.
RICHARDSON: That’s pretty much what I’ve done.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to our furniture industry.
RICHARDSON: You’re welcome.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.
RICHARDSON: So have I!
INTERVIEWER: Keep in mind that you can request a follow-up interview later if you wish. What would you like to add in summary?
RICHARDSON: I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. If I think of something I’ve forgotten that I think is important, we’ll fill it in. In the years I’ve been around, just like you, so many things have happened, almost on a daily basis.
Since I knew you were coming, I’ve been trying to recall things. Some I’ve recalled, but I’m sure there’s probably another 100 that I can’t recall because so much has happened in the years that I’ve been around. It’s been a great experience, and I’ve enjoyed just about every minute. I won’t say every minute. (Laughs)
My daughter wrote a very touching letter to her mother on Mother’s Day. She said, “You taught me never to hate anybody, but you could dislike somebody immensely.” (Laughs)
INTERVIEWER: Well put. Anything else?
RICHARDSON: I don’t think so.