Joseph f. carroll; furniture/today
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
MARCH 7 and 15, 2013
GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA
RESIDENCE OF JOE CARROLL
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: When and where were you born?
CARROLL: I was born at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1939. My parents lived in a small town outside of Roanoke called Troutville. They ran a motel and gas station. When I was a year old, my father decided to become a professional photographer. We moved to Lewisburg, West Virginia, where my father had a commercial studio for a couple of years. He also worked for the Virginia State Police as a crime scene photographer.
In 1942, he saw a newspaper ad that the U.S. Navy was recruiting civilian employees in Norfolk. The pay was pretty good, so we packed up and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1942. I grew up in Norfolk.
INTERVIEWER: Were any of your family in furniture?
CARROLL: Not a one. No background in furniture at all. I had an uncle who was chairman of the biology department at VMI (Virginia Military Institute), another uncle who ran a drugstore in Lexington, Virginia, and another who ran an office supply store in Norfolk.
INTERVIEWER: In central southern Virginia, there would have been significant furniture manufacturing. Were you aware of that?
CARROLL: Not really. When I joined Furniture/Today, 60 percent of all the furniture in the United States was made in North Carolina and Virginia. But I wasn't aware of any of that while I was growing up. In 1990, a fellow employee at Furniture/Today asked, “Joe, when you were a child, where did people go to buy furniture?” I realized then that I hadn't thought about furniture at all as a kid. I said, “Well, they probably went to a furniture store, or to a department store that carried furniture, or perhaps to a mass merchant like JC Penney or Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.” I had to stretch my memory to think about where people went to buy furniture in those days. I certainly didn't personally know any furniture manufacturers or retailers.
That question, however, inspired me to begin tracking all the various channels of distribution for furniture. In 1990, I was able to identify 18 channels. Today, in 2013, there are 86.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about your mother.
CARROLL: My mother was a bank teller at the Southern Bank of Norfolk. That name no longer exists; the bank has gone through several acquisitions and name changes. The main office where my mother worked is now designated as an historic building.
After the war, my father became an encyclopedia salesman. I am certain I got my sales genes from my father. I probably got my serious side — or let’s say my organizational side, because I like to be well organized — from my mother. I’m pretty much a combination of both of them. I was an only child.
My mother worked full time at the bank, and brought in a steady income. I remember that in the '40s, my mother earned $50 a week, so we were living on a little more than $200 a month. We lived in a government housing project, called Broad Creek Village, which had been built by the government for civilian employees during the war. It was a nice place to live. People took good care of their homes, lawns and gardens. The rent was $50 a month. If my father had a good week, that is to say, if he sold a set of encyclopedias, he made $50 a set. But there were weeks when he didn’t sell anything. Of course, he might have weeks when he sold two or three sets, but we were never sure about his income. My mother was the stalwart who went to work every day and brought home a steady income. I think I got my work ethic from her, and I got the gift of gab from my father.
INTERVIEWER: He was selling encyclopedias door-to-door?
CARROLL: Absolutely. He would go door-to-door every day. He sold either for the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana. He would switch back and forth between the two companies. After a couple of years, one of the companies would offer him a better deal, so he would return to them. He never wanted to sell any of the other popular encyclopedias, like Compton’s or World Book. It had to be either Britannica or Americana, which he considered the best.
He was a good salesman. He was very comfortable speaking to anyone. He could be calling on a bank president one day, sitting in his office, talking with him like an old friend. Another day, he could be out talking with a farmer in his field. He certainly had no problem going door-to-door. He genuinely liked people. When business was bad, and he was unable to make his car payments, the dealer would repossess his car. He would then take to his bicycle, put his leather briefcase in the basket, and ride to various neighborhoods. When business picked up, he would bring home a new car.
INTERVIEWER: He sold in the Norfolk area?
CARROLL: Mostly. Although in the summertime, in the good years when he had a car, he would take me with him as he traveled around Virginia, driving from town to town. The encyclopedia company sent him leads from people who had seen their ad in a magazine and sent in a card requesting more information. He would receive a package of these leads every week or so.
As a child, I had no interest in sales. I never thought I would ever end up selling in any fashion. He was a good father, and I loved him. He would take me with him on sales calls and brag about me saying, “This is my son. He makes great grades in school. Of course, he makes them because he reads the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
This was stretching the truth. Actually, we were too poor to afford a set of the encyclopedias he sold, as he would have to forgo his $50 commission to purchase one. But it made a good story.
INTERVIEWER: What else do you recall from making those rounds with your father?
CARROLL: I recall staying in what were called ‘tourist homes’ in those days. There weren't many motels in the early '50s. We would drive into a small town and look for a sign that said ‘tourists.’ I don’t think we ever stayed at a hotel or motel. We stayed in tourist homes and ate at local restaurants.
I would usually stay in the car when he was making his sales calls. Just to have something to do while I was waiting, I memorized his entire sales pitch for the Encyclopedia Americana. It was 30 pages long. Each salesman was required to learn it. My father stuck to the basic points in the script but preferred to improvise according to the customer he was speaking to. I can’t imagine memorizing anything today that's 30 pages long. But I was able, probably just out of boredom sitting in the car, to memorize that entire script. My father sometimes would impress his friends by saying, “Son, give them the Encyclopedia Americana speech.”
When you’re an only child, you’re very close to your parents. My mother and father were both good parents. We lived modestly on their relatively small incomes. When you’re a child, you don’t know that you're poor. It really wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized most of my friends lived in single family homes in nice neighborhoods and we were still living in a housing project duplex. Their homes were heated by oil or electricity and ours by a coal stove in the living room. By that time I realized we had less money than most of my friends' families, but it was really never an issue. I had a very happy childhood.
I started working in a drug store when I was 15 years old as what was then called a ‘soda jerk,’ – a name my wife still deems appropriate. From age 16 on, I worked after school and during the summer at several grocery stores, usually as a checker but sometimes in produce or as a stock boy. I also worked summer jobs in construction and delivering circulars. I always had a job, so I always had some money to buy clothes and records and things. I never felt as poor as we probably were.
INTERVIEWER: Was it assumed that you would go to college?
CARROLL: Yes, mostly because my father's brother. Uncle Bob (Robert P. Carroll) was chairman of the biology department at VMI in Lexington, Virginia. All of my grandparents were deceased when I was born so I only knew my aunts and uncles. We had three sets of relatives, my mother’s brother, who worked for an office supply store in Norfolk, and her sister's husband, Casey Jones, who owed a drugstore in Lexington. He passed away in 1944 and his wife never remarried. I would spend about six weeks living with her every summer until I was 16. She enjoyed taking care of me, and I enjoyed being within a half hour's walk across town from Uncle Bob's home on the VMI campus, where I could play with his three children.
Uncle Bob had always said, “When you get ready to go to college, I can get you a scholarship to VMI.”
I wasn’t particularly thrilled about going into military service, which I would have had to do if I had gone to VMI. I had seen how hard the cadets drilled during the summer, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do in life. But my uncle's position at VMI gave me and my parents the security of knowing that I could go to college.
Colonel Carroll, or “Doc” Carroll, as he was called by everyone in the VMI community, was both loved and revered by the cadets and his fellow faculty. He was in charge of VMI's pre-med program, and it's estimated he sent at least 300 of his students on to medical school. When he retired, many of his former students, now doctors, dressed in their civilian clothes, returned to parade with the cadets in his honor at graduation. They called themselves ‘Doc's boys.’ The biology building was renamed Carroll Hall in his honor. I admired him greatly. I'm certain that my love of education was due to his inspiration.
Then, a very fortuitous event occurred. One day during my senior year at Norview High School in Norfolk, my parents received a letter from the Junior Chamber of Commerce saying, “Your son has been selected to be Norfolk’s Outstanding Teenager of 1957.” To this day, I don’t know how or why they chose me. I was president of the student body and active in the usual school clubs — Key Club, National Honor Society, student government, and a city-wide teenage advisory board — but I didn't consider myself special. There were two other older, established high schools in the city with student leaders just as qualified. I ran cross country, played on the tennis team and managed the school basketball team, but I was not an outstanding athlete.
The president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce came to our house to present us with a plaque, along with a local newspaper reporter to take a picture and write a story. The reporter asked, “Where are you going to college?” I don’t remember whether I or my parents answered, but the story in the paper said I wasn’t sure if I would be financially able to go to college.
Not long after the story appeared, we got a phone call from an attorney in Norfolk named Charles Jenkins, saying he had read the story and asked if we would come to his office. When my mother and I got there, he told us that his law firm was the trustee for a millionaire in Memphis, Tennessee. Their client had made his money in cotton. His wish was to help deserving students go to college, but he preferred to remain anonymous. “We would like to assist your son,” he told my mother. “Which college would he like to attend?”
I said I wanted to go to the University of Virginia. I think tuition; room and board was about $2,000 a year. The attorney said, “Our client will pay $1,200 a year towards the cost.”
All this reminds me very much of a TV program popular in the '50s called “The Millionaire.” John Beresford Tipton, the anonymous millionaire, would send an emissary who would knock on the lucky recipient’s door and announce, “Congratulations! You’ve won a million dollars!” The program then revealed what the person did with the million dollars that they won.
So I applied to the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and I was awarded a DuPont scholarship for $600. Now I had all but $200 needed to cover my expenses. During that summer I earned close to $1,000 working various jobs, so I went to college with money in my pocket. I also got a job at the school library, working in the stacks. I hobnobbed with many rich boys who attended the University of Virginia, including Bobby Kennedy, who was there in law school at the time. I don't think anyone knew how poor I was because, between the scholarships, the money I’d earned during the summer and my after-school job at the Alderman Library, I was able to live pretty well.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose the University of Virginia?
CARROLL: My mother grew up in Charlottesville. Her father was an architect/builder around the turn of the century. During the summer we would drive over from Lexington and she would proudly point out to me several landmarks he had built: the Keswick Country Club and the Monticello Hotel. He also designed and built many of the private homes in Charlottesville. My mother had wanted me to go to the university to become an architect like her father. A “C” in mechanical drawing in the eighth grade was an omen that architecture was not to be my calling. Today, I see how carefully kids choose their school, and how they research what they might want to major in. I had no idea what I wanted to major in when I entered college. In high school, my favorite subjects were English, French and Physics. When I look back, I realize I liked those subjects because of the teachers.
I liked English because I had a teacher, Margaret Smith, who taught us to appreciate language. Each day she wrote a new word on the blackboard for us to memorize and be able to use in a sentence. She is one of the people in my life I consider a major influence. She encouraged me to do some creative writing. I wrote a short story in her class about climbing a small mountain, called Razorback. It was based on an experience I had while hiking in The Garden of the Gods with some friends while attending a Young Life camp in Colorado Springs. I sent the story to William O. Douglas, who was then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I knew about his love for the mountains by reading his book, “Of Men and Mountains.” Douglas wrote back, telling me how much he enjoyed my story, adding a personal handwritten invitation to visit him in Washington sometime. I wish I had been able to take him up on the offer, but I wouldn't have been able to afford the trip.
I had taken two years of Latin under an outstanding teacher, Leslie Seaward, and loved it. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to speak and understand a foreign language. It was like speaking a secret code. If you look inside the cover of my first-year textbook, you'll see that I tried to translate the lyrics to Dean Martin's big hit song that year, “That's Amore.” It wasn't easy trying to figure out how the Romans would say, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” Much to my dismay, two years was all the Latin my high school offered. I, and a few other students, petitioned the school board to offer a third year, but the board said there weren't enough students for the required class size, and they refused.
If I wanted to study more languages, I had to decide between Spanish or French. I started asking some of the other students about the classes. They said, “You should take French because the teacher is a knockout. She’s French and she’s very good-looking. She likes boys much better than girls. She’ll give the girls C's and the boys A's.” So French was my choice.
When I returned to class that fall, we were told that our teacher had married an American sailor and moved away. The new French teacher was a very shy young man from Tel Aviv, Israel, who was reputed to speak a dozen languages. He had been teaching American history to high school students in Paris when his brother, who lived in Norfolk, sponsored him to come to the United States. He became a last-minute replacement for the recently married French teacher.
At first, the class teased him about the English words he mispronounced. He got a big laugh one day when he referred to a grasshopper as a “hopper grass.” But the fact that his French was much better than his English helped us to more quickly pick up his French vocabulary and accent. He made French more accessible to all the class by teaching us French songs and poems. Even though we barely understood what we were saying, it made us appear to be more fluent in French than we really were, and gave us self-confidence.
His name was Yedidia Soroko. He lived with his aunt, Mrs. Rosen, in downtown Norfolk. About once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, I would take the bus to visit him. He would play French songs and write down the words for me. To this day, I owe my love of songs like “Les Feuilles Mortes” (Autumn Leaves), “La Mer” (Beyond the Sea) and “La Vie En Rose” to those afternoons spent listening to his French LP records. I continued to visit his class years after I graduated from high school. He was very proud that I had decided to pursue my studies in French at UVa.
When I entered the university, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I had not considered a teaching career at that point, so that ruled out English or French as a major. I had especially enjoyed high school physics, as we had a most unusual teacher. His name was Anthony Anneski. He was called Dr. Anneski because he was a doctor of optometry. He told us that he had left his practice in Alta Vista, Virginia (which was the home of Lane Furniture, known in those days for giving miniature cedar hope chests to girls graduating from high school). He said he had had a nervous breakdown due to stress, and that his doctor had advised him to take it easy for a year and do something less stressful, like teach high school. I can't imagine a doctor giving that advice today!
Because he was an optometrist, we spent an entire six weeks studying optics. I enjoyed his lectures and the experiments. I have no recollection of the other aspects of physics we studied that year. I just remember how much I enjoyed the intelligence and enthusiasm he put in to his lectures.
When asked to declare a major at the beginning of my first year (first-year men at UVa are never referred to as freshmen) — I listed physics. It only took a few months before I realized I was in way over my head. Rather than all the interesting experiments Dr. Anneski used to perform for us, college physics was mostly math. Although I had made A’s and B’s in high school algebra and trig, I never really understood what I was doing. Fortunately, I had a good short-term memory: I would memorize how to arrive at an answer without really understanding the principle behind it. While this technique worked in high school, my inadequacies were quickly revealed in college.
When I received D’s in both physics and math at the end of the first semester, I was deeply embarrassed, having been an honors student throughout high school. The following semester I put in more effort and brought those grades up to C’s. I was sufficiently shaken by these poor grades to ask myself what other major I might pursue.
I had made A’s in English and French. This pointed me in the direction of becoming liberal arts major, and I also took courses in philosophy and classic literature. I had discovered where my interests lay but still had no idea what I would do with this course work.
Another turning point in my life came once again in the form of a letter. My father had died during my first year in college. One of my French professors, Alfred Proulx, a PhD from Yale who was to become my role model when I later became a teacher, assumed that I would need additional financial assistance and had submitted an application for me to attend Sweet Briar College's Junior Year in France program. They accepted me and offered me a scholarship that was a bit larger than the DuPont scholarship I was receiving from UVa.
I contacted the law firm in Norfolk and asked if my anonymous benefactor would allow me to apply his $1,200 annual scholarship to the year-in-France program. The reply was affirmative, so I was set to leave for France in September of 1959. I knew I could put away some spending money by working that summer. My mother said she would send me a small amount each month. It wasn't until years later that my aunt told me how much my mother sacrificed and went without to send me money for living expenses.
My first airplane ride was flying from Norfolk to New York. My mother, aunt and girlfriend accompanied me. We spent a night at the Biltmore Hotel before my departure on the Mauritania. My children would later ask me, “Daddy, didn't they have planes in those days?” I would explain that Sweet Briar Junior Year in France students always went and returned on Cunard ocean liners. The week's crossing gave us an opportunity to get to know one another. A day in New York followed by a week's crossing the Atlantic was an exciting experience for a 19-year-old.
When we docked at Cherbourg, we were bused to Tours, a small university town in the Loire Valley in the heart of France. Tours was chosen because the purest French is spoken there. It's the equivalent of a Midwest or California accent. People speak slower and with less slang than the Parisians, so it was an ideal place for us to acclimate. We were assigned roommates and placed with French families. Mine consisted of a retired forester and his wife. My roommate was Dave Freund, a student at Yale. The elderly couple was very kind to us. They helped us with our French grammar and pronunciation. Above all, the food was delicious. My only assignment was to be in charge of slicing the baguette each evening. I was most embarrassed one evening when I accidentally sliced my finger while cutting the bread. They politely ignored my awkwardness but couldn't ignore the blood on the bread and the cutting board that had to be washed away.
We took courses for four hours each morning at the Institut de Tourraine, one course in grammar and one in literature. I won an award for best essay on Antoine de St. Exuperey’s Vol de Nuit. He is perhaps best known as the author of The Little Prince. I was given a copy of St. Exuperey's Collected Works autographed by the professor.
We would often have lunch at one of the many downtown cafes and spend our afternoons either preparing for our next day's lessons, riding our bikes to run errands around town, or occasionally visiting nearby vineyards and chateaux. We enjoyed a beautiful autumn. An exceptional wine harvest was predicted. We were invited one weekend to stomp grapes at Vouvray. If you ever have the opportunity to enjoy a 1959 Vouvray, my feet may have smashed those grapes. Watch out for the toenails!
After six weeks in Tours, our group moved to Paris. I had a new roommate, George Hughes, also from Yale. Our landlady, Madame Gilbert, had been widowed for many years. She said she preferred taking in boys because girls were messier, always hanging their undergarments all over her neat bathroom. We lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building in the 7th arrondissement (district), within easy walking distance of the Place de la Concorde and about a half hour's walk from the Sorbonne. I enrolled in courses on 17th century theater and 20th century novel. I also enrolled in a course in grammar at the Alliance Francaise taught by Madame Daladier, whose deceased husband had been prime minister of France. I also took a course in 19th and 20th century art taught at the Louvre museum by Maurice Serullaz, France's foremost expert on Impressionism. All of my professors were well-known specialists in their respective fields. I always felt intimated in their presence. There was really no reason to. They were always kind and understanding of the fact that the American students were struggling with the language as much as with the course content.
From time to time, the French would ask me what field I was going into when I finished my studies. I still hadn't seriously thought about teaching, so I figured the best thing to do with my liberal arts education was to go to Law School. In French, you say, “Je vais faire mon droit.” (I am going to study law). This reply always got a laugh or at least a big smile. Someone eventually explained to me that when you say you're going to study law, it means you don't have a clue as to what you are going to do. As it turned out, this was an accurate description.
While I was in France I wrote my girlfriend in Norfolk a letter every day telling her all of my adventures. I have them today, tied in a ribbon. I keep telling myself I will sit down and read them one day. We were married my senior year at UVa. We divorced 13 years later and have remained on good terms. She was kind enough to return the letters.
When I returned to UVa for my senior year, I declared myself a French major and decided that I would teach college. I wanted to be like Alfred Proulx, very suave and debonair. That fall, I visited my two former roommates, Dave Freund and George Hughes, at Yale and attended a lecture by their favorite professor, Henri Peyre. I was very taken by his speaking ability. It was said he spoke twice as fast as the normal person so that you got twice as much for your money from his lectures. I remember how I held on to his every word. I made up my mind that I would go to Yale for my PhD.
I applied to Yale in January of my senior year (1961). I received a reply in March saying that applications had closed in December and that the class had been filled. I was in state of shock. I had no plan B. I spoke to some of my teachers who suggested I apply to the University of Wisconsin, Columbia and Princeton, all with outstanding French faculties.
Both Columbia and Wisconsin replied immediately, offering me token fellowships of around $500. I received a letter from Princeton telling me they were interested but wanted to interview me in person. My wife and I were in Norfolk that summer, living with her parents. I was teaching high school summer school French and English in the mornings and working for my father-in-law's construction company in the afternoon. I had neither a car nor a driver's license, so my wife drove me to New Jersey.
The interview was conducted in French. I was nervous and didn't think it went well. At the conclusion, I was told the reason for the interview was that one of their French professors would be unable to teach as he had been in a car accident and would be in a body cast most of the school year. They said that although the first-year graduate class was filled, and all fellowship money distributed, they would find a place for me in the class if I felt I was able to teach a course in first-year French at the same time I was taking my graduate courses. I would be an assistant instructor and paid about $3,000 a year.
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. I was fortunate to teach beginning French to undergraduates both of my years at Princeton. My wife worked at the Princeton Press, so we were well off financially (relatively speaking). We lived in the married students apartments near Lake Carnegie. They were almost identical to the project house I had grown up in, and the rent was the same as my parents had paid in the '40s: $50 a month.
We didn't own a car, so I would put my wife on the crossbar of my bicycle to ride to the grocery store. We had two small baskets mounted on the rear of the bike. Peddling a load of groceries with my wife on the crossbar kept me in pretty good shape. My wife became pregnant during my first year at Princeton. When my father-in-law visited us at Christmas he was horrified that his expectant daughter was riding to the store on my bicycle, so we drove to the nearest car dealer in Trenton and he paid cash on the spot, $1,800, for a brand new Ford Falcon. My wife had to drive me around for a few weeks until I got my New Jersey driver's license. My first child, a son, was born in April 1962 at the Princeton Hospital.
I enjoyed both teaching and being a graduate student. I was 21-years-old and trying to look 30 so my students would think I was older and wiser. In my second year of teaching, Bill Bradley, who went on to play basketball for the N.Y. Knicks and become a U.S. senator, was in my class. All I knew about him at the time was that he was a college basketball star and a Rhodes Scholar. He was quiet and polite. He always sat in the front row, wearing jeans and a Princeton sweatshirt. I would step over his long legs as I paced back and forth in front of the class. I believe he made a C in French. I've learned that speaking a foreign language is like playing the piano. It's more a talent you are born with than a measure of your intelligence.
INTERVIEWER: You spent two years teaching and studying at Princeton, where you got a Master's degree in French, correct?
CARROLL: Right. Had I not been married, and if I could have afforded it, I would have stayed on for an extra year to write a dissertation and gotten my doctorate. But I had a wife and a child, so I needed to get a job. I accepted an offer from a small college in Memphis, Tennessee, called Southwestern at Memphis. Today it's called Rhodes College, named after the president at that time, Peyton Rhodes. It was a Presbyterian-related college of about 1,200 students.
I, and all the guys in my graduating class (1963), was offered jobs at either Ivy League or other Northeast schools. Since none of us had our PhD, we were offered instructorships that paid $6,000 a year. The dean at Rhodes College offered to fly me down to Memphis to see the school. They were expanding their language department and needed another French teacher. Many of their faculty was graduates of either the University of Virginia or Princeton, so they felt I would easily fit in. In fact, the school was designed architecturally to look like a miniature Princeton. They interviewed me and offered me the position of assistant professor at $6,500 a year. I was impressed by both the title and the salary.
I remember going to Edward Sullivan, the chairman of the Romance Languages & Literature department at Princeton, and asking him if I was making the right decision in going to this college that none of us had ever heard of. I guess he gave me a left-handed compliment. His reply was, “Well, Joe, because you are the only Southerner in our class, you could probably adapt to the South better than any of our other students. You should give it a try.”
I took the job, and I was very happy teaching at Rhodes. The students came from middle-class families and were generally polite and studious. It was the first time I had taught co-ed classes. The students at both UVa and Princeton were all male.
The following year, Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, offered me an assistant professorship at $8,500 a year, a $2,000 raise, and I accepted. Memphis State was a much larger school, with students of all types and ages — young, old, male, female, white, black. My goal had always been to turn out first-year students who could speak a little of the language, and be able to read and write it — all three basic skills – by the end of the year. The Chairman of the department allowed me to choose the textbooks I wanted and teach the way I wanted to.
I felt I got better results the two years I taught at Memphis State than anywhere else I ever taught. The students were hungry. They were serious about wanting to get a college degree because it was their path to getting a good job. They also appreciated the personal attention. I did my best to give them the same level teaching as I had received at UVa and Princeton. My daughter was born that year.
My next lucky break came when I got a call from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I was told that the professor who taught 17th century French literature had passed away and they were looking for a replacement. The 17th century French theater was one of my specialties. I was flown to Knoxville, interviewed and offered the job. I accepted, and we moved to Knoxville in 1966, where I taught for the next three years.
Meanwhile, I had been slowly working on the dissertation I needed to get a PhD from Princeton. To be honest, I was so enthusiastic about teaching my courses, I’d spend 90 percent of my time preparing for my classes, giving tests and grading papers. I was not really a researcher at heart. In five years I had written, maybe, 120 pages, about halfway through. Then I got a call from Princeton saying that my adviser had died, and because I had such an esoteric dissertation subject — it was about a 17th century French writer that hardly anyone’s heard of — they didn’t feel anyone in the department was qualified to advise me. I would need to choose a new topic and start all over again.
I had no desire to start over. Without a PhD, I would never advance as a college teacher. I would have been an assistant professor the rest of my life. I was making $12,000 a year at the University of Tennessee, and another $3,000 for teaching summer school. I taught summer school the first two summers. The $15,000 I earned was quite adequate. My wife also had a job so we were easily able to afford a nice home and a car.
But a new department head came in and decided to have graduate students teach the summer sessions. I told him I was pretty much dependent on my summer school salary, but he felt the graduate students were in greater need of financial assistance. I went home, laid down on the bed and started crying. I hadn’t cried since I was a child. Once I collected myself, I realized it was tears of frustration. I was frustrated that someone else could control my life, could take away what I thought was my right to earn a livelihood. I was just turning 30 years old, I’d taught for eight years, but I decided that I just didn't want to stay in the academic world until I retired.
The question then was: What do you want to do? I did what I’d always advised students to do when they’re uncertain about a career. I took out a sheet of paper and made lists in two columns, one of all the things I was really good at and enjoyed doing, the other of things I was not good at or did not enjoy.
On my list of things I enjoyed were reading, literature, writing and art. For two years when I was at the University of Virginia, I was the cartoonist for the school humor magazine, The Harlequin. So I used to think I could draw a halfway decent cartoon. My love of art probably came from the course I took at The Louvre when I was studying in Paris. I felt like I could draw to a certain degree, and I’ve always liked fine art - particularly the French Impressionists.
I also enjoyed photography. When I taught at the University of Tennessee, I became president of the Knoxville Camera Club. I built a darkroom in the basement of my house and developed my own black-and-white shots.
All the things I had on my list of positives were creative activities. The list of subjects I didn’t like, or do well in, included math and science. Suddenly, the light bulb went on as to what I would like to do. I should work for an advertising agency, because they do the kinds of creative things I like — art, photography and writing
That inspiration didn't just come out of the blue. Because of my photography skills, various ad agencies in Knoxville would call me from time to time if they just needed a simple picture. I’d go and shoot a building or a billboard or whatever they needed in a hurry. One local agency handled the advertising for the Kentucky Fried Chicken stores. So if a new store was opening, they’d call me and ask me to photograph the new store. My charge for a black-and-white 8x10 was $50, whereas a professional photographer would have charged $200 or $250 in those days. I was pretty good and certainly inexpensive.
I'd sneak a look inside the various ad agencies when I went to deliver the pictures. I would walk through the art departments and see the artists at their drafting boards, doing beautiful artwork and layouts. I was impressed with the creative atmosphere. I got to meet some of the artists and the copywriters. I'd see examples of their ads framed on their walls, the things they had written and the ideas they’d come up with.
So I decided to go to the top ad agency in town to apply for a job. The president of the agency had taught advertising at the University of Tennessee many years before. He’d left to start his own agency and had become the biggest in Knoxville. One of his major accounts was Clayton Marcus, the upholstery manufacturer in Hickory, North Carolina. Of course, I knew nothing about Clayton Marcus or the furniture industry at that time.
After two afternoons of interviewing, he said to me, “Mr. Carroll, I think you’re bright enough to learn the advertising business but it’ll take you about a year. I can’t match your salary at the University of Tennessee ($12,000 a year) while you are learning, and we don’t have the time or personnel to teach you the business. My suggestion is that you stay in teaching where you’re safe and secure.”
So I went to the second-largest ad agency. They had just hired someone and didn’t need another employee. Then, I went to the number three agency. They said, “We have no openings now, but we should have something by the fall. Come back then. We may be interested.”
I was about to give up, when another ad agency came to mind. Its art director, Clarence Waite, was a member of the camera club where I was the president. It was a small agency called Hogan-Rose. A year later the two partners broke up and it became J.P. Hogan & Company. Clarence was telling me about his ad agency one time, and he said, “Joe, you don’t want to work at Hogan. It’s a sweatshop. They work nights and weekends. They work you all the time. I don’t get any time off.”
But, I was desperate. I was determined to find an ad agency willing to hire me, so I went to meet with Joe Hogan, the owner, and his two vice presidents. When he asked me what my qualifications were, I said, “Well, I’m a photographer and a writer.” I thought those were the skills an ad agency was looking for. I was very naïve about advertising. It was a case of not knowing what I didn’t know. I thought they were looking for someone who could come up with great ideas and concepts for advertising.
Hogan told me later they were doing their best to keep from laughing, since it was clear I didn’t know a thing about advertising. But over the years they'd hired experienced people from other ad agencies, and none of them turned out to be as good as they claimed, so they decided to hire me on a 90-day-trial basis, and match the salary I was making at the University of Tennessee.
They immediately assigned me to the vice president/account supervisor as an assistant account executive. He said, “If you are interested, I’d love to make you my student. I’ve been in this business 20 years. I’ve been president of my own ad agency. I’ve been in radio. I’ve been in television. I’ve done it all. I would love to teach you the business.” I thanked him for his offer.
Ted Brosseau was his name. The first week he had me sit in on all his client meetings, and go out with him when he visited a client. I also listened to his phone calls. He even gave me some copywriting assignments for some small ad jobs he had in the works. I think he wanted to keep me busy and make me feel that I was being creative and contributing something to the agency.
At the beginning of the second week, he said, “We’re going to Dalton, Georgia, where I have a major account, Crown Tuft Carpets. We need to pick up some more business down there.” He paused and said, “In fact I’ll let you make the first pitch.” My forehead went cold — the coldness you feel when you’re about to faint — because making a sales pitch when I didn’t know what I was doing, was a terrifying thought.
I said, “Why do we have to make a sales call?” He said, “How do you think we get business?” I said, “Well, I thought an advertising agency was like a law firm. People would come in and ask you to handle their account, manage their advertising.” He said, “No-o-o. If you don’t sell them, you don’t get them.” I said, “Ted, I can’t sell anybody.” He said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, to ask someone to buy something from you is humiliating and degrading.” He never let me forget those two words — humiliating and degrading.
He saw that I was serious and said, “Well, I won't ask you to make the pitch, but I want you to be with me. I'm going to teach you what every salesman lives for. When you make your sales presentation and the client says yes and signs the contract, you walk out the door on a cloud. It’s better than any high you'd get from any drug. In fact, second only to sex, it’s the best feeling you’ll ever have. I’m going to teach you to enjoy that feeling.”
Ted really enjoyed the carpet industry. In those days, there were at least 160 carpet mills in the Dalton area, and his goal was to have one of every kind of account — area rugs, contract carpet, broadloom and so on. When we made a sales call, usually on the president or sometimes the vice president, Ted always appeared to be just having a casual conversation with them. He was never pushy. It was always more of a chat about their business, with a lot of back and forth like two old friends conversing.
Afterward, when we'd gotten back in the car, he’d say, “Joe, you noticed that when I said this, and they responded, that I answered this way.” I realized he was like a choreographer, in control of the conversation without appearing to be in control. He was leading them to conclude that they needed the help of an advertising agency. During his conversation with them he was learning what their needs were and where they were having problems. He would then come back to them a few weeks later with a proposal of what the agency could do for them. He wanted them to say to themselves, “I like this guy and I think he can help me.” Ted was truly my mentor for the five years I worked under him.
As I neared the end of my 90-day trial period, I had sold three accounts, two small accounts that Ted had given me leads on, and, through a lucky break, the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
A new KFC supervisor had come to Knoxville. He was responsible for eight stores in the area. I got a tip from a radio station salesman that he wasn't happy with his ad agency, which was located in Asheville, North Carolina. He wanted to use a local agency but, coming from Chicago, didn't know any agency people in Knoxville. As soon as I was given the lead I hustled over to meet the supervisor. I invited him to come to our office the next day. He accepted, and after a tour of the agency, I took him to Ted’s office, made my pitch, as Ted had taught me, and asked for the order. He said, “I’m sure every agency in Knoxville will call on me and tell me how good they are. Since I don’t know one ad agency from the others, I’ll just hire you guys. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll fire you.”
So, that’s the way the relationship started. It was a $250,000 account, which was big in those days. In the months to follow I called on every Kentucky Fried Chicken store in east Tennessee inviting them to be part of a giant advertising co-op. After a few years, I had as many as 40 stores pooling their money for newspaper, radio and TV advertising. It had grown to be a half-million-dollar plus account for the agency.
I couldn’t sleep the night before the 90th day of my probation period with the agency. I was afraid that they wouldn’t keep me and that I would have to go back to teaching. I walked into the president’s office the first thing that morning and said, “Well?” He said, “Well, what?” I said, “Are you keeping me or not?” He said, “Of course we’re going to keep you.” He had entirely forgotten about the trial period. I learned an important business lesson from that experience. If you tell an employee that you are going to review them after a certain period of time - be sure to follow through. You may not think it's such a big deal, but it is to the employee.
I then turned in my resignation at the university, and became a full-time employee at the ad agency. I was an Account Executive and Ted was my supervisor. About the fourth or fifth year of my employment, our little agency reached sales of a little over $6 million. Ted and I were bringing in close to $3 million each. The agency decided to split us up, and promoted me to vice president/account supervisor. Ted then hired a new assistant.
I found an assistant who was a radio station salesman. He had always impressed me with his professionalism. His name was Bob Ludeka. When I left the agency a few years later to go to work for Furniture/Today Bob took over one of my biggest accounts, Union Carbide’s polyurethane foam division. Carbide was a member of the Society of Plastics Industries. When Bob left J.P. Hogan, he became Executive Director of the Polyurethane Foam Institute, a spinoff of S.P.I. As his work involved companies like Leggett & Platt, Hickory Springs and E.R. Carpenter, we would run in to one another at various markets and industry events.
In about my fourth year at Hogan, Ted took me aside and said, “Right now, Joe, I bring in more business than you, but your business is growing very quickly, and you’ll pass me one of these days because you’re better educated. When you do pass me, I’ll be very proud of you, because I love you like a son.” This meant a great deal to me. I could never have succeeded without his mentoring.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any accounts in the furniture industry at Hogan?
CARROLL: Yes. They already had one furniture account, American Drew. Joe Hogan, the agency president, handled that account himself. American Drew showed at the Chicago furniture market, either in the Merchandise Mart or in the American Furniture Mart — I don't remember which. They were the two buildings in Chicago that housed furniture exhibitors, the Merchandise Mart downtown on the Chicago River and the American Furniture Mart out by Lake Michigan. You took a cab back and forth between the two buildings during the Market.
In January 1970, Joe Hogan took me with him to the Chicago market for me to see how it worked. American Drew was débuting their James River Collection, which proved quite successful. Our client, Tom Story, Drew's vice president took the time to teach me a few fundamentals about the market. I was very impressed with my first furniture market. I'll never forget how bitterly cold Chicago was that January. It was the coldest I could ever remember. My head felt like a block of ice. Of course, the summer market in June counterbalanced it by being swelteringly hot.
My second market was the April 1970 High Point market. Hogan actually had an office in High Point. A salesman named Lyman Mason ran that office, which primarily serviced local accounts — a Cadillac dealer, Tobias department and some McDonald’s stores. But he didn’t have any furniture accounts. Joe Hogan was always after him, saying, “You’re in High Point. I can’t believe you can’t sell a furniture account.”
Eventually, he sold Lehigh Furniture, a manufacturer based in Marianna, Florida. Lyman did such a good job for Lehigh that they offered him a job as a sales rep. Within a year he was selling a million dollars’ worth of furniture, which was big in the '70s. He admitted that he was a better furniture rep than adman.
Hogan decided to turn the Lehigh account over to me. I became very good friends with my clients Bill Boynton and Tom Gordemaller. I would fly down to their factory in Marianna, Florida frequently to work with them on their ads, catalogs and brochures. We produced all of their advertising materials. Lehigh was my first furniture account. I particularly enjoyed going out into the factory and watching the furniture being manufactured.
INTERVIEWER: So you began to learn about the furniture industry.
CARROLL: Yes, but not as much as I thought. Later, when I went to work at Furniture/Today, Steve Pond, the founder, owner and president, asked me to write an analysis of the furniture industry. He said, “You’ve been coming to market now for a number of years. Tell me what you’ve learned and what you know about the industry. I also want your assessment of the other industry publications.” I turned in my report. Steve never said anything. A few years later, when I had become pretty well grounded in the furniture industry, we went back and looked at what I had written. It was so naïve. The former advertising executive didn't know as much as he thought. What I thought I knew about the furniture industry was derived mostly from spending time in Lehigh’s showroom during markets, watching them sell and talking with their dealers. It was very interesting but I was only seeing a small slice of the business.
In my agency days, I liked to visit the market's press room and schmooze with what we called “the little-old-lady writers from Des Moines and Dubuque”. They would spend most of their time during the market drinking coffee, eating donuts and chatting with their fellow journalists. Then, they would fill their suitcase with press kits to take back home to write their stories for the magazines and newspapers they worked for. I made a lot of friends in the press room and enjoyed it, but didn't learn much about the furniture industry. Furniture/Today taught me the value of spending my time at market in the showrooms, learning as much as I could.
As for the other industry publications, they all had called on me at J.P. Hogan to solicit advertising, so I thought I knew how each of them presented themselves and what their strengths and weaknesses were. Truthfully, I really didn’t know much about the other publications or the furniture industry until I had been at Furniture/Today for several years.
INTERVIEWER: Did Hogan have furniture industry accounts other than Lehigh and American Drew?
CARROLL: No. The agency was oriented toward carpet accounts. At one time, I had five carpet accounts. I also had two companies, Textile Chemical & Rubber Company and Union Carbide that made the chemicals for the polyurethane foam used in carpet backing. I kept trying to find a major fiber producer, like Eastman Chemicals, Dow or Celanese, that would recognize our expertise in carpet advertising and PR. Persistence finally paid off. I convinced a small but important fiber producer, Thiokol, located in Waynesboro, Virginia to hire us. Furniture, however, was still a minor share of my account list. By this time American Drew had moved on to another ad agency so Lehigh was really the only furniture manufacturer I was truly familiar with.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to bring you to Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: When Steve Pond started Furniture/Today in High Point, he brought Ollie Bieniemy with him from New York to be the Advertising Director. Ollie had worked with Steve at Home Furnishings Daily. When Steve announced he was coming to High Point and joining with Bill Peterson to create Furniture/Today, Ollie said, “I want to be your ad director.” Ollie, by the way, was a black man. Steve said, “Ollie, I love you like a brother and you’re a great salesman. But you’ll be calling primarily on manufacturers in Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. I don’t know how you will fare down South.” Ollie, who always called Steve by his given name said, “Well, Stephen, let me make that decision.”
Ollie always looked like he had just stepped out of GQ magazine. He was always immaculately dressed. I never saw him make a sales call without a three-pointed handkerchief in his breast pocket. Most people did not know that Ollie came from a very poor family. He grew up in New Orleans. He had come to New York to study acting. At some point in his career he adopted an English-inflected Jamaican accent, which made him sound very sophisticated. So between his good looks and his accent, it turned out he had no problems at all with Southern manufacturers. In fact, they found it rather novel that this guy was calling on them. Ollie was a very good one-to-one salesman. He was not very organized or very disciplined, but if he could get in front of a person face to face, he could sell them with his charm and charisma.
I already knew Ollie. He had begun calling on me at J.P. Hogan because of the American Drew and Lehigh accounts. I was already receiving comp copies of Furniture/Today. I told him that I liked the look of his publication, and was very impressed with the editorial content. It was different from any of the other trade magazines. I was already tearing out articles from Furniture/Today and keeping a research file, so that should I be calling on a furniture account, I’d have enough data to make me look like I knew something about the furniture industry. In fact, I really knew very little. I credit Furniture/Today with getting me started by helping me build a sizable file of market research.
Before I tell you what I said to Ollie, let me give you a little background on how trade advertising works. Usually, you don’t advertise just one time in a trade publication, you commit to a contract. The price you pay for each ad is based on the number of ads you agree to run in a year. The more ads you agree to run, the less each ad costs. If you don’t run all those ads you've committed to within the designated time frame you’re charged what they call a “short rate”. In effect, you've lost the discount you would have gotten by running more ads.
So, I had decided to go to my clients who were running ads in the various furniture magazines that we had recommended and ask them to move part of their ad budget to this new publication called Furniture/Today, we would have been short rated by the magazines we had contracts with. That would make me look bad. My clients would say, “You don’t have very good judgment if you tell me to spend my money in these magazines, and now you want me to pull some of it out and put it in a new publication. It will end up costing me more money to do that.”
I should have just explained my predicament to Ollie when he came to my office. Instead, I put on what he would have called my 'pompous ad guy hat' and said, “Ollie, I think Furniture/Today is an excellent publication. But I can’t invest my client’s money in your publication until you’ve been around a couple of years and I know you’re going to make it.”
Steve Pond was with him on this visit. He got red in the face when I said that. He said, “What do you mean, IF we’re going to make it? We’re going to be the number one publication in the industry.” I said, “Oh, yeah? All you media guys always say you’re number one.”
I liked Steve and Ollie, and I wanted to advertise in Furniture/Today. But I knew I’d have to wait a year or so until it came time to negotiate new ad contracts with my furniture clients. When it came time to propose a new media plan, I could take part of my client’s budget and invest it in Furniture/Today, and perhaps advertise a little less frequently in the other magazines. Steve and Ollie probably knew that was the real reason I hadn't committed sooner, but they never mentioned it.
Ollie had begun calling on me at J.P. Hogan in September 1976. About a year later, in September 1977, I got a call from Steve. I thought it was going to be another pitch to buy ads in Furniture/Today. But he said, “Tell me, have you ever fantasized about what you would be doing if you weren’t working in advertising? Is there any other career you’ve ever been interested in?”
Ted Brosseau had taught me that one way to sell someone is to ask them about themselves. Get them talking. Once they've gotten relaxed and in a good mood, that’s when you ask for the order. I thought that was the technique Steve was using on me, so I decided to play along. I said, “One of my fantasies is, I would love to be Walter Cronkite and do the CBS Evening News. I’ve always been a big news junkie, and being a TV news anchor would be great.” There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. Then Steve said, “OK, anything else?”
I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to be the publisher of a newspaper or magazine. When I was at UVa, my after-school job was working at the library. I would file newspapers that came in from all over the world. I’ve always been a voracious reader of magazines and newspapers so I think I would enjoy publishing.”
Another reason I thought of publishing was because at J.P. Hogan, more than 50 percent of my leads, particularly in the carpet industry, came from publishers of trade magazines. They would call me from time to time to tell me that so-and-so was unhappy with their ad agency and was looking for another one. One publisher, Jerry Merkin of Flooring Magazine, told me he always gave me leads because he knew I would follow up immediately.
But, I was just shooting the bull with Steve. I really didn’t think he was offering me a job. He said, “Well, Joe, I can’t help you with your first fantasy, but the second one is the reason I’m calling you. Furniture/Today is growing by leaps and bounds, and eventually I want to launch other publications in the home furnishings field. I need to bring in someone to train for about five years to be the publisher of Furniture/Today. Then, I can go ahead and start these other magazines I have in mind. I’ve drawn up a list of 50 people, and you’re number one on the list.”
I thought that was quite a stretch, since we'd only met perhaps two or three times. He said, “What would it take for you to be interested in coming to work at Furniture/Today?” I got cold feet, and said, “Well, Steve, I’d like to be a publisher. But the truth is I don’t know anything about publishing and I love my job at J.P. Hogan. I’ve worked there eight years, I’m a vice president, our business is good and I love the people I work with. I don’t think I want to change careers at this time.” I was 38 years old.
He said, “Well, if you come to work for me, I’ll give you the equivalent of a Harvard MBA in just a few years. I’ll teach you to be the best publisher in the country. Can I come over to Knoxville and take you out to dinner?”
By this time, I was divorced and living in an apartment in Knoxville. Steve and I had dinner at a fancy French restaurant and came back to my apartment. Steve asked, “Do you have anything to drink?” I looked in the cabinet and saw that I was totally out of liquor except for a bottle of crème de menthe. We sat up until five o'clock in the morning, talking and drinking that sickeningly sweet liquor. It's Steve's way of interviewing you, asking you everything possible about your life. Both of us were sick as dogs the next day. He went back to his motel and slept until noon. I couldn’t let Joe Hogan know I’d been interviewed, so I had to go in to the office with the worst hangover in my life.
Steve called me after he'd gotten back to High Point and said, “I’m even more convinced that you’re the right guy for me. I’d like you to come over to High Point and meet my board of directors and have dinner with us. I want to show you the opportunities we can offer you.”
I thought, well, I’ve gone this far, so I drove over to High Point to meet his board. We had dinner at a restaurant called The Depot. It is now the AMTRAK train station in High Point. George Logan, who was chairman of the board, was a UVa Business School graduate. He had taken over his father’s frozen food business in Roanoke, Virginia. Coincidentally, he was delivered by the same doctor that had delivered me in Roanoke. I have no idea how that came up in the conversation – probably when we talking about Roanoke and things we had in common. One of Steve's board members, George Logan, an MBA graduate from UVa, drove down to meet me. Finally, Steve asked, “How much money would it take for you to come aboard?” I was making about $30,000 a year at the ad agency. Ted Brosseau, my mentor, had taught me that if anyone offers you a job, ask for as much money as you think you can get. I said, “Well, I would have to have $50,000.” Steve gasped and said, “$50,000? That’s a little steep!” I said, “I’d have to make significantly more than I am currently earning to leave a job I really enjoy.”
We started negotiating. He said, “How about if I pay you $40,000, give you a company car, pay all your expenses, and put you on a bonus plan? If my calculations are correct on what we’ll do next year, you should end up making about a $15,000 bonus.”
I had never been on a bonus plan, so that scared me. I’ve always been very security oriented. I said, “No, I don’t want to take a chance. I just want a fixed salary.” So, we compromised. I took a straight $42,000 annual salary, plus a company car and expenses. Steve kept saying, “You’re going to regret it.” I said, “Maybe, but at least I know I’ve got that money coming in.”
Guess what? He was right. I would have made a lot more money under his proposed bonus plan. Just as he had predicted, I would have made $55,000 at the end of my first year. That was the last year I ever worked without a bonus plan. Furniture/Today grew faster than even Steve had projected. The first year, revenue was around $767,000, where he had projected half a million. In the second year, the publication grew to about $1.3 million, and the next year it reached $3 million. I don't think any of us could have dreamed how popular and successful Furniture/Today was going to become so quickly.
By our estimates, the other five furniture magazines were doing about $3 million in combined sales when Furniture/Today was launched in 1976. They were doing about the same volume three years later. So Furniture/Today didn’t really take away any business from anyone. It created new business and essentially doubled the market.
By 1979, Furniture/Today was as big as all of its competition combined. Today, 37 years later, it's bigger than all its competitors combined, with about an 85 percent share of advertising revenue.
So, Steve was right. Furniture/Today did turn out to be number one. It’s also regarded as the leading furniture trade publication in the world. Quite often, I have been told by furniture publications in other countries that Furniture/Today's success story is the example of what they would like to accomplish. I tell them the secret lies in hiring great people.
INTERVIEWER: What was the key thing that made you decide to leave J.P. Hogan and join Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: I don’t know, exactly, what made me do it. I was as happy as I could be working at J.P. Hogan. I loved advertising. Perhaps it was something like putting your money where your mouth is. I had said that I would love to be a publisher, and here’s Steve saying, here's your chance. Maybe I didn’t want to back down from what I'd said.
I visited Furniture/Today once during the Market when I was still working for J.P. Hogan. Even though there was only a very small staff, I met intelligent, creative people. It reminded me of the first time I walked into an ad agency — these were the kinds of people that I’d like to work with and be with. From attending furniture markets and working primarily with Lehigh and a little bit with American Drew, I thought furniture people were a lot classier than carpet people, much more polished and refined. I liked furniture because it was a fashion business that involved style and design. I enjoyed the people I met at markets.
I could see myself easily fitting into the world of furniture. I quickly realized that working for Furniture/Today would not be that much different than working at an advertising agency. I knew what my job at Furniture/Today would be — to sell advertising. I loved advertising and, by that time, I loved selling. So, the move to this new career involved quite a bit more than money.
INTERVIEWER: I would guess that part of the attraction was simply the force of Steve’s personality.
CARROLL: That’s true. It’s hard to refuse Steve. He's very bright and taught me a great deal about business.
INTERVIEWER: Was Ollie involved in convincing you to come to Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: He was involved in convincing Steve to hire me. After I was hired, Ollie told me, “Joe, I was your biggest supporter. I’m the one who kept telling Steve, 'This is your man'.” Steve always said he had a unique ability to choose the right people, and Ollie always said that he was the one who gave Steve the idea.
When I came to work for Furniture/Today, our offices consisted of just a couple of rooms in the High Point National Furniture Mart. Ollie and I and a secretary were in the first room as you walked in. We all had chairs and desks bought at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. We had no new furniture. Steve always reminded me, “Put your money in your people. Offices should be nice but not luxurious.”
Ollie had a sign on the wall behind his desk that said, “A terrible thing happens when you don’t advertise — nothing.” He lived and breathed advertising. When I wrote my first sales-pitch letter, Ollie asked if he could see it. I thought I was a pretty good writer, but Ollie tore the letter apart. At first that hurt my feelings. Until he said, “Joe, you write too much like an English teacher. Sales letters are totally different. Use short sentences. Get to the point. Be very direct. Keep it short.”
So, Ollie taught me how to write a sales letter. I watched him sell, and his method of selling, as I said before, was very much one-on-one, getting very close to his clients. I think he might have been the one who first told me that old saying in sales, “We do business with people we like to do business with.” I learned a lot from observing Ollie.
INTERVIEWER: When you joined Furniture/Today, were you an account executive?
CARROLL: Even lower than that. Steve had said I'd be a publisher within five years, so I assumed I would start as associate publisher, the number two guy. After all, I had been a vice president at the ad agency. But we had never discussed what title I would have at Furniture/Today. When I got my business cards, under my name, my title was Assistant Account Executive. Well, you can’t go any lower than that.
I said to Steve, “What is this – Assistant Account Executive?” He said, “That’s your title.” I said, “But that's such a lowly title. How can I call on the president of a company, and when he sees my card it says ‘Assistant Account Executive’?”
He told me something I've never forgotten. I’ve passed this advice on to all the salesmen I’ve trained. He said, “Joe, it’s not the title on your card that gets you in the door. Most presidents will see anyone who comes in reasonably presentable, so you’ll get at least one shot at anyone. What's important is how you conduct yourself in the meeting and whether or not you bring them good ideas. You want them to feel you’re someone who can help them, and that they like working with. The title doesn’t mean anything.”
Of course, he was right. Steve continued, “The main reason I’m giving you this lowly title is because I don’t want you to start with such a high title that the furniture industry will have high expectations of your abilities. Furniture people will know right away that you don’t know much about the industry. And the staff at Furniture/Today will see you as an ad guy and a salesman. If it looked like you were their boss, that I had put someone in charge they know doesn’t know much about the industry, it wouldn’t be good for the staff, and it wouldn’t be good for you.”
“What I want you to do is to earn your way up,” Steve continued. “As you do better, as you bring in business, as you do what I think you’re going to do, you’ll be promoted to account executive. Then you’ll be appointed ad director, then associate publisher and, eventually, publisher.”
And that’s exactly what Steve did over five years.
I also remember him saying, “If you give someone a low profile, no one takes shots at them. I’ve given you such a low title that no one’s going to take any shots at you. You’ll just blend in and not be a target for anyone.” That hurt my ego for a short time. But again, it turned out that he was right.
INTERVIEWER: So you moved to High Point and joined Furniture/Today in late 1977?
CARROLL: Yes. We made a deal with Joe Hogan that at the October 1977 market I would work the first three days for him, handling Lehigh. Then I would switch and join Furniture/Today for the rest of the market, which in those days lasted a good week to 10 days.
INTERVIEWER: What was the learning curve like for you at Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: First of all, at the ad agency, I usually managed maybe 8-10 accounts. Not a large number. But if you are selling advertising for Furniture/Today, you're working with dozens of accounts. I remember one year we had 480 advertisers. You’re working with large numbers. When you are ad director, or publisher, you are responsible for all of them.
I mentioned that when I came to work for Furniture/Today, I was divorced and single. My time was my own. I traveled a great deal. Steve gave me the entire Southeast as a territory, from Virginia down to Mississippi, over to Florida and back up the East Coast. I could easily spend all week on the road and call on manufacturers, primarily in Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. Florida had a lot of accessory manufacturers – particularly lighting. Florida manufacturers seemed to love using Lucite as a material for their lamps and accent pieces, so we referred to the Miami area as “Lucite heaven.”
I should mention how Steve built our circulation base in the early days. He knew industry leaders such as Paul Broyhill and Bob Spilman of Bassett from his years at Home Furnishings Daily. When he told them he was going to start a new publication, Paul Broyhill immediately wanted to invest in it. Steve had to turn him down without hurting his feelings, because Steve wanted to own it 100 percent. But Paul loved the idea, so Steve said, “You could help me if you could give me the list of all the Broyhill dealers to build my circulation base.” Paul not only obliged but also bought subscriptions for all his dealers and everyone in his company. Bob Spillman also gave Steve the Bassett list of dealers. Then Steve and Ollie took the Lyons Red Book of Credit and clipped out the names of all the furniture stores, spreading them out, state by state, on the office floor. Between the Red Book, and the Bassett and Broyhill dealer lists, Furniture/Today compiled an initial circulation base of about 18,000. Of course, all furniture manufacturers received a complimentary subscription.
The first year, Furniture/Today was sent free to everybody on the list. Steve's plan was to start charging a subscription fee the second year. The cost was $12 as I recall. Today, it's about $170. That strategy worked very well. Every manufacturer I called on was receiving Furniture/Today, and they liked both the format and the content.
The problem was that, even if they were interested in advertising, many of the smaller manufacturers would say to me, “Mr. Carroll, how do I get an ad made? We can’t afford an ad agency. Who does these ads for us?”
I don’t know what inspired me, but it just came to me one day to say to a manufacturer, “Our advertising services department will take care of that. We’ll help you create an ad.” Well, we didn’t have an ad services department. I became the ad services department. I would go back to my hotel room that night and try to come up with a creative concept, a headline and some copy. And, I’d try to come up with an ad campaign, which in those days typically meant three different ads.
When I worked at J.P. Hogan and sold a new account, I might spend an entire day, maybe two days, with the company. I might take them through a 30-page questionnaire. I would gather a lot of information. At Furniture/Today, I'd do a kind of mini-version of that same process. I'd spend two or three hours with a manufacturer, ask a lot of questions and take a lot of notes, trying to learn as much as I could. That's what I'd take back to my hotel room to study.
When I would return to Greensboro from my road trip, I would go to the home of a friend, a graphic artist named Dave Collins. He would take my copy and do layouts for three different ads. A few weeks later, I would return to the manufacturer and give him a typed proposal, almost like a mini-business plan, along with the three ad layouts and a rationale behind the ad campaign. Since the ads were often based on the ideas and information they had given me, about eight times out of 10 they'd say, “This is exactly what I want to do. And you can produce it and everything?” I'd say, “Yes, and we can do it turn key and for free.”
At that time, only major manufacturers like Thomasville or La-Z-Boy could afford ad agencies, so most manufacturers were delighted to have someone do their creative work for them, and have it done for free. That helped us to build our business and acquire manufacturers who had never advertised before. We typically got them to commit to a year’s contract. I’d recommend using the initial three ads that I had taken them for the first six months, and then do another set for the second half of the year. We would usually do a special ad for Market, mostly promoting their new introductions.
The other magazines had not caught on to that technique. They were still selling one ad at a time. It's a lot of work to sell someone one ad at a time. By preparing complete campaigns, we increased our number of advertisers on year-long contracts. It was also an effective way to show them that advertising is most effective when done on a regular basis.
So what I learned during my first year at Furniture/Today — which became my particular way of selling — was to do a mini-version of what an ad agency person does. That is, instead of just trying to sell someone an ad, first find out what their needs and problems are, then try to come up with a creative approach that meets their needs. It’s almost like a case study in business school, where you try to figure out what a company needs to do to solve its problems or reach its goals.
Over the next few years, as Furniture/Today added more salesmen, I brought in another idea from my former ad agency called a “plans board”. At most ad agencies, the account executive brings back all the data from a new client, then presents the information in a meeting which might include the agency president, an account supervisor, the art director, and a copywriter. The whole team would discuss what could best be done to meet the client's needs.
As soon as we could convene a small group of our sales people at Furniture/Today, we adopted a smaller version of those plans board. When one of our sales managers came back with information they had gathered from a client, they would present it to us in a mini-plans board meeting. We’d all brainstorm and try to come up with a campaign. No one person can be creative all the time. You do far better when you’re working as a team
I think it was my third year at Furniture/Today that I began to get burned out. Things were going so well sales-wise that every time I returned from a road trip, I would have to go to Dave Collins’ house and discuss the new ads he needed to do, pick up the ads he'd done, and maybe make some tweaks or modifications. Quite often, I would not get home until after 10 o'clock. I might still have another hour or two of work to do at that time. That made for many late nights.
So, in my fourth year, I went to Steve and said, “I need some help. I’m killing myself time wise.” He said, “Oh, no, no, Joe. You know you can do it.”
Steve's philosophy was always to bring in the business first. When you reach the point where you've got a lot more business than you can handle, then it’s time to add people. Before too long, as our business continued to grow, he said, “OK, I’ll consider hiring someone.” About that time, Connie Lineberry came to interview with us because she'd heard we might have a job in sales. Having recently gone through a divorce, she wanted to start a new life. She had previously worked for the Greensboro newspaper. She decided to move to Maine to work for a sister newspaper. It was the dead of winter when she arrived with her two small sons. The first week she was there, her pipes froze - spreading water all over her new home. This was not a pleasant first impression of what life in Maine was going to be like for someone raised in the South. She longed to return to North Carolina.
I interviewed Connie and learned that she had not been in sales at the Greensboro newspaper. She was responsible for all the promotional literature, their circulars and weekly house ads. It occurred to me she could be the right person to handle ad services. I proposed that to Steve, and he agreed. Over the years Connie built ad services into what today is a fairly large department. If it were an ad agency, it would be doing the equivalent of millions of dollars worth of business, because it can produce ads, brochures, catalogs, videos — anything the advertiser needs to execute his marketing plan. It’s like having an ad agency within Furniture/Today. Today, Connie is the vice president of marketing for all of the magazines in the home furnishings group. She is an invaluable asset.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us more about how sales developed in the early years.
CARROLL: In the early years, we had no one covering the West Coast. We only had two accounts there, Design Resources in Seattle, a fabric supplier in those days, and Universal Furniture in Whittier, California. We knew there were a lot of furniture makers in Southern California, but we had no personal contacts. I spoke with Ivan Cutler, who was at that time a stringer for our editorial department, writing his stories from California. I asked him, “Is there a lot of business potential out there? Should I be calling on California manufacturers?” He said, “Absolutely. There are at least 200 manufacturers. Most are located in the L.A. area. I’ll pick 50 I think are capable of advertising in Furniture/Today, and give you a list.”
The first time I went out to L.A., I worked two full weeks and must have called on 30 or 35 of those manufacturers. This is how we started building our West Coast business. I first went to California in the early '80s, so I was ad director by that time.
INTERVIEWER: But you mostly focused on the Southeast, the center of furniture manufacturing?
CARROLL: Yes. But there were pockets of business elsewhere, of course. Chicago had a number of manufacturers, particularly in upholstery, bedding and brass beds. There were also a number of lamp and accessory people. Ollie handled the advertising for the Midwest. There were some manufacturers in Texas, who showed at the Dallas market. But the furniture industry was concentrated from Galax in western Virginia to southern Virginia towns like Martinsville and Bassett, to High Point and Hickory in North Carolina.
Our sales team didn't really have to travel all over the whole United States They could concentrate on just the areas that made furniture and bedding. I developed a technique for our sales team I called “the theory of concentric circles”. When you're on the road, first see the major account in whatever area you're going to. That establishes the center of your target area because that's where the company is located that you need to spend the most time with. Then, you work out from that point in concentric circles, calling on as many clients and potential clients as time allows within a reasonable driving distance.
INTERVIEWER: What did you learn about selling in your early years at Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: I really didn’t know how to best sell ads — what we called “space” — in a magazine. But I knew what not to do, because of all the ad salesmen who called on me at J.P. Hogan. Most of them bored me to death. They'd usually sit down across the desk and pull out a small flip chart. Then, they'd tell you all the statistics about their circulation, how many people they reached and all that, while turning over each page of the flip chart as they read. They were just showing me the same thing I was being told. Very boring.
It was a benefit for me to come to Furniture/Today without any training in the usual way magazine advertising was sold. I did what I was taught at the ad agency — ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes, come back with ideas and proposals, like I talked about earlier. It's now called the consultative technique. Like life insurance, nobody really wants to buy advertising. What we all want is for someone to find a solution to whatever problem we’re having. If that person can tell us what we need to do, we're ready to listen and act. I was fortunate in having an advertising agency background. I think that helped Furniture/Today grow its business faster.
INTERVIEWER: How much was Steve Pond involved in your selling efforts?
CARROLL: Steve was always available when I needed him. However, he much preferred to be in the home office running things. He once told me, “Joe, I just don’t enjoy doing what you doing, going out on the road and calling on everybody. But when it's important that I be there, I'll take whatever time it takes to get the sale.”
Steve was just being honest. He really didn’t like making small talk, and that’s fine. He also didn't like to write letters. He preferred to pick up the phone and talk to someone, even if they were on the other side of the world. He knew I liked to write, so if a letter had to be written, I would offer to write it for him. We complemented one another very well.
INTERVIEWER: It seems you were pretty much on your own as an ad salesman in those early days.
CARROLL: Yes. We were a small company then, although we were growing fast, we didn’t have a big support staff or anything like that. Steve didn't even have his own secretary. Later, Karen Morris became office manager and his administrative assistant. She did an outstanding job.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have the sense that you were pioneering the techniques of successful advertising selling in the furniture industry?
CARROLL: I don't think we realized to any great extent the significance of what we were doing. We were all working very hard, without much time for reflection. Only later, after Furniture/Today had become the dominant publication in the industry, were we really able to look back and understand the significance of what we had done.
Your question makes me think of something that should be included in the Furniture/Today story. When Steve was running Home Furnishings Daily in New York, he had his salesmen covering product categories instead of territories. Ollie, for instance, was the bedding person, so he would call on mattress manufacturers, no matter where they were based. Steve also had a salesman named Bob Bernstein who worked with the fabric mills in New York, because most corporate headquarters were located in the city.
But Steve did not carry over that product category approach to Furniture/Today. I don’t know why, but he chose the territory method. I had the Southeast territory. He hired Bob Bernstein in 1979 to cover New York, New Jersey and New England. Steve knew there was plenty of fabric business to be had in New York, but Bob also had to call on any potential advertisers in Maine, Vermont or elsewhere in New England and New Jersey.
Ollie had the Midwest, and no one had California until I took on that territory. Actually, after I became ad director, I went anywhere we saw a chance to get business, and kept a lot of the California accounts.
This was a prosperous time for us because all the big fiber and fabric companies had co-op money available for their customers. The fiber producers, like DuPont, would give money to run ads that featured their fibers to the fabric mills and the fabric mills would allocate funds to their upholstery customers to run ads that featured their fabrics. It was not unusual for a fabric mill or an upholstery manufacturer to receive $100,000 or $200,000 to pay for their ad programs. So, we would sell big yearly contracts to all three advertisers: the fiber producers, the fabric mills and the upholstery manufacturers. We had competition from the other magazines for this advertising, of course, but we never really worried much about the competition. We just worried about our own growth and what we could do to offer more value.
Another thing I learned from Steve is how to write a business plan. Since I had never taken a business course in college, I had no idea what to do. So, Steve gave me another one of his Harvard MBA lessons. From then on, I would take the entire month of August every year to write the business plan for Furniture/Today. That was in addition to my regular sales work, of course. I would do a competitive analysis, analyze the marketplace, identify all the accounts we were going to target, and outline the strategy we would use to make the sale. It was like writing a masters thesis, and it was great learning experience.
Later, when I started helping manufacturers with their marketing programs, I would do a mini-version of a business plan for them. In those days, very few manufacturers had business or marketing degrees. Maybe they had a manufacturing degree or had grown up in the family business, but most weren't accustomed to working from a business plan. It was an added service that Furniture/Today could offer them.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like you were working 12 to 16 hour days.
CARROLL: I don’t know if I ever worked 16 hour days, unless it was during a Market, but I sure worked a lot of 12 hour days. It didn’t seem like hard work. It was fun. I never disliked going to work or dreading what I had to do. We were on a fast-growth track and people appreciated what we were doing for their company.
Another piece of advice Steve gave us, was that whenever we were on the road and had some time between appointments, we should visit a furniture retailer. See what’s on the floor. See what’s selling. Talk to them. He advised that it would pay off later because we would pick up some good talking points for when we were meeting with manufacturers. They were always interested in hearing what we had heard and observed out in the field.
It was always fun to go into a store. All I had to do was say, “I’m with Furniture/Today,” and I'd be treated like an honored guest. They'd say, “You’re our favorite publication. We love it. We can’t do without it.” You could spend as much time in the store as you wanted; they would show you the entire floor and give you a real feel for their business.
Most retailers were very gracious hosts. That’s how I met Martin Ploy, who’s now president of furniture importer AICO. Martin then was with RB, a major retailer in California. I didn’t know anyone there, but one day when I was in L.A. and had a couple hours between appointments, I visited one of their stores. I went to the front desk and asked if there was anyone there I could speak to. They sent out Martin Ploy. He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him, but he treated me as if I were visiting royalty. He was very gracious and made me feel very much at home. He explained their business to me, showed me the store and explained anything I wanted to know. We are still close friends today. I know now that Martin is gracious to everyone. He is one of the true gentlemen in the industry.
Ted Brosseau at J.P. Hogan gave me much the same advice as Steve. He said, “Always try to have lunch with someone in the industry. Just talk shop. See what you can learn from them.” I still do that, even though I’m retired. There’s hardly a week goes by that I don’t have lunch one or two days with somebody in the industry. Living in the High Point area, that's pretty easy to do.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us some of the most important things you learned about the furniture industry in those early years at Furniture/Today. In addition to Steve Pond, did you have other mentors?
CARROLL: Oh, there are many. I'll tell you about two people who gave me good advice — Paul Broyhill and Hans Klaussner.
Back in the '80s, I had what I thought was a great idea — to start an international version of F/T and call it Furniture/Today International. I thought we were ready to build a worldwide readership.
I asked Steve if he was interested. He said, “What do you think the start up will cost?” I said, “I don’t know, maybe $200,000.” I was just picking a figure out of the air. He said, “Alright, give me a business plan. If you can show that we can make money, I’ll back it.” I said, “What if we fail?” He said, “It’s my money. I won't fire you. If I approve, I’m in it with you.”
Before writing the business plan, I thought I'd better get some advice. I went to Paul Broyhill and asked him what he thought of the idea. His advice was dead-on. He said, “Joe, you can’t put out an international publication that comes out every two weeks like Furniture/Today and make money.” (This was before the publication went weekly in 1985).
Broyhill said, “The world is not interested in that type of frequency. Most companies will only advertise around markets. I see that your market issues are big and fat and filled with ads. Between markets they get pretty thin. You'd need to build your international issues around the big markets: Cologne in January, Manila and Singapore in March, Milan in September. You’re most likely to get the global advertisers to advertise for a specific market.”
That was common sense, and something I hadn't thought of. Then I talked with Hans Klaussner during a furniture market in Tokyo, where Klaussner Furniture was exhibiting. I ran into Hans, and he asked me to join him at his stand for a drink and a sandwich. We barely knew each other and I was in awe of being able to spend one-on-one time with the famous Hans Klaussner.
While we ate, I bounced the idea of an international furniture publication off him. He gave me an answer that effectively killed the idea. He said, “Joe, I don’t think it’s going to work. Because around the world, the furniture industry is very chauvinistic, much more interested in what’s going on in their own country than what’s going on in other countries. I live in a small town in Germany, about 20 miles from the French border, and I can tell you the retailers in my little town don't care a thing about what’s going on with the French retailers. The French retailers don’t care what the Spanish retailers are doing, and the Spanish don’t care what the German retailers are doing, and so on.”
He was right about that. When Furniture/Today did surveys of the kinds of stories our readers were interested in reading, we'd give them a list of 20 or 30 subjects to check off and international news always was way down on the list.
INTERVIEWER: Why was Furniture/Today able to grow so rapidly in those early years?
CARROLL: That’s an easy question to answer. Steve told me one of the things you learn in business school is, if you want to start a new company, ask yourself two questions. First, is there a need for the product you want to sell? It doesn't matter if you think it’s a great idea. It's whether the market really needs what you have to offer. Secondly, how much competition already exists in that particular field? Will you be going up against such powerful competitors that you haven’t got much of a chance to succeed?
When Steve worked for Home Furnishings Daily he recognized that the furniture industry really needed a business newspaper of its own. Besides HFD there were only four monthly magazines in the market. They were typical trade publications, with two or three “How To” feature stories about such things as how to dress your windows, how to pass on your business to your children, etc. The magazines provided no insightful, current business news or marketing information.
There was Home Furnishings Daily, which originally came out five days a week but had recently cut back to once a week. It covered the non-apparel categories that a typical department store would have — home textiles, major appliances, housewares, electronics and table top. Each issue would devote only a few pages to furniture and bedding, with little in-depth business news or analysis.
Steve and Bill Peterson saw clearly that the furniture industry needed a business newspaper on a more frequent basis than monthly. There was really nothing like it, so there was no significant competition. That was really the key to the success of Furniture/Today. The industry immediately took to it because it filled a need.
Then, in the early '80s, we installed the electronic newsroom, as we called it — reporters and editors started working on computers. In 1985, we went from publishing every two weeks to weekly. Because we had computers, including those little portable computers from Radio Shack that reporters could take with them to industry events, we could get news in the paper much faster than HFD. In effect, this gave us extra time during the week to gather news prior to our closing deadline.
I really saw a dramatic difference when that happened. We were probably running neck-and-neck with Home Furnishings Daily in terms of ad revenues. But when we began to run stories in Furniture/Today that didn’t appear until a week later in HFD, everybody noticed. Manufacturers would tell me, “Joe, I subscribe to both publications. But every time I get HFD, I am reading news I saw in Furniture/Today the week before.”
That pretty much ended the dynasty that Fairchild's Home Furnishings Daily had become before we came along. It’s amazing that they, a New York company, didn’t see the need for a business newspaper solely dedicated to the furniture industry, and they also missed the importance of how much moving from typewriters to computers could help them. It was Steve and Bill down in High Point who saw the need and seized the opportunity.
INTERVIEWER: It's almost as if the folks at Fairchild/HFD didn't take Furniture/Today seriously and never really fought back.
CARROLL: I’ll never know why. If someone in the early '80s had come up with a news magazine on glossy, slick paper with a lot of big color photographs, and had hired good business writers to provide serious news and business stories, they could have given us some serious competition. Furniture/Today was never a “pretty” publication to look at. We printed on high-quality newsprint, but weren't nearly as attractive as a more graphically sophisticated publication on slick stock would have been. No one has ever explained to me why the magazines didn’t think of doing that.
HFD did come out with a slick monthly magazine in the 1980's called Inside Furniture. It was followed by several variations of that format over the next few years. But, it was not a business magazine and did not have any real impact on the retail audience it was intended to reach.
Steve once told me that when he was developing the format for Furniture/Today he was partly inspired by Crain’s Business Journal. It was considered a news magazine (as opposed to a newspaper). He was very adamant in the early years in saying, “Furniture/Today is not a magazine. We are a newspaper.” We called ourselves “The Business Newspaper of the Furniture Industry.”
INTERVIEWER: How closely did you work with Bill Peterson, the founding editor of Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: As you know, we ran Furniture/Today like a real newspaper. Advertising was separate from editorial, so I would never have worked with Bill from an editorial point of view.
But I have two Bill Peterson stories I would like to tell. The first involves an upholstery manufacturer in Hickory called Fairfield Chair. This would have been around 1980. I would call on Harper Beall at Fairfield Chair every three or four months, trying to sell him advertising. Harper, very gentlemanly and very graciously, always declined.
One time, he said, “Joe, how long does it take a retailer to get upholstery if he places an order today?” I said, “It could take 10 to 12 weeks.” He said, “That’s right. Suppose I told you that you can place an order with me on certain items in my line and I can get them to you in 10 days or less? I'm going to offer a combination of three different frames with a choice of five different fabrics, and I’ll ship it in 10 days or less. I'm going to call it Quickship.” I said, “Wow, that's fantastic!”
As soon as I got out of his office, I ran to the nearest pay phone — we had no cell phones in those days — called Bill and told him the story. Even though I wasn't supposed to play reporter I said, “Bill, this ought to be front-page news!”
Remember, 1980 was the beginning of a recession. Bill said, “Hell, Carroll. When a guy tells you he can ship in 10 days or less, it means he hasn’t got enough damn business. When business gets good, I guarantee you he won’t be able to keep it up. Business is tough for everybody right now. That’s why he can say that.”
Bill always reminded me of Lou Grant in the old Mary Tyler Moore TV show, the grumpy old editor who has a heart of gold, but with a tough exterior that says I’ve seen everything, done everything, you can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. Bill was right in that particular instance, but a few years later Quickship programs really caught on, and retailers have come to expect fast delivery as the norm today.
My other Bill Peterson story involves travel. We occasionally used to travel together, either to foreign shows or to visit furniture factories. One year we went to what was then Yugoslavia. We started up north in Slovenia and went all the way down to Croatia. I think we visited five factories, mostly casual dining resources, in 10 days.
At dinner one evening, Bill said to me, “Carroll, I like traveling with you. I can be pretty grumpy at times, but you’re always cheerful. You always make me feel good.”
I took that as a compliment, because I enjoyed being with Bill. He was a true journalist. When we were in a foreign county, he’d let me take pictures while he was interviewing someone. It was something I would never be allowed to do in the States. Furniture/Today was run with the philosophy that sales and editorial should be separate.
INTERVIEWER: When did you become publisher of Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: It was in 1985, just after we had just gone weekly. Going to a weekly frequency was a scary decision at the time. Steve and I and the salespeople had long debates about whether we could sell enough advertising to justify going weekly. I credit Steve; it was his money and he took the risk. That year, our sales increased by a million dollars, simply because with greater frequency, manufacturers could advertise on whatever week they wanted to. This gave them more options. Looking back, it seems like a natural thing to do. But I remember how scary it was, because we could have lost a lot of money printing newspapers with just a few ads in them. But the industry liked it and it caught on quickly.
INTERVIEWER: Could you go into more detail about how you helped drive the growth of Furniture/Today in the early and middle years?
CARROLL: The key was that we worked as a team. We seriously tried to help a manufacturer uncover whatever his marketing problems were and try to solve them. The more people you work with, the more ideas you come up with. We could take an idea we had gleaned from one company and apply it to another. I called it 'cross pollination'. A company might feel like its marketing problems were unique, but you probably could find a dozen other companies with similar problems. The difference is what resources they had available and the execution of their marketing strategy.
We usually hired salespeople who had some business background. Here's another story. When I became publisher, Steve said, “You’ll be in charge of hiring the sales team. What criteria are you going to use?” I thought I was ready for that question and said, “Well, I’ve got four areas I’ll be evaluating when I interview candidates. I want someone who has some home furnishing experience, whether it be in furniture, carpet, lamps or accessories. Next, I'll look for business experience. Do they have an MBA? Do they have a college degree in business? Or have they worked in business for years? Then, I’ll look at sales. Have they ever sold at retail or manufacturing, or have they had any other kind of sales experience? Finally, advertising. Have they worked for an ad agency or a company that had to deal with an ad agency, so they’re at least familiar with advertising jargon? I’ll rank candidates in each of those categories, and I’ll be happy if we can find people who are strong in three out of four.”
After that eloquent speech, Steve said, “No, no, Carroll. You've got it all wrong. There are only two things you look for when you hire people. First, you look for intelligence, because bright people learn faster. None of what we do is rocket science. Any reasonably intelligent person can learn most jobs in a year to a year-and-a-half. I don’t think you’ll have trouble spotting who’s bright and who’s not. The second thing is the most difficult. You look for drive, for passion. Everyone talks a good game in an interview, and will tell you how good they are and so forth. You need to weed out the people who really do have a passion for what they’re doing, or have that innate drive to succeed, versus people who are just doing a job. I’m very good at spotting that quality. For example, I knew in a few minutes after meeting you that you were the type of person I needed.”
We hired a lot of salesmen who had MBAs from Wake Forest, Duke and Chapel Hill. I would visit the schools on their career day and do 30-minute interviews. Many of them asked, “Why would I want to come out of an expensive MBA program and go to work as an ad salesman?” I'd say, “Because the road to the top in any profession is generally through sales. It’s a way you can prove your worth. You either deliver or you don’t. It’s pretty clear. We will be training you to be a publisher. Steve plans to start other magazines, and he will need publishers. Publishing is a good career, and you could end up running your own business.”
We got a lot of our top salespeople that way. They were able to sit down with a manufacturer, analyze their business as if it was a case study and return with a marketing plan. Back at our office we'd hold one of the plans board meetings I've talked about, and our ad services department would come up with an ad campaign. For most clients, we became their ad agency.
It's still much the same today except, thanks to computers, it's a lot less expensive to produce an ad. In the pre-digital days, when we used film and color separations, it might cost as much as $4,000 to $5,000 to produce a single page ad. On the other hand, even though ads cost less to produce today, print advertising today is certainly not a growing media category, to say the least. The good news for the advertiser is that internet and social media have made it much easier to become a brand name. In my day, most manufacturers couldn’t afford to create their own brand because it would cost millions of dollars to advertise in national magazines and on television. The trade off, of course, is that the internet has made it more difficult for print media to survive. We can't charge as much for ads on our website as we used to for print advertising.
INTERVIEWER: What were the major reasons that some companies, even the larger ones, never agreed to advertise in Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: Usually, we would be meeting with the president or the V.P. of sales or the V.P. of marketing. Someone would say, “I just don’t believe in trade advertising.” My reply was, “Well, it’s not a religion. It’s not something to believe or disbelieve. Obviously, advertising exists and many people use it very successfully.”
Those companies that didn’t think they needed to advertise usually felt they knew their customers, the retailers, well enough that spending money on ads to reach them wasn't necessary. They'd rather meet with them in their store, or fly them to their factory, and work directly with them.
Someone who says they don’t believe in advertising usually means they haven’t experienced running an ad campaign that brought results. They haven’t been given an idea that excites them and makes them think it might bring in more business. The burden was on us, the ad salesmen, to come up with that idea. Most of the time, if you came up with a great idea you might suggest they try it for 90-120 days. If it brought in business they almost always became “believers” and regular advertisers. Of course, there were instances when the ad would bring in business and the advertiser would say now that everyone knows me and I've got the business I was hoping I can pull back on my advertising for a while. That's the nature of sales. You have to accept it philosophically and keep coming back to the advertiser with fresh ideas.
Ted Brosseau once told me a very important point that I could use to respond to those who did not “believe” that they needed to advertise. He said that the business world changes every five years. That is to say, there is a 20% turnover in personnel every year. If you don't believe it, ask yourself how many of your customers (buyers) whom you did business with 5 years ago are still in that same position today. When you advertise your product line or your company's services you are reaching not only today's customer but those who may become your customer years from now. In essence, you must always be building your reputation and attracting new customers.
I mentioned earlier the list of channels of distribution that I began developing in 1990. It started with 18 channels and now numbers 86. I started by asking our sales team, as well as our editorial and market research people, to think of all the channels of distribution that sold furniture. That's how I came up with the original list of 18.
I used that list as a sales tool. I would show it to a manufacturer and ask, “Would you consider selling to any of these channels you haven't thought about, like mail order catalogs or cruise ship lines?” One of the first manufacturers I showed the list of 18 channels to, looked at it and said, “I sell a channel that’s not even on your list. We do a lot of business with government PXs on military bases. It's a multi-million-dollar business for us.” I thanked him for the suggestion. That became the 19th channel.
Meanwhile, our circulation department, run by Tim McCullough, would buy lists of dealers in the non-furniture-store channels, and send them a free year’s subscription to Furniture/Today, so they would get familiar with our content. That way, our advertisers would constantly be reaching people their reps had never considered prospects.
A lot of people think the list of channels came about was because I loved market research. But, it was really developed as a sales tool. I simply wanted to show our advertisers and possible advertisers how much potential there was for new business. I'll have to admit, though, it's become a hobby and a passion. I'm curious to see how big the list will grow.
INTERVIEWER: The plans board meetings, the way you came up with a marketing plan based on a business’s needs, did that change in any significant way?
CARROLL: Yes, it did. After 20-something years of working with manufacturers, the salesmen couldn’t constantly come back with fresh ideas for the companies they’d called on for years. Much of this function has now fallen into the capable hands of the ad services department. It's a good relationship: the sales person provides the marketing input and then the ad services department provides the creative solution.
Today, the market isn't growing the way it was in the early and middle years of Furniture/Today. Of course, we have good relationships with all the major resources. Now that what we formerly called “manufacturers” have become for the most part importers, there are constantly new players coming in to the industry – mostly from Asia. The sales team still concentrates more on one-to-one relationships with companies they work with, trying to get very close to their customers to determine what their needs are and ways to help them.
The methods you use to build a business in its early years are not necessarily the ones you'll keep for a lifetime. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. It’s now much more a relationship business, servicing the accounts and providing them with ideas.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things we used to hear was that Furniture/Today salespeople always sold from the rate card. Explain what that means.
CARROLL: Selling from the rate card means that whatever rate is published on the card is what an advertiser pays. This applies to every advertiser, large or small. Nobody gets special deals. The rate card would, in effect, offer volume discounts. Let's say a single full-page color ad in Furniture/Today costs $10,000 on the rate card. If you run only one such ad, that's what you pay. But if you committed to advertise 12 times, the ad would cost $8,500 each time. The cost per ad would drop the more you advertised. It's pretty simple. You commit to whatever program meets your needs, and you don't get charged one penny less or one penny more.
Up until the mid to late 1990s, we were probably the only industry publication that adhered strictly to the rate card. We didn't deviate from the rate card because we didn’t have to. Furniture/Today had clearly become the number one publication, with a dominant market share. We felt like we had to be ready to walk away when a manufacturer wanted to negotiate a lower rate. That wasn't easy, because everybody in furniture knows it's a deal-making industry.
I once complained to Steve about an advertiser who was always demanding a deal. He said, “Put yourself in his shoes. Everyday, his customers, the retailers, are asking him for a deal. He’s got to do a deal or he's likely to lose their business. They'll go to somebody else who will cut a deal.” He was right, but I wanted to be able to look a manufacturer in the eye and tell him, “I guarantee that neither your competitor, nor anyone else will get a better price than you. We have one price for everyone.”
That changed in the late '90s as we headed into a recession and business got tough. You really had to start negotiating. We had to decide if the advertiser was going to do a significant amount of advertising that would justify giving him a little better price than on the rate card. Of course, he would then expect us to keep giving him a deal from that point on.
I retired from Furniture/Today three years ago, but I think it’s now pretty much up to the individual sales person to negotiate the price. That's pretty much what all other magazines have done for years, including the national consumer magazines. Furniture/Today was probably one of the longest holdouts. It has to survive to stay in business. We live in a deal world. I think everyone likes to feel they are getting a deal when they purchase something today.
INTERVIEWER: How much were you involved in the creation of the sister publications of Furniture/Today, the first of which was Home Textiles Today?
CARROLL: I pretty much focused on Furniture/Today, and had no role in the launch of Home Textiles Today, which was based in New York City. That was Steve's doing. While he was still working at HFD, he had visualized that his next publication after furniture would be in home textiles.
I had a small role in launching Home Accents Today, which initially was called Accessories Today, with Judith Cushman as editor. A few lamp and accessory companies advertised in Furniture/Today but most of these companies were small, with an annual volume in the $1 million to $3 million range. They read and loved Furniture/Today, but couldn't spend the kind of money it took to run ads, so we were leaving money on the table.
We decided to do what they teach you in business school — segment the market. For instance if you're Anheuser Busch you have a premium beer, a light beer, a dark beer and a low-priced beer. You try to create a separate brand identity for each. We created Accessories/Today, a separate publication just for accessories, that would be published monthly and would offer lower-priced ads than Furniture/Today. That way, we didn’t cheapen or hurt our main publication, and had created add-on business with a separate magazine that small companies could afford to advertise in. “Accessories” soon became an old-fashioned word, and “home accents” became the “in” word, so we changed the name of the publication. I think Judith was largely responsible for changing the name to Home Accents Today as well as planning its contents and direction. It was a very successful launch and it remains the leader in its field today.
I was indirectly involved in that because I was completely in favor of creating a separate magazine for accessories and helped initially with the ad sales. I had nothing to do with any of the other magazines currently in the Furniture/Today media group.
INTERVIEWER: How did you go about setting sales quotas, sales targets, or whatever you called them?
CARROLL: Steve invented a system he called account ranking. Four times a year – after the two High Point markets and after the regional market cycles of Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco – we would sequester the sales staff for five days. We would spend the week discussing every potential furniture advertiser in the United States and Canada. We would rank each account as an A, B, C or D. “A” meant the account easily could spend $100,000 or more on advertising. “B” meant they could spend $75,000 to $100,000, and so forth.
Then, we would assign each account a probability factor of 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. “1” meant there was a 90 to 100 percent probability they would do some advertising, “2” meant a 75% chance, and so on down the line. It took us five days to do this, since the entire sales team had to discuss every account. That meant the sales person responsible for a particular account had to review, and perhaps rethink, his strategy, because others might have some good suggestions that they would offer during our meeting. He may have forgotten about a prospect in his territory or was simply stymied for new ideas to bring to prospects he was unable to sell. During these meetings, in which Steve would always participate, we discussed virtually all potential advertisers. The list ran to more than 2,000. This broadened our industry knowledge and brought us closer together as a team.
Let me give you an example of account ranking. Take a company like Bernhardt, a good-sized high-end manufacturer that rarely advertised with us, maybe one ad at the April market and one at the October market. They would be considered an “A” account because Bernhardt easily could spend $100,000 or more. What’s the probability? About a 4, since the probability was 10 percent or less that they would spend $100,000. But with an A-4 ranking, we would project they would spend about $10,000 to $20,000 with us. This system worked because when applied to a large number of accounts and prospective advertisers, those you over projected were counter balanced by those you had under projected.
It was grueling going through a couple of thousand accounts, during 10- and 12-hour meetings that lasted for five days. But in doing this exercise, our projections were usually accurate within two percent. It was certainly worth the effort.
The account ranking system was quite effective. We used it until about 1990. Furniture/Today had been purchased by Cahners Publications in 1988. A few years later, they changed the rules of the game. They would tell us how much revenue they expected us to bring in. If we’d done $6 million in business that year, they might set the next year's target at $7 million. You now had to meet an arbitrary quota. If you didn't, there would be no bonuses.
Steve’s method was in effect zero-based budgeting. Every year you started fresh. You knew your market and you realistically projected what you thought you would do in the coming year. He believed over projecting and under projecting were equally bad. He told me, “Joe, your responsibility as a manager is to be as dead-accurate as you can be in your projections. I've got to run the business by your numbers. I've got to figure out the size of the payroll, how much equipment I can buy, how many people I can hire and how much rent I can pay, based on cash flow and how much money we've got coming in. So, I don’t want you to try to look like a hero by bringing in more business than you said you would. Nor do I want you to sandbag. I want an accurate projection.”
Our parent companies, first Cahners and later Reed Business Information, had never used systems like ours, and didn’t think it was a good idea. They felt that whatever you did one year, you should do more the next. We did not disagree with that philosophy. We simply believed that budget projections should be based on knowing your accounts, and knowing the state of the industry, not just an arbitrary number assigned to you by their accounting department. So, the account ranking era ended, but it had a good 12-year run.
INTERVIEWER: Did you seriously consider changing the sales structure so it was product-centered rather than territorial?
CARROLL: No, because a product category approach would have increased travel expenses. It had its merits but it was not cost efficient. If you had someone covering, say, bedding, you’d have to send them to Atlanta, Chicago, California, and all over the country. When you put sales people in a territory, it made them more versatile, since they had to become familiar with all the product categories within their territory.
INTERVIEWER: How much were you involved in the sale of Furniture/Today to Cahners in 1988?
CARROLL: When Steve decided it was time to sell his company, which was then called Communications/Today, he made a list of 10 publishing companies he thought might be interested in buying it. One-by-one, he would invite the companies to come to High Point to have dinner at his house. Steve, Bill Peterson and I would be there when they came down with their team. We interviewed them, and they interviewed us.
Steve was looking for a company that had values similar to Furniture/Today. He said, “The only reason I want to sell our company is to be able to use someone else's money to grow. Suppose I want to start a consumer shelter magazine, or some other publication related to home furnishings. To launch or acquire such a magazine could cost millions of dollars. I don’t want to spend our company money and potentially lose it all. I don't want to change our philosophy. We'll keep the same structure and autonomy, and I'll continue to run it. By selling to a large company, we can use their money for acquisitions and growth.”
As part of a large publishing company, we could also get better deals on buying newsprint, printing and other services because of the bigger volumes of business companies like Cahners could offer its vendors.
I can't remember all the companies Steve had on his list, but they included Hearst, Ziff Davis and McMillan And, of course, Cahners. That company was founded by Norman Cahners soon after World War II with a single trade publication called “The Palletizer.” It covered a niche industry - the wooden pallets that were used to ship munitions overseas during the war, and how civilian businesses could use that system to improve their own shipping. The magazine was a success, so Norman Cahners looked to expand. His strategy was to acquire the number one or number two trade publication in each industry, whether it was electronics or farming equipment or even cheese. Yes, there was actually a magazine called Cheese News.
By this time, Furniture/Today was clearly the top publication in the furniture industry, and we were very profitable. Cahners told us that they were so impressed by our success they would let us continue to run the business the way we thought best.
Steve totally made the decision to sell to Cahners. Bill and I gave him our impressions and thoughts following each dinner with the various management teams, but he made the final decision. Bill and I also thought Cahners was the best choice.
After the sale in 1988, things at Furniture/Today continued pretty much as they had been. Cahners left us alone and Steve continued to run the company. He stayed on for two years, then decided to leave in 1990. I think part of that, was due to his having gotten married and starting a family.
Cahners became part of an even bigger international publications company when it was acquired by Reed-Elsevier, which was based in London. Reed owned magazines all over the world, but particularly in Europe and the United States. Some were consumer magazines, but most were trade publications. In the United States, it had a division called Reed Business Information, which was based in Boston and later in New York City. The best-known Reed magazine in the U.S. was undoubtedly Variety, the entertainment industry newspaper. Variety had become stagnant and fallen on hard times, so Reed named Steve president of its newspaper division and charged him with turning Variety around. Which he did, replacing the entire sales team, bringing in a new editor-in-chief and increasing the salaries of the writers whom he felt were being underpaid.
As I said, Steve had higher ambitions. He wanted to run all of Reed's U.S. trade magazines, doing for them what he had done at Furniture/Today and Variety.
Steve told me when he left, “Well, Joe, just remember this: Make your numbers every year. Whatever it takes, make your numbers. Because as soon as you miss your budget, as with any large corporation, they’ll be all over you, telling you what to do and how to run your business.”
He was exactly right. One year, we missed the sales target by about $100,000 or so, a small amount relative to a multi-million-dollar budget. Sure enough, a corporate accountant came down and wanted to be part of everything we did, looking at our books and telling us how we could cut costs.
When Steve sold the company to Cahners he paid the board of directors and Bill Peterson bonuses, and everyone else in the company was put on a four-year earn-out plan to encourage them to stay. He left everyone in good shape financially. He netted a substantial amount from the sale, but he didn't just take the money and run.
INTERVIEWER: How did your job change after the company was sold?
CARROLL: I had always reported to Steve. Before he left, while he was focused on turning Variety around, he put Scott McIlhenny, who had been a salesman working for me, in charge of running Furniture/Today. His title was general manager.
Steve knew that what I really enjoyed doing was advertising and selling - being out on the road meeting with manufacturers and suppliers. He needed someone who enjoyed managing the business – watching the profit-and-loss numbers day by day, working with printers and other suppliers. So, he made the correct decision in making Scott the general manager. I technically reported to Scott, but was left pretty much to myself in managing sales.
When Scott moved on, George Hundley, another salesman for Furniture/Today, replaced him and I reported to George. Later, Kevin Castellani, who had been publisher of our sister publication Home Textiles Today, was brought down to run Furniture/Today. We knew one another from attending company meetings and enjoyed our relationship. Kevin had a great sense of humor and was quite entertaining at the meetings. He was, and is today, an excellent manger and salesman.
I always retained the title of publisher, but I was never a publisher in the sense that I ran the company. My job was to manage sales.
INTERVIEWER: Did your job change under the new corporate owners?
CARROLL: No, my job didn’t really change. In the later years, we were certainly more budget conscious than ever before. When you’re working for a big corporation that's publicly owned, like Reed, they're very much focused on reporting profits to shareholders. Whereas Steve could have taken the risk of launching an international publication, I doubt I would even have proposed such a move to Reed, because if it didn't work out, you'd likely lose your job or, at a minimum, your bonus. You try to play it safe. I think that’s true of all companies that are owned by big corporations
INTERVIEWER: How did you train the new salesmen you hired as the company grew?
CARROLL: I would go out on the road and work with them for a week or two after they joined Furniture/Today and then, I would help them whenever they felt they needed help with major accounts. I trained them the same way Ted Brosseau trained me at J.P. Hogan. As soon as we got back in the car after a sales call, we'd go over what the client said and what it meant, what the salesman had done right, what they could have done better I'd give them tips on how to sell, and how to get the client involved in what we called “shirt-sleeve marketing” sessions. This was another technique I brought to Furniture/Today from the ad agency. If a company was truly seeking marketing advice we would convene a meeting with the president, the V.P. of sales, the V.P. of marketing as well as their customer service person and one of their top reps. The Furniture/Today sales person and I would meet with them from 8:30 in the morning until noon. We would ask a series of questions about their company and their target customer. Then we'd get into blue-sky questions, such as, “If money were no object, what would you do for your company?” This encouraged them to think outside the box. It often made them realize that they could implement some of the ideas they thought of without spending an enormous amount of money. We'd conclude the session by setting some objectives, such as, “If you begin an advertising program with us, what results do you expect to have at the end of the year?”
I’m giving you the quick version. It takes about three to four hours to go through the entire process. What happens is that you get participation and buy-in, everyone has promised to give their undivided attention, with no telephone calls or other interruptions, for a full morning. They're willing to do that because they want us to help them with their business.
We would return in a few weeks with a business plan. Many of our salesmen were MBAs and were quite capable of writing a very comprehensive, 10 or even a 30-page, business plan. Ad services would create an ad campaign based on the strategy we had recommended in the plan. We were saying to the client that based on what you’ve told us, this is what we think you should do.
The marketing sessions we conducted with manufacturers, followed by the writing of a business plan, was another way of training the salesmen. We really taught them both one-on-one, as well as by working together as a team in the plans board sessions that I've talked about. After that, they could fairly quickly learn how to work directly with a client on their own. If it was a smaller manufacturer that might not need the full array of services we offered, they could do a mini-shirt-sleeve marketing session one-to-one in the client's office.
INTERVIEWER: Were you generally successful in hiring top-notch salespeople?
CARROLL: Joe Hogan, the president of J.P. Hogan, once told me that only one out of five salesmen he hired turned out to be great. That's probably about right. Of course, it depends on what you call great. There are only a few superstars in any field. I would say we had a very good batting average, but we definitely hired some who were complete mistakes. Steve always made the final decision on hiring anyone. Since he'd told me how good a judge of character he was, and how he knew how to hire the right people, I'd kid him when it became apparent we'd made a mistake. I would remind him that sometimes we are all less than perfect.
Probably the most difficult part of any manager's job is interviewing, hiring and managing. Graduate schools prepare students these days for job interviews, so they know the right things to say. You really don’t know until you see them on the job what their work ethic is, and whether they will have a passion for the business.
I don't think all of the salesmen we hired were particularly passionate about furniture. Some were more interested in selling and making money. They were lucky in the sense that they sold for the best publication in the industry, with a built-in audience. They didn’t have to really convince people that Furniture/Today was a worthy place to advertise.
I would hear some of them moaning and groaning about having to take a tour of a furniture factory before their customer would sit down with them to discuss advertising. That told me they really had no real interest in how furniture was made. I found factory tours fascinating. I love to see how furniture is made. I still like to go to overseas furniture markets and visit factories. I love to go through a showroom. I love the product itself. But for some sales people, this is just a means to an end.
INTERVIEWER: Were there key questions you asked prospective salespeople to determine if they had the intelligence, work ethic and drive you wanted?
CARROLL: One way was to always ask them about their families: Tell me about your mother and father. If they replied, “Well, mom was a housewife. Dad worked for the railroad,” that wasn't our type of person. If they said, “Mom was a housewife. In college, she was an English major. She was crazy about Jane Austin. She was always coming up with off-the-wall ideas. She would have liked to have been a teacher but she had me and my brother and sister to raise.” Then, you had a real salesman on your hands. First, you need to find out if they're sincerely interested in people. One way to do this is to get them to talk about their family. If they provide extra details and insights into the personalities of their mother and father or their siblings, you have a reasonably good idea they are interested in people in general and will be successful in sales.
If they came from a sales background, I'd ask, “What’s the best sale you’ve ever made?” It really doesn’t make any difference what they say. You want to see if their eyes light up and they get excited telling you about it. That’s a clue they really like to sell.
When George Hundley was general manager, his criteria was, “Do they light up a room?” He said some people you interview are so nondescript you forget them five minutes after they walk out the door. Others have such charisma that you really want to spend more time with them. We called that a “light-up-the-room” person.
Everyone’s got a different interviewing technique. Lots of books have been written on the subject. Several times we hired trainers to teach us interviewing skills. But I never found that there was any one right way to do it. More and more, I came to rely on gut feeling. Not very scientific but I think I got good results.
INTERVIEWER: Did it become a requirement that salespeople have MBAs?
CARROLL: No. After we'd hired 14 MBAs over the years, I made a list of them and checked off the ones I would call good, successful salesmen. There were eight. Still, that was better than Joe Hogan's 1 out of 5 average.
Some of our most successful salesmen had college degrees but no business experience. They were successful because they were “people people”. They serviced their accounts to death. They would do anything they could for the client. I learned that you can be successful without a fancy education if you're really service-oriented and people-oriented.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your own management style?
CARROLL: Pretty poor, I would say.
INTERVIEWER: That’s not an acceptable answer!
CARROLL: Well, I never really thought, and I still don’t think, that I was a great manager. Maybe that's because I’m an only child. I am used to working alone. When I was a college teacher in my 20s it was a totally different era. You were supposed to tell students what they should know and do. You lectured. I must have done that pretty well because I was popular with students and they always gave me good reviews. Even as a teacher, I was more interested in leading by example. I wanted the students to see that I knew the subject matter, and could communicate it to them in an interesting manner. I wanted them to find the same joy of learning that I had.
It was the same way with sales. I always tried to lead by example. I would work as hard as or even harder than any of the salesmen, and never ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I would carry around boxes of newspapers to distribute at markets, that kind of stuff. I know now there’s more to management than leading by example. There are so many techniques you can use to motivate and encourage people.
If I were to go back and start over again, I’d be a totally different manager, and I hope a much better manager. I would get more input from the salesmen themselves, rather than telling them what to do. I'd help them figure things out for themselves, get them more actively involved in coming up with ideas and solutions.
INTERVIEWER: I know Furniture/Today was always a lean organization, and everybody worked hard, so perhaps you didn't have much time to spend mentoring individual salespeople.
CARROLL: I certainly know how important mentoring is. All through my life, every success I’ve had, from high school to college to my teaching jobs to my work at J.P. Hogan and Furniture/Today, has always been because I had a mentor.
When a salesman would come to work for us, I’d tell them how Ted Brosseau became my mentor at Hogan, by asking me if I wanted to be his student. I'd tell the salesman, “If you’d like a mentor, I'll be glad to do it. I’ll be glad to help you all I can. All you have to do is come to me, and I’ll help you avoid some of the pitfalls and dumb mistakes that I've made over the years.” Of course, they all said, “Thank you! That's terrific!”
Most of them, however, never asked for help. Only a few salesmen took me up on my offer to mentor them, yet many still turned out to be very successful. Why would you not let someone who’s older and more experienced give you some tips? I guess its ego – they wanted to succeed on their own. Or maybe they thought that times had changed, so the way Joe did it might have been good in his day, but not in today's world, so I've got to do it differently. In effect, it's kind of like allowing your children to make their own mistakes.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Steve as a mentor?
CARROLL: Steve believed in management by walking around. As I've mentioned, Steve did hardly any written work. He was either on the phone or walking around the office talking to everybody. He'd stand beside your desk and ask, “What are you up to this week? What’s going on?” To the salesmen, his favorite question was, “Who have you sold today?” That became almost a joke around the office, but I think it did motivate the sales people. It prodded them to have an answer ready when he came around.
Steve ran the business very much hands on and he kept a close watch on the numbers. As I mentioned earlier, he didn’t suffer fools lightly, and only went out on sales calls when it was for a major account or someone who needed his business advice. He was respected by manufacturers, and retailers too, because he was so good at analyzing their business. A lot of industry people thought the world of Steve.
He was all business. During all the many times we traveled together, the countless lunches and dinners we had together, there was little small talk. Today, he and I still get together a few times a year for lunch. There’s very little chit-chat about personal things. I can ask him personal questions and he’ll give me a quick answer, then it's back to business. He’s always thinking about business. He’s still very much involved with his investments. I talked to him a little over a week ago. He had been in London for three days on some business project. Then, he was going to Switzerland. Business is his life. He loves it.
INTERVIEWER: What were the main things you learned from Steve?
CARROLL: First, the account ranking system – how to analyze and rank your accounts when you’re trying to make budget projections. Also, he taught me how to write a business plan. Then, I learned his way of intelligently analyzing a company. Steve had a way of going in and analyzing a company in such a way that it focused on their strengths, and showed them that you understood their business and wanted to help them. He didn't just tell them all the things they were doing wrong.
Remember, he came from the publishing business. He had spent four years with Fairchild Publications, working his way up from editorial planning assistant, promotions, circulation and advertsising before eventually becoming associate publisher, and then leaving to launch Furniture/Today. He already knew most of the major players in the furniture industry. He'd learned a lot from experience, and I and the rest of the company benefitted from that. It brought out the teacher in me. What I learned from Steve, I wanted to pass along.
INTERVIEWER: What did you learn from his way of dealing with people?
CARROLL: Pretty much what I've already mentioned. When dealing with people in the office, it is important to go around and take a personal interest in what each of them is doing. Getting a feel on a regular basis for what’s on your employee’s minds.
In a sales situation, Steve taught me to impress the client with your ability to understand his business and offer him suggestions. Demonstrating that you could help him with his advertising and marketing strategy – that you were not just there to ask him to spend money with you.
INTERVIEWER: How did your role change after Steve left the company?
CARROLL: As I've said, it didn’t really change a whole lot. I was always really the number two man. Even in the glory days of Furniture/Today, I was more of a co-captain with Bill Peterson. Bill ran the editorial department, I ran the sales department, and Steve was over the entire company. Furniture/Today really hasn’t changed too much in that sense. Editorial and sales both report to an overall manager.
INTERVIEWER: Did you consider yourself more of an outside man, as the face of the company to the outside world?
CARROLL: Yes. I always liked representing Furniture/Today. I did a lot of traveling and meeting with clients and speaking to industry groups and associations. I enjoyed the preparation of the presentations as much as the speaking itself. I'm still a teacher at heart. I also enjoy travelling to markets both in the U.S. and in other countries.
I belonged to a European organization called UIPPA, the International Union of Professional Furniture Magazines. Its members represented all the European furniture publications. I was the only American member. I was admitted to the organization because they conducted their meetings in French and I spoke French. We would hold our annual meetings during one of the markets in Cologne, Paris or Milan.
After attending these meetings for several years, it seemed to me that about the only thing we did was talk about the brochure we were going to publish for the next year. The brochure listed all the member publications, their circulation and their advertising rates. It was basically just a club for editors and publishers. We really weren’t accomplishing anything of importance.
About 16 years ago, when I was attending the Cologne market, it occurred to me that there was no international organization for furniture trade publications. I got to thinking what you might accomplish if you could get furniture publications all over the world to join such an organization. A trade publication has tremendous authority and influence in its industry, probably more than many of us realize, by what we say and what we cover, particularly if you're the leading publication. I decided to talk with publishers of the leading furniture publications in several countries about the idea. Many of them were attending the Cologne market. The idea of inviting only the leading magazine from each country to join our organization was that there would be no direct competitors. This would make it easier to speak openly and share ideas.
The upshot was that I and publishers from Germany, Australia and Japan formed an organization called the International Alliance of Furnishings Publications (IAFP). It has now grown to 20 magazines. Almost every country in the world with a furniture publication is now a member. It meets every year at different trade shows around the world. The members have jointly taken on several editorial projects. This year, they’re sharing ideas on the green movement and sustainable wood sources. We also have a website where anyone can read the top stories from other countries. I feel that helping found that world organization was a major accomplishment.
INTERVIEWER: There's now a publication called Furniture Today China. Were you involved in its creation?
CARROLL: No. Reed decided to open an office in Beijing and create Chinese versions of some of its brand-name business publications, like Furniture/Today, which they thought could be successful in China. It's published by an all-Chinese staff. After I retired, I was approached by the editor of Furniture/Today China about writing a column. I accepted and have been writing a monthly column for three years. They mail me two complimentary copies of each issue every month. The format is very similar to Furniture/Today. I can't read Chinese but I enjoy looking at the product photography. I've been told the Chinese-language version has been very successful.
INTERVIEWER: How did your retirement from Furniture/Today come about?
CARROLL: For one thing, I was approaching 71. I had never really given much thought to when I would retire. I realized however that someone else should have the opportunity to become publisher.
Secondly, Furniture/Today was being sold for the third time. First, we’d been sold to Cahners, which was then sold to Reed Business Information. Then Reed decided to sell off its U.S. business publications. They sold us to a Florida-based company called Sandow Media. With new ownership coming in, I thought it was the perfect time to retire. I had a good retirement package, and I felt the stars had all aligned for me to step down and let new people take over. And, I was curious to see what retirement would be like.
INTERVIEWER: When did you retire?
CARROLL: In April of 2010.
INTERVIEWER: Have you done anything in the industry since then?
CARROLL: Yes. I’ve continued to speak at various industry events, although not as much as before. As I've said, I’m writing a monthly column for Furniture/Today China. Also, I'm writing a column each month for Michael Knell's online publication called Home Goods Online. Michael is Furniture/Today's long-time Canadian editor. I'm also writing for Singapore’s Furniture and Furnishings Export Magazine, and for an online publication out of China called World Furnishings Times Online. That satisfies my writing urge. I don’t have more than about one good column a month in me. But it’s fun, and a good Sunday afternoon’s pastime. Like most columnists, sometimes when a deadline is coming I don't have a clue as to what I'm going to write about. Under pressure at the last moment, an idea comes and I start writing.
Of course, many of my friends are in the industry, and we get together regularly for lunch or dinner. I still do volunteer work through the Furnitureland Rotary Club in High Point and at High Point University. Both are furniture related, so I’ll probably never get away from the furniture industry entirely. I've also attended the High Point, Las Vegas and Shanghai markets since I’ve retired.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about your civic and social involvement, both during your career and since retirement.
CARROLL: I am still involved with the American Furniture Hall of Fame Foundation. I was president in 2003-2004. I now chair the Legacy committee which is responsible for conducting oral interviews with people who have been elected to the Hall of Fame, or who were significant industry leaders. I believe very strongly in preserving the history of our industry.
I was also president for almost 12 years of an organization in Greensboro called the Piedmont Council for International Visitors. When foreign business people tour the United States under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, they typically send them to three different cities to visit companies who are in the same business. They could be, say, auto parts makers who’d like to visit U.S. factories that make auto parts, high-level civil servants who want to study our municipal form of government or teachers wanting to observe our educational process. Our job was to set them up with three days of appointments with like-minded individuals or companies, and to host them for dinner in our homes. It was a great opportunity for one-to-one diplomacy. We arranged for them to meet with Americans on an informal basis. I met many interesting people from all over the world.
I was also president of The String & Splinter, which is High Point’s city club for business people. I got involved in financing, membership and marketing. 2012 was the best year we had experienced since 2008. We had a healthy increase in membership, and for the first time, we finished in the black, actually making a small profit. I really can’t take much credit. Barbara Garry is an outstanding club manager and we had a very talented board of directors. We all worked well together.
My major activity now is chairing the Home Furnishings Advisory Committee at High Point University, a group of about 20 people, including furniture retailers and manufacturers. We advise the home furnishings marketing and interior design school faculty at the university. We keep them updated on what kinds of skills are needed by the industry, and where the job opportunities are going to be, so they can make sure the curriculum is designed to prepare students for jobs after they graduate.
Our project this year is to create a national internship program, so that our home furnishings marketing and interior design students will be able to get a summer job with a furniture retailer or manufacturer. They will either work in their own hometown or the city of their choice. They'll earn a little money, and have the opportunity to decide if a career in home furnishings is right for them. This will also give employers a chance to decide if they might want to hire them after they graduate.
We’ve been saying as long as I can remember that we need to bring more young people into the furniture industry. I don't think many high school students wake up in the morning thinking that they want to study furniture when they go to college. High Point University used to send brochures to high school guidance counselors all over the country, but we found that wasn't nearly as effective as either word of mouth or, particularly now, our website. Students these days seem to research everything online, including what college they'll attend. It's a real drawing card for them to know that H.P.U. is located in the furniture capital of the world, with opportunities for them to visit showrooms or even work at the markets twice a year.
We interviewed a lot of H.P.U. home furnishings majors, and learned that it was indeed the furniture market that had attracted them to attend the university. They'd heard the Market was an amazing experience, and they wanted to see it first hand. They were not disappointed. We realized the furniture market is one of our strongest attractions.
Thanks to the generosity of Larry Moh, the founder of Universal Furniture, and his family, we are now able to offer eight scholarships a year to the college of their choice to students majoring in home furnishings marketing and interior design. High Point University is a regular recipient of the Moh scholarships which cover full tuition, room and board.
We would like to encourage more students to choose a career in home furnishings. H.P.U. has almost 2,500 business majors. We believe they could be attracted to our industry if we make them more aware of the varied opportunities our industry has to offer. We plan to do this by holding seminars on campus, through our website and by word of mouth, particularly through their business school advisers. I hope the internship program will round out our efforts to recruit young people. I think we’re finally, thanks in a large part to the internet, at the stage where we actually will be able to attract more students to the industry.
In the early days, many students who majored in the home furnishings marketing program at H.P.U. were the sons and daughters of furniture families in Virginia and North Carolina. Some sent their kids to North Carolina State University in Raleigh to study manufacturing. Unfortunately, the furniture manufacturing program at N.C. State has been discontinued. Maybe H.P.U. can fill this void by offering majors in fields such as transportation and logistics – where jobs in our industry are much more likely to be available.
INTERVIEWER: Let's get your take on some of the developments in the industry over the course of your career. You mentioned attending furniture markets in Chicago and High Point starting in 1970 while you were still with J.P. Hogan. What changes have you observed since then?
CARROLL: As I told you, I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew when I came to work for Furniture/Today. It takes a while to understand what really goes on at a market. Two thoughts come to mind. One is that the number of markets, at least in the United States, has declined over the years. The other is that the way manufacturers rate a market, the measure by which they determine whether or not it is a success, has changed.
When I came to Furniture/Today, there were three important regional markets. They were held on successive weekends, in both January and July — Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco. The manufacturers that showed at all of them, and some of the bigger factories did, have to rush from one market to the next, and were away from home almost the entire month. Most would have to make three sets of samples to have their showrooms ready for the market.
The big market, of course, took place in High Point in April and October, as it still is today. But back then, there were also a lot of regional furniture markets. Minneapolis had a market. So did Los Angeles, Kansas City, Seattle and New York. Larry Karel held a series of small, regional markets around the country. Chicago had pretty much died out by the '80s, but later the Tupelo, Mississippi market came on strong, especially for promotional upholstery.
In the early days, we went to most of these markets and distributed copies of Furniture/Today. We wanted to have a presence everywhere in order to build our brand. We tried to be everywhere - even at shows where our competitors had chosen not to attend. This meant we weren't home much either in January and July.
Now, the San Francisco market is gone. Atlanta is more of a gift and accessories market, although it seems to be making a slight comeback in furniture. Dallas was growing rapidly in the early '80s, and there was even talk about it taking the national market away from High Point. But the combination of new management and a weak economy caused the Dallas Market to decline in less than a decade. It's still there, but like Atlanta, it's mainly gifts, lighting and accessories, with a little bit of furniture.
Tupelo turned out to be a fairly successful market, although it's now smaller than it used to be. It found its niche in promotional furniture and in attracting the small dealer.
The Las Vegas market replaced San Francisco as the western regional market and soon took on national status as a serious competitor to High Point – attracting buyers from Western Canada, the west coast of the U.S. on down through Mexico and South America.
The other major change in markets, at least from a sales and marketing point of view, is how manufacturers measure them. When I first joined Furniture/Today, I would go into a showroom and ask the V.P. of sales — the person I usually dealt with — “So, how is your market going?” He’d reach inside his breast pocket and pull out a piece of paper that had a lot of numbers. He'd say something like, “Well, let’s see. We've had 325 buyers come through our showroom. That compares with 302 people we had seen by this time last year. So traffic is up. I'd say we are having a pretty good market.” That was the point of comparison they always gave me — the number of bodies that came through their showroom.
As we got into the mid-to-late '80s, we were beginning to see a decline in the number of stores and thus fewer buyers coming to market. I would ask the same question. Instead of pulling out his paper and telling me about the traffic — because now the traffic really wasn’t anything to rave about — he would say, “Well, this year we've written $702,000 worth of business. That compares with $650,000 we wrote this time last year. So business is slightly up.” In other words, they started measuring the success of each market in terms of dollars of business written. They'd point out that it’s not really important how many people come into the showroom at a market. What’s important is how much business you write.
When we got into the '90s and I asked for his evaluation of the market, he wouldn’t even pull out a piece of paper. He would say, “Well, you know Joe, markets have changed. It’s really not how many warm bodies you get in the showroom. And you really don’t write that much business anymore because most everybody is a 'be back.' They tell you, 'We’ll let you know within a couple of weeks after market, because we've still got some other manufacturers to check out. We can’t make a commitment right now. But you’ll know in the next 30 days.' So I'd say we’ve had a good market because we’ve seen all the right people.” Then, they'd start name dropping, and tell you they'd seen Nebraska Furniture Mart, Haverty’s and so on — those retailers who apparently were the 'right people'.
That's the way markets seem to have evolved these days — just making sure the right people come in. In truth, business is being done 365 days a year. The manufacturers don’t have to wait until a market for a buyer to come in, and then try to sell him. They’re out on the road talking to all their major accounts throughout the year. They're asking their key dealers, “What can we make for you? What products do you need? What price point are you trying to hit?” If it’s a large enough order, they’re willing to give the retailer specifically what he needs. There’s a lot of private-labeling going on. A lot of manufacturers don’t put their names inside a drawer like they used to, because the retailer wants to have his own furniture, his own brand.
INTERVIEWER: What did the launching of the Las Vegas market mean to Furniture/Today on the sales side? On the editorial side, of course, it was great because it offered a lot to write about.
CARROLL: For sales, it was a great boost for us financially — another chance to sell advertising. Paul Broyhill was right when he told me that manufacturers get 'market fever' and want to advertise. We had lost the business linked to the Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco markets, so Las Vegas was a shot in the arm. We didn’t make up for all the advertising we had lost with the demise of those regional markets, but the Vegas markets, coming at the end of January and July, provided much needed ad revenue in what were normally slow months.
I thought it was ironic that some industry people, as well as non-furniture people outside the industry, seemed to believe that Las Vegas would put High Point out of business. I never thought it would. The two markets were like night and day. One wasn't better than the other; they were simply different. Today, statistics show that about 30 percent of the buyers who go to High Point also go to Vegas. This means that buyers from the major chains, the major stores, go to both markets. They’re professionals. They go anywhere they can see the latest product and try to get a jump on the competition.
What exhibitors in Las Vegas tell me they like about the market is that they get to see a lot of buyers who never come to High Point. They are generally smaller dealers, who don’t place large orders, but they tend to be very loyal. Once they find a supplier they like and whose product sells, they come every year and place orders. In contrast, High Point attracts the big hitters who place multi-million-dollar orders, so the two markets really complement one another.
About a year ago, the owners of the International Market Center in Las Vegas acquired most of the big exhibition buildings in downtown High Point, including the International Home Furnishings Center. I think it was a smart decision. It brings the two markets together, and ends talk about competition, which, in my opinion, was overrated. I guess it gave people in the industry something to talk about. The idea that the two markets had to be antagonists was mostly false. Now the two are really one big market, and that’s the way it should be. I believe a smart manufacturer would show at both, because he gets more business either way, business he otherwise wouldn't have had.
INTERVIEWER: You've attended lots of foreign markets. What's your view on their role, and has it changed over the years?
CARROLL: When I started going to the markets overseas in the early '80s, the Cologne, Germany and Milan, Italy markets were big. Cologne was held in January and Milan in September. Some said they were bigger than High Point. They both were held on gigantic fairgrounds, so it was hard to tell if you were comparing apples to apples. Both Cologne and Milan would generate tremendous attendance numbers, because on certain days they were open to the public. I believe High Point had more exhibitors. It was hard to compare them to High Point, which was to-the-trade only. In any case, everyone seemed to agree that the big three markets worldwide were High Point, Cologne and Milan.
Milan was perceived as an innovator in fashion and design. Fashion and color trends originated in Milan. It attracted buyers from big department stores like Bloomingdale's. For them, it was kind of a pre-market to High Point in October. Buyers had an opportunity to see product that later would be shown in High Point. Some placed orders in Milan; others waited until the High Point market to review the changes or modifications they had requested.
Cologne attracted not only German retailers, but buyers from countries all over the world. In the '90s, they really went after the Middle East buyers. In the early years when I went to Cologne, I saw a lot of white-painted furniture. I was told that the Arab and Middle Eastern buyers loved white furniture. The last time I went to Cologne, about four years ago, I didn’t see much white furniture. A German manufacturer told me, “We lost the Middle Eastern buyers. They now go to Shanghai, Singapore or to other shows in China and Southeast Asia to buy furniture. We've replaced them with the Russians. The Russians are the 'new Arabs'. They come in with suitcases loaded with rubles desperately in need of European-style furniture.” Russia doesn’t have a strong furniture manufacturing industry.
Of course, there were furniture markets to attend all over Europe. I traveled to Paris, England, Denmark and Spain, but Cologne and Milan were the biggies.
In the Philippines, the major market used to be held in Manila. Then a small market opened on the island of Cebu, about an hour’s plane ride away. A lot of furniture was made in that area, largely as a cottage industry. There were only a few large factories. Filipinos are very talented artists. They are skilled at making occasional and accent pieces that blend glass, metal, bamboo, wood, rattan, wicker, egg shells and even seaweed and seashells — referred to as 'mixed-media' — with excellent finishes. Our industry is full of copycats imitating someone else's successful designs but you don’t see that at Cebu. They all know one another on the island, and would not dare copy someone else. So you see many unusual, unique pieces with lots of craftsmanship and hand work.
I was a judge for three years of the best booth competition at Cebu, so I would get to see all the furniture on display at the show. I was very impressed by the talent and originality of the Filipino manufacturers. I haven’t been to Cebu in three years now. I understand the market has shifted back to Manila, with the manufacturers from Cebu participating in what is now one big national show.
Of course, the biggest change has taken place in China, where so much of the furniture sold in the United States is now made. Only a few of our major retailers or manufacturers used to go to a market in China. Now, China has four big shows, in Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen and Shanghai. Shanghai is probably the most important, although each market has developed its own niche. China has certainly become a major marketplace for global business.
Singapore still has a strong show. It appeals to U.S. and European buyers looking for European-style contemporary furniture. Singapore has found its niche. It’s not trying to compete with China. Another market in Southeast Asia that gets its share of U.S. and European buyers is held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
China is currently undergoing a lot of change. Labor costs are rising, thus pushing prices up and lowering profit margins. Chinese manufacturers complain that American importers can give them a lot of business in terms of volume but they can't make much profit. They can make larger profit margins selling to European buyers, but they don't do as much volume. Due to increased labor costs in China, we are seeing some American importers moving their manufacturing resources, to Vietnam, in particular, but also to Indonesia and Malaysia, always looking for the lowest price. Meanwhile, a lot of Chinese factories are looking at the potential of their own domestic market. China has a population of 1.2 billion, and about 360 million people are now considered middle class and capable of buying furniture for their homes. That’s a market that is bigger than the population of the United States.
I went to the furniture market in Curitiba, Brazil two years ago. It was stronger in upholstery than in case goods. At the time, Brazilian manufacturers weren't interested in exporting, even to the United States, because Brazil's economy was growing so quickly, and their domestic market was so large, that they had their hands full meeting the demands of their own people. I think as soon as they've satisfied domestic demand, they'll pursue exports. They see that many South American buyers are going to Las Vegas, and I believe they’ll try to get a piece of that business themselves.
INTERVIEWER: Does it make sense anymore to call High Point the furniture market capital of the world?
CARROLL: I really believe it's still the biggest market in the world in terms of the number of exhibitors, close to 1,900, and in terms of the amount of business written at market. It draws exhibitors from 110 foreign countries, and buyers from nearly the same number of countries. No matter how you measure the importance of a market, I believe High Point is unique. If you’re in the furniture business and you’re serious about it, you have to go to High Point.
What I’m not sure of is, does an American buyer still have to go to Cologne or Milan? It really depends on what kind of furniture you make or are looking to buy. In Paris, for instance, there's a relatively new and fast-growing show called Maison et Objet specializing in high-end, design-oriented contemporary furniture. I understand it's more popular now than the older and more traditional-style furniture show, Le Salon du Meuble. So if you're into high-end design you'd want to go to Maison et Objet.
The furniture markets are doing the same thing any other business would do today. They’re all trying to find a niche. You can’t sell everybody these days, so what type of customer can you best serve?
INTERVIEWER: Here's a very broad question: What are the major changes you've seen in the furniture industry during your career?
CARROLL: It would take volumes to cover all the many changes, so I'll give you a few general, quickie answers.
In manufacturing, the major change of course has been the shift from domestic to Asian factories. I doubt anyone would seriously question that assessment. Also, consolidation has been an interesting phenomenon. We have witnessed the rise and fall of many conglomerates – from Masco, Mohasco, Interco, LADD, Lineage and LifeStyle Furnishings International, to today's Furniture Brands International and La-Z-Boy. The synergies the conglomerates predicted would occur from the manufacturers they acquired never seemed to materialize.
In retailing, the major changes have been the big retailers getting bigger, taking a bigger share of the market, and the growth of stores dedicated to one manufacturer's furniture. Many of the major retailers that dominated the business earlier in my career are no longer with us. Levitz and Heilig-Meyers are good examples of top furniture retailers that are now gone. Some of their stores were acquired by other retailers, so consolidation has been a factor in retailing too. Many small independents, the so-called mom-and-pops, have simply disappeared. There are far fewer furniture stores now than when I came to Furniture/Today in 1977.
Dedicated stores aren't new. Ethan Allen is the forerunner of the vertically integrated company, with its own factories, making furniture sold in its own stores. Later, we saw the rise of La-Z-Boy stores, Thomasville stores and other, smaller specialty stores. Some of the stores were franchises, others were owned by the manufacturer. In recent years, we've witnessed the Ashley phenomenon. This is the amazing story of a manufacturer that got its start in a small Wisconsin town and eventually became the number one U.S. furniture manufacturer and retailer. At first they began opening stores called Ashley Furniture HomeStores. Most were franchises, some were owned and operated by retailers who also owned other successful furniture stores. This worked out very well and today Ashley is both the biggest U.S. furniture manufacturer/importer and, with its HomeStores, the number one furniture retailer. That's quite an accomplishment.
The other major change I’ve seen, which I’ve already talked about, is the increase in channels of distribution for furniture, from 18 in 1990 to 86 in 2013. That’s a tremendous increase. The total dollar sales of furniture sold in recent years hasn't increased very much, in part because of the recession, in part because in many instances, imports brought down prices. What that means is that the pie is not getting much bigger, but the slices — the channels of distribution — are getting smaller. No one is getting as big a piece of the business as they used to get because there are so many ways that furniture is being sold. You can buy furniture in supermarkets, drug stores, online, from catalogs and so on. It's no wonder a lot of furniture stores have gone under.
Of course, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot over the years by selling furniture at big discounts, constantly on sale, instead of trying to take a good product that the public wants and actually charge them enough so companies can make a profit.
I once heard a speaker at a conference say, “One of these days, when our crazy industry has searched the ends of the world to find where we can make furniture the cheapest, we'll discover this little village in Africa that can make furniture cheaper than anybody else in the whole world. Who will then become the world leaders? It'll be the manufacturer with the best quality, design and fastest delivery. As competition gets tougher and tougher, customers will not settle for inferior quality. Then, assuming the quality of the product is excellent, the only way for a manufacturer to differentiate itself from a competitor is to have great design. He will have to offer both the best quality and design.”
The other factor will revolve around the companies that can get the product to the customer the fastest. Instant gratification is very important these days. It sounds simplistic to say that best quality, design and the fastest delivery is the winning combination, but it's what the industry has been striving to achieve during my entire career, and it's still hard to find a company that can consistently match up to these standards.
I credit Ashley Furniture for being a leader in fast delivery. Its president, Ron Wanek, is one of the true visionaries in our industry. I was sitting in Ron's office in Arcadia, Wisconsin, in 1988, looking out his window. There was a giant paved area below us where I saw hundreds of big, black trailers with the Ashley logo on the side. I asked Ron in a kidding way, “Are you starting a trucking company? This looks like a big parking lot for a trucking company.”
He said, “Well, in a way I am. I plan to have 500 tractors, a thousand trailers and seven distribution centers across the United States in the next few years. My goal is to be able to ship a dealer 85 percent of my line in 10 days or less. If I can do that, I’ll get his business. By the way, do you know how many stock turns the average retailer gets?”
I had seen a recent report from the National Home Furnishings Association and said, “I believe the average retailer gets 2.4 stock turns a year.” He said, “That’s about right. I’m saying that if I can replenish a dealer’s stock in 10 days or less, he’ll get nine to 11 turns a year, and make a lot more money.”
A few months later, I was at a convention of the National Home Furnishings Association in Tucson, and went by to meet Sam Levitz at his store. I noticed Ashley furniture on the floor, and asked him, “Ashley tells me it’s trying to deliver 85 percent of its line in 10 days or less. Can they do that?” He said, “Oh, yes. Most of the time I can get it in about a week.” I said, “Are you happy?” He said, “You bet I'm happy! The fact that I don’t have to warehouse Ashley's furniture like I do other lines means that I can sell it off the floor and still get it delivered in about a week. Those inventory savings put almost $100,000 in my pocket last year. You think I’m not going to carry Ashley's furniture?”
Ron Wanek was a visionary who foresaw the importance of fast delivery. We called the '80s and '90s ‘the age of instant gratification,’ but that wasn't true with furniture. Consumers typically had to wait 12 to 16 weeks on case goods and 10 to 12 weeks on upholstery they'd ordered. Nobody would put up with that anymore unless it was a very expensive, custom-made piece of furniture that was not specified by a designer.
Wanek also was a visionary when he thought of the concept for the Ashley HomeStores. He admits that he was in part inspired by Ethan Allen. I think he realized that Ethan Allen was reaching the middle-class and upper-middle-class consumer, but not the blue-collar worker. One day when I was meeting with him at his factory in Arcadia, Wisconsin he drove me to the edge of town and showed me the prototype of his first Ashley store. He asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, it doesn’t have quite the pizzazz I think a retail store should have. It looks rather blue-collarish.” I should have realized I was being set up. He looked at me and said, “Well, Carroll, there are more of them than there are of us.” He was absolutely right, and the success of his stores bears him out.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see any common patterns in retailing, particularly in light of the retailers who have flourished and perhaps become number one on Furniture/Today’s list of Top 100 U.S. retailers, then declined or even disappeared?
CARROLL: You have to look at individual cases to see what happened, why they succeeded or why they failed. Each case would be different. We sometimes say the industry moves very slowly and very ponderously. But in truth, there’s been a tremendous amount of change over the years. Certainly that's true at retail.
One of our salesmen, an MBA from Duke, once took Furniture/Today's Top 100 list of retailers and made a chart. He put the list of top retailers from 10 years ago on the left-hand side of a chart, then took the Top 100 list from the present year and placed it on the right side of the chart. Then he drew lines connecting the companies – from 10 years ago to present. It looked like a sketch of the Golden Gate Bridge, with lots of lines going down and lots of lines going up. Some of the stores who were at the top of the list 10 years earlier were way down on the list 10 years later, or no longer there at all. Others had risen closer to the top. Rooms To Go had come out of nowhere to become #1 in that 10-year period. There was a lot more movement than many people realized.
INTERVIEWER: Would I be right in saying that in your years in the furniture industry, the percentage of consumer discretionary dollars spent on furniture hasn't really changed?
CARROLL: In fact, it's dropped a little bit, but there are reasons for that. First, the price of furniture has dropped dramatically relative to other goods. Also, we're not selling more units. Why not? Here's an example from my good friend Jerry Epperson. Say you buy a dining room set for $3,000. Great, because a few years ago the same or equivalent set could have cost you $5,000. But just because you got a better value doesn't mean you'll go out and buy two dining rooms. You only need one. The upshot is that the consumer is spending less money for the same number of units, and that's reflected in the statistics. But it doesn’t mean that there is any less interest on the part of the consumer in buying furniture.
Sometimes, I think people get off track in asking over and over again, “Why don’t we get a larger slice of the consumer's disposable income?” They compare spending on furniture to buying consumer electronics or taking vacations. They believe those categories are our real competition. But that’s not comparing apples to apples. You take a vacation every year, and it's over. You buy a new computer and expect it to be outmoded in a few years, so you buy another. But when you buy furniture, you generally believe it will last 20 years to a lifetime. We usually don’t buy furniture thinking we’re going to get rid of it in the next few years. I don’t think it’s surprising that people don’t go shopping for furniture that often. They go when they need it, which isn't that often.
I do think that attitude is changing with young people today. My generation really looked forward to buying nice furniture as soon as we could afford it. We appreciated quality furniture and wanted to have it in our home and keep it the rest of our lives. Today, young folks would rather buy something relatively inexpensive, keep it for four or five years, then get rid of it and buy something new. That would actually fulfill the furniture industry's dream of getting people to buy furniture more often. But we don't know if today's generation will still feel that way when they get older. Will they, like us, want to own good furniture that lasts? Who knows?
The real reason people don't buy more furniture is that realistically speaking, you only have room for so much of it. My house is full of furniture. At every market I attend I always see beautiful pieces I would love to own. But where would I put it? What piece would I throw away to make room for it? Technology has improved the quality of our manufacturing methods. Good furniture will last longer. Fabrics and leathers will resist stains and last longer.
I just mentioned Jerry Epperson, the industry analyst and investment banker known and respected by virtually everybody in the industry. I consider Jerry the industry guru. He is one of the smartest individuals I know. He’s someone I can always call and get good advice. You can’t help but love Jerry because he's also one of the nicest guys in the business. He is always in demand as a speaker. I think of him as the Will Rogers of speakers. He’s self-deprecating and funny. He never pontificates or preaches.
When I started being asked to speak to various groups and organizations more often, I tried to model myself after Jerry. I used to worry about messing up or making a mistake when I spoke, until I realized that when Jerry stumbles, he laughs at himself, laughs it off, and the audience laughs with him. I learned so much from watching him. He has a grasp on the industry that I could never match. Jerry really sees the big picture. He has such a sharp mind for analyzing and interpreting what he sees taking place in our industry and identifying the important trends.
INTERVIEWER: Who are some of the top merchants in the furniture industry you’ve become personally acquainted with, both manufacturers and retailers?
CARROLL: On the retail side, one of my favorite stores is Jordan’s. I think the Tatelmans have done a great job. It's a store that makes you feel good just to walk through.
Another great success story is Nebraska Furniture Mart and the Blumkin family. Not only have they built enormous, highly successful, stores, they’ve been good industry citizens. They are known for giving a new vendor a chance to put his product on the floor to see if it sells. They’re now part of the Berkshire Hathaway furniture group, along with Jordan's, R.C. Willey and Star. They are all great merchants.
Rooms To Go and the Seaman family found a niche that wasn’t being adequately served — room packages at good prices for those who felt they didn't know how to coordinate a room setting. They understood the power of television advertising to sell furniture and spent a lot of money upfront building their brand. That was a great strategy. Rooms To Go also sells individual pieces, of course. They've gotten very big, and with that buying power they can offer great values. They also deliver quickly.
Jake Jabs of American Furniture Warehouse is another great merchant. I asked him once for the secret of his success. He said, “I sell cheap.” I said, “You sell cheap? There must be more to it than that.” He said, “I’m not a rocket scientist. I'm just a guy who used to run a music store and give guitar lessons. But I know one thing: If you’re cheaper than anybody else in town, you’re going to get the business. Nobody’s going to undercut me if I can help it.”
I could name many more retailers. For the manufacturers, I would have to put the Waneks — Ron and his son Todd — of Ashley Furniture at the top of the list.
Among the older factory owners, Paul Broyhill was a standout leader. Of course, he left the company some years ago when he sold it to Interco. I sincerely believe that if Broyhill were still privately owned they would be even more successful today. They have a great line and excellent merchandising. Broyhill has strong brand recognition among consumers. I believe they’d be doing much better on their own.
I’m not picking on any particular conglomerate. I agree completely with Mike Dugan, the former factory executive who recently wrote in The Furniture Wars, that conglomerates just did not make any sense in our industry. Having discussed advertising and marketing strategy with most of the companies who have belonged to a conglomerate, I know that each one of them wanted to build its own identity. In the Furniture Brands group, for example, Broyhill doesn’t really care how Thomasville is doing, Thomasville doesn’t care how Drexel is doing, and Drexel doesn’t care how Henredon is doing, etc. They’ve all got their own company to run, their own identification to establish, and their own product to sell.
The conglomerates promised there would be a synergy among the companies they acquired. They said, “We’ll have greater purchasing power. This will allow us to buy raw materials and supplies cheaper. We can share R&D facilities. We’ll be able to do national consumer advertising by pooling our advertising budgets.”
But they haven't pulled off those promises successfully. In many cases, the individual companies have just become cash-cows for the parent company.
I've admired some other old-line companies over my years in the industry, such as Stanley and Bassett. Stanley, when it was run by Albert Prillaman, was a major case goods company. It was the leader in youth furniture. In my opinion, it waited too long to go offshore to source manufacturing. In a way, that's a credit to their community-mindedness and desire to preserve the jobs of their employees, but it was bad for their business. You can’t blame them for that. In their town, everybody knows everybody, and you don’t want to lay people off. I think they realize now it was a little late in the game before they went offshore for certain product. They eventually did that, but still make some furniture domestically. The good news is that they have made a strong come back with their Young America line.
Bassett has really reinvented itself in recent years. I used to think of Bassett as primarily a case goods company, even though they’ve always had upholstery as well. When they decided to open their own dedicated Bassett stores, they totally rejuvenated their upholstery division, and now they can deliver custom upholstery in 30 days. That's been a great boost to their business. They’ve also been able to pull off the difficult task of having both Bassett dedicated stores, while also selling furniture to independent furniture retailers. Only a few companies like La-Z-Boy, Thomasville and Ashley have ever pulled that off.
Another company I admire is an importer called Home Meridian. I think it’s a great success story that a lot of people don’t know about, because they keep a low profile. They just get bigger and bigger every year, and keep expanding into new categories such as hospitality and contract, youth and home office. George Revington, who runs the company, has done a fantastic job. He’s a modest, humble guy who prefers to keep a low profile.
INTERVIEWER: From a publisher's standpoint, hasn’t consolidation, particularly in manufacturing, been a big challenge, since it reduced the number of potential advertisers?
CARROLL: Yes. You may recall a Mississippi reclining chair company called Action Industries. It was founded by Bo Bland, who recently died, and Mickey Holliman, who eventually became CEO of Furniture Brands International before retiring. I called on Bo and Mickey in my early years at Furniture/Today because Mississippi was part of my territory.
I was still trying to convince them that Action Industries needed to advertise in Furniture/Today after they had been acquired by Lane, the big Virginia-based furniture maker. I had just got wind of a famous memo B.B. Lane, the head of Lane, had sent out, telling all the Lane companies they were not to spend any advertising money on their own. Lane was going to pool the ad money from its various divisions in order to buy ads in shelter magazines and launch a national consumer campaign.
I said to Mickey Holliman, “So I guess that means Action Industries won’t be advertising in Furniture/Today.” He said, “The hell we won’t. We can do anything we want. We’re the only profitable division Lane's got. We believe in Furniture/Today and we want to advertise.” He disregarded B.B.’s memo and advertised with us.
But most companies wouldn’t go against the corporate grain like Mickey did. Furniture/Today now has to go directly to corporate headquarters and sell them on the idea of doing advertising for each company in their portfolio. Most of the advertising in Furniture/Today is now coming from importers and Asian-based companies. I see a lot of ads run by companies I don’t recognize, and that I know weren’t around three years ago. Most of them are from overseas. The offshore trade shows are also dependable advertisers.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the industry today?
CARROLL: From Furniture/Today's perspective, it's how to be part of the online media revolution and still stay profitable. We see newspapers all over the country reducing staff, and Furniture/Today has had to do the same thing in recent years. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we could charge $10,000 to $12,000 for a full-page ad. Now advertisers can advertise for around $2,000 per ad in online media. That really cuts into the revenue and profitability of print publications. You have to accept the fact that if you’re in print, you’ll get a smaller piece of the pie because of the growing popularity and cost effectiveness of online websites and social media. You have to cut staff, because revenue won't support a bigger one.
But, you need to keep your print vehicle alive because a lot of people still would rather hold a publication in their hands and be able to take it with them wherever they go. They also like the superior reproduction of the color photography and the fact that the stories explore a topic in greater depth. Some people don’t like to read a long story on a computer or phone screen. But the generation coming up wants to read everything in short takes, and is certainly moving online. Furniture/Today, like everybody else, has developed an e-marketing department to try to help manufacturers figure out different ways to sell their product online. You just can’t charge as much for an online ad as a printed page, so I doubt if we will be able to achieve the sales figures and profit margins we used to.
INTERVIEWER: Did racial attitudes or women’s issues affect Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: Steve Pond took great pride in addressing both of those topics. His second employee was black — Ollie, whom I've talked about. Over the years we had a number of other black employees, mostly female. There was no racial discrimination at Furniture/Today.
Steve always said he paid women the same as men for a comparable job. I don’t know what he paid everybody, but I take his word for it. I never saw any instances of his looking down on women. This culture remains unchanged at Furniture/Today.
INTERVIEWER: What about Furniture/Today's relationships with its suppliers?
CARROLL: We had a special relationship with our first printer, Henry Wurst & Company. H.R., the owner, had a printing plant in Apex, North Carolina. Steve impressed upon me that when you’re in the publishing business, it’s important to have a printer that can deliver on time and with the quality you want. We had such a printer with H.R.Wurst, whom we worked with until we were bought by Cahners. We then had to switch to the printer Cahners used for their other publications, in order to take advantage of the volume discounts Cahners had negotiated.
We always had our own production guy on staff, starting with Bob Steimel, who was with us for many years. He would go down to Wurst on Friday nights and supervise the printing — they called it ‘tailing the press.’ He had a motel-like room at the printing company and would spend the night there as the paper was being printed.
Steve and Bill Peterson had interviewed a number of area printers before they launched Furniture/Today. Steve and H.R. really hit it off. I think they were very much alike as businessmen. H.R.'s real name was Henry. He was the son of the founder of the printing company. He had become one of the largest printers in North Carolina. Even though the printing of Furniture/Today was only a small part of his business relative to many of his other accounts, he treated us like family. He also believed that Steve would continue to grow his business with new publications.
From the start, Steve and H.R. built a business relationship based on trust. They trusted one other completely. H.R. opened his books so Steve could see exactly how much profit he was making on our account. Steve told me H.R.'s average profit was about five percent. He told H.R., “I want you to make 10 percent profit on us.” He and H.R. would sit down and go through the books every year. And if H.R. wasn't making 10 percent on us, they would adjust the prices he was charging.
The other thing was, when H.R. sent us a bill, we paid it immediately. Steve said, “If a guy is making a good profit on our account, and he knows he'll get a check immediately when he sends an invoice, who do you think will be waited on first when we need a special favor or extra fast service?” We paid all our suppliers within a week of receiving their invoice. It was common in the industry to hold a bill for 90 days, or until the supplier screamed at you for the money. We never played that game. Guess what, we never had any problems with our suppliers. I never forgot the importance of that practice. I still pay my bills as soon as I get them.
Once we were taken over by a big corporation, they would always drag out accounts payable as long as they could. That was very embarrassing. We just had to be honest with some of our loyal suppliers and say, “We’d like to pay you right away, but it’s corporate policy to hold off as long as we can.”
INTERVIEWER: What about your relationship with customers, the manufacturers who advertised in Furniture/Today?
CARROLL: That's what I really enjoyed most about my years at Furniture/Today. Many times, you really became part of the companies you worked with. They became ‘family.’
Back when I was working at Hogan, I went into Joe Hogan’s office one day and asked, “Joe, have you ever been offered a job with another company?” He said, “Sure, plenty of times.” I said, “Aren’t you tempted by some of the big companies we work with to go to work for them?” He said, “Of course not. I own my own ad agency, we’re pretty successful, and I’m very happy with what I'm doing.”
He went on, “Let me tell you something, Carroll. There’s a funny thing about us advertising people, you included. We’re basically nosy. We like to know everything about everybody’s business. The great thing about advertising is that when you become someone's ad agency, they'll want to tell you everything, the good and the bad, about their company, because they believe that will help you to help them. This really allows us to live vicariously in another company, and it’s what attracts us to advertising.”
I never forgot that; it’s completely true. It's one of the aspects I enjoyed most at Furniture/Today. With some of the biggest and best companies in the industry, I could say, I really know that company. I know the people who run it. I know a lot of the inside stories.
INTERVIEWER: What about your relationship with competitors?
CARROLL: We did not have a good relationship with Home Furnishings Daily, because Steve had left them. For the first year or so, they didn’t take us seriously. They did not think a trade publication based in High Point could pose a serious threat to a big New York publishing house. By the time they realized Furniture/Today was growing very rapidly, it was too late for them to stop our momentum. We were already on a roll. Their salesmen started attacking Furniture/Today, saying we were the new kids on the block and didn’t have the sophistication and the knowledge they did, and so forth. When we started, in 1976, HFD was number one in market share and we were number six. They had a 65 percent share of industry advertising when we started, so we had a long way to go to catch them.
I won’t name names, but most of the other magazines at various times would sell against Furniture/Today rather than selling the merits of their own publication. Any good salesman knows that negative selling doesn’t work. Nobody wants to hear you bad-mouth the competition. They want to hear what your publication can do for them.
The best competitors in the marketplace were the Bienenstocks at Furniture South/Furniture World magazine. I never heard them say one negative word against Furniture/Today. When we launched, they were the leading monthly magazine. HFD had the largest market share because they were weekly, but of the four monthly magazines, Furniture South/Furniture World was considered the best. When I worked at J.P. Hogan, I always placed ads for American Drew in their magazine. The Bienenstocks were the greatest people to work with. Over the years, as they saw some of their business eroding, I never heard one word of negative criticism uttered by the Bienenstock family against Furniture/Today. They are genuinely nice people.
When I retired, I told Barton Bienenstock and his son Russell, “You’re the best competitors anyone could have ever had. You played your own game.” They found their own niche and are very successful at what they do. They’ve been in business longer than all the rest of us put together. They were the kind of competitors you like.
INTERVIEWER: Have you fulfilled all the goals you had when you came into the industry?
CARROLL: I had two personal goals. I was able to fulfill both through Furniture/Today.
I mentioned I always wanted to be a TV news reporter like Walter Cronkite. Some years ago, Channel 2, the CBS affiliate in Greensboro, allowed me to do man-on-the-street, five-minute reports four times on the opening day of market, which fell on a Thursday. I appeared in two segments from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and twice again in the 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. time slot. I’d be standing out on Main Street in High Point, usually in the freezing cold and dark - if it was an October market. I would interview celebrities and manufacturers, who would have their furniture brought down to the sidewalk in front of the High Point National building so it could be shown on TV. Channel 2 had a viewing audience of one million across the state of North Carolina. It was a great experience.
As the years went by, our shows got more sophisticated. The station gave me a cameraman who would work with me a day or two before the market officially opened. We would go to a showroom and tape interviews with the manufacturers. Sometimes, I would just walk through the showroom and talk about the furniture, pointing out new trends and features. The station would make it look like it was part of the live broadcast on opening day. I did these segments for 10 years. I have all the tapes, but I’ve never gone back and looked at them. They’re in VHS, so they’re probably very blurry. But at least I got to fulfill my fantasy of being a TV reporter. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did not enjoy getting up at 3 a.m. and not getting to bed until 11 p.m. I still had to work the Market that day.
Second, I always wanted to write a book. I finally figured out the best way to do it was under the auspices of Furniture/Today. I would first sell the concept of the book to various manufacturers, asking them for a fee to appear in a coffee table book that I was going to write for consumers. The first book, which turned into a series, was called The Perfect Home. Living In Style. I wrote about 10 domestic high-end U.S. manufacturers like Harden and Marge Carson. Each paid a fee that not only covered our printing and publishing costs, but made a small profit for Furniture/Today.
I couldn’t have done the book without Dianne Barham. She has a marketing agency in Greensboro called The Daily Group. She's the most creative advertising person I’ve ever met in the furniture industry. Dianne took care of all the photography and did all the layouts, making the books look really good. In the early years of Furniture/Today, even after Connie Lineberry had taken over ad services, Diane would create ads for some of our clients. She helped Furniture/Today develop some excellent campaigns for our advertisers.
Writing the first book was very difficult. It took about six months, including my entire summer. My wife and I used to go to the movies on weekends, but we didn’t see a single movie that summer. I went to my office and worked all day Saturday and all day Sunday. It was, however, a great learning experience. I now appreciate how hard it is to be a writer.
I ended up writing four Perfect Home books. The Perfect Home: Living in Style was the first one. Then, I did a book on well-known celebrity designers, like Bob Timberlake, Kathy Ireland and Bob Macke. My third book was The Perfect Home: The Best of Style. I chose the best-selling furniture styles in America over the past 100 years. My last Perfect Home book was on youth furniture. For a while, the books were sold by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million as well as through our marketing services department. Each sold between 14,000 and 18,000 copies. It turned out to be a successful venture.
Then, Dianne and I produced a book for Michael Amini, the founder and CEO of AICO, a very successful furniture importer. It was called The Perfect Home: The Grand Tour. Michael provided the ideas and inspiration; Dianne did the photography and book design and I did the writing.
The Grand Tour was based on the historical fact that in the 18th century, wealthy families used to send their young sons on a grand tour to London, Paris, Rome, Athens and elsewhere to see the Western world before they settled down. Michael’s parents, who were Persian, sent him on such a tour when he was a young man. Michael always wanted to tell the story and to design a furniture line inspired by the various cities and countries he had visited. Coinciding with the publication of the book, Michael introduced a furniture collection at market called The Grand Tour.
In our previous books, Dianne had used existing photographs from the manufacturers. But Michael gave us a generous budget to shoot original photography for his 120-page book. We used two studios in High Point as well as a big English manor house at Chinqua Penn Plantation, which is near Reidsville, North Carolina north of Greensboro. Dianne rented the mansion for a couple of days. We needed a big house because Michael had designed massive furniture. The photography in the book is outstanding.
I wish I'd had the time to write the kind of book Mike Dugan wrote about the furniture industry. All of us who love the industry like to talk about our history, particularly inside stories that haven’t been told, or that we haven't heard before. I knew Mike when he was president of Henredon. We’d have wonderful, hours-long conversations in his office about the industry. Some of the stories he told me were included in his book The Furniture Wars.
INTERVIEWER: You could write a history of Furniture/Today.
CARROLL: I could, but I don’t know what the angle would be. Furniture/Today is still going strong, even as times change. Steve told me once that a business becomes mature in 25 to 30 years. So Furniture/Today is now mature, and is entering another stage under the very competent leadership of Kevin Castellani. It's hard to say how it'll all turn out, but they’re always coming up with new ideas.
I wasn't there, of course, but I've heard a lot of stories about the first issue of Furniture/Today. One of the people involved that first year, in1976, was an artist by the name of Ray Reid. Ray had been working out of J.P. Hogan's High Point office. His job was in sales although he was an art director at heart. When Furniture/Today was launched, Steve hired him as part-time art director. He designed the covers, which in the early days included artwork. This made Furniture/Today look more like a magazine than a newspaper.
The first issue came out in September 1976. The cover featured a watercolor painting by Ray Reid of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who were the presidential candidates that fall. The feature story asked a number of important people in the industry which candidate they favored, and how the election might affect the furniture industry. The industry was, and is, pretty heavily Republican, so it won't surprise you that Ford was the favorite.
Ray Reid later left Furniture/Today and worked as an art director for some of the photography studios in High Point that specialized primarily in furniture. He eventually started his own ad agency, and is now retired. He became a successful watercolorist.
INTERVIEWER: What do you consider your greatest contribution to the industry?
CARROLL: This is a difficult question because I don't want to sound egotistical or self-serving. I'll just mention a couple of things that come to mind
I have enjoyed being a cheerleader for the industry. Many people inside and outside the industry know that I love the furniture industry. I have truly enjoyed working with the individuals and companies in our industry.
Some people, especially my wife, call me ‘The Connector’. Over the years, I have helped a lot of people find jobs in the industry. I was a clearinghouse. Manufacturers would call me when they were looking for someone, or a person looking for a job would call me. It always made me feel very good if I could put two parties together.
I am proud of having introduced some of the sales techniques I'd learned at J.P. Hogan to the industry, like the shirt-sleeve marketing sessions and the plans board meetings. I hope our advertisers realize that I really enjoyed helping them, both from an advertising point of view and a personal point of view.
I am also very proud of founding the International Alliance of Furnishings Publications (IAFP). It connects all the major furniture publications around the world, which provides readers with instant access to what is taking place in each country.
I am also proud of chairing the Home Furnishings Advisory Board at High Point University. We were able to raise funds to build our own building for home furnishings marketing and interior design, Norton Hall, on campus. We are about to launch our summer internship program, which hopefully will not only provide summer jobs for our students, but will encourage them to make a career in our industry.
INTERVIEWER: You certainly were a key player in building one of the premier publications in the industry.
CARROLL: Like Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of success is just being there.” I was lucky to be there at the right time and to work with good people.
INTERVIEWER: Thanks Joe, for taking the time to do this oral history. It will be a great addition to the American Furniture Hall of Fame's library.