Joseph g. gerard; american furniture manufacturers association
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 21, 2011
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is Tony Bengel. It’s October 21, 2011. I'm interviewing Joe Gerard in High Point, North Carolina. So, let’s begin. Where and when were you born?
GERARD: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1939.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us something about your family and your early experiences.
GERARD: My father was a businessman. He owned a small chain of stores, and was active in other areas, including farming and ranching. I assume I had a childhood like most kids, although my father and mother were divorced. I spent my first 15 years living with my mother, and from then on I lived with my father in one of the towns where he was in business southwest of Little Rock. At that point we were living on a cattle ranch most of the year, and the other part of the year we were living on a lake in Arkansas. That, in brief, is my childhood.
Then I went off to college and eventually got a sufficient number of credits to where I could enter law school. I attended Hendrix College, among one or two others, and I was a pre-law student, and also pre-med. I was an honors student both at Hendrix, which is in Conway, Arkansas. I think Hendrix College would be somewhat similar to what High Point University is today, a rather small, private school, except Hendrix offered no postgraduate education. Then I went to law school for about a year and a half.
At that point my father and my stepmother decided to put the cattle ranch up for sale. I contacted them about purchasing it, and my dad and I began negotiations that extended over about an eight- or nine-month period. Finally, we reached an arrangement that I felt was good for my family – I was married at the time, with a little girl – and which was good for my father and stepmother as well. They were planning to move to Naples, Florida, and were not going to continue living in Arkansas. So I bought the farm in 1963 and raised cattle for 10 years.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a law degree at that point?
GERARD: No, I did not. My purchase of the farm occurred while I was in law school, but we’ll come back to that.
GERARD: Anyway, we were selected as farm family of the year for the county in which we lived at one point, and I was active in the local Rotary Club, and was treasurer. I also was chairman of the local county library board. My wife and I ultimately got a divorce, and then I went back to law school, passed the bar, and went to Washington to work for Senator John E. McClellan of Arkansas, after I had briefly practiced law at a firm in Little Rock. So that’s briefly how I got to Washington.
Senator McClellan was a powerful Southern senator. He was what others called one of the “old bulls,” although I never referred to him in this manner. I referred to him as a wonderful man, and that he was. I was very close to him. My father and Senator McClellan had good relations. They were friends, and also political friends. They saw things pretty much eye-to-eye. I enjoyed the time I worked for Senator McClellan, although it was a relatively short time. It was a great experience for me as a young man right out of law school, and nine months after I had passed the bar. I worked for him for two years, and then he passed away.
After he died, I was a little hesitant about my future because I did not want to go back to Arkansas, where I had gone through the divorce. I had, by that time, two beautiful children, and probably, in retrospect, it would have been good if I had gone back, but…
INTERVIEWER: Had you been bitten by the Washington bug, as some might say?
GERARD: You know, I had, at least to some extent. But I’m thinking about this now from the standpoint of a 72-year-old man, and looking back on my life and some of the different choices that I might have made. By most measures, I was reasonably successful in what I did in Washington, and I have no second thoughts about that aspect. But from a personal standpoint, there’s a side of me that says I missed some growing up of my children, and I regret that. But I tried to see them as much as I could, and I had them in Washington during most summers. So we spent a fair amount of time together. You know, I am not a believer in quality time. I’m a believer in quantity time. I believe that you’re not going to have quality time unless you have quantity time. I’m sorry, that’s just part of my philosophy and it has nothing to do with this interview.
INTERVIEWER: Well, let’s go back a little. Were your father and mother basically farmers or ranchers?
GERARD: No, my father was an independent businessman. He had gone into a small town southwest of Little Rock and started a store. It was a general mercantile store. He carried everything, hardware, clothing. If you wanted to build a house, he had it done. He was an excellent businessman. He ended up with two stores in Benton, one was a hardware store and the other was this general mercantile store. He called it Benton Supply Company. He owned another store in Sheridan and another store in Malvern. These are small towns in Arkansas.
INTERVIEWER: So you grew up more in a rural than an urban setting.
GERARD: I lived in Little Rock with my mother until I was 15, but I would go spend summers with my father and stepmother on the farm. My half-brother and sister and their families were working for my father. They were much older than I. My dad married a number of times, so I was part of this larger family.
INTERVIEWER: So your father ended up being both a merchant and a cattle rancher.
GERARD: That’s correct.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to his stores?
GERARD: Well, it’s interesting. About 1946 or 1947, after World War II, I remember the family gathering on the front porch of our home, a large screened-in porch. They say the house is a historic building, so it may still be there. But he said that he and my stepmother had been traveling to Florida and had run across what was going to be the retail store of the future, and it was a large box-type store that carried everything. In order for him to be able to compete in that environment, he would have to borrow money to build similar big stores. At that point my father didn’t owe anybody a dime. In fact, he loaned money to people, in addition to running his stores. I think he was loaning more money than the local banks did. He was that successful.
He didn’t want to borrow money, so he said he would sell the stores and wanted us as a family to understand the reason why he was doing this.
INTERVIEWER: Did he ever sell any furniture?
GERARD: Oh, sure. Lots of it.
INTERVIEWER: So he was actually a furniture retailer?
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever work in his stores when you were growing up?
GERARD: No, I never did. I would have been too young while he still had the stores.
INTERVIEWER: Was anybody else in your family connected with the furniture industry in any way?
INTERVIEWER: Did your father ever go to furniture markets? How did he get the furniture he was selling?
GERARD: I don’t know. I was too young. My brother and my sister, and their respective spouses, were involved. My brother was involved in my father’s cattle ranching venture, my older brother who is now deceased. My sister’s husband was involved in at least one of my father’s stores, and primarily worked in the shoe department. Ultimately, my brother-in-law became a highly successful shoe man, and so did my brother. They opened their own stores and did quite well, my brother-in-law in Little Rock, and in a number of towns in Arkansas, and my brother in Lexington, Kentucky.
INTERVIEWER: So after you graduated from high school and went to Hendrix College, you were in both pre-medicine and pre-law.
INTERVIEWER: So you thought at that point that you might become a doctor?
INTERVIEWER: And you also were thinking about becoming a lawyer?
GERARD: Correct. I couldn’t make up my mind.
INTERVIEWER: Did anything in particular influence those possible choices?
GERARD: Yes. I heard about it a lot from my father, growing up. These were respected members of the community – clergy, doctors, lawyers and teachers. I heard about them a lot, but my father said that, No. 1, whatever it is you do, you should do your very best. That’s what I heard as a child growing up. Consequently, I had difficulty making up my mind. I was making wonderful grades. At one point I got a letter from my father saying, “Don’t you think it’s about time that you finished school?” He said that when he was my age, he had already been out making a living.
INTERVIEWER: Did he have a high school education?
GERARD: He did not. All his family were well-educated people, and my father was well-educated. He just did not have what we would call a formal education today. But he was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known.
INTERVIEWER: And, obviously, a very successful businessman.
INTERVIEWER: In several areas.
GERARD: Absolutely, he retired when he was 48.
INTERVIEWER: What else, ultimately, influenced you to go into law rather than medicine?
GERARD: It was mostly just that letter I got from my father, because I knew that I had enough hours with sufficient credits to get into law school. At that time you did not need an undergraduate degree to go to the University of Arkansas School of Law. So I went to the University of Arkansas School of Law.
INTERVIEWER: So you never actually got a four-year college degree?
GERARD: No. Never did. My first degree was my JD (Juris Doctor).
INTERVIEWER: Did that take three years?
GERARD: It would have. But after about a year and a quarter in law school, that was when my father put his cattle ranch up for sale. I called him and said that I had hoped to get this cattle ranch some day. He said, “Well, if you want it, you need to come down and we need to start talking about it.” So I did. As I've already said, it took about nine or 10 months before we worked out an agreement that was satisfactory to both of us.
INTERVIEWER: Was it at law school that you met your wife?
GERARD: No, I met her during my days at Hendrix.
INTERVIEWER: And you got married and had two children already?
GERARD: No, not at that point. We didn’t have our second child until we started raising cattle. We had our first child after we had been married about a year and a half, two years. The first child was born while I was in law school.
INTERVIEWER: So you became a cattle rancher for about 10 years, I believe you said.
INTERVIEWER: And when you became a cattle rancher you didn't have a law degree.
GERARD: No, I did not, although I had begun law school. Earlier I had plenty of hours to get an undergraduate degree. I just didn’t have it. I guess I could go back and do it today. But I've had too many other interests to do that.
INTERVIEWER: So what brought you to the end of your cattle ranching days?
GERARD: I had gone back to law school and was making exceptionally fine grades, and I knew that that’s what I was going to do. And about that time... you know, it’s funny how things happen in life. I don’t believe there are a lot of coincidences, but at that point in time, a couple of businessmen in Benton, Arkansas, approached me and said, “We know you’re in law school, and you’ve got this herd of cattle and this large ranch, and we’d like to buy your herd of cattle and lease your farm for three years.” I said, “That sounds like a suitable arrangement; let’s talk about the price of the cattle.” We agreed on a price per head, and I sold the herd of cattle and leased the farm. And that was that.
INTERVIEWER: So you moved to Little Rock and finished your law degree?
GERARD: Moved to Little Rock and finished my law degree.
INTERVIEWER: Were you specializing in anything in law school at that point?
INTERVIEWER: And you said you worked in a local practice for a very short time.
GERARD: Yes, for about nine months I worked at a law firm in Little Rock after I passed the bar.
INTERVIEWER: Doing general legal work?
GERARD: Yes, a variety of things. I handled a significant bankruptcy case. I handled some accident cases. Just general legal work.
INTERVIEWER: I take it that really wasn't of great interest to you.
GERARD: It really wasn’t. The actual practice of law is... well, you see these lawyers on television, and everybody thinks that’s practicing law. No, it isn’t. Because so much of your work is related to everyday details. If a client calls you, say, you put that little visit you had down on a sheet of paper over here and bill that client. Somebody’s being billed at all times. Don’t worry, the legal profession will take care of itself, as most of us know. Wasn't it Shakespeare that said kill all the lawyers?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, “The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers,” or something like that, is in one of his plays, perhaps The Merchant of Venice.
GERARD: I believe so.
INTERVIEWER: So how did you get connected with Senator McClellan?
GERARD: Well, it was just one of those coincidences that happen in life. My only other wife, as I like to say, and I were having dinner in a restaurant. I had just finished law school, and my wife and I were going out to dinner with some friends. I ran into an old law school friend, and he says casually, “Hey, Joe, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, I just finished law school.” I knew that he worked for Senator McClellan on his staff in the Little Rock office. We chatted a little bit and he said, “Would you have any interest in working for the senator in Washington?” And I said, “Absolutely, that would be super for me.”
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure the senator must have had several other offices in the state too.
GERARD: No, he only had this one local office. I’m sure that senators have more offices around the state now, and I think Senator Fulbright may have had an office in northwest Arkansas as well, but Senator McClellan only had the Little Rock office. Anyway, I don’t know how much time went by after that casual conversation in the restaurant. It could have been a week, it could have been two weeks, it could have been a month. But I’m working in my law office one day and my secretary, whose name was Debbie, buzzed me and said, “Joe, there is a John McClellan on the phone and he wants to speak with you.” She said, “Would it be Senator John McClellan?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, Debbie. Why don’t you put him on and we’ll find out.” So, she did.
It was the senator, and he and I chatted a little bit and hit it off really nicely. After a while, he said, “Why don’t you come to Washington and work for me?” I said, “Senator, I’d consider that an honor.” He said, “Can you be here next Monday?” This was like a Friday, and I said, “No, senator, I can’t. I’ve got to wrap up this law practice I have.” He said, “Well, how long do you think that will take?” I said, “I think I could be in Washington by Memorial Day.”
INTERVIEWER: This was several months in the future?
GERARD: No, no, this was two or three weeks later.
INTERVIEWER: And what year was this?
GERARD: It would have been 1976. I went up and worked for him in the spring of 1976. Then in November 1977, he died. Like any young man that's worth his salt, I had been thinking about my future, and I thought, well, I’ll eventually go back to Arkansas, and if I do the good job I think I'm capable of for Senator McClellan, then I might be able to eventually be nominated for a federal magistrate's position, which is a pretty good position for a lawyer. From there, there's no telling what could happen in the political arena.
INTERVIEWER: Before we get into your subsequent career, tell us what sort of work you did in the year and a half you worked for Senator McClellan?
GERARD: My title was special assistant. But his chief of staff, a very fine man, was quite ill and was out of the office a lot. I did a lot of the work that otherwise he would have been doing, trying to help constituents. We had projects in the state of Arkansas that were very important to the state. We were in the process of working out the details of a new Veterans Administration Hospital that would be connected with the University of Arkansas Medical Center. If not the first in the nation, it would have been one of the very first veterans hospitals in the nation connected to a state medical center. We had a devil of a time doing it, because there were other places that wanted to get a veterans hospital.
Ultimately, not only did we get that hospital built, which is now named the John L. McClellan Veterans Administration Medical Center, but we also totally renovated the former Veterans Administration hospital, which was across the river, a historic place called Fort Roots. In essence, we killed two birds with one stone. It was a very significant federal project in the state, and the last major project that was planned before the senator died. There were still some remaining items to do, but we took care of those.
INTERVIEWER: So most of your work with the senator focused on things that were going on in Arkansas, and you didn’t get very much involved in Washington politics?
GERARD: I did to some extent. If he had a vote coming up on a subject that was in an area I had an interest in, yes, I went to work on that. He was a very hard worker. He started early and he ended late every day. That was his game. You know, I’m always amused by people talking about how little is done in the peoples’ interest in Washington. My experience is just the opposite. I participated in an office where people were working extremely hard for the peoples’ interest. Maybe that’s an anomaly, but that’s what I experienced in my time with Senator McClellan. Anyway, he passed away, and soon after that I went to work for the Ford Motor Company.
INTERVIEWER: How did you and Ford get connected? I assume you were somewhat at loose ends in Washington after Senator McClellan died.
GERARD: Yes, I was a bit, as you can imagine. I had reservations about going back home to Arkansas with the limited experience I'd had in Washington at that point. Anyway, a friend of mine and I were rooming together in Washington at that time, and he had been told about a position at the Ford Motor Company by another friend of ours. Meanwhile, I had been told about a position heading up the construction industry association office in Arkansas, which is a very fine position.
So my buddy and I, we were probably having a beer one night not long after Senator McClellan’s death. We were both in this kind of never, never land, wondering what in the devil we’re going to do next. We’ve got 60 days by statute that we're allowed to stay in the office doing the peoples’ business, and at the same time we're hoping like crazy that somebody’s going to come in and say we love you and we want to hire you to do something magical.
I mentioned the construction association in Arkansas that seemed to be interested in me, but said I didn’t have any current interest in going back to Arkansas. He said, “Well, that sounds like a pretty neat job to me.” And he mentioned the job with the Ford Motor Company that he was going to check into, although he didn't have a strong interest in that position. I said, “Well, why don’t we just switch?” He said that would be fine with him. We both went to our mutual benefactors and they agreed to recommend us for these different positions. He got the Arkansas job and I ended up getting the position at Ford, after some pretty exhaustive interviews.
INTERVIEWER: So what did you do in the Ford job?
GERARD: I believe my title was legislative associate, which essentially means I was a lobbyist for Ford Motor Company. I was lobbying for Ford with respect to its automobile products, of course, as well as somewhat involved with what I would call environmental issues, with regulations on issues such as noise. Those kinds of issues were very prevalent back in those days. Jimmy Carter had been elected president and the regulatory machine was alive and quite well during that period. Very similar to what’s going on in politics today, very similar.
INTERVIEWER: Those regulations would have involved the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, I assume.
GERARD: Yes, but I wasn’t dealing too much with that agency. We had another person on our staff in Washington to handle OSHA matters. If something very significant came up, I would get involved just as a matter of course. A Ford Motor Company vice president, who also was on the board of directors of Ford, was in charge of our Washington office, so he was my ultimate boss there. He had a favorite project of his and, for some reason or other, he pulled me in on the project and he and I became extremely close. He was a very tough guy, and one of those men that I came to love dearly.
INTERVIEWER: So you started working for Ford in 1978?
INTERVIEWER: How long were you with Ford's Washington office?
GERARD: I was with them until January 21, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office and became president
INTERVIEWER: And so from Ford you went where?
GERARD: I went to the furniture manufacturing association, the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association
INTERVIEWER: How did that happen?
GERARD: A friend of mine from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington contacted me when I was at Ford, and said there was a Southern group of furniture makers that was looking for a person to head up a Washington office for them. He said they had an office before but it didn't work out, and they wanted somebody to come in and get it going again. He asked if I would have any interest in doing that. I said, “Well, I’m interested in talking to them about it.” I chatted with my friend a little bit more. Interestingly, he was from North Carolina himself, and he was in charge of government relations for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I guess he liked what he saw in the work I did at Ford. My title was relatively insignificant at Ford and, as I mentioned, I was doing things for this vice president, and I guess I attracted attention in some favorable way.
My friend passed along the word to the furniture group that I might have an interest in the job. The next thing I know, a man named Doug Brackett, the executive director of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, called me and asked to set up a meeting. Doug and I hit it off very quickly. It was an easy talk.
INTERVIEWER: He came up to Washington?
INTERVIEWER: By himself or did he bring other industry folks with him?
GERARD: For that first meeting, he came by himself. I think at the time he was talking with other people as well about the Washington job. In fact, I know of one person that he talked to who was an old Senate chum of mine and who ultimately did quite well for himself. But Doug and I visited, and maybe two weeks went by before Doug called me again and wanted to know if I would be available to meet with him and several other members of the industry. I said, “Sure, just give me a time and a date and I'll see if I can work it out.” He gave me a time and a date and I was able to do it. I met with him and Alex Bernhardt, Buck Shuford, Don Hunziker and Dick Udouj.
INTERVIEWER: What did Doug tell you at the first meeting?
GERARD: I have no idea. You know, we’re talking about 30-some odd years ago now. All I can recall is that we had a very pleasant conversation. I thought it was, as interviews go, fairly short and very sweet. I enjoyed meeting him. I think he enjoyed meeting me. The next thing I knew, I was sitting down with this group of high-powered industry people. Dick Udouj, by the way, is a distant relative of mine, and of course his company, Riverside Furniture, is an Arkansas-based company. I think he was the very first president of the American Furniture Hall of Fame, but he has never been inducted, which is one of the great travesties, in my opinion.
INTERVIEWER: I suppose at this point you had very little knowledge of the furniture industry.
GERARD: Very little. I knew a man, an extraordinarily nice man, in Benton, Arkansas, who owned a furniture manufacturing company. His name was Woodrow Jones, and Mr. Jones was the only person I knew who had anything to do with the business. I had driven by that plant in Benton and had watched sawdust pile up around it, that sort of thing. That’s all I knew. Of course, none of that’s going on in this day and age because there are ways of controlling that sawdust now, and there should be. But that was the way things were done back then. We make advances over time, we like to think.
INTERVIEWER: At the second meeting with the SFMA people, do you recall what was discussed?
GERARD: Don’t have a clue. All I remember is that we had, again, a very positive talk. I think the 1980 election had been held, and Reagan had been elected but had not yet taken office. I think I laid it out to them during the course of our interview what they might expect from the new administration, based on what I was already hearing. I talked to them about possible industry involvement in the new administration, what they might be able to do. It was a very relaxed interview. I don’t know how long it lasted, but when I walked out of there I felt very positive about it.
Some time passed, and I eventually got a call from Buck Shuford, who I think was president of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association at that time, saying that they would like for me to come down to High Point. I was led to believe that that was the icing on the cake, that I was in, that I had the job. Indeed, that turned out to be the case. We worked out a salary before I went to work for them, and thus began almost a 20-year career with the industry, which I dearly love.
INTERVIEWER: So this was a full-time position?
GERARD: Yes. I became vice president of government affairs for the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association.
A relatively short time later, the other furniture association, the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, made up mostly of Northern furniture makers, went to my executive committee and expressed an interest in having me represent them in Washington as well as SFMA. They then came to me and wanted to know if I had an interest in that, and I said, “Well, it makes a lot of sense, because right now I’m looking over my left shoulder to make sure that the people out there in Rockville, Maryland (where the NAFM had an office) were not second-guessing what we were doing here at 16th and K Streets for the SFMA.”
It's true that there were some Northern furniture manufacturers in the SFMA and some Southerners in the NAFM, but they were largely regional groups, the North and the South. I was at a point where I was past the Civil War, and while I knew that on some fronts it was still being fought, it was certainly not being fought in my mind, and I knew it wasn’t being fought in the minds of most people who were doing serious political business for our nation in Washington. You still have some hangovers from that period in the racial context, and that’s unfortunate. But we, as a nation, will get past that. I’m a very optimistic person. You know that’s going to happen. It’s happening. Look around you. There’s no doubt about it.
INTERVIEWER: The Northern group had their own legislative representative in Washington?
GERARD: Yes, they had a person.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know that person?
GERARD: I did know him. He was a very inexperienced individual and he was not a lawyer. Basically, he was providing reports to the NAFM members that were, as best I could tell, just canned stuff from the National Association of Manufacturers, rather than being independently arrived at from his own sources. I’m not being critical of him, he just didn’t know what he was doing.
INTERVIEWER: Did that make your life easier?
GERARD: It really didn’t make much difference from the standpoint of my office. We would do the same things anyway, but there was no competing office to keep an eye on. I think the merger was important for the two associations, but I don’t think it made a lot of difference in the running of my office.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of people use the word lobbyist almost as a curse word. Do you object to the term?
GERARD: Not a bit. I laugh about it, because people need to read the Constitution a little closer and they’ll see that what lobbyists are doing is simply representing the people in the halls of Congress. Those people, for the most part, happen to be American citizens. To me that is a perfectly normal function. Have there been abuses? Absolutely. Have businessmen in small towns been guilty of abuses? Absolutely. Have politicians been guilty of abuses. Absolutely. Have doctors been guilty of abuses? No question. You can find abuses in all parts of politics and society. But I don’t think most Americans are fooled, and they certainly want their views to be represented in Washington, which is what lobbyists do. They wouldn't want lobbying eliminated except in extraordinary circumstances, and I don’t think we’re in those kinds of circumstances today.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of office operation did you set up at the beginning?
GERARD: Lean and mean.
INTERVIEWER: The furniture industry isn’t notably generous with money in most circumstances.
GERARD: They were with me. Even though I was a relatively young man and hadn’t been in Washington that long, I did have my law degree. The association had to have known that I was a very ambitious individual. I intended to see that whatever it was I was doing, was done very well, and I believe I had shown that capability with my work for Senator McClellan and the Ford Motor Company.
I had told them in that second interview, with those top executives, that if I was not making them money, then I would leave them first. They wouldn’t have to fire me. I intended to do that. I intended to help protect the furniture industry from governmental overreach in every way that I could, in every legitimate way that I could. I like to think I did that throughout my career. That was my promise to them.
INTERVIEWER: What were the key issues when you first became involved with the furniture industry?
GERARD: When I started out, there had been a care labeling issue for some years involving the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). I can't remember all the details now, and I think the Clorox Company might have been involved in some way, but I'm certain the American cleaning industry in general was very interested in furniture having a care label placed on it by the furniture manufacturers.
I don’t know if it’s true today, but back then, if you opened the Yellow Pages and looked under cleaners, you would find lots of cleaners holding themselves out as having the ability to clean furniture. We’re talking about upholstered furniture now, of course, not about case goods. They were holding themselves out as the experts on cleaning, but in addition to that, they wanted furniture manufacturers to tell them, the professional cleaners, how to do it by putting care labels on all upholstered furniture. Well, furniture manufacturers are not in the business of being professional cleaners. They are in the business of being furniture manufacturers.
It did not take a lot of copies of the Yellow Pages to begin to convince members of Congress of that fact. Ultimately, we were able to get in the FTC appropriations bill a request that they take a good hard look at the road they were going down toward regulating upholstered furniture for care labeling purposes. Ultimately, the FTC took a vote on the care-labeling issue. It was a tie vote, which meant that was the end of the issue. In order for it to become a regulation, it had to have more than a tie vote.
Now one of the things the furniture industry ultimately did, was to incorporate in its UFAC (Upholstered Furniture Action Council) hangtags some instructions about proper care of upholstered furniture. This gives consumers a bit of information about proper care. The industry agreed to do that. That was kind of a peace offering, if you will, when we did that
INTERVIEWER: This initial effort that you're talking about had nothing directly to do with the flammability of upholstered furniture.
GERARD: It had nothing to do with flammability.
INTERVIEWER: Which, of course, became a huge issue.
GERARD: It already was a huge issue. A hell of an issue that I had to deal with on the Washington side.
INTERVIEWER: OK, but this initial issue involved some cleaning association lobbying for some sort of care label.
GERARD: That’s what I recall. As I’ve already indicated, I came into the industry in early ’81. You’ll have to forgive me, but we’re talking about 30-some odd years ago. To the best of my recollection, by the summer of ’81 we had a vote out of the FTC putting an end to that particular rule-making.
INTERVIEWER: So there was no formal care-labeling regulation put in place.
GERARD: That’s right. That would have required extensive testing on the part of furniture manufacturers, who as you know operate on very thin margins as it is.
INTERVIEWER: They would have had to go back to their fabric suppliers.
GERARD: It would have become a complete zoo. Plus, you had customers who wanted furniture makers to use fabric supplied by the customer, or COM (Customer Owned Material) as it's known in the trade. How would the furniture manufacturer put a care label on that piece of furniture? They knew nothing about the fabric. They’re only putting the fabric on it because a customer asked them to do so. I mean, the road is endless on something like this, and thank goodness the FTC in its wisdom realized that. The industry was very forthcoming in telling its story, and ultimately in putting language on upholstery hangtags that had to do with the care of the product, the proper care of the product, and in a sense giving a warning to consumers in a general way.
INTERVIEWER: After the factory associations merged, were you the sole industry lobbyist?
GERARD: No, I had another person, an assistant.
INTERVIEWER: Did you also have an office manager?
GERARD: Well, her title was administrative assistant, and she was absolutely top drawer. Everybody in our office had to function perfectly because we were representing the industry and we had a huge plate in front of us. I mean we stepped out immediately and began working very diligently. Within a week, I think, I had my administrative assistant, and within three weeks I had a young woman who worked as my assistant for about six years. I can't recall for sure if she was a native of Mississippi or her parents were from Mississippi, but she had at that point worked for the American Cotton Council, and I knew she was good. Her name was Betty Grace Terpstra.
Her title was director of congressional and regulatory affairs, and she did everything just like I did. We operated as a team, in perfect tandem. We knew what we were doing every day, and we kept ourselves on top of everything. We would have an office meeting every Monday morning. We would decide where we were and what needed to done, along with the top priorities and we went after it. Things tend to move pretty quickly in Washington, and you've got to stay on top of all the important issues.
INTERVIEWER: Let's talk about the furniture flammability issue, which first came up before your time.
GERARD: Oh, yes, that had started back in the early '70s and had perked along and perked along. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) had long been concerned about the fire safety of upholstered furniture, and some people wanted the CPSC to adopt a mandatory standard. That would be a federal regulation or rule, which supposedly would make furniture less likely to catch fire if someone dropped a lighted cigarette on a sofa or chair.
When I came into the industry, the manufacturers already had created an organization called UFAC, which stood for the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. It was a relatively young industry group at that time which advocated the development of a voluntary industry standard on upholstered furniture flammability, as opposed to a mandatory federal standard. But I think it was clear, even by that time, which the UFAC was going to be quite successful at creating an effective voluntary standard. The leadership of the industry, whether it was from NAFM or SFMA, were represented on the UFAC board, and the group worked together very diligently to make sure it was a successful program.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of guidance did the industry give you on the flammability issue, and what sort of feedback did you give the industry on how you could help the cause from your Washington office?
GERARD: I had met a friend of mine who at that point was working for the Treasury Department. I had gotten to know him on The Hill. Here again, it shows how important it is to have this experience on The Hill. It’s funny how you meet people so quickly and you become friendly with people, if it’s nothing more than just a meeting of the eyes. You’re operating so hard and so fast, but you know immediately if you like someone or if you dislike them. I mean, it’s just that way. I had met this lovely man whose card is still in my Rolodex, although I can’t think of his name right now. He had told me about the UFAC and its origins and what it was up to before I ever went to work for the industry. Therefore, I had a little bit of a leg up in that regard.
Clearly, the industry was opposed to a mandatory regulatory standard, because the standards that were being discussed by either the U.S. Department of Commerce or the Consumer Product Safety Commission were quite complex and restrictive and would have cost the American consumer a ton of money as well as, of course, the industry. It simply was not good business. Think back to the early '80s and recall the cost of money. It was 18, 19, and 21 percent as an interest rate. That’s if you could even get it. Furniture industry people were naturally quite concerned about any additional costs that involved either the purchasing of a product or the making of a product. Also at that point, the economy was in recession and many furniture manufacturers, not to mention all kinds of other businesses, were struggling just to stay in business.
We worked diligently with the CPSC to make them understand the industry's viewpoint, and to show them that the voluntary UFAC standard was proving quite effective in reducing the number of deaths and injuries caused by upholstered furniture fires. At that point, they had five members, including a man who is now at the Consumers Union, David Pittle. David may have been the chairman of the commission at that time. He had a very able assistant, a man named Bob Adler, who is a commissioner today. When it ultimately came down to a vote, the commission indeed voted to allow the voluntary industry standard to do its work. The CPSC reserved the right to check into its effectiveness again in the future. They did revisit the issue later, and again voted to accept the UFAC standard rather than create a federal regulation.
That issue was effectively taken off the board until much later in my career, when a new wrinkle started developing in Washington. There was a man named Pete Starber, whose modus operandi was to go into an industry and see a potential regulation that could be imposed, then suggest to the industry that he could get Washington off the industry's back if they would help his business if you will. Our industry was not that kind of industry, so we refused to do that.
I will say that the entire regulatory process has improved because the furniture industry has matured. It has become more cognizant of its obligations to society and to safety. That's true of other industries as well, even the tobacco industry, particularly with regard to the development of a safer cigarette. From the furniture industry's perspective, that means a cigarette that self-extinguishes when it's not puffed, which obviously greatly lessens the chance that a cigarette could ignite a piece of upholstered furniture. A reasonably mandatory federal standard with respect to a more fire-safe cigarette was ultimately worked out. But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge to get to that point.
The furniture industry supported the work of Congressman Joe Moakley, who was from Massachusetts. A child of one of his constituents was killed in a horrible fire believed to have been caused by a cigarette. It so upset his wife that she said, “Joe, you’ve just got to do something about making cigarettes safer.” Well, it's funny how Washington works. Joe Moakley and I were friends, and we lived in the same condominium complex. He and I did a good deal of work together. He supported UFAC and UFAC supported his efforts to develop a safer cigarette. Today we have such a cigarette. If you were to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes today – if you can afford them and you’re foolish enough to continue smoking – you would see that there are bands in several places on the cigarette paper. Those bands are there to put the cigarette out if it’s put down or dropped. The cigarette will go out before it ignites a chair, carpet or drapery in most cases.
INTERVIEWER: Your main task was to convince the CPSC and the Congress that the voluntary UFAC standards were effective and sufficient.
GERARD: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: In the meantime, the industry and your office were able to encourage the development of a safer cigarette. That couldn't have been easy, given the fact that the tobacco lobby is notoriously powerful.
GERARD: Absolutely, they were. And they still are today. They got very upset with Joe Moakley, but his safer cigarette act eventually passed.
There used to be an organization called the National Bureau of Standards. It’s now called NIST, but don’t ask me what that acronym stands for. It was charged with the responsibility of coming up with a safer cigarette. They created an advisory board of interested parties, including representatives of the tobacco industry. Ultimately, that group put together a game plan and thus developed a safer cigarette. Then several states started requiring that only those safer cigarettes could be sold in their state. I think New York State may have been the first.
Those safer cigarettes are everywhere now. I don’t think you can buy a cigarette in this country that’s not safer from a fire-ignition standpoint.
INTERVIEWER: But ultimately, didn't the CPSC adopt a mandatory standard on upholstered furniture flammability?
GERARD: They have developed a proposed standard that appears to be agreeable to the industry at this time. But the final rule, the final proposal, has not been put out for comments yet.
INTERVIEWER: It’s still in progress?
GERARD: It’s still in progress.
INTERVIEWER: Doesn’t the new proposed mandatory standard now include ignition by small, open flames like candles and cigarette lighters, which goes beyond the requirements for cigarette ignition?
GERARD: The standard does not now cover small, open flames. There was a time when it appeared that those would be included. But approximately 90 percent of furniture flammability has to do with ignition from cigarettes.
Now the textile industry is of the opinion that the development of the so-called self-extinguishing cigarette makes a cigarette ignition standard useless. The furniture industry is supportive of a standard, at least at this juncture. We’ll see what happens. We haven’t seen the final standard. But it appears, from the language I've seen, that the CPSC's proposed standard is very UFAC-like, except of course it would be a mandatory standard. We’ll see where we go from here.
Now along the way in all this, we discovered there were many FR (fire-resistant) chemicals that supposedly could be applied to upholstery fabrics.
INTERVIEWER: Fire-resistant or fire-retardant?
GERARD: Some of these chemicals had been used in consumer products through the years, until it was found that they were carcinogenic or suspected carcinogens. Most of them are bromine related. Still, some people thought these and some other kinds of chemicals should be applied to upholstery fabric to help prevent ignition by small, open flames. When we first broached the subject of these chemicals possibly causing cancer, people actually laughed at us. They thought we were bringing the subject up simply to avoid an open-flame standard. But that had nothing to do with it. Several European countries had already banned the use of these substances, and we knew that. Our regulators were very late to the ballgame on this.
That was mostly because of the way the laws are written for chemicals to be allowed to go into the marketplace in our nation. That probably needs to be changed. In Europe it’s different. There needs to be more testing on chemicals before they go into the marketplace where ordinary consumers are in contact with these things. These brominated chemicals have pretty well been shown to be carcinogenic. They’re also additive; they accumulate in the body over time. When they get into the human body, they have a tendency to go into the mammary glands of females and then are ingested by babies. That’s not good stuff.
The EPA is all over this subject now, to its credit. They should have been all over it years and years ago. But again, it’s a strange world in Washington. I suspect the chemical industry had a good deal to do with the writing of the laws that allow chemicals to go into the mainstream of American society. But we’ll see. That’s just a suspicion on my part based on my own experience.
INTERVIEWER: How difficult was it for you as an industry representative, as a lobbyist, to convince the CSPC and Congress that a mandatory flammability regulation wasn't needed?
GERARD: Oh, I had my hands full. I had my hands full with a lot of subjects. In our office we handled international trade and environmental issues of all sizes and shapes. We did regulatory and congressional issues. We were very busy people. Basically, when it was all over with, I had burned out, which is why I retired. Financially, it would have been far better for me to have stayed on for at least another couple of years. It would have helped my pension immeasurably. But I was burned out.
INTERVIEWER: Before we get to your retirement, tell us about some of the other issues you had to deal with.
GERARD: One of the first talks I made to the industry was to the manufacturing division of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association. The SFMA had several divisions, and the manufacturing division naturally was one of the largest. There could have been 200 to 300 people in the room. I told them that I had just come from Ford Motor Company, and Ford was already experiencing great difficulties because of the influx of imports, at that point primarily from Japan. I said, “Watch out, because the furniture industry is next. You should begin as an industry to prepare yourself for this influx of foreign products, and figure out how best you can adjust to that influx for survival purposes.”
I don’t know if anybody even heard me. I have no idea. That would have been about February or March of 1981. That was the first talk I ever gave to the industry, and that was one of my principle points. I could see it coming because of my experience working for Ford Motor Company.
INTERVIEWER: Well, back in ’81 imports had barely begun in the furniture industry. So people probably thought you were just a bit crazy.
GERARD: Flapping my lips.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, we know what happened subsequently. That trickle of imports eventually became a flood.
GERARD: That’s correct. But even then I could see it coming. I mean, we had furniture manufacturing being done in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. They made dinettes and a wide variety of other products, and those products were being shipped into the U.S. duty free, yet we couldn’t export to that country duty free. It became a matter of free and fair trade. What finally developed in all this, was that the furniture industry did not go down the road of the textile industry, which mainly just tried to ban any imports, with the result that the domestic textile industry mostly ceased to exist. In the furniture industry, most of the leading companies went into at least some importing themselves. They were interested in what could be done.
That's what I had suggested in that talk to the manufacturers. You can try to go down the road of the textile industry, but you will lose, and you will spend a lot of time and money on things that won't save you. Or you can begin to adjust to the influx of imports, perhaps through the importation of parts and components, utilizing those components in your products within your existing factories. That's one way to continue to compete as best as you can here in America. Of course, there are other ways to adjust. Ashley is an example of that. They do a lot of importing and a lot of domestic production as well.
The manufacturers who are still in existence today have pretty much done that. They have sought to blend the best of their talents with the best of the talents from around the world in putting out their final product. That’s what international trade and the world economy is supposed to be about. Now we all know there are things that are broken in the world economy and need to be fixed. But we have the capability to realize what those are and deal with them. I’m very optimistic that they will be dealt with in the future by somebody a lot younger than I am.
INTERVIEWER: Talk about some of the other key issues you had to deal with in Washington.
GERARD: There were several environmental issues, including those involved with the Clean Air Act. We spent about three to three-and-a-half years developing air pollution standards for the industry that ultimately went through during Bill Clinton’s administration. We were working almost night and day, one of the most difficult periods of my life, just incredibly difficult. The industry supported the idea of cleaner air, but only at a reasonable cost. We had industry executives and experts up and down the line at our beck and call in negotiating those regulations with the Environmental Protection Agency. Ultimately, what came out on the other end of the process was something that was good for the environment and good for the industry. The industry got a very good name out of it as a result. We were not just naysayers, but positive actors in the process. It’s always better to be that - than it is to just say no, no, no all the time to any attempts to regulate an industry.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re talking about the industry’s image in Washington.
INTERVIEWER: So you weren’t getting a lot of mixed messages from the industry itself on clean air regulations?
GERARD: No, while I was operating the Washington office, the industry was united on every major issue that we dealt with.
INTERVIEWER: There was never a hard core of naysayers who were just against everything and anything that had to do with government regulation?
GERARD: There were people who would cuss and fuss in the background, and occasionally they would get on the phone with me and cuss and fuss. But I’m a big boy and that’s part of my job. I dealt courteously with them just like I would anybody else.
INTERVIEWER: But the industry as a whole was pretty much in favor of reasonable regulations, or ones that didn’t impose unreasonable restrictions.
GERARD: That is correct. You know, we live in a modern society, and our manufacturers are well educated and typically well-traveled today. They've probably seen some places where the factories are dirty and the general environment unclean. They really don't want their factories and our country's environment to be like that. They’ve got to be pretty cosmopolitan people to continue to be successful in this kind of business environment. Those who have survived deserve great credit.
I wish those that did not survive had taken more positive steps and had been just more proactive on all fronts, because I think they could have done more to save their businesses. But that’s all water under the bridge.
INTERVIEWER: Why don’t you touch a little bit on trade? One of the big issues in the industry while you were in Washington was the North American Free Trade Agreement.
GERARD: Yes, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which was finally completed in the Clinton administration, was a big deal, as was clearing some of the last major hurdles in reaching the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was known as GATT. The big deal there, ultimately, was getting the president on board. He was so wound up in health care reform, because that was Hillary Clinton’s issue, that I frankly think his staff didn’t have time to deal effectively with the critical issues of international trade. The responsibility for trade negotiations fell mostly on the staffs of the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Department of Commerce, since they weren't involved in health care reform at all.
Our industry was very involved in working out both the NAFTA and GATT agreements, and in both instances the industry supported the passage of those agreements. In regard to NAFTA, that involved trade deals with both Canada and Mexico. I think both proved good for the U.S. furniture industry.
INTERVIEWER: How so?
GERARD: Well, eventually, Mexico would reduce its tariffs to zero, where previously it had pretty high tariff barriers against shipments from the U.S. Unfortunately, soon after the U.S. ratified NAFTA, the Mexican government devalued their currency. That put their products at an advantage over ours and it made it a lot more difficult to send American goods down to Mexico.
INTERVIEWER: Wasn't there something called the Maquiladora program already in place in Mexico?
GERARD: There was and as I recall, it allowed U.S. manufacturers to set up factories in Mexico near the U.S. border, under very favorable tax treatment, and they could make products there that would be shipped to the United States. Mexico benefited from the jobs created, and the U.S. companies got the benefit of lower wage costs in Mexico. There were several of our manufacturers who had plants down there and were taking advantage of the program. Most of the manufacturers who were doing that were based in Texas, California or Arizona.
INTERVIEWER: What about the trade relationship with Canada?
GERARD: At the beginning, I don't believe there was a great deal of furniture product going either way, but if I recall, the Canadians had tariffs on U.S. furniture and the U.S. didn't on theirs. So our factories saw NAFTA as a good opportunity for them, as those tariffs were eliminated. They had been a thorn in our side. But, the Canadians became more aggressive in furniture than the Mexicans did and, along with an exchange rate favorable to them, began sending much more furniture to the U.S., although these days that favorable exchange rate has pretty much disappeared, and some of our factories have done well in Canada too. That's pretty much what free trade is all about. Ideally, it creates a level playing field where any company can go head-to-head with any other company, and that competition will benefit everybody, including the consumer.
INTERVIEWER: What other things were on your plate? How about plant safety and issues related to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration?
GERARD: Wood dust in furniture plants was a big issue that I worked on for about three or three-and-a-half years. The industry developed what it believed was a reasonable solution to the wood dust problem, which would be to have a workplace standard allowing five milligrams of wood dust per cubic meter of air, which is a very small amount. I think that was the proposed new standard, and I think the old standard was 15 milligrams per cubic meter. But some people were pushing for a standard of one milligram per cubic meter, which we thought was unreasonably extreme and severe. We got some experts to help us, and to testify before OSHA on the new standard. I had a very good friend of mine who was an expert OSHA lawyer, and while he was unable to help directly, he was of assistance with helping me develop the testimony for our witnesses, and in understanding the type of witnesses that we would need.
One of our witnesses was a man named Mr. Colbert from Martinsville, Virginia. I’ll never forget him. I think his company also was called Colbert, and they may still be in business, although I don’t know that for sure. His company engineered and manufactured exhaust systems for factories, and that included furniture plants. His company was very good at what it did, and had a very good reputation in the business.
I first talked to Mr. Colbert on the phone. I would never call him a professional witness. You know a professional witness when you run into them. They’re smooth as silk. Mr. Colbert was not a person who was smooth as silk. But I’ll tell you what he was. He was an honorable gentleman and he knew his business better than most.
At an OSHA hearing on wood dust, he was asked, “Well, why aren't you in favor of a one milligram per cubic meter standard? Since you make the exhaust systems, wouldn't you make more money with a stricter standard?” And he said, “Well, it's because I want to have customers in the future.” He said, “You can’t get the wood dust down that far because the system would have to be incredibly expensive. No one could afford to do business in this country.”
That was a great answer. And that’s almost a direct quote, except he was much more colorful than I was just then. He was a wonderful witness. Every now and then in the business that I was in, you run across somebody who really does move the needle, and Mr. Colbert moved the needle.
But do you know what's really the most helpful? It’s having an industry that's so incredibly supportive of the work that my team was doing in Washington. We were lean and mean. But I think most people for whom we worked realized we were working really hard in our efforts to help them deal with whatever governmental intervention was involved, whether it was a tax issue, an OSHA matter or an environmental issue.
We had people down in High Point on the association staff who were invaluable to me, particularly Doug Brackett. I cannot tell you how many times, how many hours, I spent with Doug through the years, bouncing ideas off him. Doug would always know other people in the industry who could be of help to me. He'd say, “I think you might want to talk with so-and-so.” I would call so-and-so, and they would always be willing to give me their expert advice, and help me figure out what to do on a particular issue. Industry folks were always willing to testify before Congress or the regulatory agencies when necessary. That kind of support is simply invaluable.
INTERVIEWER: These were the folks who had the technical and business knowledge about furniture manufacturing that you couldn't be expected to have.
GERARD: Absolutely. All I could do was try to learn it to the best of my ability, and then represent the industry in Washington with the help that they would give me. That's what I tried to do.
INTERVIEWER: In general, it sounds to me that you were mostly playing defense, trying to fend off things, trying to protect the industry from over-regulation.
GERARD: We had a very good defense. But at the same time, we always sought to have an excellent offense. Sometimes people might miss the offense because of the defense, but the offense was always there.
INTERVIEWER: Give us an example.
GERARD: I think the UFAC is a perfect example. I had nothing to do with the creation of the UFAC. I simply sought to defend it. But the UFAC is a great example of the industry being proactive with respect to an issue that was brought to it by the federal government. In this case cigarette ignition of upholstered furniture. In effect, the government is saying, “What are you going to do about it? Because if you don’t do something about it, we’re going to do something about it, and this is what we’re thinking about doing.” Well, let us think about it, Mr. CSPC. And from that UFAC was developed. You had a whole host of wonderful people who got involved in doing something that needed to be done, whether it was Hampton Powell at Lane, Roy Briggs or Joe Ziolkowski. I could sit here and go on and on.
Many, many important industry people were interested and involved in government affairs issues back in those days. Dick Udouj was always interested in these issues. So was Buck Shuford, or Harley F. Shuford Jr., to use his given name. I remember him as a very quiet man who was incredibly intelligent, and who became a good personal friend.
Buck wrote me a letter right after I had been employed by the SFMA. He was president of the SFMA at that time. It was about a three-paragraph letter – your typical CEO letter to somebody. He had a lead-in paragraph, saying welcome aboard and so forth. Then he had this really meaty second paragraph, which was probably no more than about six or eight, maybe nine lines long. But it had more meat in it than some 15-page letters, because within those nine lines, he covered more territory than I could imagine. You could just see his mind working.
INTERVIEWER: What did he say?
GERARD: I can’t recall exactly; it’s too long ago. But he laid out things that he expected me to be doing, and one of the things was to create a good impression for the industry in Washington. He said that to be successful, a human being never needs to do anything more than to rely on his God-given wits and to be honorable. That's exactly what I sought to do throughout my career in the industry.
I would go into people’s offices, whether they were regulators or members of Congress or the staff, and they always knew that when I was there I was not there to play fun and games. I was there to accomplish things for this industry. I could have fun and I liked to have fun. I enjoyed having great times just like I’m sure everybody does. But I’m operating a three-person office for an industry that employed, back in those days, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people in this country. It was a fairly heavy responsibility.
You know, I’ve got a list of issues at home that I dealt with, and I used to keep those pretty close at hand. I don’t think I have those at my disposal at the present time.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any major tax issues?
GERARD: There were, yes, but we were usually able to deal with those fairly forthrightly. That was back in the days when Dan Rostenkowski was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. We had Chicago manufacturers then, who had employees in his district. He was very interested in our industry. We had several CEOs go into meetings with him. I participated in those meetings.
INTERVIEWER: What were the issues?
GERARD: They were trade and tax related. Any trade issues would have had to do with free and fair trade with Canada, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Taiwan or what have you. But he was always very receptive.
We also had a wonderful member of Congress whose son, John Duncan, Jr. may still represent that district. He was a lovely man and I always enjoyed working with him. We had a number of manufacturers in his district. He was from Tennessee and was quite a nice man.
INTERVIEWER: So you had to keep in touch with all of these key people on The Hill?
GERARD: Yes, I did. But, you know, that part is easy. Developing the message is the hard part, and delivering the message in a way that’s thoughtful and convincing, that is truthful, and that will accomplish, ultimately, what the industry needs. We worked very hard to make sure that those elements were well thought out before we ever took them to The Hill or to a regulatory agency
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about FURN-PAC, the furniture manufacturers' political action committee that supported certain candidates for federal offices.
GERARD: That had been pretty much a sleeping animal when I came on board.
INTERVIEWER: Sleeping midget, maybe? As I recall, FURN-PAC never had the kind of money to throw around that PACs representing, say, the dairy farmers or even the raisin folks had, to make their views known in Washington.
GERARD: You’re talking about the agriculture cabal now. We all know they had some real money to support their efforts and that they had real clout in Washington. From George Washington’s time on, I know that in politics money is important. It’s just a fact of life.
But let me tell you something. I never met a politician who would be so gross as to try to twist your arm for money. I do recall one such person, and he’s no longer in Congress, I’m pleased to report. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Members of Congress who want to put their arm on people for money are missing the game. Money is important, but there are much bigger things for members of Congress and people working for American citizens to do, than to be involved in a money game. Of course I know there are some big money games in Washington today. I know that. I’m not a kid. I’m very much aware of that.
In my early time with this industry, FURN-PAC was a very small political action committee, but it became much more significant under the auspices of such leaders as Dick Udouj, Rob Spillman of Bassett and others. We went from raising approximately $20,000 during an election cycle to about $200,000, which is a tenfold increase.
INTERVIEWER: You yourself would have had something to do with that, obviously.
GERARD: I did, but not really. The furniture manufacturers had something to do with that. All I did was to convince some of the manufacturers, and then they convinced other manufacturers of the importance of political action, which includes money, obviously, but that's not the whole of it. It’s a way of doing business, of making your voice heard better in a national realm. And that’s all there is to it.
But I want to go back to where this started. I’m sitting here telling you that during my first two, three or four years with the industry, the impact of the money we could raise was very small. Nevertheless, I never had a problem in getting the attention of any member of Congress, or the attention of any regulatory official, because the industry would activate itself. All they needed was somebody to help them to do the job better, and that was part of my job.
We all know about writing letters and making telephone calls to people in Washington. Today you’ve got e-mails, faxes and God only knows what other ways to communicate. But back then, it was primarily through cards and letters and telephone calls, and face-to-face. That’s pretty much the way people communicated with each other back in the '80s and even the '90s.
I never had any trouble whatsoever getting the industry’s voice heard. I might have had some initial trouble getting the attention of the people in Washington on a particular issue, but then I would send out an alert to the industry, and they would begin to hear from our people, from their constituents.
INTERVIEWER: So you were part of a process that activated the people.
GERARD: Absolutely, that’s what any representative, any good representative, does for his people.
INTERVIEWER: So you would send out legislative alerts?
GERARD: Sure, legislative and regulatory alerts.
INTERVIEWER: And then the industry would actually call and write to their congressmen and senators?
GERARD: Absolutely, I would sit in my office sometimes and call all day and into the night. And my staff would do the same, calling...
INTERVIEWER: You mean calling people in the industry?
GERARD: Absolutely! Let me tell you about one time this happened. This was early in my career, and I think it had to do with care labeling. We had called people in the industry and asked them to contact their Washington representatives on this matter. A few days later, a staff person from Senator Hollings office called – he was a senator from South Carolina – and this staff person asked to speak to my assistant Betty Grace, because she knew Betty Grace personally. She said, “Betty Grace, you can stop all those phone calls from your people now.” She said, “We've gotten the message and here's what we’re going to do.” I really got tickled about that. But, that’s part of how the representation process works.
You know, when the President of the United States goes on television and says write your congressman, how many people actually do it? How many can he motivate? I had all the support in the world from my industry, even in the early stages when I was still setting up the office. They really supported me, and I appreciated them and I think they did me. I had a nice career, and I still have things that I’m able to contribute to the industry, and I’m doing it.
INTERVIEWER: We’ll get to that shortly. First, let me ask you about the legislative meetings you and the association held in Washington about once a year, as I recall. You would bring a group of American Furniture Manufacturers Association leaders to Washington for several days, and they would hear talks by members of Congress, and also visit with a number of key legislators in their offices, right?
INTERVIEWER: Describe what that was all about.
GERARD: There were key members of Congress who needed to be contacted on specific issues, and it was my job to let the people for whom I worked know who those members were, and help to make the appropriate contacts. This was simply straightforward lobbying. There was nothing unreasonable about a CEO of a furniture manufacturing company having a heart-to-heart, face-to-face conversation with a member of Congress where the company might have three, four, five hundred employees working in the member's district. The issue would be vital to the health of that plant or that company, as the case may be. That’s all we did. There’s no secret about it.
This is the thing that astounds me today when people start talking about those “dirty” lobbyists. There are crooks who’ve been lobbyists. There are crooks who have been doctors, lawyers, car dealers. But are most doctors, lawyers, lobbyists and so forth, dishonorable? No, I don’t think so. I think they’re honorable people going about their business in an honorable way. That’s what I think. But again, I’m an optimistic person.
INTERVIEWER: What I’ve heard you say is that, even though the furniture industry didn’t have large sums of money to spread around on Capital Hill, it didn’t really make that much difference. You didn’t need to buy access.
GERARD: Absolutely, you don’t need to buy access. People who are trying to buy access are people who are, I think, trying to use government for nefarious purposes. That’s what I think. Sure, such things have happened throughout the history of our country. These things happen. But our industry wasn't trying to do that.
INTERVIEWER: What you’re saying is that even as a relatively small industry, small in comparison with, say, the auto industry, and without a lot of money to give out, you were still able to get the furniture industry's voice heard in Washington.
INTERVIEWER: The industry needed someone who knew their way around Capital Hill, and the industry needed to support that person, and you got that support and you were able to be effective.
GERARD: Absolutely, you either needed to know an issue or learn an issue, and you can go a long way with that knowledge. Here's an example. When we started recognizing that more and more imports were coming from Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Canada and so forth, I started going to international trade seminars in Washington. Eventually, I was put on the U.S. Department of Commerce's Consumer Products Group, and was part of a group called ISAC, for Industry Sector Advisory Committee. You know, I needed top-secret clearance to be on that committee. I felt I was really plugged in!
INTERVIEWER: I think we've covered the major issues you had to deal with. You said that, in the end, you simply got burned out.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us what happened.
GERARD: Well, I started working for the industry as a young man, and after I had been doing this work for nearly 20 years, I certainly was no longer a young man. I think I needed more assistance.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever ask for more assistance?
GERARD: You know, I don’t think I realized I was burned out and needed more help in doing what I'd been doing in Washington until very near the end.
INTERVIEWER: So you retired in early 2000. You were just burned out and needed to get away, apparently.
GERARD: I felt like I was, yes. I felt like what the industry needed was me as a young man, and I was no longer a young man.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since?
GERARD: I continued to try to assist the industry with respect to its efforts involving the UFAC. I became a consultant to the UFAC, and I still am now. I think anybody who has been in this industry for any length of time falls in love with it, and will want to stay connected to it in some way. I always like to say I represented the most honorable people in the world. Except in only one instance, no one ever asked me to do something that was incorrect or unethical.
INTERVIEWER: Only one instance in nearly 20 years?
GERARD: Only one. I told that person right on the spot that what he wanted me to do wasn’t in my job description. I must have dealt with hundreds, maybe thousands of people within the industry. So that’s not a bad record. It was just an inappropriate request.
INTERVIEWER: So you continue to serve as a consultant to UFAC. Is there anything else you've been involved in related to the furniture industry since your retirement as Washington counsel?
GERARD: No, I do as most people do in retirement. I play a little golf. I enjoy our grandchildren. My wife and I are Episcopalians, and I've been elected to the vestry of our church, which is the lay governing body of our church. I’m active in other church affairs there. We moved back to Little Rock, which as I indicated earlier was where I was born. My wife, while she is not a native of Little Rock, is a native Arkansan, and she had lived in Little Rock at one point. Retiring in Little Rock was a logical thing for us. One of our children, with two of our grandchildren, lives in Little Rock and we get to enjoy those grandchildren. Our other grandchildren are in San Francisco, Denver and Fort Worth, so we're much closer to them in Little Rock than we would have been if we'd stayed in Washington.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any favorite charities or charitable activities?
GERARD: Just my church. My wife and I are getting ready – I’m not sure she’s going to follow through with this, but I’m going to follow through with it – to get involved in a literacy project that’s operating in Little Rock, teaching people how to speak English. Even with my Southern accent I think I can do that. I’m going to get a little bit of schooling on how to properly do it, and then I’m going to engage in that. I think that will be a nice use of my time.
INTERVIEWER: You're still coming to the High Point markets as a consultant to the UFAC. What do you remember about the first furniture market you attended?
GERARD: Oh, my! Let me go back a little to the time before I came to my first furniture market. Of course, I was on the Washington office staff of the Ford Motor Company. Technically, we reported directly to the chairman, so we could theoretically pick up the phone and call Henry Ford II. Now I never actually did that, but technically we could have. But what I did do was go to Dearborn, Michigan, near Detroit, which is the home office of Ford Motor Company. I went to Dearborn quite a bit, and I loved the people there. I came across some very well-educated people who were very intent on representing the Ford Motor Company to the best of their ability. You get infused with this spirit and get with it. I especially remember going to Ford’s huge River Rouge plant, which at that time was, if I remember correctly, the largest industrial facility in the world.
OK, you asked what I remembered about my first High Point market. Now this may sound a little funny, but what I remember most vividly was looking out from the top floor of the big market building, now called the International Home Furnishings Center, and thinking: How little this market is! I guess I had in my mind's eye that River Rouge plant, and how it would go on and on, almost as far as the eye could see.
Yet, there was a spirit in this industry that I had never come across at the Ford Motor Company. It was this great entrepreneurial spirit. All these different people were coming together in High Point from all over the world, from all over the United States, and selling their products. That was what really impressed me. High Point is still the No. 1 market in the United States and, God willing, I hope it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I guess there are larger furniture markets in Cologne, Germany, or Milan, Italy, but I’ve never been to either one of them so I don’t know.
My wife and I continue to come to every High Point market because the UFAC has a board meeting here. That’s why we come, and also to visit with some of our longtime friends in the industry. The UFAC board comes together and we talk about what is going on with respect to government rule making, and what we’re doing, and what we should be doing. So it’s a typical board meeting.
INTERVIEWER: What about your own personal political philosophy? You mentioned earlier how your father, you and Senator McClellan were kind of on the same wavelength, I believe.
INTERVIEWER: Would you describe yourself, at that point at least, as a typical Southern Democrat, perhaps?
GERARD: Yes, and I still am. But there are very few Southern conservative Democrats anymore to speak of. Occasionally, you run across one, but they’re a rare breed. You’re talking to one. But most people in the South now are voting for Republicans, and I think that's mostly because of the lack of the old Southern conservative Democrats.
INTERVIEWER: But the furniture industry is almost all Republican, is it not?
GERARD: I would say that’s a fair statement.
INTERVIEWER: Was that ever an obstacle to you during your Washington career?
GERARD: No, I had to deal with both sides. Maybe it was a problem once, but only with one person.
INTERVIEWER: I'd say that’s pretty amazing.
GERARD: One beautiful part about our system is that it is big enough to where, in almost all instances, if a person thinks they’re big enough that they can block something worthwhile that's being done - you can work around them. We can do that, and we did.
INTERVIEWER: And you say you’re an optimist?
INTERVIEWER: So even though much of the furniture manufacturing industry has left this country, you still see good times ahead for U.S. furniture manufacturers?
GERARD: Oh, I hope so. You know, I’ve been away from the industry except in this relatively minor role as a consultant to the UFAC for 12 years now. My how time flies when you’re having fun! I believe in our country. I think that if our talents in furniture manufacturing have passed, something else will take its place. But I don’t think that our time for excellent furniture manufacturing in this country is past. I think we still have a good future if we’ll simply grab it and run with it. But that’s for people younger than I am.
INTERVIEWER: Perhaps the most divisive issue in this industry came up after you retired, but I'd like to ask you about it anyway. I'm talking about the antidumping case, where a small group of U.S. furniture makers got the U.S. government to impose duties on much of the wooden bedroom furniture imported from China. Many manufacturers refused to participate in the proceedings, and most retailers were outraged because they said it would cut off some of their suppliers and raise prices for them and thus consumers.
GERARD: That certainly was a divisive issue, but I'm not sure it was the most divisive one. You always have the potential for such divisiveness to occur, although while I was with the industry that never happened. I don’t want to make our organization sound like a bunch of plastic men, because that’s not what we were. We sought to take all thoughts and sides into consideration, and then act according to the information that we had received in a positive way. We tried to develop a thoughtful message based on what the people who paid our salaries wanted us to do. You’re right, the antidumping case was something that occurred after I retired, so I wasn't involved in that.
INTERVIEWER: It pitted manufacturers against retailers in a pretty direct way.
GERARD: I recall an earlier case, one that came up when I was in Washington, which also involved the way manufacturers did business with retailers. There was a man named Edgar B. Broyhill – I'm pretty sure he was part of the Broyhill family that's famous in furniture, but I can't remember his exact relationship – who started a furniture retailing company down in North Carolina. He was what the industry called a North Carolina discounter. There were a number of them during the '80s, as I recall, and they would sell furniture at a discount over the telephone to people in other states, particularly to folks in the Northeast. Some of them had stores and some of them sold solely through 800 phone numbers. Retailers in those other states complained to their manufacturers who also sold to the discounters, because the discounters were undercutting their prices, especially since the discounters didn't have to collect local sales taxes, like they did.
The upshot was that some North Carolina manufacturers cut off some of the discounters, including Edgar Broyhill. He fought back, saying in essence that if a North Carolina manufacturer like Thomasville, had agreed to sell me product at one point, then they’re going to have to sell me product for the rest of my business life, however long it lasts. He and other discounters asked the North Carolina legislature to pass a law to that effect.
You simply can’t make good business decisions like that. Business between retailers and manufacturers has to be at arm’s length. If it isn’t at arm’s length then you’re fast approaching antitrust issues, and those are knotty issues with five-fold damage awards. You just don't want to go there. The manufacturers certainly didn't want the state dictating that if they had sold to a retailer once, then they would have to sell to him forever.
We did manage to end that problem. Alex Bernhardt made a magnificent presentation of the furniture manufacturers' case before the North Carolina legislature on this Edgar Broyhill issue. It was during one of the High Point furniture markets that he went down to the legislature to testify. Alex Bernhardt started his testimony by saying that North Carolina had always been manufacturer friendly, and he expected that North Carolina would continue to be manufacturer friendly. That furniture manufacturers at this very moment were engaged in one of their two biggest selling periods of the year during one of the furniture markets in High Point. Then he proceeded to go through the various issues point by point. When he left, I think that was the end of it.
INTERVIEWER: So the issue was essentially the manufacturer’s right to cut off a retailer.
GERARD: Just as a retailer can stop buying from a manufacturer as he sees fit, so can a manufacturer withhold product from a retailer if the manufacturer sees fit. In other words, nobody has to do business with anybody. People do business together to their mutual benefit by their mutual agreement.
This issue, by the way, was bigger than just a North Carolina issue. It was much bigger because this issue was operating at the national level as well. There was a man whose name I can’t remember now, but who was trying to get a bill through the U.S. Congress that, basically, would have done what this bill in North Carolina was trying to do, namely, force manufacturers to sell to retailers forever if they had ever sold to them. Except this bill would have covered all manufacturers and retailers, not just North Carolina furniture manufacturers and retailers. Well, that’s just not the way to do business.
I think the man whose name I can't remember was the owner of a discount apparel retail chain called Burlington Coat Factory. And somebody had cut him off, and he decided that he was going to put an end to that. He had some clout in Congress and he started pushing this bill, and pretty soon this thing was steamrolling. That got the entire manufacturing community alerted, including our industry.
It didn't take me long, as a lobbyist, to convince members of Congress that it wasn't fair to hold manufacturers hostage to the whims of retailers. I had several members of our association talk to their congressmen about this issue. Ultimately, the bill failed to pass the House.
I think since the Edgar Broyhill and Burlington Coat Factory incidents, everything’s worked out pretty well for furniture makers and furniture retailers. I think manufacturers are now satisfied with the way retailers are handling their products, and I think retailers are now more satisfied with the way manufacturers are selling products to them. I can’t tell you for sure because I’m no longer in the business. But I do know that we were fighting an unfair way of doing business back in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Now that more and more upholstery is being imported into this country, do you think the voluntary UFAC standards on flammability can be effective, or will a mandatory federal standard be necessary to stop imports that don't meet UFAC's standards?
GERARD: We’ll see. I think that could become more of a customs issue than a regulatory issue. If you have a mandatory standard and you’ve got a non-compliant product coming in from abroad, then customs should be enforcing the standard at the port. If they’re not, there’s something wrong.
INTERVIEWER: I can't think of any more questions to ask you. Unless you have anything you'd like to say or add, we can wind up this interview.
GERARD: I can't think of anything else at the moment.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
GERARD: My pleasure. Thank you so much.