patrick h. norton; la-z-boy, inc.
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 25, 1999
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: The first question starts with your personal background. When were you born, Pat?
NORTON: April 19, 1922.
NORTON: St. Charles County, Missouri, just west of St. Louis.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in furniture?
NORTON: No, sir. They were farmers.
INTERVIEWER: Any of your in-laws?
NORTON: In furniture? No.
INTERVIEWER: No furniture ancestry at all?
NORTON: No, I’m the original furniture man.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still have family in furniture?
NORTON: Yes, I have a son that’s in furniture – Kevin Patrick.
INTERVIEWER: Where does he work?
NORTON: He works for La-Z-Boy in southwestern Ohio.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about when you were growing up.
NORTON: I just had the normal upbringing of a farm boy. My grandfather was a rather successful farmer in central Illinois, but he and a partner went down to the Missouri bottom and bought a lot of acreage, virgin acreage, in the mid 1890s. They put a huge levee around these 3,200 acres to keep the Mississippi River out of it and prepared the farm for farming. This meant they had to break ground. They had to break sod. It was virgin soil at that time. They started farming that in the very, very late 1890s and then farmed it on through.
My father moved to that area from central Illinois in the mid-teens, and I was born in 1922. Unfortunately my father died in 1930, so from that point I didn’t have a father. It was just my mother and me. His farm was 600 acres of the 3,200 acres that my grandfather had originally bought earlier.
I went to grade school in a one-room schoolhouse about 3 miles from home. I was a Boy Scout. I was the only Protestant boy in a Catholic Boy Scout troop, which was a great learning lesson. We lived so far out in the country that, in order to have a high school and be sure I could get there, some other arrangements had to be made. I went back to central Illinois, north of Springfield, to a little town called Greenview and went to high school. I got out of school in 1939. Things were rather tough. We had gone through the Depression in a big way and I went to work immediately.
It just happened that a very dear friend that I had worked for some summers when I was in high school was the general superintendent of a company called Scruggs, Vanderhorst and Borny in St. Louis. It was a carriage trade department store. As just a barely 17-year-old kid, he gave me a job in the warehouse of the furniture department of this carriage trade department store. I stayed there about a year and a half.
It became quite obvious to me that there was going to be a war. We were importing goods from Italy and France and we were losing product. Ships were being sunk and all.
Not having any great desire to be an infantry soldier or a field artillery soldier, I convinced my mom to sign for me to join the Air Force in the latter part of 1940. That started my Air Force career.
I got through Air Force school and was assigned to a squadron and a flight crew in the late summer of 1941. We did some maneuvers. I had a rare experience of flying with some Russians at Wright-Patterson when they were over here in August of that year to look at some of our airplanes. We were going on maneuvers in November down in the Georgia-South Carolina area. We had been recalled and had been put on a very strenuous training program, obviously getting ready for war.
I’m not sure anybody knew which war it was but things changed on November 8, 1941. Then, of course, for the next month we really trained hard. Come December 7th, we were stationed at Langley Field. We had the newest bomber in what was then the United States Army Air Corps.
INTERVIEWER: Which ship was that?
NORTON: The B-26, the Martin Marauder. We were immediately dispatched to the West Coast early in the morning of December 8th. We eventually, on the 10th, ended up at what is now Edwards Air Force Base. It’s the old Muroc Dry Lake. All that was there was a flat lake bed and nothing to take care of us. There weren’t any barracks or any tents. It was very tough for a few days but everything was being sent to the West Coast.
We flew patrols out of there on the west coast of California, the west coast of Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. We did that for quite some time. We ferried a bunch of airplanes up to Anchorage, Alaska, for another group to take out into the Aleutians.
We eventually took our airplanes up to Sacramento where they were torn apart and put on ships because we could not make the flight to Hawaii. We took our airplanes to Hawaii, put them back together again, and then flew – island-hopped – down to Australia.
It was a five-day trip and then from there we started the real part of the war for us. It did give us a chance to see Pearl Harbor and Hickham Field, to see what was done to us at those sites very shortly after it happened, within 60 to 65 days. I think it gave us motivation to go over and do our job, whatever that was. That takes me very quickly from when I was born through the start of the war.
As far as going back to my early life, I had the experience of growing up without my real father in some very, very tough economic times. It certainly brought my mom and me very close together, although she did remarry later on. During some of the very early years it was just the two of us and it was interesting when you look back on it. It was an interesting life on the farm. Actually, I am thankful I had that experience.
I went to high school with my dearest friend who, because of a physical condition, could not be in the service. He took over his father’s farm immediately after he got out of school. Today I think he’s farming 2,800 acres and it amazes me to go visit him and see the equipment he uses. How he does it is awesome. It’s a different life than we lived back in the ’30s, that’s for sure.
INTERVIEWER: Briefly, back to the military – where did you wind up when you left?
NORTON: I’ll take you through my military career. Is that what you want?
INTERVIEWER: No, not all together. Just where did it end and what was your rank?
NORTON: I was a master sergeant. In fact, I was one of the youngest master sergeants ever in the Air Force. I flew 33 missions. After that was over, I was sent back to the States and we trained. For the most part we were training B-29 crews to go back over to Guam and Saipan and those places to do their thing against Japan.
I flew with the same crew, all 33 missions with essentially the same crew. Occasionally somebody would be sick and we’d have a substitute but it was the same bunch of guys. We were very close-knit, which helped bring us back. We had a great airplane, a great ground crew. We didn’t really know what we were doing because compared to the training that is established today, it didn’t exist at that particular time.
I was discharged down in Texas very early after the war in Europe was over because I had garnered a lot of what they called “points”. You had to have points to get out and I had a lot of points, which let me be in the first few people out of the Second Air Force, which was the Air Force that I was attached to at that time. I came back in late April or early May. I was discharged in May of 1945. I came right back into the furniture business.
I met my wife before the service. Her family had a friend who had a retail furniture store in St. Louis. He convinced me that I would be better off working for him than working for the department store, so I went out to this 23,000-square-foot neighborhood store in St. Louis, first as a salesman and then I managed the store.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of the store?
NORTON: Schenk Furniture. He was a very good furniture man. He had a great appreciation for quality furniture.
INTERVIEWER: We’re getting just one step ahead. Did you go to college?
NORTON: After I got back from the service, I went to night school at Washington University in St. Louis taking purely business courses. By that time I was married and working a couple to three nights a week, so night school was tough but nevertheless necessary. I never did go to college to get a degree. I went to college to learn the things that I needed to learn in my life at that particular time.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any significant happenings connected with college that have affected you later on?
NORTON: I think the thing that probably affected me the most was that almost all of the courses that I had were taught by two people. One was a professor that was regularly employed in the Business School of Washington University. Then there was also one of a series of businessmen who lectured one out of three evenings. I had the privilege of having some great businessmen teachers. I remember one particularly in ladies’ ready-to-wear, one in men’s ready-to-wear, and one in groceries whom I learned practical things from that I’ve really never forgotten, although the world has changed a lot since then.
It was interesting because the grocer was a grocer that only did business over the phone. This was in 1945 or 1946. The store had been that way and still exists practically in the same form. They take care of west St. Louis, which was a fairly affluent area then and is now. The ladies or the cooks call and order the groceries and they are delivered. There are not many of those around.
INTERVIEWER: No, not anymore. There were.
NORTON: What was interesting was I remember him telling me how he trained the telephone clerks so that they could always sell the highest-priced item while they were taking the orders over the phone. There are a lot of little techniques. I think the thing it taught me more than anything else is that the war is won on the small things, not on the big things.
INTERVIEWER: That could be a fascinating connection as we are now going into this electronic data business and encouraging close relations with each customer; that whole mode of business is going to be done on the computer.
NORTON: It’s being done now, except the advantage that they have now is that they can actually show the item. There just had to be somebody on the other end of the phone to whom he could explain the item.
INTERVIEWER: Now we go into the furniture industry and you’ve already told us about your first furniture job. Did you give the name of your boss at the furniture store?
NORTON: Yes, Sam Stuhlbarg. He gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice that I ever got. He was a lovely Jewish man who kind of adopted me; after all, I was in St. Louis all by myself. He had a couple of boys much older than I was but he was very good to me. Back in 1939, 1940, he told me, “Working for a department store, you’ll never make much money; however, as long as you work here with me, I’ll let you steal everything you can with your eyes and your ears.”
My year and nine months with him were a great experience because even though I was just working in the warehouse, he let me do other things. He let me see other things and he let me gain some knowledge at least of the inner workings of a furniture department in a major department store. Also, we were handling such lines as Kindel, Baker, Widdicomb and MGM. It gave me some appreciation for the product and the value because in those days all furniture looked pretty good but there was still a huge difference. I earned far more with what I learned than just the $16 a week that I got paid. I can assure you of that.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned one name, MGM, which is not familiar to me.
NORTON: That’s an upholstery line. It’s Italian as I recall. MGM is all I know.
INTERVIEWER: It’s not Meyer Gunther Martini, is it?
NORTON: That’s it. That’s who it is.
INTERVIEWER: When you came back you went to Schenk Furniture?
NORTON: Yes, I stayed there. That was 1945. In 1949, I, with a partner, bought half-interest in a furniture and appliance distributing company.
INTERVIEWER: In St. Louis?
NORTON: In St. Louis. It was called Cardinal Distributing Company. There were some Cardinal ballplayers involved and I didn’t know beans about running that kind of a business. We were not able to compete with the guys that were well financed and knew what they were about.
But we did a lot of business and in the end we ended up selling the business in 1954 to one of our factories that supplied us.
My partner stayed on and ran the business for another 20, 25 years. I went back into the retail furniture business. I had that four and a half or five-year stint in there, which as far as I’m concerned, was part of my MBA or bachelor’s degree because I had no idea of how that business ran.
I had a feeling that I had to get out, do things, learn things and it was a great experience. I would suggest it for anybody that’s young. I’ve tried to tell my grandson that those ages between 20 and 29 – if you’re going to do some dumb things and make some mistakes that that’s a great place to do them.
INTERVIEWER: There’s time to make mistakes.
NORTON: That’s right. In 1954, I went back with a partner and started opening furniture stores. We opened four furniture stores in St. Louis.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of that company?
NORTON: Shamrock Furniture & Appliances. They were neighborhood stores but four different stores. I continued to do that until 1961. By that time I was almost 40 and I thought I saw some things happening in the industry. I went out and talked to some friends and I spoke to Smith Young and I spoke to the gentleman from Drexel.
INTERVIEWER: Bob Huffman?
NORTON: Bob Huffman, I believe that’s the man.
INTERVIEWER: Gary was there then. Brad Council was there then.
NORTON: I remember Dave Brunn. As a matter of fact, it could have been Dave. I’m not exactly sure. It was right in that time frame.
I knew nobody from Baumritter. I guess that’s where I should start.
I had bought a few things – Daystrom dinettes from T. Baumritter of 405 Madison. That didn’t mean much. That was just buying from any other company.
In the Home Furnishings Daily – it actually was a daily at that time – I started reading things about this guy by the name of Ancell. He was doing things that were similar to something that we had done in our stores; we had put in stores that were totally room scenes. We put up dividers. This was back in the ’40s and it worked.
We were doing everybody’s goods. We were putting the goods together. He was talking about some other stuff but the only thing he was talking about was Early American. Early American represented a problem in St. Louis or at least in my mind.
In fact, the story that I love to tell is the first time that a representative ever called on me to sell me what is now Ethan Allen, he wanted 100 square feet, 10 feet by 10 feet. Then he came back another time and he wanted 500 feet. Then the last time he called he said it’d take 3,000 to 4,000 feet. I said, “You’ve got a lot of guts. You’re here asking for 100 feet, and now 2 to 3 years later, you’re asking for 3,000 to 4,000 feet. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
He motivated me and some of the things I read about Nat in industry papers motivated me to say, “Hey, this bird is starting to say the right kind of things.” It was getting clearer in my mind that maybe the way furniture was being sold at that time, which was really a lot of Borax stores, was really not the way to get it done.
I met this friend of mine and asked him if he had any connection with Baumritter Corporation. He said, “Yes. I can’t get you a job, but I can get you an interview.” I said, “That’s all I can ask for.”
I had interviewed with Smith Young, Drexel, and then I went and had an interview with a man at Baumritter who took me to Bob Ficks and we had a further conversation. I think I convinced Bob that I truly wanted to come to work.
INTERVIEWER: Bob was then with Baumritter?
NORTON: Yes. He was sales manager.
He had called on me before when he was with Salmanson & Son in New York. He was their sales manager. He had gone over to Baumritter and he felt that: one – I was very sincere in wanting to come to work for Baumritter, and two – I was going to do something. I was going to get out of the retail business. I had made up my mind that I had done all of that, that I wanted to do and I was going to get out of that.
I was hired without a territory. It happened that somebody came along about the same time, one of the representatives who was very sick, and I ended up filling in for that representative for 15 or 16 weeks in Wisconsin. I was hired on the basis that I would go wherever they wanted to send me and that I would get the next opening when it came along. That was in 1961. That was one of the great decisions. I was a representative in Wisconsin on a temporary basis for between 14 to 16 weeks. Then I was given the St. Louis territory, which was my home. I stayed there until 1964. First I was made Midwestern regional manager in late 1963 for the modern division, or what was then, the modern division of Baumritter.
INTERVIEWER: Fico chair?
NORTON: That’s right. Fico, Danish, Roommates and stuff, everything except Ethan Allen. Then we decided we were not going to have any more modern division. I told them to just give me a good territory someplace and that would be fine. Mr. Ancell said, “I’ve got something else in mind for you.” He sent me down here to open up the southeast for Ethan Allen. When I came down here, we set up the showroom at the High Point building over there. What was it called? The High Point Furniture Mart next to the Plaza building.
NORTON: Yeah, Julius Fine. I moved out of the big building and I was down here about a year and a half. I had what was then called the Southeast, which included Virginia, Ohio and then on down from those two points. Then in the latter part of ’65, Nat asked me if I would come up and run sales for the overall company. I was flabbergasted by all of that. I was not with the big team. Ethan Allen was the big team. I was over here in the modern division until such time as I came down here to the Southeast. My family loved Greensboro (North Carolina) but at the same time it was a huge decision because if I was going to go any further with the company, I had to go to New York. That’s where it was. I was as high as I could go and not be in New York.
INTERVIEWER: You were living in Greensboro?
NORTON: Yes, out on Rollingwood Drive and we loved it. Even though we had lived in St. Louis all of our lives before, we loved it in Greensboro. But we moved and took the job. We moved to Scarsdale (New York) simply because they had great schools and it was a decent community. I did something I said I’d never do, which was commute by train and work in New York City.
It was a wonderful period of time because I had opened up the first Ethan Allen store, actually the first and the third. The first was in Nashville, Tennessee, which was kind of a re-do, a conversion. The first store to be built from the ground up as an Ethan Allen store was in Raleigh (North Carolina). In the meantime, there had been one put up in Schenectady (New York), which was a re-do of a regular furniture store. Then we opened one in Columbus, Ohio. The company had made the commitment.
The other night when I was speaking about Nat, I talked about betting the company in 1964. On Easter Monday we met and we said we’re not going to be in the modern division anymore; we’re not going to do anything except Ethan Allen. We’re going to have stores and we’re going to make them the best there are. Everybody said you’re crazy. People are not going to support one manufacturer. They’re not going to do all these things. We went through all that stuff. It was the right thing to do and I was in on the cutting edge of that program. When I left there in 1981, we had opened 313 of them and, I think, changed this industry for the better. That was a great experience even if you did have to live in New York. That was the down side. There are a lot of feelings, a lot of trauma but that is really the bottom line.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the industry at that time.
NORTON: In 1976, Mrs. Ancell passed away. Mrs. Ancell was one of the really lovely people in this world and she had a way of keeping Nat in someway or another between the white lines. He was a very volatile guy, a genius.
INTERVIEWER: They lived in Westchester?
NORTON: He lived in New Rochelle (New York). He and I lived about two and a half miles apart. I was in Scarsdale and they joined one another.
Nat was one of the fellows who’d get very upset at work. But he would come home, have a couple martinis and dinner, and talk about it. She would bring Nat back to reality. He might be going to fire somebody, might be going to do this or might be going to do that, but she would talk him through it, and by the time the evening was over and you’d pick up Nat the next morning or meet him at the office, he was back on steady footing. With her passing that was taken out of his life.
He became a very difficult guy to do business with, so I was thinking about leaving the company in 1979 but he indicated that he was going to merge the company with somebody, and he wanted us all to pull together and get that done, which we did.
We sold the company to Interco. They had a very nice price and all of us thought that Nat would then call us in and say: “Hey guys, we’ve done our thing. We’ve showed that these kinds of company stores can work, be profitable and be good. We sold the company. We’ve got a company with a lot of dollars and we can do what we need to do. They’ll give us all the support we want. Let’s have some fun.”
Instead of that, it was just the opposite. In truth, you’d almost think that he didn’t need any of us and maybe some of us were less than bright. He had been out of the business for three years after Enid’s death with a very severe nervous breakdown and he really had difficulty accepting that the company ran quite well without him. Anybody that was part of that was suspect.
I knew that I had value on the outside, outside of Ethan Allen, and I pursued that opportunity. I interviewed with La-Z-Boy for 11 months before I took the job because La-Z-Boy was in trouble at that particular time. Their volume had been flat for three years; I think it was stuck at around $147 million to $150 million and less units. What little growth they had in one or two of those years was a result of inflation. I had to know that I would be given the opportunity to make some changes, which with the age of the founders, I knew was going to be somewhat hard because the company had huge growth and made a lot of money. I know one day in a speech I made, I was quoted that La-Z-Boy was following the path of Kroehler. One of the founders was ready to either fire me or shoot me or both, but I felt that they had to hear it because changes had to be made. After 11 months of courtship, we got together.
INTERVIEWER: Was Ancell involved in that?
NORTON: No. That I pretty much engineered on my own. Nat was initially upset because he didn’t like for his people to leave him. Our relationship was strained for three years and then time heals a lot of wounds, and we got back together and worked together on the HFC (Home Furnishings Council) a lot and had a good relationship at the end of his life. I truly think that he understood that we might have had some differences we shouldn’t have had while I was there before he died. But being the kind of guy he was, my leaving just caused him pain, therefore I was a bad guy.
He would always say, “If you hadn’t had run away, this wouldn’t have happened.” It was that shift of taking the things that I had learned from him and others at the Ethan Allen experience, and being able to modify them and go forward with the things that we’ve done at La-Z-Boy, that was a great emotional reward in my career.
It took somebody like Nat to keep me on the narrow path because it’s very easy when working a program like we started, working in the mid ’60s at Ethan Allen to drift and he was totally dedicated, totally focused. It could only be one way and we had to find out the right way, do it and not give a damn what anybody said. I think that was very beneficial to me to have somebody that was strong enough to keep driving it in, driving it in, although I think anyone would tell you that I was as committed to it as anyone.
I might have interpreted the commitment differently than he did. He wouldn’t vary; he was very, very hardheaded about it, and I think that Penny and Susan would both say that Nat had far more love for Ethan Allen than he did for his family because he focused on it so hard.
My relationship with him over 20 years was an unbelievable ride. There are very few guys in this industry that have the guts and the brilliance and the perseverance that Nat Ancell had and it’s a shame he didn’t understand how to serve it up a little better sometimes. He could’ve done more good for the industry but he did not know how to do that. Those of us who worked for Nat could influence him but we could not control him.
On the other hand, Enid could not only influence him but to some degree, she could control the situation. That was a hard process to come by because when his mind was made up on something, it was very, very hard to get it changed, particularly if it had anything to do with people. Nat was the kind of a fellow that he would determine in his own mind how great you could be, how good you could be, and whether you agreed with him or not, if you didn’t live up to his idea of how good you could be, you were a disappointment to him. He could not handle misjudging people very well, but he misjudged them based upon his standards, what he thought they could be, rather than what they really could be or what they really wanted to be. Everybody didn’t want to be like him.
To get on with the broad outline of my career, the last years at La-Z-Boy, these last 18 years where we’ve been able to take the company from $150 million on up to this latest acquisition to a $2-billion company, I think is a ride that totally differs from Ethan Allen. In that the company, the owners, the founders were different. They really didn’t want a big business; they wanted to do a good job and they’re very much a Monroe County, Michigan company and they wanted to stay that way. By the same token, if you could come up with an idea and could execute it effectively, you were never questioned. You were allowed to make the company as big as it could be as long as in the process of making it big, you kept it good. But the motivation at La-Z-Boy was never to be even a $500-million company or a billion-dollar company; it was OK as a $250-million company. Keep everybody working; keep everybody happy. It was a totally different basic mentality. Both organizations are extremely good in their own way, their own right, but it was a difference.
I know for me, it went from Nat being involved in every minute detail – or wanting to be or thinking he should be involved in every minute detail – to an organization that didn’t want to be involved. They wanted people to come in there and run the company and run it right. That was a culture shock of great proportions for me and my development as a businessman. It was much better to have the Ancell/Baumritter experience, the Ethan Allen experience first to learn the disciplines, learn the things to watch for, learn the things to be careful about, so I wasn’t very likely to make too many mistakes of great proportions when I got out where I had more liberties on my own to move forward. The timing of the two for me was extremely good.
INTERVIEWER: If you will, let’s go through La-Z-Boy as you did with Baumritter/Ethan Allen and bring that up-to-date.
NORTON: My career with La-Z-Boy started when I went out there to run sales and marketing; I didn’t want to really do anything other than run sales and marketing. I was very happy, particularly when I really realized that they meant what they said when they told me they’d let me move along at my own pace, as I saw the job that needed to be done. As we started out though, the company was not really doing well. I think there were a lot people in the company who were starting to get fearful about it, although that was probably not true of the principals.
Things started going downhill for La-Z-Boy in the mid ’70s when they opened a lot of what was called showcase shops. They were small chair shops and they didn’t have a good plan. They were not very nice presentations and were the antithesis of all the things that we stood for at Ethan Allen.
One of the first things I had to do when I got out there was to change that. There were probably about 265 to 270 of those stores around, and as a result of varied systems, we lost a lot of ground with a lot of big independents – a lot of regional chains, national chains. We’d been hurt badly; that’s what happened to the growth.
The first decision that had to be made was what to do with these showcase shops. Do we keep them? Get rid of them? My background was proprietary stores, franchised top operations, so the natural tendency was to do that. But I got a bunch of the dealers together and we talked a lot about it and we told them that if they really couldn’t change their ways, we would have to give it up. We’d have to give up this chair shop idea.
It was quite obvious they really didn’t want to do that and I got the feeling they were looking for direction. Maybe they would accept it from me because of the Ethan Allen experience. That was just 22 of maybe 130 to 140 people at the time but they were 22 of the important ones, I felt.
The first thing we did was to take one store in Detroit that had been just a regular showcase shop and redesign, reconfigure the interior, and present the product differently. Partially because of the changing economy but also partially because of the change in the way we presented the product, it worked. The sales just went sky high in that store.
That particular owner had three other stores with the same advertising and everything else. This store was doing great; the other three weren’t doing so hot. We said, “We’re going to do this new idea in all the stores,” which we started doing and it worked. However, over the next few years it became very evident to me that just being a chair store had some very severe limitations, and it would really be hard to accomplish what we should accomplish on that basis, so in the mid ’80s, ’84 or ’85, we started introducing sleepers and swivel chairs. We had only made chairs, just chairs period.
INTERVIEWER: Reclining chairs.
NORTON: Reclining chairs, that’s right. That was it. They were set up to be the best in the world at doing that, not making a sofa. They had a great brand name; it meant all the great things. The company had the money to make changes, the money to do things, and we said we’ll go into the sleeper business. We stayed with motion and did that for perhaps a year and a half or two years, and then we started moving into stationary.
Each of these moves, not only for our dealers but also for our founders and our present management, was traumatic. Here was this chair company, this recliner company, the greatest recliner chair in the world – what were they doing putting that name La-Z-Boy on a sofa that just sits there? Our plants were set up to make them but the manufacturing guys didn’t really want to learn how to make them; they were very comfortable making chairs. Chairs were pretty profitable; sofas were not so profitable, but the process had to take place. We had to do things or else the world was going to pass us by. That’s how all the changes in the ’80s came about. The world’s going to pass us by. We can’t survive long-term. We’ve got to grow; we’ve got to get bigger.
We talked about how much we could put under the umbrella of La-Z-Boy, that La-Z-Boy label because if we’re going to make sofas, going to make sleepers, going to make this, going to make that, we had to fix it so that the name embraced all of those things not just the reclining chair.
A little bit later on in the ’80s, we decided these small stores were not good enough and we started figuring out that we’re not going to go opening new stores unless they were 7,000- to 8,000-feet or something like that. But that was not the answer. So in 1989, I met with a group of dealers and after a lot of discussions, I asked one of them to do what is now called the La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery. We determined that store had to be somewhere in the 13,500- to 15,000-foot size.
INTERVIEWER: Do you mind saying who it was?
NORTON: It was Steve Hepley in Las Vegas. He had a store; it was an ex-Drexel Heritage store and he was a good furniture man. He had been with General Furniture the year before and I just felt that if we were going to make this work, this would be a good spot.
We said all right we’re going to develop, and the guy that I assigned to do it was Fred Preddy, who is today president of the association and he’s president of Hammary, one of our companies. But it was up to him to get this whole effort organized.
So here we had this big store, a 15,000-foot store, and frankly, we didn’t have enough furniture to fill it. My first thought was to go to the outside and have somebody make more stationary for us, more leather for us. God, I didn’t want to do that, so I ended up taking Hammary. Hammary was in the upholstering business and they made product for us. I don’t know exactly in that first store how much they had, but maybe 12 to 15 sofas in that first store.
INTERVIEWER: Hammary started out making tables.
NORTON: We put their tables in there, of course; we’d been using their tables. They made this product and we called it La-Z¬-Boy, but it was actually being made in a Hammary plant. This store, if you go by today’s standards, was very rudimentary, but it just absolutely took off. You’ve got to remember, a Drexel Heritage store had been in there and failed and this store came in and really, really took off. That was in October, November of ’89 and it didn’t take very long to know that we had a winner.
In late March we called all of the showcase shop owners together in Las Vegas, showed them the store, and said, “Guys, the stores that you’ve got are dinosaurs; we’re going to change. Everything is going to be changed over to this store, this format. We’ll be the first to tell you – we don’t have all the signing finalized, we don’t have the training program finalized, we don’t have the advertising finalized, we don’t have anything finalized, but we’re going to do this. We don’t want you building anymore showcase shops. We want you all to know this is what we’re going to do.”
That was a big gamble because we were doing 40 percent of our business with those guys. We also told them, “Some of you are not going to be able to make the change. You won’t have the money to do it; you won’t have the desire to do it; you might not have the ability to do it. We’ll have to decide that. We are going to do it. This is going to be our principal means of distribution.”
We immediately started the process after March of ’90. Today we’ve got roughly 260 of them, 255 to 260, something like that. They represent in excess of 60 percent of our business and they’re a great way to do business. They’re making a lot of money for the owners. We’ve got some out there that don’t, but primarily it’s the owners that aren’t working right. The system is working right. It’s been 10 years of putting the elements together that we need.
INTERVIEWER: Are any of the dinosaurs left?
NORTON: They’ve got to all be closed on December 31st of this year and it’s been a battle. There are about six of them left and unfortunately, one of them is in North Carolina. But, yeah, it has been a battle. That’s the kind of a price you pay when you have a system.
INTERVIEWER: The people in Greensboro did a very satisfactory transfer.
NORTON: Yes, Winston-Salem (North Carolina) too. But Raleigh didn’t do so hot.
I guess the contribution that I feel that I’ve made to La-Z-Boy is two or threefold.
One way is through the establishment of this proprietary system. I think it will sustain our company for a long time.
Steve called me. I had already told our people that I felt for us to be a furniture company, we had to be a case goods company. But I really was not very interested in a veneer case goods company because back in the ’87-period, the imports were pretty strong and I didn’t want to get involved with that. I pushed really hard for us to take a good look at Kincaid.
At this particular time, we had Mr. Bush as chairman, Mr. Shoemaker as vice chairman and Charles as president – all Monroe county folks with really no desire to have anything to do with case goods. It was an interesting proposition. We invited Kincaid up, they presented a case, and I started making my case that this was a good opportunity to get into the solid wood case goods company.
We went down and looked at the plant before Market – this was October of ’87 – and my God, they were making a really promotional line at that particular time. Of course my suggestion was that we still needed to do it, but we probably would want to change the company a little bit; we’d want to upgrade it. But that could be done once we had it. We had a deal halfway on the table, but of course LADD had made their offer.
Along came October 19, Black Monday, so everything went out the window except for one thing – Kincaid was still in place. At that Market we took a lot of hell because word had leaked out that we were interested in a company. The financial analysts were upset with us because for some reason or another they didn’t like Kincaid. I think primarily they thought there was too much family in Kincaid, but anyway they didn’t like them. They thought if we bought them, it would be the death of us. Getting through that whole process, on Sunday night before Black Monday, I had a heart episode in a restaurant over in Greensboro, something they call a syncopal episode. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it’s the thing that basketball player died of from California a few years ago. So I spent Black Monday in Moses Cone Hospital.
I went back and got the Market over with, and I came down here to Pinehurst (North Carolina) and remember very succinctly that everybody was still calling about this deal. Of course, after Black Monday, everybody sat back and waited a minute. My feeling was that we should still go forward. However, while we were down here, I had another minor heart attack, not very much, just a little tinge, but I got to the nitro fast enough. I went back to go to the hospital to have a bypass, but on the way, we were having a short board meeting because after October 19th, I really wanted the board to at least agree to pursue this thing now – because the price of eggs had just gone down considerably, you know.
They agreed to do that. I went in and had a bypass. The guys kept working on it, and as it ended up, when it came down to a real bid, we were the only company that bid on Kincaid. We bought Kincaid in early January of 1988.
It was really a turning point for our company because it gave us recognition in the entire industry. It gave us an opportunity to show what kind of company we were in a way that we never would have been able to do just in the upholstery business.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of company you were going to be.
NORTON: Well, yes, and that we were. We were a much better company than the industry gave us credit for being. But you know, to a lot of the people down here, you’re not in the furniture business until you’re in the case goods business.
We spent a lot of money on Kincaid. It’s one of the premier hardwood, solid wood manufacturing companies in this industry today. It’s a great company – great finishing room, great plants, great warehouses – and we’re extremely proud of Kincaid. In fact, we just built a new office for them over there; that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. This is a great company. It said to a lot of dealers across the country that La-Z-Boy is something different. It brought us greater recognition from the retail folks, the retail dealers.
We sat and digested that one for a while, but then, a few years later, a guy named Dwight England came by the office without an appointment. My secretary said, “There’s a Mr. England to see you.”
INTERVIEWER: This was in Monroe (Michigan)?
NORTON: In Monroe. I said “England, England… I don’t know who it is, but bring him on down.” When I looked up after she brought somebody in my office, it was Dwight. I had never seen Dwight in Monroe, Michigan, especially without calling me first. It turned out that Dwight England used to live in Monroe, and he married a Monroe girl. He was up there for her family reunion and he came in to see me.
After about an hour’s talk about nothing, he said, “The reason I want to talk to you is that I want to sell you my company.” I said “Why do you want to sell your company?”
He said, “Rodney, my son, can run the company and he can do a good job. But he can’t run the company and manage the family, too, so I want to sell the business and let Rodney run the company for La-Z-Boy.”
A couple of the other fellows looked at it and said, “We don’t want to get involved with this.” So we told him why and let it go. But we also said that if he got things straightened out a little bit, we would have an interest.
I don’t remember whether it was two years or three years later that Dwight called me again and said, “Pat, let’s get back together.” Anyway, history is we bought that deal, and it’s been a very, very good marriage for us. Family is practically out of the business now except for Rodney and Terry. Wayne, Mr. England’s brother, is just retiring now. It’s being run as a business today and as a very, very good business.
This gave us an entree into the independent dealer, a lower-end kind of a dealer that we didn’t know very much. We didn’t do very much business; there was very little crossover between our distributions. They had this great distribution system of trucking, where they were going any place in America, once a month or once every three weeks. I think it was once every three weeks. Now they have it down to once every two weeks that they come to the store.
INTERVIEWER: Instant delivery.
NORTON: That’s right and 99.9 percent on time. They’re very good at it.
That was a different kind of an acquisition, but again it was an expansion of our marketplace.
I had had conversations for a number of years with my friend Tom Bordman. I had known that he and Clyde Hooker were close to making a deal at one time but didn’t, and I didn’t know whether anybody could ever make a deal with John, but we kept on working at it over a period of years.
We’ve never gone out seeking companies. The company has to come to us, and he had come to us. I figured he was genuine, and he just probably wanted to get too much money for his business. We kept on working at it, and, over time, we bought that company. That is a great company; totally different clientele.
Of course our practice has been not to change these companies – just to support them, provide capital funds for them, make them be profitable, make them grow, but not to tell them how to do business. They have to do that. Our incentive programs are all based on performance. You tell us what you’re going to do; we accept that, and we’ll pay you well for doing that. If you don’t, you’re not going to be paid so well. That seems to work out well.
We made a deal with John, got a good organization, new market, and by this time the retail community is starting to get to the point that when La-Z-Boy buys these companies, obviously what they’re doing is working. What they thought was that we’d screw them up – we’d screw up Kincaid, or we’d screw England up. We haven’t done that, so now, as far as retail is concerned, it’s a kind of “ho-hum” deal.
We got the Sam Moore thing running, and the next thing that came along was Marty Silver, a very unlikely guy really, running a sensational business. Marty has a good artistic touch to what he does; he’s a great manufacturer, a consistent manufacturer, and he doesn’t propose to be anything other that what he really is. He has a huge, huge position with some of the major department store chains, some major retailers. It’s a lean organization but a quality organization. Our deal in buying Bauhaus was probably the simplest one of them all. It went easily.
Right on the heels of that came Alexvale. It had some of the same customers but was a different company, obviously not as profitable as Bauhaus by any stretch of the imagination. We’d already come to the conclusion that we needed an upholstery company for Kincaid. Rather than La-Z-Boy buying Alexvale, Kincaid bought Alexvale for the purpose of manufacturing upholstery for the Kincaid stores and galleries.
(Kincaid today has about 150 store galleries and a couple stores that are already built and running. They’re following along on this store-gallery concept.)
Alexvale also had quite a bit of business with department stores, but they did a great deal of business with independent retailers, better independent retailers. Again, that’s the strength of our position with these people. In fact, after all these acquisitions, one department store chain called me last April and said, “Look, we just got home from Market and we realized that 38 percent of our business is coming from La-Z-Boy and La-Z-¬Boy companies, and we don’t even know who La-Z-Boy is.”
I said, “We can fix that up.” I went out, sat down and talked to them for a while to convince them that, “Hey, you’re in no jeopardy here. You’re probably better off this way than you were before.” Between Alexvale, Bauhaus, Sam Moore and Hammary, 38 percent of this department store chain’s business was coming from those companies.
Before we were making those acquisitions, before they were finalized, while we were going through the process, I told the board that we should not make any more $100-million acquisitions. We’d perfected a way to manage these companies and it was working out, but there is a limit. If we really want to grow and keep the company moving, we should be on the lookout for one of a bigger size. When I told the board that, I had no idea about LADD.
INTERVIEWER: How long ago was that?
NORTON: That was in February this past year. I had no idea about LADD coming on the market. I just felt that we were buying $100-million companies, and we certainly didn’t want a $100-million case goods company. We probably needed to sit back, and I felt that there were one or two big things out there that were going to be coming on the line. Already I knew that Stanley could be bought. I won’t say easily because they probably want too much money for it, but it could be on the market. There are a couple more that were disenchanted with parts and things today, and they feel they’d be better off as part of a big company. But I didn’t have anything in mind at the time.
When I came down here for the April Market last year, I got a phone call saying that it would be nice to have dinner with Fred Sherman. Fred and I talked, and I came to a conclusion about two or three things: one – it is probably something we should look into; two – Fred Sherman was probably a damn good operator; and three – he was bored and probably pretty sincere about wanting to sell the business.
I went back and told my board that this had happened; it wasn’t something that I knew about, but it was something I thought we ought to follow through on. Frankly, there was quite a bit of opposition on my board about it, because – I think, it was a lot of things. But, nevertheless, we needed to pursue it, which we did.
I think that with this acquisition, it’s time for us to sit back and relax a little while. Although I do think that another one about the same size is ready to come on the market, I am not at all sure that we want to be involved at this particular time. Our position now is to take these things that we have bought and make them good, make them better than they are. Fred Sherman has done a wonderful job of turning LADD around. But he’s only come about a third of the way. There’s a lot of room to go yet, and I think he’s dedicated to do that.
I think this is just the start of a time frame where we can consolidate. There are some things we probably need to do. Even though I think we’re going into a softening furniture economy, I think it should be a period of great excitement for our company. If we can leverage all of these things and keep them under that big La-Z-Boy umbrella, (after all, that name is so powerful with the retailer and with the consumer), that it ought to be good for us. That’s what I’m counting on at least.
I want to tell you one more story that a lot of people don’t know about La-Z-Boy. We call them the two Eds: Ed Knabusch and Ed Shoemaker. They’re great guys who built a plant; they didn’t know what they were going to build in it, but they just wanted to build something. It actually turned out building doll furniture, and then they built a wood recliner.
After they developed the reclining mechanism, they felt that they really didn’t have the money – I don’t know about the desire – but they weren’t prepared to develop and market it nationwide. So the two Eds and the other two principal investors in the company got in their car, and they went over to Chicago, and they presented this mechanism to Pete Kroehler and sold it to him. He gave them a deposit. They went out and had a good meal, turned around and went back to Monroe. A few days later, Pete Kroehler called and said, “Keep the deposit. I don’t think this is what I should be doing. I’m not going to go forward with the deal. Hope you understand.” So they said fine.
But the interesting part about it is that when they sold the patent rights on that mechanism, which is worth millions and millions and millions of dollars, they sold it to every place in the world except Monroe County. Isn’t that a great story? See, 50 percent of our company is owned by Monroe County. That speaks to the quality of those two guys.
INTERVIEWER: We’re going to have to go back a little bit because you have covered your company, but there’s a lot of interesting Furniture Markets. What was the first Market you attended?
NORTON: The first Market I ever attended was summer of 1945; that was Chicago. However, I was in Grand Rapids (Michigan) in the summer of ’41 at the Baker showroom. I wasn’t a buyer or anything like that, but that was really the first place that would be considered because in those days it was not uncommon to take a customer to Grand Rapids to see something that was too expensive to put on the floor. I made one of those trips to see a dining room because the lady could buy it and have it sent down to St. Louis and delivered to her.
INTERVIEWER: You were with Baker?
NORTON: Yes, so that was my first trip experience. Then the first real Market I ever went to as a buyer was after the war in 1945 in Chicago. My first time to come down here was ’55.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me first about Chicago and then we’ll come to High Point.
NORTON: When I first started going to Chicago, it was a two-week Market. We would go for the first week, or maybe three or four days of the first week, and then go back home to St. Louis for the weekend. Then we’d come back and finish up and do all the buying the second week. We would normally go both weeks, but the first trip would be kind of a shopping trip, and the second trip would be the buying trip.
In those days, the Market was never open on Sunday, of course. In those early days, all the bedroom manufacturers waited until Bassett set their prices before they’d set theirs. If you wanted to go to the Stratford showroom, you’d better be a truckload buyer or you weren’t welcome.
The shopping conditions there were awful. There was no air conditioning or limited air conditioning; the elevators were inadequate. The shopping process was to go to the 17th floor early in the morning and then walk down. We did that until sometime in the ’60s. It got to be an unpleasant situation. I’m of the opinion that a lot of people stopped making introductions there, so you had to come down here if you were going to see the introductions when they were made. There were a lot of housing problems in Chicago, the same as there were down here. They didn’t keep up with the times, so the Market moved away from there. It was just that simple.
The Widing boys, the Widing family had some initial huge holdings out there. They sold the business, or they sold the building off, to the fellow that owned the hockey club, I think, and it was not a very good experience. At one time it was fun to go there – in the ’40s and early ’50s – but it changed. Just like here, just like in High Point, people came from all over the country. They would roll in there on the trains. I remember getting on a train in Denver and going to Market; I was meeting somebody in Colorado. The train was full of furniture people going back to Market. But those days are gone. That wasn’t too bad of a way to travel; it was pretty in its own way. Of course, at the pace we live today, it’s not so hot.
We used to shop the merchandise mart in Chicago; that was a little bit of a different shopping experience over there. The furniture mart just wasn’t very conducive.
INTERVIEWER: What about the High Point Market starting in 1955?
NORTON: It was pretty rudimentary in those days. It was terrible to shop. It was tough to find a place to live. If you were lucky, you got in the Sheraton. I’ve stayed all over that part of the country, stayed at Journey’s End Motel and the Battleground Hotel in Greensboro to name a few. In the building at one time, all the showrooms didn’t have phones.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, there was one phone, and it was down at the end of the hall.
NORTON: I remember when that changed. Let’s see, the first addition was Wrenn, right?
INTERVIEWER: The first was on Property Street. That was before the war actually. It wasn’t occupied by furniture people until after.
NORTON: The next one was Wrenn.
INTERVIEWER: No, the next one was next door where there was a little filling station, and they built that up through five floors or so. Then they built on top of that. They went over to Wrenn, five floors, and then on top of that and then Green. Altogether, it was built in 14 increments.
NORTON: Fourteen, is that right? When did they do Wrenn?
INTERVIEWER: It was after ’55. It was right in there, ’57 probably. First the lower part, then the bridge went across and on up.
NORTON: You’re right. I’d forgotten about that part over on Main Street and to the right.
INTERVIEWER: That was the service station on Main Street; Mr. Arthur Oliver had his warehouse in the back. That was two stages; they didn’t get Mr. Oliver first, so they had to wait. It was ’55 when the lumberyard burned. So it had to have been after that. The lumber company was over there.
NORTON: Was over on the Wrenn Street property?
INTERVIEWER: That whole block. All of that block except the very south end. It burned in ’55.
NORTON: That was ’55. If you wanted to drive down here in ’55, you probably only did it once. That was tough.
INTERVIEWER: There was Figure 8 highway.
NORTON: That’s right, furniture highway. Of course, if you were somebody like us, you didn’t do business with everyone up and down the road. The Lane Company was a big supplier of ours, and of course, Broyhill. At that time, we were still using Chicago a lot, but we came down here for case goods.
INTERVIEWER: This is when you had the retail?
NORTON: Yes, that started in ’54. I didn’t come down here in ’54, but that’s when I started that business. A lot of the companies – companies like Coleman, and Basic Widths – don’t exist anymore.
High Point is where you had to come to see the new products. I would say until the mid to late ’60s, this was not a pleasant place to come. It was pretty in the spring and in the fall, but it wasn’t a great place to come.
INTERVIEWER: Did you carry a bottle with you when you went out to dinner?
NORTON: That’s right, and you couldn’t get decent housing. It was friendly, but they just were not able to accommodate you. It was just that simple.
INTERVIEWER: People around town took everybody in?
NORTON: No question about that. Some people, and I happen to be one of them, have trouble sleeping in other people’s houses. That’s never been a great experience for me.
Of course, while you’re doing all that, you had Dallas, San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta. I remember when Atlanta came along on the scene as a new Market.
INTERVIEWER: John was a force to be reckoned with.
NORTON: No question. But we had too many Markets – still have too many.
INTERVIEWER: It was a good long time, four or five years, when all we wanted was this Market.
NORTON: That’s right. I always felt that initially this Market was successful because of azaleas and leaves.
INTERVIEWER: You’re very right, and the Hickory Country Club.
NORTON: You know what Broyhill did. They were full-time entertainment over there.
INTERVIEWER: They belonged to the country club just for that purpose.
NORTON: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve come a long way. The Market here was never designed for what has happened.
NORTON: No, no, not at all.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a completely Southern Market.
NORTON: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the first day that you went to La-Z-Boy.
NORTON: I went out and Charles introduced me to the sales organization. I believe most of the board was there, the officers were there, management people were there, all of the sales force. I made my 15 to 20 minute remarks about basically what we were going to do as far as getting the company moving, which, I didn’t realize at the time, was a dangerous thing to say, because there were a lot of people that hadn’t admitted the company wasn’t doing well even though it was flat. When I came around the rostrum I said to Charles, who was president of the company, “Did I say anything that bothered you?”
He said, “No, just get it done.” I worked with the man for 17 years, and that’s the only instructions I got from him. It wasn’t how to get it done, or any question at all. For all practical purposes, he wouldn’t help you with a decision. It was, “You’re running sales and marketing; you run it. That’s what you’re here for.” Coming from an environment like Ethan Allen, which was micromanaged, it was kind of an unbelievable experience really. It just showed the difference in the culture.
INTERVIEWER: What’s unbelievable is that what you said actually came true. That’s nice. We’ve covered very great territory here. You talked about the growth, particularly, of La-Z-Boy, but maybe this will relate to Ethan Allen too. How has the growth of your company been affected by labor?
NORTON: Right at the moment, we’re in one of the tight spots. I can remember being in the same position with Ethan Allen at times, particularly in the South, not as much up North.
We’re blessed today with a lot of the machinery because it’s gotten rid of a lot of the need for excessive manpower. But it’s still one of the critical issues.
The good side of it is I think it has forced us to do things for our people that were not commonly done in this industry from a benefit standpoint. I know we at La-Z-Boy have a tremendous benefit program and it holds people. At one time people stayed because if they had a job, they weren’t going to give it up; they were going to stay, and there was certain pride about staying someplace for 15 or 20 years or a lifetime.
I’ll tell you a story about our acquisition of LADD. I think it’s an interesting little story. We were pretty close to the end of getting everything put together and down to the final days, and we wanted to interview the operators of the various companies. All we had met was the top. Jerry had gone through some of the plants, but the rest of the committee had not met anybody other than Fred and his top management group. We came down to the Grandover Park for a few days, and these guys that were running the plants came in.
One of the guys from Lea came in; he was the president of Lea. He didn’t bring his manufacturing guy or his sales manager; he brought the designer. His designer was a black man by the name of James. We were going through the whole interview process and at some point I said, “James, we’ve heard a lot from Jesse and about him; now tell me about you.” He said, “Well, my grandpa and my father spent their entire working lives at David M. Lea.” Now David M. Lea is one of the old furniture companies in this industry. “Spent their whole careers there and I really thought that’s what I would probably do too.” But he said, “Going through high school, it became obvious that I had some kind of knack for drawing, illustrating, and doing things like that, so one of my teachers encouraged me, and I did a little illustrating here and there. Then after I got out of school, I did some things around town, just odd illustrations.”
INTERVIEWER: That was in Richmond?
NORTON: This had to be Richmond because of the timing. He said, “I was encouraged by a local man to go to design school, so I applied at Kendall. I went to Kendall and got my degree, and I came back.” I’ve forgotten who he said he was with, then he went with Stanley, and he said, “They recruited me to come back to David M. Lea. I’m back here with my grandpa and my daddy, but I ain’t running no machines.” Isn’t that a great story? They tell me he’s just as talented as heck, just a talented kid.
INTERVIEWER: Wonder who that man was in Richmond?
NORTON: I don’t know – somebody at Lea.
But anyway, on the people’s side, I think as an industry today we’re doing a much better job of taking care of the futures of our people. We have very good plans at La-Z-Boy – benefit plans, profit sharing plans, 401Ks, all the medical. It’s very costly; in fact, I think today with our hourly workers, for every dollar we pay them, we give them another 42 cents in benefits. By the same token, what we really want to do is strengthen our forces, our manpower forces, because we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for machines that we want them to run, and we have systems in our plants that require experience to maximize the system.
The industry has changed a lot. I remember the first plant that Ethan Allen bought was belt-driven. In fact, the last time I was in the plant, the steam engine was still there. But now with the equipment we have today, it’s just fantastic.
Particularly on the case goods side, we pay our people but we’re competing with people who don’t pay their people. This whole Chinese thing that’s going on today is a huge, huge challenge to our labor forces here. It’s not that we’re not going to be able to get goods; we’re going to be able to be competitive because we can go there and have it made, if that’s what the case is. But I’m not sure that that’s good for us, for America. But that’s the way it is because they’ve got the same equipment that we’ve got, the same assistance from the finishing people, the CNC routers, and they all know how to run them. We’re going through another trying time with that sort of thing. Maybe one of these days the relationship with the dollar will change a little bit, and those folks over there are going to get paid a little more money. It’ll be a period of time, but in the meantime, I think we all are going to undergo a bit of a challenge.
INTERVIEWER: To be honest about it, the reason the furniture business today is in the South is because that’s where the cheap labor was. That’s one reason why all the upholstering business has been in Mississippi. It’s the same all over again.
NORTON: That’s right, except we’re here in the United States. Those people are on the other side of the water.
INTERVIEWER: How’s growth been affected by style and design?
NORTON: We’re becoming a more fashionable business as we go along. We’ve always had great design. Some time ago you had to pay a lot of money to get good design. Some of the Baker things, the Kendall things and John Widdicomb – that stuff was very dear. But now with the equipment there are just a lot of things that can be done. Very high design, more moderate prices. We’ve opened up.
When I went through American Drew at Market I was flabbergasted because the American Drew I knew is not remotely similar to the American Drew that I saw in the space on the ninth floor in the big building. By the same token, there’s a massiveness that’s going on, an opulence that’s going on now that will go away and we’ll go into another trend. I don’t know what it’ll be exactly but we’re becoming more of a fashion business, which is going to be good for the industry. At Ethan Allen we were an expensive line and we always said you invest in furniture. You don’t buy furniture; you invest in furniture. I guess that’s right. I have some Ethan Allen furniture in my home that is probably 30 years old and it’s beautiful. In fact, it developed a patina; it actually may be just a little bit prettier as it goes along.
Although we don’t want to plan for obsolescence, we have to. Style changes make business, the same it does in ladies’ ready-to-wear and even men’s ready-to-wear has changed a lot. It’s two buttons; it’s three buttons; it’s four buttons. That is happening in furniture today. It’s an asset to us that we’re getting more designers, more females. (I don’t think they have to be females but I think they add.) It’s a natural thing for the ladies to be involved and I believe we are elevating our industry.
It’s a very broad industry – from some of the paper-coated stuff at the bottom of the line up to Baker, we’ll say. That’s a big, big range, and no one company is going to take care of all of those ranges. We need all those ranges because there are people who can’t afford anything and there are other people who want the top, but the big market, the big mass, is in the center.
I know at La-Z-Boy we try to stay in that 20 or 30 percent from the bottom and 15 or 20 percent from the top. If we stay right in that, a lot of volume goes through there, but it’s affected by style. The style is going to help us sell more goods, do more business, command a bigger part of the disposable dollar than we have in the past. I see the styling, the design becoming more critical as we go along.
I think some of the people whom I talk to in the case goods side of it, they may be a bit ahead of those of us in the upholstery side because in upholstery, our great concern is about the fabric itself. But some of these case goods companies are doing beautiful, beautiful things today. What is amazing to me is that in some case goods companies, the good ones – Century for example – there might be a piece of furniture there that is 60 percent American and 40 percent import and they put it together here and it’s beautiful.
People-wise, the demand for good, sound practical design types will increase. Whether it’s designing the furniture, the use of the furniture, or the showing of the furniture, we’re at the point where we’ll probably have trouble keeping up with the need because we’re going to need more and more.
We’ve got a lot of designers out there but they’re not really designers; they’re people who went to college and got a liberal arts degree. I’m talking about somebody whom God gave a special talent to take a burlap sack and make it look like something great; people who can take a pencil and a piece of paper and conceive great products. Those people are in high demand.
I think the industry is struggling; you’ve read about it in Furniture/Today and other magazines. They’re talking about how we need furniture that works; we need furniture for this or that, furniture that has some utilitarian purpose. That may be true; there may be some of that that’s needed. But what is really needed is furniture that enhances the home, enhances a way of life and satisfies our needs.
We all have different needs. I’m sure I could find millions of people to whom I could show a beautiful Baker dining room and it wouldn’t mean a thing to them, but to some of the rest of us who see it, we’d fall down. I remember a few years ago when I was down at the Masters Golf Tournament and we were staying at a house. The lady wasn’t there; she left a key and we rented this house. I was looking around and all of a sudden here is a Baker dining room table and chairs. I hollered out to Wayne Wickstrom, “Wayne, look at this table.” It was the most beautiful thing in the world. How could this lady let four or five guys come down here and rent her house with this beautiful table in it? That didn’t make sense to me. If I had that table I wouldn’t let anybody near it! But we serve a broad, broad market, and part of it – that top 70 percent – more and more is going to take design help. You want to do something besides show a table or make a chair; it’s a little bit more than that. How do you really dress this?
INTERVIEWER: Doesn’t this go back to…
NORTON: That’s right, he always said the lady whose husband makes $40,000 a year is just as entitled to a beautiful, pleasant environment as the gal whose husband makes a million dollars a year. Maybe different products, maybe a different look, but she’s entitled to the same kind of environment. She’s entitled to have a beautiful place to raise her family. That’s what it’s all about. In our industry, we are still selling commodity but not the same as we were. We’re still selling product rather than selling a beautiful environment. In the car industry, they are selling the car instead of the transportation. One of the things I’ve always told my people is, “You don’t market the need; you market the want.” The lady needs a table and four chairs to feed her family on; she wants a beautiful dining room. They can still eat off of the card table and four orange crates; that’s what she needs, but that’s not what she wants. That goes for anything in the room.
Some of these big stores are being built and all of those stores are really just showing product. You see some of it right out there at Boyles, although they don’t maintain those stores quite as much as I would like, as I think they should. Today a woman can go into a lot of stores where she sees something that motivates her.
I remember when we first started in the mid ’60s doing Ethan Allen stores. They were something special because there was no place in town that showed goods like we showed them. But as people caught up with that, Ethan Allen’s advantage was not as great. The same thing is true of us today; we show upholstered furniture as well as anybody in the world. There are a lot of people that show it pretty well so we need our name on top of the way we show it. We put the two together and then you’ve probably got a winner. It’s a different twist.
We’ll probably always have workers. We may have to struggle from time to time; then from time to time we’ll have more than we need. The ones that we are really going to have to look inwardly for is the creative people; we’ve got to be sure we’ve got the creative people, the design people that we need to get the job done and take our message to the public.
INTERVIEWER: How’s growth been affected by advertising?
NORTON: Advertising comes in different bundles. It’s what drives the day-to-day business. I think where advertising has had an effect on companies like Ethan Allen, Henredon, La-Z-Boy, Thomasville, Drexel is to establish a name that the consumer recognizes. That is where we have really missed the boat in our industry. We don’t have true brand names. You know La-Z-Boy is the number one brand name in the industry. Ethan Allen is up there very high but I can remember when there were other companies. Kroehler was a brand name. I think you’d have to say that Stratolounger was a brand name; Sealy Posturepedic was a brand name. Those companies all had years of glory and some of them still do.
I think, I really believe down deep in my heart that for this industry to really be what it should be, there needs to be four or five big companies – not to the exclusion of everybody else. If somebody can compete, fine.
Something like a La-Z-Boy that has a brand name, has position with the consumer, has continued to work on that consumer, continued to make a market just like the big three in the automobile business make a market for their product – we’ve got to do that.
I’ll tell you a great story about Bob Spilman. Nat and I had made a deal with Bob to buy about 14 acres of land out across that creek where his building is on the highway. We wanted to put our showroom out there, have an education center out there.
INTERVIEWER: I remember that. That was in the ’60s. I thought that was a wonderful idea.
NORTON: Yes and it’s something that got lost on the way to the bank. Actually it got lost when we moved out of New York City and moved up to Connecticut. These are two great stories.
Sunday morning we had an appointment with Spilman out at the building. He was going to take us through. That had to have been some time in the mid-to-late ’60s because it was a year or so after the big building was built out there on the highway. Interestingly enough, he said he built it in that shape and form so that it could be converted into a factory.
He’s taking us through this maze that they had out there and he turned around and said, “I don’t know why in the hell I’m wasting time with you; you’re destroying this industry.” Nat said, “What do you mean destroying this industry?” Spilman said: “All those goddamn stores and all the help that you’re giving them, all this kind of stuff, it’s crazy. That’s crazy. You’re a manufacturer. Bassett’s philosophy is this: we sell it, we make it, we ship it, we collect for it, and we sell some more. And that’s the role that we have; let the retailers do what they’re doing.” That was the ’60s.
I was in San Diego and I ran into Bob Spilman in the early ’80s. He motioned to me to come over. “How many of those damn stores you got?” and I told him. I said, “What are you interested in? You’re not interested in stores.” He said, “I wish I had them. I wouldn’t have had to make those damn trips to Miami all the time.”
That is the mind-set of the industry. Spilman might have mouthed it differently than somebody else might have mouthed it, but that was – and is – to a greater degree, the mind-set. Let the retailer worry about selling it. I believe that there will be three or four or five major companies in this industry and they will, in the process of making a market for their own products through their brand, also make a market for the industry as a whole. The other guys are going to have to compete against this.
Now I’ll tell you the other story; this is a cute story. We’re down in Thomasville, driving by some of the Thomasville buildings. Nat said, “Pat, when I was first in this business, I used to come down here. I would go by and see all of these bricks. At one time there were yards of bricks over here that they piled up during the Depression. I used to drive down and I’d see these beautiful plants and I would just almost want to die.” But he said, “We were doing business with a carver down here. He’s right around here someplace.”
As we’re driving around town, he said, “Stop right there.” There was a little tin shed, a tin building and a black man was sitting out in front of it on a chair. This was Sunday morning. Nat went over to him and said, “I think I used to do business with this company a long time ago, and we were just down here and I thought about it. I wonder if I could look through?” The guy said, “Sure, I’ll let you through.”
He took Nat and I through. They had these big carving machines, some carvers down there. Nat was really going back maybe 30 years. Part of it was dirt floor; it was not all concrete floor. After we looked through this place, we walked out to go to the car and this guard said, “Mister?” Nat, said, “Yeah?” He said: “I think I remember you. You’re that hot shot that used to come down here from New York in that Ford. I used to think you were crazy.”
Anyway, that’s what I see happening. I would like to see us do our share of that. That’s the reason I’ve been able to work over the years so hard on such things as HFC and other things like that within the industry because the industry’s been good to a lot of us. We need to make it as good as it can be. It’s not nearly as good as it should be. It’s a lot less than it used to be but still.
I believe if we’re going to make it good for mass market, we have got to make it as efficiently as we can. Price is still a consideration, although I think it’s down the line. I wouldn’t give it too much importance. We’ve still got to understand that these things have to be bought by people that work for a living.
I’ve always had a philosophy: if we’re going to make something, something that’s really good, we ought to be able to sell enough of it so that we might leave some. That’s the philosophy. When we were having our telephone call as we bought LADD, somebody said to me, “Are you going to close any of the plants?” I said that’s never been my philosophy. My philosophy is if you’ve got a plant, what are you going to do? Are you going to put people to work?
I’ve preached loud and long that we’ll have 21,000 employees now once this LADD deal is done. Let’s say that 16,000 of those are production or hourly workers. If I could talk to everyone of the management people of all the companies, what I’d say is, “Your prime responsibility is to keep those 16,000 people working every day that the plant is open – no short time, no layoffs, keep them working. That’s our job.” That’s always been my philosophy.
I don’t believe we have a need in high-volume plants for too much product – enough product to hurt the efficiency of the plant, product that won’t turn at a rate that makes sense if you’ve got a well-merchandised program. There are other people out there who are doing jewelry kind of stuff. They’re going to run small cuttings, small runs but that’s a different type of thing. With one of these big, highly automated plants – case goods plants like LADD and Kincaid have today – you’d better be careful how many short cuttings you put into that plant or you’ll find out that your costs are going to go through the roof.
There’s no question that the information systems we have now have helped the planning process so much. We have a much better idea, a much better feel for our business and what’s really happening in our business.
INTERVIEWER: Would you agree that computerized inventory control has done more for the retail side of the business than it has for the manufacturer?
NORTON: No question. Where it helps the manufacturer is in the buying process. When I first got in this business, it was common practice to go and load up a retailer. That is not the practice today, which is good because what we want to do is to smooth out our demand, so it doesn’t do us any good to get these big babbles. If we smooth it out then the bumps are not going to be as big.
There has to be a better relationship between manufacturers. It’s many times better than it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago, even 30 years ago; my God, it isn’t even close. There has to be a relationship between manufacturer and retailer that is one of trust and cooperation where they are bringing this product to the consumer in the best manner possible. We have the commitment to do that and we don’t always do it as well as we should but it’s much better; it’s much better than it was.
INTERVIEWER: We now realize that we need to do it.
NORTON: We’d better start realizing that we need one another. Another thing – more and more manufacturers know more about retailing than they used to know.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go on. What are some of the changes in purchasing?
NORTON: Hopefully, the same relationship is happening between our resources, our members and ourselves as is happening between our dealers and ourselves. We consider our vendors an integral part of our business. I think we treat our vendors very well and that’s not by accident. We feel it’s very important and we try to get the best price possible; certainly we do, but not to the point that the vendor doesn’t want to do business with us because we have to keep him healthy the same as we are healthy. We feel that we gain more by working with him than we do by trying to beat him down.
For instance, we do business with Lincoln Craft. I don’t know how much but it’s a huge, huge amount. That’s just a part of our business. There is also the fabric metal and Culp, and we want them to be more than ready to help us when we need help. It’s a partnership relationship we have to set up. The systems have allowed us to do a lot of the things – control it better than we used to be able to control it.
When we get the LADD thing, we’ll be operating out of 56 plants, and other than fabric, all those are individual buying units. We do some contracts, particularly bringing goods and parts in. That goes on at each one of those plants.
INTERVIEWER: You never called up and said, “I’m plumb out; I’ve got to have them tomorrow,” or anything like that.
NORTON: If you go to Culp or if you go to Master Craft, they’ll tell you too, that we do a good job of planning for our fabric needs. We give orders to Culp 12 weeks in advance and then if there’s a change at eight weeks we’ll make it, and at six weeks we’ll freeze it; we won’t change then. We’ll take that whether we need it or not because that is a commitment. The 12 weeks is to give them an idea of what we think we’ll need and Bob was telling me the other day that 92 percent of our 12-week projections are firm. That’s pretty good.
INTERVIEWER: Yes indeed. What are some changes in sales and merchandising? I think you have really done a fantastic job of covering that but what else needs to be said?
NORTON: On the sales side, I do believe that more and more of us are going to have to have a different sort of sales force as we go down the stream. None of us should have sales forces that aren’t totally dedicated to our product. The sales cost of products today is probably out of line with the rest of the business.
INTERVIEWER: Oh? That’s quite a thought.
NORTON: It varies around the industry right today but you save 5 or 6 percent of the common amount of the commissions that are paid, particularly where you’re preparing the field like with proprietary stores like Bassett is doing, like we’re doing. Thomasville is working on it. Any of those jobs selling to people, whether that’s worth 5 or 6 percent or not is questionable in my mind. What we have to have are salesmen. If we’re going to be in a true partnership, we have to have salesmen who are capable of helping the goods get sold. For instance if I’ve got a guy that’s calling on the Greensboro store, all the deals he can do are what they do. They go in and put so much in the warehouse; they don’t sell it.
INTERVIEWER: He’s got to show them how to sell it.
NORTON: That’s right. He has got to stay through that whole process. He’s got to be good at that. It’s just not a selling job anymore; it’s a different kind. We have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of overhead in Monroe, Michigan, that we have to help these stores perform better, make them more money. If he can’t be an extension of what we’re doing in Monroe, then is he entitled?
I believe we’re somewhat antiquated in our method of compensation – what we compensate for and the amount of money that we pay for getting our goods sold today. I believe that that will get reviewed one of these days. In fact a lot of people are already doing it. Broyhill did it years ago; Ethan Allen did it years ago. We have changed ours some but not enough. Cost does have to come out of our system and that’s something that will be addressed by more and more people in the next five, 10, 15 years. I’m not talking about tomorrow afternoon; I’m talking about a little bit longer.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in finance?
NORTON: It’s huge. For the industry to get money today is not that difficult. At one time to get money at the manufacturer or retailer level was difficult. It was next to impossible to get it from anybody that didn’t have some acquaintances. There was no trust. You were never going to get your money back if you loaned it to somebody.
Today as our corporations have gotten bigger and less family-oriented and controlled, we’ve opened a lot of doors. As a sideline, the hardest thing about buying Alexvale was to unscramble this whole maze of companies that they had done for various reasons – tax benefits, family reasons, whatever. It’s been a monster to get it untangled to where they could even sell the business. Even after it was agreed “I’ll pay you this,” and “I’ll accept this,” it was almost impossible. A banker isn’t going to go through that crap.
INTERVIEWER: No never, unless he’s your brother-in-law or something.
NORTON: Yeah, that’s a different thing. But today in our industry, if you’re running a good business or even something close to a good business, money is not hard to get. It hasn’t been for quite some time. I remember financing when we were first borrowing from the banks in the early ’60s. We were borrowing from Prudential and we had to make some very tough deals with Prudential with warrants and stuff like that in order to get money. We tried to buy Pennsylvania House in 1961 or ’62 for about $9 million and literally Nat had to mortgage his home. The deal didn’t go through but it wasn’t because we didn’t have the money. Yet the mortgage was sold to do it. It was a tough proposition. It’s not that tough today. We’ve come a long way. We’re running better businesses today.
INTERVIEWER: What about the factoring of accounts?
NORTON: I guess it’ll go on forever. A lot of factoring goes on today where no money changes hands; people never draw down their money. They do it for two reasons: one is to have some very sophisticated company that is making the decision; and the other is to be able to blame somebody when the factor won’t take it.
Of the two companies that I’ve been with, neither one ever believed in factoring; they never factored accounts. That keeps the relationship with the dealer on the kind of basis it should be. If you have got to factor your business, your accounts receivables, to provide cash for your business, you may be running into trouble. I think three or four of the companies that we bought were using a factor for their credit department. I’d rather have my own credit line, of course.
INTERVIEWER: It’s got to be of a certain size to have a credit line of your own.
NORTON: Luckily I’ve never been on that. The other thing that I think a lot of these fellas have trouble saying to a dealer is “I’m sorry.”
INTERVIEWER: How nice it is to have somebody else to do this.
NORTON: That’s right. I have these discussions with Phillip a lot. At the size that we are, we can handle that ourselves.
INTERVIEWER: You’re, in effect, doing your own factoring.
NORTON: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in management? I think you’ve certainly worn down on that.
NORTON: It’s always been amazing to me how few MBAs that come into this industry with no prior experience in the industry, really make it.
INTERVIEWER: Richmond had a MBA.
NORTON: I know he did. There are exceptions to all rules. But look at the ones that really had trouble dealing with this industry.
INTERVIEWER: Another one that comes to mind is Wayne.
NORTON: Yeah, just the opposite, just the opposite. I think we’re managing the business better because we have better information. But at the same time, we, as an industry, love to say that we’re a people business. I think we are a people business to a very high degree, but we don’t spend enough money developing our people.
INTERVIEWER: Which goes right back to what you said when we were talking about people.
NORTON: That’s right. We don’t spend enough money developing our managers so that they can develop their people. Everybody wants to do it, everybody knows it needs to be done, but there are damn few of us that do it well or at all.
INTERVIEWER: Isn’t that a teachable skill?
NORTON: Oh yeah it is.
INTERVIEWER: Phil Phillips, he’s a Harvard MBA, so is Dave. They’re the standouts in this business.
NORTON: They didn’t come here without a lot of over-the-dinner-table about the industry. In all seriousness, that’s kind of a different family.
There are a lot of MBAs from outside the industry, all part of the syndrome of going to show the industry how to manage itself, how to run itself, and correct all of the ills in the industry. A lot of them will fall flat on their face.
INTERVIEWER: That guy you mentioned before.
NORTON: There was one thing he didn’t understand; I’ll give you a sidelight: He spoke at a marketing meeting in Winston-Salem, and a marketing meeting is normally 40, 50 people. At this one there must have been 250 because he was going to speak. He got up and made a perfect ass of himself up there, talking about all the things he was going to do and all the changes he was going to make and on and on.
I can remember Smith Young and Bob Spilman out in the hall after it was over.
INTERVIEWER: I say, they both got up and walked out!
NORTON: No designer that works for me will work for him. He was also talking about a prime board member on Nations Bank and even if he had good sense and some ideas, he was killing himself because I don’t think you can come into this industry and be successful unless you give some credence to the culture or the tradition of the industry. There are still too many of those old family businesses around. You’ve got to deal with that somewhere along the line. It’s bred deep down here. You’ve got to deal with that and get beyond that.
That’s the reason that Bassett is going through hell right now. I think Century is going through hell right now and that’s a shame. A lot of changes were brought on that company very fast, and I know I’ve been criticized both ways in La-Z-Boy – by one for moving too fast, but more often it was, “You could’ve moved faster.” In retrospect I would be the first to say that I could’ve moved faster.
INTERVIEWER: And should have.
NORTON: Yeah, and should have. But I didn’t know that I could’ve moved faster. You err in that kind of a situation on the side of caution and not the other way around.
INTERVIEWER: Being able to perceive these nuances, is that related to having a MBA?
INTERVIEWER: Don’t they teach it in college?
NORTON: They teach it but they teach some other things more.
INTERVIEWER: My dad had a Harvard MBA, class of ’13. He did fairly well.
NORTON: Yeah, but a lot of them today are coming out without horse sense. Your dad had a lot of common sense. That’s a big difference. I don’t have anything against MBAs.
INTERVIEWER: It should be teachable and they should be learning it.
NORTON: Yeah, but this industry, as bad as it hurts me to say it, was a lot more inbred than most industries. Not anymore. Virginia is pretty well still that way but it’s not as much as it used to be.
INTERVIEWER: Describe what you personally have received from people in our industry. You’ve covered this very, very well.
NORTON: That has never been hard to get, really. There are nice people in this industry. You don’t always agree with them on stuff but to be able to sit down and exchange ideas and thoughts is pretty easy.
I do think that the industry is overprotective. The manufacturers are overprotective in their unwillingness to discuss marketing possibilities. I don’t know whether it’s a device so they don’t have to run the risk of getting involved with some sort of cooperative effort with the rest of the industry or whether there’s just a fear of government action, anti-trust action. But I think the other industries probably have more internal discussions – not about pricing and things of that nature, but about how to make the business better than we do. I think we’re still caught in that time warp to some degree.
INTERVIEWER: Comment on support your company has received.
NORTON: Our company has received because it’s given. In all of the industry affairs – whether it’s marketing, transportation, human relations, you name it – we have representatives there. We work and we contribute. Our showroom is always open; our factories are always open to anybody that will let us go through his plant. We try very hard to cooperate with the industry and I think as a consequence of that, we have gotten a huge amount of help from the industry. Not that I know that much about manufacturing, but if I wanted to go through the Action plant next week, I’d call Mickey and we would go and he would be welcome to go through ours.
I think as far as cooperating that way we have gotten a lot. We’ve gotten it because we’ve given. I don’t know how other people feel but I’ve never had any problems about going to people, asking them about things and getting answers.
INTERVIEWER: On the other side, what have you done for other people?
NORTON: I think I answered that. I believe the time I tried to do something and wasn’t totally successful was on the HFC. We did get something started that is now turning into the industry’s activities with Jackie Hirschhaut. I spent six years I think as chairman of the HFC and I think we did some good but not as much as I think we should’ve or could’ve. My own company was probably at one time carrying as much as a quarter of the burden itself but we felt that it was important – still feel it’s important.
INTERVIEWER: What is the difference between that kind of activity being done in HFC and that as is now being done by Jackie Hirschhaut and the association itself?
NORTON: It should’ve been lodged with the association all along. It really, really should be lodged as a cooperative thing between the retailers and the manufacturers. That’s how it really should be. But just to get the manufacturers to go along with it has been a monstrous kind of achievement. Maybe something can come out of it.
INTERVIEWER: Were you involved at all with the Furniture Association of New York, which does include everybody – the retailers and the reps?
NORTON: No, only from going to their banquets when I lived up there. That’s all I know about them.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategy. I think you’ve done that, but please add whatever additional comments you want.
NORTON: Our strategy is one of developing. Our principal strategy is of course developing the La-Z-Boy and Kincaid stores because we’re looking for as pure a way as we can to get our product to the consumer. Beyond that, we really try to get retailers who are honorable retailers who are going to help us build our name and build the value of our products. There are a lot of retailers that we don’t want to do business with.
We retain our position on the Internet. I’m not saying we’ll never be on the Internet without the involvement of the dealers. I believe that somebody will sit here in 20 to 25 years and be talking about doing business in an entirely different way, but I don’t know what it is. I think that other is yet to be played out and I’m not smart enough to see what that is, but I don’t believe the lady is going to buy a $1,000 sofa without sitting on it. The idea then is to take the Internet and make it work for the benefit of the retailers. I think there’s a cooperative operation between the manufacturer and the retailer and that’s the role we’re going to try to play.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your management techniques.
NORTON: My management techniques have probably changed over the years. I was a pretty tough manager for a long time. I guess I still can be but not as often. I do expect maximum effort and I think I have a responsibility to see that I get maximum effort so I’ve always tried to give maximum effort; then it makes it very easy for me to demand it. I think if you went to my people and asked them, they would tell you, “He’s probably a tough manager but most of the time he’s a fair manager. He sometimes gets impatient but oftentimes he is probably more patient than he should be.” It’s that kind of deal. But I don’t pop off as much as I used to.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in business? How well have you achieved it?
NORTON: That has probably changed too. I believe in the pyramid theory. At one time, this business was subsistent. Then at some point, I felt that I had something to contribute to the business. First it was just to the business I was in, and then I felt that I’ve got something to contribute to the industry itself.
INTERVIEWER: You mean by the company you were with?
NORTON: Yes. To the industry itself. I guess I bought the “Nat” theory. I came to the realization that if I really did my job well and I really believed in what I was preaching that I would, that I could not only make my company better, but also I could do some good in the homes of America. In every way possible – whether it’s through advertising, word of mouth or through the retailers – we try to make our product more than just a piece of something that’s put in a room. We put it together in such a way that the environment is changing; a better environment is created.
As my own security has become more assured, it’s made it easier for me to have those kinds of thoughts than it was when I first went to work for Ethan Allen or when I was in a retail store in St. Louis. I’ve been able to expand my horizons and to think in a bigger box, in a bigger picture, and I guess that’s another way of saying that although in some ways I’ve always been a very confident guy outwardly,
I’ve not always been quite so confident inwardly. As I’ve gotten more comfortable inwardly, it’s allowed me to take positions, even unpopular positions.
My prime goal in life has always been to be sure Laverne and my family were really taken care of well financially. I suspect I got some of that from losing my father at a very young age and at a very bad time – 1929; they were some tough years. I think your goals progress.
What I’ve wanted the last 25 or 30 years is to be an integral and contributing part of this industry and my company. I wanted that company to be as good a company as there was in this industry. It’s very important for me for La-Z-Boy to be respected. It’s more important for me probably today for La-Z-Boy to be respected than for me to be respected because La-Z-Boy is a reflection of me today. I’m proud of La-Z-Boy. I was proud of Ethan Allen and when we do bad things, it bothers me a great, great deal. We do things sometimes that hurt people, not intentionally, but once in a while something just happens. It’s like “How in God’s world did we do that?”
That’s the reason that I’m very quick to say if we are a part of a decision like selecting a sight for a store, if we make a bad decision, if we participate in that decision, we can’t close the door and walk away on that decision. We have to step up and say, “We said that location’s OK. It isn’t OK. Now if it is OK, then why isn’t the store working? Make the store work.” We have overhead to get people in there to see whether we made a mistake or whether we’ve got a bad operator.
I’m proud of the fact that I never really wanted to be with a company that was not responsible to its communities, to its industries. I think we have that obligation. I believe I’m as profit-motivated as anybody that’s come down the pike, but it’s deadly if that becomes our only motivation; it’s deadly. We’ve got a huge foundation at La-Z-Boy. We give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That’s a good company that does that. I’m proud of that.
I tell my kids: if you’ve got some dough, you’ve made some dough, give some back. Give it back. I made all kinds of mistakes in my life but I hope I didn’t make too many of them intentionally. I mean I did dumb things. At some point in time, at your age and my age, it has to start going through our minds: what’s next? Maybe one of these days God’s going to hold us accountable for everything we’ve done; can we face Him in good conscience? That’s what it’s all about.
I don’t consider myself a real religious man. I remember my father saying this even though I was young because we grew up in a Catholic community. He always used to say, “Son, there are a lot of roads to Chicago,” meaning you don’t have to be a Catholic; you don’t have to be a Methodist; you don’t have to be anything. Although I know I’ve done a lot of things that are going to be very difficult for me to answer to, it seemed it was the only way I could do them. I didn’t do those things intentionally but maybe that’s not good enough. As far as the strategies are concerned, my strategy chain is going right up that pyramid; at one time it was. Now money hasn’t meant that much to me for a long time.
INTERVIEWER: You’re with Maslow’s pyramid; your satisfaction is up at the top.
NORTON: That’s right. That’s the key to it all. Money is very important down here; up here it’s not important at all. So when I spent the time on HFC and people said “Why did you do that?” I did it because I felt that it was an obligation. I worked with 16- and 17-year-old kids in Junior American Legion Baseball for l6 years, managing teams and working throughout that whole organization. I did that because a guy did that for me when I was a kid and didn’t have a dad. Those are obligations I think you have and maybe you don’t recognize them, but it would be nice if you did that kind of thing.
I’ve got my regrets. I’ve worked far too hard in the business and not hard enough at various times on my family. I’ve deprived my family. We all have done that I’m sure. Would I do that a little differently? Probably, I’d try to. But again, at the time I did it, I felt that was the right thing to do. Bad judgment maybe. I didn’t do it to deliberately deprive my family; I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do and that it would be good for them in the long run. There’s a point in time where you look and say, “I don’t ever have to work another day in my life, so I can do anything I want to do.” Then you’re driven by something else. Thank God I’ve been in that position for quite some time, but it hasn’t lessened my desire to make the companies I’ve been with to be great companies.
One of my friends said to me, “I don’t know how good you are as a businessman, but I know one thing: you sure are good at picking companies.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I admire people who have started with nothing and made something out of it more than I admire anything that I have done that came associated with pretty good companies and had success. I look up at the Hall of Fame board and I see all of those guys that started companies. They traveled a different road than I traveled and I’m cognizant of that. That may even have been some motivation to me to maybe do some things that some of them didn’t do as far as the overall picture, the overall industry is concerned.
I can remember Scruggs; we were running five or six trucks and I remember standing on the dock and wondering where all that furniture was going every day. Now just at La-Z-Boy, we’re making 12,000 pieces of furniture every day and I’m still wondering where it all goes. So I haven’t progressed a hell of a lot. The universe has just gotten bigger. That’s the only thing that’s changed.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your company’s goal?
NORTON: Since I’m not a founder or even a part of the family that gets a little bit harder, but let me explain this. It was on Christmas night a year before Mr. Knabusch died. He was in a hospital and I went up to see him. His secretary was there, and she said, “Pat, are you going to hang around for a while? I’d like to get a hold of my family and my family’s gone to the movies or something.” I said yes. I was sitting there talking to the old man; he was 88, 89, something like that. We were talking about a whole range of things. This was before we bought Kincaid and he looked at me and said, “Pat, our year ends in April; how much are we going to do this year?” As I recall, I pulled in $275 million. He laid there for a minute and said, “I never really wanted to get that big.” This is the same company that sold a multi-million dollar patent for $20,000 and thought they made a good deal, but you couldn’t have it in Monroe County.
I never wanted Ethan Allen or La-Z-Boy to be any bigger than they should be or could be and still be a good company. In fact, I told my guys the other day, “We’re a $2-billion company but until we’re damn sure we’re the best $2-billion company, we don’t have very much to be proud of.” I don’t know whether we’re to that yet or not but to me, being the best is much, much more important than being the biggest. We have got to drive for perfection, to be as good as we can possibly be. That’s what I will drive home as long as I can. I don’t think we’ve been too good at that in recent years. I think we’ve had huge growth but I also think we lost some things in the process of that huge growth. They’re not things that we can’t get back.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask, are they recoverable?
NORTON: Oh sure. You’ve got to identify them and make them important and we’ve done a lot of that. We’ve just done a reorganization at the place and what it was is this: before we bought Arthur Hammer or Kincaid or anybody, we just had the La-Z-Boy company and we were pretty much as any other company. As we bought these other companies, they’ve been out here operating around and some of the same guys that were responsible for running La-Z-Boy residential were also responsible for these companies; and the company got larger and larger and larger. It was putting a terrible burden on some of us because we were really doing two jobs at one time, and probably not doing either one of them as well as we should have done. One is running La-Z-Boy residential and the other is overseeing these other companies.
We set up La-Z-Boy residential as a sub like all these other companies, an equal sub. They’ve got their own finance people, their own human resources people.
La-Z-Boy executives, the top management of La-Z-Boy, is a very small group today of 75 people or less that are responsible for corporate finance, corporate operation, corporate IT, corporate credit and corporate human resources. They’re all working with the committee, the three of us who really run the company. This residential group will be housed in the same building. They are responsible and they will meet with us and work with us in the same way we work with Kincaid, the same way we’ll work with LADD. That’s going to allow us to be a better company because in many cases, we found ourselves criticizing ourselves. It’s hard to be objective in criticizing ourselves. It’s going to help us become a better company.
INTERVIEWER: What was the overriding business philosophy of your company and yourself because, as you have told me today, all along you and your company have been inseparable?
NORTON: It’s very simple. There are a lot of companies out there that are only interested in making money.
And there’s nothing wrong with making money. You can’t be a good company if you don’t make money.
But you can be a good company and not make money in one way. You can make money and not be a good company. We’ve got a lot of those in this industry.
I think that if you go back to our mission statement, we want to be a company that makes an honest product. We want to get an honest price for it; we want to make a profit; we want a sure future of our employees; we want to take care of our employees while they’re here. We take responsibility for relationships with our retailers. We take responsibility in the communities that we’re in. We will not let our plant vice presidents not be a part of the community. We want them to participate in the communities. They can’t be a vice president if they don’t do that. We want to respect the company; we want to give back to the industry that we’re working in; we want to be viewed as the best in the categories that we participate in.
It’s been our philosophy that we would like to be recognized worldwide but that’s secondary to being properly recognized where we really operate. We want to be innovators. That doesn’t mean much; it’s nice if along the way you can be innovators. We like to be price-competitive; we don’t have to be the cheapest guy in town, and we don’t really want to be the cheapest guy in town, but we do want to be competitive. We’ll be honest; we’ll be fair in our pricing. We know that we may ask a little more for our product than somebody else does because of our name, some of the things that we stand for and some of the things we do, but we think the insurance the woman buys when she buys a piece of our product may be worth a little bit more. I think if Mr. Knabusch could come back and talk to you, he would say that one of his overriding issues for our company was to be totally responsible for its community and its people. I think that’s what he’d probably say.
INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting.
NORTON: Yeah. I think ours is a little broader gauge run today.
INTERVIEWER: Describe relationships with your customers and suppliers, and based on what you just said, I think we ought to also say your communities.
NORTON: I pretty much discussed that. I hope that we have great relationships with our suppliers and with our communities. I think we do. I think we’re looked upon in high regard. We want to be with our employees and I think we are in most places most of the time.
From time to time, outside elements get involved and try to drive wedges between the employer and the employee. We don’t have a lot of troubles like that but we do every once in a while, and sometimes it’s because of something that one of our people has not done right. In fact there was one just recently at Sam Moore. We’ve only owned Sam Moore a year so we didn’t start that but as it turned out, some listening should have been done that wasn’t being done. All we can do is fix it. We’ve done that but it is a constant battle.
We treat our people as fairly, or more fairly, than anybody in the industry. Like quality, that is a constant, everyday battle. You never get away from that.
INTERVIEWER: With these same suppliers, customers and communities what are your greatest problems with them?
NORTON: I can’t say that we’ve had any problems with the communities at all. The communities have been very supportive.
Our biggest problem with our suppliers, particularly in the fabric business, is their inability to give us product on time even when we order it on time, project on time; it’s their inability to perform properly. I think it’s one of the big damnations of the upholstery industry today and it’s not getting any better. I sat on the board of one of the companies. It’s a huge, huge problem that’s got to be resolved. We’re doing a lousy job of doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you agree that your procurement message you mentioned, in fabric where you order 90 days ahead?
NORTON: 120 days, 12 weeks.
INTERVIEWER: And you update them?
INTERVIEWER: That’s the right way to go?
INTERVIEWER: Are there any other possible solutions?
NORTON: I don’t know. I sat down with some of them at this Market. I said, “Guys, it’s got to get better.” But you know what? You don’t have too many alternatives today. In other words, you can only buy velvet from a couple people.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see.
NORTON: Who are you going to go to out there that can compete with Master Craft? Maybe Quaker to some degree.
INTERVIEWER: Then the only response to that is to be Master Craft’s biggest customer.
NORTON: We are that.
INTERVIEWER: You’re going to get what you want.
NORTON: If they don’t have the raw materials, that holds it up. It’s a very complicated thing. We don’t need to get involved in that today, but it is the biggest problem we face on the upholstered side of our business.
One of the big problems we face on the case goods side today is the huge cost variations in raw materials, primarily lumber; cherry and more exotic lumbers are very, very dear. It is strictly a commodity market. It goes up and down. It’s a very hard market to manage.
INTERVIEWER: Lumber, as a commodity, is a fascinating thing. Would you say that in any way the global lumber market is going to relieve that?
NORTON: No, because we’ve been adversely affected by the global market. We have a lot of lumber that has gone offshore with some degree of frequency.
INTERVIEWER: Aren’t there places in this world where there is an abundance of lumber? That may be species problems.
NORTON: Yes, that’s right, there are species problems.
INTERVIEWER: With the cherry and the alders that you get in Canada, once you get a piece of furniture and finish it, you can’t tell the difference.
NORTON: For some of our products alders are not strong enough. Of course we don’t use cherry for that product.
We’ve got a plant down in Mississippi today that’s got about 15 huge CNC routers. They cut up about 40,000, 4 by 12 sheets of plywood a week, making parts for our chairs. I was thinking of Morrie; even though it’s a big plant, it’s not that big; it’s only about 125,000 to 130,000 feet just sitting there kicking this stuff out. We ship it all over America to our various plants. If he were to walk in and see that, he would’ve died. With all the machine shops, machining rooms and everything that he had, he would’ve really got a kick out of that.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement in industry trade associations and what has been the greatest benefit from that activity.
NORTON: I’ve been very deeply involved in the AFMA and my involvement there has been invaluable. If you meet people on a social basis like that, then you can talk to them on business terms a lot easier than you can if you don’t really know them.
What we’ve gotten out of the committees of the association has been doubly involved because that involves our people. That brings our people along in great shape. I certainly have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of my work on the HFC – made some friends, made some enemies, but it was work that needed to be done and even the enemies I think respected the fact that it was being done. They just didn’t want it to cost them anything.
Really those are about the only two things industry-wide that I have been involved in that are really sponsored by the industry. I think that overall, our industry is pretty giving of its wealth and of its time. Unfortunately, that is not universal, but there’s enough that do it that it makes the industry look pretty good. There are a lot that don’t that ought to be ashamed of themselves. But there’s enough that do good work.
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of and how did they work out?
INTERVIEWER: I don’t think you’ve had time for anything else.
NORTON: No. I haven’t been involved in anything else.
INTERVIEWER: Now we’ll talk about changes in the furniture industry.
NORTON: Although they’re going to be real, the changes we are going to see on the manufacturing side will, because of capital investments, evolve by nature.
As far as the retail side, I think it is in for huge changes and I believe there are going to be more manufacturers involved in retailing than have been in the past. There are going to be joint ventures between manufacturers and retailers. The industry is going to mature in those ways. We’re going to get out of the in-the-box kind of thinking that has been a part of so many industries. We have got to find a better way of bringing the product to the consumer when she wants it, in the shape that she wants it in, in the fabric she wants and the finish she wants. We’ve got to find a way to do that if we’re ever going to be big kids. That is going to shape the retail industry in the future somehow or another. It may just be that the Internet plays a part of that whole process. There may be some joint things out there between the manufacturer and the retailer.
I remember St. Louis when I was in business there. Bakesville, Romweber had a showroom. Arway had a showroom there with very, very high-end things and those showrooms were being driven by advertisements in the shelter magazines.
Stores could be driven more by the Internet by following up on responses on the Internet. That may be how this whole thing evolves. Who in the world knows? If you’d have said to our founders 30 years ago that 60 percent of the volume would be done through stores that have their name on the outside, they’d have told you that you were crazy.
INTERVIEWER: Of course they would.
NORTON: So who really knows what’s going to evolve? But here’s my prime: the distance between the factory floor and the consumer’s home is going to get shorter and shorter and shorter. No question.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious single problem facing our industry today? It’s differentiated between short-term problems and long-term problems. You’re saying you might very well break down upholstery case goods. You’ve already given an answer on upholstery.
NORTON: The upholstery thing – that is a short-term problem but that is a day-to-day problem. The long-term problem is our miserably low share of disposable income. That’s our major problem. Our product, our commodity does not have enough credibility with the American consumer. She’ll go out and buy dresses; she’ll go out and buy this; she’ll take vacations, buy new cars and do all kinds of things but we’re not high enough on the pecking order. That is an overriding problem in this industry. Part of that has to do with trust; part of that has to do with the fact that nobody’s making a market. There are all kinds of reasons for it. But that is a huge, huge mountain.
Short-term, I think our biggest problem is lack of credibility. We probably have got to solve that one before we can solve the long-term problem. She does not know how to put value or lack of same on our product. She doesn’t know what the value is. Is that sofa a $700 sofa or it is a $1,400 sofa? She can find that same piece of fabric on either one of them. She doesn’t know; she has no way of knowing. How do we get credibility?
And we have lied to her; our retailers have lied to her. We manufacturers to some degree have participated in it. They haven’t been honest with her, haven’t really differentiated properly. They do what they’ve got to do to make a sale today. I think there is literally a fear that’s come down through the genes from mothers to daughters that reflects some of the treatment that women got in furniture stores back even into the ’40s. In the ’30s women were almost afraid to walk into furniture stores because of the abuse that they would get. That has got to get out of our systems. If we’re ever going to solve the long-running problem, we’ve got to get the short-running problem solved. That has to do with delivery, has to do with quality, has to do with truthfulness in selling; it has to do with all of these things. We tell people that the decorator’s taking care of them when it isn’t really a decorator; we do all of these kinds of things. We’ve got to stop doing that, and that’s a big problem. That’s a short term problem; it’s a long-term solution.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your own greatest contribution to our industry? How much of your contribution was built on already existing techniques and methods? How much came from innovation, which you originated or put into use before most other companies did?
NORTON: I think that’s what it boils down to. I think my greatest contribution is the role that I played in Ethan Allen and the La-Z-Boy systems; in executing and following through on the Ethan Allen system; and instituting the La-Z-Boy system of proprietary distribution. I don’t think there’s any question about that. If I’m good at anything in this business, that’s what I’m good at. I know how to do that. I know how to sell that and I think that is the better mousetrap. It’s not right for everybody, but for major companies that is the better mousetrap.
INTERVIEWER: As you absorb these other companies, you’re finding it works for them too?
NORTON: Oh yes.
INTERVIEWER: As you did with Kincaid.
NORTON: That’s right. As it will for others, as it will for Pennsylvania House. No question.
INTERVIEWER: One innovation, which was not yours, but certainly was that of the two founders of La-Z-Boy, was the invention of the $20,000…
NORTON: Can you believe that? I’ll tell you what: it’s pretty good to be associated with two guys like that.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the influence of outside factors in the furniture industry? How were your companies affected by the Depression?
NORTON: One of the few outside factors is the whole treatment of the environmental issue. We’ve been dealing with the clean air and such, but this whole matter of protecting our supply – I think that’s a huge, huge problem that we’ll have to be very careful of. We’re going to get to the point where lumber is just going to rot in the forest and not be put to proper use. That’s one of the real problems.
Our company was founded in 1927 and couldn’t do a million dollars until 1961. That probably answers the question. There were a lot of days when our founders didn’t always know where their next meal was coming from; they didn’t have two quarters to rub together. But they persevered, always trying to find a way to make something that folks around Monroe would buy because that was the universe at that time. That was their universe.
INTERVIEWER: What about World War II? It’s about the same thing, isn’t it?
NORTON: Most of the furniture factories made something else during World War II, including ours, both Ethan Allen and La-Z-Boy. They made different things but World War II, as far as I’m concerned, was America’s finest hour. Nobody in their right mind ever envisioned that this country could turn out the kind of product, the amount of product, and the quality of product that we turned out in the amount of time we did. We did it with a limited amount of graft and profit-taking. I think everybody – whether you wore a uniform or whether you didn’t – had a role; they had a job.
God, it devastated a lot of retailers; they didn’t have anything to sell. Manufacturers didn’t have anything to manufacture. I know Ethan Allen made coffins. They didn’t want to make coffins but somebody had to make coffins and they had the equipment, so they made coffins. La-Z-Boy made tank seats. On December 5th, La-Z-Boy completed what is now part of the main office building. It was research and manufacturing. That’s amazing. In 1941 they identified a building as a research building. That’s the situation.
I’ve always said this about myself: I think that World War II was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t so good for the guys who didn’t get back but for the guys that participated in it, met people, saw things, really appreciated what they were involved in; it was a huge, huge experience, a beneficial experience. It changed my life totally. Of course, I don’t think I’d have been a farmer otherwise, but it changed my life because it broadened my horizons.
When you were 21, your horizons were not nearly as broad as the average 21-year-old that’s growing up today. In fact it was probably not as broad as most 15- or 16-year-olds’ today.
INTERVIEWER: How is your company affected by racial attitudes? I think your designer, David M. Lea, is a major story on that.
NORTON: We’re color-blind and gender-blind. I believe we are. In going to our plants today, you see all ages and all races, all genders working in there. We’re very conscious about a lot of things. We have to be a little careful. We’ve got a plant up in Canada. We tell them it doesn’t make any difference what Canada’s rules are; you’re a La-Z-Boy company, so you get the picture down off the wall. That stuff doesn’t belong there.
We have a mandatory retirement for our reps; we won’t issue them a contract after their birthday. They accept that; they understand that. That’s part of working for La-Z-Boy. You make a lot of money while you’re here, but there’s a time when we think you might have more money than you need.
As far as our other people are concerned, we let them go as long as they’re productive, at least until they’re 70. In many cases, we make jobs for people that feel that they need to work. Where they might have done this or that all of their lives, they can’t do this anymore, so we’ll put them over doing something with no less hours but with a lot less stress or strain.
There are certain jobs in the plant that are easier than others. Most of them don’t pay quite as much but if there’s somebody that needs help and hasn’t got himself in the position where he can retire, we try to accommodate him if we can. We try not to be biased.
INTERVIEWER: How has the shipment of your product affected your company? This really goes back to the rail versus truck situation. Particularly concerning imports and containers, your shipments practically are all by truck.
NORTON: Everything’s by truck, including what we get in from overseas; it comes by truck. It comes in containers on the backs of trucks. The only thing that has happened is that the carriers are not as considerate of the product as they used to be and shipping on common carriers will probably bring some damage.
INTERVIEWER: Are you able to avoid the common carrier?
NORTON: More and more so. I think we operate 400 tractors today, and I don’t know how many we’d have to have in order to carry everything, but it’s a huge process. It’s another company, really.
INTERVIEWER: Didn’t I read that LADD for a long time had LADD transportation?
NORTON: Yeah and they still do.
INTERVIEWER: Does La-Z-Boy have a parallel operation?
NORTON: England/Corsair does. We have some beyond that but that’s the two big numbers there. There are about 400 between those two. That’s one of the things we’ll have to study as we go down the road.
INTERVIEWER: For yourself personally, describe your involvement in social, civic and business activities outside the furniture industry.
NORTON: I have very few. Until I was 40 years old, I was terribly involved, over-involved. Church, American Legion, politics, city – you name it; I was involved in it. When I decided to get out of the retail business, I promised myself and my family that I was not going to do that anymore. I would probably overwork on the furniture side but it would be on the furniture side. It wouldn’t be these other things.
In St. Louis, I was director of parks and recreation. I was campaign manager for the mayor twice and I was on two or three building committees – building churches and building parsonages. I just did lots and lots and lots of things but I was doing too much. As I indicated earlier, I felt a need to give back a little bit for what Mr. Kanoyer did for me when I was a kid growing up. I was at the Boys Town of Missouri where we built a bunch of houses for kids. It seemed like anything that somebody asked me to get involved in, I’d get involved in. It was too much.
When I took the job traveling with Ethan Allen, moved from St. Louis, and came down here as a manager, I said I’m done. The only thing I’ve been involved in since that is church, school board and stuff like that. I only did that for a short period of time. I really have not gotten involved at all. I play golf and stuff like that as a relaxation on the weekend but I promised myself I wouldn’t get involved after that and I haven’t so far.
INTERVIEWER: You would not have had time.
NORTON: No. I felt that whatever debt I owed, I paid it.
INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?
NORTON: Sloan-Kettering has been one. I’m deeply involved in City of Hope, and when I was 70, the La-Z-Boy reps and dealers got together and had a surprise birthday party for me and endowed a scholarship fund for $52,000 at High Point University. Since that time, that fund has grown to $400,000. They’ve had a campaign every year and Laverne and I have given to it every year. We’ve also given the first floor, which is going to be a memorial to our son that we lost in 1990, and we’re even giving some thought to an even larger contribution to the University for furniture building so High Point University will come up there now.
I told the fellows at a meeting the other day that for years, I drove by that University once or twice a day when I was up in Greensboro and didn’t have the foggiest notion of what the hell it was until our reps got together with the dealers and raised $52,000 just on a scholarship over there.
I think there are five kids going there on our scholarship, so that’s a big charity.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure time activity?
INTERVIEWER: What’s been your greatest success in golf?
NORTON: I made a birdie on Thursday on the number one handicap hole on the course. I pitched to the end
60 yards. That’s it. I’m not a good golfer but I love it. I love to play.
INTERVIEWER: It’s too bad we can’t postpone this interview and go get a game in.
NORTON: I hurt my back a little on Friday. I’ve got a bad back from the war that I’ve nursed ever since. I’m too damn old to have anything done about it now so I won’t be able to.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your best experience in this activity. We got that.
NORTON: You have to add to that playing with my son, beating him.
INTERVIEWER: Then we come to retirement and that doesn’t count. The only thing that you might say is how in the world you bypassed your company’s requirements.
NORTON: My company didn’t have requirements for me. The time is coming close, but we’ll probably extend it a little bit with the LADD acquisition. But it’s coming close. It’s time.
INTERVIEWER: I was almost 20 years with AFMA and they forced me out much to my rather expressed distaste before I got to be 70. You will find out that people will be after you. I’ve worked harder since, harder than I did before.
NORTON: If I could be sure of that, I’d retire tomorrow. Well, I wouldn’t retire tomorrow, but I would retire. If I’d been sure of that, I’d have retired five years ago.
INTERVIEWER: You can be sure.
NORTON: I’m just not. I have a buddy who retired and went down to Sarasota (Florida). He plays golf four or five times a week and I enjoy playing golf but not like that. I want to be as productive as I can.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a valid statistic that people like you and me who work all their lives very hard at their business just retire. Do you know what the average proven life expectancy is?
NORTON: It’s less than three years.
INTERVIEWER: Less than two years.
NORTON: Less than two years. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: So you don’t want to retire.
NORTON: My wife understands that. The other thing is that if I would have retired, if I hadn’t been around when Charles died, it would’ve been very tough on the company. At that point I was about 57 years old. We weren’t worried about Charles, as active as he was. We didn’t know he wasn’t being truthful with us, wasn’t being open with us about his condition so we had no idea.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to the furniture industry.
I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, as you’ve plainly seen. Keep in mind you may request a follow up interview later if you wish. What would you like to add in summary?
NORTON: The only thing I’d like to add – and I have overlooked something that I shouldn’t have overlooked – is about my family. Laverne and I have dated or have been married over 60 years. We’ve been married 56 years with three children. Our oldest one, Carl Brian, whom we lost, was named after my pilot oversees that turned out to be a very dear friend. Carl died in 1990 of an accident. Our son Kevin is five years his junior; Kevin was born in ’50 and he is the father of a daughter, 24, who is a schoolteacher. My oldest son, the one that died, is the father of my grandson Patrick, who is in the computer business in San Francisco. Patrick is 29. My granddaughter, who I mentioned before, is named Patricia. We have a daughter who is 39, married and has a 13-year-old son, Sean. Of course, the one I really owe it all to is this gal here, who hasn’t been very well the last year. We’re trying very hard to get her fixed up so she can have a little better quality of life. The family is very, very important to me although probably I haven’t always shown it. Enough said.