Paul hunt broyhill; broyhill furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 28, 2010
LENOIR, NORTH CAROLINA
OFFICE OF PAUL HUNT BROYHILL
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is Tony Bengel. It’s October 28, 2010, and I’m interviewing Paul Broyhill in his office in Lenoir, North Carolina. So, Mr. Broyhill, let’s begin. When were you born and where?
BROYHILL: I was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, April 5, 1924. In those days, there wasn’t a hospital in Lenoir, so my father took my mother to Lincolnton to deliver both my sister, Allene, and me, at Crowell Hospital there. After we were born, my Uncle Tom, who was the senior member of our family, helped organize a hospital in Lenoir and brought the first surgeon to Lenoir. Prior to that, there were general practitioners in town, but no surgeons. My brother, Jim, and my sister, Bettie, were both born at that original hospital in Lenoir.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, your family was in furniture at that point, so fill us in on your family history.
BROYHILL: Our business started indirectly. My father’s family was born and raised on a farm in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and back in those days they worked hard, of course, during the growing season. But then, during the winter, my Uncle Tom, who was the oldest in my father’s family, would buy stumpage – that is, the right to cut timber on neighboring properties. He had a small, portable sawmill. He and his brothers would take the mules they had on the farm and their portable mill to cut down trees, haul them to the mill, plane the trees into boards, and then haul the boards out to a nearby road. They normally had arrangements with people who would haul the boards to the appropriate market.
Back in those days, one of the biggest markets was railroad crossties, but there was also a fledgling furniture industry. One of the factories in Lenoir was called the Kent Coffin Company, which in addition to coffins had also started making some furniture. My Uncle Tom shipped lumber to that company on a number of occasions. He ended up having to take stock in payment for his lumber. Between 1905 and 1913, he gradually accumulated more and more of the stock, until he became the majority owner. Then, he started devoting all of his time to the furniture business.
My father was much younger than Tom. At the age of 21, Dad decided to leave the farm. With the help of his brother, who, by that time, was fairly successful, he went to Boone, North Carolina, to school, and at 21 years entered the 7th grade. Boone had a mountain school of 11 grades, started in 1899 as a private academy called Watauga Academy. But a little later, the owners – the Dougherty brothers – succeeded in getting the legislature of North Carolina to appropriate money to make it a state school that specialized in educating teachers. So, it became known as the Appalachian Training School for Teachers.
My father studied there for four years, finished 10th grade, and left when he was drafted into World War I. Dad did not go overseas because he got caught up in a terrible influenza epidemic which, at the time, was so severe that it killed literally a million people. It’s hard to realize the flu could be so endemic. He was hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital. During his recovery, he learned to type. When he got out of the service, he worked in his brother Tom’s office, doing some typing and bookkeeping. But very quickly, Dad gravitated toward sales. He had a natural talent for selling, and gradually worked his way to become second in command to his brother in the furniture company.
In 1926, there was a fire at the nearby Bernhardt plant. That plant had been supplying dining room chairs to my Uncle Tom’s factory. He made case goods but not chairs. My father decided that he would start a small chair factory to supply those chairs. So in 1927, he opened his own company, which he called the Lenoir Chair Company. In his factory, Dad also made a small line of upholstered chairs, and that was the beginning of my father’s business, which is my immediate family’s origin in the furniture business. The two companies operated side by side but with separate ownership.
In 1933, my dad and uncle bought an interest in the Harper Furniture Company, which had been the original furniture company in Lenoir. It had gone through at least two or three reorganizations when it hit difficult times. At that point, it was being operated by the Harper family – one of the old, original families of Lenoir. Dad and Uncle Tom together bought approximately two-thirds of Harper Furniture. Approximately one-third was owned by another individual who, a little later, sold that third. So during the ’30s, the line was known as the Lenoir line, which consisted of Lenoir Furniture, Lenoir Chair, and Harper. In 1937, Dad and Tom bought a bankrupt furniture company in Newton, North Carolina, but my Uncle Tom didn’t want to start it back up. Business was slow at the time.
There was a depression in ’37. Some people don’t remember that during the Great Depression, there was a little upturn after ’32 until about ’37, when there was another severe downturn in ’37-’38.
My father bought Uncle Tom’s interest in the Newton plant. It was a fully equipped, 100,000-square-foot factory on a 20-acre site. It cost $15,000. He was able to start it up and get it running and make a little money, so that by 1939, when business started picking up, he personally owned Lenoir Chair, had his Newton factory, and had an interest in the Harper factory. My Uncle Tom’s original factory was still 100 percent owned by Uncle Tom and his family.
In 1940, my dad bought a defunct factory in Conover, North Carolina. A lot of factories had gone broke, and they were still going broke in ’39 and ’40. The Reconstruction Finance Company, a federal governmental agency held the mortgage. Dad bought that factory from the RFC. Then shortly thereafter – within a year – he bought another factory in Marion, North Carolina, that was mortgaged with the RFC.
Both of these purchases, as it turned out, were fortuitous. When I came out of the military in 1945, I went back to school for two years, then went into the business in January of ’48. At that time we had six factories – Lenoir Furniture, my uncle’s original factory; my dad’s original factory, Lenoir Chair; Harper, Newton, Marion and Conover. Those six factories were doing, at that time, about $15 million in volume annually, and that was considered to be one of the largest in the industry. But we didn’t actually have a lot of net worth because there was no way to build profits in the ’30s and during the war years. Taxes were very high during the war, so we had volume, but we had not built a large net worth.
The factories were small, tin-clad structures, built on wooden frames. After the war, we immediately started rebuilding all of them, so that during my career, we built over 6 million square feet of brick and steel factories in all of the original locations, except for one. That one was such a situation that we just decided it could never be rebuilt, and eventually we tore it down.
INTERVIEWER: So the company wasn’t called Broyhill Furniture back in those days...
BROYHILL: No, it was several companies with different names. All during the ’30s and ’40s, we were known as the Lenoir Line.
INTERVIEWER: Your father is James Edgar Broyhill, correct?
BROYHILL: Yes, but most people just called him Ed, and thought his name was Edward. But his middle name was Edgar, and he was known as Ed. Back in those days, they used the title Mr. Ed or Mr. J.E.
INTERVIEWER: Were your father or your Uncle Tom ever trained as a furniture maker?
BROYHILL: Oh, no.
INTERVIEWER: So they never actually made furniture personally.
BROYHILL: No, no – not from the standpoint of being a craftsman. Obviously, they had to get involved in the designing of the line. That’s a lot of what I did when I went into the business. I don’t know how to run a machine, but I know how to design furniture. You have to decide what you’re going to make, and that was always a critical thing, from the beginning all the way through to today. Both Tom and Dad were personally involved in buying and selling.
INTERVIEWER: Did any of your siblings end up in furniture?
BROYHILL: My brother, Jim, worked for the company – in administration and personnel – for about 12 years after he finished college. He helped with the training programs. But also he was the office manager, and he did a lot of our public relations work. He loved to work with the community, the Chamber of Commerce and that sort of thing. Then, he ran for the U.S. Congress, was elected, and left the furniture business to devote the rest of his life to public service.
INTERVIEWER: This was James Broyhill?
BROYHILL: That’s correct. He was known as Jim Broyhill. He was a congressman, a senator, and later he was Secretary of Commerce for the state of North Carolina, under Governor James Martin. He has done various other committee-type jobs for the state throughout the years.
INTERVIEWER: Is he still living?
BROYHILL: He’s still living – lives in Winston-Salem.
INTERVIEWER: And then you had two sisters?
BROYHILL: I had two sisters, Allene and Bettie. They worked in the office when they were very young – 14-15 – but that was just something we all did. My dad just believed in everybody doing a little bit of work. But they never were really involved in the business.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, this jumps ahead, but do you still have family in furniture and, if so, who are they and what do they do?
BROYHILL: After I sold and then left Broyhill Furniture in 1985, my son and I started a couple of other small furniture businesses, which were more or less successful – made a little money, lost a little money. We had a chain of furniture retail shops and rental stores. We thought we could supply them ourselves, so we started a small upholstery-making company, thinking it would be a manufacturer’s dream – that we’d be able to both make it and sell it. But unfortunately, the dream didn’t turn out so well. Ultimately, we decided that being in furniture wasn’t what we wanted to do and we went in another direction.
So my son has considerable experience in both small manufacturing and retail. One of my daughters worked for us in the retail stores. I really believed that both daughters should learn a little something about working.
Interestingly, Uncle Tom’s grandson, Tom Broyhill, continued to work at Broyhill in an upper management position until 2008 when he retired.
INTERVIEWER: So you have two daughters.
BROYHILL: I have two daughters.
INTERVIEWER: And one son. And what is your son’s name?
BROYHILL: My son is named Hunt.
INTERVIEWER: Is he still involved in furniture in any way?
BROYHILL: No, no. He’s in the investment business with me. We have an investment company, called Broyhill Management Company, which has gotten us into many things, a rather lengthy list.
INTERVIEWER: You essentially considered yourself a furniture maker, did you not?
BROYHILL: I did for my first career, but for 25 years, I’ve been running a financial business. So you might say I’ve had at least two careers. I was a furniture manufacturer, designing and making bedroom, dining room, and occasional furniture with contemporary, traditional English, traditional French, traditional Spanish, American colonial, and Early American styles. But I also got involved in furniture retail and rental stores, prefabricated home manufacturing, real estate, plastics manufacturing, finance, stocks, bonds, leases, and philanthropy.
INTERVIEWER: Describe some of the key events as you were growing up. I assume you worked in some of the furniture companies.
BROYHILL: Yes. My first job was in my dad’s office – I guess I was about 13, quite young – running the switchboard. One of those old switchboards is at our history museum here in Lenoir. It’s about an arm’s length wide. All across it are lights. When a light goes on and a buzzer sounds, you plug one of two cords into the receptacle by the light, and then after you find out who the caller wants to speak to, you take the other cord and plug it into the receptacle that goes to the phone of that person. That’s the job of a switchboard operator.
I did that during the summer months. While I was sitting there waiting for the lights to come on, I shaved the Dictaphone records. The Dictaphone record is cylindrical and made of hard wax. You dictate, and then with a little machine almost like a razor blade, you shave off a very thin layer so that it can be reused. I was responsible for shaving the cylinders.
Back in those days, all the envelopes would come to me for sealing and stamping. We didn’t have stamping machines, and they didn’t want somebody sitting there licking on an envelope. So they would give me a pile of envelopes and I would run them across a little machine that would wet them, seal them, and put a stamp on them. That was a real tough job I had – my first job.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever work on the factory floor when you were a kid?
BROYHILL: When I was 15 or 16 I worked in the lumberyard, and then I also worked in the machining room. My first job was pushing factory trucks around. Back in those days, there were no conveyors. Everything was moved around the plant on a truck with wheels. The trucks had to be pushed from one station to another. At the station I had to take what was on the truck and lay it up to the machine. That was a manual labor job that was eliminated as we developed our technology. But I had some experience of working in the plants in those early days.
INTERVIEWER: What were you paid? Do you remember?
BROYHILL: I started at 25 cents an hour, and we worked 45 hours a week – 40 hours, and then you’d get 5 hours at time-and-a-half. So we all loved those last five hours. We did that at Broyhill for many years. We were proud of being able to give our people those extra five hours, which paid as if it were 47½.
INTERVIEWER: Was that on Saturdays?
BROYHILL: No, no. That was nine hours a day, instead of eight.
INTERVIEWER: So you were going to school during the school year.
BROYHILL: Correct, so my working in the office and the factory was just during the summer months.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
BROYHILL: This, again, is a long story, but I took my last year of high school at Culver Military Academy.
INTERVIEWER: Where is that?
BROYHILL: That’s in Culver, Indiana, outside of Chicago. I was very naïve – didn’t even realize you should start going to a military academy in your first year of high school – the 9th grade – because of the hierarchy in a military academy. You start off as a plebe the first year, and then the second year you go up a little bit, and so forth and so forth. So I went in as a senior, but because it was my first year there, I was a plebe. There was no one else like me. I was an outcast. It really was a tough year, but I stayed there. Of course, it’s a very prestigious school and gave me a great foundation.
In December 1941, I was at Culver one Sunday afternoon when I heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Interestingly, I marched into Convocation the next morning with 1,000 cadets to hear President Roosevelt – they had a speaker system – to hear him make his speech and declare war on Japan. You could look around that room and see all of those kids trained in the military – most of them would end up as officers and would very soon be called to action. Many, many of them, of course, went off to war and died. There was a very high mortality rate, obviously, for kids at that stage of the game.
At any rate, because the war had started, I decided I needed military training. I went from Culver to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, but I only went one quarter. I realized as I was trying to get into various military programs there, that I had a bit of color blindness. It never deterred me, before or after, and I was able, later in life, to pass the exam for a flight physical. But, at that time, I couldn’t get into the Naval ROTC or the Air Force ROTC. So, I knew I was going to be drafted, and I figured that until then I might as well transfer to the University of North Carolina. One of my buddies had told me what a great time he was having at Carolina, dating the girls and going to the parties and all that sort of stuff.
In December, I left VPI and enrolled at Carolina in Chapel Hill. My dad was furious; but it turned out to be a good decision, because the two quarters I spent there before I joined the Army enabled me to get established as a student, and also to join a fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. After the war, I went back and attended two calendar years: 1946-1947. Carolina was on the quarter system. I was in a hurry and I took extra courses. I actually graduated in a total of 11 quarters, instead of 12 – not that it makes any difference now, but at the time I was in a hurry. I wanted to get out as quickly as I could.
INTERVIEWER: Did you happen to meet your future wife there?
BROYHILL: No, I did not meet my future wife there, but I met a number of very beautiful maidens – more in Greensboro than in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill had only a relatively few co-eds at the time. I think they had one dorm of women. Seems to me it was several hundred women versus several thousand men. I think, today, there are more women at Carolina than there are men.
INTERVIEWER: So did you try to enlist, but were turned down because of your partial color blindness?
BROYHILL: I tried to get into the officer training college programs, Army, Navy or Air Force, and wasn’t able to get into any of them, which, as it turns out, probably saved my life. I’m sure that when you went in early, your chances of surviving weren’t all that great. I often think about those guys that went into Africa – these infantrymen – then went into Sicily in Italy. To be on the front lines like that for several years, what is your percentage chance of surviving? Not great.
INTERVIEWER: So you were ultimately drafted.
BROYHILL: It was in the summer of 1943. Two busloads of boys from Lenoir were taken to the reception center at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. From there, I was sent to Camp Croft in Spartanburg, close by, and went through 18 weeks of basic training. I think the original basic training may have only been half of that, but everything was getting more and more organized. My memory of basic training was that it was disciplined, but not too strict except at the reception area. There, sergeants, corporals, and other officers loved to bark at you and cuss you out and jump on you for everything.
During basic training we had to get up at 4:30-5 o’clock in the morning and we were kept busy all day long. We marched constantly, including night march field trips, marching in the sun and the rain, and bivouacking. I’ve trained crawling on my belly while someone fired live ammunition about a foot above my head. We had some good training back in those days, but still, I’m sure it was nothing to prepare us for real combat.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you end up serving?
BROYHILL: Well, that is a really interesting story. I mentioned that my father learned how to type when he was in the hospital during World War I, and he gave typing some of the credit for helping him get a job in my uncle’s office. When I was working in Dad’s office operating the switchboard and so forth, he encouraged the girls to teach me how to type. So I just put down that I could type when I joined the Army. Would you believe they pulled me out and made me a clerk typist? From then, I progressed up the ranks in administration until I became a tech sergeant in charge of a group of about 25 people in a major office. We were responsible for key administrative duties, including writing the orders. I remember that for a year I wrote all the orders for a particular camp. I was at Camp Maxi and Camp Hood, and later ended up at Fort Meade, Maryland. At any rate, I was fortunate that I served in administration and did not go overseas.
An interesting story: One day I was in the communications room and I just happened to see a teletype message coming through saying that President Roosevelt had died. This was in the spring of ’45. With no orders or anything, I literally ran out to the flagpole, which was in front of our office building there, pulled the flag down to half-mast and saluted – no bugles or anything. I guess, maybe, I should have had a little more fanfare than that, but I do know that I pulled the flag down to half-mast myself. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: Pick up your career after you left the military.
BROYHILL: Well, I went back to school for two years …
INTERVIEWER: And that was at Chapel Hill?
BROYHILL: That was at Chapel Hill.
INTERVIEWER: And your major was...
BROYHILL: I was in business administration. My father appreciated education – he got the equivalent of 10 grades, and he appreciated his going to Boone. We hired a lot of high school graduates in our company, and some college graduates, of course, later on. Never did go much for MBAs. Today, you almost have to have an MBA as a ticket to get a job.
Who knows? The MBA may give you some ability to analyze, but I’m not sure whether students learn how to manage. That is one of my pet peeves – that business schools don’t really do a great job of teaching management. They teach a lot of things, but they don’t teach much about hiring and motivating people.
INTERVIEWER: So you don’t recall having a management course in college?
BROYHILL: Oh, yes, I had production, sales management, accounting, business law – I had all those courses.
INTERVIEWER: Were they of any great use to you later on in life?
BROYHILL: Like I say, I could breeze through most of the courses. The other students hated me because a lot of the courses were graded on the curve and I ruined the curve. I was not really good at accounting. I could handle the accounting course, but doing the labs – just writing down all those numbers and coming up with a balance – I’d always be a few pennies off. I never have been good at detail work like that. I understand the principles of accounting. I could pass that in a flash, along with all those other business courses.
INTERVIEWER: So when you graduated, you came into the family business, I assume.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first job at that point?
BROYHILL: All during the war, there was a huge demand for goods, but the supply was very limited. We set up a quota system that allotted a certain amount of goods to customers who had a history of buying from us. It was a pretty well-defined system. A salesman didn’t have to get an order. He just had to write it up. We would send a copy of the order to the customer listing what goods we were going to send him, and immediately he would respond begging for more. We had some old-time salesmen – probably 12 or 15 – and, of course, they were getting their commissions, but they really didn’t have to do much during the war.
In the meantime, my dad and some of his key people had been adding on production space and equipment to the factories. Every factory had a wish list, so we were adding here, adding there – buying this machine or that machine. At the same time we were getting men back from the war, so our workforce was greatly expanding. Production was going up rapidly.
I started in January of ’48, so I had about a year of the allotment experience. During that time, I did quite a bit of in-and-out calling on our dealers, literally from Florida to Maine, but it was more of a goodwill-type call. Starting in January of ’49, we had to start selling, so I had a taste of that. Then, by the spring of ’49, it was like you turned the lights out. Business just quit. I’ve seen that a few times since.
Of course, my dad didn’t want to curtail production. The idea of curtailing was just completely foreign, so we kept going longer than we should have. Ultimately, we filled up all of the warehouses, and then dad rented more warehouses in the area. The first thing you know, we had those rented warehouses filled up. We had to reduce production for about 90 days, which just was unheard of.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this would have been in ’49?
BROYHILL: That was ’49. We didn’t have much of a sales force or a large sales management staff. We had an old-time sales manager who was quite knowledgeable but who wasn’t in real good health and who didn’t travel. All of a sudden, we had a big problem with furniture inventory backing up.
When I came into the business there was no organizational hierarchy and I didn’t have a specific job. I was more of an observer, I guess, visiting the plants and visiting with the customers. When the inventory crisis of 1949 hit us, I worked for six to nine months, night and day, liquidating that inventory. I had inventory lists and would call salesmen and assign to them 12 units of this, 12 of that – they’d sell it and call me back and I’d cross it off with a pencil. We didn’t have computers in those days. Also, I called on a lot of our key accounts personally, selling the overstocked merchandise. I got an extreme baptism by fire in what you might call negotiating. Many of those customers went back to the ’30s and had a lot of negotiating experience. I was the boss’s son and I was a young kid of 23 or something like that. Some of them would give me a little break, but a lot of them wouldn’t. So I had to learn fairly quickly how to negotiate with those guys. I think I got to be pretty good at it. Finally, business picked up and we got rid of that inventory.
We realized that we needed to revitalize our sales department, starting with a sales training program. With the help of our old-time sales manager and my brother-in-law, Bill Stevens, we began to reorganize. Traditionally, furniture had been sold by what is called manufacturers’ reps, meaning they were independent reps with a specific territory who were paid a five percent commission. They were working for themselves; they were not on a particular company’s payroll. We decided that we would start a program where we would hire and train salespeople and pay them a salary, plus expenses. But at the same time, we would try to retain the existing sales force.
So we kept those two models side by side, the old and the new. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but the old-time salesmen continued to have their territory, although gradually their territories had to shrink as our volume went up. But they still had their jobs, and they made as much, or maybe a little more, as time went on. So, most of them stayed with us. Some of them stayed with us for 15-20 years, until they retired or died. We started hiring 10 to 15 young men at a time, twice a year. Bill Stevens developed a thorough sales training program that was unheard of in our industry.
Over the course of the next 20-25 years, we hired hundreds of people, starting with a sales force of about 18, I think, after the war. At one point, we had over 300 salesmen and maintained that for some period during the peak of my career. Bill Stevens did the hard work in organizing the sales training programs. He should get most of the credit. I could do some of what I like to call motivational leadership-type things – that was my strength. My brother was doing some of the same types of thing in the plants.
It became obvious that we needed a more updated line of merchandise. My dad was doing some of the merchandising and had a consultant helping him a little bit, but we didn’t really have anybody else specifically responsible for merchandising the line.
So I just moved in to fill the need. Actually, my dad wasn’t even sure he wanted me to do that because he was doing it, but I started working with the designers and listening to the customers and designing merchandise. So initially, dad and the consultant would design a couple of suites, and I'd design three or four suites. Then, we would see which sold the best at market. It was almost like we were competitors, but that didn’t last but two or three markets and dad said, “OK, you do it.” After I showed him that I could do it, he let me have it. So from then on, I was in charge of merchandising, which is deciding what you’re going to make and then designing it and making samples that we called “mock-ups,” showing it to the customers, making changes, and then going out and selling it.
INTERVIEWER: This would be called product development today, right?
BROYHILL: Exactly. I was the chief product development person all my career. I had a designer who was technical and did the drawings. Starting back in those early days, I carried with me a little Minox camera, which was a World War II spy camera, very small. I carried that with me constantly for 25 or 30 years, looking for ideas, no matter where I was. I could get an idea looking at a wall or looking at a building or looking at a piece of glass. It was amazing; I was so immersed in furniture that I could somehow get an idea for a slight variation. Design is really just a variation of something else. In our business we designed something and then made variations of it for quite a long time.
Then, I worked with the production people, because production people, going back to Henry Ford, usually want to make only one thing, and keep making only one thing. At one point in his career, Ford said that people could have anything they wanted, as long as it was a four-door black sedan. He was quoted as saying that, although later, obviously, he made other things. But the point was that he wanted to simplify, simplify, simplify, and to run a production line that just kept making the same thing over and over and over. It’s much more efficient that way.
I had a bunch of hard-nosed production people that felt just like that. They never wanted to make any changes. They didn’t want to do anything new. They just wanted to keep doing what they were doing, in large quantities, over and over again. So there’s a natural conflict between sales and production people, and I had to bridge that gap. I think that was one of the great strengths that I had, because I learned what the plants could do and how the plant managers thought. I was in the plants enough and had enough closeness with the people that, rather than being in a constant war, we would give and take.
I’d want something different, but I wouldn’t make it too different. I remember a time very early in my career when we were making a flat-front mahogany credenza. I wanted to put a swelled, or curved, front on that. Can you believe it? They didn’t want to do a swelled front. Later on, we had a machine to help us make curved fronts. When I first started, we made curved fronts by taking a piece of wood and band sawing a curve, and then laminating veneer with a press and bending it. It’s amazing where we came from. Later, we had an electronic press where you take a piece of flat wood and bend it – you do it all with plywood, instead of all that hard work that we used to do.
But, that’s just an example of what we had to do. Very slowly, we had to develop what the plant could do. You develop your technology along with your design. Over and over again, particularly with those hotshot people who bought into the industry from the outside and didn’t know what they were doing, they would assign a difficult product to a plant to make, and then expect the plant to make money, except the plant couldn’t do that. But whose fault was it? It wasn’t the fault of the guy who put it in there; it was always the plant’s fault, and then they’d fire the plant manager. Here you have this wonderful guy, who’s spent 30 years in the plant, and he’s no good; he’s out. Then, they’ll put a hotshot young kid in there, and he really doesn’t know what he’s doing, so the plant’s still not making any money and it doesn’t ever make any. Now, it’s not their fault back at corporate headquarters. It’s these guys – local guys – who don’t know what they’re doing.
INTERVIEWER: Let me back up a bit and ask you to describe your father, as a businessman, as a person, as someone who was running a furniture company. Apparently, he didn’t want or need a lot of structure. How was he running things? Was he involved in production?
BROYHILL: He was definitely very much involved in the early days. Every plant had a plant manager. So up until the early ’40s, we didn’t have a big structure in a head office. The office was primarily a place where we wrote up the orders and invoices, and where we paid our bills and did the accounting. There was no big staff in the office. Back in those days, there weren’t any sales managers or production managers. During my career, however, I developed a team of sales managers, production managers, and merchandise managers and so forth. It basically was a little business up until our post-war expansion.
During the war years, Dad didn’t really need much management. It was a pretty simple thing. The market was taking anything you could make, so you just made anything the plant wanted to make, almost, and shipped it to your customers. So by January ’46, there really wasn’t much organization. Starting in ’46, they started developing more of a management structure. Dad hired a production manager, and the one old-time sales manager I mentioned. When guys came back from the war, my brother-in-law started hiring some of those younger people in sales.
The starting pay at that time was $35 or $40 a week, and we later raised it to $50 a week, plus expenses. In the last paragraph of my memoir, I talk about the influence we’ve had. I was trying to answer the question, what did my life mean? I thought the answer was, building and leaving all those wonderful factories and organizations, which are nearly all gone now. But now I know it’s the people that I helped. We’ve helped literally thousands of people on their way.
INTERVIEWER: How did your dad recruit his early workforce?
BROYHILL: He didn’t have to recruit. People were begging for jobs. If he only had a certain amount of work, they would literally hang around the plant until he had enough orders to need help. People appreciated any work that you could give them. That was true all through the ’30s.
INTERVIEWER: These folks had to be trained on the job, then, by someone?
BROYHILL: Well, there was always a plant manager and department managers. The plant manager would have several department managers. Every plant was broken down into a certain number of departments. The department manager and plant manager would be old-time furniture people. They had the skill, and then they often could hire lead people who had skills.
INTERVIEWER: So there were never any problems finding workers back in those days?
BROYHILL: No, no. There was no problem finding workers. During my career, that changed. As we built factories and as other companies around here grew, starting, I’d say, by the early ’50s and during most of my career, there was always a shortage of workers in this area. For that reason, we went out of the immediate area and bought or built plants in Newton, Conover, Taylorsville, Marion, and Rutherfordton. We would have been more efficient to have it all right here in one place. But we built, maybe, about half in the Lenoir area, and half outlying. We had about 7,500 employees at the time of my peak, scattered all around the greater area.
INTERVIEWER: During the war, was your father’s and your uncle’s company on allocations?
BROYHILL: Everything was on allocations.
INTERVIEWER: Didn’t they have trouble getting supplies?
BROYHILL: They had a lot of trouble getting materials; everything was on government quotas. My dad was elected president of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association in ’41, and then the war came. There he was, without a lot of background for making speeches or meeting with important people in Washington. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion. As SFMA president, he went to Washington and dealt with the War Production Board, the Office of Price Administration, and others. In his dealings he also met congressmen and senators. Because of the connections he developed, the manufacturers association felt they should leave him in that position. They elected him president all during the war years – ’43, ’44, and ’45 – which was unprecedented. So Dad would go to Washington as the representative of the industry – Mr. Furniture Man – and never turned in an expense account the whole time. Did it all on his own dime. He’d charge it to his business. He never charged a penny to the association.
Dad was always interested in Republican politics, and later, in 1948, he was elected to the Republican National Committee. That position was probably more important in those days than it is today when it comes to actually running the party. But it brought my father into another dimension. He made great friends with Senator Wherry who, at the time, was Senate Minority Whip. My dad also became a great friend of Senator Bob Taft and other people of that era.
INTERVIEWER: As a manager, was your dad a delegator, or did he want to keep his finger in all the pies?
BROYHILL: There wasn’t any real reporting with my dad. We didn’t have meetings. We had a production manager, a purchasing manager, a sales manager and an accounting manager – they all did their jobs. Dad wasn’t holding any meetings with them. He got weekly reports from them without much supervision.
My dad was always willing to be aggressive, to add on, or to buy a machine. We’d make a little money, spend it, make a little money, and spend that. We constantly had to make a little money before we could spend it. That’s the stuff he was thinking about.
INTERVIEWER: So he wanted to grow?
INTERVIEWER: He was growth oriented.
BROYHILL: He absolutely was.
INTERVIEWER: But he was willing to let you find your own place in the company.
BROYHILL: He didn’t let me. I just did it. I never really was given a job. I’ve often said, when people ask me, “What job did your dad give you?” I'd say, “My dad never told me what he wanted me to do. He told me what he didn’t want me to do quite a number of times.” I’ve been told what not to do more than once, but hardly ever told what to do. It’s hard for people to realize this – I gradually took over the management of our business.
We had some confrontations for about 10 years, from time to time, which is unfortunate. But frankly, it wasn’t bad enough for me to consider leaving the company. I’ve run into similar situations of sons having confrontations with their fathers. I’ve even counseled some sons in that regard. But after about 10 years, my dad said, “OK, you’ve got it,” and that was that. He had enough sense to let me have it; whereas, if he would have said, “no,” I probably would have quit and moved on to something else.
INTERVIEWER: So even though you were in disagreement about some things...
BROYHILL: We would do that behind closed doors. People, generally, wouldn’t know about the disagreements. We were both proud enough not to have yelling matches in front of anybody.
INTERVIEWER: But he was pretty much willing to let you do your thing.
BROYHILL: It was perhaps a question of, who else is going to do it. He could have hired another general manager. Well, that would have certainly pushed me out, so what was he going to do then?
INTERVIEWER: Was there ever any question in your mind or your father’s mind that you were going to go into the furniture business?
BROYHILL: I think that was just a foregone conclusion – that I was going to go into the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: And you didn’t fight against that?
BROYHILL: No, I didn’t fight against that.
NTERVIEWER: You didn’t want to go out and try to be a...
BROYHILL: No, I never gave that a thought. I never had any thought but that I was going to be a furniture man. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do in the business, but I’ve explained to you how I’ve moved toward the greatest need, which was liquidating that inventory, and then starting to develop a product line.
Then, I gradually developed production technology and helped with the development of the sales force. As we got more sophisticated, we developed overall management strategies.
INTERVIEWER: What do you remember about the first furniture market you attended?
BROYHILL: Well, the first furniture market I went to was in 1932 and I was 9 years old, at the Chicago furniture market.
INTERVIEWER: So your father and mother just took the whole family to the Chicago Market?
BROYHILL: Yes. He had just bought a new Cadillac. It was his first Cadillac – 1932, a great big touring sedan. It carried my mother, my father, his sister – an unmarried sister – and four children. My younger brother and sister were very little. I’m trying to think how we all got in that car. It had jump seats in the back. It had a great big, wide backseat. I’m sure it would have been easy to sit three in the front. Back in those days, front seats went all the way across. So we had seven in the car.
INTERVIEWER: What do you remember about that trip?
BROYHILL: It was during the 1932 World’s Fair. We youngsters and my mom were supposedly going to the World’s Fair, but my dad also wanted me to work in the showroom. Back in those days, everybody smoked – no air conditioning – and you’d walk into a showroom and it was like walking into a fog, almost. That continued all the way into the ’50s. It wasn’t until well into the ’50s that we began to get air-conditioned showrooms. Chicago markets were hot in the summer, cold in the winter. I had to clean out all the ashtrays. There was constant cigarette and cigar residue all over.
As the salesmen worked with upholstery fabric swatches, they got them out of order, and would tend to leave them and move on to do something else, working with their customers. I’d have to come along behind them and re-sort the fabric samples, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was quite a job for a 9-year-old kid. I worked enough in the showroom space so that at the end of the market, my dad took me upstairs to another showroom where they had a line of bicycles. As payment for my working in the showroom, Dad bought me a bicycle that I had wanted badly.
INTERVIEWER: It was called the American Furniture Mart, right?
BROYHILL: Exactly. The building was at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. We had a large space and we always served a good lunch. Some manufacturers would do that as, obviously, it would draw a crowd. My dad never missed a Chicago market from the time it opened in January of 1924 until 50 years later in July of 1974.
INTERVIEWER: Were your father and his brother showing in the same showroom?
BROYHILL: Yes, it was all together. My uncle never went to a market that I was involved in. He died in ’55. He had a heart attack in the mid-’30s, so my dad ran his business as part of the whole, and I did the same after I came on board. The same staff handled both companies. Then later on, after my uncle died, I started letting the various companies buy in his stock. We didn’t have enough money, personally, so that was the only way to do it, but his interest was gradually liquidated.
INTERVIEWER: So you went regularly to the January and July markets in Chicago?
BROYHILL: I went on and off in the ’30s, to the Chicago and the High Point markets. My first market after the war was in January of ’48, and we were still on quotas. We didn’t have our own showroom in Chicago. The building had been taken over by a department of the government. They turned loose of it in early ’48, so the first Chicago Market where we showed in our own space was July of ’48. It was my job to go and set up.
INTERVIEWER: Now, we’re talking about Chicago?
BROYHILL: Yes. We hadn’t set up a space there for several years during the war. I’d never set up a space, but I had several of the salesmen to help with the labor, plus a couple guys out of the plants. We went up there and physically set up the space without any decoration, no carpets, no nothing. We put suite after suite in little bays. So that was my first market as an adult.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get the furniture up there?
BROYHILL: We had our own trucks. Our trucks would take merchandise to the dock and the furniture market had systems whereby they would get the furniture from the dock to the space. They would dump it in the space and uncarton it. Then, you had to clean it up and place it.
INTERVIEWER: So you would attend the markets up there, meeting with your retailers?
BROYHILL: I personally set up spaces for a number of years, but fairly soon graduated from that. But I’ve done it. My son, later on, was involved in setting up spaces, so he knows a little about that.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the market itself. What sort of interaction did you have with the buyers? You’re supervising a sales force, probably.
BROYHILL: My biggest job was to motivate the sales force. I always had a sales meeting, generally the day before the market started, and first thing, handed out price lists and delivered a motivational speech. Most of my work around the market was more of a PR-type work. But that was important. Customers want you to greet them when they come to market. A lot of presidents don’t want to do that. We always were very big about trying to have some personal relationship with a lot of our dealers.
The most important customers certainly needed to be greeted by the boss. I wouldn’t have to stay with them during the whole tour of the showroom, but maybe for a portion of it. Some people I could greet at the door and that’s all I had to do. Some people were so important I would take them back to my office and sit and visit. So my day was full of greeting people, although from time to time I’d get involved in selling some of the tough guys, and when a salesman was really working on a particularly important sale I would participate.
INTERVIEWER: Was your father involved in doing that?
BROYHILL: Yes, he did that, too. He loved greeting people. Later on, he would no longer do much greeting at the door. As he got older, he’d just go sit down and people would come over and speak to him. When he was no longer very active, many people just loved to come and say, “Hello, Mr. Broyhill.”
INTERVIEWER: He still wanted to go to the market when he got older.
BROYHILL: Until he was 80 years old. While I was still at the company, he would sit in his office and people would sit down and visit with him. He wasn’t in as big a hurry as I was, and many people would just sit and visit with him. He always had a deck of cards. He’d play gin rummy with some of them.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the High Point Market, but
Broyhill didn’t actually show in High Point during the early days, did it?
BROYHILL: Oh, yes. We were key to the High Point Market in the ’30s. Our space was on the top floor. There was just the one building, and there was one other small space up there. But we had most of the top floor. On Monday mornings at 7 o’clock, people would pour out of those elevators. There was no way we could handle it all. We got the traffic. A lot of people would just walk through once and come back later. We had a prime space for that day and time. We were hit with hundreds of people that first day and the second day.
INTERVIEWER: I thought Broyhill had its showroom out here at a plant in Lenoir, in the so-called western end of the market.
BROYHILL: Oh, we did, later. But I’m talking about the early days. During the ’30s and ’40s, there was no such thing as a market over here. That sprang up fairly quickly after the war when the buyers started coming here for a pre-market. You’ve heard about pre-markets.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes.
BROYHILL: So starting then, in those post-war days, the big dealers – maybe not a lot of them at first, but more and more as time went on – came for a supposed early look at introductions for the upcoming market. They came to look at the sketches and mock-ups. We didn’t have a real showroom at first. We pushed back into a warehouse, literally, and showed a few mock-ups, and then we went out and played golf. We’d maybe change something on the mock-ups overnight and bring them back the next morning to show the new twist.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this was...
BROYHILL: 1948 to the early ’50s. Then we set up a little nicer space. I’d put down a little carpet, and instead of a mock-up, I’d show the complete suite. Instead of a tentative price, I’d decide on a firm price. Pretty quickly, over three or four years, we had a showroom.
INTERVIEWER: But you were still showing in the building in High Point during the regular furniture markets?
BROYHILL: We were still showing down there. But gradually, for every market we’d push back into the warehouse a little more, put down more carpet, push back and put down more carpet, until by the late ’50s we probably had 30,000 square feet of showroom in Lenoir, although it still wasn’t very fancy. At that time, I didn’t know what accessories were – no lamps on tables or pictures on walls. It was still just row after row, after row of furniture – no elaborate setting. It was not planned. That is the way the local market developed.
We manufacturers tried to set opening dates, and would swear we were going to open on such and such a date. No matter what date we set, some of the big dealers would want to come in a day or two early. So then, instead of making the market open on Monday, OK, we’ll open on Sunday, then. Well, they said they need to come Saturday. OK, then we’ll open on Saturday. OK, we’ll come Friday. First thing you know, the date backs up. It just doesn’t make any sense, but no matter what day you set, certain dealers insisted on coming in a day early.
INTERVIEWER: What was the psychology behind that? They thought they were going to lock up distribution? That nobody else would be able to get the goods if they got the first look at it and were willing to make commitments?
BROYHILL: That’s what they thought, that they were going to lock up something.
Gradually, High Point in April and October, as well as the market out here in western North Carolina became more important. The most important furniture markets in the ’30s and ’40s and early ’50s were in Chicago in January and July. Then, we had a New York Market, and High Point was more or less simultaneous, right after Chicago. Even back in those early days, there was a San Francisco Market. But around 1960, the Dallas Market started, so then we had to go to the Dallas Market. Then, pretty simultaneously, Atlanta started. There had been a Los Angeles Market on and off, and some other smaller markets, which we never got involved with. But at one time or another, I’ve shown in Chicago, New York, High Point, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
INTERVIEWER: So you thought you had to be at these markets because that’s where your customers were?
BROYHILL: Yes. But then that series of markets became what you might call local or regional markets, while the April and October markets in High Point gradually became the national market. So then, we started bringing out our new goods in April and October and didn’t bring out hardly anything at the other markets. We eventually dropped our showroom in High Point and concentrated on our showroom in Lenoir.
Later, we dropped New York, but Atlanta and Dallas were still important. Los Angeles never was important to us, but we stayed in San Francisco. Markets were expensive and a waste of time – just hard to justify, yet at the same time it was hard to ignore some of them.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember when you pulled out of Chicago?
BROYHILL: I can remember exactly when we pulled out of Chicago, because my dad was at the first market in January 1924 – the year I was born.
We were there exactly 50 years, so we pulled out after July 1974.
By that time, the Chicago Market was declining. I don’t know when it finally shut down. They turned that market building into an office building.
INTERVIEWER: Dallas was still going great guns in the early ’80s, as I recall, but then that market gradually faded.
BROYHILL: Yes, the market was good there in the ’70s and ’80s – there’s actually a long story there. We already had all those markets, and the southern manufacturers would get together at the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association meetings and swear they wouldn’t keep going to all of them. We always supported the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association. As I’ve said, my dad had been president and he enjoyed the meetings. My brother-in-law Bill Stevens also enjoyed the meetings. The association also had subgroups such as a production group, a sales group. We’d let our people go to those. I never cared for the meetings. I just hate meetings. I rarely went to them. I’m not against them; I just don’t care for them.
INTERVIEWER: So your personal involvement in the association was limited.
BROYHILL: Yes, I never got too involved in the association, so I didn’t personally swear that we wouldn’t go to all of those other markets. My father may have, but I don’t know for sure. Anyhow, sometime during the early ’70s, Trammel Crow and Bill Cooper came to see me.
INTERVIEWER: They were the Dallas Market people.
BROYHILL: Yes. There was a local market that met at the Dallas fairgrounds. It was just a one-week event. There was an area of the fairgrounds where manufacturers would set up furniture, and they’d take it out after the market. The exhibitors mostly were the local Dallas-area manufacturers, and the buyers who came were mainly local and area dealers. Trammel wanted to create a building for a bigger furniture market, but none of the southern furniture manufacturers would talk to him. Well, I talked to him. Of course, I made a sweetheart deal. I got free rent on 40,000 square feet for five years and a sweetheart lease for another five years, so I went. Well, that broke the ice, and the rest, as they say, is history. So I was an early friend of Trammel Crow and the Dallas Market.
INTERVIEWER: What convinced you to go there, other than the sweetheart deal?
BROYHILL: Dallas and Houston, during the ’70s – or maybe the ’60s, I don’t remember exactly when it was – but it was when the oil companies became so strong and Houston became so important. All of a sudden, the Southwest was the strongest area in the country. It was booming. So that Dallas furniture market filled up immediately, and was very successful for Trammel. He immediately started adding on to the building, and from that he built a huge market complex there. He pulled in well over 30 industries of all descriptions to hold trade shows at the Dallas Market Center. He had a trade show going on probably almost every week of the whole year. It all began with that furniture mart building and put Trammel Crow on his way to becoming one of the world’s greatest real estate developers. So, I helped him get a start. He always gave me credit for that.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember the last furniture market you attended?
BROYHILL: Yes, my last one was in October of ’85. That was my first and last High Point Market after we decided to shut down our space here in Lenoir and to show in High Point. I organized that space and set us up down there. I left Broyhill in December of ’85. So, I never went back there again, except a couple times to visit.
INTERVIEWER: So you had sold the company to Interco...
BROYHILL: We sold to Interco in December 1980 and I worked for five more years – worked harder than I ever did. They left me alone and told me I was great – all that was wonderful. They never tried to override my decisions until 1985 when they wanted me to reduce contributions to our Broyhill profit-sharing program, which is a retirement plan for all of our employees – something I was very proud of. We weren’t putting an excessive amount into the plan. I said, “I can’t do that. We’ve got all these wonderful, loyal people, and we just can’t do that.” Well, they said, “You’re going to have to do it.” I said, “I’m not going to do it. Somebody else will have to do it. I’ll see you later. I’m out of here.” That was the end of that.
INTERVIEWER: So, you had decided by 1985 to close your market showroom out here in Lenoir and move into High Point, even though by that time I’m sure you had a huge, well-outfitted showroom in Lenoir.
BROYHILL: Absolutely. It was a difficult decision for us to give up our showroom here. We had helped create the western end of the southern furniture market, and we had stuck together with Drexel and Century and a few others to keep it going. In our glory days, the good dealers more or less had to come here. We drew about half the traffic that High Point did, but we didn’t need all that traffic. We got our important dealers. It was certainly a lot less expensive than showing in High Point, and we got them on our own grounds. We always thought that was a great advantage.
But gradually, the traffic tapered off. Our problem over here was a lack of hotels. The dealers couldn’t get rooms. They had to stay in a 50-mile radius. We owned a hotel in Blowing Rock. While we couldn’t house but so many there, we entertained there.
INTERVIEWER: This was the Green Park Inn?
BROYHILL: Right. We had a huge cocktail party and dinner there, with a live band, every night for 10 nights. I’d work all day at our showroom in Lenoir, then go to Blowing Rock and shake hands with a horde of people at the cocktail party, and then table hop during dinner. I’d hardly eat. But I had hundreds of people who thought I was a good personal friend. I couldn’t remember all their names, but I’d get lists of names ahead of time. I could memorize a list for 15 minutes and call people by their names, and then get another list. I’ve done that all my life.
I never was a great memorizer, but when I’d go into a plant, I’d get a list of names beforehand and get them in my head. I’d know those names. Then, when I went to the next plant, I’d get another list. But I had to do that over and over. Of course, I’d remember the names of the people I would see again and again, and most often. But, I went to the effort of calling the names of everybody as much as I could. Every time I’d go into a group, I’d look at a list of names of people to greet. It’s what I called my cheat sheet.
INTERVIEWER: You had so many customers and employees, it’s no wonder you needed something like that.
BROYHILL: Well, that’s the way I did it. If I’m not working with people regularly, I’ll lose the ability to call a lot of their names.
INTERVIEWER: Why don’t you give us an idea of what it was like in the ’50s, after you had come on board and started organizing the selling and the product development?
BROYHILL: First of all, you’ve got to have the right product and you’ve got to have the sales. We were constantly looking for product ideas. In addition to going to all of the markets and talking to dealers, after the market I’d start a round of going to key accounts, which I did almost every six months. I had my own airplane; I had a Learjet for a large part of those years. It enabled me to do things that other people weren’t doing – go in and out. I had certain dealers who were my favorites – some of them loved to give me advice.
There were certain dealers I’d consult because they would have gone through the market and have seen the entire market offerings. When the new merchandise hit the floors of the dealers, I wanted to see the new merchandise of my competitors – or as much of it as I could, as soon as I could. We manufacturers all sent out catalogs of our lines every six months. I’d go pick up catalogs on all my key competitors. Back in those days, our No. 1 competitor was Bassett, so I’d get a Bassett catalog just as fast as it came out. I knew exactly what Basset was doing – and also what many others were doing. We constantly jockeyed for position in all of the various product categories.
Back in the ’30s, our biggest line was contemporary, but it was what was called “borax contemporary.” Case pieces had a waterfall top – a top that was rounded on the front, and then the fronts were made of fancy veneers. Let’s just say it was in poor taste. The concept started off in Grand Rapids, maybe in very good taste, but by the time we got it down South, in the ’30s, it had turned into something highly ornamental and not in such good taste.
But it was popular and it lasted for far more than 10 years. I was still making one of those suites in the early ’50s. I called it the General MacArthur suite. MacArthur was always a little flamboyant. Borax was eventually supplanted by what I call “clean modern,” along with 18th Century Traditional, largely mahogany, some cherry, and Early American. The Early American was largely being made up north out of solid wood — maple and birch.
When I came into the business, we were making mostly clean modern with a plank top instead of a waterfall top.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been in the early ’50s that you’re talking about?
BROYHILL: In the late ’40s this style started becoming popular – just a plain front and base down to the floor. But as a variation of that simple design, we put it on legs and called it Scandinavian modern.
The industry was so competitive that, very quickly, we started making all kinds of variations. At first we made the swells with band saws. Then, we purchased a high-frequency electronic press that could make the swells more efficiently. We’d swell the top drawers or we’d swell all the drawers or we'd make serpentine curves. We began putting a fancy veneer on it this way or that way. And we were big on hardware. I designed the drawer pulls. I oftentimes would look at ladies’ jewelry, looking for an idea for drawer pulls. A good drawer pull could make a successful suite.
In bedroom, we were making a vanity, a chest, a robe, a panel bed, a poster bed, a nightstand. In the South, we also sold a vanity, half chest, half robes, poster bed and night table. See, you’ve never heard this before. In the North, they didn’t buy it that way. They wanted a single dresser – the chest – no robes, a panel bed and a nightstand.
So right after the war, suddenly we got brilliant and we doubled the dresser, so now we had something called a double dresser. That double dresser hit and was very popular. Suddenly, we got very smart. We said, “That was good. Let’s make a triple dresser.” So we made a triple dresser. Then, the single dresser became unimportant. We dropped it. As people bought new homes that had closets in them, the robes became less and less important. The robes were to hang up your clothes. Poster beds gradually fell away, except in cherry traditional.
In dining room, when I came into the business, we were making a nine-piece suite: buffet, china, table, and six chairs. In the South, we would sell the buffet, the table, six chairs, and china – half the straight china and half the breakfront china. In the North, they didn’t often want buffets and they wanted you to quote them just the breakfront china, the table and four chairs. So there were differences between the North and South, even in that late of an era. In New Orleans, they wanted the whole thing. They wanted a buffet, china, table, chairs and server.
Anyhow, product styles and demand just developed. It wasn’t any one person who drove it; it just sort of came along. Some of us got onto something a little quicker than others. As soon as you got onto anything that sold, everybody else would be on it. This industry is very quick at copying each other.
Along with that contemporary line, we made a short line of traditional. I mentioned the Harper plant, which was the third plant in the company, our upper-end plant. It made cherry traditional and mahogany traditional. We weren’t making any Early American. The traditional cherry line was not called Early American. At that time we were making mainly contemporary and traditional.
I didn’t mention finishes. Our contemporary line was made in silver gray, but then we had all kinds of grays; we had bluish-grays. For a time we got very big in a cordovan finish, which we polished to a high luster. It was dark red – really, really dark, almost black. Cordovan is a good name for it.
In upholstery, my dad had started making dining room chairs – that’s what got him into the upholstery business – then he made a little line of boudoir chairs, little bedroom chairs. He added footstools to his line. Can you believe that? They were just little stools, but the nice thing about them was that he could use up a lot of short ends of materials and sell them for just a few dollars. He progressed into a line of lounge chairs, which is a chair with an upholstered seat and back, more the roll-arm type of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Fully upholstered?
BROYHILL: Yes, but it was strictly a chair line. He never got into sofas. During my career, which is much later – I’m talking about by the late ’40s – I added a line of swivel rockers. Now, that doesn’t sound like much of a thing today, but we developed an upholstered chair that would rock and swivel. It’s so simple, involving an attachment that we were able to put onto that chair. I developed the line at low, middle and high price points, and suddenly that swivel rocker line took off and was one of the best things we did in upholstery, for a number of years. We continued to sell our upholstery line, but those swivel rockers just took off.
INTERVIEWER: Was the swivel rocker an idea of yours?
BROYHILL: Well, an industry supplier sold us on the hardware – the attachment, but we were early on it. This was really a precursor of the recliner. There weren’t any recliners then. Pretty soon thereafter, the recliner came in. We never made recliners in those days. I tried a recliner in later years and didn’t do very well with it. Maybe we would have done better if we’d gotten into recliners in a more solid way. Like a lot of things, you’ve got to be in it enough to have an impact and make a difference. I think Broyhill got into leather recliners a lot later on, but I personally was never in the leather business.
But you see how these lines developed? As time went on, I said, “We’ve got to get into Early American. Even though we’re making a case with veneered top and sides, I’m going to put in a solid front.” We had not done that before. Well, the plants didn’t want to do it. It meant we had to do plank tops differently. I said, “Why can’t we put a piece of wood on the front edge of the top so it’ll expose the grain and give a carved effect?” I wanted that solid wood look. They didn’t know how to do that. Well, we figured it out, so that then, we could build a case with what we called a rim top and a solid-wood front – it’s literally a veneered top and end – and could make an Early American case that previously had been made up North in solid wood. Suddenly, it sold. I think it became about a third of our business, built around a construction technique that turned us loose to develop a whole new line of Early American. We offered it in maple or cherry.
We had made upper-end traditional, and somebody said, “Why don’t we try a lower-price traditional?” We made a simple mahogany suite on legs with swell fronts. By that time, we had the machinery to make those swells very efficiently, and we made a double dresser, and then made a triple dresser – immensely successful. They just sold and sold and sold. We didn’t know we could do that. You see how things develop?
INTERVIEWER: But you had to drive your production people to...
BROYHILL: To come up with a way to do it because they didn’t want to change. So it had to be a combination of figuring out how we could make it in our plants, and then designing something that would sell and make money. If you just throw something in the plant – which I’ve done – that doesn’t really fit the plant, the plant bogs down. Every plant had daily and weekly quotas, and if they were really running flat out, we would make a little more money than we expected. But when they weren’t running, we were losing money – real fast. So you screw up the plant, and not only are you not making money, you’re losing money.
Many times the big companies that bought into the industry screwed up the plants, and they never seemed to know why they couldn’t make any money. I never will forget one of my merchandise managers who was one of the most creative guys I ever had, very aggressive and a terrific salesman. He constantly wanted to change things in the plant – just change, change, change, change. He could go out and sell the product, but the plant stayed screwed up all the time. I couldn’t tolerate that, so I had to fire that guy. But, you see my point. You’ve got to have a marriage between what the plant can do and what you can sell. That was probably the key to the success of us old-time guys. Dixie’s Smith Young and Bassett’s Bob Spilman were masters at it, and I was a master at it. Some companies were driven by their production people and others by their sales force. It’s really interesting to observe.
We were good friends with the Drexel people. My dad was a great friend with the owner of Drexel, Mr. Robert Huffman. So I knew those people really well. They were pretty sophisticated. They were way ahead of us. They made money back in the ’30s. Mr. Huffman was a college graduate, and he’d organize his production people and his salespeople and so forth. But their production people and salespeople were in two different worlds. They wouldn’t even speak to each other. They were fighting all the time. This happens in so many businesses.
INTERVIEWER: At Broyhill, you yourself were the go-between.
INTERVIEWER: So you kept both sides communicating with each
BROYHILL: I guess I’ve emphasized that enough, but I often think that was one of the great secrets of my success.
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you some broader questions. How was the growth of Broyhill affected by labor issues?
BROYHILL: We constantly needed people. We had a high turnover. The percentage is startling – 30 or 40 percent. But fortunately, we had a large number of longtime employees in the workforce. We had a recognition program for longevity. For every five years of service, we handed out pins. I’m wearing my 40-year pin now. But we had other ways of recognizing service – we had watches, bracelets, certificates. I’ve shaken hands with thousands of people, recognizing their length of service. I don’t have the numbers now, but I’m sure that over half of our people had been with us five years or longer. Since we were able to keep a lot of our good people, the turnover didn’t hurt us much.
We had a lot of jobs that could be handled with fairly unskilled labor. I’ve told you about my pushing trucks. Well, we didn’t have anything like that in the later years, but there were plenty of jobs that could be learned very quickly. They were monotonous jobs. We were competitive in pay with all the other factories, but somebody would offer them a nickel more an hour, and they’d leave. We had the profit-sharing program and we had a bonus program. If a person stayed with us, his bonus was bigger and his profit sharing was bigger. So after about five years, he was not going to leave for 5 or 10 cents, or even 25 cents. He might leave for 50 cents, but – you see what I mean? So, we didn’t have too much turnover with what you might call the hard nucleus of our organization because we were able to cultivate loyalty.
INTERVIEWER: Did you and your dad try to stay in touch with as many of the workers in the plants as you could?
BROYHILL: We did, and we were constantly working at that. Every Christmas, he went through the plants. I don’t know how he did it. I didn’t start it. I said, “I can’t do it.” But he went through and shook hands with every single employee. He would go in the department, they’d line up, and he’d shake their hand and go to the next one, and then he’d go to another plant. He did that for years. People would say to me, “I shook hands with your daddy.” Isn’t that amazing?
INTERVIEWER: Well, he didn’t have 7,500 employees.
BROYHILL: Yes, he did, eventually. I don’t see how he did it. My hands are so torn up that – old age – I can’t shake hands. I don’t see how he shook so many hands. When he was in his 80s, he would go through the plants and shake hands, and stand up that long.
And after every market, we would open our showroom to our supervisory employees – the department manager level of employees. We had several hundred, and they would bring their wives and children. Dad and I and others in top management, we’d shake hands with all those people. They were our key people in all the plants. On a Sunday afternoon when they could come, we’d open right after 1 o’clock and be open until 5 o’clock. We’d have hundreds of people. We’d shake all their hands. My dad would stand right there and shake their hands. We did that twice a year, every year we were in business.
We would have a big Fourth of July barbecue, where we always gave out a Fourth of July bonus, and then the employees had a week off. We didn’t have formal vacations for them. We did for the executives, the non-hourly workers, they had a little different program. But the bonus was at least equal to the week off, but it was more for older, experienced people. Then at Thanksgiving we had our party on Thursday. We didn’t let off on Thursday. We had a big Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, then we’d let off on Friday. They preferred to be off on Friday. They’d have their Thanksgiving on Friday at home. We’d go through and shake hands with them, and we did it again at Christmas.
At Christmas, every one of our plant executive groups, which could be 12 to 15 people, would have their party, and then every department had a party. I’d try to go to as many as I could. They all wanted me to come. I’d sometimes go to at least three one night and three another night, and three another night. Then we had an office party which was all the main office. We were always big on that type of thing. The first thing the big companies do when they come in, they cut out all of that. They cut out all that so-called extraneous stuff. They don’t understand what it means to company morale.
INTERVIEWER: Did all the other furniture companies in the Hickory/Lenoir area do the same thing?
BROYHILL: Not necessarily to that extent. Sure, they did some of it.
INTERVIEWER: So this was very important to you and your father?
BROYHILL: Absolutely. I don’t know that any other company did the showroom thing. Maybe they did it. But we did it.
INTERVIEWER: Was there ever any attempt to unionize your plants?
BROYHILL: We had at least three union battles that I remember. I developed a strategy. The union could come in and try to unionize one plant at a time, or they could come and try to unionize the whole company at once. I wanted them to confine to one plant at a time. I dealt with the Labor Relations Board and requested that they do the whole company because I knew the unions would do the opposite of what they thought I preferred. Sure enough, they said, “No, no, you’ve got to have an election in one plant.” They fell into my trap.
I developed a series of speeches and videos. I went to the targeted plant every two or three days for two or three weeks to remind our people of the advantages they had and of how much we cared for them. I’d shake their hands and hug them. All of what I told them was true: we valued our people and treated them well. When we had the election, we just killed the unions every time because of our personal relationship with our employees. If they would have consolidated the whole company, things may have turned out differently. But as long as they kept it within 300 or 400 people, I could handle it. We eliminated the union.
INTERVIEWER: So you never lost a union election?
BROYHILL: Never lost one, no.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any time in your days with Broyhill where you could not get enough workers?
BROYHILL: We were constantly hiring. One reason we had the outlying plants was to draw on a larger labor pool. The textile people also were constantly looking for workers. But this is a funny thing. There wasn’t a lot of interchange of people between furniture and textiles. It seemed to be two different types of people. They didn’t use our people much, and we didn’t use theirs much.
INTERVIEWER: So you were always able to hire the people you needed to grow.
BROYHILL: Again, it wasn’t always here in Lenoir. We started a plant in Taylorsville in the early ’50s. That was a big thing. Then, we started a plant in Rutherfordton during the ’60s, instead of starting another one here. That was getting a little far away. Bankers and textile people from the community came over, encouraged my dad, and sold him on the idea. We had a central warehouse here in Lenoir. A lot of goods that we made in Rutherfordton had to be trucked over to here. We worked out a deal with the railroads where we had a favorable short-term haul rate from Rutherfordton. We also hauled a lot of freight from Taylorsville the same way. Whether or not the advantage of drawing on a larger labor pool was enough to justify those costs, I still wonder. But that’s water over the dam. Those plants eventually were all shut down.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us a little bit about what you did in the advertising area to grow the company.
BROYHILL: Well, remember we were called the Lenoir line back in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, we had numerous individual plants. We had Lenoir Chair, Lenoir Furniture, Harper. Customers knew our plants, particularly people in New England, and they would say, “Now, I want to be sure this is coming out of the Harper plant.” But it was confusing, and also administratively difficult, so we decided to organize all of the sales through one entity called Broyhill Furniture Factories.
INTERVIEWER: This would be in the early ’50s?
BROYHILL: Yes, we started building the Broyhill name in
the early ’50s, and dealers began to forget about the Lenoir name. Around 1960, I decided to create an upper-end line, which I called Broyhill Premier. It had a little better styling, and a little better quality standard. We made it in the Harper plant. Then, we decided to advertise it nationally. At that time, Life and Look magazines were the biggest things around. We couldn’t afford a consistent program, but just to make a splash, I bought a double truck in Life, meaning two facing pages. The ad came out on the new Broyhill Premier and with the strong product, the line was very successful. That was the beginning of building our name on a national basis.
As part of our advertising – a very simple concept and it’s been done many times – but it helped me so much, is that we did a dealer listing. We told the dealers we would advertise the line and list their names if they would buy enough of the line and set it up properly in their stores. They were pleased. They wanted their names in the ad. We listed about 100 dealers. Then, we put numerous ads in the lower-priced magazines – the house and garden-type magazines. We still did a Life and Look ad on occasion, but just when we were trying to have a pretty big bang. We weren’t spending all that much, but we were able to build our name to where it became the most recognized name in furniture. By the late ’90s, long after I was gone, Brent Kincaid, then CEO of Broyhill, took surveys and found we had the best-recognized name in the industry.
It really wasn’t that we had a huge advertising budget or anything like that. But more and more, the dealers would use the Broyhill name in the local ads that they ran – they still do. So actually it was our strong dealer relationships and their using our name in their own ads which was the key to it.
INTERVIEWER: You must have been one of the first furniture companies that actually did national advertising.
BROYHILL: Well, Drexel did it back in the ’30s. They developed one of the first widely recognized names. Kroehler Upholstery Company also advertised in the ’30s. Lane Cedar Chests was an early advertiser, so it had been done, but not on any wide scale.
INTERVIEWER: What about what the industry calls co-op advertising, where the manufacturer pays the retailer to help him advertise?
BROYHILL: We never did co-op in those days, but did later when we started a gallery program. I pioneered the gallery program, where our designers went in and asked the dealer for, let’s say, 5,000 square feet of floor space, and we furnished, decorated, and accessorized it beautifully. The program was highly successful. I visited our dealers, sold the gallery concept, and attended the grand openings, made speeches and went on television. Even after I sold the company, I continued to be personally involved in gallery openings.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re talking about in-store galleries in the late ’70s and early ’80s?
BROYHILL: Yes. If they installed our gallery, then we gave them a percentage for cooperative advertising. We hadn’t done that before. I have no idea what they’re doing now. But you have to be careful with cooperative advertising, because every dealer comes in and says he’s having a special event and he’s got to have some advertising money. The first thing you know, you’ll give it to him, he’ll ask for more and you’ll give it to him, and unless you’ve got a policy, they’ll just break you down, and you no longer have a pricing policy. I’ve seen manufacturer after manufacturer do that. When business is bad, the dealers are always pounding on you for some advantage. This co-op advertising was one of the main ways that they came at you.
INTERVIEWER: Did you use an advertising agency, or did you create all the ads in-house?
BROYHILL: We had an agency all the way – not necessarily the same one.
INTERVIEWER: And your dad and uncle had never conceived of the idea of bringing everything together under the Broyhill name and creating brand awareness?
BROYHILL: Well, in the ’20s, ’30s and even on into the ’40s, they were just trying to run these three little plants and survive.
INTERVIEWER: But after you came on board and the company really started growing, it was your idea to consolidate under the Broyhill name?
BROYHILL: That’s correct. My first idea was to start running it through the one sales name – Broyhill Furniture Factories, we called it in those days. Later, we changed it to Broyhill Furniture Industries. That was the first step; it’s pretty hard to build a name if you don’t have a common name.
INTERVIEWER: So you consolidated all the factories under the Broyhill brand.
BROYHILL: They were still separate corporations. It’s very complicated because we didn’t have any money personally in the plants – never did have. But the companies were beginning to build net worth. So when we started a new company, we put money in from this company and that company, and then we loaned money from one company to another, or let a company guarantee a bank loan for another. We also would buy a little bit of stock personally with the money we had available and let some of our key executives have a little stock sold on credit, so that the actual stockholding was very complicated. That’s another key to our later organization.
In the late ’70s after we had a profitable company I decided that, in terms of estate planning, the organization was so complicated that nobody would ever understand its true worth. Every company was worth something different. One company’s worth may be dependent upon the profit of another company because it may own some of that company and so forth. So I devised a method of putting everything together from the standpoint of ownership, and I sent Ed Beach to Washington – had to deal with Internal Revenue – and he took reams of books up there to get approval, but we finally got a tax-free merger.
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you some broad questions about changes you’ve seen in the course of your career. What about key changes in production?
BROYHILL: One of the most important improvements that came along early, about the time I came into the business – all this sounds rudimentary or simple to anybody in the furniture business today – was that they developed a hot-plate press that substantially changed our plywood technology.
We had been using a five-ply veneer construction. The middle ply was wood, with two plies on either side. The fifth ply was called the face veneer, which was the expensive ply, in maple or mahogany or what have you. In the old days, the layers were put together with glue in a press. They called it a cold press. It was a very slow process.
We were just putting in hot-plate presses right after the war, whereby you would lay up your plywood, push it into a machine, wait a short time, and then push it out. Because it was quick, you could develop a production line with a lot more plywood capacity than we’d had previously.
And the glues were different. The new glues set up not only under pressure, but also under heat. The heat and pressure gave a much more substantial bonding than we’d had before. We’ve had plywood since the Egyptians, I understand. But no one had this kind of plywood, which is much more reliable. The process went on to become more sophisticated through the years, but that was the first big thing to come along in production that I remember.
Then we began to use conveyorization all the way through the plant. It developed first in the rough end of the machine room, where you cut the boards and process them through the initial machines. I can remember laying a board up to what we called a cutoff saw, which is the first saw in the process, and chopping the boards into the proper length.
I remember the first conveyor was just a roller conveyor. Instead of laying the boards up one at a time, you could lay several boards up on the roller conveyor, and the operator just had to pull the boards easily, rather than somebody having to lay them up board by board. From there it was just one little idea after another to where we had hundreds of conveyors of all sorts that made the plant more efficient. We didn’t have to push trucks from machine to machine, loading and unloading them time after time. We’d just put the material being processed on a roller conveyor that would run from machine to machine. At first we would roll these things by hand, but later the rollers were mostly automated.
When I worked in the lumberyard, we would unload a boxcar of lumber, pulling out the boards piece by piece. I wore gloves and a leather apron. The older fellows that I worked with didn’t wear gloves because their hands were so tough. You had to pull that board across your apron, and pass it out to the next guy. Then he would drop it on a hack, as we called a stack of boards, and build that hack one layer at a time, inserting between the layers a little thin stick called a hack stick or a kiln stick, to allow the air to get in between. As we dropped each board onto the hack, a lumber inspector would bend down to measure and grade it. He’d write the grade and dimensions on a piece of paper. My dad did that when he was a young man. He says that he learned how to do his mathematics, his multiplying and adding and so forth, not in school but by tallying lumber.
Later on, we developed ways where the lumber would be put on a conveyor and moved to where an operator could look down on it and grade it by scanning it with a hand-held computer. He’d put in the grade and the dimensions of the lumber. All that was done without any handling. It’s just amazing to me how we converted all of that labor into an operation where the only person there was more of a computer operator than a man who was picking up boards.
The next big thing was conveyorized finishing rooms. We literally used to tie a piece of cloth around a case piece, and then pull it into the booth, where it would heat up. Then we’d have to pull it out, spray it, pull it into another hotbox, and pull it out. You didn’t get much production in those days.
But when we got conveyorized finishing rooms, the case pieces would move through the whole process automatically, all without ever being touched. That was such a great improvement that within just a few years we had installed conveyorized finishing rooms in all our plants. I think a few companies put in conveyorized finishing rooms during the war or perhaps just before the war. But all of ours went in after the war. I’m sure that Thomasville and Drexel and Bassett got started earlier. They had more money than we did.
My dad and his production man, Clarence Beach, went to Germany in the late ’40s and saw an engineered material called chip core. Today we call it particleboard. Particleboard has gotten much more sophisticated, stronger and smoother, but in those days chip core was a fairly rough board. Nevertheless, you could take your plant’s wood chips and run them through a huge machine that would bond the chips together with resin and produce a chip core board that we could use for the inner ply in our wood panels. It was non-dimensional in that it didn’t warp or crack the way a piece of wood may. I think my dad bought five of those machines. Back in those days, I’m sure they cost $100,000, $200,000. For him to buy nearly $1 million worth of machines at that stage of our business was just unprecedented. But just that purchase alone was revolutionary in terms of cost and productivity for us in our case goods plants.
INTERVIEWER: I imagine some of your plant managers and supervisors were appalled by these changes, right?
BROYHILL: Well, they didn’t resist that one because we put that machine right in their plant, and they were in charge. Later on, we bought a huge, more sophisticated particleboard machine. I bought it. The whole setup cost about $5 million. It was a different time, a different world.
We used that first particleboard, which they then called chip core and which was much less sophisticated than today’s particleboard, right on and on to some extent my entire career. Eventually though, it was supplanted by other developments. But those first machines were depreciated out, and, you might say, we had no cost in the machines, no cost in the wood. So there was no reason for us not to keep using them.
Gradually, the roller conveyors were put in the machine room. Then, we put down a moving conveyor in the assembly room. Instead of one person doing all of the operations of assembling a case, we broke it down to the assembly line concept, where one person does a little, and then the next person does a little something else, and so on. We had maybe eight or 10 stations. And that, of course, made assembly much more efficient.
I’ve already mentioned the finishing. Then, there’s the warehousing. We used to haul everything in and out of the warehouse with hand trucks. Eventually, we installed overhead conveyors that wandered all through the warehouse.
So, it was just one thing after another, on and on. Of course, in all this time every one of the departments would need more room as we increased our volume, so we were constantly building and expanding and rebuilding. But while we were doing this, we had to keep the production going.
We had a way of moving machinery over to one side. We literally would build a roof over a roof, pull the old roof out, pull the sides out, and we’d build a floor either on top of a floor, or remove half the floor, put in a new floor, then move the machinery back over and keep the production going.
We literally rebuilt all our old factories. I’ll show you the pictures we have out here in the hall. We were rebuilding the old factories in Conover, Marion, Lenoir Furniture, Lenoir Chair and Harper. Those five factories were all rebuilt.
Then, as we made more money further along, we started building from scratch. Of course, that was a lot different from having to keep a factory going while you were trying to rebuild.
I look back at those days, and we were just fortunate that we had building people who worked with us virtually all the time. Some of the building people were so clever and good at being able to work around the needs of keeping the plants running while we expanded them. We had to keep production going so we could keep making money.
INTERVIEWER: So at Broyhill’s height, about how many square feet did you have?
BROYHILL: We had over six million square feet.
INTERVIEWER: That would include warehousing?
BROYHILL: Yes, including warehousing. It depends on what you call a factory or a unit. But when I counted them up, it came to 18, plus a big trucking facility.
The overall organization was pretty complicated. We had some 30 different units that we called profit centers; 30-some different areas that had their own accounting and that were expected to make a profit.
INTERVIEWER: I assume you couldn’t have done all of this without computers.
BROYHILL: We bought the first computers that came into the furniture business – and we kept up with computerization. We were always looking for something better.
My dad loved machinery, and I loved machinery. We’d go to machinery shows here and in Germany. I would take six or eight production guys. They knew what they were doing. I would go around and visit with people and get a general idea of what was going on and what was new, and then we’d come together at night and decide what we wanted to buy. To make a decision, I didn’t have to deal with any committees or boards.
At a German machinery show, we’d buy several million dollars in machinery and walk away. You know, we just did it. Of course, that machinery would come in over a period of time, and we would pay over time. I would buy in Deutschmarks. At that time, the Deutschmark was getting stronger and stronger against the U.S. dollar. So I made money on every one of those deals where I bought German machinery. Ahead of time I’d buy $2 million or $3 million worth of Deutschmarks to pay with.
INTERVIEWER: What about solid wood? Did Broyhill ever consider doing any solid-wood furniture?
BROYHILL: We did those solid-wood fronts, but we never did solid-wood tops or ends. We did rimmed tops, which gave us the look of solid. But we never really moved on into the solid top and solid end.
Solid wood has a great sound to it to the retailer and to the consumer. Kincaid Furniture over in Hudson built their business based on the terminology “solid wood.” But the facts are that solid wood swells and shrinks. It warps and splits a lot worse than veneer does. We always figured that our veneer tops and ends were so much more foolproof, and would cause fewer problems. I can’t imagine how many problems Kincaid had with complaints on their solid wood tops and ends. But they built their business that way.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes you’ve seen over the years in purchasing?
BROYHILL: We had the ability to have common purchasing for all of our plants. We drove hard bargains with our suppliers, just like anybody else. But I tried to teach our people that we didn’t always have to have the last nickel.
I learned that concept from the people that we were selling to. There were certain customers who wanted to beat you out of everything they could – and maybe you’d have to take it today, but you’re sure not going to take it tomorrow. Some of the big tough guys would at least let you make a little money and wouldn’t beat you out of the last nickel. I told my people we had to treat our suppliers in a way that they would want to be loyal to us.
For instance, we bought a lot of local lumber – I mean a lot of lumber, particularly oak and pine, and a little bit of cherry. We bought most of it from small suppliers here in the mountains, within 200 or 300 miles of here. We had a large central lumberyard where we had the capacity to hold millions of board feet of lumber.
When business got bad, everyone would just quit buying lumber, but we continued to buy at least some lumber during bad times. The price would go down, so we’d get a relatively good deal. As soon as they delivered the lumber, we paid them. Everybody didn’t do that. Some people wanted to pay them a week later or a month later. But we continued to treat those little suppliers well, and therefore we think we bought lumber cheaper than anybody else did. There was a method to our madness.
I worked personally with two of our finishing suppliers because finishes are such a critical aspect of the design. We gave certain people very large volume because we wanted a good price. But we also had a small finishing supplier here in Lenoir, and we accounted for practically all of his business. He gave us a better price than the big suppliers, and his prices helped keep theirs in line. I was loyal to certain suppliers and gave them many millions of dollars in business.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in sales and merchandising over the years?
BROYHILL: As I’ve told you, we revolutionized sales by hiring and training totally untrained people. And that, of course, involved constantly cutting down sales territories as we increased the size of the sales organization. We started with 18 territories and ended up with 300. It wasn’t like we did it overnight, but we gradually developed our organization. In the beginning, the salesmen sold everything we made, but pretty early on I developed separate case goods and upholstery divisions, then separated the sales force so the salesmen generally sold either one or the other. Later on, I divided case goods into bedroom, dining room and occasional, which includes cocktail tables and other smaller decorative pieces. So then I had four divisions: bedroom, dining room, occasional and upholstery. Each one had salesmen and sales managers. Each one had production managers.
In some territories, I had four salesmen, but I could vary that. Sometimes I’d give one salesman what we call “two bags,” so he might have bedroom and dining room, and another salesman might have upholstery and occasional. The salesmen covered most of America. My dad really believed in covering the country with salesmen, and I picked up that belief. That strategy began to change after the concept of galleries took hold and we sold more and more of our volume to fewer accounts. Then we began to need fewer salesmen. Much of that reduction happened after I left the industry, so that gradually cut my 300 salesmen down to probably less than 50 today.
INTERVIEWER: Was your sales force entirely a dedicated sales force?
INTERVIEWER: Were they all on salary plus commission?
BROYHILL: They were all on salary plus bonuses. Near the end, we had gradually phased out the commissioned people. By then, we did not use the same salary percentage for all salesmen. Each one was different. One salesman might be selling at a cost to us of 2 or 3 percent, while another salesman might be selling at a cost of 7 or 8 percent. We had the ability to pay a little more here or a little less there so we could juggle the sales expenses.
Let’s say, for example, that a young kid goes to a territory that includes Chicago or New York, or maybe to some other fully developed territory that’s doing millions of dollars. What are we going to do? Give a young kid a job where he immediately makes $100,000 a year? Back in those days, we just didn’t do that. We wanted to progress him up, so that from wherever he started, he would make a little more money every year. If he did really well, he’d get a bonus. A lot of the salesmen would get good and then quit, but we always had somebody to take his place.
INTERVIEWER: How did you recruit your salespeople?
BROYHILL: We recruited a lot with just newspaper ads in certain cities, but we got many of them by word of mouth.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t go to business schools or anything like that?
BROYHILL: No, no business schools.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes over the years in management?
BROYHILL: We didn’t have but one production manager and one sales manager when I started. Gradually, we added sales and production managers. First, we added case goods sales managers and upholstery sales managers, then an upholstery production manager. Twenty years later, I had a good-sized staff of managers. If my son had come into the business at that time, he would have had a little harder time working his way up through all that management. I wouldn’t immediately put him in as head of the company.
INTERVIEWER: Did the management get a little bit too complicated at times?
BROYHILL: Not the way we did it. We kept changing people from job to job to job, and we changed the structure from time to time. Business changes. Take the dining room category – there were relatively few manufacturers in that category during much of my career. Today, there are a jillion manufacturers, and everybody’s in the dining room business. There are very few dining room manufacturers left in this country. The companies selling dining room here now are almost entirely buying the product offshore. So, the structure that I developed probably wouldn’t work anymore. Take occasional tables. I built a nice table business. But today, they’re buying tables overseas at half the price we could make them. So you couldn’t run a table plant in this country. Upholstery is still being run here. But very little case goods – tables, bedroom and dining room – are being made here.
INTERVIEWER: During your career, did Broyhill import anything?
BROYHILL: We imported some parts. We imported a lot of plywood. One good supplier of parts was Yugoslavia. Can you believe that? We got some really good parts out of Yugoslavia. Very reliable. I developed a couple of good friends over there. I never did visit them, but I entertained them when they came over here. I always have been a little intrigued with foreigners and enjoyed entertaining them. They worked for the communist government there, but they were reliable.
INTERVIEWER: How did you establish those connections?
BROYHILL: They called on us.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of parts did you end up importing?
BROYHILL: Well, I remember we bought luan plywood out of the Orient and turnings from Yugoslavia.
INTERVIEWER: But you never imported tables or anything like that.
BROYHILL: We imported some carved legs or other parts, but we never did an imported line.
INTERVIEWER: Describe some of the key support you’ve received personally from people in the industry, such as advice, mentoring or things along those lines. For instance, did you get any important advice or suggestions from other manufacturers or from retailers?
BROYHILL: From dealers, yes, from just innumerable dealers. I sought that out. A certain number of dealers, you know, are just smart people with a lot of good insights. One of the ones I mention in my book is Nebraska Furniture Mart. I was in that store at least every six months.
INTERVIEWER: That would be the Blumkin family.
BROYHILL: Yes. They loved to give me advice. Louie Blumkin and his wife would invite me to dinner at their house. I don’t think they did that with many people. It’s people like that that you learn from. They drove a hard bargain, but I loved those people.
INTERVIEWER: Any other key retailers like that?
BROYHILL: The folks at Breuners on the West Coast. And I was close with the Goldblatts in Chicago. I picked the brains of the folks at Allied Stores, a big department store group in New York City. I got so close to these people through the years. Sure, they wanted their good deal. I was able to make some money, build my business, and give them good value.
When I first came into the business, we were doing large volumes with Sears and Wards. The volume grew. But then, Sears started just beating up on us and beating up on us and beating up on us, until gradually I started backing out. It wasn’t any one big disruption. But over a few years, I backed out and just didn't do business with them anymore. They literally broke several good manufacturers who just couldn’t resist all the volume that Sears had in furniture back in the day. They said they wanted to be your partner and they talked a great line; they wanted to help you and so on and so forth. But the end result was that if you weren’t strong enough, they’d break you, literally. You may remember a company named Unagusta, over in the western part of North Carolina, near Andersonville. They broke them. Do you remember the name, Jimmy Ward, out in Fort Smith, Arkansas? He was a terrific guy. I knew him well. They broke his business. And there were others whose names I just don’t remember. Of course, today Sears sells almost no furniture, and Montgomery Ward went out of business some years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Describe briefly the business strategies that you developed over the years.
BROYHILL: I wasn’t brilliant enough to develop a strategy like they teach in business schools. I hate to tell you, but my long-range strategy was about six months. My short-range strategy was next week. That’s just the way the furniture business was and how fast it changed. We literally lived six months to six months to six months, because the major market was every six months. I wasn’t able to project a five-year strategy because of the constant change in the furniture industry. So that’s about it. The guys who would come up with some big strategy and think they could stick with it and not be flexible, they were just crazy.
We were in a very fast-moving business. Most of the people who came into the business from the outside didn’t see that. They thought the furniture industry looked like a stable business. But our business was somewhat akin to the clothing business. The clothing business is a style business that has new merchandise and marketing every six months. The fabric business is also like that. How do you develop a three-year plan when it’s changing that fast, especially when what you do depends so much on what everybody else is doing?
INTERVIEWER: Well, the furniture industry has always been known as a knock-off, copycat industry.
BROYHILL: Absolutely. I got ahead by being a fast observer of my competition. Generally speaking, when I got too far ahead, I got killed like the Lone Ranger. It really didn’t ever pay me to get way out there.
INTERVIEWER: Give us an example of something you tried that was too far out there.
BROYHILL: I’ve tried several things like that. We developed a shiny, lacquer-like laminate top with 3M Corporation, something that was a little different from plastic. We gave it a lot of publicity, and 3M gave us some money to help advertise it. It was a fine-looking top, but it turned out to be a quality problem. We struggled with it for six months.
We did a lot of business with 3M, and I knew those people. I visited them in Minnesota, and they visited me here. We originally bought their sandpapers. Then we bought other products such as Scotchgard from other departments. We were a big user of Scotchgard to protect the fabric on our upholstery.
First thing you know, the laminate tops started coming up. All of a sudden we had all these complaints, and we just couldn’t live with them. I couldn’t stay with it long enough to perfect it. The product should have been perfected before we used it.
I can remember a few other things we tried that didn’t work out. We designed a group called Chapter One that was heavy in plastics. It was very innovative and it was gorgeous. But, we had all kinds of quality problems with it. Then, there was a French group that was much harder to make than any French group I had designed before. As I’ve said, when you put stuff in a plant that’s just too hard, the plant can bog down to 50 percent production. I loved that suite and I struggled with it. But that suite cost me so much money that I finally just had to give it up. It was gorgeous, innovative. Buyers loved it. They bought it. But we couldn’t make it at a profit.
Now, if I’d have been Interco in St. Louis and owned the company, what would I have done? I would have said, “Fire that plant manager and hire another one.” You follow me?
INTERVIEWER: I do.
BROYHILL: They would never have fired the boss. I was the boss. I put it in there. So if anyone should’ve been fired, it should’ve been me. You follow me? But who gets fired? The guy way down at the end of the chain.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Tell us about your management techniques.
BROYHILL: I was very sensitive to the fact that so many family businesses had been ruined by family members coming in and fighting and fussing with each other, or by one person being given preference over another. So very early on, I said, “I want to run a hard-hitting company with professional management, even though we’re a family business.” So I read books. I’ve got a library of books over there on professional management. And then I used several consultants. One I was particularly impressed with, that had a fairly simple and inexpensive program, was the American Management Association. Have you ever heard of them?
BROYHILL: They run a lot of weekend and week-long courses. Short-term courses. So I was able to send production people to certain courses, and salespeople and sales managers to certain courses.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever attend any of them yourself?
BROYHILL: Oh, yes. Then we developed a book that we called the Broyhill Principles of Management, and we outlined all kinds of strategies and policies and procedures in the book. Most companies that I know of, when they set out to have a training program; go to the personnel department or to the human relations department to get the teachers. But I said, “We’re going to do it differently. We’re going to teach it through the ranks.” I said, “I’m going to teach it.” And I did. I taught it to 30 or 40 people, along with Bill Stevens, who helped me develop all of the materials that went into the management book.
INTERVIEWER: So this is Bill Stevens, your brother-in-law, who married one of your sisters?
BROYHILL: Yes. Bill and I would take a lot of the American Management Association materials and develop our own material from that. Then we would teach the plant managers. Then we made the plant manager teach his people.
So we developed our management techniques that way. I think we certainly put more time and effort into it than anybody I’ve ever heard of in the furniture business.
I had helped develop a furniture manufacturing program at North Carolina State University, and we hired a few of those engineering graduates. But those engineers would come in at a considerably higher salary level, so some young kid would be making more money than other people who had been with the company for some time. I’m sure other companies have the same problem.
But we came up with a solution. We went up to Appalachian in Boone, to the place where my father had attended many years before as a high school student. By then it had become Appalachian State Teachers College – today it’s Appalachian State University – and of course they were big on training teachers, mainly high school teachers. Appalachian had a woodworking program within the teachers college. We started hiring 10 or 15 people out of that program every year, teaching them our principles of management, and then putting them in the plants. They progressed before long to department managers, which paid more than a teacher’s salary, but not as much as an engineer’s salary.
Soon, we had maybe 40, 50 nice young men scattered all through the company. A lot of them would leave, but then we had 15 more coming in each year. Some would become salesmen, others would become production people. With all of those training classes, we were getting our executives coming up through the system.
We were promoting often. Somebody would quit – fine. We’d have people available, and we just promote somebody else to that position. We just went right on with business; we had what is called bench strength.
Honestly, we lost some people I didn’t want to lose. But I never bargained with people. When they came in to say they had an outside offer, I said, “Well, you’ve got to consider what you have here and what you’re going to get there. We appreciate you. I sure wish you’d stay.” But if he left, I’d wish him well. I’d say, “I’ve started a lot of people on their way. I’m proud of every one of them. I hope you do well.” And most of the guys that left gave me a lot of credit for helping them on their way.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you were teaching them how to manage.
BROYHILL: Yes, absolutely. But for a time after I came into the company, my dad stayed in charge of administration, accounting and working with the bankers. I had my hands full in other areas. But finally, accounting was the last thing I tackled. We had the computers going, but the accounting was still pretty fragmented and was being done by hand, so I hired a guy who helped me consolidate our accounting onto the computers.
Back in those days, we weren’t making big profits. We were making a little money consistently, 2 and 3 percent, and then 4 percent and then 5 percent. Every penny counted. We were paying big taxes, and we would manipulate as much as we could. A lot of private businesses did the same thing. On paper, we would try to reduce our profits in a good year, and maybe raise it back a little bit in a bad year.
My dad was very sensitive to this. The IRS would come in every two years with an auditor and go over everything, and then hand us a bill. My dad would say, “Well, this is not right.” So then we’d argue and fuss and fume, and we would settle on an amount we would agree to pay the IRS, and they would go away and come back a couple of years later.
As a consequence of this back and forth with the IRS, my dad didn’t want too precise of an accounting system because we were trying to juggle things around a little bit. I finally decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, and we cleaned all that up.
In those early days, my dad didn’t want to tell anybody how much money he was making or not making. He didn’t even tell me. He wouldn’t show me the books for years. I got the combination to the safe – this is early on – from an old accountant. I would go down to the safe at the office in the middle of the night and look at the books with a flashlight. But, I wouldn’t show anybody. So nobody else really knew anything about our profits and losses.
INTERVIEWER: Did your dad know you were doing this?
BROYHILL: No, he never knew. But it’s a true story.
INTERVIEWER: So he wouldn’t even share the numbers with you?
BROYHILL: He wouldn’t share the numbers with me, the profit and loss, and wouldn’t let me see the accounting statements.
We had cost figures in order to price goods, where we would come up with projected lumber costs, labor costs, overhead costs and so on. That would give the theoretical profit on a particular suite. So, I had some idea of what we were doing. I was too busy selling and merchandising during my first years in the company to do much more. After five years or so, I realized that I really needed to know whether we were actually making any money or not.
We started setting objectives, so-called management by objectives. There are entire books written on management by objectives.
We got into planning, organizing, motivating and controlling – the big four. Then we set up the objectives. Everybody had specific objectives. We had numerical objectives all through the plan, but not profits as such. We made our profits pretty much plant by plant; whether we made any money or not pretty much depended on what the individual plants were doing. So really, we made our money in our plants.
I started holding quarterly management meetings, where I’d invite 50 some managers in. Every one of them would have a presentation, and would generally have charts that they’d put on the wall, or on a screen. They had to explain what they were doing, and show whether or not they were making any money. Then I’d get up and show the consolidated picture – what the overall company was doing.
INTERVIEWER: So when you’re talking about managers, you’re talking about plant managers and sales managers?
BROYHILL: Exactly. And production managers. All of my top executives, down to plant and assistant plant managers. That was far more than 50 people. So we’d have big quarterly management meetings. When each manager had to stand up in front of 50 other people and tell what he was doing, he’d be pretty darned embarrassed if he wasn’t doing well. You see what I mean?
Over the course of about five years, we doubled our profits. Not all that was because of better management. Some of it was better machinery. But nevertheless, we went from making 2 or 3 percent to 5 or 6 percent. And when we say profit, we’re talking about after taxes. That means we had to make 10 or 12 percent before taxes. Our taxes were 50 percent in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me the four elements again.
BROYHILL: Planning, organizing, motivating, controlling. We had objectives under each one of those categories. That’s the American Management Association approach to managing.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me more about the motivation element. You mentioned earlier that you would make motivational speeches to the sales force before furniture markets. What were your techniques? How did you motivate?
BROYHILL: Speaking of motivation, as a coincidence, an old, old friend from 30 years ago walked into my office here two days ago. His name is Aubrey Daniels. Years ago, he had a little motivation company along with an ex-football player by the name of Fran Tarkenton. Do you remember that name?
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes. He was a pro quarterback who got into motivational speaking.
BROYHILL: Well, Fran was a big talker. But this guy Daniels was doing all the work, and Fran was making all the money. I encouraged Daniels to go into business on his own, which he did, and I gave him his first job when he went out on his own. He was teaching B.F. Skinner’s theories of behavior management. You ever heard of that?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, in college.
BROYHILL: Well, Daniels started teaching us about it. I said, “We don’t want behavior management. Broyhill is all about performance management.” It turned out that one of the biggest concepts was that you can have some very happy employees and friends of yours who are loyal to you and well-adjusted, but their performance is no good. I sure have had that happen. Here you’re trying to make everybody happy and you’re treating everybody right and you’re paying them well. You’re patting them on the back and all that. Everybody’s happy, but not producing.
Well, the point is, you’ve got to get some performance first. Then you pat them on the back. In other words, the pat and the rewards come after the performance. Now, that made a lot of sense to me.
I still kid Aubrey about that concept. I tell him, “I’ve got a problem. On Sunday mornings, I want to go into the bedroom and maybe do a little something with my wife. And she says, ‘Paul, would you bring me some coffee?' And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but Aubrey says I can’t bring you any coffee until I’ve had a little performance.’ And she says, ‘I hate that Aubrey Daniels.' ”
You get the performance before you give the coffee. So, Broyhill became very big on what we called “Atta boys.” I asked Aubrey if that was his terminology or ours. He said, “I believe that’s your terminology. I don’t think that was mine.” At any rate, in our management book, we called it “Atta boys.” We wanted to get some performance before we gave a pat on the back.
We used all kinds of awards – not a lot of money, but sometimes a dollar amount, sometimes little gifts, or perhaps nothing more than coming around and saying, “You’re doing a good job,” and bragging on them.
At about the same time, we hired other consultants that helped us measure performance and reward the top performers. I liked to put in big “cuttings,” where a case goods plant would be making 1,000 to 2,000 of the same suite at a time. I was big on those 2,000-suite cuttings, and we had plenty of them. Those were high-speed production runs. Having large cuttings was a very efficient and profitable way to make furniture.
Some of the consultants taught us to set up what they called “short interval” measurements in the plants, so we could measure and manage a lot of the steps along the way as we were making furniture. When a guy did a good job, we would know it because we were measuring it, and we could reward him. Another consultant, a German engineer who knew the machinery, helped us measure the performance of machine operators. The measurements and the rewards helped us motivate our people.
So, it wasn’t just one consultant. We sought help from different directions. As I said, the American Management Association helped from an overall standpoint.
INTERVIEWER: So you have a pretty good opinion of some consultants.
BROYHILL: Aubrey Daniels has gone on to operate one of the great consulting firms. He’s consulted in furniture and textiles and for universities. He’s a trustee at Furman, where he went to school.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your own personal goals?
BROYHILL: My personal goals all those years? I had a wife who was a Miss North Carolina, and she was just as sweet as she was beautiful. But during all those years, my business came first, not my family. Obviously, if somebody got sick I would be there. But I’m talking about my overall time schedule. I was always busy, and over and over again, I wouldn’t show up for dinner. Maybe call late. And I traveled nearly every week. You know, I’d go to New York, Chicago, Houston, and then back home.
There’s a good story from back in the days when we had telephone operators. A company operator called up my house one day wanting to get in touch with me, and my wife said she didn’t know where I was. The operator kept insisting, “Well, Mrs. Broyhill, surely you know where your husband is. Everybody knows where their husband is.” And she said, “Operator, I wish I knew where he was, but when he leaves here, I never know where he is or when he’s coming back.” And the operator said, “Well, Mrs. Broyhill, I feel sorry for you. When I find out where he is, I’m going to call you and let you know.”
So my goals were just making the business grow a little bit every year. And we did. Almost every year the business grew in dollar volume.
At our Christmas parties, I was proud to look around and see all those wonderful people that surrounded us. That gave me so much gratification, to see all those people that were working together to do good things. That’s what makes a company, rather than everybody sitting back, doing as little as they can, while a supervisor is yelling and hollering at them and cracking a whip. That doesn’t really get people motivated
INTERVIEWER: You also were sharing company profits with the employees, which must have been a very big source of motivation.
BROYHILL: It was big. It was something that they’d never had before. With our more key executives, we gave them each a little piece of the company. I’d sell them a little bit of stock with a note. So when I sold the company, quite a few people made a few hundred thousand dollars, and a few people made $1 million. Today, those numbers don’t sound like much, but back in those days it was quite a bit of money. A lot of the plant people would never have ended up with anything if it weren’t for the profit sharing. I had so many of the plant employees who ended up retiring who might have ended up with $25,000, $30,000 in the profit-sharing plan – maybe not a lot to some people, but for them it added a little bit to their Social Security. It just makes a lot of difference to somebody who’s on Social Security.
INTERVIEWER: Did you also have a pension plan?
BROYHILL: No, I never had a pension plan, a so-called defined-benefits plan. We just put in as much money as we could into the profit-sharing plan each year. I wanted that flexibility. I didn’t want to have an obligation that I couldn’t live up to. So if we had a good year, we’d put in a little more. We rarely put in much less, even in a bad year. Maybe a little less, but not much.
And that’s what made me leave the company, when Interco said they were going to cut that back.
INTERVIEWER: Describe some of your relationships with your customers, your retailers.
BROYHILL: Well, as I’ve told you, we had a lot of contact with our customers through the markets. I stood in front of the space and shook a lot of hands instead of sitting back in the office.
INTERVIEWER: And you were flying around to visit some of them.
BROYHILL: I was flying around and visiting customers almost every week.
INTERVIEWER: And you developed some pretty close bonds with some of them, obviously.
INTERVIEWER: What about your competitors? What sort of relationships did you have with some of them?
BROYHILL: Well, I probably didn’t have a very good attitude about my competitors. I always respected them, respected some of them very much. But I was so competitive myself that I had very little contact with the competition. That’s the reason I didn’t care to go to association meetings much. Since I got out of the business, I’ve developed more of a relationship with a few of them.
Our most serious competitors were Bassett and Lexington. Smith Young was at Lexington and Bob Spilman was at Bassett during most of my time in the business. But there were many other strong competitors. Locally here, we’d get together on issues of a community nature. But I never agreed to anything in terms of pricing or the issue of hiring each others’ employees. I didn’t want anybody to be able to say that I had some agreement like that. I can truthfully say I never had any lockout type of agreement with anybody – and I can truthfully say I’ve tried pretty darn hard to get their employees to come and work for me. And, they did the same.
INTERVIEWER: What did you see as the most serious problems in the industry when you were actively involved in furniture?
BROYHILL: Years and years ago, I did agree to go on a committee to try to develop an industry-wide advertising program. I got to know and appreciate several people back in those days – both manufacturers and retailers. We developed a big presentation, but we never could sell it to the industry. They’re doing some of that now, but the idea of having an industry-wide effort to sell furniture is an idea that has come and gone over time, I guess. We certainly needed it. We could’ve done it back then. I’m talking about 30, 35 years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Well, the industry always has had trouble getting together, because it’s so fragmented. So many retailers, so many manufacturers.
BROYHILL: Exactly. That’s it. The big question back then, of course was how will this ad campaign be funded and how much will the manufacturers and the retailers kick in? We came up with the idea of adding 1 percent to every invoice. A lot of the dealers agreed to it. But a lot of dealers wouldn’t. Some manufacturers said they would add it and some said they wouldn’t add it. So that was the best we could come up with.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing the furniture industry today?
BROYHILL: Well, the industry’s all gone. I mean, the woodworking is all gone. It’s just so sad. Some people say, “Well, it may return some day,” but I can’t imagine anyone building a case goods factory in this country today. I mean the cost of building and equipping the factory would be so great that it would be prohibitive.
I think if you had kept a few factories running it might be easier to bring some wood furniture making back to the country. I know Vaughan Bassett has tried very hard to keep a couple of plants running, and maybe there are a few others. There’s one running in Lenoir, the old Caldwell plant, which Thomasville uses for their hotel, motel and office-type furniture. They’ve been able to keep it running.
INTERVIEWER: Are any of the old Broyhill plants still running?
BROYHILL: Only upholstery. I had three upholstery plants, and they’re down to one. Their whole idea is to consolidate, consolidate, which supposedly will save so much money. I can’t believe they’re as efficient as those factories were that I had – I had three efficient factories. How are they going to make so much more money by consolidating it into one?
I like to break things down. My dad had that idea. He said in an industry like the furniture industry, you’re bound to have some big problems. He said, “It’s like a big rock. You’ve got to break the rock down into smaller rocks. When you’ve got a big problem, see how you can break it down and get more people involved in solving it.”
Furniture Brands, that now owns Broyhill is just the opposite. They’re constantly trying to solve all the problems at the top. I heard that the general manager of Broyhill got word one day that he had to fire eight secretaries, including his own secretary because they didn’t think they had to have all those private secretaries. That came down from St. Louis, the home office. For a big corporation to get involved in hiring and firing secretaries is amazing.
I wanted to put the Broyhill logo – which I designed – on the cover of my new book, so I asked the local guy, the current president of Broyhill for permission. He said, “Well, I can’t make that decision. I’ll have to go to our attorney.” The attorney wanted copies of the manuscript, and so on and so forth. I said to forget it. I have a personal logo, also which I designed, that I used. But can you believe that the local CEO couldn’t give me permission to put a logo on my book? He was afraid to. If he were to authorize something like that, and somebody in the legal department felt it to be a mistake, he could get fired over that logo. Isn’t that sad?
INTERVIEWER: Was Broyhill ever affected by racial attitudes? Did you ever have any racial problems?
BROYHILL: I’m sure everyone has had problems at some level, at some time. But, I never remember having to fire somebody over such an incident. Maybe somebody under me had to fire somebody. We always said that we were going to treat everybody fairly, and that’s what we tried to do.
You didn’t ask about women, but we started hiring women during the war, and then continued hiring women to the point that, near the end of my time in the business, I’m sure we were hiring probably 30, 40 percent women.
You can always have problems of discrimination against women, but it really never got to a point that I was made aware of it. I’m sure some were discriminated against, but when I went into the plants, I hugged the black ladies just as much as I hugged the white ones. I’d give the black guys a handshake and tell them how much we appreciated them, just like with the white guys.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any key executives that were black or female during your time at Broyhill?
BROYHILL: No, but I pioneered the hiring of saleswomen. I was the first one in the industry to hire women and give them sales territories. You want to hear how that happened?
BROYHILL: I have a wife and two daughters. And, of course, they’d go to markets with me and were part of the market scene; they’ be with me at the showroom. My daughters said, ‘Daddy, why don’t we have any women in sales?” I replied, “Women can’t sell furniture. There are just not any women salespeople.” “Well, Daddy, why aren’t there?” Finally I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to hire half a dozen women salespeople. We’ll see what happens.”
So we hired a half dozen and ended up with any number of good saleswomen. I give all the credit to my wife and my daughters. At least I had enough sense to give it a try.
INTERVIEWER: What about environmental regulations?
BROYHILL: There was a time when we figured out it was a lot smarter to let out smoke at night rather than during the daytime. I’m trying to make a joke. We installed equipment to eliminate smoke. That was a big thing, but one of many environmental and safety measures we instituted. We were constantly trying to reduce the amount of dust in the plants through various methods. Anytime we wanted to expand, we had to get permission to put in this or put in that. I think there’s more red tape today, but we certainly had to deal with the environmental people in the government. There’s nothing that jumps out at me as being an overwhelming problem.
INTERVIEWER: So you were just able to deal with it.
BROYHILL: Yes, deal with it as we went along.
INTERVIEWER: What about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration? Did you ever have any big problems with OSHA?
BROYHILL: We had problems with them all the time. But again, you just had to deal with it.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s get toward the end of your active career at Broyhill. Obviously, you ultimately decided to sell the company.
BROYHILL: Yes, the company was owned largely by my father and mother and their four children. When Dad started those little companies, he would put some in his and his wife’s name, and then later when we kids came along he would give us a stake.
As I explained earlier, when I came into the business, we still had all those separate companies. We’d write up minutes every year in a company minute book. I’d have a secretary write up very short, one-paragraph minutes and then we’d sign them. That’s all there was of an official record. When we consolidated, accounting became a lot simpler.
I’ve never been one to join organizations. But when I got to be 39 years old, I had a customer who was very involved in YPO. He said to me, “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to.” I told him, “I don’t want to join an organization. I don’t want to go to meetings.” But he finally convinced me to put in an application when I was 39 years old. To be a YPO member, you have to be president of your company before you turn 40. I looked up in the minute books and found out that I was president of no company.
INTERVIEWER: You never actually had a title.
BROYHILL: I never used a title. I always just said general manager. That’s all the title I used in the old days. I got out the latest minutes for one of the companies and wrote my name in as president and my father’s name in as chairman. Then, I joined YPO. My father never looked at the content of the minutes until later when he was signing them for that year. He said, “I notice I’m now the chairman and you’re the president. When did this happen?” I said, “Oh that happened last year.” And that was the end of that. So I made myself president so I could join the YPO.
We never had a stockholders meeting, and we never gave the family a financial statement. They had no idea what they had, or what their stake in the company might have been worth. We just gave them a very small dividend, just enough for them to live on. I began to think of what might happen when my father dies. I knew things were going to change. We were probably going to start having family meetings. I was sure we were going to have to pay more dividends.
We had all these children and we had nieces and nephews, all of whom had been given some stock. Our executives had been given stock and some had decided to give at least some of their stock to their children. We already had about 150 stockholders. Obviously, we were facing a very complicated situation.
I just decided, while my dad was still living, that I was going to sell the company and I started exploring that possibility.
INTERVIEWER: Was your dad for or against this?
BROYHILL: I never discussed it with him until I had decided to sell, because I knew he didn’t want to and wouldn’t want to, so there was no use in discussing it.
A former furniture dealer of ours who had become a representative for a large brokerage house, Oppenheimer, came in one day and said, “Suppose you could sell your business, not pay any income taxes, and take the money and get tax-free income?” Taxes had been so high and such a part of our life for so long that he got my attention.
I went to New York and met with the Oppenheimer people to hear their strategy. Normally, everybody who sells a business pays taxes.
The method was that Oppenheimer would buy all the assets out of the company at book value, leaving a company with money, but no assets, called a C-Company. Then, the company would invest in municipal bonds, so that then we would have a tax-free income flowing to us as individuals. At that point in time, that strategy was legal. We would then be in the investment business instead of the furniture business.
It all sounded wonderful to me, and I negotiated with Oppenheimer, and almost agreed to sell to them at book value. But then I said, “I want to be sure of one thing. I don’t want any big debt.”
“You won’t have any at your level,” they said. “But at our level, we’ll have debt.”
“You mean I’m going to be saddled with paying off your debt?” They answered, “Well, you’ll never even know it.”
I had worked all my life to build a balance sheet with no debt and with cash on hand, and I was just as proud of my balance sheet as I was the factories. I walked away.
A little later, I discussed selling with several other people. The most interested was Georgia-Pacific. I again got to the point of getting an offer around book value. I was negotiating with Robert Pamplin, who set up a great business school at Virginia Tech under his name. But, he began to push for concessions I didn’t want to make, so I passed on his deal.
Just a little later, Bache came into the picture. A man I had known at another investment banking firm moved to Bache, so he knew me and knew the story. He said, “I have someone who wants to talk to you. They’re in the textile business and the shoe business, and they want to develop a furniture business. They’ve already been talking to Ethan Allen.”
The company was Interco, and while I was negotiating with them, they closed the deal to buy Ethan Allen. I knew Nat Ancell, the leader of Ethan Allen, and found out that he had sold for approximately book value and a half. I, too, agreed to sell for a book-and-a-half. But I had gone to school on the Oppenheimer deal. We sold the assets out of the company, and converted the company to a mutual fund. We had to pay tax on the 50 percent above book value, but on the book value, there was no tax.
After the sale some of the family and a lot of the executives who had had stock in Broyhill wanted their money. A little over half the money stayed in the fund, and I’ve run this investment company, Broyhill Management Company, since ’81. That’s been my primary business, which had been great up to 2008, and we didn’t do too well in ’08.
INTERVIEWER: But you stayed with Broyhill, the furniture company, after you’d sold the assets to Interco.
BROYHILL: Yes, I agreed to stay for five years. At the end of the five years was when they confronted me with ending contributions to the company retirement fund, the profit-sharing plan. When I said, “We’re just not going to do that,” they said, “Yes, you are. We’re still running this business.” And I said, “Well, that’s fine. Somebody else will have to do it. I’m not going to do it. I’ll be leaving December 31st.”
INTERVIEWER: What were you able to do between the sale of the company to Interco and the time you left Broyhill?
BROYHILL: Well, I ran the business pretty much just as I had before.
INTERVIEWER: You were left pretty much alone?
BROYHILL: Absolutely. And I felt good. Business was continuing to be dynamic and growing. We had the gallery program under way, and I was going to a lot of gallery openings, almost every couple of weeks, making speeches and appearing on television. I’d tell the TV audience how wonderful our program was, and how wonderful the local dealer was.
I don’t believe any other furniture factory president that I know of did anything to promote galleries to the extent that I did. I’m sure some of them went to gallery openings maybe once or twice, but as far as doing as much as I did, I don’t remember anybody else doing that.
INTERVIEWER: So you were personally very deeply involved in the Broyhill gallery program.
BROYHILL: And, of course, the dealers just loved it. They just loved to have Mr. Broyhill come and cut a TV commercial in their store.
INTERVIEWER: And the galleries were making money for both you and the retailers?
BROYHILL: Right. The problem was that, later on, Interco and then Furniture Brands, the successor company, didn’t support the galleries enough. There are so many things that could’ve and should’ve been done to keep the gallery program going and growing. But as I see it, it’s just dying a slow death.
INTERVIEWER: Were you on the Interco board for a while?
BROYHILL: I was on it for five years, until I left
INTERVIEWER: But you were left pretty much alone to run Broyhill.
BROYHILL: Yes, absolutely. I made a financial report to them once a quarter, as everybody else did. All their companies came in once a quarter, and we had an all-day meeting, and everyone made his report. I had good figures all the way through.
INTERVIEWER: You did have an immediate boss at Interco, I assume.
BROYHILL: Oh, yes, but they were nice to me because I was making money.
Then later on, it came out in the business press that a lot of profit sharing and pension plans were overfunded. It made Interco start looking at all their pension plans. And some of them were overfunded. But I didn’t have a pension plan. I had a profit-sharing plan. But they decided to cut back on all the plans, including mine, to save money. You see what I mean? Mine wasn’t a funding problem. We made contributions to a profit-sharing plan every year. But, their attitude was that we’re cutting everybody else, so we’ll cut you too. That’s when I left.
INTERVIEWER: Have you had any relationship with Broyhill Furniture since then?
BROYHILL: Almost none. I was invited back to a company function fairly recently by the latest president, Jeff Cook. When he came in as president, he thought it was good PR to have a Paul Broyhill day over there. He asked me back, had a big luncheon, and invited the press, and I made a few remarks. I appreciated that. Then he wanted me to attend the markets. I wanted to do that for him, but at that stage in my life, I just couldn’t do it. I could’ve done him some good with PR, but just didn’t have the stamina to go back to markets and start shaking hands. I was already in my 80s by that time.
INTERVIEWER: Have you kept in touch with some of your old colleagues?
BROYHILL: A little bit, but not as much as you would think. Every now and then one of them will write or call, or we’ll have some kind of contact. But they’re all gone from there. All of my old guys are gone, either let go or retired.
INTERVIEWER: I know the Broyhill family, and you personally, have been deeply involved in community and charitable efforts.
BROYHILL: My father set up a charitable fund in the early ’50s, and I have carried it on. The company donated a little percentage every year to it and he donated and I donated a little personally in the early days to get it started. Over the years we built a sizable fund, and we’ve been able to have some impact. The profit-sharing plan and the charitable fund, those are two of my proudest accomplishments.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us some of the major things the charitable fund has accomplished.
BROYHILL: We have divided our efforts into categories. The hardest one to resist is education – the higher education schools. They have such big fund-raising programs. The second category is hospitals. They, likewise, have such big fund-raising drives. Children’s homes have been another important thing for us, particularly the Baptist Children’s Home. We always contribute something to the arts. I’ve been interested in some recreation projects.
We have established endowments or funds at six or eight colleges or universities and half a dozen hospitals. Some years ago we established the Broyhill Leadership Series, which are summer camps for young people. We support all kinds of art and science programs, locally or at colleges and universities. We give a lot to local charities. A little county like Caldwell probably has a couple hundred charitable organizations. They all want money and deserve funding, but you can’t give to all of them. You have to pick and choose. The hardest thing is turning things down. It sounds like it's a lot of fun to give away money. But I’ve got an executive director and we run this foundation, just the two of us. Most foundations my size probably have a staff and have people come in, make presentations. I can’t stand presentations.
INTERVIEWER: You made your managers do them.
BROYHILL: Yes. But at this point I can’t stand presentations.
INTERVIEWER: Do you spend a lot of your time running the foundation?
BROYHILL: Not a lot, no. But nevertheless, we get a lot of good done with it.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of social and civic organizations have you been involved in, if any?
BROYHILL: Through the foundation we support numerous civic projects. I don’t do much personally. My first wife did some work personally. She spent time on some boards. But I don’t go on boards. I was on a few boards when I was younger, but I haven’t been on any boards in a long time.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a favorite charity personally?
BROYHILL: My interests change. I may get interested in a project and be quite taken with it and then move on to another when that one is done. For example, when I was in the furniture business I was very involved with design. I love to design – not just furniture, but other things. I enjoy designing parks. One of my major civic accomplishments is that I designed and built a beautifully landscaped walking park on 37 acres that my Uncle Tom originally owned. After I completed it and got it established, I donated it to the City of Lenoir. It is one of the most frequently used facilities around. I did the same thing on a smaller scale in Blowing Rock.
Of course, like my Dad, I have always been interested in young people and in higher education. In our business we hired many local people and trained them to become successful in their careers. I like to think we made a difference in those people’s lives. I want to see everyone have a chance. So, through the foundation, I have been involved in all kinds of youth development programs, such as the leadership camps I mentioned and many leading with integrity programs at various schools. We have scholarships set up all over the place.
We were involved in a revolutionary program at the local community college. We instigated and helped to fund a relationship between Caldwell Community College and Appalachian State University where the community college would provide the space and Appalachian would provide the instructors, making it possible for a student to get a four year teaching degree right here on the local community college campus. We helped to build the building that houses the program. It is named after my late wife: the Faye A. Broyhill building. I think some others have picked up on that idea of community college and university partnerships, but we were pioneers. I like projects like that – designing something new.
If I had to say what charity I have been interested in the longest, it would have to be Baptist Children’s Homes. They have a Broyhill campus in the Western North Carolina mountains around Clyde. We have been a part of their ministry for many, many years.
INTERVIEWER: Briefly describe the investment company you’ve been running since you left furniture.
BROYHILL: Well, originally, it was pretty simple. We were mainly in municipal bonds and a little bit of stocks. But since then, we’ve gotten more and more into stocks, and stocks have gotten more and more sophisticated. When we started this mutual fund, there weren’t many mutual funds. Today there are thousands of them. The whole mutual fund industry has progressed and sliced and diced, and rather than owning a half dozen good stocks, you’ve got to have large-cap, small-cap and mid-cap stocks, national and international stocks. And you’ve got to have stocks in the key sectors – technology, healthcare, utilities and so forth – about 13 sectors in all. This goes on and on. You’ve got to have a certain percentage of stocks, a certain percentage of bonds. In bonds, you’ve got to have corporate bonds and you’ve got to have government bonds, and so forth. So we’re into all that.
We originally called the company Broyhill Management Company, and it’s still BMC.
INTERVIEWER: Do you specialize in any sector in particular?
BROYHILL: No, but we’ve developed a real estate subsidiary, and here again we’ve done a little bit of everything. We’re involved in residential and commercial. We’ve developed land. We’ve built homes. We’ve developed a shopping center. I’ve had a lot of careers.
INTERVIEWER: Didn’t BMC get involved in the furniture industry at one point?
BROYHILL: Not BMC, but Hunt and I went back into it on a small scale and were not successful over a period of time, so we had enough sense to get out of it.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there any other element of your career in the furniture industry we haven’t touched on that you’d like to comment on?
BROYHILL: Well, I’d just like to say, when I was in it, the furniture business was a lot more of a people business. Even when I was dealing with a huge company like Sears, Roebuck, I knew the buyers very well. I knew the top people. I’ve got a picture on my wall of my dad with General Wood, who ran Sears, Roebuck. I don’t know whether you’ve even heard that name, but General Wood was famous in those days.
So we had loyal relationships, but I think it’s mainly developed into a bottom line business, and that’s just so different. For years, I missed the business, but I’m not sure I’d want to be in it today.
INTERVIEWER: I read an interview you did 18 or so years ago, and one of the things that jumped out at me is that, when you were talking about managing, you said, “I was a benevolent dictator.” Would you still stand by that statement?
BROYHILL: Absolutely. Although, I was a good listener. I loved to go around to people’s offices and get their views on this, this and this. And I had them come to my office, too, from time to time. I tried not to have too many meetings. We had those quarterly meetings, and I was proud of those. But I didn’t have a lot of other meetings. I’d go around and listen a lot. I also listened to dealers. Then, I’d make up my mind and move on. I think the problem with most dictators is that they quit listening.
I always figured that I wasn’t very smart sitting at my desk. I could read a lot, which I did, and today we’ve got computers. But I figured I was a lot smarter after I’d been out on a dealer’s floor, looking at the furniture and talking with the dealer. I figured it might help me be a little better than my competitor. Not a lot, but if I was a little better, it was because I worked a little harder going out and listening and looking.
I had a motto that I would constantly repeat to myself. It was Assimilate (meaning just getting as much input as you can), Evaluate, and then Actuate. That was my motto: Assimilate, Evaluate and Actuate. I may have had it in one of our management books. I’m not sure. But it was the way I managed.
INTERVIEWER: That meant a lot of face-to-face contact.
BROYHILL: Yes, but it meant I knew what was going on. I didn’t mention this earlier, but I had another little technique that let me know what was going on in the company. I asked every manager down to a certain level – which would be sales manager, production manager, plant manager, and assistant plant manager – to write me a one-page report, no more than one page, every week. I said, “I want to know of any major decisions you made this week, or any good ideas that you want me to consider.”
I’d get about 50 of those reports. I could wade through that 50 in an hour or maybe two hours on a Saturday morning. And I’d know virtually everything that was going on in my business. Everything. Isn’t it amazing? I’d know what every organization had done last week. And if the manager had any ideas, he didn’t have to go through channels. He could project his idea right up to the boss in his weekly report.
They all gave me their ideas, particularly in the plants when they wanted to buy something, or they needed a new machine, or they were thinking about this or that procedure. Or, if the sales managers had any thoughts about his territory or his customer, he could project something straight to me.
I kept my finger on every aspect of the business. Nowadays, they say that at some point, businesses outgrow the management style. Perhaps my business was rapidly outgrowing my management style. Maybe I should’ve changed quicker. I don’t know. If I had stayed in the business, I may have had enough sense to know it, or I may not have. But I realized that that management style fitted me at the time. If the business had gotten much bigger, I’m not sure I could have kept doing it that way. And I’m not sure I could have hired anybody else to do it the way I did it.
INTERVIEWER: And you didn’t have anybody in the family coming along who wanted to do that?
BROYHILL: Well, I had my son, but he was still in college. And frankly, my wife wasn't sure she wanted him to go into the business. She said, “I’m not sure I want him to live the life you’re living, or that he’s suited for it.” My son has been loyal and hardworking, but I don’t think he’s obsessed with the business. I was obsessed with the business. I think to be extremely successful, you’ve literally got to be obsessed with it. It has to be your life. You get your pleasure in the business, not out playing golf or in some other way.
INTERVIEWER: I’m amazed you could keep track of all the information you were getting. You’re talking about 6 million square feet of production, 7,500 people. Just to keep track of that is an incredibly daunting task.
BROYHILL: That’s why I had a system. I’m sure that some people didn’t care for having to write a little report every week, but most people welcomed having direct access to the boss.
I had a great career. I sold out too early. When I left, the company was doing about $340 million annually, and not too long after that, the same plants, the same people went to over twice that – roughly $700 million, and making 12 to 14 percent pretax profit. So, obviously, I sold out way too early and way too cheap. In other words, in doing $700 million and making, let’s say, $50 million after tax, I could’ve sold that business for many times what I sold it for.
Still, the way I sold my company at more than twice book value and virtually tax free, was pretty darn smart. Somebody could do a business school study on the way I sold it.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think Broyhill could have withstood the onslaught of imports? Would there have been anything you could’ve done?
BROYHILL: I have some ideas. I’m not sure it would’ve worked, but I’m sure I would’ve tried it. Basically it is to make manufacturing simpler in each plant rather than expanding the line as has been done. I would’ve pared it down to maybe one or two suites, and maybe half the people would’ve had to go. But I would’ve tried to keep at least a little bit of furniture being made in those plants, so that I could keep them open with a nucleus of people and wait until the day when things would change and domestic furniture could make a comeback. I think maybe it could be gradually coming back a little bit even now.
As the currencies in Asia go up in value, and as their labor costs go up, things are already changing. The service from over there and the quality from over there haven’t been all that great. A lot of big dealers who have gone over there and bought directly from China and elsewhere in Asia have gotten burned. I recently looked at the figures of some of our best retailers who have bought directly from Asia. They’re not making any money.
I wonder if they wouldn’t be a lot better off buying a suite from Broyhill and paying a little more money for it, getting quick delivery and good quality and not messing around over there. Who knows whether or not I could have done it? But I sure would’ve tried. Our friends at Vaughan Bassett in Virginia have tried the hardest of just about anybody, and they've still got a couple of plants making wood furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, it can be done. But it’s not on the scale it used to be.
BROYHILL: Not on the scale. I don’t think I could’ve kept the scale going, but I would’ve tried to keep at least some factories running. I begged the guy at Broyhill, I said, “Keep at least one factory.” But they wouldn’t even consider it.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you were happy with 10 or 12 percent pretax profit. But conglomerates always want to grow faster and make more money.
BROYHILL: Yes. But they’re making nothing now. Have you read the book by Mike Dugan called “The Furniture Wars”?
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Do you know Mike Dugan?
BROYHILL: Oh, yes, I know him. He was head of Henredon at one time, which also became a Furniture Brands company. He’s been a teacher in business at Lenoir Rhyne College for a number of years. I sent him a copy of my new book and told him to compare the way we ran our business with the way the companies in his book ran theirs. He could write another book if he wanted to.
INTERVIEWER: How would you like to be remembered for your career in the furniture business?
BROYHILL: During my furniture career, we hired and trained thousands of people, and most of them enjoyed successful careers. We built facilities and an organization that produced more than $700 million in sales during the middle ‘90s during Brent Kincaid’s administration. At that time a national survey found that Broyhill was the most recognized brand name in the furniture industry. We created a profit-sharing program whereby rank and file employees were able to supplement their social security with extra retirement income. We grew a charitable foundation that has contributed to countless worthy causes.
I’ve had a great life with multiple careers, and I have been truly blessed. I’ve worked hard, but I credit my success to my supportive family, friends, and coworkers. It’s sad to see so many of them passing away.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it’s certainly been great talking with you. We thank you for taking the time to do the interview and giving us your insights.
BROYHILL: OK, my friend.