Rawson haverty, sr.; haverty furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
JULY 18, 2001
OFFICE OF RAWSON HAVERTY SR.
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is Roy Briggs, and I’m with Rawson Haverty at his office at 780 Johnsons Ferry Road in Atlanta. We’re going to do a somewhat unusual oral history, Rawson, because you have answered most of the questions in your book. If it’s in the book, just say, “It’s in the book,” and we’ll move on. We’ll start with your personal background. Was your family in the furniture business? In-laws?
HAVERTY: They were. Now, I’m thinking about in-laws. I’m trying to think of individual in-laws. I have an attorney — my mother’s brother was an attorney. I can’t think of anybody else in the business, except my immediate family.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your growing up years. Where did you go to college?
HAVERTY: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and went to college in Athens, Georgia.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major?
HAVERTY: I majored in political science.
INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings there have affected your life?
HAVERTY: I graduated from high school; I think I was 11... No, excuse me, I was 15. I wanted to go to Princeton, and Princeton wouldn’t take you until you were 16.
HAVERTY: So, I went to the University of Georgia. They’d take you if you were breathing. I think it was good for my father because it was a lot less expensive than Princeton. I went over to the University of Georgia when I was 15; I was not able to drive. I entered over there, stayed at a boarding house for two years and lived at the fraternity house for two years. I did fairly well in class. I did really well the first year. I think I made all A’s the first or second year. Then I found out about girls, and my grades went down. I got interested in the fraternity and other things. I didn’t study quite as hard, but the University of Georgia was not particularly a brilliant school at that time. I needed to get by without studying too hard, which is what I did. I enjoyed football and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job?
HAVERTY: My first job was in the credit and collections department at the Havertys Atlanta store when I was still in college. Right after I got out of college, before World War II, I worked in the credit and collections department in downtown Atlanta. My job was collecting slow accounts and good accounts, working individual ledgers. Each customer had a paper ledger sheet. I would interview customers, make terms. Then we were in charge of collecting those terms, and occasionally, we would have to go out to make a collection. That was my first job. When the war broke out, I had a second lieutenant’s reserve commission, which I had gotten at the University of Georgia, so I was called in quite early after the Japanese attack (in December 1941 on Pearl Harbor). I was called in the following January, as I remember. I left the collections department, and when I returned after the war, my father brought me up to work in what was the journal office on the fourth floor of the downtown Atlanta store. He didn’t have an office for me, so I sat across from Tommy Thompson, who was head of advertising, and I shared his desk with him.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first Furniture Market you attended? Please describe it in detail.
HAVERTY: I don’t remember all the names, but I did go to the Furniture Market with my father. He wanted to introduce me to his friends up there in the industry. I would go to the Furniture Market in Chicago at that time. I went, I think, to most of the Markets at that time because he introduced me to most of the heads of factories that we were buying from. I don’t remember too many of them. Broyhill, of course. Kroehler was one of our big upholstery sources, and I knew Del Kroehler and his people. I knew Ed Broyhill, the old man, as well as Paul. Paul and I were about the same age and supposed to look alike, so we got along pretty good. We worked the Market by starting at the top floor and working down. We looked at everything, looking through the windows. If we had any interest, we’d go in and talk to them. It was generally my father or his chief merchandise man, Elliott Witherspoon. He was tall; they called him the Deacon. They knew most everybody in the manufacturing end. We were not big operators, but they were glad to have our account. We paid our bills on time. Yes, all the Markets were in Chicago. High Point didn’t amount to much, except we would visit the factories in North Carolina. After making our visits directly to the factories, we would frequently go by High Point to just walk through the building. But we didn’t do much. The building was there, the Market was there, but we worked directly with the factories, and we’d visit the factories, looking at the place of manufacturing.
INTERVIEWER: Have you been to recent Markets (in High Point)?
HAVERTY: No. I think I went two years ago to see what it was like; it hadn’t changed.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask about changes. Retail is different from manufacturing. For you, labor would be everyone working below company administration. How has the growth of Havertys been affected by labor?
HAVERTY: I don’t think of them as labor. I think of them as our employees, associates, and that’s the way we always think of them. We have a number of different types. We have general management, store management. We have the general office group, which is administrative. At the productive level, we have, of course, the salespeople. We have the people in the store offices, which used to just handle paperwork and collections. Our collections are now centralized out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I think also of our warehouse and our delivery people as part of our associates, and they’re very important because they go in the customers’ homes. They’re the last impression we make. We work with them to ensure that they treat the merchandise carefully and respectfully in the customers’ homes and treat the customers’ homes carefully and respectfully. We hope they do.
INTERVIEWER: What about style and design?
HAVERTY: Furniture is a fashion item. It changes slowly, but it is a fashion item. Fortunately, because we hope the customers get unhappy with what we sold them 10 years ago, they want to bring it up-to-date with something more current. But it still is a fashion item. The fashions change slowly, but the manufacturers are always trying to create something new and different, so we’ll buy something that will be interesting to the customers. They want something new and different. It’s a fashion business. It was always the same. It may have been different things we were looking at. Chenille would be out of-style. You’ve got a different type of fabric and style. You’re constantly changing your fabrics. Your looks, your colors, your color cycles are always changing. I don’t know if it can be predicted, but what is beige one year will be blue next year. It’s a regular cycle. You go from one to the other, and you have to know what’s coming next, so you’ll be up-to-date. It’s a changing cycle, both in the look of the merchandise and the fabric.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the effect of advertising?
HAVERTY: Difficult for me to comment on that. We do our best to attract people with clean advertising.
INTERVIEWER: There is much interest in pricing and discount advertising.
HAVERTY: We got away from the 50 percent off a number of years ago.
INTERVIEWER: What about finance?
HAVERTY: Once, we needed some money. We went to New York and tried to borrow a million dollars. I went up to I forget which bank. The vice president looked at me and said, “That’s the small loan department down there on the third floor.” So we were a little insulted by that. We came back to Atlanta and got two or three Atlanta banks, a bank in Birmingham and Montgomery (Alabama), and several others to get together, and we borrowed $3 million.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about production?
HAVERTY: I have never been in the furniture manufacturing business. It’s probably more complex than retailing because it’s putting together pieces of wood from different trees, and the Lord made each one of them different. To match them up and come up on a tabletop where they look the same is quite a skill. I admire the guys that do it.
INTERVIEWER: What about any changes in purchasing – for a retailer, primarily complete furniture?
HAVERTY: We’ve purchased furniture and paper. We’ve purchased all kinds of things. We purchased furniture to the best of our ability in quantities, so that we can get the best prices. We deal with reliable manufacturers that will give us merchandise that we’re comfortable with. We purchase so that each of our individual store managers, who serve different types of customers, have some leeway in their buying. It just takes a little manipulation. On the standard items, which we push across the board, we buy centrally. For those localities that have different taste, as it used to be in New Orleans, they wanted everything red. In the West, they want bigger-size furniture. They have an interest in a different type of fabric color than they do on the Carolina coast. Managers have a selection within a range, so they can buy what their customers most regularly want. We will buy from a factory in quantity, so that we get the quantity price, but managers get individual selections in some cases.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in sales and merchandising over the years?
HAVERTY: You change in merchandise when you change your customer more than anything else. We first were downtown. When I first entered the business, our customers were frequently coming home from working in a factory, and we had a large black customer base that traded downtown. Mill people traded downtown. People who came downtown would frequently purchase bargains. Our quality level was to satisfy those people who were our customers. We were not selling the same quality that we’re currently selling.
When we left downtown and moved out to the residential areas, our quality of customers changed. We upgraded the merchandise that we showed to fit our customers. That’s been an ongoing procedure. As we have upgraded our customer base, I think we’ve got as high as we want to go now. We’ve upgraded our furniture selections to meet the tastes of our customer base.
INTERVIEWER: What were some changes in finance?
HAVERTY: Being in the retail business and handling customer accounts, we find our biggest investment is in furniture — that’s our inventory — and customer accounts because we don’t sell our customer accounts. As we grow, we borrow more money. We pay it back and make a profit, pay it back and make a profit. If you’re growing, frequently you grow faster than you make profit. This becomes an area of danger, which you have to stay away from. You can’t grow faster than you can afford. Many of our competition have gotten into trouble because they failed to keep that under control.
INTERVIEWER: Have there been changes in management?
HAVERTY: Our philosophy is not to employ management from outside, except in technical situations. We grow our own management. We try to attract young salespeople and encourage people from all different areas within the store to grow and improve themselves. As they do prove that they can handle people and do their job, we upgrade them. All of our management has come from the inside, except technical people, like computer people and so on, who we have to hire from outside. All of our store operators, all of our store managers, have been trained internally. They come from every area — from drivers, to helpers, to salespeople, to clerks — all areas of the business itself. All are trained within the organization.
INTERVIEWER: Please describe the support you personally have received from people in our industry.
HAVERTY: Support I personally received has been the most important because I can’t do anything on my own. I have received wonderful support from everybody we’ve been with, sometimes unasked, but always very substantial, from anywhere I’ve asked. No problem on support. The people have been outstanding.
INTERVIEWER: To whom have you gone to for advice, outside your company?
HAVERTY: As far as those people I have leaned on goes, of course there’s my father, and subsequently my grandfather, but particularly my father. He’s one of my heroes. When I served in the war, my commander in Europe named George Forsyth was one of my heroes, a great leader. Outside of those two, I could get into other individuals outside of the business who worked for the hospital. I worked with some sisters who headed the hospital who were marvelous characters, and I learned a lot from them. I get inspiration from people like that.
INTERVIEWER: What support has your company received?
HAVERTY: We have worked with any number of fine people, and we worked closely with them. From the standpoint of support, we’ve always got excellent backup from our factories; they give us good support and good quality merchandise. If they don’t, they know we’ll move elsewhere, so we get support from these people.
INTERVIEWER: What have you yourself done for other people?
HAVERTY: In the business? As little as possible. We love to see our competition collapse.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done for your own people?
HAVERTY: We encourage our managers, in each of their locations, to participate in their civic organizations. Most of them are members of their Chamber of Commerce or their local business community. We participate and encourage them to participate in things that help build the business community in their community. Most all of them are involved in one way or the other. We encourage that. I have personally done that in Atlanta. I’ve been involved in the Chamber of Commerce and in the business associations. I helped put together the Southern Furniture Retail Association and one or two other associations. They were separate in the South. I think we combined Alabama with somebody else and Florida. I forget what we’ve done, but we helped combine some of these individual state and local furniture associations together. I’ve been involved in a lot of that stuff.
INTERVIEWER: I understand you have been involved with Piedmont Airlines on the board of directors.
HAVERTY: That’s true. I went on it because I was interested in airlines. I was honored to be asked on it. I got a free pass, which was wonderful. I could fly anywhere they went. The only duty I had was to report to the president on my experience on the airline. It was always good.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategies as they differ from others.
HAVERTY: I can’t answer for other people’s strategies. Haverty’s program is to attract young people, grow the young people, promote from within and expand our retail locations, as we can afford to. There are any number of opportunities in our market area or the adjoining areas that we would like to get into. We plan to do so as rapidly as we can afford to, and as rapidly as we can grow management, to train them. Right now, we have a good backup for potential management. Store locations are coming to us faster than we can handle, because we don’t want to over-expand beyond our financial capacity. It’s an exciting time right now. We have the people to expand with as we have the opportunity and financial capability.
INTERVIEWER: Do you own your real estate or lease it?
HAVERTY: You asked the question whether we try to buy stores rather than rent. I don’t have any idea what the strategies are under the best circumstances. We do not mind buying if the long-range result is better. We really prefer to rent and not have our money tied up in real estate. We’ll do either one that’s best for the company.
INTERVIEWER: I understand you have done well in real estate.
HAVERTY: Oh, yes. I think we’ve done very well on the real estate that we have purchased. Again, we don’t go out of our way to buy unless it’s the only way we can get the site that we want. Frequently, that occurs. Yet, real estate has historically grown in value, and we’ve come out very well on the real estate we’ve had to abandon.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in business?
HAVERTY: My central personal goal, which I have shared until I retired, was the responsibility of properly running the business. My central personal goal was a “successful operation”. That involves a lot of planning, developing people, administration. It involves whatever an executive pulls through to get things running. That’s what my objective is. Run this company well and grow it, and I have turned it over to people who are more capable than I am, and I’m very pleased with that. I’m retiring. Are you asking me whether my primary goal in business is to make money? My answer is, if you’re going to stay in business, that’s necessary. So that has to be your primary goal because if you fail to make money, you go out of business. The way that you make money, your objective in making money and how you handle people — that’s a matter of leadership. But, yes, if you don’t make money, you’re going out of business. You don’t have the privilege of staying in.
INTERVIEWER: How well have you achieved that goal?
HAVERTY: Not to my satisfaction. I don’t think a business ever achieves total satisfaction. You always know it can be better. I’m retired now; I don’t have to worry about it. While I was active, I always thought there were a number of things that could be better that I saw. I didn’t necessarily tell everybody, but I think if you’re a good operator, you always should be dissatisfied in those areas that you know could be done better.
INTERVIEWER: “Done better?” Explain.
HAVERTY: Dissatisfied with those areas that you know can be done better. Even though they’re done pretty well, you know they can be done better. You should not be satisfied.
INTERVIEWER: Is that a matter of perfectionism?
HAVERTY: Probably, yes. Why not?
INTERVIEWER: Tell me how your company goal differs from your personal goal.
HAVERTY: Well, you’ve got two things. One is a business, which is oriented to make money, build people and be successful. You have a secondary personal goal, and that’s helping those individuals you employ — to have a good family, make a good salary and do well. That’s the secondary goal, but it depends on the business goal. It’s good to have that secondary goal achieved. Now as for my personal goal, I’d like to raise a good family, a sound family, a happy family, take care of my wife — those things that any individual would like to do. Sometimes she thinks that’s a byproduct of my business interest, but it’s not.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say you are satisfied in your business and personal life?
HAVERTY: No, I’m never satisfied; I can do better, and the company can do better. The company’s doing really well. I can do a lot better, but the company’s doing very well. I’m very pleased with it.
INTERVIEWER: Has there been an overriding business philosophy at Havertys?
HAVERTY: I think I have outlined it in our discussion, haven’t I?
INTERVIEWER: Then your personal and company goals are not different?
HAVERTY: I hope not. I hope we’re together. My personal philosophy has been imbedded in the company, and I hope we’re together on that.
INTERVIEWER: Comment on your relationships with your suppliers.
HAVERTY: Our relationships with our suppliers are good because we pay our bills and they like that. We have worked with the same suppliers over many years. Always, when there’s something new, we have known about it. We haven’t found out later. We’ve had long relationships with some suppliers; we respect their best work, and they respect us as one of their customers.
INTERVIEWER: I understand you have a close relationship with some suppliers.
HAVERTY: We have a relationship with Furniture Brands International.
INTERVIEWER: Describe that relationship.
HAVERTY: We’ve agreed to give Furniture Brands 50 percent of our floor space for their products. They’ve agreed to give us special service and prices in return for that. It’s working out fine for both of us.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know of any other retailer/manufacturer relationship like that.
HAVERTY: I’m not aware of it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you cultivate long-term relationships with your customers?
HAVERTY: Oh, we hope so. We hope that they think we’re very special. We think they’re special. Yes, we try to take care of our customers. We love our customers. We hope they come back and work with us again.
INTERVIEWER: What was your greatest problem with customers?
HAVERTY: When they come into our store, we give them the service they’re looking for by having experienced people work with them. If and when they make a purchase, we deliver it, and we are careful going into their homes. We are respectable in their homes. We follow up with thank-you letters and other letters asking them to come back. We try to keep in touch with our customers over a long period of time.
INTERVIEWER: What problems have you had with your suppliers?
HAVERTY: Generally, we work with the same people year after year, so we know each other well. If we have a problem with a certain product, they take care of it. They trust us and we trust them. If they send us something that’s not a good product, we send it back to them and they take it back. We don’t argue about it. We work with people who will work with us that way. We have not gone out and gone into the Asian
market to buy direct, where you get prices 20 to 30 percent under, in many cases. If you do, if you’re not satisfied with the product or the product does not stand up, you have no recourse. We’ve stayed with known suppliers and worked closely with our known suppliers, and it’s worked out fine for both of us.
INTERVIEWER: Are there problems with claims?
HAVERTY: I have no idea. That’s not one of my problems. I’m not up with it. I know that we work with the manufacturers on a fair basis, and we push our managers to be fair, not to take advantage of our factories. If we did the damage to the product, it’s our fault. We don’t send it back and say it was theirs.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement with business trade associations.
HAVERTY: I was active for many years with the National Home Furnishings Association, and somewhat with the Southern, but primarily with the National Association. It goes back many years. My father was president of that. I was never head of it, but I was active for a long time with it, particularly with their relationships in Washington. I’ve made several presentations for them, before congressional committees and things like that. It’s been a long relationship. I’m still on the board of the National Retail Federation. I attended their meeting about a year ago. If I’m not active, I’d probably drop off. I’d get somebody else to take that position.
INTERVIEWER: What is the greatest benefit to you of association involvement?
HAVERTY: I’ll relate that to our company. They have been very valuable, particularly with their capability of working in Washington and redirecting the laws that would have been a disadvantage had they been passed. To us, that’s the biggest advantage that we have. To be able to do that, they have to have a large membership, and to have a large membership, they have to do a lot of work that the members want in the retail area — teaching — all kinds of work that doesn’t have anything to do with politics. We support that, pay dues, but our principal interest is their capability and influence in the legislature in Washington. The greatest benefit from association activity has been the ability to influence legislation, to block legislation that would be adverse in itself, changing it to what would be less difficult. We have to put up with a lot of extra activities. Associations have schools and other services to keep their membership at a maximum to increase their capability of influencing the legislation.
INTERVIEWER: What business enterprises and joint ventures have you been part of? How did they work out?
HAVERTY: For many years, Leo Jackson and Homer Burkhart were managers in Jacksonville. They left us at one time. We wanted to get them back because they’re both excellent men. They had left us and opened their own business. We bought their business to get them back. So we got them back. We bought the Cunningham Venture Company, which they had purchased. We operated that in Jacksonville very successfully for many years. We finally let it run down because we didn’t need any stores in downtown Jacksonville. We had two major suburban stores down there.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have involvement with banks or other outside investment activity?
HAVERTY: My father was the youngest director when the Fulton National Bank was started in Atlanta. After the war, he put me on that board. After he retired, I became active on that. I was the chairman of a couple of committees. Finally, I was named chairman of the Fulton National Bank. After I retired from that, the bank was sold and went through two or three hands and was very successful all the way along. It’s now part of Bank of America. That, I think, has been the only financial outside enterprise I’ve been on. And I’ve served as the head of a number of civic operations like the Chamber of Commerce. I was very active in getting the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority operation under way. I was on the initial board of MARTA. I’ve been involved in quite a few things, particularity in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
INTERVIEWER: Your book talks of the Rhodes Haverty building in Atlanta.
HAVERTY: That was my grandfather. The Rhodes Haverty Building was built by my grandfather and A.G. Rhodes, who personally invited his friend Haverty to join him. They did that together. A.G. died before it was completed. My grandfather was very proud of that building. It was an office building in downtown Atlanta. I had nothing to do with it at all.
INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry has changed over the years that you have been active.
HAVERTY: That’s difficult to answer because we at Havertys have changed. I’m not sure the industry itself has changed that much. You have several different areas of furniture distribution. One is the low-end manufacturer and the customer that it serves. That goes into the retail installment account. Then you’ve got the middle-income group, and we cater to the middle- and upper-middle income group. They have different tastes; generally, we have a different manufacturer serving them. They have fewer problems with credit. Then you get into the high-end decorating area, which is another manufacturer and another customer. Generally, you don’t have a credit problem there. So you did have, and still have, in my opinion, three general areas of customers. Your retailer is generally unable to serve all three. You’ll find that he’s not going to do it well. Generally three types of retailers: decorators; middle and upper-middle, which is what we are; and lower end. They operate somewhat differently, and their customers are somewhat different. I’m not sure that over the years that situation has changed very much.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today? Short-term? Long-term?
HAVERTY: I’m not sure of the answer. The retail industry, particularly in the South, where I’m familiar with it, has had so many changes recently, and we’ve had so many businesses over-expand that we’ve got financial trouble, gone into bankruptcy. Our liquidating part of it is trying to recover on the others. It’s difficult for me to see right now how that’s going to come out. The demand is still there for furniture. The opportunity for individual furniture stores is great, and the opportunity for sound, growing change (like ourselves) is exceptional, with the danger of over-expanding. I can’t tell you what the outcome will be. I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: What about imports?
HAVERTY: We import a great deal of our furniture, but we import it through manufacturers that we are used to. Many of our main manufacturers that you associate with North Carolina make it in the Orient. But they insist on quality. They send the people over there that require that the quality be put into the furniture, into the merchandise, and they insist on it. We work with them here as if they were local, but the merchandise is still made in China or Taiwan or Asia. So a great deal of it is made overseas, but we deal with people in North Carolina that we’ve dealt with for generations.
INTERVIEWER: Lacquercraft in China just bought Universal from Lifestyle.
HAVERTY: Are they going to use the factories that they already own?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, and close the U.S. factories owned by Lifestyle.
HAVERTY: Well, it’s a question; I don’t know of any problems yet.
INTERVIEWER: What will be the effect of the movement of manufacturing to Asia?
HAVERTY: I don’t know the effect of the movement. The manufacturers in Asia would be affected because the furniture is typically wood furniture. It’s a skilled business, and it takes a lot of these skilled workmen on the line — second, third generation down there. It’s not something that you bring a guy out of high school, and he knows how to handle the manufacturing of wood products. Hand-tooling is a skill. I went once to Asia. They can do it very well. Those people over in Asia are very smart people. But then if you try to bring it back, you may have lost the technicians that had been trained in this country. They’re good and it may be difficult to bring furniture back.
INTERVIEWER: What if something like a war happens to interrupt the flow of ocean shipments to the United States?
HAVERTY: This could be a concern to the industry. Over the years, when manufacturing capabilities move overseas, you can lose a lot of talent, growing up over generations here. It could be a problem if you ever want to bring that back to the country.
INTERVIEWER: Speaking for yourself, what has been your own greatest contribution to the industry?
HAVERTY: I have no idea how to answer that. I really don’t. It’s not anything that’s on my mind, been on my mind. My effort has been to make this company successful and raise a decent family; those are my two main interests. If I’ve had any effect on the industry that’s good, fine. I have not done it intentionally, except that I’ve served on a number of interesting boards.
INTERVIEWER: I think the relationship Havertys has worked out with Furniture Brands is a special innovation.
HAVERTY: Well, they’ve got the main things: the quality and service. That may not last forever, but so far it’s worked out very fine.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any innovations which you adopted before anyone else?
HAVERTY: You’re asking about what’s part of running a business. I’m not quite sure how to say it to you. If we’ve done it well, fine. We’ve never done our best, and I know we can always get better. If, from the outside, it looks like we’re doing better than somebody else, that’s great.
INTERVIEWER: What are Havertys’ intentions?
HAVERTY: Our intention is to continue to grow, building on men that we have built, building on our own personalities that we’ve developed within, and building financially, of course, and so forth and so on. We don’t want to outgrow our financial capabilities. We like to grow people. We like to get and train people that we can build on.
INTERVIEWER: What is your competitive position today?
HAVERTY: Right now, we’re looking pretty good because the big ones are folding up all around us.
INTERVIEWER: You have picked up several locations vacated by various competitors who failed.
HAVERTY: There are great opportunities right now to grow, particularly in our part of the country, but we have to limit ourselves. We don’t want to outgrow our financial capabilities of handling it.
INTERVIEWER: Some industry people say that big-store failures have lost a lot of business for the industry.
HAVERTY: They’re making that look too important. I think a lot of people buying homes right now committed for them when they thought things were going to be fine. They’ve probably delayed furnishing the home that they’ve got now. But we’ll get them in the long run.
INTERVIEWER: Sure you will.
HAVERTY: I hope so.
INTERVIEWER: Is any of that furniture business permanently lost?
HAVERTY: Deferred somewhat. We’ll get them eventually.
INTERVIEWER: How much of your industry contribution was built on already existing techniques and methods? How much came from the innovation that you originated or put into use before any other companies did?
HAVERTY: I’m not sure we’ve invented or created anything. We try to keep alert to new potential benefits for our customers and to our company, not only in merchandising, but also in operations. I would say in the last 10 years, we’ve put an enormous amount of investment into computer capabilities and made our capabilities of administrating more efficient. That’s paying off and paying off well. For instance, we’re now installing those palm pilots for our salesmen. We’re experimenting with that in several stores — Dallas, I think, Houston and Athens. Now when a customer asks for a product, the salesman can tell if it’s on-hand, how many he’s got, when it’s coming in, when it can be delivered. If it’s not on-hand, he has the capability of telling when it will come from the central warehouse. He can give the customer instant information. These are the kind of things that we’re installing — capabilities in our stores — as rapidly as we can. We’ve created a lot of these that are fairly unique, that we’ve developed with our data processing department in our central offices. We’re installing them as they work out, as they have become available through computer science. That’s the biggest change in operations we’ve had in the last 10 years: installation of capabilities.
INTERVIEWER: Do you require bar coding of products by your suppliers?
HAVERTY: We use bar coding everywhere. It’s part of our operation. It’s on merchandise as it arrives from the factory. We know what’s coming in from the invoice and the bar coding is there. The merchandise is moved into the warehouse, off the trucks and the bar code is put on the merchandise right then. All merchandise is warehoused, bar coded and eventually identified.
INTERVIEWER: Do you receive containers from overseas?
HAVERTY: I do not think so. If it comes from overseas, it’s probably that the factory that we bought from brought them from overseas. I don’t know where they come from. We buy them from a factory we’ve been working with. Most of these are headquartered in North Carolina or Mississippi. Where they bring in stuff from, we don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned computers. How have they affected changes in your company?
HAVERTY: It’s the computer that has probably been the biggest change in the way we do business. In fact, we’re still working on that. We put a lot into it. I hope we don’t have to do it over again. It is creating efficiency.
INTERVIEWER: What problems have come with computerization?
INTERVIEWER: Were there any major re-workings necessary?
HAVERTY: A few, not many.
INTERVIEWER: What about Internet selling?
HAVERTY: We’re still experimenting with it. I’m not sure if we’re going to stay with it or not; we’re working with it. It’s got speed and economy, though.
INTERVIEWER: Any other innovations?
HAVERTY: You asked about the palm pilots; we’re experimenting with those, and I’m not sure whether we will stay with them or not. Their capabilities are interesting, but I’m not totally convinced that we’ll stay with them. But we experiment to try to find out things that will make us more efficient. If we try them and they don’t, why, we’ll pass them up and look for something else.
INTERVIEWER: How well has Havertys been ahead of the wave in computer technology in furniture retailing?
HAVERTY: I have no idea whether we’re ahead or behind the wave. I think within our industry, with Havertys, we’re up to most anybody else. I’m not sure because we don’t do comparisons. We don’t look around and compare what other people are doing unless we see something good out there that we think is worth looking at. But we’re not consciously comparing, no.
INTERVIEWER: Where do you look for innovations? Do you depend on your suppliers to bring it to you?
HAVERTY: We try to get new ideas anywhere we can. We have people on the road. We have our managers that see things going on in other stores and contact us. Our people who are traveling get ideas. Main factories bring us ideas. They come from everywhere. We’re just looking for new things all the time.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by the Depression?
HAVERTY: That was my father’s problem. My father got in two world wars and the Depression, and he fought them all the way through. It was a very difficult period he had, and he handed it to me after those terrible things were over. I’ve been very lucky. In my period, the economy’s grown — slowly most years, some years real fast. We’ve had a few ups and downs. No major depression. At the time we had them, they called them recessions, but nothing like my father had. He had two world wars and a major depression. He carried us through that, and I’m very grateful. I haven’t had anything like that.
INTERVIEWER: Furniture always has had its ups and downs.
HAVERTY: I think we’ve had eight increasing years right now, for the industry, not just for the entire country. It’s turning down somewhat now, and it’s affecting us — not too seriously, but we can feel the effect of it. We’re not selling quite as much as we’d like. Our figures — we’re improving those. Our profits are off, but not too bad. Again, we’re never satisfied, and we’re always trying to do a little bit better.
INTERVIEWER: The charts in your book, as far as I have gone, don’t show when you hit a profit of $1 million. When did you hit that?
HAVERTY: We finally got it. I don’t remember.
INTERVIEWER: How was Havertys affected by racial attitudes? Limited to business involvement.
HAVERTY: In our business, we employ black, white and Spanish individuals. We try to find the best people we can. We’ve gone out of our way to try to encourage blacks to take more responsibility. We have excellent black store managers we’re proud of. We have female managers. We try to encourage each of our individuals to progress in their particular areas. One of our major jobs is to build people. It is a special effort to try to give these people opportunities.
INTERVIEWER: Who were your customers in the different years?
HAVERTY: Early on it was mainly the lower-income group; many of them were mill workers. They were not black; they were mill workers, oil field men and others. They were not high-income customers at all. The blacks were in the same category. A lot were not high-income customers. We didn’t classify black or white. We classify by income groups.
INTERVIEWER: But color has had no effect on your business?
HAVERTY: We like them — black, white, whatever color. We’re happy to sell them. They’re our customers, we appreciate them, and we try to serve them well. I mentioned Spanish. We have many, many more Spanish customers now. Hispanic customers are increasing very rapidly.
INTERVIEWER: How has Havertys been affected by women’s issues? Has there been any problem with the increasing involvement of women in the selling of furniture?
HAVERTY: I don’t think we’ve had any problems. We like females. Our principle customers are females; we love them.
INTERVIEWER: Women salespeople and customers conduct themselves differently.
HAVERTY: They do. Our customers are primarily women, housewives.
INTERVIEWER: How has shipment of your products affected your company?
HAVERTY: I’m not aware of any major problems that we have with incoming shipments. The factories usually indicate a date the merchandise will come in, and generally it comes in reasonably close to that date. I’m not aware of any major problems we’re having.
INTERVIEWER: Over the span of your furniture experience, factory shipments have changed from almost entirely by rail to mostly by truck.
HAVERTY: We used to receive a great deal by rail, and I was always interested in making sure our warehouses had rail capability. I still would like that, but we don’t do that much anymore. I still would like the rail capability in case we have a strike or something like that. Most of our current warehouses do not have rail capability.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the effect of environmental regulation?
HAVERTY: I’m not aware of any adverse conditions from environmental regulations. I think from our standpoint, it’s very rare where we’ve had warehouses or gas lines by the warehouse that we’ve had to move. That’s rare. I’m not even worried about that. I can’t quite tell you what happened. I know in several stores we had to move some gas lines for some reason. I can tell you what it was: to save money years ago, we started putting in our own gas tanks that we’d buy wholesale. We used that for a long time. Finally, it wasn’t worthwhile. We’ve been required to get rid of those underground tanks. We had to dig them up because they’re potentially hazardous. We’ve had to move those things out. That’s all I can think of that’s affected us.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement with social, civic and business activities outside the furniture industry.
HAVERTY: I’ve done a good bit of it years ago, in years past, yes. I don’t know where that stops, but I’m still on the National Retail Federation board, I think accidentally. I was on there for a long time. I think they thought I was younger than I was; they asked me to serve again. When I showed up at my age, I think they were shocked, but I’m still there.
INTERVIEWER: Civic activities?
HAVERTY: I’m trying to think of anything I’ve been involved in, in the last few years in the way of civic activities. I’ve slowed down and subbed out most of my jobs to somebody else. Because of my age, I’ve been taken off boards. At 65 or 70, a lot of these boards give you a fountain pen and say, “Thanks.” That’s happened.
INTERVIEWER: What is your favorite charity?
HAVERTY: Well, I give to my church, which is my most steady charity. I’m a Catholic. I’ve been involved in a number of Catholic institutions. Currently, we’re trying to build a Catholic-oriented college in north Georgia. I will probably become involved in that. I’ve served many years on the board of an orphanage home, a Catholic orphanage home in Atlanta. That’s been closed because it ended up there weren’t too many orphans. It ended up with cases handed to us by the Juvenile Court, and we found that was not really what we set out to do. I’ve been involved in lots of little things like that.
INTERVIEWER: In many places, there are growing pains in the Catholic organizations because of the rapid increase of Hispanic populations. Is that true in Atlanta?
HAVERTY: Well, I can’t answer that because I’m not as actively involved as I used to be. We have a very large Hispanic population in Atlanta. We have a number of priests that serve them, and some of the priests are Hispanic themselves. We do have a large Catholic Hispanic community here in Atlanta. A lot of them are Catholic. We don’t have too many going to the church I go to because it’s a neighborhood church, and we don’t have many living in the neighborhood that I live in. But there are some of them that are heavily Hispanic.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure time activity?
HAVERTY: I retired the end of last year, so I have more leisure time. One of my principal efforts is staying away from the house, so I don’t get in Margaret’s hair too often. I think she’d rather me be back at work, but we’re going to work that out.
INTERVIEWER: Do you enjoy golf?
HAVERTY: That I haven’t been able to do. I have a nice set of clubs, but I haven’t found a golf ball that’s built to go straight. I still haven’t found one.
INTERVIEWER: If you are retired, what was the date?
HAVERTY: The end of last year.
INTERVIEWER: You stayed beyond the normal retirement age?
HAVERTY: I stayed on beyond the retirement age because nobody could make me leave. I thought it was time. We have a separate time limit.
INTERVIEWER: The exact date was December 31, 2000.
HAVERTY: That’s correct, the end of 2000; officially. I hadn’t been working very hard for a long time before that.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the industry?
HAVERTY: Very little. I come around every day to pick up the mail that doesn’t get to my house and just talk to the fellows, but I’m not active in the furniture industry at all. I’ve retired.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done in other businesses?
HAVERTY: They retired me long ago. I was on five or six boards and active on some of them, but at my age, nobody wants me around.
INTERVIEWER: Have you traveled?
HAVERTY: I took my son and grandson to Rome and Istanbul about a month ago, and that’s been very interesting. I hope to do more things like that.
INTERVIEWER: Your story has added a great deal to the history of our industry.
HAVERTY: I hope I’ve been of some value to you. If it’s been of value for the historic purpose, fine. I’ve been in the business for 60 years; that’s my tenure in one more month. I’ve seen a lot of growth; the company’s grown a great deal. It’s changed in its nature. The people are part of a far better organization than it was many years ago. The quality of people has cleaned it up well. We’re trying to do the same thing — that is, put furniture in a customer’s home satisfactorily. Make a little profit on the side. Our main effort in here is to build people, train them. That has been our aim for a long time and continues to be. We work with more people now, have a greater diversity. When I came in, except for clerks behind the counter, everyone was male. Blacks were in the warehouse. Now that’s completely diversified — blacks in management, females in management. We have no problem with that because of diversity. It’s much better off than it was before. From the standpoint of the furniture that we are selling, I think I’ve mentioned that before. We’ve graded up because we moved from the central city. The central cities were dying as the retail hubs. They were moving out to shopping malls and outside areas. We left the downtown areas and moved out to shopping malls. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done in my experience: to move the business from central city locations to outlying locations. In doing that, we had to grade up our merchandise and the quality of people that we employed.
You asked about Ben Willis Sr. He did move from the central city. I knew Ben. I knew his son. He’s got an excellent location outside of Norfolk (Virginia). This is true; he’s done a great job. Ben’s not living. I hadn’t seen him for years. I don’t know where his son is.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Ben was a true gentleman.
HAVERTY: He was. Fine guy.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know Ben Jr.?
HAVERTY: I only knew Ben at the current location.
INTERVIEWER: It was an old naval hospital, deactivated. It was right on the old Virginia Beach Boulevard.
HAVERTY: It’s a great location, good location.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Ben designed the store layout himself and supervised the remodeling. It’s all cut into sections with rooms and vistas so customers wander and look. Ben Jr. is also a smart man and very well organized and methodical from his Navy experience.
HAVERTY: Young Ben had his desk rigged. At that time we didn’t have wheels on chairs. He wanted to be able to move from desk to desk, as it was on the destroyer he was on.
INTERVIEWER: That store was the first major move by a retailer out of the center city.
HAVERTY: Probably. My father started some branch stores right after the Depression, I guess, but he had one in Decatur, one in Buckhead and one in Marietta (Georgia). All of them were small stores, about 7,000 square feet. The objective in those things was to get the customer interested in furniture. Each one of them had a courtesy car, and we would take the customer down to the main store for a larger selection. It didn’t work. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t work.
INTERVIEWER: How big was your downtown Atlanta store?
HAVERTY: Well, you asked about a store downtown; we have none now. At that time it was about 60,000 or 70,000 square feet. I don’t remember. I worked there for years, but I don’t remember. Most of our stores now, we graded up in size; we continue to upgrade. We’re always looking out now for a store of about 50,000 square feet. We started outlying stores of about 10,000 square feet, then went to 15, 20, and now we’re up to about 50. That’s about what we’re looking at. We have some, a number of them, about 30 to 35. A few of them are smaller, but most of them now run 40,000 to 50,000 square feet of merchandisable space. That gives us a chance to show adequate selections in all the departments that we have without being cluttered.
INTERVIEWER: Have you any downtown stores left?
HAVERTY: We gave up all of our downtown stores over a period of about 30 years. Downtown moved to a place of business from a place of retailing, and we had to follow the retail customer. They wanted to shop in the shopping malls and outside areas, which was more convenient to their residential areas. After World War II, the towns grew. Residential areas, of course, grew farther and farther away from the old central city. Shopping downtown became an inconvenience. Retailers moved out to where the customers were. We moved with them. We gave up our downtown stores and moved out where the upgraded customer base was. We changed the customer base when we did it, changed the merchandising, and I think that attracted the customers.
INTERVIEWER: The downtown store was a magnificent building.
HAVERTY: It was a great old building. It was started before the Civil War. The ground floor of it was occupied by the Moore Marsh Hardware Store for years. They tell the story of how old man Marsh fell in love with Jenny Lind. He tried to court Jenny Lind, but he couldn’t keep up with Jenny. That broke him. True or not, I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: Did you sell the building?
HAVERTY: We sold the building. Now it’s been torn down. It’s part of Central City Park. In fact, it was to be condemned; that whole line of buildings was to be condemned and made into Central City Park. We had the building on the market when the city made the judgment that the whole area would be condemned. We quickly took it off the market so we could go through the condemnation procedure, which let us take whatever we got for it and use it without taxes on a new location. That was a very fortunate thing.