stephen h. millender; white of mebane
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
APRIL 10, 1996
RESIDENCE OF STEPHEN HENRY MILLENDER
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: When and where were you born?
MILLENDER: February 11, 1910, in Asheville, North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family then in the furniture business?
MILLENDER: The White Furniture Company was started by two of my uncles, Dave and Will White, in 1881. We were the oldest furniture manufacturer. We are known as the oldest manufacturing firm in the South. I think there was one firm started before White, but it did not last very long.
MILLENDER: The furniture industry has changed drastically at the manufacturing level and the retail level. It is not like it was when I was in business.
INTERVIEWER: So you were indeed a furniture factory. Were any of your in-laws in the furniture business?
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any family still in the furniture business?
MILLENDER: Yes, my son, Charlie. His company is Millender Furniture Company.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about that?
MILLENDER: It is not a very exciting youth. I went through the usual escapades of boys growing up. I never got into any serious trouble and went to private schools. My dad was really not a believer in the public school system at that time. He believed that you did not get a proper education. I went to private schools for four years, three different schools. One that was run by two old maid sisters; they had ten to 12 students. Then, I went to a Catholic school for one year. Then I attended another school that was run by a congregational preacher and that had about 20 to 25 boys. He was an awfully nice man. The next year I didn’t go to school. I stayed out because there was no school that I particularly wanted to go to. I thought I should go to school, so the following year I told Mother that I was going over to the high school. She said, “You better talk to your dad.” So, I told Dad, and he said to go ahead if that was what I wanted. So after my four years of private school I entered high school. That was in 1922. I graduated in 1926 and entered the University of North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: You went all four years of high school?
MILLENDER: Yes. So, I had eight years of school training. As I said, Dad was against it. I was the only one in my family that went to public school. I think one of my sisters went for two days.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major?
MILLENDER: I was a chemical engineer.
INTERVIEWER: At Chapel Hill?
MILLENDER: You see they had engineering at Chapel Hill then. They took it out later with the consolidation of the colleges and took all the engineering over to Raleigh. State College was the old agricultural and technical college.
INTERVIEWER: From that it became NC State College and then NC State University. Then there were all kinds of efforts to make it the University of North Carolina at Raleigh.
MILLENDER: Yes, but the legislator from Chapel Hill wouldn’t allow that.
INTERVIEWER: The State alumni wouldn’t allow it either.
MILLENDER: I think that State alumni were mostly for it. There were a lot of powers that be at NC State that wanted it, because they were the ones that put it forward. It was killed by Chapel Hill.
INTERVIEWER: What significant happenings at Chapel Hill affected your life later on?
MILLENDER: College life is so different from the sheltered life you have at home that you are naturally changed drastically by the environment rather than any significant facts. When a 16-year-old boy goes off, more or less for the first time, catches a train and goes to Chapel Hill (because in those days there was no other way to get there) he is thrown completely on his own and it changes you. You either grow up or you grow down.
My freshman year in Chapel Hill, I took primarily courses that I already had and I didn’t have to crack a book. I took trigonometry, chemistry and things that I had in high school. In fact, even after trigonometry (I think that was the first class they gave you in engineering school) they went into advanced algebra and I had that in high school. I had even taken a couple of Latin courses at Chapel Hill that I had in high school.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have military experience?
MILLENDER: No. My age and marital status made it unnecessary. At one time, I went down to Raleigh to enlist and I went through everything – took the physical examination, I.Q. test and so forth. They told me I was eligible for a commission in the Navy. I went home that night and hadn’t said anything to my wife about it. That night, my daughter for the first time got up and walked across the room to me and I said, “I don’t think I will enlist.” I changed my mind right then.
INTERVIEWER: How old was she?
MILLENDER: Probably about one year old.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first furniture job?
MILLENDER: Sanding furniture in the cabinet room.
INTERVIEWER: At White? Was that immediately out of Chapel Hill?
MILLENDER: No. I went to work first at the Champion Fiber Company in the chemical laboratory. In the control laboratory and then I transferred to research.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that?
MILLENDER: That was Canton, North Carolina. It is still a big corporation up there, a paper business. I had a very good friend at Champion who was head of the research department up there. He was leaving to go up to New York State to Saint Regis Paper Company as technical director and he said he wanted me to go with him. You know in those days the salaries weren’t very big. I went to work as a graduate at 40 cents an hour. I became 31. I got my first cut at 10 percent. At 32, I got my second cut at 10 percent, so I was down to 32.5 cents an hour for a full week. But believe it or not, with practically no money, you were able to run your business. I lived in a nice place and had a nice room in a private home. I ate at a nice little tea room downtown. You had good food.
INTERVIEWER: This was in Canton?
MILLENDER: Yes. I wasn’t deprived of anything. Now when you are making 32.5 cents an hour and don’t always get a full week, that doesn’t sound like enough. You can’t go to McDonald’s on that now for lunch. But that was my first job and I told my family that I was going to Saint Regis Paper Company in New York State near Syracuse. I didn’t much want to go but Johnny offered me a very good deal up there. So about that same time, my uncle, Will, who was with White Furniture Company asked me to come down there and go to work. He had said previously that he wanted me and my cousin, Steven White. Sam White was Will White’s youngest brother. Actually, there was only one other boy in the immediate family and that was my brother and he was a doctor. He followed my father’s footsteps. So Uncle Will wanted Steve White and I to go in the White Furniture Company and I didn’t want to go because I already made my own deals. But Dad said to go down and talk with Will. So when I went down there, that was in 1934, the later part of 1934 (and I was going to leave Champion January 1, 1935), I had already turned in my notice. At that time, Uncle Will was sick and he was confined to his house and primarily to his bedroom so our conversation was limited at that point.
INTERVIEWER: How old was he?
MILLENDER: He was about 75, between 75 and 80. He told me he wanted me to come down there and go to work. He said, “I want you to go in the factory and work in every department down there except for the machine room. I don’t want you to go in there; you might get hurt. But I want you to work in every department and go through there and learn something about furniture manufacturing and then we can talk about what you are going to do. I said, “What about pay?” He said you are going to get paid minimum wage, which at that time was 30 cents an hour… I think that was the legal minimum wage.
INTERVIEWER: When I went to work it was 32 cents so that sounds about right.
MILLENDER: So, I went to work and he said, “I will make up the difference from what you are losing.” I thought that was a pretty good deal. I went to work down there in January, and in March, he passed away. I never got my pay. I never did bring it up. I could have gotten it but I wasn’t going to push that. So I started all over at 30 cents an hour and went on from there. I worked in the factory for about six months.
INTERVIEWER: Who was running the company, Sam?
MILLENDER: Yes, he was the president and there were some other officers there that were not in the family. Steve White had come out of Harvard Business School. He had gone to Chapel Hill and then he went to Harvard. He had already started working for them right out of college. So I joined him there.
INTERVIEWER: So he was there before you were?
MILLENDER: A little bit, not much. I think he got through Harvard probably the June before.
INTERVIEWER: What year did you graduate from Chapel Hill?
INTERVIEWER: 1930. So you were at Champion five years?
MILLENDER: Yes, I had been there almost five years; it was four and a half years.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a boss at White that you answered to other than Will?
MILLENDER: Not Will, it was Sam, because Will was never active when I was there. After I got out of the factory, we messed around, Steve White and me, trying to figure out how the business was run and what we could do to improve it. We made certain changes. We more or less had free run. At that time Don VanNoppen was sales manager at White Furniture Company. Don got hired away by Drexel. So when he left, I went to Uncle Sam and I said, “Look, I want to get his job.” In the meantime, I had been doing some traveling for White down through Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. I think that was in the middle of 1936. When I applied for the job, my Uncle Sam said, “OK, we will try you.” I had not a great deal of experience in the furniture business at that time, but I had been attending the Markets. In fact, the second day I went to White Furniture Company, I went to my first Market in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: So you did take over the sales manager’s job?
INTERVIEWER: How successful was that?
MILLENDER: You see we were in the Depression years during that time and the furniture business was not that good. But I will say this, 1937 was the first profitable year we had in a few years. I can’t take the credit. Things were beginning to pick up. The United States had started gearing up for the war effort, and as a result, employment and prosperity had picked up due to the economy which improved drastically as time went on, up until when the United States actually got in the war; by that time the economy was booming. There were a lot of restrictions on furniture manufacturing.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the industry at that time.
MILLENDER: The industry at that time was restricted by the war effort. Lumber was sold on a rationing process. You had to get permission to buy lumber. Labor was very difficult because all the young men, a lot of the young men, were drafted. Although at the beginning of the war they did not take married people. They never drafted anybody that was married until later on and very few of them got in combat. Most of the married men either got married afterwards or had enlisted. But during that period of war, we were fortunate enough to run not only full time but overtime on war materials or working for the government.
INTERVIEWER: What were you making?
MILLENDER: We made all kinds of things – furniture that they needed for various purposes. The biggest contract we ever got was for bunk beds. I’ve forgotten how many thousands of those things we got a contract for. We manufactured those for the soldiers. I think our contract was for something like 250,000, my memory might be unclear on that but it was a bunch of them. We set up definite assembly lines just to make those beds. They went through there fast.
One thing we made that was rather interesting was lockers for that big aircraft deal in Marietta, Georgia. The funny thing was I had to go down there to see what was going on. I was supposed to see Mr. – I have forgotten the gentleman’s name I was supposed to contact. I asked somebody where his office was and they told me, so I walked in. I got in there and told his secretary I wanted to see him. He came out, he looked at me and said, “How did you get in here?” I said, “I walked in.” He said, “Somebody is going to catch hell because nobody is supposed to be in here without a big pass. Heads are going to roll around here.” I walked right in. Nobody approached me or tried to stop me.
That was a big contract, but all together we were able at the same time to make a certain amount of furniture for consumption. Not a great deal, of course, but that was very carefully rationed out to our customers.
INTERVIEWER: Who did you work with in the industry not in the military side but in retail furniture?
MILLENDER: They varied from time to time. The retail business is so different from what it is now. Every town had a good outstanding furniture store in it. Greensboro had Morrison-Neese. Richmond had Sid & Huntley. Norfolk had Willis Furniture Company, just to name a few. We worked with that type of store primarily. The department stores were beginning to do volume, but they were doing only cheaper more commercial goods than we made. We always made top quality stuff. Price-wise, it was above the average like Bassett, Broyhill or any of those factories. We were above them. Even Drexel, we were above Drexel. Drexel at that time was coming up. They were bigger volume but they started out originally on rather cheap furniture. Then they started building up the quality. It got pretty good after a number of years. I think Burt Tuckley had a lot to do with that. I knew Burt when he was a salesman on the road in Boston, up in New England. He was a very good friend of our salesman and that is how I got to know him as a representative.
INTERVIEWER: There wasn’t a lot of bargaining for materials.
MILLENDER: A lot of that going on.
INTERVIEWER: What was your distribution area?
MILLENDER: All over the United States. All together by rail. There was no other way to ship. Trucks came later. They were beginning. I don’t know when we started shipping a lot by truck. But we would ship, they had what they called LCL freight and we would load cars at the factory and they would go to the breakpoint. Up here at Spencer, I think that is where they went. They would take it out, then put it in cars going to the West Coast, New Orleans, New York, New England, or wherever. Then they would break it up again. Our volume starting increasing. We started making a lot of our own pull cars, especially to the West Coast. In fact, we did that until the time I left. We were shipping pull cars to a distributor in California because trucks were still a pretty long haul.
INTERVIEWER: I think most of them or many of them now go by piggyback.
MILLENDER: Yes, that came along later too. That is when their trucks started doing the business out there. Then they could get off their flat car in California and hook up to a tractor and start delivering.
INTERVIEWER: I think my perception is that most of the North Carolina companies didn’t have national distribution. I believe you were one of the very first.
MILLENDER: All the big ones did. Drexel did, Bassett did, Bernhardt, Lane. Yes, they all had national distribution. In other words, without national distribution there would have been no point in showing in Chicago. You see, all those boys showed in Chicago. . . Thomasville, Lexington.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first Market you attended?
MILLENDER: The first Market I attended was the second day I went to White Furniture Company. Don VanNoppen, who was then sales manager, took me to High Point.
INTERVIEWER: Can you give us a date?
MILLENDER: January 1935.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us in detail what it was like.
MILLENDER: We had a space on the sixth floor. I remember the floor. There were customers wandering around. Then it (High Point) was a regional Market, pure and simply. Chicago was the big boy so the traffic was not heavy. I hung around and watched. We had salesmen there from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, maybe Florida, that was probably it. They introduced me to several customers. I wandered around the building to see what it was all about. I walked down one hall and saw an old friend from Chapel Hill, L.P. Best. L.P. and I had been pretty good friends in Chapel Hill, so I spoke to him and I said, “L.P., what in the world are you doing here?” He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I am going to work for White Furniture Company.” He said, “Hell, I live in Mebane. I work for Mebane Company.” Mebane Royal was what it was then.
INTERVIEWER: So, did you travel in Alabama, Mississippi as a result of this Market?
MILLENDER: I started traveling with White later in 1935. I would leave Mebane and go on up to Asheville and stop over there, and then I would go through Tennessee. I would go south to Louisiana and come back up the other way and come back up to Mebane and stay a week.
INTERVIEWER: How long did it take for you to make a round?
MILLENDER: It took a long time, damn near a month.
INTERVIEWER: You drove all that way?
MILLENDER: Oh, yes. I drove it and then I stayed around for a while, and then started out again. I was selling only White. Salesmen in those days had several lines. I was an exclusive White salesman and it helped. Later on everybody said they had to have exclusive salesmen.
INTERVIEWER: What about Chicago?
MILLENDER: The first Market I went to in Chicago, I imagine, was in July 1935. By that time I had been down at White for about six months, but they wanted to send me up to Chicago to see what was happening up there. That was a different world from the High Point Market in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you show in Chicago?
MILLENDER: The Merchandise Mart.
INTERVIEWER: They had what, two floors?
MILLENDER: Two floors to hold the furniture, really one floor to hold the furniture. They had home furnishings on the other floor. The 16th floor, if I remember correctly, was the furniture floor. The only factories over there were sort of the upscale factories.
INTERVIEWER: Drexel was over there, were they not?
MILLENDER: Not then.
INTERVIEWER: But you never went to a Grand Rapids Market?
MILLENDER: They (Drexel) went to Grand Rapids. White showed in Grand Rapids for a long time. Then Chicago starting going up and so White moved their display to Chicago at the Merchandise Mart. Now later on I moved to Furniture Mart and then moved back to the Merchandise Mart. Yes we moved over to the Furniture Mart and showed over there for a number of years because they were getting a lot more traffic than the Merchandise Mart.
INTERVIEWER: John Christian (Bernhardt) showed first in Grand Rapids.
MILLENDER: We did, too.
INTERVIEWER: Then they moved and showed in an old warehouse near the railroad station in Chicago.
MILLENDER: That was no way to show furniture, I will tell you that.
INTERVIEWER: Then they went into the Merchandise Mart when it started showing furniture. As soon as they could get a decent showroom they got one.
MILLENDER: Old Mr. Kennedy owned the Merchandise Mart.
INTERVIEWER: Well, there’ve been a lot of changes in the Markets since those days, size if nothing else.
MILLENDER: They are not any bigger, just more concentrated now. You see in those days they had Markets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Jamestown (New York), Grand Rapids, Chicago and High Point. When you start talking about Markets, Markets have contracted and now exist in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: Everything is there.
MILLENDER: At the proper time I want to tell what started all of it.
INTERVIEWER: The High Point Market?
MILLENDER: At High Point when it really started becoming a Market other than a localized issue, that is an interesting and long subject. Chicago felt that they could not possibly lose the Market. They thought they were all powerful. When we first went to Chicago, I think I was president of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association and Don was an officer (maybe he was president and I was vice president, I don’t know). We went representing the furniture industry to see if we could get those Market dates changed. You see we were going up there and spending every New Years and Fourth of July when the hotels wanted us because that was two of the dull periods they had during the year.
So it was our goal to see if we couldn’t get the Markets changed. January and July was all right but we wanted them later. We didn’t want them to conflict with the two holidays at home. In fact, it almost messed up Christmas because you had to get up there early.
INTERVIEWER: It took a day to get there.
MILLENDER: Or longer. It took me about 29 hours. I could get on a Pullman and go all the way to Cincinnati (through Winston-Salem) and be there the next morning. I’d leave Mebane about 11:00 and be in Cincinnati the next morning. Then I’d get on another train and go into Chicago. But our idea was to try to get those dates changed. The tourist bureau wouldn’t move.
INTERVIEWER: You had to stay for two weeks, my daddy used to say.
MILLENDER: Then at the April and October Markets you stayed a week. I was spending six weeks a year in Chicago. I would not stay until the end of the Market, but I would have to get up there before the Market. So I was spending a good six weeks in Chicago. The friction between management up there and the southern manufacturers grew.
INTERVIEWER: What year was this, Steve?
MILLENDER: Probably in the early ’50s. I can’t be too sure on dates because you know so many things go together after this length of time. But High Point had July and January and then the big department stores started coming south before the Chicago Markets to view samples and try to get in ahead of each other, and see what was going on and to some extent, to make commitments. They were used to seeing the full thing in Chicago. So that Premarket started growing and it wasn’t long before that Premarket was where one hell of a lot of business was done. In fact, a lot of our salesmen would come down here and go to High Point which was central and drive miles to Mebane. To drive them back took a long time. Then they had to go to Drexel and Thomasville because the factories were giving them transportation. It wasn’t long before the manufacturers said, “We’ve got to have a space in High Point. We will go up there and show our sketches and what samples we have.” So pretty soon the Market started opening up in High Point. Drexel didn’t show there. They were pretty big by that time – in fact they were very big – and others didn’t show there either.
That grew pretty soon. It was quite a Market. Then the movement was afoot to eliminate the spring Market in Chicago. I called a meeting with southern manufacturers.
I talked to a few people. At every directors meeting of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association there were conversations about Markets, as you know. In fact, that was the main topic of conversation. The Market situation had gotten out of hand. We were going to four Markets in High Point a year and four in Chicago and going to Dallas, New York…it had just gotten completely out of hand and expensive, too. Not only the time, but the expense. So after discussing this with some of my friends in the industry I wrote to who I thought were the leaders in the case goods industry and called a meeting. There was only one person outside of case goods that I asked. It was Henry Foscue. There were Bill Bassett, Morgan Simmons, Hamp Powell from The Lane Company.
Those three were from Virginia, there might have been Hooker. Then we had Kent Coffee, Drexel, Bernhardt and others, I guess Henredon. Yes, Henredon was coming along then. Don VanNoppen was the Don at Henredon. Ralph Edwards and Henry Wilson were all the Drexel people.
This meeting was at the Emerywood Country Club in High Point for lunch, which I paid for. Everybody came except one person and that was Sumter Cabinet Company, he was always sort of a maverick. But Sumter was quite big. At that meeting the Market Association of the South was formed. The officers were pretty much big shots in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Still are.
MILLENDER: I don’t know how active that organization is now.
INTERVIEWER: They basically call the shots on the Market.
MILLENDER: They set the dates. But anyhow that’s how it started at Emerywood Country Club and later on, not long after that, they got together and decided that they would not show in April in Chicago and not send any samples up there. They were going to show them down here. Everybody except my friend from Sumter Cabinet. So he came out retailing that Sumter would show their new line in Chicago as usual. Not another southern furniture manufacturer went up there. Their spaces were closed. I think in light of their contracts they had to open them, under the leases but they did not have any new furniture there and they didn’t have anybody in attendance. Our friend from Sumter went up there. I think those Markets opened on a Thursday. By the weekend, he got a truck and his samples, and came back to High Point. Monday morning he was opening in High Point. That is really when that Market started and that was the end of the spring and fall Markets. I think they (Chicago) tried to have a few more but they had the casual market, things of that kind, in the spring and fall for some time. They were trying to get back in the furniture business but it didn’t work. That was the beginning and the end of Chicago I would say way up in the ’70s.
Winter and summer Markets we had moved back to the Merchandise Mart. We showed up there January and July after I quit going. I didn’t think it was important enough to go. Our sales manager and some salesmen would go up there. The last few Markets, I didn’t even go to the Chicago Market. It was the first one I missed since 1935.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the beginning of White Furniture, way back to the 1880s.
MILLENDER: That is a rather interesting story. Will and Dave White were struggling youngsters in Mebane. They had gone to the University of North Carolina. They came back and decided they were going to get in the furniture business. So they bought a little wood and a saw and a few other things. They started with about $300; that was all the money they had. And frankly I don’t know how they did it. But they were successful. They started making a certain type of furniture, easy to make and so forth because they lacked the money for machinery. But they made it out of good materials and tried to be of good quality, and they sold it. They grew from then on with a few setbacks due to the Depression until 1984 when it was sold out.
But they started in 1881 and Uncle Dave was killed in an automobile accident in 1916. Uncle Will remained the head of the White Furniture Company until his health caught up with him in about 1934.
INTERVIEWER: That is when you came in.
MILLENDER: That is when I came in. Uncle Sam who is a good year younger than Will – it was a large family – was the youngest. Dave was the oldest and Sam was the youngest of about six children so there was quite a bit of difference. Dave and Will sent Sam off to Carolina and when he came back they put him in the business. When Uncle Will died, Uncle Sam was made the president shortly after I got there in March. I came in January.
INTERVIEWER: How long was he president?
MILLENDER: He was president until his death. He was sick a long time in a nursing home for several years before he died. He was president in name but he was really out before that.
INTERVIEWER: The growth of White, how has it been affected by labor?
MILLENDER: We had excellent labor. We were the dominant employer in a small town, which drew its employees from the area. They came and they stayed. A lot of them, when they got out of high school, came to work at 17 or 18 years old and worked there until they died. They were craftsmen, trained properly. Labor had a very big effect on the company because it was stable. You didn’t have turnover and there was loyalty. The company was always good to them and they were good to the company. It worked both ways. That lasted until right on up to the end. We did have our ups and downs when the union tried to come in.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about that.
MILLENDER: The AFL-CIO came in there and started raising cane.
INTERVIEWER: What year?
MILLENDER: I would say it was in the ’60s. They finally had an election and won. So we had to bargain with them. We never signed a contract, we bargained. Things never got in any serious kind of conflict like unrest and bad feelings. Finally a group of really good loyal employees got up a petition of decertification and said they didn’t want any part of a union. They got a majority of employees to sign it and turned it over to the labor board. The labor board had another election and I think it was about 9 to 1. So our labor union problem did not last, I guess, about a year to a year and a half. Other than that, the labor situation was always serene, very amicable and very adequate. We paid them above average. We gave them bonuses and when we made money, they got it. They got a big hunk of it. Back in those days some of them would get about $400 or $500 in their check at Christmastime based on seniority and what they were making. They liked it.
INTERVIEWER: That then was very early profit-sharing.
MILLENDER: Oh, yes, it was profit-sharing.
INTERVIEWER: Nobody had it back in those days.
MILLENDER: We did. As I said, they liked it very much. One time they wanted a raise. Some of the people that were grumbling thought they ought to get a raise. So we said, “Get a committee and we will talk to you about it.” They came in with about three or four and I sat down with them. I said, “Look, you know you get a Christmas bonus. It is an end-of-the-year bonus but we give it out at Christmas. When you figure your wages and your bonus you are way above the average furniture worker. Would you want to forgo the Christmas bonus and put it in a raise where you get it every week?” They said, “Yes.” So, we gave them a rather substantial wage increase and at the end of the year we still gave them something, but that wage increase was taken into consideration. They still got a bonus but it was not what it had been. I thought they would go the other way. I thought they liked that big hunk of money coming right at Christmastime. I don’t know how I would have voted on that. I might have voted with them and had it every week because it was stated that you were going to get that much. The bonus was intangible.
INTERVIEWER: What about style and design, how did they affect the growth of White?
MILLENDER: They are the growth of White. That is a foundation of any furniture manufacturer. That is the game.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, but you were in it way ahead of most people.
MILLENDER: Everybody had designs. They all had professional designers. When Bassett made those great big borax beds with posts, all that was done by designers. They had to.
The designer was the engineer. It was supposed to be an artistic engineer. They didn’t call themselves engineers but they had to know furniture manufacturing, what the machines would do…that is, if the designers were any good. I know we had one that didn’t know what a machine would do; you couldn’t make his furniture. He could draw a beautiful picture but nobody could make it. So we didn’t stay with him very long. But furniture design is the most important factor in the furniture business, that and price have always been important.
INTERVIEWER: It goes together to become merchandise. So you mentioned that the two brothers started off just putting something together which obviously was not any designer effort.
MILLENDER: Oh, no.
INTERVIEWER: When did it first come in, because my perception of White is you were doing what was then called almost period reproductions? Stuff that was really 18th century by intention before almost anybody else was. Hickory Chair might have been doing it.
MILLENDER: No, Hickory Chair wasn’t even in the case goods business then. Hickory Chair was Buzz Fennell. We used to buy a lot of chairs from Buzz because we never made our own chairs. Buzz was our biggest supplier. When Lane bought them, Hamp came down to see me. He said, “I notice you have been giving Hickory Chair Company a lot of business.” It was running into the millions of dollars. I told him, “Yes.” He said, “We don’t want to upset this apple cart.” I said: “Hamp, that is going to be entirely up to you. I know when anyone buys a plant, they are going to make changes. We are not going to cut you off but let’s just work together and see how we can get along.” Which we did for a number of years and it was a gradual thing when we got out.
INTERVIEWER: Who did you go to then?
MILLENDER: Murphy over in Thomasville, Commercial Carving. Matt Rothrock was a genius. He was a mechanical genius with no background. He did it all himself. He didn’t invent the multiple spindle carver but he built one himself in his own shop that had 24 spindles. Nobody ever had one over eight before because they couldn’t make it properly. He was making carvings for half the price that anyone could do it.
INTERVIEWER: What about the influence of advertising?
MILLENDER: We started advertising back before I went with the factory. Gene Harlow and Gloria Swanson were in our ads. I’ve got some of those old ads. I wish I knew were they were. I would like to show them to you. During the Depression, all of that national advertising was stopped. We got back into national advertising probably in the early ’50s, maybe a little before, on a small scale and we annually increased our advertising budget. We were not able to spend the money that some of the companies spent. By that time Drexel had gotten into it on a heavy basis. When Henredon came along they got into it on a very heavy basis. It wasn’t long before a lot of furniture manufacturers did, but we were one of the very first to do any national advertising. In fact, I know we were the first in the South to do anything. Baker was doing advertising before that and some of those Grand Rapids factories were running small ads in House Beautiful and some of the shelter magazines.
INTERVIEWER: Did that result in any surge of business?
MILLENDER: It had to be gradual. You see advertising, and for furniture, it is not a spontaneous purchase. It is planned. We made a survey one time of our advertising and the attitude of the customer towards the advertising. We found out – this was a very interesting thing that I don’t know if anybody else ever did or not – that the inception of the idea to buy a certain piece of White to the actual transaction was almost a year. That is why I say that advertising is not immediately effective. It has got to be over a long pull and it is a gradual pull. Now some people will see an ad in a magazine and order it.
INTERVIEWER: But not in your price category.
MILLENDER: Yes, they are doing it right now. Some catalog houses show expensive furniture and people buy it right out of a catalog, site unseen. Now, I wouldn’t, and not many of them do. As a result High Point has got some rather major furniture outlets - Furnitureland South, Boyles and Young’s.
You know who the biggest furniture company is in size? Furnitureland South. They are talking about putting an extra 200,000 feet on that thing. Gosh, that is an absolutely fabulous business.
INTERVIEWER: The biggest furniture store in the United States.
MILLENDER: In the world.
INTERVIEWER: Probably in the world.
MILLENDER: It is definitely the biggest.
INTERVIEWER: What jobs have you held in furniture companies?
MILLENDER: The only company that I was ever with was White. When I left there, I was chairman of the board. When I started, I was a sander in the finishing cabinets. The only reason I was promoted like that was because I was picked to be promoted like that. The boss’ son always seemed to be very smart and got promotions, you know that stuff. That was my story. I was picked to move up.
So now we are talking about the High Point Market. I was a part of the High Point Market (Southern Furniture Market Exposition Building) for many, many years. In fact when I left them in 1996, I had been a director or connected with it as an officer of the company for 40 odd years. I think I went there as a director in 1953, that was 43 years ago. Everything from the director up to chairman of the board and president. So I have had a great interest in the High Point Market. When I went there it was the main building and right before I went there they were having a big discussion about whether they should add that tower up there because it would be too much space. Some of the directors were against it. I don’t know who was president then but anyway they got it through and put that tower up there. All the rest of the additions were put on during my regime.
It is about six million square feet now, isn’t it? It goes back to the changes that have taken place. In fact, a great number of foreign furniture buyers have come to this Market. I don’t know about the last Market, but the one before that we had somebody from Bosnia. Everybody assumes that country is nothing but ruins, but there was somebody over there buying furniture in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: Yugoslavia is big in furniture production.
MILLENDER: Oh, yes, at one time. You could get cheaper parts from them than anybody in the world. Now, the cheapest parts come from Indonesia.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, but what they have is beechwood. I don’t know anybody that has been successful using beechwood.
MILLENDER: You haven’t got much when you have it finished.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in production?
MILLENDER: The biggest change taking place is the importation of furniture. There are practically no chairs manufactured in the United States now.
INTERVIEWER: You mean dining.
MILLENDER: Dining room chairs. Such a big percentage are imported. In fact, I would say 90-odd percent are imported. The few that are made over here are so expensive, nobody can buy them. Not only the chairs, but furniture parts started primarily in Taiwan. It started down in Mexico and then it got over in Taiwan and now it has got into Red China.
INTERVIEWER: Carter Fox says we don’t import furniture, we import labor.
MILLENDER: That’s a tremendous change from the point of view of the question that you asked me. That is the biggest change, and a lot of that stuff is junk.
INTERVIEWER: Is it possible to get junk and also to get quality from different places?
MILLENDER: The quality is very limited. There are few places you can get it. You can get quality if you are big enough to set up your own situation whether it be in Taiwan, Red China or Mexico. The Philippines, you have got to include them, but they are having so many political problems. The biggest change is the production of furniture in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: What about in purchasing?
MILLENDER: That goes right into your last question. Your purchases there are made offshore. Now finishing materials are still bought locally. A lot of things are bought locally.
INTERVIEWER: What about lumber?
MILLENDER: Most of your lumber, as far as I know, is still bought locally. I know it was when I got out of it. All of our lumber was bought locally except for mahogany. Mahogany was always imported.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Cherry comes from where, Ohio or Indiana?
MILLENDER: Western Pennsylvania, in that section up there. That is your best cherry.
INTERVIEWER: And what little walnut is left.
MILLENDER: You said it right when you said little. Walnut is so expensive. There is still some around, but walnut trees don’t seem to grow very fast. It has got to get up to around 60 years before it has any commercial value, which is a long time.
INTERVIEWER: What about the use of computers in purchasing? Computers have absolutely revolutionized the purchasing of furniture at retail.
MILLENDER: The same thing is true at wholesale, although I really can’t speak on that. You see the computers as they are known today were not in existence when I left the furniture industry. I do not know anything about computers. When we got our first computer at the White Furniture Company, I said: “I am not going to fool with the computers. I will tell you people what I want; you get it out of the computer and hand it to me on a piece of paper.” That is what I know about computers.
INTERVIEWER: I sold furniture for 12 years and it was feast or famine. You would have good times and the dealers would buy everything in sight and then when retail business fell off they quit buying because their warehouse was plum full of stuff and it wasn’t moving.
MILLENDER: It is still that way. My good friend, Hamp Powell, said he had been in the furniture business for 40 years and there is only one year during the 40 that production and sales were balanced. It was either feast or famine. As soon as the furniture business gets real good, the manufacturers start getting behind a little further. For the retailers, when their business is good they can’t do business without goods. If they don’t buy it now, you (the consumer) are not going to get it. So it is still that way but the computers will tell them now. But they’ve got to tell them the same thing because that is just a fact of life. Supply and demand is what makes everything work.
INTERVIEWER: What about the whole industry?
MILLENDER: The change has been fantastic. I remember way back after I had become sales manager of White Furniture Company and had been there a long time, some old papers turned up and one of them was a list of furniture dealers compiled by Don VanNoppen when he was sales manager. Of the accounts in North and South Carolina, if I remember correctly, there were 225. Every little town had a good furniture store.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to say you probably don’t have 200 stores in the two states.
MILLENDER: You don’t have 200 stores that will carry anything like White. You will have some furniture stores that carry a bunch of junk. Mebane had a good furniture store – they only had one – but they would carry White. Grime & McClure had a very nice furniture store. Burlington had two or three that would carry good furniture. Greensboro had Morrison-Neese. Now you have Furnitureland South, Boyles and Rhodes. You have some in Charlotte. You have some old boys in Hickory and that section, but they are more or less off shoots of your Boyles, etc.
INTERVIEWER: Boyles is a big store.
MILLENDER: Oh, yes, they have three big stores. But you see that didn’t exist even when I left. I mean Furnitureland South had come into being but it was just in their original building. We sold Furnitureland South a little bit of stuff when they were down on Main Street, but Young’s was our biggest account because they had the highest class stuff.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in finance?
MILLENDER: There again, I think your changes have been primarily since I left. You see before then, as I see the picture, you tried to make money and plow your money back in the factory and pay your bills and continue to increase your volume. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the problem. Money is no problem. Money is abundant, by the millions if you want it. So finances changed completely. For instance, this last sale up at Masco was a billion dollars. That to me is fantastic.
I think one of the worst buys in the world was when they bought Henredon. They paid them more damn money than they could ever get out of it. How so-called sensible people can pull a boo-boo like that I can’t understand.
INTERVIEWER: What about changes in management?
MILLENDER: The biggest change in management is when these other companies started buying the furniture factories. Let’s just take for example, what is left in North Carolina that is under the same type of management as it was many years ago Century, Bernhardt they are still owned by the same people. I am running out of names fast. If you go to the small ones you can probably get more than that. But that is where management has changed. That is why the whole furniture business changed so drastically, and that is why the quality of furniture has been shot.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Remember when Champion Paper, U.S. Plywood got into Drexel and they didn’t do anything good for the management for Drexel.
MILLENDER: None of the big corporations, like Henredon – it was a good manufacturer before they sold out. I don’t know if you have looked at any of this furniture around. I mean you know quality when you see it. Go look at a piece of Henredon or a piece of Drexel or a piece of White.
INTERVIEWER: Take your drawer out and rub your hand around it.
MILLENDER: You will get splinters.
INTERVIEWER: Look what Burlington did for instance for Globe and National Upholstery.
MILLENDER: You see they come in there and they don’t know a thing in the world about the furniture business and they say, “Look those people are running this thing like an old one-horse wagon, and we can go in there with our ideas and our management and we can make a killing.” They came in and they made a killing for a while. Pretty soon most of them were losing money on it.
INTERVIEWER: Who has, in one way or another, helped you in your career in the furniture industry?
MILLENDER: The cooperation that I received through the years from my good competitors enabled a lot of things to happen. One time there was going to be a big move from the furniture building in Chicago to the Merchandise Mart. All the southern manufacturers were going to move at one time and it was just about a closed deal. The management of Merchandise Mart for some reason and something in our lease (which was a small segment) was such that they said they would not let that lease go. Bill Bassett said, “This is all or nothing,” and got up and walked out. Now he was a pretty powerful man.
I will tell you another one who was a lot younger was Tom A. Finch. He didn’t mind speaking his mind. He was a smart young man. His life was cut off very prematurely. He was a nice young man. I knew his daddy and I knew Tom A. very well. We were good friends with his wife. It was very sad when he got so sick. Those last few years were not very pleasant for him.
I talked to all those people. You see I was connected with the association for so long. I went to all the meetings and became president of the association and before you are president you are vice president. In other words you have three years in there. I was very friendly with all the people in the industry, the type of people that went to the association meetings. We were all good friends. I got an invitation the other day from Hooker Furniture Company for a big celebration for Clyde’s 50th year. I used to play golf with his daddy. But Clyde and I were good friends and I knew his wife, Kitty Sue, Tom Stanley and Ruth, and Hamp Powell.
But as I say that association was as good an association as anybody could possibly have had. Everybody was highly competitive. They would cut each other’s throat if you tried to copy their merchandise, but go to these meetings and everybody would think they were long-lost brothers. They were good friends. It was a reflection on the character of the people involved.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any way that White Furniture Company was supported by other people in the industry? I guess there is always a certain amount of swapping of materials and things.
MILLENDER: Very little. You see, there were a lot of manufacturers that wouldn’t even let you in the showroom or factory. I know we used to let people come through our factory. We were pretty open. I have been to some of the big factories, but there were a lot of them that wouldn’t let you get beyond the door. That was taboo.
INTERVIEWER: In and around High Point, we upholstery people were always borrowing fabric from each other and stuff like that.
MILLENDER: We were in the upholstery business for about five or six years when we bought that plant in Hillsborough; that was a cheap upholstery chair plant. We spruced that line up to make it comparable to ours to make occasional chairs and things of that kind. We got into the big sofa and chairs business and I finally decided that case goods was a better business than upholstery. So we took that Hillsborough plant and swapped it into a woodworking plant and dropped our upholstery.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your business strategies.
MILLENDER: In my opinion that question is not answerable. Your business strategy changes daily with conditions. If you don’t, you are going to end up behind the eight ball. You have got to change your strategy right along as you go. Your strategy one year can be almost diametrically opposed another. If you don’t you are going to be a very bad manager.
INTERVIEWER: What about techniques of management?
MILLENDER: I think that is a matter of personality primarily. I never did go to any of those seminars that taught management procedures. We never had anybody in our corporation that had been to one that told you how to hire people, fire people and how to compensate people and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your central personal goal in the furniture business?
MILLENDER: To make the best furniture possible. I will show you a piece of furniture in a few minutes that proves that we have achieved that goal. I don’t want to appear conceited, but I will say I strived for that goal.
INTERVIEWER: Like what?
MILLENDER: Henkel Harris they made good stuff. Kittinger made good stuff. Baker I thought was always overrated. At one time they were the so-called goal for everybody. It was nice, finished and you couldn’t find fault with it, but it wasn’t much better than some other lines that the price indicated. They always got a very high price and evidently were better merchandisers than anybody else.
You know some people will buy things because of the high price. Not many. We were always striving to make the best designs, the best furniture at the best value. In other words, that was the whole reason to be there.
INTERVIEWER: How does this personal goal square with your company’s goal?
MILLENDER: Coincides exactly.
INTERVIEWER: John Bernhardt says his basic philosophy is to keep his people working.
MILLENDER: That is a very good philosophy. We did that. There is only one time in my 50 years that we ever laid off anybody. That was temporarily during one of those deep recessions. We just could not make any more furniture and we let about 100 men go, maybe more than that, for a month or so.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your relationship with your suppliers.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your biggest supplier?
MILLENDER: In dollars and cents I imagine our biggest suppliers were chair manufacturers: Hickory, Commercial Carving and Statesville Chair. Commercial Carving because by that time we were making a lot of carved stuff and they were able to do that work along with their chairs. Have you ever been in that factory by any chance? Boy, those carving machines in there are something.
INTERVIEWER: What about finishing materials or lumber?
MILLENDER: You did not have one or two sources for lumber. Lumber salesmen are just like furniture salesmen, calling on us all the time for their particular lumber. We used so many varieties - mahogany from one place, walnut from someplace else, cherry, gum and poplar and so forth from other people. Suppliers changed from time to time because of delivery, price and your own needs. There would be times when we were buying a big quantity of mahogany for solid mahogany bedroom and dining room pieces. Then we would drop a big group of solid mahogany and turn it into veneer, and supply changed immediately. Then you would go to the veneer man rather than the lumber man.
INTERVIEWER: What about finishing materials?
MILLENDER: We bought most of our finishing materials from the same source and changed sources once or twice during 50 years. DuPont was our big supplier for top coats for many, many years. In fact, that is a rather interesting story. The first lacquer used for furniture was developed by DuPont Company: DuPont Duco Lacquer was first used by the White Furniture Company. In fact, they used us to test it. We ended up using Duco Lacquer until they quit making it. When White Furniture Company burned down in 1923, they had one hell of a good fire, I understand. It was Mr. Will White’s idea to build back as promptly as possible and DuPont’s executives heard about it and sent their engineering staff down to design a new factory. All granite. That goes to your previous question of outside influence helping.
INTERVIEWER: Was the use of lacquer in furniture at all coincident with the use of lacquer in automobiles?
MILLENDER: I don’t know which came first. The lacquer used on furniture, I don’t think was the same lacquer used on automobiles. The automobile lacquer has color in it. We never put color in it. Our color was put in on base coats and then top coated with two coats of lacquer.
INTERVIEWER: How about personal relations with your customers? You mentioned Ben Willis and a number of people who were very big.
MILLENDER: Our personal relationships with customers were good, bad and indifferent. We were one of the big suppliers of Willis and they were one of our big outlets. We were very close. Ben would come down to the factory and he stayed at my house as his sons did later. We were very close to Morrison. I used to go up there and we would sit around and talk. Go to Sid & Huntley in Richmond, a number of stores like that. Later on our association with Macy’s was extremely close. Macy’s, being one of the biggest outfits in the country, they were pretty nice to get close to. Carl Brock, when he was a buyer up there, was a very close personal friend of mine. Carl used to come down to Mebane and come out to my house for dinner. I would take him back to High Point or what not. Other stores like Jordan Marsh in Boston and some of the showrooms in New York were good friends of ours. When old Whitaker was a buyer up there we used to have a lot of furniture up at Jordan Marsh. In fact, Whit’s son sold furniture for us for a number of years. I still get Christmas cards from him. Payne’s was a good customer of ours.
INTERVIEWER: What were your greatest problems with your customers?
MILLENDER: We didn’t have any serious problems with our customers. There were always those friends that wouldn’t pay their bills. You would go along with them and worry them to death. I remember there was a little account down in Brunswick, Georgia, that had a five rating from the time I first heard of them until the time I last heard of them, and that went on for years. We wouldn’t ship them anything else until they paid their bill and they would finally pay it. That was no problem; we knew them. We knew they were going to pay it sooner or later. They had been in business for 20 years. How you can stay in business like that I don’t know because you can’t get merchandise when you want it. But that man was a nice fellow, honest as the day is long. I can’t consider that a problem. That was just part of doing business.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have any problems with suppliers?
MILLENDER: Nothing except for just usual problems. I mean every once in a while you would get something that was not right. Most people adjusted it in a very equitable and prompt manner. Sometimes you would get mad at somebody and wouldn’t do business with them anymore.
I never did get into the buying end of the business. Most of our suppliers were long standing, loyal to us and we were loyal to them. Just as our furniture accounts were the same way.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your involvement with industry associations, I guess there’s really only one.
MILLENDER: There was only one that suited me: the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association in which I became president. I enjoyed that relationship as much as anything that has ever happened because of the people involved. Jim Ryan had a wonderful faculty for knowing what was necessary and how to get it. He got confidential information and it was kept confidential. He was able to get that and he would say, “Look, if there is anything you want, let me know.” He would put it on his agenda and see to it that information was compiled in a way, so that it was understandable and useful. That was a heck of a fine organization.
INTERVIEWER: Right. What was your greatest benefit from your activity in SFMA?
MILLENDER: Social. We got a lot of benefits and information which was beneficial to operating our business. The social end of it was important to me. The people that didn’t take part in the association meetings missed an awful lot. There were a lot of them that didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: If you wanted to know something, you would talk to somebody and he would give you the answer?
MILLENDER: Oh, absolutely. You would not ask for information that would in any way be considered confidential. You did it in a way you could reciprocate. I went up to Drexel one time on some wage information and took all of my information. “I said look, here is what we’ve got. I would like to see what you have because it is important to all of us.” Now things like that went on. People would not divulge anything but when it was done, it was done on a friendship basis rather than on a business basis.
INTERVIEWER: Social, as you say, is the biggest benefit of the association.
MILLENDER: I am not going to argue with you on that. In fact, that was my answer when you asked me.
INTERVIEWER: What other business enterprises or joint ventures have you been part of?
MILLENDER: I was a partner in another furniture business, Craftique. L.P. Best and I started that together. I ran Craftique the whole time he was in the service. Then he came back and we started making some solid mahogany furniture and L.P. and I were partners in that. Later on it started growing and he said he would like to have it. That is about the only argument we ever had. He wanted to pay me more than I wanted to take. That was the kind of guy he was. But Craftique
INTERVIEWER: Describe how the industry changed over the years you have been active in manufacturing in the marketplace and in your own business.
MILLENDER: I think we have covered it pretty well, but to sum it up, the business at the manufacturing level has changed drastically in the purchase of individual family-owned businesses that had integrity and pride behind them. Also, the imports and the change in general conditions. But the importation and outside management have been the big factors in the change of the manufacturing of furniture.
INTERVIEWER: How long have we been using conveyers? Is that long enough to have been any kind of advancement?
MILLENDER: It was an advancement but it didn’t revolutionize anything. It just speeded up production to a certain extent. We had conveyers that went through our finishing room and we started putting them in the drying rooms and put them in the warehouse. We never had them in the cabinet room or the machine room. Your good factory didn’t do a hell of a lot of conveying. We had a finishing room conveyer, but the finishing room conveyer was to protect the furniture. You put it on the conveyer and it ran at a very slow rate where they had ample time to do every operation, even if they had to move with it.
Some factories like a Dixie would come along and put conveyers in their cabinet room, material handling as well as finishing, and then we had conveyers to and in our warehouses. Conveyers made it possible to move furniture around more easily and at a cheaper price, but it didn’t actually revolutionize the furniture business in any way, in my opinion.
There were a lot of factories, in fact Henredon for a long time, did not have a finishing room conveyer. They said that they could do a better job by taking every individual piece and if it took a half an hour on that piece, that is what they would take.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our industry today in the short term?
MILLENDER I think the industry has fallen down on the job of producing quality merchandise and advertising it to the public who are not very smart as to what is good and what is bad in furniture, advertising this wonderful quality to last a lifetime. They are getting pretty good furniture – Henredon, Drexel or Heritage or whoever it is – but compared to what it should be is not right. That is really not a problem for the manufacturer unless the consumer gets smart and won’t buy it.
INTERVIEWER: Or the retail salesmen get smarter.
MILLENDER: I don’t think you can generalize on the retail salesperson any more than you can factory heads or CEOs of any industry or the individuals that work there. Every furniture salesman is an individual person with individual goals in his own mind. They all have one goal: to make as much money as possible.
That of course in itself is a detriment because they will do anything to sell because they work on commission. I think it would be wonderful, not economic, but it is sensible, to have salary salesmen that would take the time and the effort to explain things. If they could do that, then you wouldn’t have to cut the quality and make the price cheap. You could have a salesman with knowledge which could be certainly taught in a short length of time. They would take the time and effort to explain that to a consumer, and she would be willing to pay that price and it would be worth it.
INTERVIEWER: How do the retail salesmen as a group stack up with the wholesale salesmen as a group?
MILLENDER: The wholesale salesmen as a group are much more professional. But you see they have to be because they are dealing with somebody that knows furniture. They are dealing with the store buyer.
You are right. Get the floor salesmen on your side and they are going to push your stuff. But the wholesale salesmen, as I say, is dealing with a professional himself and he has got to be a professional and have a personality.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes, sure he does.
MILLENDER: I had a brother-in-law that I gave a job to. He was a lawyer and he didn’t like it worth a darn. So during the war, he was working down at the Wilmington shipyard to do his part in the war effort. So I was down there in Wrightsville, and he was talking about going back to Asheville and working in his dad’s law office. I said: “Joyce, you are not cut out to be a lawyer. You are potentially the sorriest lawyer I know. I will get you a job selling furniture if you want to try it.” He said fine. I didn’t give him a job because I didn’t have a job, and I wasn’t going to fire anybody to give him a job. But I got him a job. Furniture was hard to come by so selling was a simple thing. Needless to say, he started out very rapidly being a successful salesman and loved it. But now he never spent any time selling on the merits, he sold on pure personality and friendship with the buyer. Everybody loved him. He would walk in and he would probably say, “Don’t you want anything today?” or something like that and tell them a joke, get them laughing and throw some pictures out, write the order and leave. The other salesmen do it entirely different. They do it purely from a professional standpoint. But, there is the exceptional guy that has got both and he is the one that makes the million dollars a year. He is the one that makes the big money. The professional salesman with the good personality is going to know the furniture salesmen on the floor.
So I am not blaming the retail furniture salesmen. You are putting the blame in the wrong place. You have got to put the blame on the manager of that furniture store. Take a man who owns or used to own his own furniture store. The people that worked in there were his good friends or probably his family. They didn’t work on commission. They sold their friends when they came in and they took time. They would send the furniture out on approval.
That couldn’t be done now. For instance, take Furnitureland South. Say they ship it (product) to Cleveland and that consumer complains, they will pick it up and bring it back.
They are not alone. They just happen to be the biggest. But as I say I don’t blame the furniture salesmen. I blame the management for having furniture salesmen like that.
INTERVIEWER: How could that be corrected? A lot of education?
MILLENDER: You are damn right. The suppliers of Furnitureland South meet with those salesmen every week or once every two weeks. Some of their suppliers are in there damn near every week or every other week.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your own greatest contribution to our industry?
MILLENDER: I can’t claim any great contributions.
INTERVIEWER: The very fact of serving as chairs at SFMA is very considerable.
MILLENDER: That is an honor and it is a contribution.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any notable event during your four years?
MILLENDER: There were two great decisions: one when I went and one when I left. No, nothing but your normal course of business.
INTERVIEWER: I understand a key executive was fired later after your term.
MILLENDER: He should have never been hired. Firing anybody is no pleasure. The higher the situation the more traumatic it is. But that is just normal business procedure. Sometimes you have to. But if you are careful in hiring you don’t have to do much firing. We had a staff at the White Furniture Company that was hand picked very carefully and to my knowledge not one of them was ever fired.
MILLENDER: Very few of them ever quit unless they got married and left town or something like that. Or had some kind of various change in their family situation. Some of those gals are still working for Hickory¬ White. They kept everybody on that wanted to stay. Bought a van to haul them to High Point.
So many problems could be eliminated at the source if the person at the top knows exactly what he is doing. Now, I don’t mean to say it is going to be a perfect world because it can’t be. Nothing is perfect. But it could be improved an awful lot. When they say the buck stops at the top, it does. That is where everything begins. Now the top can’t oversee every operation of a business; that is impossible. But he has got to see to it that people are overseeing and are doing their job.
INTERVIEWER: But the fact that you were able to keep people says to me that there was a documentation process.
MILLENDER: They were not all perfect when they came, but I’ll say this, when they left they were. It was a fine bunch of people.
INTERVIEWER: How much of your contributions were built on existing techniques and methods, and how much came from innovations which you originated or pioneered?
MILLENDER: I wouldn’t say it was anything of importance along that line.
INTERVIEWER: What about the business of the DuPont lacquer? Were you not ahead of most of the industry in getting into that?
MILLENDER: Yes, but we were at the right place at the right time.
INTERVIEWER: But making it work, Steve. I bet you anything when that first began it was not the perfect material for the process.
MILLENDER: The biggest chemical company in the world was doing the developing and we didn’t develop it, they did. They were also in Mebane, North Carolina. It was a question of being at the right place at the right time. They could have gone to some other factory. I don’t know why they came to us. Maybe they went to some others and got turned down and we took them up. I don’t know. But you can contribute that to luck, not a contribution from brains.
INTERVIEWER: You know Fred Alexander says that he doesn’t believe in luck. However, he has noticed that the harder he works the better luck he gets.
MILLENDER: Yes, that is true in anything. But I believe in luck; I believe very sincerely in it. I have seen people that are just plain lucky. I mean you go to a drawing and they win the thing and it is just not today, two weeks later they win another one. There is one guy who won two lotteries, big lotteries. Now I call that luck if you win. It is not working hard. So if anybody says they don’t believe in luck, they are not really serious.
INTERVIEWER: I’m just looking to uncover any other innovations.
MILLENDER: I know what you are driving at. Innovations are not a product of one person. It is an accumulative situation that develops innovations. The supplier, middleman, developer, final user and the way it is used; all of this goes into innovation. Then it becomes standard procedure for everybody. Like lacquer, now we didn’t invent lacquer, we were just the first factory to use it.
INTERVIEWER: You remember what year that was?
MILLENDER: Late teens I would say; it was before my day. I know those DuPont people came down there and did a lot of engineering work for White on their new buildings and that was in 1924.
INTERVIEWER: Probably what they used before was shellac, was it not?
MILLENDER: Varnish. Shellac was used primarily on floors. Varnish was used on furniture. It is not a very good product.
INTERVIEWER: How was your company affected by the Depression?
MILLENDER: It was definitely affected. I think every company in the United States was affected and every individual was affected. You just stuck in there and you fought it out.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned at one point that the only time you had to lay anybody off was during the Depression.
MILLENDER: It wasn’t the Great Depression. It was a depression for the people who got laid off. For the people that kept their jobs, it was a recession. But they were not laid off for long. That was just more of a layoff than a firing.
INTERVIEWER: What about the racial situation?
MILLENDER: We never had any race problems at White Furniture Company. We had a number of black people working for us and they were treated and paid exactly like the counterparts doing the same job.
INTERVIEWER: As I recall you said that you had women come to work in the factory during the war?
MILLENDER: Yes. They were working there when I left. They started during the war. Furniture was considered entirely too heavy for them. But we started employing women in our factory and I can’t recall if they were in every department in the factory. I know we had some in the cabinet room and quite a number in the finishing room. I don’t think we had any running machines because that is sort of a dangerous job and I think we wanted to keep them out of there. They would probably be safer than the men but we didn’t consider it that way. I think you were looking after the woman’s safety. I don’t think we had any women working in the shipping department because they had to handle too much furniture and it is too heavy.
INTERVIEWER: Upholstery is somewhat different.
MILLENDER: Oh, yes, we had them working in our upholstery department.
INTERVIEWER: What about the effect of environmental regulations?
MILLENDER: I think OSHA is a ridiculous situation. They have gone beyond all bounds of reason. Sure the environment has got to be protected but they go so far beyond that and they have so much power. They can come in and go through your plant unannounced and set up $10,000 worth of fines by the end of the day. Nobody has met regulations yet.
INTERVIEWER: No, they could always find something wrong.
MILLENDER: They will find something regardless. They are always causing trouble and putting you to an expense that is not necessary. I don’t know how to change it.
INTERVIEWER: Nobody seems to understand why they can make bed posts so much cheaper in Taiwan. The reason is they blow the sawdust out in the field.
MILLENDER: We can’t do that and we are not going to. Another thing, we pay the man that is carving that post $25 an hour and they pay him 3 cents in Taiwan and that makes a hell of a difference. I don’t really know what they pay in Taiwan, but they don’t pay much.
INTERVIEWER: The textile people say people-wise, there is no advantage if an American company keeps up with the machinery technology. That the American people and the advanced machines are more efficient than cheap labor somewhere else.
MILLENDER: Machines don’t do hand carving. Take those chairs in there; it is all hand carved. I would rather have a hand-carved chair than a machine-carved chair. That bed back there is hand carved. You can do a lot of that work on a machine but you don’t get the same results.
INTERVIEWER: You can’t hire a hand carver for 20 cents an hour either.
MILLENDER: You do over there. I don’t know, maybe they get a quarter. But I know Charlie was over in the Philippines and he was staying at this place, sort of a home made for visiting dignitaries. There were a lot of servants around taking care of them. Charlie was talking to some of them. They work all day, all week and get about $4.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, that makes all the difference in the world. The fact that those overseas companies don’t have the OSHA to worry with.
MILLENDER: That makes a big difference. Go into Mexico City and you can’t breathe. The pollution down there is horrible. It is bad enough in this country even with all the controls. Right now there’s a plant in Randolph County that’s causing pollution; a judge told them they had to close it down on Monday. The state said they had to (close). That must be a bad situation. That is different. But if you were living next to that thing and you couldn’t go outdoors and your children were getting sick, what would you do? You would complain. The thing is, regardless of whether anybody is complaining or not, that should be stopped. Now, they could do something with that smoke. You can’t change your process, but you could certainly do something with the smoke. That is stupidity, knowing that you have got a toxic product going out. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that. They just don’t give a damn. If you were going to spill out toxic material, that is when I am for OSHA.
You know this big deal about global warming? It has warmed between ½ and 1 degree in the last 100 years. Now if it were to go on for another 100 (years), that’s another ½ degree; 200 years, would be 1 more degree; and 1,000 would be 5 degrees. A thousand years from now it might be serious. I think a whole lot of those problems have got to be faced.
There are a lot of things we should do that we don’t do. The fact is, they don’t do it in Mexico and they don’t do it in Taiwan and they do less in Red China. In Taiwan they have gotten to where they are not competitive anymore.
From a labor standpoint, they are still competitive, yes. But Japanese labor, they are no longer competitive price-wise. Taiwan labor has gone up tremendously; they are not as competitive as they used to be.
That is why a lot of those firms are moving into Red China. But I think I believe to a certain extent in protecting tariff.
I think we have to be careful to use that power, but I don’t believe in putting your own people out of work to the expense of somebody else.
INTERVIEWER: No, there is no way you can justify that.
MILLENDER: It is pretty hard to justify this GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs). I was against it, but businesspeople along with the Democrats and all the politicians were for it. The Republicans were for it because the business people were for it. The Democrats were for it just on general principles.
INTERVIEWER: The labor unions were dead set against it.
MILLENDER: They didn’t have a chance against everybody because the Democrats didn’t go along with them. Look what it is doing to the business people that wanted it. They are getting rich on it.
INTERVIEWER: What has been the involvement of your family business, White of Mebane, with the community? I know it has been considerable. I have read enough of that over the years.
MILLENDER: It was the backbone of the community. It was the biggest manufacturer there and therefore was really the backbone of it.
There was another company that came in there later which is now Kingsdown, there was Mebane Royal. Of course, White is gone.
INTERVIEWER: What about civic and social involvement? Describe your involvement in social civic and business activities outside.
MILLENDER: I was a member of a civic club and involved in the community chest, raising money for that and raising money for other causes. I have been active in church many years. I have developed some very good friends and like to play golf socially.
INTERVIEWER: That is great. What is your favorite charity?
MILLENDER: I don’t have any favorite charities. I am careful about charitable contributions. There is an organization (with a long name) that you have to donate to in order to get this bulletin where they rate all the charitable organizations. Before I give away any money to anybody, I check that. I find that some of them are pretty bad. I have read in the paper where there are charitable organizations where over 90 percent of the money they raise goes into their own pockets one way or the other.
Now there are others where 90 percent goes to charity. So my favorites are the ones that try to do a decent job and I check them very carefully.
INTERVIEWER: What is your principal leisure time activity?
MILLENDER: Sitting around talking.
INTERVIEWER: Playing golf, isn’t it?
MILLENDER: It has been. I don’t play as much as I used to. After all I am not as young as I was. You want to see my trophy case?
MILLENDER: I got a lot of them back there but it has been no great success because I have not been that good a golfer. I think the lowest handicap I ever had was eight. Not bad but it is not good. That means you can get down around par every once in awhile. I have shot under par one time in my life on an 18-hole golf course. But I think the most fun I’ve had with golf was when we decided to build a golf course in Mebane. I was about the only person down there that played golf…there might have been two or three others. So they came to me and we raised $400. Twenty people put up $20 a piece and we built a golf course.
INTERVIEWER: For $400.
MILLENDER: That is all we had to start with. I think we put up a little bit more to get things. Individuals went out with their help (some hired, some not) and their family, and they built the greens; planted all around them. It was a great big pasture and we didn’t plant any grass because there was grass already there. We had to get a mower. The whole thing was started and put into operation for $400. Before it was over, we bought all the land, extended the golf course, put in grass greens and then finally sold the property at a hell of a big profit. I think it was $400, maybe there was a little extra put in, another $200, so $600 tops.
INTERVIEWER: That is an accomplishment.
MILLENDER: I laid out the first golf course. At one time they had a golf course in Burlington that was closed up, not because it failed or anything, because of the property. For a long time that course in Mebane was the only course in Alamance County. When we first opened up, we wouldn’t let anybody but members play, but we started opening it up to green fee members. We had a pro down there and we had a little clubhouse where we stored clubs and had our own carts. It was big time stuff.
INTERVIEWER: Is that your best experience in golf?
MILLENDER: It was an interesting experience. Just playing golf has been fun. Mexico is the only foreign country I have ever played in.
INTERVIEWER: I was always impressed when we’d go to the SFMA meetings and some of the guys would come along carrying golf clubs.
MILLENDER: Oh, yes, sure. We went down to Puerto Rico. Everybody took their golf clubs. We had a good time playing golf. I took them to Acapulco, but not to France or New Orleans. But when you went to places like Pinehurst and the Homestead and White Sulphur Springs, sure, you took your golf clubs if that is what you wanted to do.
INTERVIEWER: What was your retirement date?
MILLENDER: Early ’85. I don’t know the exact date.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done since then in the furniture industry?
MILLENDER: My only connection with the furniture industry since then has been through the building up there and my interest in Charlie’s business, Millender Furniture Company. He makes custom stuff. I am telling you he does some beautiful work.
INTERVIEWER: That table you were showing me was magnificent.
MILLENDER: It is. He is a perfectionist; in a way, too much so. But I shouldn’t say that because that is what I have been striving for all the time.
INTERVIEWER: I think to me that is a compliment.
MILLENDER: It is, but sometimes it can be overdone for your own good. Other people take the easier way and let it slide, but he doesn’t.
INTERVIEWER: He is in a good slot to make the most of that characteristic.
MILLENDER: He has done very well. He has gotten to the place where the bulk of his business is in dining room tables and chairs. His chairs are imported but he finishes them all and spends a lot of money on them. Dining room tables he says he can make better than anybody in the country. He does them. He doesn’t import anything. There is one guy in China that he would import tables from but the man is too unreliable.
INTERVIEWER: In your leisure time, I guess golf has been most of what you have done.
MILLENDER: That is right, golf and traveling. I have been fairly active in real estate; that is just purely a hobby. I don’t consider myself any big operator in real estate. I peddle around a little bit. Just for something to do, primarily.
INTERVIEWER: Where have you traveled?
MILLENDER: Jerusalem, Egypt, Singapore, Taiwan, China, England, France, Spain, Portugal. I have not been to the Scandinavian countries but I want to go up there in that area sometime. I have seen a lot of pictures, it is a beautiful country.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to the furniture industry. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. What would you like to add in summary?
MILLENDER: The only thing that I could possibly add is that I enjoyed very much my career in the furniture business. I am very happy that I had an opportunity to serve in a certain capacity with the organizations connected with the furniture industry such as SFMA, the High Point buildings, the Market situation and so forth. It has been a lot of fun and I have made a lot of good friends whom I have enjoyed.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Can’t beat that.
MILLENDER: It has been a pretty good life. I would make a few changes along the line but not many.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.