Skip to main content

Gerry Birnbach Tribute

I recently attended the funeral for Gerald Birnbach.  Up from humble beginnings as the son of a Boston funeral director, and suffering from a variety of serious childhood ailments, Gerry became the CEO of Rowe Furniture, and, as far as anyone could determine, was the longest-serving NYSE CEO.  Employees at all levels called him “Mr. B.” and he treated them all with respect and a smile.
Gerry was the consummate salesman.  He had many standard lines and clever sayings that all his friends and acquaintances knew.  One that I recall well, was “I know my customer”.  And he did.  He knew all about them, and how to help them and how to help make their businesses grow.

He was also a family man, leaving four children and a growing band of grandchildren behind.  He hosted the entire bunch to Maryland University basketball games (in first row seats by the way).  He loved his grandchildren and, as far as I can tell, they returned his love and then some.
Gerry was my boss and a man far ahead of the times in his chosen industry, home furnishings.  Gerry had great personal taste (more on that in a minute) and was early in recognizing home furnishings as fashion, and in seeing what a poor job most furniture retailers did in presenting products in that manner.  He led by example, making the Rowe Furniture showroom at the semi-annual High Point Furniture Show a consistent leader in look and style, with each vignette ready for Architectural Digest.  Every detail was thought through, from pictures on the walls, to books on the shelves, to the candy in the candy dishes. He described the furniture industry as “ingrown, slow-moving and mired in tradition”.  He was right and did his best to foment change.

While I only reported to Gerry for about three years, he made an indelible impression.  On an investor swing to New York, we detoured through Ascot Chang, where he bought a variety of custom-made shirts in the best colors and finest fabrics.  He was a regular there, and the staff and managers all knew him by name.  The shirts, along with the suits he had made as well, were shipped to the office, not his house, so that he could take them to the laundry and then take them home in laundry bags in a (doomed) attempt to convince wife Miriam that he hadn’t been out buying something new when he already had more clothes than he could wear.  In his seventies, he was the best-dressed man I knew.  And I know some guys who dress well.
His funeral service drew hundreds, all the tales and reminisces.   There were far more smiles than tears, which I took as a great tribute.  RIP Mr. B.


Popular posts from this blog

Book Review: What Matters Now by Gary Hamel

Interview of Eric Schmidt by Gary Hamel at the MLab dinner tonight. Google's Marissa Mayer and Hal Varian also joined the open dialog about Google's culture and management style, from chaos to arrogance. The video just went up on YouTube. It's quite entertaining. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Cover of The Future of ManagementMy list of must-read business writers continues to expand.Gary Hamel, however, author of What Matters Now, with the very long subtitle of How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, has been on the list for quite some time.Continuing his thesis on the need for a new approach to management introduced in his prior book The Future of Management, Hamel calls for a complete rethinking of how enterprises are run.

Fundamental to his recommendation is that the practice of management is ossified in a command and control system that is now generations old and needs to be replaced with something that reflects an educat…

Book Review- Stretch by Scott Sonenshein

Have you ever watched, or been involved in, a business failure, where, despite the best efforts of hardworking people, the business doesn’t survive? Scott Sonenshein lived through it, as he describes in the Introduction to his engrossing book Stretch.  (In some books, the reader can skip the intro- not this one; the introduction is a must-read part of the book.) He was hired by start-up Vividence in Silicon Valley at the very apex of the tech boom.  Despite prestige VC backers, top-tier hires and $50 million, Vividence didn’t make it. As his career continued, that experience led to an interest in why some well-funded operations don’t succeed, while other, more resource constrained, do. Peter Senge wrote about reinforcing cycles as part of his book The Fifth Discipline, which I consider one of the finest business books ever penned. In it, Senge describes the downward cycle that some companies fall into, and why it is so difficult to reverse. Sonenshein explores those cycles from diffe…

Tax Inversions

A savvy businessman once told me “it’s important to know what problem you are trying to solve”.
Let’s ignore for the moment whether or not Treasury or the IRS had the power to change the rules on so-called tax inversions without Congressional action. (The power they said they didn’t have only a few months ago.)
Rather, let’s focus on what problem we are trying to solve. That is, why is the greatest country on earth chasing companies away? Shouldn’t the U.S. be the place that companies want to locate their headquarters?
Imagine this: the U.S. legal structure and tax regime was so attractive that Mercedes, Toyota, Astra Zeneca, Samsung, Total, Singapore Air, Banco Santander, Petrobras, Fujitsu, Nokia, SAP, Audi, Tata Group, Lenovo, Pirelli, Deutsche Bank, Honda, LG, Hyundai, Roche, Credit Suisse, Four Seasons, Siemens, Phillips, Bridgestone, Anglo-America, DeBeers, Volkswagen, Canon,  L’Oréal, Swatch, Armani, LVMH, Toshiba, H&M, Mahindra, Aldi, Kubota, Onex, Ducati, Pemex, Saudi-Ara…