Monday, April 08, 2013

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.