Climbing the walls, not the ladder | News Feature | Indy Week
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Women buy most of the furniture sold at North Carolina's furniture markets, but they only make up 6 percent of the furniture industry's top executives. A few women are trying to change that.

Climbing the walls, not the ladder 

Women buy most of the furniture sold at North Carolina's furniture markets, but they only make up 6 percent of the furniture industry's top executives. A few women are trying to change that.

Suits everywhere. The halls are packed with men in suits; they jam the elevators and spill out into 11 million square feet of gleaming showrooms filled with the latest designs in sofas and beds and dressers and tables and desks--as much floor space as the World Trade Center's Twin Towers used to hold, but spread throughout 180 buildings mostly in downtown High Point. The intoxicating aroma of furniture polish, fresh upholstery fabric, and new leather perfumes the air; decorators have left their expert touch on every showroom, where strategically placed bowls full of candy bars and coolers packed with bottled water help some 80,000 visitors from around the globe get through a solid week of 14-hour days. Here at the International Home Furnishings Market, the mammoth semiannual emporium where thousands of manufacturers' representatives do business with tens of thousands of buyers for retail stores, a lot of men in suits decide what will end up in America's living rooms and bedrooms.

Building after chunky multistory building, block after tightly policed block, "Market," as participants call it, looks a lot like a guy thing.

Sure there are women: Nearly all the receptionists for the 3,000 exhibitors are women, and women staff the countless hospitality bars and private dining rooms. More and more women these days attend market as manufacturers' reps on the showroom floors and as buyers who choose which styles to carry in their stores; for every mom-and-pop retail operation there really is a Mom, and increasingly she attends the trade fair with her husband. Many of the industry's publicists and marketing professionals are women, and in recent years, so are more of the designers who devise the patterns and textures and hardware that become the furniture we live with. And there simply are more woman-owned furniture companies than there used to be.

But in a rare throwback to the pre-Women's Lib era, the executive ranks of the $24 billion U.S. furniture industry lag far, far behind other domestic industries in the percentage of women in leadership roles. The reasons are hard to decipher and nearly invisible to consumers who might use their purchasing power to buy from women-friendly industry ... if they only knew which companies to support.

"This is the stupidest industry!" says one middle-aged male furniture executive jovially, with a huge "What are ya gonna do?" shrug of his shoulders. "Women make 80 to 85 percent of the decisions about home purchases, but they're 6 percent of management in the furniture industry." This man's response is to hire women in management because he likes what they do for his company's performance, and if the industry weren't in such turmoil he'd be chuckling all the way to the bank.

At first glance the figures are a puzzle. A study by the consulting firm Management Horizons found that 86 percent of all decisions about furniture purchases were "influenced" by women, and the 80 to 85 percent figure for female-directed furniture-buying decisions has wide acceptance in the industry; one company's recent focus group research puts the number at 90 percent.

"Your problem here is definitional," says furniture industry analyst Jerry Epperson of Mann, Armistead & Epperson. "Who is management? In the executive and financial ranks, the 6 percent is high. If you use merchandising alone, the number may be 15-plus percent, with an even higher number likely in upholstered furniture.

"Among imports from Asian nations, among executives the number [of women] is very low, but if you look at their manufacturing plant managers, the number may be 40 percent."

Six percent. At the beginning of the 21st century in the equity-conscious United States, that figure staggers the imagination. According to analysis of graduate school trends in Women's ENews, just over half of this year's entering law students were expected to be women, up from 10 percent 30 years ago; in medical schools women make up nearly half the student body today, in dentistry the figure has risen from 5 percent in 1970 to nearly 40 percent today, and in veterinary medicine women make up more than two-thirds of recent graduates. In architecture women make up between 40 and 50 percent of graduates, although just 18 percent of licensed architects; women make up about 20 percent of engineering master's degree students. Well over half of journalism students in this country are women.

In the world of business, women have made strides, too, although progress is ragged. In 1995 women were 53 percent of the accounting graduates, but according to an American Institute of Certified Public Accountants survey just over half of these had quit jobs because they perceived "barriers to promotion and advancement." The country's military academies--longtime bastions of male dominance--can now boast significant moves toward equality: Nearly 15 percent of West Point's latest classes were women, and at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, more than 30 percent of the graduating class was made up of women by the year 2000.

Wall-to-wall hookers
So what's with the furniture industry and its dismal representation of women in the highest decision-making positions? The story of this particularly low glass ceiling is heavily anecdotal ... and not pretty. Although there are some spectacular success stories of women in the older, well-known furniture companies--and even more among their younger and leaner corporate competitors--one veteran insider says, "We haven't found the step ladder yet to get up and touch it."

Horror stories abound after hours, when female buyers, designers, and others attending market gather for wine and cheese in some of their favorite showroom hospitality bars to let their hair down.

"Twenty-five years ago there were no women at market," says Jena Hall, a pioneering furniture industry trend spotter, designer, and merchandising expert in New York who founded Jena Hall Designs. "They wouldn't even let me in the showrooms. Broyhill [Furniture Industries] said to me, 'Could you ask your staff not to come into our showroom. They're distracting our salesmen.' That's how it used to be."

Well, there were some women. Hall and others describe busty negligee models posed on beds in the showroom windows as recently as 10 years ago--"the icing to trap the guys"--and risqué negligee shows inside. "I got off the plane from New York once for an after-hours event," Hall says, "and it was wall-to-wall men and hookers. [A hotel] brought in a busload of hookers."

Hall also describes the semiofficial concubines of out-of-town furniture executives, the so-called 'Market wives' who accompanied certain men for decades during the two weeks a year they were traveling solo to High Point.

Then there was the "High Point hug," a prolonged, industrial-strength, full frontal bear hug administered as a greeting to women attending market for furniture industry business.

One designer who would identify herself only as Heidi says it's a treacherous professional balancing act for women buyers and manufacturers' reps coming to High Point. They are well-groomed and outgoing, a potent combination, apparently: "If you're attractive and a good saleswoman, you have to beat them off with a club."

The natural response among women hoping to advance in the furniture industry--this being modern America--might be to rebel, or to sue. But many of the women who have worked their way up in the High Point market scene and beyond simply say they had to get along to move up.

Take Pat Walters, for example. She announced her retirement during this October's market after 32 years as the first women to manage market leases for hundreds of thousands of square feet and the first to take a leading role in the development of new exhibition real estate in High Point. She started out, in 1970 when her daughter was in high school, just interested in some little thing that would get her close to the excitement of market on a regular basis--so she worked as a receptionist and tour guide for two years and learned a whole lot about furniture. Then her life took an unexpected turn.

"There were four shows a year at that time, and I was hired to become manager of the Furniture Plaza building after the January show," Walters says. "They handed me a great big wad of keys. It was a dark, rainy day, and I had one of the older men who had been there a while stop in and say, 'Little missy, you'll never make it.' I said, 'Well, you may be right but I want to give it a shot.'"

In those days, she says, the prevailing attitude was "men do this, women do not." And she couldn't figure out why not, since it seemed so sensible to politely ask knowledgeable people, friends of hers, for advice and then get the job done. "The first board meeting of the marketing association I went to was about 40 men, and there I was. I stood right up and told them a couple of things that I had on my mind I wasn't satisfied with." In the round-the-clock frenzy that ensues in the month before each market there's no time to teach someone the ropes; it's an industry that demands independent, can-do people with a high tolerance for emotional pain. During market there's a traffic jam at 6 a.m. and another at 8 p.m.

Says Walters, "I have been there at 2 o'clock in the morning before market. My daughter was in high school and for me it wasn't a bad thing. With small children I think it would be terrible. I have seen some of these exhibitors call home and cry, talking to their babies."

Until a female friend, Irma Deizer, then an executive assistant at La-Z-Boy, intervened with that company's clout, Walters says she was not permitted at first to eat lunch at the String and Stitch Club, an important place to do business.

Walters is not alone in mentioning the strain in the furniture industry from heavy travel, and how that may be keeping a lot of women, especially single moms, from pushing all the way to the top. The designer Heidi says, "It's not that women can't do the job well, but there's not too many men who are doing dual jobs, raising kids and traveling." More than one female executive mentions the necessity of having a supportive husband at home to help with child rearing, since travel can take up 75 percent of the work week.

Good old girls
Still, Jena Hall says, there's progress. When she had a hard time getting access to market in the 1970s, she went instead to European trade fairs and those led to work with English manufacturers; her business survived and grew. In 1979 she showed her first furniture design collection at the High Point market, and in the next few years, she says, the furniture industry also woke up to consumer driven design--meaning, what women wanted.

"I saw the bad side of it," Hall says. "It has changed so much. There was Civil War equipment still in use, no standards. A real dinosaur mentality. Slowly but surely I met a few women. A few."

After a dozen or so years of low-key female networking she reached out in a more formal way by throwing a "good old girls" cigar party. Three hundred women showed up, and by 1999 Hall and some others had organized and incorporated WithIt (Women in the Home Industries Today), a Greensboro-based nonprofit group for developing leadership skills and opportunities among women in the industry. The nascent organization relied heavily, and still relies, on support from some big-name furniture companies with mostly male management.

"The time was right," Hall says. "We didn't want to be seen as a feminist group. But there was nothing in our industry for professional women. It was so male dominated, so we wanted to avoid burning our bridges. Inclusive rather than exclusive.

"There have been huge inroads in the last five to eight years. Because it has been a traditionally father to son business model, and not father to daughter, they typically gave it to the son. He has to bring the bread home. We now have a whole different generation. Lots of family firms are being acquired by public companies and there's pressure from the outside to modify, both in manufacturing and human relations."

Hall serves on several corporate boards; on one she is the only woman among 15 members, on the other, one of three women among 35. A roll call of officers and board members at half a dozen major furniture manufacturing companies underscores her point. At Furniture Brands International, with more than 23,000 employees, it's Wilbert, David, Steven, Lynn, Bruce, Donald, Lee, Katherine, Richard, Albert. At Vaughan Furniture Co: John, William, Taylor, Pressley, Michael, Pamela, Dale, Roger. At Ashley Furniture Industries: Ron, Chuck, Todd, Ben, Jim. At Stanley Furniture Co.: Robert, David, Edward, Scott, Thomas, Albert, Jeffrey, Douglass, William. And on and on it goes.

Even so, a male-dominated executive roster doesn't mean a company isn't forward-looking. La-Z-Boy (Patrick, Gerald, David, James, Mark ... ) is mentioned by women in the industry for its progressive outlook, and the company has just appointed a woman as director of brand marketing. DeCoro USA, an Italian leather manufacturer, has named a woman as head of North American operations. Ethan Allen Inc. gets high marks as a company that values women, as does Drexel Heritage. And The Rowe Companies (Gerald, Richard, Harvey, Charles, Keith ... ) has several subsidiaries headed by women; another subsidiary, The Mitchell Gold Company, has been named as one of the "10 Best Companies for Women."

"The glass ceiling is cracked in terms of middle management opportunities," says Jena Hall. But, she adds, "The headhunters aren't looking for women."

Playing hardball
Wood, saws, factories: men. Textiles, lighting, marketing: women. A big part of the problem for women who have wanted to reach the top in the furniture industry has been the central role of manufacturing and the small presence that women traditionally have had in that realm, especially in the socially conservative South.

"The marketing people think it's about them. It's not," says Judy George, founder and CEO of Domain Home Furnishings, a chain with 25 stores in the Northeast. "It's still an Old World, old boy network, and nobody has infiltrated that control. I don't know when they ever will. How can we change overnight the way we were brought up?"

Not one to pull her punches, George describes the atmosphere at the top of the furniture industry: "Women, in order to compete with males, have to demonstrate a high peraformance, hard-nosed approach to getting things done. They fail in the eyes of many men unless they show their power base. I love my industry. I love home furnishing. I love what it does for women. I love being a CEO. But the road climbing to the top ... I needed support from a lot of industry players, but they'd always be worried if I'd be profitable.

"I've had to play hardball with the big boys. That doesn't mean I'm accepted for doing that. I've never heard the industry say, 'Hurray, we've got a woman on the top.' Women think they're players, and they're not."

Playing hardball with the big boys means, for example, dropping a longtime manufacturer and removing his merchandise from the sales floor within days when he fails to provide the necessary level of service. "During the rare occasions when women are selected as leaders, it's usually because she's popular. But once she stops being nice, once she stops playing the game, she's labeled bossy and bitchy. It's a Catch-22 in the business world. Power is synonymous with masculinity."

Caroline Hipple might disagree with that edgy critique, for she espouses a more holistic, a more Mars and Venus approach to gender issues in the furniture industry. A product of an all-girls high school and an all-women college, she started her career with a bang working for the now-defunct This End Up furniture chain; "My grandfather had a construction company and I wanted to run it. My dad said absolutely not." She made her way to Storehouse Inc., a subsidiary of the $325 million a year Rowe Companies, where she is president and chief operating officer.

"At age 23 I was a district manager with nine stores," Hipple says. "At age 26 I opened 26 stores by myself. At age 28 I opened 60 stores on the West Coast. I ended up opening a lot of stores.

" I have always been lucky to have mentors who were gender neutral. I don't believe in being strident."

What she does believe is that some stereotypically male and female attributes and personality traits really exist, albeit in oversimplified form. Male precision and attention to process show up in the preponderance of males in factory supervision, she says--and it's good to have factories that turn out precisely made articles. Female understanding of relationships and emotional needs can shape approaches to the consumer, Hipple says--and it's important to sell the goods. But it doesn't all have to be so lopsided.

"We all have in us parts of both male and female," Hipple says. "To me it's about creating a balance. We need both men and women, but we need a little more balance in our industry. Five or 10 years ago there were many more women in accessories, design, and the entrepreneurial side. Now they're in more plants. I am an advocate not so much of the women's issues but of equality issues. We have a huge gay constituency at Storehouse. We are open and free from discrimination of any sort."

She and others sing the praises of The Rowe Companies' president, Gerald M. Birnbach. One of Hipple's colleagues is Lorri Kelley, senior vice president of sales, merchandising, and marketing for Rowe Furniture.

Kelley says, "Jerry Birnbach will be 72 in February. He's the whole reason we're here. He said to me he was born too early. He's so current, so with it, and so understands the value of women in this industry, and can't for the life of him understand why women aren't more prevalent.

"I have been in the furniture business for 15 years, and when I first started in the industry it was horrible. I personally have been very fortunate that I worked for great companies that recognized the value of the person, whether they're male or female. If the best person is a woman, she should get it; if the best person is a man, he should get it. Yes, there is a glass ceiling. I never ran up against it. It is getting better."

As an old generation of male furniture executives dies out the landscape for women is changing. Now, says Kelley, chains like Pottery Barn are scouting potential retail relationships and ask first thing about women's leadership roles in those companies. "Retailers are already making the leap, and they're looking for the counterparts in manufacturing."

The women who now head furniture companies sound bemused as they describe the differences between a furniture store managed by, well, a suit, and one managed by a woman.

"You can tell immediately if it's owned by a man or a woman," says Judy George of Domain. "The way it's set up: if there's a three piece suite for $1,995 just lined up, it's a man. Look at the surroundings, how it looks and feels. It's about the environment and culture you want to provide, how to educate people, how to put things together.

"My success at Domain is not because I'm so brilliant, but because I put together an environment that talks to women. Because I understand women." EndBlock

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