Furniture industry innovator dies

·4 min read

Oct. 7—HIGH POINT — Paul Hunt Broyhill grew the company his father and uncle started into one of the largest furniture companies in the world, but he was best known within the industry for his innovations — covering such diverse areas as executive training, customer relations and marketing via TV game shows.

And he was revered in his hometown of Lenoir for his treatment of employees.

Broyhill, 97, past chairman of Broyhill Furniture Industries, passed away Tuesday night after a period of declining health. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

Broyhill was the son of J.E. Broyhill, who with his brother T.H. Broyhill started what became Broyhill Furniture. At its peak in the 1970s, under Paul Broyhill's leadership, the company had 20 factories and employed about 7,500 people.

Many who knew Broyhill describe him as a visionary, but few felt it as tangibly as Steve Pond, the founding publisher of Furniture Today, a publication dedicated to the furniture industry. Pond went to see Broyhill in Lenoir in 1976 to talk about Pond's idea for starting Furniture Today. Pond, who had yet to quit his job to even begin work to begin the publication, was blown away by Broyhill's response.

"Paul immediately grasped the idea," told Pond the industry needed it and offered on the spot to buy subscriptions for all 2,000 of his company's customers, Pond said. "I got handed a check for $12,000 for an idea."

Broyhill also was a driving force for the industry — consisting of hundreds of mostly small companies but collectively as large as a major corporation — establishing a permanent presence in Washington, D.C., to protect against legislation that could harm it.

"Everything prior to that had been sort of episodic," Pond said.

And Broyhill regarded the retailers who were his customers as important partners to be listened to and treated well, a view not broadly held at the time, said Alan Cole, who started with the company as a young executive and rose to become a vice president and the general manager of the upholstery division before moving to Hooker Furniture, where he retired as president.

"I was amazed at how much money he was willing to invest in customer service," Cole said. "One of the quickest ways to raise his ire" was to treat one of those retailers poorly.

Paul Broyhill told the Lenoir News-Topic in a 2018 interview that the point was to build relationships with buyers. He would hire people and train them extensively in how to grow relationships.

"Furniture is about people," he said. "My dad and I both believed in hiring and training — that was big for us, training people."

The company's internal "Broyhill University" trained dozens of executives who went on to become leaders not only within Broyhill Furniture but throughout the industry, Cole said.

"Broyhill was a unique company largely because of Paul's influence. They were big believers in hiring the best people they could, training them" and letting them do their jobs, he said. "Not only did you learn what to do but why to do it."

Jerry Epperson, a leading furniture expert and managing director of the Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd. investment bank, said Broyhill's desire to surround himself with strong executives was unusual.

"A lot of companies of that time had one strong individual" who made the decisions independently, he said. "Paul wanted everyone to give their input."

The American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame announced in May that it had renamed its annual awards for emerging leaders for Paul Broyhill in part because of his history of nurturing the industry's new leaders.

The Broyhill family sold the company in 1980 to Interco. Paul Broyhill stayed on as CEO for five years, stepping down in 1985 after Interco started making cuts he didn't agree with, he told the News-Topic in 2018.

"They looked at it and figured out how to make more of a profit by cutting costs, ... including cutting management," Broyhill said.

As he watched the company devolve, Broyhill tried to advise the new leaders that management was key, and cuts wouldn't always work, but no one listened, he said.

Interco entered bankruptcy protection in the early 1990s to fend off a takeover and emerged as Furniture Brands International. Furniture Brands declared bankruptcy in 2013 and its assets were bought by a private-equity firm, which organized them as Heritage Home Group, which itself declared bankruptcy five years later. The only part of Broyhill Furniture that found a buyer in the court auction was the name itself, which wound up in the possession of Big Lots.

Broyhill said in the 2018 interview that what remained of the company to him was exemplified by what he encountered on everyday trips out to lunch or the grocery store. Everywhere, he still constantly heard stories of the influence the company had on thousands of local families.

That is the legacy he wanted Broyhill Furniture to be remembered for.

"We had good people and were good to people," he said. "That combination made the company stand out."

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