Nov 11, 201301:00 PMPoint of View
Life with Father
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If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, I spent the last few months looking after my father who lost his valiant struggle against Myasthenia Gravis on September 11. Robert S. Fogarty, titan of the furniture industry, was a visionary in the high end of the American furniture manufacturing. He considered his position an honorable one and remained a well-clad gentleman until the day he died. Shortly after his passing, I attended the High Point Furniture Market where overwhelming condolences and remembrances eased the pain of losing him, somewhat. Many in the showrooms and on the streets came to give me hugs, cried with me, and poured out their appreciation of my father’s contributions to the industry.
As a child I grew up with an intimate knowledge of America’s best manufacturing operations, the ones that my father so ably turned around including Kittinger, Dunbar, Biggs, Mode, Pennsylvania House, and Kindel. Chapter six in Michael K. Dugan’s The Furniture Wars: How America Lost a 50 Billion Dollar Industry, the only one written from an insider’s point of view since 1957, is about Robert S. Fogarty.
As a young girl, I sat at dad’s Baker desk in his home office looking at notes with names like Chan, Furiani, Rifkind, Ancell, Berkeley, Dugan, and MacDonald. I wore uniforms to school, but insisted on wearing cordovan wing-tipped lace-up shoes just like dad’s. At his desk I wrote notes that said things like “Fire Jones,” “Move Furiani to another division.” These imprints remain on the leather top of his desk. Dad loved that desk, refusing to buy another.
I was nine when I first became aware of the smell of furniture manufacturing, a smell I love still. It was because of my father that I am one of the few women who made it to the executive suite, a difficult industry for our gender to enter. The fearless approach I took to my job was aided and abetted by the support and reassurance of the titan who was my father. Most women today don’t have such mentors; I argue that the industry suffers from a lack of titans and generous dads.
In continuing the conversation about the historical and changing roles of women in American residential furniture manufacturing, I was met with a blunt statement from an old and trusted friend who’s in luxury retailing. He had a close working and personal relationship with my father, so I was surprised by his answer to my question about roles of women play in the industry’s leadership. “What women?” he asked. “The only way you and any others got there was through nepotism. You are either born into it, or you marry into it. The latter is less credible. This is an industry where the good old boys protect their own, and they really hate women. You all pose too many threats, and are perceived as pains in the ass.”
As much as I hate to buy into the man’s misogynistic premise, I can’t help but admit that it smacks of the ugly truth. I have met many men, some gentlemen, such as Jay Reardon of Hickory Chair, who claim that they don’t hire based on gender, but on the merits of each candidate. Yet the numbers are contrary to this claim of fairness. According to a Harvard Business School study, 95% of home furnishings decisions are made by women, yet only a few of us work in executive leadership positions. Whereas there is a general awareness of this fact, the industry’s inertia and complacency to do things the way they’ve always been done, solidifies its exclusion of women at the top.
My research of the industry through surveys, interviews, and labor statistics continues. But the personal interaction on the streets at market, with those I’ve known my whole life, proves over and over again, the necessity for this kind of research.
In an earlier post I defined American residential furniture manufacturing as an overgrown cottage industry--a cottage industry on steroids! In seeking support for my research, I have re-joined WithIt (Women In the Home Furnishings Industry Today), a dynamic organization. Their members and supporters include specialists in retail, merchandising, product and interior design, marketing, and consulting. I was happy to learn that a number of men are involved in WithIt. This organization and other media outlets have done much to spotlight the fact that women are, indeed, involved in the industry. But the ring-fenced topic of furniture manufacturing tends to hide behind the advances of women in ancillary positions outside of this sector. Check out WithIt’s website and join up at www.withit.org.