Life With Father
Daughter of furniture industry titan speaks on gender realities
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.
I met Caroline Hipple at the WithIt breakfast. She’s an industry veteran, about to release a book of her own on leadership lessons from a feminist perspective. She argues that the collaborative teamwork leadership mentality is more female than male. Men trend toward the command-and-control style, she says. I eagerly await the book’s release, and compare her findings to my own papers on gender and leadership.
I tend to stay away from defining leadership styles based on gender. I like to cite many strong female leaders throughout history, from Amazon warriors, to Joan of Arc, to Elizabeth I. Their “styles” did not recognize gender differences; they were hugely successful, and based their actions on ethical principles of doing the right thing. This, in fact, is where we should be in the conversation. I don’t want to hear one more mention “Martians” versus “Venusians”! This Mars and Venus thing has arguably done almost as much damage to female advancement as rabid feminists have.
Despite the many positive developments in sexual politics, there is still an inherent sexual tension in the workplace. And this reality keeps women from advancing. It also keeps us dancing on the tightrope over the landscape of attractive and smart, but not sexy– a precarious dance indeed. As a single, childless woman in a male dominated industry, I have met with wide ranges of male response from nervous flirtation to being labeled a lesbian. As women, we are expected to attain impossible personal positions of being at once strong and independent, while serving as supportive mates and caregivers. Syliva Ann Hewlett’s blog on LinkedIn addresses some of the issues of sexual tension, a topic I aim to research more fully.
As a woman who spearheaded manufacturing operations and lean initiatives in bench-made factories—not just the fluffy stuff of design, merchandising, and display—I have encountered my share of skepticism. “How could a little blonde know anything about manufacturing and engineering processes?” being the most prominent refrain. Well, it is not rocket science…. It is about creating a strategic plan and executing it. In fact most men in leadership positions learned just like I did. I learned through practice, under the tutelage of great mentors, the greatest of them was my dearly departed father, Robert S. Fogarty.
We need more mentors. It is not about gender: it is about putting the right people in the right jobs. As female leaders, we have many rivers to cross, and we can only get to the other side by shaking up the regime of the fraternal order within this cottage industry on steroids.
My father taught me not to suffer fools gladly, not to pay attention to my circumstance as a woman, and to stay true to my accomplishments. His words ring true still: “ Stay true to yourself.” “Remember who you are.” “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Keep charging, my friends, and keep your eye on our abilities. 95% is a big number. It can no longer be ignored!
Paula Scott Fogarty holds an M.A. in art history from Savannah College of Art and Design and served as a leader in the furniture industry for 20 years. In her many roles at Kindel Furniture, including president, she led the sales, marketing, design and operations teams and with them, developed the most successful programs for the company. Paula also ran a successful marketing and communications firm, Paula Scott Unlimited, and is now a freelance writer on the arts and the role of women in the furniture industry. She is the past chair of the board of the David Walcott Kendall Memorial Foundation and president of the Irish Georgian Society Board of Directors. Paula lives in Savannah with her Jack Russell terrier, Charles.