Back in 2008 the American economy was reeling from financial crisis. Major manufacturers, many in the home furnishings business, were closing. Customers who no longer had incomes obviously were deferring their purchases of big ticket items. This caused many in the industry to suffer from retailers going out of business. None more impacted than the independent sales rep who could not make enough money to pay for their gas. It was at this point in my career that I discovered IHFRA, the International Home Furnishings Representative’s Association. Somewhere I saw a request for participation. Though I had no designs on long term involvement, I did contact them to see if I could help with their marketing message. After two phone calls they made me the newest Board member and I soon found out why. This 70 year old rep association was feeling the real brunt of the recession. With their membership in decline they were heavily eating into cash reserves as their rep members were dropping their memberships to save money. My first Board meeting was somewhat contentious as to what strategy to deploy with most advocating cutting back on services because membership was down to around 1000 paying members. But a lot of times fresh eyes and an outsider can look at things in a new way and suggest different paths. Instead of cutting back we went full steam ahead realizing we had to pro-vide value for our customer base, the independent travelling furniture rep or there was no reason for him or her to stay a member. We went after members by telling them what benefits they would miss by not staying involved. Our mantra was more benefits equals more members. And we sold our story wherever we could. Gradually over the next couple of years our member-ship grew. We were excited to again be paying the bills. At some point in my tenure the NHFA retailer association went out of existence replaced by HFA. Our partnership with NHFA included sponsoring in unison a Furniture Industry Awards Gala (FIAG) the Monday of April market. So with the decline of NHFA we had a decision to make if IHFRA wanted to host this dinner solo. The dinner put on since 1976 had been an ongoing tribute to manufacturers, retailers and distinguished sales reps. We decided that this was too important a dinner to not at least try. Our first IHFRA sponsored dinner was an overwhelming success with an increase in attendance of over 50% to 600 people. Success breeds success. During my six years on the rep Board, half of the time as either President or Chairman, we realized that we were achieving a higher purpose of being an industry voice for the guys and gals that are so often overlooked in the furniture distribution pattern… the sales rep. I left the Board two years ago , but could not be more proud of what we accomplished while I was involved. The organization is very vibrant, doing good thing to help the rep do his job better. IHFRA is involved with many organizations in our industry continuing to give reps a voice for what we do. We were aggressive when times were bleak and grew in spite of that. Two other companies also looked at the challenging environment back in 2008 and doubled down for future growth. Ashley Furniture, was quite aggressive with both stores and deals to major retailers. Nebraska Furniture ambitiously began planning the largest home furnishings store in Texas. Both these companies are far bigger and more influential now than they were back in 2008 (though they both were still major forces back then.) At this year’s FIAG I am honored and blessed to be on the same stage as Kerry Lebensburger, President of Ashley, & Irv Blumkin, President of Nebraska Furniture Mart. Kerry will receive the highest manufacturer’s award, The Pillar of the Industry. Irv will receive the Retailer of the Year. I am to be honored with the highest rep award, the Distinguished Service Award. This award is not about me. I rose to the attention because of my service to IHFRA. But without my wonderful staff especially working with Emmet and Jay, and without you my tremendous customers, I would never have been able to accomplish what I have. So this award is as much about you as it is me. Thank you so much for all your support over the years.
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