Commentary: Firing doesn’t deter 81-year-old furniture salesman

 In June 2018

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Commentary:

Andy Leeds

Andy Leeds is a street-smart furniture salesman who knows the highs and lows of business life. Still, he says nothing ever hurt as much as getting fired in April, prompting him to call me to tell his story. His purpose, he says, is to give hope to others facing a similar fate.

Dismissals carry no shame, particularly in our right-to-work state where one can get canned for any reason at any time. Journalists often get calls from aggrieved workers anxious to fire back at their former employers. My response is usually, sorry, can’t help.

Andy doesn’t need my assistance. He has a remarkable life story, having spent the last 59 years in his industry. And he’s going to have several more after a German maker of stylish furniture hired him promptly after his April dismissal from a Norwegian rival.

Andy is 81, with the spirit of a recent college grad. He has zero interest in stepping out of the game. “I’m not an old crotchety guy ready to wobble down the street,” he says.

The son of German Jews who fled Europe in 1941 to avoid the Nazis, Andy started as a store salesman in East Lansing, Mich., while attending Michigan State University. The work intrigued him, so in 1959 he took a sales job with Broyhill Furniture, owned by the well-known Lenoir-based family.

Since then, Andy has represented some of the industry’s best-known manufacturers: Caldwell, Thomasville, Craft Associates and Lane. He’s attended 118 High Point markets.

In 1986, he moved to North Carolina and joined Newton-based Sherrill Furniture Co. and helped build its Precedent division over more than 20 years, including a dozen as CEO. “You can believe anything that Andy tells you,” says Woody Williams, who succeeded him as Precedent’s leader.

“Furniture has had one of the greatest changes of any industry in the last 50 years,” Andy says. “North Carolina was once home to 300 furniture-fabric companies; now it has seven. I’ve lived through every minute of it.”

For the last decade, Andy worked for the IMG division of Norway-based Ekornes ASA, creating a $3.5 million annual book from about 40 retail accounts. He says he regularly ranked among the company’s top sellers.

In March 2017, Ekornes cut Andy’s territory in half and reduced his payout to 5% from 7%. On April 23, he was dismissed. “When I asked why, the sales manager said, ‘I don’t have to tell you. You just didn’t fit our team.’”

I asked for a comment from Peter Bjerregaard, president of Ekornes’ U.S. business based in New Jersey. Via email, he praised Andy’s experience but didn’t comment on the dismissal. Williams calls it a “gross injustice.”

Don’t fret for Andy. German-owned himolla Polstermöbel GmbH hired him in mid-May. “They have a fantastic reputation, and they have the money to do the things I want to do,” Andy says.

Williams knows how this will play out. “You can just set Andy up, get out of his way and watch the sales start rolling in.”

Andy lives near Lake Norman, is comfortable financially, has lots of his grandkids’ ballgames to attend and doesn’t need to work. But that’s not his style.

“I’m the proverbial halfback who wants to score touchdowns,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the score. I just like passing the goal line.”

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