Sunday, May 26, 2024

At 92, Buddy Sherrill still runs his furniture company

By David Perlmutt
Photos By Jeff Siner

Buddy (right) and Whit Sherrill
[/media-credit] Buddy (right) and his son, Whit Sherrill (left).

Of the many things you can write about furniture manufacturer Buddy Sherrill, one is immediately clear: He’s not an eager subject. Truth be told, he can get a touch cantankerous trying to avoid the spotlight, even with much to crow about.

It took months of weekly calls to arrange an hourlong interview. Afterward, Sherrill made himself unavailable for more questions and photographs, despite inviting a writer and photographer to Hickory for follow-up visits.

On one trip, he sent a message through his head marketer that “something had come up” and to reschedule. On a second visit, the journalists sat in his lobby for two hours before Sherrill appeared, somewhat miffed. “You boys can sit here all day, and I may see you. I may not,” he said. Then he returned to his office, and the “boys” didn’t wait to see if he would.

But what a story he has to tell: At 92, Harold Whittemore “Buddy” Sherrill, a venerated patriarch of North Carolina’s once-storied furniture industry, still exerts a tight grip on Hickory-based Sherrill Furniture Co., which his father, O.T. (Oscar Truman), started in 1943. Buddy, who is called “Bear” by his oldest friends, has worked at the medium-to-high-end maker of custom-built upholstered furniture and casegoods for 68 years — since Harry Truman was president.

With the recent loss of factories making celebrated brands such as Henredon, Broyhill, Thomasville and Drexel, Sherrill has kept his company remarkably prosperous. His business employs more than 1,000 in five Hickory-area factories. While he won’t share financial details, people familiar with the business estimate annual revenue approaches $200 million.

He’s a holdover from an era of manufacturers who didn’t seek acclaim and put little stock in collaborative leadership. “That generation once dominated our industry and built great companies by being the ultimate decision-makers for their companies,” says Jerry Epperson, an analyst who authors the monthly Furnishings Digest newsletter. “Like Mr. Sherrill, they didn’t need their names up on billboards.”

Sherrill’s old-school style included rejecting the shift to overseas manufacturing that slammed one of the state’s most famous industries. N.C. furniture manufacturing employment peaked at nearly 90,000 in the early 2000s, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond report. It now totals fewer than 30,000.

Even during the 2007-09 recession, Sherrill kept his N.C. factories humming, though he was forced to trim some jobs and overhead. Profits have never recovered, and the company operates with 200 fewer people, he says. But he continues to seek niches, including a cushion-making unit that he says offers better quality than overseas competitors.

“We never went to China. We kept our factories, and we kept our employees,” says son Whitt Sherrill, 57, who left the company in 2017 after 35 years. “The Henredon factory used to be in Morganton. Now, part of that factory is a parking lot for a Walmart. They left all their plants and made all their products in China. We stayed in North Carolina. We made sure we kept the craftsmen who know how to make quality furniture.”

Andy Leeds, who ran a Sherrill Furniture division for 25 years, credits the company’s success “to Buddy’s tenacity at producing a quality product at a great price. His company could have been a lot bigger if he’d allowed it to be. But he wanted the control. Nothing gets by him, even at his age.”

Most workdays, Sherrill arrives at the modest headquarters on Hickory’s outskirts between 7 and 7:30 a.m., always driving a flashy car or SUV. While his work may be low-profile, his cars draw attention: He owns about 50 vehicles, including Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Porsche models.

A typical Buddy Sherrill day, his son says, starts in the frame department, which is large enough for him to drive his car into. He checks on hardwood frames, the critical start of the furniture-making process. No later than 9 a.m., he’s sifting through each piece of company mail, the envelopes already slit and piled on a conference room table. He collates them into three stacks: invoices, orders and customer-service issues. Reading all the mail gives him a daily snapshot of his company, Sherrill tells his staffers.

After delivering the mail, he walks with a noticeable hobble or scooters along the factory floors making sure everything’s operating to his standards.

At lunch, Sherrill exercises at the Lake Hickory Country Club. He ends many days back at work, on the loading dock as the final arbiter, trying out freshly completed pieces before they are shipped. On average, 72 workers touch each piece before it leaves the factory. Signs hanging over the factory floors remind workers: “Our Customer is Our Next Inspector.”

Lately, he often takes Fridays off but not to dawdle. He checks on his other enterprises, including his car collection that is warehoused nearby. He’s a silent partner with longtime friend and Hickory car dealer Benny Yount in European car dealerships in Charlotte and Greensboro. Or he meets with managers of a dozen general-use warehouses, ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 square feet, that he leases to various businesses and a 700-acre farm in rural Startown, which his father began assembling in the 1970s. More than 400 Herefords roam the Catawba County acreage.

Tuesday mornings are reserved for devotionals Yount hosts at his auto headquarters. On Friday evenings, Sherrill enjoys cocktails with friends at the country club.

During the run-up to the twice-yearly High Point Market, the huge home-furnishings exposition that draws designers, buyers and executives from across the world, Sherrill is intricately involved in planning for his company’s showings of new lines. He’s been a fixture at the market for decades, his furnishings filling a three-story showroom building he established in the early 1980s along with leased space nearby.

“Mr. Sherrill’s always been one of the sharpest people in the industry,” says Epperson, who is based in Richmond, Va. “He’s smart and aggressive in keeping up with styles and quality. He puts together a talented sales force and management team. His competitors respect him. Retailers cherish his lines. They’re proud to display and promote them.”

Buddy Sherrill says there are no titles at Sherrill Furniture, but “I guess I’d be the CEO and president.” Whitt Sherrill, who was running the company’s leather division before he left and moved to Colorado, suggests another title for his father.

“I worked for a dictator for 35 years. It’s his way, or we ain’t doing it,” Whitt says with a tone of respect. “He probably shows a little too much control sometimes. We have a board of directors, but if any decisions are made, he makes them. And if you look back at our history, he’s made some damn admirable decisions.”

In the early 1980s, he bought a contemporary furniture company in Newton called Precedent. Twenty years ago, he bought Hickory White. Both were on the auction block, and Sherrill rescued them largely to keep people working, Whitt Sherrill says.

“He’s not a saint, but dadgummit he’s close for what he does for a lot of people in Hickory.”

Precedent was on “life support,” and its 65 jobs were threatened when Buddy bought it, says Andy Leeds, a veteran industry executive hired to run the division in 1987. “Buddy told me, ‘I don’t care what you make. … Just keep these people working.’” While Sherrill doesn’t particularly care for contemporary designs, Leeds adds, “He really cares about his people.”

Precedent was a $3 million-a-year company when Leeds took over. When he left in 2012, it had annual sales of $23 million and it has since grown to about $40 million a year, he says.

Sherrill pays his executives well, but his style has run off many people, Leeds says. “I totally respect the man. He’s a genius in the industry, but people get tired of someone always looking over their shoulder. He left me alone because every time he tried to tell me how to run my company, I told him, ‘That’s no problem, I’m leaving.’’’

Sherrill Furniture was 7 years old when Buddy joined his father.

In the early 1920s, O.T. had returned from infantry duty in World War I to his native Hickory looking for work. At the time, Hickory made only casegoods — bedroom and dining room sets — but a local company wanted to add upholstered furnishings. It recruited craftsmen from Grand Rapids, Mich., a traditional furniture industry hotbed, to teach the Carolinians how to properly “spring up” and “spit nails.” It sent O.T. and seven others to learn the trade.

The Hickory and High Point regions slowly built an international reputation for upholstered lines, but when production slowed during the Depression of the 1930s, O.T. took his family to Massachusetts to work in its furniture factories. Returning to Hickory in the early 1940s, O.T. formed Sherrill Furniture in 1943 in a leased building a few blocks from downtown. The business incorporated in 1946.

Buddy Sherrill graduated from Hickory High School in 1943 with World War II raging. Not yet 17, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps’ aviation cadet program. He reported for training in February 1945, but the war ended before he could get off the ground.

Discharged in 1946, he considered dentistry or watch repair before enrolling at the University of South Carolina. He graduated in 1950 with a degree in business administration and retailing. Back in Hickory, Sherrill’s father had built a three-person company: Two women kept the books, while O.T. made the furniture. Never borrowing any money, he’d earned enough to move into a small plant he built near the current headquarters. Postwar, Americans were buying up homes and spending heavily on furnishings. “Immediately after the war, you could sell anything you built,” Buddy Sherrill says. “But my dad had to get supplies on the black market. After three to four years, things eased up.”

The son’s modern business education clashed with his father’s approach. “I wanted to draw graphs to keep track of where the money was going,” he says. “But I was just the owner’s son. O.T. had me filling the drink machine and sweeping floors.”

Soon, he learned how to attach springs to jute webbing, holding a fistful of tacks in his mouth and spitting them onto a magnetic hammer that fastened upholstery to frames with one whack, a process known as “springing up” and “spitting nails.” In no time, he could secure spring systems by hand-tying them with string using eight-way knots.

By the late 1950s, Sherrill was driving around the Carolinas selling the company’s pieces. With other salespeople scattered around the nation, Sherrill Furniture started showing up in many leading department and furniture stores.

“From the beginning, Daddy started building a quality product,” Buddy Sherrill says. “We could get into most any quality store that we had production for — like Rich’s in Atlanta, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Bloomingdale’s and Gimbels in New York.”

In Hickory, the company was building a reputation for its talented craftsmen. “Good companies are all about people,” Buddy Sherrill says. “We now employ children and grandchildren of some of those original people.”

Offered the chance to sell the business, O.T. and Buddy resisted. “We decided if you had to work, you might as well work for yourself,” he says. Sherrill and his first wife, Betty, had contributed to the postwar baby boom with a daughter, Ruth Ann, and two sons, Whitt (Harold Jr.) and Charles, now 55.

Sherrill wasn’t always the most attentive father, Whitt says. Sure, there were family vacations and yearly ski trips to Colorado with his sons. (Buddy skied into his mid-70s.) “Dad was a different man when we got him out of Hickory.”

But back home, his focus was on filling orders and keeping his workers employed. “As kids, we were sometimes second fiddles,” Whitt says. “That’s OK. Dad does what he does best, and that’s running that company. Everything else comes next.”

Not exactly everything. Buddy Sherrill’s impish smile sparkles when he talks about his cars. Whitt couldn’t recall a time when his father didn’t keep multiple high-performance cars. He remembers bracing for trouble after brother Charles side-swiped their father’s first Ferrari — a silver 330 convertible — with his green pedal-driven toy tractor, leaving a streak in the car’s paint.

“But Dad was OK,” he says. “He took it well.”

His car collection that started in the 1960s now fills a warehouse and includes a few Fords from the 1930s and his mother’s last car, a ’74 Lincoln. His collecting “drove O.T. crazy,” Whitt says. “My grandfather thought owning a bunch of cars was extravagant. Dad often bought the same color so O.T. didn’t know he’d gotten a new one.”

Sherrill drove his fast cars fast. “Dad and I were driving once to Naples, Fla., in a big BMW …” Whitt says. “We were on the interstate. I was driving about 90 miles per hour and Dad jerks his head back and shouts: ‘Why are you stopping?’ I got it up to 120 and he looked satisfied.” They made the 12-hour drive in just 10.

He’d take his sons to racetracks in Atlanta and Richmond, Va., where he took part in Sports Car Club of America events. “He’d drive us in the cars he raced,” Whitt remembers, “And he’d say: ‘I better not drive it too hard (on the track). I might crack up, and how’d we get home?’”

In the 1990s, Sherrill and car dealer Yount bought a Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership. Soon, they’d open seven more around the region. When Sherrill wanted out of “the American-made stuff,” they opened European car dealerships. “I hear about it; I’m tuned into it,” Buddy Sherrill says. “But I am strictly a silent partner.”

Perhaps not so silent at first. Saturdays, Sherrill would show up and order salesmen to move the entire lot of cars around like he would his showrooms at the furniture market, Whitt says. Now, he and Yount meet most Saturdays for lunch or go to car shows.

But through the years, building furniture held his focus. During travels overseas to Paris or India, he’d always look at furniture instead of the sights. Keeping his craftsmen working became a personal mission. He’s resisted at least a dozen overtures to sell Sherrill Furniture.

He also resisted taking the company public. “With most of the department stores dried up, our retail outlets have shrunk to the degree that anybody in their right mind would not want to go public,” Sherrill says. Selling the business to a private-equity company would have led to reduced payrolls. “They don’t really care about your people,” he says. “We want to keep our people working.”

Twice divorced, Sherrill says he wouldn’t know what to do if he didn’t have a job. “If I had to play golf every day, I’d just go nuts. I’m the type of guy who’s got to have something to do.”

Son Charles still works at the company. Daughter Ruth Ann once ran a showroom in California but no longer is a Sherrill employee. In Colorado, Whitt represents a leather manufacturer.

The boss has a plan for the company’s future once he’s gone, Whitt says. “Out of respect for him, I can’t go there with you.”

Whitt talks with his father by phone at least twice a week and offers suggestions on furniture pieces he’s seen on sales travels.

“My dad’s not going to let that place go until he’s gone,” Whitt says. “That’s sort of sad, but it’s really not. That company makes him happy. Look at him: He gets up every day and goes to work. He’s still driving. He goes to car shows.

“Like nothing’s changed. He may be in his 90s, but he’s happy doing what he’s doing. That makes me happy.” ■

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