Sunday, July 14, 2024

Pillars of North Carolina: Mitchell Gold makes a mark in furniture, civil rights

Mitchell Gold and his company have kept expanding the furniture manufacturer’s 1 million-square-foot plant in Taylorsville, even as many industry peers moved overseas to reduce labor costs. Photo by Alex Cason

By Vanessa Infanzon

Mitchell Gold’s love affair with furniture and home decor wasn’t a calculated decision. “I fell into it,” Gold, 68, says.

When he graduated from Long Island University in New York with a history degree in 1974, a faculty member helped him land a job in the home-furnishings department of Bloomingdale’s department store in Manhattan. He later worked as a national sales manager for the Lane Co., a Virginia-based furniture manufacturer.

Gold and his business partner, Bob Williams, opened a furniture and home-decor company dubbed Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams in 1989 in Taylorsville, located 60 miles northwest of Charlotte. They sold 5,000 chairs before production even began. Instead of starting small, Gold contacted the largest retailers with the most buying power. Now the company has 33 stores, including sites in Beverly Hills, Calif., New York’s SoHo neighborhood and other retail hot spots. About 65% of production is in North Carolina, with upholstery and draperies manufactured in Alexander and Iredell counties. The company employs more than 600 in the state. Tables and accessories are globally sourced.

Gold’s experiences as a gay teenager in Trenton, N.J., shaped his advocacy work for LGBTQ causes. He serves on the board of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to stop religious-based bullying. He’s the editor of Youth in Crisis, a compilation of stories by various community and business leaders. He lives in Conover with his husband, Tim, and remains close friends with his former life partner, Bob Williams, who is the company’s president of design.

This year, the business celebrated its 30th anniversary and hired a new CEO, Allison O’Connor, as part of a gradual succession plan. Gold, the company’s chairman, remains very active in the business. He talked about his career and activism in comments edited for length and clarity.

One of Gold’s college deans asked about his post-college plans. I said, “I’m going to take some time, and then I’m going to apply for law school.” And he looked at me and said, “Oh, lawyers are so boring, and they’re such [profanity].” That was exactly what he said. And [then] he said, “I know what you should do.” And he turned around, and he picked up the phone, and he called the executive vice president of Bloomingdale’s and said, “Vin, I have this guy here you should talk to. He’s a natural retailer.”

My luck in life — I like to think it’s part karma, too — was meeting Bob. He and I are like two peas in a pod. We wanted to just build a jewel of a company. We wanted to build something that really had a soul to it.

We picked Alexander County just by chance. My brother knew someone who knew someone that knew about a factory here. We bought into the business and eventually bought them out completely. We’ve been here now for 30 years, know so many people and love the community. … We want people to know we are not the negative portrayal that some churches say LGBT people are, but rather kind, caring people living a proud life helping others.

We first sold to J.C. Penney and Levitz [Furniture], and then to Crate & Barrel and other elite retailers. We found our home in the more stylish stores as they represented our aesthetic and level of service to customers. … We focused on those retailers and eventually opened our own stores at some of America’s best addresses.

When a lot of factories in this area [of the state] made an exodus to China, we made a conscious decision to keep our upholstery manufacturing here, and we did it by looking at how we do things and getting more efficient and more lean. We worked on a shorter margin to keep it here.

We’ve had a couple of people leave us and say that it was because of my activism. We probably have had people not come to work for us. We probably have had customers that haven’t bought from us.

We just hired a new employee in our marketing area, and I said, “How did you come to work for us?” And he said, “I’m bisexual, and I started looking around at companies to see where I would be welcome, and your name came to the top of the list, and the more research I did, … this is where I wanted to work.” I just saw him at an event a couple of days ago, and he’s just beaming. He said, “I never dreamed I would work at a place like this.”

During the ’60s, I remember watching [Alabama Gov.] George Wallace on TV. He said, “Segregation now, segregation forever. It says it in the Bible.” I looked at my mother, and I said, “Does it say that in the Bible?” And she said, “No, it doesn’t say it in our Bible.” And it was the beginning of an understanding for me that people read the Bible differently. They had different Bibles. It wasn’t just one.

I’m furious over people using religion to hurt other people. Not one more kid should go through the torture that I went through.

I’m impressed with the amount of people that have changed. I’m impressed with the amount of people that are advocates for fairness. I’m impressed with people that have the dignity to change, to admit that they changed — that they’ve evolved on the subject — and have learned more and have made a better decision that’s fair for people.

I have not been able to convince people to stop the toxic teaching that homosexuality is a sin. I will go to my grave working on that. On my tombstone it’s going to say, … “He wanted to end the teaching that homosexuality is a sin, and it happened.” So if that happens in the next few years, remember I was part of it or pushed it.

Don’t miss out on other stories from the Pillars of North Carolina series:

Harvey Gantt

Sheila Ogle

For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

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