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Friday, March 1, 2024

Remembering Hickory Furniture Mart founder, education champion

Catawba County businessman Leroy Lail, who founded the iconic Hickory Furniture Mart and went on to own dozens of businesses including nine hotels, died Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at his home in Conover. He was 85.

In addition to his business success, Lail also was a champion of Catawba County and education. Appalachian State University Chancellor Sheri Everts credited Lail and another Hickory businessman, Charlotte Knights owner Don Beaver, with helping pave the way for the college based in Boone to open a Hickory campus in August last year. “Leroy was a champion for education in our state. He was a visionary and advocate for App State’s Hickory campus, and I am proud he was able to see that vision realized,” Everts noted after his passing. Lail served on the UNC Board of Governors for 13 years, starting in 2003, and Everts recalled soon after she arrived at App State in 2014 that Lail started talking with her about creating a Hickory campus.

Leroy Lail

Lail could always see the possibilities of an enterprise before others, says Renee Keever, who worked for him for 32 years and now serves as director of operations for Piedmont Center Associates, one of the family’s 38 businesses, and the company that oversees the hotels.

“He got the wheels humming before other people even knew it was time,” says Keever. His vision could be seen in the 1960s when Lail and his wife, Lynn, started what would become the Hickory Furniture Mart, which now encompasses four stories and 1-million-square-feet of retail space. The family of Lynn Mull Lail owned Mull’s Motel and Restaurant, which had become a popular destination in the late 1950s for furniture wholesale buyers and dealers traveling in an area well-known for its furniture manufacturing.

“He saw a need for people to be able to show their furniture so he opened a showroom in the basement of the restaurant and that became the Hickory Furniture Mart,” says Keever. Lail opened his first Holiday Inn Express in 1986, and now has seven hotels in Hickory, one in Conover and one in Black Mountain, operating as Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden, Fairfield by Marriott, two Hampton Inns, two Holiday Inn Expresses and a Crown Plaza.

Keever was 26 years old when she first met Lail. She worked for another company that was doing accounting work for him. He wanted her to work for him full time, she says. She tears up as she talks about a person she credits with teaching her about business and how to see any mistake as just an opportunity to learn.

“People who didn’t know him could think he was hard, because he could be intimidating, but he was really just driven,” she says. “When you were around him every day you learned he was a softie. He loved helping young people and seeing other people succeed in business.” Lail and his wife’s three children all remain active in the businesses, which include commercial real estate and land holding companies for future development.

A turning point in Lail’s life came in June 1961. Within a week’s time, he graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, received his commission in the Navy and married his wife of more than 62 years. “Boy, did they make a great team,” Keever says of the Lails.

Conover City Councilman Bruce Eckard served for years with Lail on the Hickory-Conover Tourism Development Authority. Eckard says Lail remained active on the board, and attended the board’s meeting in November.

“He was a champion for hospitality,” says Eckard. “He was a big supporter of Catawba County and the arts and education.” Eckard says Lail deserves the credit for helping the Hickory Metro Convention Center and Visitors Bureau to open in 1997, which is now undergoing a $14 million expansion. The idea of a convention center did not have overwhelming support at first, he says.

“Mr. Lail bought the property, got an architect to design the building and paid for it, and then when Hickory and Conover got occupancy taxes enacted (in the 1980s) we paid him back,” says Eckard. “If it wasn’t for him, the convention center probably wouldn’t be there.

“He had a vision and if he didn’t get the people behind him, he would just go out and do it himself,” Eckard added.

One of the latest projects that Lail was working on was creating a “Western North Carolina Furniture Hall of Fame” within the convention center, says Richard Eller, a history instructor at Catawba Valley Community College, and a writing collaborator with Lail. Eller says he helped Lail with his book “Win/Win” and that Lail helped him write “Well-Crafted: The History of the Western North Carolina Furniture Industry.”

Eller says Lail’s work with getting Appalachian State University to locate a campus in Hickory had to do with a strong belief that education was a key to an individual’s and a community’s success. “He’d always say, ‘College towns do better,’” says Eller.

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