What does it take to be an industry leader?

As the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame celebrates the grand opening of its brand-new home in High Point this month, President and CEO Karen McNeill has many things she is justifiably proud of: Erecting a brand-new building from start to finish in 13 months; raising $12 million to fund that feat; creating a central repository for more than a century’s worth of industry history; and offering a place for everyone to gather.

It happened quickly but the seeds were sown more than 30 years ago. Since its founding in 1988, Hall of Fame board members discussed the need for a physical place to house its collective history, memorabilia and artifacts and share them with the public, said McNeill, who has worked full-time for the organization for the past six years but was involved in those early discussions through her prior role as a public relations executive. The group collected memorabilia and recorded oral histories and film documentaries. It hired a full-time historian and solicited from the industry historical biographies, company histories, photographs, sketches, press releases and patents.

Plans for a building to house all that historical material took a leap forward in March of 2019 when McNeill received a call about an available building on South Hamilton Street in High Point. The Hall of Fame put in an offer and 15 minutes later it was accepted.

“We had not raised a penny. We did not have a concept or a plan. We became a building owner July 27, 2019. We hired an architect, signed with a general contractor, and hired an exhibits firm,” McNeill said. “Then in March 2020, everything shut down for six months. No one wanted to talk to the Hall of Fame, but we kept going.

“In less than four years’ time, we raised $12 million,” she continued, adding that some of that money came in as pledges over a five-year-period. “We did not need a loan. We paid in cash. We created a concept and exhibits and a place for the industry to gather.

“We constructed this building in 13 months. Demolition started in January 2022, and we completed construction in February 2023, in the middle of the supply chain woes. THAT is the commitment of this industry. That is pretty amazing.

“We’re a $150 billion industry and we will finally have a home.”

Fostering new leadership

As proud as McNeill is about the Hall of Fame’s debut, it is the organization’s Leadership Institute that she is most passionate about. Modeled after the Harvard Business School Seminar for the Young President’s Organization and Chief Executives Organization, the Institute offers an intense, three-day workshop once a year for 25 emerging industry leaders, taught by professors from High Point University and led by Hall of Fame inductees.

“The Leadership Institute had been a dream of mine,” McNeill said. “Two years after taking over the Hall of Fame, I came across these boxes of memorabilia. In the boxes there was a wedding photo from the 1960s. It had five bridesmaids, five groomsmen, a bride and groom. There was no furniture in the picture, so I said, ‘I don’t get it. Why do we have this?’ And then someone said, ‘Look at the cut line .’ And every single name in the cut line was [someone from] a furniture brand. The significance of this is that they had all grown up together – they had gone to school or camp or college together. They all knew one another.
“And then, when I was reading the oral histories, there were endless stories of factories burning down, and a competitor down the street would say, ‘We will make furniture for you, you’re my friend, I don’t want you to go out of business.’” McNeill said she was moved by the industry’s collective instinct to help one another.
“I started asking companies about their biggest challenges, and they would say attracting and retaining talent. And I would think, why? This industry involves fashion, travel, it’s relational, what’s not to love? And then I started talking with emerging leaders and asked them, ‘Are you committed to this industry?’ I was dumbfounded by those who would say ‘No, I’m [just] in marketing.’ I started thinking about that photo and this web of connection that they felt back in the 60s. They were part of something bigger than themselves. It was not just a job.
“The Leadership Institute has helped me create this web of really smart minds, [representing] all kinds of categories and roles in this industry, and they now see this as their industry, their group. That gives me bigger excitement and a bigger thrill. People who now say, ‘I love this industry. I have someone I can call outside my company to ask, how do I face this problem?’ We all need a sounding board. And that’s what the Leadership Institute is all about.”
The curriculum
Candidates nominated for the Leadership Institute must be under 40 and considered “a proven leader, innovator and focused achiever committed to home furnishings as a career,” according to the Institute’s nomination form. Attendees, who pay $6,000 in tuition (which includes room, board and materials), are provided with study materials beforehand and are required to take part in all sessions, which start by 8 a.m. and end at dinnertime, followed by “homework” and further discussions in the evening. Attendees are encouraged to participate for three consecutive years, after which they earn the title of “fellow” and are awarded a graduation certificate and digital badge.
The 2023 leadership class, the second of its kind, took place in February with a theme of company culture and a discussion of the various pillars of leadership, such as vision, communication and execution.
The student viewpoint
Those who participated and spoke with Home Accents Today about their experience were enthused about the program and eager to return next year. They universally agreed that the opportunity to meet with peers from across the industry, those in different jobs in different sectors, and with different perspectives and points of view, was invaluable.
Here is what they said:
Alejandro (Alex) Macias, Del Sol Furniture
Alex Macias is vice president of Del Sol Furniture, a family-owned business based in Phoenix that was founded in 1997 and now operates roughly 75,000 square feet of retail space across four stores. Macias has been running the day-to-day business for about six years.
This was his first year in the Leadership Institute and he said he found it “phenomenal.”
“I’m super glad I went. I thought it was one of the most valuable experiences I could have as a leader in the industry. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of making the furniture industry a long-term career,” he said.
The group that he was in worked on a case study about global expansion, and he said what he appreciated most about the exercise was the chance to exchange ideas with other people in a group discussion.
“Usually, things like this are a one-way street,” he said, describing a training process in which he has shadowed other retailers in their stores, but most of the time they were giving advice and he was taking notes.
“The difference here is that it’s almost like a communal experience — you’re getting the info from the professors and speakers but also forced to participate with your perspective. Then you have your peers. You are able to build trust very quickly, and when you can accomplish that, it becomes extremely powerful. It is information you internalize. It becomes who you are. Then you go home and apply it to your business and your life.”
Macias said he has already implemented in his family’s business some of the things he learned. “We hadn’t looked at our mission statement or our core values since 2009. You think it is going to be that way forever, but that’s not true. We’ve grown. My parents are not involved anymore. Every so often you have to reevaluate and regroup. We were given a step-by-step process on how to do that.”
“I found the people attending were all extremely passionate and focused on the industry, their own career and the community,” he continued. “It’s rare to get 25 people in the industry really passionate about all those things.
“I felt extremely motivated when I left the Institute. You see the different parts of the industry, from the fabric manufacturers to retailers, all different sizes, from all parts of the country. [Learning] how they grew, how big they are now, made me realize that we could do that, too.”
Ryan Mahoney, International Market Centers

Ryan Mahoney is senior vice president of furniture leasing at IMC, and this was his second year participating in the Leadership Institute.

“One of the things I liked most about it, are there are people who attend the event who are currently or who are going to be high level, important people in the industry now or in the future. But some of them are people I wouldn’t ordinarily interact with. You’re getting to meet really great people you wouldn’t ordinarily get to know.”

The days are intense from start to finish, Mahoney said. Each night there is an interview between the inductees and the students, led by Steve Pond, founder of Furniture Today, or Dr. Daniel Hall from the business school at High Point University drilling down into whatever topic is on the curriculum. Company culture is a big part of the program, Mahoney said, as is how to overcome challenges related to that culture. Then it opens to questions from the audience, and further probing questions from inductees, who turn it back on the students. Usually, inductees give examples of actual issues that came up in their own companies, seeking perspectives from the students on how they would have handled it. Then the inductees share how they ultimately resolved the issue.

“I remember John Bray from Vanguard talking about when he was enlisted in the military and wanted to meet his wife in Hawaii for the birth of their child. But all of the troops [under his command] wanted to go on leave as well. Should he leave for the birth of his child or stay with troops to set an example? There could be a lot of different answers, but it offered a perspective about how different people would handle [the situation],” Mahoney said.

“When you talk about culture, you’re sitting in a room with 25 people, all from different backgrounds,” he added. “Some are family-owned businesses, versus being part of a very big company. The learnings can be different.” But all the takeaways are useful in your career, he noted.

“No matter what I learn or forget after I leave there, the relationships that I built are the most important thing,” he said. “Many will stay in the industry their entire career. [I was able to build] friendships with people I would not otherwise have met.”

Shane Pohlman, Nebraska Furniture Mart

This was the second year of the Leadership Institute for Shane Pohlman, who is director of furniture at NFM.

“There’s plenty of conferences and leadership academies in the furniture industry, but this one was the most relevant because it took real world problems that we are dealing with today and tried to take a practical approach to them that we could all take back to our organizations,” he said.

His case study appeared on the surface to be a diversity issue, but when you dug down deeper, it was actually a culture problem, Pohlman said. “If they could have fixed that culture problem, it could have fixed so many other things,” he said. “I thought that was really cool that it was looking deeper into the root cause of what was going on. The process of discovering the root causes and presenting them were one of the most interesting things we did.”

At NFM, anyone who attends a seminar or similar program makes a company presentation to share what they have learned. From his experience at the Leadership Institute Pohlman said, “We’ve identified how we talk about culture, the tactical elements of how to improve culture.”

Like the other participants, Pohlman said he most appreciated the opportunity to get to know other people in the home furnishings industry.

“I went last year and this year, and what I really appreciated were the relationships. Typically, as a buyer on the retail side, I work with vendors. But this was working with other retailers, vendors, technology suppliers, [all different types of positions]. It’s a good mix.”

He said he continues to talk to the people in his group, which still has a text message thread going. “It’s cool to see those relationships grow and be fostered because of this.”

“Also, I was in the first class and Karen and her team wanted feedback,” he added. “Pretty much everything the teams said, she took to heart and tweaked the program from the first year to the second year. As soon as we left in February, she and the team started to discuss what to do to make it better next year. I love that about it.”

Jill Johnson, Tempur-Pedic

Second-year student Jill Johnson is vice president of marketing for Tempur-Pedic and has worked for parent company Tempur-Sealy International across its multiple brands for a total of 12 years. Within her company, there are a lot of discussions about how to address various issues, she said, but getting input about similar situations from credible leaders outside the company is important.

Hearing from other participants in the program from a diverse background was enlightening. They asked each other questions like, ‘What would you do? How would we approach this challenge? What is our combined best path forward?’

“You are really immersed in core leadership competencies that will allow you to successfully lead a business or brand,” Johnson said. “For me, hearing the other participants and their own unique experience has a lot of applications.”

Layering on a fun and engaging environment and honing communication skills to present in front of a group, made it a team-building experience that was relatable to the work everyone does, she added.

“As a manufacturer, I get to interact with the retail side. But hearing their perspectives and their challenges was valuable. ‘How we can be better partners?’ is a great takeaway.”

Kiến Vàng Group

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