Related topics

Manny Steinfeld: Selling Chairs to the Nation

December 12, 1985

CHICAGO (AP) _ Manny Steinfeld travels thousands of miles a year visiting customers, but no matter where he goes he can usually sit on a chair of his own.

It’s not that Steinfeld travels with his furniture. He’s chairman of Shelby Williams Industries Inc., which has made and sold 13 million chairs since he started it in 1954.

Steinfeld, a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi persecution in 1938, finds his chairs in Holiday Inns, Howard Johnson motels, Wendy’s fast food restaurants, Ponderosa steak houses and Red Lobster Inns, to name just a few.

Steinfeld, who has won numerous business awards - including the Horatio Alger Award - has been known to flip over many a chair on entering a restaurant or hotel to see if the Shelby Williams name is on it. It frequently is.

Although there are no statistics available for the industry, Steinfeld believes his company sells more chairs than his next five competitors combined.

Shelby Williams is not named for any individual, although Steinfeld has run across a few folks who share the name. Steinfeld and an associate thought it up for the company when they bought it at a bankruptcy auction.

Steinfeld had done accounting work for the family-owned chairmaker and knew that it would cost almost $250,000 to build such an outfit from scratch.

″I knew where the hidden assets were,″ said Steinfeld.

In its first year under Steinfeld, the company sold $300,000 worth of chairs. In the second year, sales tripled.

Steinfeld, 61, has been in and out of the public sector since then.

Shelby Williams first went public in 1965. It was bought in 1968 by Coronet Industries. RCA swallowed Coronet, along with Shelby Williams, in 1971, and Steinfeld was hired to run the furniture unit.

RCA later decided to shed some of its assets so Steinfeld bought the company again in 1976, this time in a leveraged buyout with a $16 million loan.

Steinfeld paid off the corporation’s debt in five years, and Shelby Williams - like the man who runs it - is largely debt free today.

″I like to be liquid,″ said Steinfeld, who received financial aid from the Jewish Federation of Chicago while growing up, but paid cash when he bought his home in a high-rise condominium.

Steinfeld is a prominent leader and fund raiser for the Jewish Federation, which had helped him settle in Chicago when he was 14, a youth fleeing the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, where his mother and sister later would die.

He was raised by an aunt and attended public schools.

″I delivered newspapers in the morning and was a soda jerk in the afternoon,″ said Steinfeld, who later graduated from the University of Illinois.

It is generally Steinfeld’s personal touches that elicit the highest marks from customers.

″To be chairman of the board and to be interested in my problem with one chair or with designing a chair, that’s pretty personal involvement,″ said Tom Thomley, director of design for Holiday Inns.

″We always found that if we had a problem of any kind, the first thing Manny wanted to do was accept responsibility, replace the seating and fix the problem right then,″ Thomley said. ″But that problem seldom came up because he made such a quality product.″

His customers’ satisfaction is backed up by Shelby Williams’ bottom line.

In October, Shelby Williams reported record sales for its third quarter and was well on its way to its eighth consecutive year of record income and sales.

In 1984, Shelby Williams earned $6.4 million, or 83 cents a share, on sales of $100.6 million. In the nine-month period ended Sept. 30, the company earned $5.2 million, or 68 cents a share, on sales of $84 million.

Thirty years ago, Steinfeld considered a chair something to sit on. Today, he can look at a chair, tell the amount of fabric needed to cover it, estimate its cost and recite a litany of statistics about public seating.

Motels refurbish their rooms an average of once every 12 years, public areas every six years, he says. An average of four to five people sit in each chair every day.

The refurbishing cycle is important to Steinfeld: ″That’s the reason we haven’t been hurt by economic downturns.″

But Steinfeld has had a lot to do with it, said Alvin W. Cohn, president and chief operating officer of CFS Continental Inc. of Chicago, and a Shelby Williams director.

″He watches his business and he works very hard at it,″ said Cohn.

Steinfeld knows what his customers want, he appreciates the stockholders, and he has empathy for the people who work for him, Cohn said.

Tom Wells, an independent designer in Memphis, Tenn., who has worked with Steinfeld since the early days of Shelby Williams, recalled the time that he designed a cocktail lounge and forgot to order chairs.

″I called him and told him what had happened, and they made all of them in five days,″ he said.

Update hourly