With the opening of the Spring High Point Market, we wraped up six months of celebration here at Currey & Company. First and foremost, our biggest reason for the festivities was our 30-year anniversary, which we enjoying commemorating with all of you at the different markets beginning last fall in High Point.
Then there were the Arts Awards nods we received during Dallas Market for accent furniture and for Aimess Kurzner, who took home the award for Best Product Designer. Two of our collaborators, Denise McGaha and Aviva Stanoff, took home trophies of their own. It was quite an evening to be sure!
We just completed the mammoth task of launching a new website to make it just as lovely to look at and more functional for those of you who use it to source our products so consistently. And speaking of products: last, but by no means least, we launched quite a few in High Point a few weeks ago that were manufactured during the past six months. These include one-of-a-kind accessories for the first time, the items sourced by our design team sourced during their extensive travels.
Wrapping Up Six Months of Celebration
If you follow us here on the company said blog, you have read interviews we’ve conducted with some of our longest-standing employees and some of our newest hires during the past six months. As a way to culminate our merriment over our three decades of success, we’ve left our final five conversations for last, going to the heart of the family business with our chats with Brownlee, Robert and Suzy Currey.
Wrapping up the post, we asked Bob Ulrich and Cam Meriwether to chime in as to what makes our company so special. We’re illustrating their interviews with shots of our luminous showroom during High Point and a few of our bestsellers from Market. We hope you have enjoyed celebrating with us as much as we have loved including you in our cheerfulness over our three decades in business.
About his role as the president of our company, Brownlee Currey says his perspective has changed substantially over the years. The process that landed him where he is today has included a few surprises. “It was intriguing growing up because I was surrounded by the businesses my father created,” he explains. “The delightful surprise is that it’s not anything like I thought it was going to be 20 years ago. When I finished college, I had notions about how it would feel to do what I’m doing now but it’s markedly different now that I’m here.”
Thinking back to those days in college, a statement made by a visiting photography professor illustrates one of his strengths: “At the end of the year, we were sitting around rounding things out when he said to me, ‘Can I give you a piece of advice? Your photography is nice but given how good you are at playing with all of these materials, you should concentrate on finding a way to do that.’ It’s not a surprise he would say this because making things out of materials is what I had been watching my father do since I was very young.”
A memorable experience for Brownlee was attending the New York shows from the time he was a pre-teen. “I was going to Javits to see shows with Robert by the time I was 15 years old,” he notes. “When we weren’t traveling that far afield, we would ride around Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to see what we could find that would be interesting to sell.” Though he was immersed in this ebb and flow of buying and selling for many years, he makes the point that his parents went out of their way to make sure he never felt pressured to join our business. “The lovely thing is,” he adds, “it’s everything I dreamed and so much more.”
Brownlee feels true joy in the fact that he is involved in moving us further along as a company. “For me, the interesting part of the whole journey is that we started in one place, we progressed to a better place and we’re about to move to an entirely different place,” he explains. “For a business to grow, its leaders must never set a fixed vision of the future and think they are done; we have to be flexible and always be embracing change.” Fortunately, he adds, his temperament is hard-wired to the experimental: “This simply doesn’t bother me as much as it disturbs some people.”
Looking toward the next 30 years, he believes the evolution of our company will happen naturally because we value our people and we have made a commitment to strengthening the culture we have nurtured so far. “We will continue to make sure that someone is better off the day they begin working here than they would be working anywhere else,” he says. “We offer them real old-fashioned benefits, like the educational programs, that people need so they can become stable. I see this as a huge benefit for all of us here at Currey & Company.”
To those who might see the educational program as a charitable one, he begs to differ: “It is mutually beneficial. The people who take advantage of it tend to be engaged, curious and optimistic about their lives. There’s no one better to be working with than optimists. The delight of this process is, at the end of the day, we have a wonderfully engaged person to work for us.”
The way forward, he believes, will bring challenges from a changing marketplace, which makes it critical that we continue to assure our customers and our collaborators that they are valued. “As we make the changes necessary that allows us to continue our evolution, it can be uncomfortable and it can stay uncomfortable for a while,” he explains. “This makes it imperative that we help our customers and vendors stay assured as we advance.” One of the biggest shifts he sees coming will be in the retail landscape, a subject he knows so well given his background.
“I am awfully grateful and at moments surprised to find myself where I am now,” he says. “I owe a debt to Robert and Suzy—they went through quite a lot to provide me with everything I needed to get to this point. And Sonny Koontz has been an invaluable mentor for me. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to him, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be doing what I’m doing.”
“Who knew?” quips Robert B. Currey about the fact that we have just celebrated our 30-year anniversary. “It’s another one of those dreams come true. For me, the best of all is I retired and all of the Currey & Company team has continued to develop the company and run it better than I ever did!”
In his view, there is no aspect of our development that doesn’t stimulate pride. “I walked through the warehouse looking at the distribution rows the other day and I marveled at those neat, tidy rows that I used to have such a tough time accomplishing,” he says. “The group of people in the office and on the plant floor take such great care of things, they make me so proud.” Calling the strength that has been built by our people a fairy tale, he says the founding of our company grew out of a necessity.
“I had a vendor who couldn’t deliver the products I was selling like crazy,” he explains. “I said to myself, I might as well assume responsibility because I was making promises he couldn’t keep.” Those promises were met as he ramped up operations, though he is quick to point out that the credit goes to many along the way: “Within a year of founding the company, I hired someone to manage things and there has been someone managing things since. It’s important to give everyone else their due. In fact, I refuse to be the only one accepting the mantle for the success we’ve achieved because I could not have done it alone; and it didn’t take just a village, it took an entire metropolitan area!”
He greatly values the mentoring that has taken place, which benefitted him as the leader of our company for so many years and has helped Brownlee as he has taken the helm. “None of his mentors included me; he had a number of men who have helped him become who he is today, one of which is Sonny Koontz, who set Brownlee on a trajectory that I would not have been able to achieve for him,” he remarks. “It’s simple: I’m a merchant, not a manager. My brother, Brad, who is 88, has played a big role in my life; in fact, he’s like a father to me. He went to see Brownlee a few weeks ago and he said to me afterwards, ‘You know, Robert; Brownlee is a lot better manager than you are.’ I responded, ‘I never said I was a manager; I just wanted to be a merchant and I did whatever I had to do to make sure I could stay one.’”
He is an absolute stickler for detail, which he believes has infused our company with the magic many people feel. “I’ll tell you a story that illustrates this,” he explains. “The entrance to our High Point showroom wasn’t always as beautiful as it is now. There were windows and an old door with beat-up frames and a very dirty threshold. We had the windows polished to a sheen but the door threshold bothered me. So, there I was, at about 9 o’clock the night before we were going to open, scraping the crud out of that threshold. The guy from a showroom across the way came over and asked if that wasn’t a bit obsessive compulsive. I told him we would see. The next day, our showroom was filled with people and he didn’t have anyone in his. That evening I walked over to him and asked, ‘Do you still think I was too fussy?’”
In thinking about the next thirty years, he makes the point there’s no way he can predict how our company will look in three decades given he couldn’t have predicted what we have achieved today. And he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal. “Put the wonderful people in the production department, in the Philippines, in product development, and the talented young people in the design department on a pedestal,” he says. “They deserve the glory.”
Suzanne Currey calls the trajectory of our 30-year development as a company “a lovely evolution,” a journey she has enjoyed taking with the many people involved in making us a success. Looking back to the beginning, she notes, “Some people would tell us that we acted too much like retailers, but that has benefitted us as we have grown from just a few of us with Robert at the center of things to having so many talented people working on the effort now, which is so much more sophisticated in its organization than it was then.”
As one of our founders, she reminisces about Robert’s courage as a risk-taker and her role as the earliest voice to message our brand and to set our customer service policies. “I always think of myself more as a writer than a talker,” she explains. “But I always felt comfortable talking about our products because I knew them so well.” She calls our evolution during the early years an organic process that she enjoyed watching unfold. She helped to nurture this development for so many years as she provided the language used to describe our products and our brand.
To this day, she enjoys traveling to High Point to attend Market where she sees so many of the people who have helped us become the company we are today. “Even though it’s so much larger now, I can still feel Robert’s spirit as the creator of the company,” she notes. “His creativity and his willingness to take risks have always set us apart. He wasn’t intimidated by people telling him products like the shell-encrusted pieces and faux bois wouldn’t ship or wouldn’t sell. He was an out-of-the-box thinker.”
Suzy believes that one of the reasons his spirit imbues our company still is the fact that Brownlee, the second generation of Currey’s to lead our team, has a similar point of view, though she describes him as having a bit more discipline in this respect. “Robert had a strong desire to not be like anyone else and I can see this in Brownlee, too, though he is somewhat more genteel in his thinking.”
She explains Brownlee has come to this naturally, the extent to which she illustrates by sharing a story she enjoys telling about the day they brought him home from the hospital when he was born: “We were on our way home from the hospital and Robert wanted to stop by Storehouse. He told me he wanted to take Brownlee in, but not through the front door; he wanted him to enter the store through the loading dock because he didn’t want him to get the idea that he was too fancy!” She says the fact that Brownlee grew up with Storehouse and Garden Source at the hub of his earliest years set him on the path he is on now. “He’s good at what he does and he comes by it pretty naturally,” she adds.
One of the facets of our evolution in which she takes great pride is the educational efforts we undertake for all of our employees. “It has been so wonderful to watch it evolve,” she explains. “We have someone great running the program, and it is pleasing to me to see how people are able to so easily attend ESL and computer classes because these opportunities have changed lives.” She also believes our philosophy of allowing people to move from position to position when they are ready continues to benefit everyone who helps to make our operations run so smoothly.
“Because we give employees flexibility, they have a continual path to greater opportunities,” she says. “That has made such a difference to the company—it has made believers of us and brought us so many rewards.” All-in-all, she says it has been a lovely evolution to watch: “I’m so proud of my son; and I am so delighted to have been able to watch Robert succeed. Other than that, I’m just happy to have tagged along!”
Bob Ulrich has been with us for 25 years. As our Vice President of Sales, he notes that working day-in and day-out surrounded by beauty is pretty easy to take. He was originally lured to join us by someone integral to our founding whom he met at a trade show. “I was drawn to Robert Currey like a moth to a flame,” he tells us. “He was enigmatic, dynamic, spontaneous—he was one of the most interesting merchants I had ever met and I just couldn’t figure him out!”
His continual desire to understand what Robert was up to was the first nudge to make him consider joining us at a time when we were just being born as a company. The second was that he felt something special was going to come of the effort, an intuition that turned out to be true: “I knew Robert had vision. We just had to crystalize it and make it real. The bottom line, I guess, is that I wanted to be a part of whatever he and Suzy were doing.”
He says one of the most exciting aspects of our business during the early years was how we were flying by the seats of our pants: “During market in High Point, for instance, Robert would be putting finishes on the furniture in the basement the day before the showroom opened!” Bob believes the magic for which we’ve become known began with the atmosphere Robert created in the showrooms: “There were birds chirping and fish in the bowls—that was the merchant in Robert. It was all about theater and it has always set us apart.”
Twenty-four years later, our culture has changed a bit with Brownlee at the helm, and Bob celebrates the healthy environment built by both generations of the Currey’s, as well as the management we have tapped to help them. “The interesting thing is, everyone has access to the top and the bottom of the company,” he adds. “There’s an openness in our organization that wouldn’t be like this if we hadn’t been building the culture intentionally for the past two-plus decades.” Top of mind for him (and us) is being easy to do business with so that there are no hurdles created for reps and customers to have to circumvent.
And Bob is proud to see how much stronger we are becoming on a global scale year after year. “Currey & Company is seriously multi-cultural and the complexity of the different points of view is broadening our perspective, as is our exposure to other countries,” he explains. “The hand-made aspect of so many of our designs requires that we travel. This has made us aware of the needs in other the countries where we have partners.”
Bob believes we have the ability to create such a broad spectrum of products because of these relationships we’ve built in towns across the globe, and he says it has happened by design and, to some extent, by osmosis. “It’s the journey that has brought us here,” he explains. “And spending every day surrounded by such talented people is inspiring.” He believes the educational opportunities everyone has here, courses of study that span from ESL [English as a Second Language] classes to masters degrees, figure in keeping everyone content.
“We didn’t know exactly how everything would play out when we put these programs in place but we knew that, at the very least, people who worked for us would benefit and that was enough,” he explains. “As it turns out, the company has reaped tremendous rewards given the length of time so many of our people have been with us. The loyalty we’ve generated is proving that being willing to invest in the intellectual resilience of our employees is definitely worth the effort.”
Cam Meriwether is celebrating 22 years with us, his rise a mercurial one considering he began at the company unloading containers and he is now Vice President of Manufacturing. One of the things he celebrates most is our vision in having set a strong intention of helping everyone who works at the company move up as the years go by. “That has allowed the culture to be creative,” he says. “Embracing change is an important part of the philosophy here because success is always a moving target.”
He believes one of the hallmarks of our company is that the lion’s share of the people who work within the corporate headquarters in Atlanta don’t end up doing what they were hired to do. This is quite a statement given how much time can go into the development of talent: “There is no instant gratification when it comes to the evolution of other people,” he explains. “It takes years for it to happen and one of the things I have witnessed repeatedly is that the moment to ask the question ‘who is this person going to be in five years’ is when they are hired.”
This is at the heart of the philosophy that has nurtured so many long-standing employees here, he notes, as hiring people who will reach a ceiling and leave means hiring more often and continuously being trapped in training mode. “It is really important that everyone puts in their sweat equity,” he says. “In exchange, they are offered more tools for their toolbelts that will allow them to follow different paths when they are ready to move up.”
He believes that the fact we have employees in management who have worked entry-level jobs creates mutual respect, which results in an openness because so many on the team have “been there.” He sees our heritage as a culture of empowerment, a culture of “let’s get this done,” and he credits Brownlee for being open and willing to listen to anyone who wishes to speak with him about their point of view.
“Everyone is thinking about how every move is going to impact the company,” he adds. “There are times when it’s more challenging than others to tease out what it means to support the positive and refute the negative but we have learned at the end of the day it’s about working through the process.” He says the thing he would want others to know about us is that it is so much more than a lighting or furniture company. “It is about design but it’s about caring for everyone,” he explains. “It’s about wanting everyone to flourish.”
He is an example of this, as we have made it possible for him to earn his MBA while he worked his way “up the ladder.” He explains, “One-half of my class had had to sign contracts that stipulated they would stay at the companies paying for their education for at least three years. I didn’t have to do that. Their attitude is ‘If I care about you, you’ll care about me,’ and this has proven to be an excellent strategy.”
Though these are serious subjects to discuss, there is plenty of room for humor as we go about the business of making our products. “Brownlee is a very worldly person—he has traveled everywhere and he is not afraid to try anything when it comes time to sit down at a meal,” Cam says. “It has been quite entertaining at times watching other people from the company try to eat what was put in front of them, especially in Asia. I respect what is being taught—that it’s good to expand yourself by trying new things—but it’s impossible not to laugh when someone swallows hard and Brownlee says ‘you just ate a squid eyeball.’ I’ve had more than one scary thing on my plate over the years!”
Here’s to the Next 30!
We hope you have enjoyed reading about the take a few of our company leaders have on our culture and the points of view of the Currey family as much as we enjoyed sharing them with you. Now, here’s to the next 30 years!
Images in this post by Beth Tilley Green.