Louis Blumkin, who followed his mother into the furniture business and became a behind-the-scenes retail visionary, died at midnight Tuesday after a long series of illnesses.
Blumkin, 93, was the only son of the late Rose Blumkin, founder of the Nebraska Furniture Mart, and her late husband, Isadore. He was chairman emeritus of the company, where he worked for 75 years and remained active until recently.
Warren Buffett, who bought a majority of the Mart in 1983, said Wednesday, “Louie was a great friend, a great partner in business and a great merchant. Beyond that, he was a great teacher: His primary students were his three sons, and they would make any father proud.
“His legacy is in the best of hands.”
His family said that his life's work was the family's well-being, and he was on the front line of the store's interaction with customers.
“He would remember generations of customers by name, by what they bought and when they made the purchase,” a statement from the family said. “On the buying side, he had no equal. His handshake was his bond; his reputation and word were solid gold.”
In a 2000 interview, Blumkin said that during World War II he had to persuade his mother, known as Mrs. B, not to sell the family business. She was discouraged by slow sales, stymied at getting merchandise for her store and worried about the fate of her “sonny boy” in the Army.
“I told her to wait until I came home,” Blumkin said. “I'll show you what we can do.”
He had three sisters and was an engaging youth, showing a quick wit, a knack for numbers and skill at competitive diving at Omaha Technical High School. He graduated in 1938 and is in the school's hall of fame.
He was a junior warrant officer in an artillery unit that headed toward the Pacific but then was attached to Gen. George Patton's army during its march across Europe toward Germany. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and was hit by shrapnel, earning the Purple Heart.
Blumkin carried vivid memories of the prisoners of war and Dachau concentration camp inmates liberated by the U.S. Army. He served 4½ years, helping return “displaced persons” to Italy after fighting ended.
He received an honorary doctorate from Creighton University and helped fund Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Parkinson's disease research at the NU Medical Center. His charitable foundation supports the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, the Henry Doorly Zoo, Mahoney State Park and the Ronald McDonald House, among other causes.
In 2000, Blumkin was inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame, recognized for such innovations as displaying furniture in roomlike “galleries” and creating a one-stop home furnishings store.
“Somebody has to start those ideas, the innovators and leaders, and Louie Blumkin was certainly one of them,” said Rob Sligh, president of the hall of fame at the time. While his mother got more public attention in the Mart's marketing, Sligh said, “Those in the know knew that Louie was there and doing a tremendous job. Great partnerships bring different strengths to the table.”
Mrs. B and Louie were the only mother-son combination in the hall of fame. They built the Furniture Mart into the nation's largest single-location furniture store by 1983, when Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. purchased the majority interest.
Louie stayed out of the public eye but was vital to the store's growth. It was Louie who saw that Omaha was moving west and proposed moving the downtown store to 72nd Street. He suggested adding more non-furniture goods and buying a tornado-damaged post office next door to give the business room to expand.
Louie acted as peacemaker when his fiery mother would get mad and fire an employee on the spot. He would talk to her and to the dismissed employee, who usually would return the next day and find Mrs. B smiling and friendly.
Blumkin started in the retail business at age 12. One of his duties was inspecting and test-firing shotguns during hunting season for his father's pawn shop.
At the Mart, Louie kept an office in the main store but spent most of his time at the warehouse. Each morning he would visit the Mart's retail buildings, taking notes on displays, furniture styles and new products.
During suppers every Monday and Thursday, he and his sons would exchange ideas. “This man is always focused on the future,” said Ronald Blumkin, company president, in 2000. “He's not bashful about giving us his feedback. Believe me, we're very, very happy to hear it.”
Louie's older sister, Frances Batt, died in 2005. He and his wife, Frances, were married 66 years. Other survivors include sons and daughters-in-law Ron and Chris Blumkin, Irv and Susie Blumkin, and Steve and Cindy Blumkin; eight grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and sisters Cynthia Schneider and Sylvia Cohn of Omaha.
A memorial service will be at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Beth El Synagogue, 14506 California St.
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
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