3 Blumkins among 2014 Omaha Business Hall of Fame inductees

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Posted: Friday, January 24, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:52 am, Tue May 20, 2014.

Three members of the Blumkin dynasty, two lawyers and a businessman who helps carry out democracy have been selected to enter the Omaha Business Hall of Fame.

Making up the 2014 Class of who's who in business: the late Louis Blumkin and sons Irv and Ron of Nebraska Furniture Mart fame; John Boyer and the late Paul Jessen, attorneys noted also for their business and civic impact; and Aldo Tesi, chief executive of Election Systems & Software.

The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's Business Hall of Fame has been recognizing key drivers of Omaha's job and economic growth since 1993, when the first group of hall-of-famers included Louis' mom and Mart founder Rose Blumkin.

The new inductees bring to 133 the number of leaders showcased in a permanent display at the Durham Museum.

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Nominated by peers and picked by a chamber committee, this year's winners will be honored during an April 23 gala at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Neither Ron nor Irv will accept too much credit for recent growth of an iconic furniture empire projected to expand sales by an additional 70 percent after its Texas store opens.

In separate interviews, the third-generation Blumkin brothers pushed the spotlight on a broader group — other relatives and Nebraska Furniture Mart employees. Each said he'd humbly enter the Hall of Fame on the team's behalf.

“I just happen to be one of the lucky ones with the right bloodline,” said Irv, who at age 8 started working under the tutelage of his father, Louis, and legendary grandma, Rose.

Clark Lauritzen of First National Bank, who led the selection process, said it was only fitting for the father and sons to enter the hall together. “They're regarded as very strong operators in a challenging industry.”

Louis had worked 75 years at the Mart before his death last year at age 93. He's said to have persuaded Mrs. B not to sell off the family business during World War II. She'd been discouraged by factors including slow sales and trouble getting merchandise and worries about her “sonny boy” then in the Army.

Louis later would take note of Omaha's westward growth and propose the Mart's move from downtown to 72nd Street. He suggested adding more nonfurniture items and buying a damaged post office next door for room to expand.

After a major tornado damaged the store in 1975, Irv, freshly graduated from the University of Arizona, returned to Omaha and helped rebuild a bigger family operation.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought a majority of the Mart in 1983, and a Blumkin-led management continued to grow the business.

Irv, now chairman and chief executive officer, and Ron, president and chief operating officer, became key to the Mart opening stores in Des Moines and Kansas City. Last year, they led the opening of a new two-story corporate headquarters near the current Omaha store.

The company's next and largest venture — a $1.5 billion, 433-acre retail, dining and entertainment campus in suburban Dallas — is under development. Its anchor, the Nebraska Furniture Mart of Texas, is poised to open in May 2015 and will be the Mart's third full-line store, with 20 percent more display space than Omaha's.

The Blumkins carve out time for civic involvement. The Mart, for example, has “adopted” Bryan High School, and Ron faithfully attends the annual National Honor Society induction ceremony, sitting among students and parents during a dinner the company sponsors. “To have the president of the company come shake hands and say congratulations is a really big honor for our students,” said teacher Lindsay Behne.

Reflecting back, Ron, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who joined the furniture business after serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 through 1972, said perhaps the proudest yet most difficult time for him and Irv was opening the Kansas City store a decade ago.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, he said. “By the end of the day we were having second thoughts as to why we even started this in the first place.”

All kinks eventually were smoothed out, and Ron today says, “It was a rough labor but the child turned out to be a beautiful adult.” And out of the chaos came a “post-mortem” of lessons learned. Managers study the multipage document, he said, so as not to repeat the same mistakes in Texas.

Ron said he and Irv, both Central High graduates, along with other Blumkin relatives and co-workers, will focus the next five years on opening and stabilizing the Texas store. It's got 343 acres around it yet to be developed.

Said Ron: “You might say that's our next growth — we're going to be in the real estate business.”

His legal eye has helped guide the growth of Omaha's world-class zoo, the Durham Museum, the Boy Scouts.

He's served boards of big-hitter corporate entities such as Walter Scott's Tetrad and Berkshire Hathaway's MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

For decades, he's been general counsel to the entity charged with building the metro area's economy and workforce: the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

John Boyer's wide-reaching legal expertise, often provided on a volunteer basis, to key job- and money-makers in the city has cemented him a spot in the Business Hall of Fame. He's among a handful of practicing lawyers invited into the elite club.

“John's been involved in just about all the large community development projects in the city,” said chamber President David Brown. “Whether it's the riverfront, the zoo, the med center projects — really any big project over the last 20 or 30 years — he's had a hand in it.”

Born and raised in Omaha, the graduate of Benson High and longtime president of the Omaha Zoological Society has worked 45 years at the Fraser, Stryker law firm, where he is a partner.

Married to Lynne Durham Boyer also for 45 years, he graduated from the University of Nebraska's law school, got a job, got hitched and got a draft notice that sent him to basic training for the Nebraska Army National Guard, all within months. Said Boyer: “1969 was a big year.”

His career, so far, also has been packed with thrill — from crafting legal maneuvers to keep the NCAA Division I baseball championship tournament in Omaha, to carrying Cincinnati-born Timu, the world's first test-tube baby gorilla, to her new home at the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Even when soaking in a baseball game at the College World Series, Paul Jessen could not sit back and be just a spectator. He'd keep his own personal scoreboard of hits, errors and home runs.

“He couldn't stand to be idle,” recalled Michael Hupp of the Koley Jessen law firm. “He always had to be doing something productive.”

Jessen, who died in 2012 at age 59, was notable for his vast array of civic and business activities that influenced Omaha's growth, said Clark Lauritzen, who led the selection committee.

The graduate of Westside High and Creighton University School of Law co-founded a respected law firm that grew from seven attorneys 25 years ago to a staff of 130 that includes 60 lawyers. A specialist in business succession and estate planning, Jessen represented mom-and-pop businesses as well as high-profile companies like Cabela's.

Jessen preached often about “lessons of the geese,” or the value of flying as a team, said Hupp. His push to create a positive culture not only in business but also the community led him to the volunteer board of the College World Series of Omaha, where he guided the organization to a new stadium and extending Omaha's contract to host the CWS.

His negotiations with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association also helped keep one of the country's top rodeos in Omaha. He was active in the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben and Omaha Community Foundations.

Said Lauritzen: “Paul was just a natural leader and driver of business.”

Since joining Omaha-based Election Systems & Software nearly 15 years ago, Aldo Tesi has helped propel a relatively low-profile operation into the largest voting systems and service company in the world.

“It's one of those companies that not a lot of people in Omaha know much about,” said Clark Lauritzen, who led the selection process. “But Aldo has led it to become the national leader.”

Tesi's tenure with ES&S began around the time of the “hanging chad” debacle in Florida, an event he said changed the industry and led the company to double its market share of registered voters whose ballots are tabulated under ES&S systems.

In addition to financial return and job creation — more than half of ES&S's 450 employees are in Omaha — Aldo is proud of the company's mission. “We're the behind-the-scenes of the fundamental right to vote, basically the foundation of democracy,” he said.

Mike McCarthy of McCarthy Capital, an ES&S investor, said most of the firm's growth has been under Tesi's watch. Of 3,500 U.S. counties, ES&S services about 2,300. That includes the nation's largest county of registered voters, New York City, and smallest, Arthur County, Neb.

The company also runs elections in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the Philippines, and has done pilot elections in other countries.

Before ES&S, Tesi, a graduate of San Francisco State University, spent three decades in the technology and service industry. After IBM, he rose to the presidency of First Data Resources and shepherded growth of its credit card business into a worldwide industry leader.

Even after 40-plus years in a travel-heavy field, McCarthy said, Tesi remains a “road warrior” who goes where the work is to ensure customer satisfaction.

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