GRANDSON OF MRS. B
Bob Batt had a dream that he was homeless, staying in the Open Door Mission. He woke up but realized that homelessness is a reality for people who miss what he had: good luck, good friends, a supportive family, a chance for an education.
"You've got to have a heart," he said.
Batt was reading a newspaper story about a young man, driving drunk after leaving a bar, who had an accident that killed two friends — two lives wasted because of alcohol.
"I was trying to comprehend that," he said. "Every time I see where kids run into a tree or a bridge because they've been drinking — I hate that."
And Batt loves the story about Henry Monsky giving money to the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan in 1917 to start a home for boys, a touching account of a Jew helping a Catholic priest's charity for children.
"That was always an impressive story to me," he said.
Batt, 67, who is ending a lifelong career at the Nebraska Furniture Mart, didn't just think about such things.
Determined to reduce alcohol-related tragedies, he gained a seat on the Nebraska Liquor
"I see so many kids who are screwed up, whether it was through alcohol or drugs by themselves or their parents, and they have the chance to come out and be productive citizens."— Bob Batt, future Boys Town trustee
Control Commission and has toughened the state's alcohol enforcement.
To help less fortunate people, he and his wife, Janice, support charities that battle poverty, among other causes.
And following in Monsky's footsteps, Batt will become the newest member of Boys Town's national board of trustees, continuing the Omaha tradition of Jewish support for the Catholic nonprofit that helps young people.
Although he has left the day-to-day operations of the Furniture Mart, Batt still has business interests. He is a partner with Omaha attorney Jerry Slusky in an apartment development company.
Batt will continue his official efforts to end alcohol abuse. His Boys Town work is just beginning.
And Batt is the informal historian for the family descended from the late Rose Blumkin, the Furniture Mart's founder and his grandmother, widely known as Mrs. B.
Robert Batt was born in 1948 to Mrs. B's daughter Frances and Norman Batt. His cousins, brothers Irv and Ron Blumkin, run the Furniture Mart. They are the sons of Frances' brother, Louie, who was Mrs. B's right-hand man at the furniture store.
Bob Batt grew up in the business-oriented family.
At about age 8, he helped stock the toys that his grandmother sold, alongside the furniture, at 2205 Farnam St.
His father had joined the business in 1946 and retired in 1984 as secretary-treasurer. One day, when Bob was 14 or 15, his father gave him a handful of ledger cards.
"Call these people and tell them they're overdue," Norman told Bob, so he did, learning how to make an "assumptive close," such as, "What day will you send a check?"
He drove a delivery truck and manned a forklift in the warehouse. For years, his telephone line at the Mart was listed in the newspaper for people to apply for work. He served as credit manager and, later, risk manager, finding ways to make workplace injuries and illnesses less frequent and less serious — steel-toed shoes in the warehouse, for example, and an early ban on smoking.
For Ron Blumkin, Batt is both a colleague and childhood friend. They grew up next door to each other and, being the same age, attended school together through Central High.
At the Mart, Blumkin said, Batt would tackle "any project that needed to be done, anything that was outside our normal wheelhouse." For example, Batt helped assemble the land for the Mart's year-old Texas store, meeting with local officials and landowners.
Before an expansion, the Mart had three warehouses east of 10th Street that were inefficient, requiring goods to be raised and lowered on elevators. It opened a modern warehouse at 400 S. 77th St. in 1965 and Nebraska Furniture Mart West at 700 S. 72nd St. in 1968, operating two Omaha stores until it sold the downtown property in 1980 to the Federal Reserve Bank.
On May 6, 1975, Batt was at the downtown store when a tornado devastated a long swath of central Omaha, causing $5 million in damage to the 72nd Street location.
The insurance company that built the structure had installed a bomb shelter as a precaution against nuclear war. As the tornado approached, about 45 employees and shoppers took refuge in the bomb shelter, and nobody was hurt.
Batt remembers Mrs. B saying, "We'll be all right, don't worry. It's OK." She donated money to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, which helped people who weren't able to recover so quickly from the storm. "That always stuck with me," Batt said. "When somebody gets whacked, you need to step up and help them."
That's the sort of lesson from "Mrs. B U" that made up Batt's business education, to supplement his 1976 bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In 1983 came two big events: Batt became an adoptive parent, and Berkshire Hathaway bought a majority of the Furniture Mart.
Although the family continued to run the store, there were changes, Batt said. For example, the Mart's old inventory system worked like this:
If six sofas were delivered to the warehouse, the receiving clerk would write "6 sofas" in pencil on the inventory sheet. When the first one sold, he would erase the "6" and write in a "5," and so on as the sofas sold. Other practices under the family's supervision were similarly SOP, Batt said — seat of pants.
But as part of a publicly traded corporation, he said, "every single thing has to be in order every day. We had a big responsibility to Berkshire to make sure everything functioned according to the book."
When college student groups make pilgrimages to see Berkshire Chairman and Chief Executive Warren Buffett, Batt usually gives them a tour of the Mart, discussing how a Berkshire-owned business works.
Batt's public service began in Omaha, including the City's Personnel Board, hearing employee discipline appeals; and the Omaha Civil Rights Hearing Board, reviewing allegations of discrimination. He served on the State Comprehensive Capital Facilities Planning Committee and, in 2008, was appointed by then-Gov. Dave Heineman to the Liquor Control Commission. His second term expires in 2019.
Hobert Rupe, executive director of the commission, said that as chairman of the three-member commission, Batt has toughened the state's enforcement of liquor laws and licensing rules and brought businesslike practices to the commission, insisting that bar owners manage their sales properly.
He favors keeping homemade liquor — moonshine — illegal and views the commission as teaming up with police, sheriffs, citizen groups, prosecutors and the courts to prevent alcohol-related problems.
Rupe said that if bar owners have made mistakes and are trying to improve, Batt will work with them. "But if he feels that you're a threat to public health and safety, he has no problem coming down on you like a ton of bricks."
Batt showed both leniency and determination during a recent Liquor Commission hearing in Lincoln.
The operator of an Old Market bar admitted that a staff member stepped up while the bartender was away and sold a beer to a teenager working for the State Patrol. The operator said he had trained his staff, had fired the staffer and would run the staff through an official training program.
The location had been a troublesome bar under the previous management, Batt noted, and the new manager was sincerely trying to comply with all the rules. "We want this to succeed down there," Batt said, agreeing with other commission members on a penalty but allowing the license to stand.
But when owners of a Lincoln motel failed to appear for a hearing on a second State Patrol inspection that found fruit flies in 11 liquor bottles and no certified manager present, Batt said, "I vote for cancellation," and the commission pulled the motel's license.
In 2010 Batt suggested making it a felony for someone to serve a minor who is then involved in a fatal driving accident, a concept turned into law by the Legislature in 2011. He favors making bar owners personally responsible for "overserving" customers, especially those who might drive.
Batt joined the board as the commission was upgrading its technology, starting to collect fees electronically and computerize records. "He was really able to work with us internally and bring some business practices to our internal operations," Rupe said.
For example, when Batt joined the commission, the fee for a liquor license was $40, as it had been for decades, even though it cost the state $324 to process.
"What, are you trying to make it up on volume?" he asked. The fee was raised to $400.
At the Furniture Mart, Batt had bought the first office computer and remembers being kidded that the ungainly machine would never replace typewriters and adding machines. Now the Mart can change the prices on its shelves remotely with the touch of a finger.
His technology interest will come into play in an unlikely way: Boys Town is shifting toward online fundraising, and when Batt joins Boys Town's 15-member national board of trustees in April, he will serve on the development and marketing committees.
Boys Town's executive director, the Rev. Steven Boes, said the trustees have included several Jewish trustees over the years, starting with Father Flanagan's appointment of Henry Monsky at a time when Jews were regularly excluded from such positions.
Once Batt was tapped as a future trustee, Boes gave him a framed photo of Monsky and Flanagan, inscribed, "To my Monsky."
"He really has a heart for kids, especially troubled kids," Boes said. "He had some good things happen to him in his life, and he wants to share that with others, just like Monsky did and just like Flanagan did."
Boes and Batt have another common interest. Boes worked at an Indian mission in Winnebago, Nebraska, before coming to Boys Town in 2005 and has talked with Batt about Whiteclay, a Nebraska community that has been controversial because of its high volume of alcohol sales to residents of a nearby Native American reservation. The Liquor Commission has wrestled with ways to reduce the impact of alcohol sales on reservation residents.
Batt said his interest in helping young people comes partly from having adopted a daughter, Sara, and his admiration for his brother, Larry, an attorney who died of cancer in 2002 at age 56 after helping many families adopt children. (Their sister, Ellie, lives in New York City.)
"Talking with Father Boes, I became a believer in the mission," Batt said. "I see so many kids who are screwed up, whether it was through alcohol or drugs by themselves or their parents, and they have the chance to come out and be productive citizens."
Batt said his parents, both of whom have died, and Mrs. B also taught him about charity work. "We got lucky," he said. "They said you should always give back."
The Mart's three locations likely rank as the nation's highest-sales furniture stores in the nation, making the Blumkin family members who work at the store, as the expression goes, "comfortable."
But Mrs. B and her children always remembered that she had started the business from scratch, Batt said. Years ago, family members used to take driving tours of their former homes — the 2100 block of Grace Street, the 3800 block of Franklin Street, to see their old, more modest neighborhoods.
The lesson was clear, Batt said: Be humble because not everyone has the advantages his family has enjoyed. "And don't forget."
The Omaha World-Herald is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.