America in 1937 was on the brink of war and just starting to emerge from the Great Depression when a tiny but determined woman opened a store in Omaha. It stands today in its 80th year as the nation’s largest home furnishings company. Nebraska Furniture Mart currently operates stores in four major metropolitan areas — Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City and Dallas — selling furniture, flooring, carpeting, appliances and other electronics.
The woman behind the success story is Rose Gorelick Blumkin. She was born in a village near Minsk, Russia, in 1893. She went to work in her mother’s grocery store at age 6 to help support seven brothers and sisters and her rabbi father.
At 13 she became a clerk in the store and by the time she turned 19 she was store manager with six men reporting to her. A year later she married Isadore Blumkin, a shoe salesman who would soon flee to the United States to avoid being drafted into the czar’s army.
Rose would follow a few years later, crossing Siberia. Bob Batt, Rose’s grandson and unofficial family historian, says his 4-foot-10 grandmother talked border guards into supplying exit papers for her with the promise of vodka.
Rose crossed the Pacific Ocean and joined Isadore in Fort Dodge, Iowa, before the Blumkins moved to Omaha in 1919. Isadore opened a used clothing store.
Rose and Isadore had four children by the time the Great Depression began.
By pure grit and determination Rose opened Nebraska Furniture Mart by borrowing $500 from her brother.
The early days were tough going and at one point the Blumkins had to sell their own home furnishings to pay off a debt.
Furniture suppliers stopped selling to Nebraska Furniture when larger competitors complained about her low prices. Rose went to Kansas City, Chicago and New York, bought from department stores there and still undersold her Omaha competitors.
The original store at 2205 Farnam St. in Omaha was supplied from three warehouses east of 10th Street. Elevators were used to bring merchandise to street level for delivery to the store on Farnam.
In 1965 Nebraska Furniture Mart opened a modern warehouse at 400 S. 77th St. and three years later, opened a second store at 700 S. 72nd St. Two years after that, the downtown store closed and the 72nd Street location began to grow.
On May 6, 1975, a tornado roared up 72nd Street causing major damage and claiming three lives.
Bob Batt says the storm caused $5 million in damage to the NFM building, which had housed an insurance firm before it became a retail outlet. That company had built a bomb shelter in case of a nuclear attack. When the tornado was closing in, four dozen employees and shoppers took shelter and escaped injury despite the damage to the surrounding structure.
Batt remembers his grandmother saying, “We’ll be all right, don’t worry. It’s OK.” After the storm she donated money to the American Red Cross and Salvation Army to help those affected by the now-infamous twister.
“That always struck me,” said Batt. “When somebody gets whacked, you need to step up and help them.”
Over the years Rose Blumkin eventually became known simply as “Mrs. B” and her business credo, “Sell cheap, tell the truth, don’t cheat nobody,” became the stuff of legend.
As other members of the family took on expanding roles in the company, the seven-day, 70-hour workweek became the norm for the Blumkins and the Batts.
Success followed success, but as she turned 90 Rose wanted to make sure the company would continue to prosper and famously made a 1983 handshake deal with another famous Omahan, Warren Buffett.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. purchased controlling interest in Nebraska Furniture Mart without an audit. Buffett said the deal was based on his own personal experience shopping in the store and his respect for all the Blumkin offspring, who kept the business vital and growing. But it was Rose who made the deal.
Not long after that transaction, Buffett would say, “Put her up against the top graduates of the top business schools or chief executives of the Fortune 500 and, assuming an even start with the same resources, she’d run rings around them.”
She proved that again at the tender age of 95 when she retired — not altogether happy about it. She started her own store in competition with Nebraska Furniture Mart. By 1991 Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet was turning a profit as the third largest carpet dealer in Omaha — located directly across the street from Nebraska Furniture Mart.
A year later, the family made peace and Warren Buffett purchased the new business, merging it into Nebraska Furniture Mart. Buffett later joked he would never again allow Mrs. B to retire without signing a non-compete agreement.
Rose Blumkin was active in business and civic activities until her final days. She died in 1998 at 104.
The Omaha store continues to thrive in its 80th year. The retail space covers more than 420,000 square feet on 77 acres of land. The store sits on a single campus of buildings on South 72nd Street. In 1994, the store added an electronics and appliance store, offering computers, software, music, movies and personal electronic items as well as TVs and appliances.
Mrs. B’s Clearance Center and Factory Outlet continues to exist within Nebraska Furniture Marts in Omaha and the newer Kansas City location. Omaha’s Outlet contains more than 85,000 pieces of furniture, 185,000 appliance and electronic products and one million square yards of carpet.
The company’s first venture outside of Omaha involved the Iowa store, which opened in 2001. Located in the Des Moines suburb of Clive, it’s the smallest of today’s four Nebraska Furniture Mart locations, with about 24,000 square feet of appliances, flooring and electronics. Nebraska Furniture Mart also owns Homemakers, a furniture store in Urbandale, Iowa.
A Kansas City megastore opened in 2003 in the Village West development on the far western edge of Kansas City, Kansas. Only 12 miles west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, this store is near the Kansas Speedway and Children’s Mercy Park.
With 1.1 million square feet of retail and warehouse space on 88 acres, it is the first location outside Omaha to offer the full range of products offered in Omaha and, like the Omaha location, it draws visitors from all over the United States.
The opening of the Kansas City location hit a few stumbling blocks. It was the company’s first megastore outside of Omaha and for nearly two years the store was overwhelmed by large numbers of customers and delivery delays.
The company learned from the Kansas City experience, and that learning curve eventually led to development of a Texas location.
Construction of the newest Nebraska Furniture Mart began in September 2012 in The Colony, a Dallas suburb. The new location began operations March 4, 2015, with unadvertised sales to friends and family.
More than 2,000 employees were trained during the next two months, and a successful grand opening was held May 7, 2015. The Colony location is the largest of the four locations, with 560,000 square feet of retail space and 1.3 million square feet of warehouse and distribution space.
In this 80th year of operation, NFM benefits from the continued full involvement of the Blumkin family. The family is engaged in future planning that will include opportunities for others who have joined the growing business.
In December 2016, NFM President and COO Ron Blumkin announced he would be leaving his position as part of the firm’s succession planning. Tony Boldt, director of the Mart’s Kansas City store, is taking on the role of president and COO. Blumkin will serve as chairman and Irv Blumkin will remain chief executive.
John Prescott spent his career in television news and public relations. He currently writes for Legacy Preservation.