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At 96, Feuding Matriarch Opens New Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tiny grandmother Rose Blumkin belongs alongside giants in the pantheon of entrepreneurial chutzpah.

At age 96, Blumkin is starting over again in business. A legend among Midwestern shoppers, founder of what became the nation’s largest single furniture store, the personification of the 20th Century immigrant experience and fulfillment of the American dream, she is not going back to work to acquire more wealth.

“I don’t need no more money,” says the matriarch of a phenomenally successful family in her thick Russian-accented English.

She’s doing it for revenge.

Blumkin wants to get even with two of her grandsons, who she says forced her out as chairman of the Nebraska Furniture Mart, a $150-million-a-year furniture and carpeting empire she founded a half-century ago.

It’s a vendetta worthy of “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” this Battle of the Blumkins that has been the talk of Omaha for months now.

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“I wish to live two more years and I’ll show them who I am,” said the feisty 4-foot, 11-inch woman everybody calls Mrs. B. “I’ll give them hell.”

“Them” are grandsons Ron and Irv Blumkin. “They told me I’m too old, too cranky,” said Mrs. B. “I gave my life away for my family. I made them millionaires. I was chairman of the board and they took away from me my rights. I shouldn’t be allowed to buy anything. No salesmen should talk to me. So I got mad and I walked out.

“Maybe I lived too long. Maybe they’re tired of me,” she said of Ron and Irv.

“Whatever she says is fine,” an unsmiling Ronald Blumkin said. He is 41 and president of the Nebraska Furniture Mart. “It makes a better story when you only hear one side.” Irvin, 38, is vice president. He refused to meet with a reporter.

Other family members, unwilling to be identified, support the version of the feud recited by Mrs. B, whose business philosophy is “sell cheap and never lie.”

Mrs. B did not just walk out. She walked directly across Jones Street on the west side of Omaha where, three months ago, in a 360,000-square-foot building--the size of a Midwestern cornfield--she opened Mrs. B’s Warehouse to compete with “my high-class grandsons . . . who only know fancy things and to always take vacations.” (There is no room for vacations in Mrs. B’s work ethic.)

It is not exactly an even match. “They are the elephant. I am the ant,” she recently told her granddaughter, Claudia Boehm, who is helping in the new venture. The grandsons’ Nebraska Furniture Mart is well stocked with brand-name merchandise and a selection that meets the needs of everyone from college students in their first apartment to established business executives.

Still, last month, with a relatively small inventory, with major manufacturers refusing to sell her merchandise and before she ran a single ad or officially opened, Mrs. B grossed $256,000.

“I’m a fast operator,” said Mrs. B. “Thank God, I still got my brains, my know-how, my talent . . . but it’s not so easy.”

Her grandsons have retaliated, she says, telling furniture and carpet manufacturers that if they sell to her the Blumkin boys will not carry their merchandise.

“All the national companies won’t sell (to) me. It’s a boycott,” said Mrs. B. “And they are telling carpet layers that they shouldn’t have nothing to do with me.”

“Suppliers have to make their own marketing decisions,” said Ron Blumkin. “It’s their decision to make.”

“Any time you’re in the middle of internecine warfare it’s difficult,” said a salesman willing to deal with Mrs. B. “They made it plain they didn’t want us to come over here. But she’s terrific. She knows carpets better than anybody in the country. It’s her specialty.”

Flattery did not help.

“There’s a time to be drunk and a time to be sober. Today I’m sober,” Mrs. B said, sending the salesman on his way.

“Anyone that works lives long,” said Mrs. B, who turned 96 last Friday and works 50 to 60 hours a week.

As she did for years at her other store, she races around her new sprawling warehouse in a three-wheeled electric golf cart looking more like a Jewish R2-D2 than the bubbee of 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. She darts along the rows of reclining chairs and the stacks of carpeting alternately yelling at employees (“Dummy. Stupe. What do you know?”) and charming customers (“Honey, what are you looking for? Whatever you want, I’ll give you a real bargain . . . the best deal.”)

“She is the 20th Century on three wheels,” said Jerry Pearson, who sells furniture and carpeting at Mrs. B’s and who believes the woman’s life story reflects not only the immigrant experience but the energy that fueled America’s entrepreneurial machine during much of the 20th Century.

“For her, the ethos is the sale,” said Pearson, whose job as a salesman belies his studies in business and economics. “Everything is the sale. It’s her thrill. The sale has to be made. It’s her kick.”

“Thank God I can multiply,” said Mrs. B. “I can multiply quicker than any computer. . . . When a customer comes in, I tell them what to buy. I teach them economics.”

“I like the way she does business,” said retired truck driver Edwin A. Oeltjen of Ames, Neb. “She’ll tell you right up front what she’ll do on price. There is no foolishness, no double talk.”

“I’ve dealt with her for 30 years,” said Judd Gillespie, an Omaha businessman. “She was always the final authority on every carpet sale at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. The salesman made the sale, but she closed it.”

Business has been Rose Gorelick Blumkin’s life since she was a teen-ager in a village near Minsk in Russia. Her father, a rabbi, “was too religious to make a living.” Her mother supported the family selling groceries. At 13, Rose went to work in a dry-goods store to help the family. At 16, she was the manager with six employees working for her. She fled Russia in 1917.

“I told the Russian guard (on the Siberian-Chinese border) that I was going to buy leather for the army and that I would bring for him a big bottle of vodka. He’s still waiting,” said Mrs. B.

With little money, she made her way through China and Japan, eventually getting passage to Seattle on a peanut boat. Rose joined her late husband, Isadore, who had settled in Ft. Dodge, Iowa. They soon moved to Omaha because it was the closest place where Rose could speak Russian and Yiddish, her only languages until she learned English from her oldest daughter, Frances, who was learning it in kindergarten.

The Blumkins bought and resold used clothing. Rose went into the furniture business in the basement of her husband’s store in 1937. In a short time, furniture became the main business and Mrs. B the family’s main business person, building the Nebraska Furniture Mart into the country’s biggest single furniture outlet.

“I had a talent. I had ambition,” said Mrs. B. Last year the Furniture Mart had sales of $152 million.

In 1983, Mrs. B sold the Furniture Mart for $60 million to millionaire investor Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, which holds major interests in companies ranging from See’s Candy Shops to Capital Cities/ABC. The Blumkins retained 20% ownership in the business.

Mrs. B does not approve of what big business did to her big business.

“Now there are too many executives, too many meetings, too many vacations, and all that is costing them money,” Mrs. B said. “I told Buffett when I ran it expenses were $7 million. Now they are $27 million. Now every stupe is a president, a vice president.”

“The tragedy is that when they kicked her out it was like a death sentence,” said Pearson. “She’s a workaholic.”


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