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Friends, family remember Nebraska Furniture Mart's Louie Blumkin

 Image of Louie BlumkinLouie Blumkin

OMAHA, Neb. — Louie Blumkin was a retail visionary with a brilliant mind for names and numbers, a deeply philanthropic leader and a man who always put his family first.

That's how family and friends are remembering the chairman emeritus of Nebraska Furniture Mart, son of founder Rose Blumkin, who died at his home Tuesday, surrounded by his family. He was 93.

Blumkin's "life's work was his family's well-being, Nebraska Furniture Mart and giving back to the community," nephew Bob Batt, NFM executive vice president, said in a statement.

For more than 75 years, he served generations of customers, developed a keen knack for sensing customers' wants, and worked with his mother, "Mrs. B," in developing Nebraska Furniture Mart. The retailer has built a big business in several home categories, including furniture, appliances, rugs and other flooring.

NFM was the first acquisition of what is now Berkshire Hathaway's furniture division, a collection of some of the nation's top furniture retailers, ranked No. 5 on Furniture/Today's Top 100 with an estimated $1.22 billion in furniture, bedding and accessories sales in 2011.

"He was the smartest guy I ever saw at a market," Batt said, recalling a trip to the Dallas Market years ago, when Blumkin would walk into a showroom, rattle off the items and quantities he wanted and remember it all without taking a single note.

"Blumkin worked all the major markets, never took notes and made a lot of great deals for his customers," Batt said. "His handshake was his bond; his reputation and word were solid gold."

Blumkin also remembered generations of customers by name, by what they bought and when they made the purchase.

In a report by the Omaha World-Herald, Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett called Blumkin, "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," Buffett said.

Blumkin was born June 27, 1919. He was a champion diver on his high school swim team, and was in the Army and halfway to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when his transport was turned back to San Francisco.

He went on to Europe and in 1944, landed on Omaha Beach with the Third Armored Division under Gen. George Patton. Blumkin's battalion was sent to relieve troops at the Battle of the Bulge. Blumkin received the Good Conduct Medal, the Purple Heart and the European Theater Medal-along with four Bronze Stars signifying his years of service.

"The liberation of Dachau concentration camp was his most important emotional experience," Batt wrote.

Since 1945, Blumkin ran NFM, and "his love and vision for the business turned Nebraska Furniture Mart into the largest home furnishing store in the country," Batt said. He said the business still runs on the fundamental principles Blumkin and his mother developed years ago.

Industry consultant and longtime friend Norman Waxman called Blumkin "the best of the best" and a visionary.

"Great heart, sensitive, caring, concerned with his fellow man, extremely philanthropic and a great thinker," Waxman said. "The most important thing in his life was his wife and his family."

"His real contribution was the difference he made in the lives of people," Waxman added. "He possessed an astuteness, unwavering honors and principle, coupled with kindness and dignity. He was respected as a leader and loved as a friend."

Dale Ward, president of casual dining supplier Bernards, said that NFM has been a customer since the company opened in 1982, and he remembered dinners with Blumkin, who was cordial and open with advice for the young company.

"When you're that young and dealing with someone of that magnitude - to mentor you, to ask you questions and talk about your business and their business meant a lot," Ward said. "He made you feel like a major vendor regardless."

Batt said Blumkin was proud of his induction into the American Furniture Hall of Fame in 2000 along with his mother, the only mother-and-son duo among the elite group.

In his biography on the Hall's website, Blumkin is called "an innovator of mass furniture merchandising in ‘America's largest volume home furnishings store.'" It notes that NFM was a pioneer with in-store galleries and one of the first to successfully combine furniture, carpet, appliances and electronics "with unbelievable market share in all of those categories."

In 1983, the family sold a majority interest in the business to Berkshire Hathaway. The retailer has continued to expand, opening stores in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2000 (the NFM-owned Homemakers Furniture) and in Kansas City in 2003. A new store is slated to open in Dallas/Fort Worth in 2015.

"Louie provided great vision and mentoring to his sons Ron and Irv Blumkin," who lead the company today, Batt said. "They always remember to ‘Sell cheap and tell the truth,' which has been the guiding principle of Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Blumkin was a benefactor of many organizations including the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home and the Ronald McDonald House and was a longtime supporter of Creighton University and a member of the Creighton Society. Through the Louie and Frances Blumkin Foundation, he supported Jewish and arts organizations.

While Blumkin's health had been failing for awhile, his mind remained sharp, said Waxman, who last saw him about six weeks ago. He wasn't talking much by then, but he wanted to know one thing, Waxman recalled - "How's business?"

He is survived by his wife, Frances Blumkin; three sons, including Ron and Irv Blumkin of NFM; two sisters, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held 11:30 a.m. Friday at Beth El Synagogue, 14506 California St., in Omaha.

Memorial donations may be made to The Rose Theater, Attn: Omaha Theater Company, Julie Walker, 2001 Farnam Street, Omaha, Neb. 68102; and University of Nebraska Foundation, Nebraska Neuroscience Alliance, 2285 S. 67th Street Suite 200, Omaha, Neb. 68106.


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