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Executive Profile

Class Act: Charlie Greene of Classic Gallery

By Sandra Wimbish

Charlie Greene begins with a confession: “I've been lucky. It's all been luck. I've just been at the right place at the right time.”

Though the Irish are known to be a lucky lot, and Greene's Celtic roots are deep and strong, the luck o' the Irish cannot explain the breadth of his success. The founder and president of Classic Gallery Inc., an upholstered furniture maker in High Point, is a respected businessman, civic leader and trusted friend. He and his wife, Chris, who this year celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary, have three children — Margaret, Chuck, and John — and nine grandchildren. Long-time friend and High Point Mayor Becky Smothers says “I'm especially happy that we've been able to share our families.” Her son Rick grew up with the Greene's son Chuck, “and now our grandsons play together,” the mayor adds.

One of seven children, Charles A. Greene, who turned 61 this month, was born in Orange, N.J., to Irish immigrants from the little town of Dunloy, toward Derry, just northwest of Belfast. His father, Andrew, had come to America with two goals in mind: to take a mouth away from the family supper table so that the food might go farther, and to find work and send some money home.

Andrew Greene found work as a carpenter in New Jersey and soon sent for his sweetheart, Margaret Logan, to join him. That's where Charlie Greene grew up and lived until 1956 when he graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair and joined the Air Force. In the service he was trained in electronics and computers — back when it took a whole room to house a computer — an experience that proved fortuitous in his career time and time again.

While in the military, Greene was transferred to North Carolina, just outside of King. “At that point I was working for a not-secret but very downplayed program that the military was not discussing. It was a new form of electronics,” says Greene. “It was a transmission thing — how to transmit radio signals or any signals — so they could not be intercepted.” There were only 12 men working on the project, and with no military housing available they lived in the community.

While working on that military project in Walnut Cove he met a schoolteacher named Chris. With a sparkle in his eye, he says, “She knew more about basketball than other people in the area, so we started spending some time together going to basketball games, and we got to know each other pretty well.” But his home beckoned. After completing military service “I went back to New Jersey and applied for a job at Bell Labs,” Greene recalls. “I applied for a program and was told I was considered an upper-level applicant, and they would like very much for me to go through their testing program. So I went on my assigned day at 10 o'clock to Bell Labs for my test which took about an hour. There were about 25 people there,” he says, loving the telling.

“After I left, I went back to the fellow who interviewed me, and I asked him how long the process would take and how many people they'd be hiring. He said they'd be hiring about 10 or 12, so I was walking on cloud nine. I said, `So about half the group?' and he said, `oh no, we'll be testing for about two weeks, every two hours, everyday,” Greene adds, pausing for effect. “So I came back to North Carolina.” More plentiful jobs; lots better basketball.

Back in North Carolina, Greene worked for a number of retailers before joining Dun & Bradstreet in its finance department. He and Chris were married and settled in Walkertown, where they raised their family.

Greene's years at D&B proved to be good ones. Not long after he arrived, management decided to convert the business to a computer system. “So my military background played into that, and I was able to work on converting them from a hard copy system to a computerized copy system. I attended a lot of schools for computer technology and I learned a lot,” he says.

He soon accepted a position at D&B's new office in Greensboro, and the family moved to Kernersville — half way between his job in Greensboro and Chris's job in Winston-Salem. Greene stayed at Dun & Bradstreet about seven years, leaving in 1967 to accept a position at Kay-Lyn Furniture Co. where he would, once again, install a new computer system.

He brought Kay-Lyn on line, and then did the same for its affiliates. “I ended up working at the last company that had not been put on the system — it was an upholstered furniture plant — and I learned how the company ticked. Before long I was made general manager,” Greene says. “As it turned out, it was a good company — Sammy Lambeth was the owner — and he made quality furniture. I stayed about six years, and then I found there was a major void in the way furniture was sold. People like designers and designer showrooms were not courted. They were kind of left on the side — they were not always guaranteed the furniture they wanted would be manufactured or that they could even place an order with a company, whether it be Kay-Lyn or Henredon or whomever.”

At that time, Greene explains, orders were placed primarily by furniture stores and department stores. Big companies could order furniture and have it made to certain specifications. “But the small companies were left with whatever was being done; they couldn't make any changes,” says Charlie, “and that seemed to me a backward way of handling accounts. After all, they'd done their homework, they'd spent their money (but) the system might turn against them and they would be unable to get the merchandise.”

IN 1972, with financial backing from local banks and other associates, he opened Classic Gallery to cater to designer showrooms and designer shops. From the beginning, Greene determined that Classic Gallery would never show a product that wouldn't be manufactured for at least the first year. “That way we wouldn't be reneging on our promises, and we would make furniture that could be changed - we could give it a different arm, a different leg - there could be a lot of differences in the way we put it together,” he says. He likens it to a Mr. Potato-Head approach to furniture making.

During Classic Gallery's early years there was but one salesperson, Bob Rutley, a friend who had the same desire to serve small design shops. “He helped build the entire sales force. But at the same time, through his contacts and my contacts, we were able to approach people we thought were best suited to the programs we had in mind. We didn't go after the big stores — the department stores. We went after the people who we thought were more in need of the product we were developing, and it worked out well,” Greene says.

The firm grew rapidly through the mid 80s, but as the industry started taking on a different shape late in the decade it was difficult for Classic Gallery to maintain the same level of sales - especially since the company had virtually ignored the larger companies. Ten years later, having realigned its strategy, the company is again moving ahead, and the future looks bright. “There is a lot of change taking place in the furniture industry,” Greene says. “Consolidation along with Internet marketing will bode well for the customer who investigates the relationship between price and quality.”

Unfortunately, low price can dissatisfy a buyer in the long run, especially if he or she could afford to move up the ladder of quality. “The advent of the Internet will allow a smart shopper to look under the cover of upholstered products to check on frame, cushion, and spring construction.”

Some things, however, haven't changed and won't. Classic Gallery remains focused on its goal of building customer loyalty. Greene has worked extensively with the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), developing with them the idea of loyalty. “I hoped they would find that if they had a supplier who would do for them what they wanted, then they would be loyal and look to that supplier before going somewhere else,” says Greene, who was the first non-designer to hold a position on the ASID national board. “The important part of any business firm is to develop loyalty. If you develop the loyalties of your constituency, you can certainly bring about the success levels that you want to reach - because you have an audience to turn to.”

When asked where he learned about loyalty, Greene shifts the conversation back to his Irish heritage. “I learned from my father that everyone should work hard and contribute,” he says. And although Greene modestly does not discuss his civic contributions, his colleagues are quick to point them out. International author and speaker Nido Qubein sums them up most succinctly: “Suffice it to say that the city of High Point has benefited measurably from Charlie's generosity on all levels - time, talent, and money. He has done it all . . . from chairing the board of trustees at Guilford Technical Community College to chairing the United Way campaign of Greater High Point. I marvel at Charlie's ability to maintain a sound and productive business while at the same time giving an unending level of energy to philanthropic and voluntary efforts.”

Friend and neighbor Jim Millis, president of The Millis Foundation, agrees. “If you could list all the things Charlie's been involved in, you'd fill up the whole magazine. Charlie's not only a leader in the furniture industry, he's a leader in the city of High Point. He and Chris are chairing the Alexis d'Toqueville Society (gifts of $10,000 per person annually) for the United Way this year, and they've done an incredible job.”

“When I think of Charlie Greene, I think of someone who has been involved in so many segments of the community. He's been an especially strong advocate for High Point and the furniture industry,” says High Point Mayor Smothers.

Don Cameron, president of Guilford Technical Community College, says Greene “is absolutely committed to education and is a true believer in community colleges. He's utterly concerned about what goes on in the classroom, wanting to make sure students are given the information they need to succeed in our communities.”

Greene's work in the furniture business integrates well with his love of education. He is a frequent guest speaker at area schools and designer functions across the United States and its territories.

Greene's will to work hard and contribute to society may have been credited to his father, but it was his mother, he says, who was his greatest inspiration. “She had an outlook on life that was absolutely phenomenal,” he boasts. It was she who gave him the many colorful tidbits of wisdom that pepper his conversation today: `If it was easy, nobody would need you. . . If every day was perfect, you wouldn't know what perfect was. . .' Greene mentions that his brothers, too, recognize their mother's strong influence on their lives. “She always told us we could have anything we wanted - of course, she never told us everything that was available,” he quips, “But she firmly believed that everyone had a spot in the big picture of life.”

There is a testament to his mother's influence behind his desk at Classic Gallery. A plaque that was a gift to his mother, who has since passed away,. is inscribed “Mom. Chairman of the Board.” Surrounding it are the business cards of her four highly successful sons: Patrick, vice president of A.M. Best Co.; Jack, executive secretary and treasurer of Arizona State District Council of Carpenters; Andy, engineering manager at Bamberger's; and Charlie, president of Classic Gallery.

According to Greene, she was not distracted by either status or lack of status. If there were neighborhood children in the Greene home at mealtime, they were fed; if they needed to be cleaned up, they were cleaned up. He sums up her outlook by saying, “It had nothing to do with who they were, what their status was. To her, everybody was the same. Everybody was important.”

Qubein sees the same characteristic in her son. “He is one who does not pick his friends based on status or stature. He rather is driven to be a friend to any and all with whom and for whom he can contribute good things. He is a genuine friend to people of all walks of life, regardless of whether or not that friendship yields for him any immediate personal or professional benefit. Charlie is motivated from the inside out.”

Read these previous Executive Profiles:

Abdul Rasheed of Raleigh, founder and president of the N.C. Community Development Initiative.

Dr. John Weems of Raleigh. long-time president of Meredith College.

Margaret Rudd of Southport, co-founder and president of Margaret Rudd & Associates Realtors

Stephen Miller of Asheville, senior vice president of The Biltmore Company.

Ralph Shelton of Greensboro, president and CEO of Southeast Fuels Inc.

Ed McMahan of Charlotte, vice chairman of Little & Associates Architects.

Barry Eveland of Research Triangle Park, senior state executive for IBM.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the November 1999 issue of the North Carolina magazine.


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