Manfred Steinfeld, 95, founder of Shelby Williams Industries, Jewish philanthropist and Contract Furniture Industry pioneer, died June 30 in Florida. He was born April 29, 1924 in Josbach, Germany.
Through his company, and his passion for community, Steinfeld left an indelible impact on Morristown and the Lakeway Area, according to his friends and colleagues.
“Manny was a tough guy,” said Pete Barile, who worked for and later partnered with Steinfeld in both Shelby Williams and Daniel Paul Chairs. “He was infamous for his one-way conversations… He had a great love of people. This was the priority, he had a great love of customers. He did anything he could to keep his customers happy. His second love was his sales force. He thought sales people were the key to the industry, and he was right. If we didn’t get the order, we couldn’t make it.”
But beyond that, Steinfeld drew the best out of his employees as well.
“He knew more about our potential than we understood,” Barile said, who joined Shelby Williams after Steinfeld bought his father’s company in 1968. “He saw in me things I didn’t know I could do and he forced me to learn it. … He was pulling me along and he did that with a lot of people.”
One of those people was Dennis Gurley, who worked nearly 30 years with Shelby Williams and served as vice president of manufacturing. Gurley said his most valuable business education and experience came from Steinfeld.
“I was with the company 30 years and I saw the tremendous growth. He certainly deserves a huge degree of that success,” Gurley said. “He was the most significant person in my business education.”
Richard Thompson, vice-president of Daniel Paul Chairs, began working with Steinfeld in 1985 and said Steinfeld was an excellent teacher and mentor.
“For me, personally, he gave me opportunities to do things I’d never gotten to do before,” Thompson said. “He was demanding but he was very fair. … He was a leader of our industry. He taught me a lot about the business and how it works behind the scenes as well as what everyone sees.”
Steinfeld’s passion for education led to his creating multiple scholarship opportunities.
One of those scholarship recipients, Susan Ballard, went on to an award-winning interior design career.
Ballard, whose firm designed the Margaritaville Hotel in Gatlinburg which was named the top designed new hotel in the country last year, said Steinfeld made it possible for her to go back to college as a mother raising a family.
“He was kind enough to understand that students needed to learn, he had multiple scholarships and gave people opportunity to go college,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to only have $500 in debt when I finished school. He did that with many other students as well. There were a lot of students that he impacted.”
Steinfeld’s remarkable story began in Germany, where at the age of 14, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Chicago and his mother, he escaped Nazi persecution and arrived in Chicago with $10 sewn into his pants pocket to live with an aunt.
After graduating from Hyde Park High School, he joined the U.S. Army.
Steinfeld attended military intelligence school where his knowledge of German enabled him to become an expert on the German army. He was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and distinguished himself as a paratrooper receiving the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star medals. He also was involved in translating the unconditional surrender document into German when the 21st German army group surrendered to the 82nd Airborne on May 2, 1945.
Steinfeld told the Citizen Tribune he’d been able to assess the capabilities of the enemy and interrogate German prisoners.
On the same day as the surrender of the 21st German Army, Steinfeld saw the horrors of the Wobbelein Concentration Camp, assisting in the recovery of the dead and the evacuation of the survivors. He coordinated a ceremony in which thousands of Germans were required to view the results of the horrors committed.
“It was an emotional time,” Steinfeld said in 1995, saying he feared finding his mother and sister among the dead. “I was very emotional and frightful. I went through a number of the barracks and some of the people were still alive. Still, we had to bury some 200 of the dead. I’ve never been one to get very emotional. I keep it locked up inside.”
After the war, he learned that his mother and sister, who remained behind in Germany, died in 1945 at a concentration camp. His younger brother, Naftali, who had been sent to Palestine, died fighting for the creation of a Jewish homeland.
Steinfeld graduated from Roosevelt University in 1948 with a business degree. At the start of the Korean War, he was recalled to active service.
Then in 1954 Steinfeld and a partner purchased a bankrupt furniture company in Chicago and renamed it Shelby Williams Industries. The company built its reputation on producing furniture that met the specific requirements and schedules of designers serving the hotel and restaurant industry. At the end of its first year in operation, the company reported nearly $400,000 in sales.
As sales steadily grew, in 1962 Steinfeld expanded manufacturing facilities in Morristown.
Three years later the company went public. It was later purchased by RCA and in 1976 Steinfeld repurchased the company. In 1983, he took Shelby Williams public again becoming one of the few companies to go from private to public to private and then public again.
“He was absolutely the greatest entrepreneur of all time,” said Bob Coulter, a former Shelby Williams president who worked with Steinfeld nearly three decades. “His business acumen was second to none. … We bought and sold several companies. He just had an unbelievable timing, when was the right time, time to go and time not to go.”
“There exist limitless opportunities in every industry,” Steinfeld said in 1981. “But success requires intelligence, discernment, judgment, singleness of purpose, and stubborn will – not to be better than your competitor, but to be better than yourself.”
Shelby Williams was credited with developing the first tubular stacking chair which became a standard in banquet facilities and public spaces around the world. The company grew through acquisitions which included Thonet Industries, the Austrian company founded by Michael Thonet, developer of the bentwood furniture process. The acquisition included 40 Thonet antique pieces. Steinfeld added additional pieces, building one of the largest collections of original Thonet furniture.
Steinfeld co-founded the Contract Manufacturers Association which laid the foundation for the Contract Furniture Industry. A few years later in 1968, with support from the Merchandise Mart, he helped organize the industry’s first trade show. The show later became NEOCON, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings and the largest exposition for commercial interiors in North American.
“His business ethics were great,” Coulter added. “He made sure and instilled in all of us that we had good sound business ethics. We never skimped on the product. The customer always came first.”
That attitude applied to his employees as well, Barile said. It was important to Steinfeld that workers who spent their careers with Shelby Williams be provided for in retirement.
In fact, when one retiree in Chicago pulled his retirement in lump sum and subsequently lost it in a poor business investment in six months, Steinfeld overhauled the company’s procedures to prevent something like that from happening again.
“He said, ‘I’ve done it wrong,’” Barile said. “He changed the retirement plan. He saw to it the plans that we provided allowed a comfortable retirement.”
Barile said Steinfeld did not discriminate and judged workers solely on their ability to do the job.
“Diversity. Manny never thought otherwise,” Barile said. “He gave anyone who could do a job an opportunity.”
In 1999 when Steinfeld sold Shelby Williams, he reported that the company was profitable every one of its 46 years in business, reaching $165 million in sales and doing business in 87 countries.
Five years later, he returned to the industry he helped found. With several long-time colleagues, he started Daniel Paul Chairs, named for his late grandson. He also founded Stack Chair Depot and Chairpedia.com.
Barile, his partner in Daniel Paul Chairs, said Steinfeld was as sharp as ever.
“He hadn’t lost a bit,” Barile said. “We flew into the Far East in 2002 to look at sources there and meet with suppliers. Even though he was living in Florida and Chicago, he knew what was happening in the business and stayed active from a consulting standpoint. Even after I purchased his interest, I kept giving reports to him every year. He’d say, ‘Good, you learned well from me.’”
“Jack Fishman invited me down here and we built a 35,000 square foot building that ended up being 700,000 square feet 20 years later,” he told the Tribune in 2012. “ We’re going to do the same thing again – if I live long enough.”
That decision to locate his company in Morristown changed the trajectory of the community, Fishman said.
“Manny was the instrument or individual that allowed Morristown kick off our industrial district program,” Fishman said. “Shelby Williams was the first plant in East Tennessee Development District and he selected the site himself and began that first operation. It was highly successful, they made institutional furniture which really put Morristown on the map as one of the leading furniture manufacturers in America. We already had Berkline, but where Berkline really catered to homes, Shelby Williams really catered to hospitality-type seating.
“And Manny was exceptionally proud of his facility and the plant in Morristown, mainly because the workers were very productive and excited and interested in doing some quality furniture. It made a good combination. Manny had the skills for marketing his products.”
“It was a huge impact. It was a professional company that brought national and international business to Morristown,” he said. “By the time he came to Morristown, he had customers like Holiday Inn, Hyatt. He brought tremendous employment plus benefits but also brought recognition to Morristown from all over the world.”
Steinfeld’s philanthropic philosophy also made a major impact, Barile said.
“Because of the success of Shelby Williams, every one of us became members of local boards, non-profit boards and we supported those with generous donations,” Barile said. “We all made contributions and the company did, too. He said, ‘the community has done well for us, we have to do well for the community.”
It was that attitude that led to Steinfeld being honored for his leadership, business acumen and generosity.
Among his honors are: the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans in 1981; American Jewish Committee Humanitarian Award of the Year in 1986; Holocaust Foundation of Illinois 8th Annual Humanitarian Award in 1993; the Lifetime Achievement Award, called “the Manny,” from Hospitality Design Magazine in 1999; and Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award from the Jewish Federation of Chicago in 2000. In 2014, the Steinfelds received the National Leadership Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
With his wife, Fern, many educational, cultural, religious, social service and medical institutions have benefited from their generosity., including:
• Provided funds for more than 500 scholarships for students attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville;
• Endowed the 20th Century Decorative American Arts Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago and supported for the Bentwood Furniture Exhibition at the Art Institute featuring furniture from his collection;
• Established the Fifth Floor Gallery at Orchestra Hall, Chicago;
• Established of a Professorial Chair at the Weitzman Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel;
• Founder with his wife of the United States Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.;
• Established and endowed the Manfred Steinfeld School of Hospitality Management at Roosevelt University of Chicago;
• Established the Danny Cunniff Leukemia Research Laboratory at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel in memory of his grandson; and
• Most recently provided a major gift for the establishment of the Fern F. Steinfeld Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement Center at Boca Regional hospital, Boca Raton, Florida
In addition to his philanthropic contributions, Steinfeld has volunteered his time and talent to numerous organizations. These include: Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, Board of Directors; American Israeli Chamber of Commerce; University of Tennessee, Knoxville, member of its Development Council; Roosevelt University, Chicago, Life Member of the Board of Directors; Jewish Federation of Chicago, Board of Directors, Board Chairman from 1999-2000; Jewish United Fund, General Campaign Chair in 1987 and 1997 and elected a life trustee of the Art Institute in 2008.
Steinfeld’s remarkable life and personal and professional contributions have been documented in print, television and video. In 1992, the Art Institute in Chicago published a book called “Against the Grain: Bentwood Furniture from the Collection of Fern and Manfred Steinfeld.” Several years later, “A Legacy of Style” was published recounting the history of Shelby Williams Industries. He was featured in a documentary on CNN on successful business executives; the PBS TV show, “Profiles of Success;” and the Discovery Channel program, “Nightmare’s End” on the liberation of the concentration camps after World War II. The 2000 documentary “Victim & Victor,” is a video biography of Steinfeld. The book, “A Life Complete The Journey of Manfred Steinfeld,” published in 2013, recounts the story of his amazing life. He was recently featured in the book “Sons and Soldiers” by Bruce Henderson about the Jews who escaped the Nazis and fought with the U.S. Army against Hitler.
He was preceded in death by his grandson, Danny Cunniff and is survived by his wife of 70 years, Fern (nee Goldman); children: Michael (Rosibel) and Paul (Sara) and Jill Cunniff (Timothy) and 10 grandchildren.