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Daniel Scrivner

Who is Rose Blumkin? Lessons from the Discount Pioneer who Built Nebraska Furniture Mart

This is part of my profiles on history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. Check out the profiles of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Bernard Arnault, Steve Jobs, Rick Rubin, or browse them all. You can also browse my collection of the greatest speeches, interviews, and letters of all-time.

I'd rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B. — Warren Buffett

Rose Blumkin became the first-ever female Berkshire Hathaway manager when Nebraska Furniture Mart was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 1983. Rose was just shy of 90 years old at the time and still working 60-plus hours per week in the store. You would assume that this change in ownership would signal retirement for Rose, Chairman of the Board of “the Mart,” but she still worked for more than a decade longer, 12 to 14 hours each day, seven days a week, until she reached age 103. Below is an attempt to capture that wisdom in one shareable place.

Buffett later joked that he would have to alter the company’s mandatory retirement age of 100. “My god. Good managers are so scarce I can’t afford the luxury of letting them go just because they’ve added a year to their age.”

By the time Berkshire Hathaway acquired Nebraska Furniture Mart, Rose was already a successful executive, having founded the furniture store in Omaha in 1937, at the age of 43, and growing it to a business with an annual profit of $15 million.

She was a tiny woman, standing just four foot ten. She stopped to speak with customers in her thick Russian-Yiddish accent, encouraging them to make a decision and assuring them that they wouldn’t get a better deal anywhere else. She was so good at operating her business that most independent and national furniture stores have found it futile to attempt to compete in Omaha with Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Rose Blumkin was an American businesswoman who founded the Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937. Berkshire Hathaways Chairman Warren Buffett said of her, "One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings."

Her credo was "Sell cheap, tell the truth, don't cheat nobody."

On this page:

76 Facts About Nebraska Furniture Mart

  1. The founder of Nebraska Furniture Mart is the late Rose Blumkin, also known as Mrs. B.
  2. The store counts 40,890 items in stock, with 263,388 available by special order.
  3. In 1937, Mrs. B used $500 to start Nebraska Furniture Mart in the basement of her husband’s downtown Omaha shop.
  4. The average monthly electrical bill per store is close to $100,000, and not all areas are air-conditioned.
  5. Rose Blumkin raised four children in addition to building a national reputation as a retailer.
  6. The Omaha and Kansas City, Kansas, stores each average more than 1,000 deliveries a day.
  7. Mrs. B celebrated her 100th birthday at the store, her favorite place to be.
  8. During one tough time, Mrs. B sold all the furniture and appliances in her own home to pay suppliers.
  9. Today’s most expensive items for sale? Electronics: 90” Sharp TV at $9,999.99. Appliances: Hybrid built-in grill at $16,995. Furniture: Freemark table with two chairs and six side chairs for $16,999.99. Flooring: Hand-knotted 8-by-10-foot Amici rug for $11,000.
  10. A family rift caused Mrs. B to retire for three months at age 95, then open a competing factory outlet business next door.
  11. After a reconciliation, it became part of the Mart. Mrs. B’s belief in selling at tiny margins once prompted local competitors to urge a manufacturers boycott.
  12. So, traveling by train to Kansas City, Chicago and New York, she bought from large furniture stores at 5 percent over their cost and still made a profit.
  13. Rose Blumkin worked 60 hours a week most of her career. The furniture stores are open 74 hours a week.
  14. Son Louie Blumkin and sons-in-law Norman Batt and Jerry Cohn joined the business after World War II.
  15. The third generation of Mrs. B’s family — grandsons Irv Blumkin, Ron Blumkin and Bob Batt — joined the business in the early 1970s. They still hold executive positions.
  16. After both of her knees were replaced, Mrs. B used a motorized cart to navigate the store.
  17. The Mart didn’t close for Mrs. B’s funeral because relatives didn’t think she would want that.
  18. NFM trucks deliver to more than 2,500 cities in five states.
  19. Electronics and appliances were added to the furniture store’s inventory in the 1950s.
  20. The most popular electronics items sold today are tablets, specifically the iPad.
  21. In June 1970, the company opened a store on South 72nd Street.
  22. In 1975, an F4 tornado wiped out the 72nd Street store.
  23. Mrs. B and son Louie Blumkin rebuilt bigger and better.
  24. In 1980, the downtown store closed, leaving only the 72nd Street store.
  25. More than 200 of the NFM staff members have been there for more than 20 years.
  26. The longest-tenured currently? Forty-six years.
  27. Mrs. B sold her interest in the company to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in a $60 million deal in 1983.
  28. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns 80 percent of NFM.
  29. The Mart averages more than 2.5 million transactions a year.
  30. The late Mrs. B sold her interest when she was 89 but worked selling carpet until she was 103.
  31. The Omaha store’s campus covers more than 77 acres.
  32. The company first expanded outside of Nebraska in 1993 with a Des Moines store.
  33. The Omaha NFM is in the process of replacing its in-store Burger King restaurant with a Subway, a move to offer customers healthier options.
  34. The Mart has an estimated 2,800 employees in Omaha and Kansas City, with more than 1,600 in Omaha.
  35. Staff members range from 16 to 83 years old.
  36. A 90-year-old furniture salesman, Jack Diamond, retired in July after a 58-year career at the Mart.
  37. Thanks to exposure from Berkshire Hathaway, the Mart has customers from Italy, France, Saudi Arabia and Greece.
  38. The Mega Mart, added to house electronics and appliances in 1994, now features stores-within-a-store for Apple, Sony and Bose products.
  39. Nebraska’s leading furniture retailer became Iowa’s, too, when NFM bought Homemakers Furniture in Des Moines in 2001.
  40. In 2001, an Omaha warehouse and distribution center opened along with an updated Mrs. B’s Clearance Center and Factory Outlet Store.
  41. A third store with more than 1 million square feet of retail and distribution space opened in Kansas City, Kan., in 2003.
  42. The Kansas City store is part of a development that includes another Nebraska-based business, Cabela’s.
  43. Mrs. B always said her philosophy was to “sell cheap and tell the truth.”
  44. In the Kansas City area, the furniture store spurred other development including at least eight hotels, a casino, the Kansas Speedway, other major retailers, car dealerships and a water park.
  45. launched in 1998 and, beginning in 2006, allowed customers to shop and pay bills online.
  46. The Omaha appliance and electronics store got a makeover in 2007.
  47. More renovations for the Kansas City and Omaha stores were completed in 2010.
  48. The Mart recently implemented a buyback program for used, working electronics.
  49. Louis Blumkin, who helped liberate Dachau and other Nazi camps as a U.S. soldier, combined with Sam Fried of Omaha, a survivor of Auschwitz, their wives and the University of Nebraska at Omaha last year to establish the Blumkin Professorship of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
  50. On busy shopping days, employees park off campus and are shuttled in, freeing up the Omaha store’s 1,800 parking spaces.
  51. The Furniture Mart plans to build a $1.5 billion, 433-acre development in suburban Dallas anchored by its newest, largest retail store.
  52. The company’s next store is set to open in the spring of 2015 in Dallas-Fort Worth.
  53. More than 4,000 shoppers have been known to line up in the wee hours to nab Black Friday deals.
  54. All employees are required to work on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that the Mart calls “Green Friday.”
  55. Store buyers start looking for Black Friday deals in April. China is the Mart’s largest importer.
  56. Nebraska Furniture Mart sold $35 million worth of goods during the week of the 2012 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, about 10 percent more than last year.
  57. Nebraska Furniture Mart is the country’s largest single home furnishings store selling furniture, flooring, appliances and electronics.
  58. The Furniture Mart will ship coast to coast by special arrangement and has shipped furniture across oceans and in private cargo planes.
  59. Merchandisers and buyers regularly look over competitors’ ads to make sure Mart prices are lower.
  60. Last year, NFM had 1.9 million visitors to the store, making it one of Nebraska’s top tourist attractions.
  61. The new Dallas-area project in The Colony will include 1.2 million square feet of warehouse space.
  62. The Texas store’s retail space, at 546,000 square feet, will be 9 percent larger than Omaha’s.
  63. The Texas warehouse will be twice as large as Omaha’s. Everyone who works in the warehouses has to do stretching exercises each morning to prevent injury.
  64. The Mart has a “playbook, ” a binder that details for employees what happens during big shopping events.
  65. The Mart has purchased a two-story building at 808 S. 74th Plaza to renovate for its new corporate headquarters.
  66. The Furniture Mart will spend $7.4 million on a renovation for a new corporate office to be completed next summer in Omaha.
  67. At least 176 new employees will be hired over the next three years for a new headquarters.
  68. To combat shoplifting, the Mart has camera systems, security staffers and its own fraud investigators.
  69. Three of Mrs. B’s great-grandchildren now are the fourth generation to work at the store.
  70. The Rose children’s theater is officially the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center.
  71. Rose Blumkin gave $1 million to build the nursing home that bears her name next to the Jewish Community Center, 333 S. 132nd St.
  72. The company was offered “huge incentives” to move its headquarters to the Dallas area.
  73. To combat shoplifting, the Mart has camera systems, security staffers and its own fraud investigators.
  74. The Blumkins and Warren Buffett each donated $1 million and Susan Buffett led a $9 million fund drive for renovations to the Rose.
  75. Louis Blumkin gets credit for seeing the company through natural disasters, such as the floods of 1953, a huge fire in 1961 and the 1975 tornado.
  76. Louis Blumkin joined his mother in the American Furniture Hall of Fame in 2000, winning praise for innovating in-store manufacturers’ galleries.
  77. The Nebraska Furniture Mart’s estimated sales total this year is more than $800 million for all stores.

Originally published in The World-Herald on August 12th, 2012.

Warren Buffett on Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose: In 1983 you purchased Nebraska Furniture Mart for $60 million. Tell me about her.

Warren Buffett: This is a woman who walked out of Russia, got on a peanut boat and landed in Seattle with a tag around her neck. She couldn’t speak a word of English. The Red Cross got her out of Fort Dodge, Iowa. That’s what the tag said. She couldn’t learn the language. She moved to Omaha because there were more Russian Jews there who she could talk with. Her oldest daughter started school. She came home and taught her words that she learned. She took 16 years to save $500 so she could start this company. Selling used clothing, she brought her siblings and her mother and father over at $50 a crack. In 1937, for $500, she went in business competing against people with all kinds of advantages in every way and she killed them.

Charlie Rose: How was she able to kill them?

Warren Buffett: She cared and she was smart. She knew her limitations of her knowledge and she was confident in the circle of her competence. She didn’t get outside of it and she took care of her customers. She sold cheap and it took her a long time but she built the largest home furnishing store in the country in a town like Omaha, a town of 700,000 people.

Charlie Rose: How did you come to buy it?

Warren Buffett: She was my kind of woman and I bought it when she was 89 and she worked ’til she was 103. There was a period where she left for a couple of years. If you went over to visit her house, as I did, a very nice house, you would go in and on her sofas, lamps and bed; there would be little green tags hanging on them. They made her feel like she was at the store. She was a remarkable woman, and Charlie, she could not read or write and I think every business school should study her.

Charlie Rose: What would they learn?

Buffett: They would learn the essence of business. They would learn that taking care of customers is what it is all about. Taking care of them.

I mean by that, giving them good deals, which nobody would touch.

She did and working like crazy she was there day after day. She had a passion for it. The truth is, if you took the Fortune 500 CEO’s and I gave you the first draft pick on 10 of them, and I put them in competition with her; she would win.

Warren Buffett on Rose Blumkin

From a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter:

About 67 years ago Mrs. Blumkin, then 23, talked her way past a border guard to leave Russia for America. She had no formal education, not even at the grammar school level, and knew no English. After some years in this country, she learned the language when her older daughter taught her, every evening, the words she had learned in school during the day.

In 1937, after many years of selling used clothing, Mrs. Blumkin had saved $500 with which to realize her dream of opening a furniture store. Upon seeing the American Furniture Mart in Chicago—then the center of the nation’s wholesale furniture activity—she decided to christen her dream Nebraska Furniture Mart.

She met every obstacle you would expect (and a few you wouldn’t) when a business endowed with only $500 and no locational or product advantage goes up against rich, long-entrenched competition. At one early point, when her tiny resources ran out, “Mrs. B” (a personal trademark now as well recognized in Greater Omaha as Coca-Cola or Sanka) coped in a way not taught at business schools: she simply sold the furniture and appliances from her home in order to pay creditors precisely as promised.

Omaha retailers began to recognize that Mrs. B would offer customers far better deals than they had been giving, and they pressured furniture and carpet manufacturers not to sell to her. But by various strategies she obtained merchandise and cut prices sharply. Mrs. B was then hauled into court for violation of Fair Trade laws. She not only won all the cases, but received invaluable publicity.

At the end of one case, after demonstrating to the court that she could profitably sell carpet at a huge discount from the prevailing price, she sold the judge $1,400 worth of carpet. Today Nebraska Furniture Mart generates over $100 million of sales annually out of one 200,000 square-foot store. No other home furnishings store in the country comes close to that volume. That single store also sells more furniture, carpets, and appliances than do all Omaha competitors combined.

One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. It’s the ideal business—one built upon exceptional value to the customer that in turn translates into exceptional economics for its owners.

Mrs. B is wise as well as smart and, for far-sighted family reasons, was willing to sell the business last year. I had admired both the family and the business for decades, and a deal was quickly made. But Mrs. B, now 90, is not one to go home and risk, as she puts it, “losing her marbles.” She remains Chairman and is on the sales floor seven days a week. Carpet sales are her specialty. She personally sells quantities that would be a good departmental total for other carpet retailers.

We purchased 90% of the business—leaving 10% with members of the family who are involved in management—and have optioned 10% to certain key young family managers.

And what managers they are. Geneticists should do handsprings over the Blumkin family. Louie Blumkin, Mrs. B’s son, has been President of Nebraska Furniture Mart for many years and is widely regarded as the shrewdest buyer of furniture and appliances in the country. Louie says he had the best teacher, and Mrs. B says she had the best student. They’re both right. Louie and his three sons all have the Blumkin business ability, work ethic, and, most important, character. On top of that, they are really nice people. We are delighted to be in partnership with them.

Rose Blumkin, Retail Queen

Rose Blumkin, who founded the Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937, helped her son and grandchildren build it into the nation's largest home furnishings store and continued selling carpet there well past her 100th birthday, died on Friday in Omaha. She was 104.

Mrs. B, as she was fondly known by Midwesterners who often traveled hundreds of miles to Omaha to shop at the store, was known for her credo: ''Sell cheap, tell the truth, don't cheat nobody.'' In her last years, she moved around the cavernous store on a golf cart, sometimes startling visitors by abruptly zipping away toward customers who appeared to be waiting for attention.

Mrs. Blumkin stood just 4 feet 10 inches in her prime, but her merchandising skills and daring as she made the long journey from an impoverished childhood in Russia to success led figures like Warren E. Buffett to rank her as a business giant. At one point soon after founding her store, she sold every appliance and piece of furniture in her home to pay off a debt. When furniture manufacturers stopped selling directly to her after bigger customers in Omaha complained about her low retail prices, she traveled to Kansas City, Mo., Chicago and New York, bought from department stores and still undersold her rivals.

''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,'' Mr. Buffett said in 1984 soon after Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought majority control of the Furniture Mart from Mrs. Blumkin. Based on his experience as a customer and as an acquaintance of her children, Mr. Buffett made the acquisition on a handshake without bothering to audit her books or inventory.

Mrs. Blumkin was born Dec. 3, 1893, in Schidrin, a village near Minsk, one of eight children of Solomon and Chasia Gorelick. Her father was a rabbi, and her mother ran a grocery store to support the struggling family, which lived in a two-room log cabin and slept on straw mattresses. In interviews, Mrs. Blumkin recalled working in the store at age 6, talking her way into a job as a store clerk when she was 13 and becoming manager with six men working under her three years later.

Mrs. Blumkin was 20 when she married Isadore Blumkin, a shoe salesman, soon before he fled to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Russian Army. Although unable to speak English, Mrs. Blumkin managed to rejoin him in Fort Dodge, Iowa, three years later, and the young couple moved to Omaha in 1919, where Mr. Blumkin opened a secondhand clothing store.

The Blumkins had four children by the time the Depression struck. Mrs. Blumkin encouraged her husband to cut prices, helped him branch into new products and dreamed up innovative advertising. She started her own furniture business with $500 she borrowed from a brother.

Mrs. Blumkin's own nominee for the nation's greatest businessman was her son, Louis, who became her major ally in running the Furniture Mart after returning from military service in World War II. Like her, he typically put in seven-day, 70-hour workweeks. But she began to feel frozen out of decisions as her grandchildren, Irving and Ronald Blumkin, became more involved in the 1980's. She bitterly ''retired'' in 1989 at the age of 95, but after three months returned with characteristic combativeness, setting up a rival store called Mrs. B's Clearance and Factory Outlet across the street from the Furniture Mart. By 1991, it had become profitable and was Omaha's third-largest carpet outlet.

The family eventually repaired the rift, and Mr. Buffett acquired the new venture in 1992, merging it into the Furniture Mart. He later joked with reporters that it had been a mistake he would never repeat to let Mrs. Blumkin retire without signing an agreement not to compete.

Originally published in The New York Times.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer and angel investor. He's led design work at Apple, Square, and now ClassDojo. He's an early investor in Notion,, and Anduril. He founded Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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