Rose Blumkin was the founder of Nebraska Furniture Mart. She founded Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937. Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRK.B) acquired the company in 1983, making Mrs. B the first and only (at the time) female manager at Berkshire.
Before all that started she was a Russian immigrant with a talent for business. At the time women were to earn a living for their family, while the men studied. Luckily, her mom had a knack for business. She learned the ways of business from her mother, and at age thirteen got tired of watching her mother strain to make money.
Mrs. B took it into her own hands, walking 18 miles to another city in Russia to find a well-paying job out of town. She was persistent and stubborn even as a child, stopping at every door to look for a place to sleep. She finally came across a store owner who said, “You’re a kid.” To that, she said, “I’m not a beggar… Tomorrow I will go to work.” The shop owner couldn’t say no, by dawn Mrs. B was up and working. Three years later, at age sixteen, she became the overseer of the store and her six employees.
When the war started she had no other option but to flee Russia. Mrs. B took a train to the China-Russia border. She said, “I had no passport. At the China-Russia frontier, a soldier was standing guard with a rifle. I said to him ‘I am on the way to buy leather for the Army. When I come back I'll bring you a big bottle of vodka.’ I suppose he’s still waiting there for his vodka.” After promising the guard a drink in order to let her pass, she was on a freighter to America. When she landed she met her husband, Isadore Blumkin, in Iowa.
After moving from Iowa to Omaha in 1919, in search for more Russian and Jewish people; Isadore opened a small second-hand clothing store that made around $10 per week. Later in their life, the depression came along, that is when Mrs. B showed her feathers of business skill.
Her husband would sell his clothing at the same price he bought them, making no profit. Luckily, Rose Blumkin knew better. She said, “You buy a pair of shoes for $3, sell them for $3.30.” That’s the power of low overhead costs. She had built a large business for her boss back in Russia, she could do the same here in America. With Isadore working in the store, there had to be another source of income. Mrs. B began to put prices on all her furniture. When guests came over and saw a piece of furniture, lampshade, or anything that they admired it was for sale. “Then, in ’37, I got tired of everybody crying Depression,” she said.
She got real tired of it, so tired she started her business that same year. She started with $500 her brother loaned to her. Her store was only 30x100 foot basement under her husband’s pawn shop. She learned the best way to have returning customers is to make a small profit (10% in her case) and do anything for them, there was no other way. She didn't believe that success and power were made because of cheating someone out of their dollar or scaring them into a purchase.
This was a new idea to some merchants. “The merchants were very rotten to me. When I walked in Merchandise Mart to buy furniture, to buy anything, they used to kick me out and say, ‘Don’t bother us. We’re not going to sell you nothing. Brandeis and Rogers won’t let us sell you anything.’ I used to almost start to cry. My face would get red and I’d say, ‘Someday you’ll come to my store to try to sell to me, and I’ll kick you out the same way that you did to me.’ And my wish come true. Who would ever suspect? Never. I outlived them all.”
She got a wholesaler to sell to her eventually. Purchasing the carpet at $3.00 and selling it at $3.95 worked out perfectly for her, the cheapest after hers was $7.95. She started out having a 10% overhead cost but would increase it as long as the price was reasonable and fair to customers. Nothing could compete. Throughout her career, she was sued numerous times for unfair trade. And every time she said the same thing, “Judge, I sell everything at 10% about cost. What’s wrong? Can’t I give my customers a good deal?” The case was thrown out. Helping customers is not a crime.
Even at age 100, she worked 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week. And sexism was never a thought in her mind, “When it comes to business, I could beat any man and any college graduate. I mean I use my own common sense. That’s what I use for business, for anything.”
She raised a good business and her family continues to carry out her legacy. She is one in a million and as hard as a rock.
If you want more information read The Women of Berkshire Hathaway by Karen Linder!