From “Freak of Nature” to a Natural Leader
HIGH POINT, N.C. – “I talk a lot. But I wouldn’t have been CEO for the past 22 years if I didn’t listen carefully and ask the right questions,” said Kathy Juckett, recipient of the 2023 International Casual Furnishings Association Lifetime Achievement Award. An avid horse lover, as a teen, she wanted to be a veterinarian until weighing her desire for a large family against the demands of that career. Never planning to, she joined the family business, Telescope Casual Furniture, in Granville, N.Y., after college.
Kathy’s great-grandfather, Henry J.W. Vanderminden Sr., founded the company over a century ago. His son, Henry J.W. Vanderminden Jr., continued his legacy, leading the company until his nineties. His son, Robert D. Vanderminden, Sr., then became CEO, and named his daughter, Kathy, as his successor in 2001. Kathy’s grandfather, who died in 1993, predicted her leadership path. “As a woman with a head for business, you are a freak of nature, but the way you juggle the priorities of an executive, mother, wife, daughter and granddaughter, and make it look so easy, tells me that you were born to be a manager,” he told her early in her career.
“Working in the family business was never my ambition growing up. I landed there at the end of my senior year at Skidmore College because of a credit issue. I had to complete an independent study to have enough credits to graduate,” said Kathy. “I was majoring in the pioneering area of Industrial Social Work, so a professor helped me develop an independent study program to support the human resources office. My first day was May 21, 1979, and, 44 years later, I’m still here.”
Kathy’s duties weren’t limited to her HR project – helping employees with alcohol addiction seek rehab rather than firing them – but entailed working for a harsh taskmaster in the sewing room, learning how the machines operated plus listening to management and workers explain their challenges. “I finished my project and graduated,” said Kathy, adding, “I learned more in those few months than during my four years of college. It became obvious to me that this was where I belonged.”
Once she was a full-time employee, although unpaid for six months, Kathy put her listening skills to excellent use, soaking up as much management advice from her grandfather and father as possible. “They were both extraordinary pioneers in furniture manufacturing,” she said. “Henry Jr. was officially blind, with early onset macular degeneration, but was among several prolific inventors like his colleague, Henry Ford, who created the assembly line manufacturing system. The advancements he experienced and impacted between 1896 to 1993 were astounding! He was generous with his time and advice, and I was truly blessed to have him as my mentor. Dad followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, challenging me at every turn.”
Kathy used her listening skills throughout the early years of her career to get to know the employees, their families, aspirations and concerns. She also reinstated several rules that had been disregarded. “I helped create a culture where we enforced eight-hour days and made behavior like drinking on the job and chronic absenteeism unacceptable.”
Resolution of labor issues was crucial as Telescope Casual Furniture faced competition from Asian companies that appropriated iconic designs like their world-recognized director’s chairs to flood the market with lesser-quality products. “One leading retailer switched from us to an overseas vendor and ended up getting so many returns from furious customers that they had to discontinue the product line,” said Kathy. “We felt the effect of the increasing availability of cheaper, lower-quality outdoor furniture and had to make a significant pivot.”
“My objective has always been to create a culture where change isn’t scary but embraced as we strive for continuous improvement. By being a nimble manufacturing operation that maximizes opportunities and minimizes downsides, we can survive and thrive,” said Kathy. As CEO, she steered the company through several transitions that drove success. As the new century began, Telescope Casual underwent a revolution, moving from the mass production model of her grandfather and Henry Ford’s day to mass customization to meet the desires of 21st-century consumers.
“We brought in a team from Honsha that helps transform companies using the philosophy learned at Toyota. We completely redesigned the factory. I created forums to listen to those whose input would guide our repositioning. We started bringing in 10 retailers every year to ask what they were thinking and experiencing. We listened to their feedback, took detailed notes and acted on their suggestions. One of the earlier insights was that our fabric designs were too masculine. That year I banned all the men from the room when we made the cover selections,” said Kathy, laughing.
Flash forward to the COVID pandemic, which required a seismic shift in priorities to keep the doors open and the team together. Employees were paid out-of-pocket during the first three weeks of the shutdown, with a PPP loan covering wages for the next 10 weeks until the factory opened again. The entire Telescope Casual team and Granville residents rallied to help by offering to build IV poles, beds, chaises, dividers and gowns made from Sunbrella fabric. After many attempts to contact several New York State officials and TV interviews in which Kathy made public appeals to help, a response never came. Undaunted, the company produced masks from Sunbrella fabric, distributing them to local schools, businesses and retail partners nationwide.
After the height of the pandemic, Telescope Casual was impacted by supply chain disruptions, but not as severely as others in the industry thanks to their American-made and -sourced policy. “We faced some supply chain issues, but our long term-relationships with our suppliers certainly mitigated them. We can’t stress enough how our relationships with our suppliers helped get us through these very difficult times,” said Kathy.
Finding and keeping good employees is a challenge that, through Kathy’s leadership, Telescope Casual has faced head-on. “We show our people our gratitude for their hard work and loyalty as often as possible. We host a Food Truck Tuesday every month and we are always there catching up with everyone about their lives and family news. When we hire a new employee, three high-level managers and I meet with them once a week for four weeks and then once a month until they complete their 90-day probationary period. We initiated this practice after COVID and it results in a much higher retention rate,” she said.
Kathy’s four daughters and son are part of the family business. Her four daughters recently bought into the ownership and, along with Henry Vanderminden IV, are minority shareholders. “You don’t have to know everything or pretend to have all the answers. Be humble – it’s a valuable trait. Build a group around you that can do it all and answer all the questions. Find people with specific skills, put them in the right positions and nurture them without micromanaging,” said Kathy. “We have built a culture where if I’m away, nothing changes because I trust my team to move forward successfully without me.”
Kathy isn’t planning to leave soon, although she admits she is happy spending more time with her 10 grandchildren, “I’m still a 14-year-old girl at heart, so we have lots of adventures together!” Her marriage to her husband, Dave, is like a Hollywood rom-com plot. They met by pure chance 20+ years after a breakup that resulted in both marrying different people and Kathy having four daughters. With shared history and passions like road-tripping to find and revive flea market deals, they rekindled their romance, have been married for 26 years and have a son, Maxx.
Kathy also enjoys and excels at painting, pottery and knitting. Her creative outlets provide balance and keep her in touch with herself. She has also served on the small business advisory board to the Federal Reserve, on the regional board of Glens Falls National Bank, been a 35-year member of the Granville Little League Board and most recently the Advisory Board of the Granville Community Foundation. As she prepares the next generation to lead the family business, she shares her philosophy of life: “Never do anything for appreciation; focus on what you can do to make a difference in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to others, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Kathy will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the ICFA Awards Gala on July 11 at the Georgia Aquarium. Tickets are available at https://www.icfanet.org/2023-awards-dinner-reservations/ and a variety of sponsorship levels can be secured at https://www.icfanet.org/2023-awards-gala-sponsorship/.
The International Casual Furnishings Association, based in High Point, N.C., represents manufacturers, retailers, sales representatives and designers of outdoor furnishings plus suppliers to the industry.