Milwaukee’s George Mosher, the founder of National Business Furniture, and a prolific networker and angel investor, has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.
Having founded and grown business furniture retailer National Business Furniture LLC to $130 million in revenue, George and his wife Julie sold the company in 2006 to German firm TAKKT for $85 million.
George met Julie in Milwaukee, and they were married on Dec. 31, 1966. The couple had three children, Karen, Holly and Robert. Julie passed away in August 2017.
A Boston native, George attended Harvard University for both his undergraduate and business degrees. He went to work for Look Magazine in New York for two years before getting an offer in 1963 to take over a small mail order company called Business and Institutional Furniture Co. in East Troy. He grew it to $8 million in revenue by 1975, and then he and Julie started their own company, National Business Furniture, which eventually acquired B&I and is now based in West Allis.
After he exited NBF, George took an office in downtown Milwaukee and began mentoring entrepreneurs and investing in early-stage Wisconsin companies through angel groups Silicon Pastures and Golden Angels Investors.
He invested about $30 million in 240 companies from 2006 to 2016. Among his most successful investments were BuySeasons.com and Prodesse. George was also one of eight inaugural founders of Brightstar Wisconsin Foundation, a venture philanthropy firm to which each founder donated $500,000.
The Moshers have also generously donated to several organizations about which they feel passionate, including the transplant program at Wauwatosa’s Froedtert Hospital, where Julie had a 2008 lung transplant.
In a 2016 cover story about the Moshers when BizTimes Media gave them its Lifetime Achievement Award, George said he was in a position to give back after his successes. Click here to see their acceptance speech at the 2016 BizExpo.
“A lot of people my age have decided to move to Florida,” George said at the time. “I feel like I earned my money in Wisconsin. I don’t mind paying my taxes in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is home.”
More recently, George was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, but continued to attend business networking events in Milwaukee.
Friends and colleagues praised George’s intelligence and business acumen Friday.
Roger Dirksen, a good friend who worked at what was then Heritage Bank, loaned the Moshers $50,000 against their Whitefish Bay home, which they needed to get National Business Furniture off the ground.
“For the last 12 years, I’ve been meeting with him once a week to talk about his early stage investments,” Dirksen said. “He’s made more than 200 investments in early stage companies, mostly in Wisconsin. We’ve had enough mature successfully that he was ahead, but he will be missed substantially in that community.”
But it wasn’t about making a return, Dirksen said.
“He had made his money in Wisconsin and he wanted to help other young people do what he did, which was to start a business and grow it and make it successful,” he said.
Teresa Esser, managing director of Silicon Pastures, said George wasn’t one to give up on a company if he felt it could succeed. And he would stick around to do that, even in a Wisconsin February.
“He was an original member of Silicon Pastures, so he was an anchor for our group,” Esser said. “He was an anchor for a lot of the deals that we did and he believed in angel investing and he gave people chances. He gave me the chance to learn the business, so he set an example through his behavior, through his investing. He believed in a lot of people and he gave a lot of people their chances.”
Dave Erne, Mosher’s longtime attorney and friend, recently compiled a list of “Mosher Moments” he remembered about George through the years. One of the moments Erne recalled:
“When my new son-in-law, Brian, was starting out as an agent for a local underwriter of commercial property, casualty and workers’ compensation insurance, I imposed upon friends and clients to do me the favor (similar to ones I had often done for them) of meeting him, not with the expectation that they would change to Brian from their current agent, but instead to help him get his feet on the ground and gain experience talking to business people and begin to make some connections in the business community. To my embarrassment, some of these friends and clients did immediately give their business to Brian, and none were quicker to do so than George. When I thanked him, George said he was happy to do so since both the products and the agents are fungible. I regarded this as an unexpected but appreciated favor, nonetheless. George is a loyal friend.”
Peter Skanavis, who knew George for 18 years as part of Silicon Pastures and Golden Angels, described him as “one of the most genuine human beings that I’ve ever met,” who remembered details about people months later. He relayed a story of a due diligence meeting among several Silicon Pastures investors in about 2002, when George had to leave early to get back to NBF. George stood up, pointed to Skanavis and said: “If he’s in, I’m in for $100,000.”
“George did probably the most deals of any angel investor in Wisconsin,” Skanavis said. “I’m sure nobody else has even come close.”
“George was the greatest single angel investor in the history of the state of Wisconsin. I had lunch with him recently, and he told me he had made more than 250 early stage investments,” said John Torinus, chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a general partner at Wisconsin Super Angel Fund L.P. “He was an entrepreneur himself, so he understood people who had the juice to start a company. He mentored them and he put his money behind them. He was a big player in markedly improving the Wisconsin entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Dan Steininger, president of BizStarts, said Mosher has been a mentor and friend since 2006.
“I really didn’t know small businesses until George taught me, and he was fabulous,” Steininger said. “He’s been a friend ever since for more than a decade.”
Before he passed away, George worked with Steininger to set up a scholarship fund for minority and low-income entrepreneurs at BizStarts. George himself put in $15,000, Steininger said, and several other prominent Wisconsin leaders have also contributed. The fund is up to $41,000 in just three weeks, and Steininger said it will be distributed to BizStarts entrepreneurs in varying amounts on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re getting clobbered with people wanting to donate, because they want to do something for George,” Steininger said. “We’re really creating a lot of momentum to create this fund in his honor so that George can continue to help entrepreneurs in the years to come.”
Scale Up Milwaukee hosted a “Meet the Masters” program featuring George Mosher in 2015, where he described his career. The video is below.
Visitation will be held on Monday, Feb. 4 at 10 a.m. at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St. in Milwaukee. A memorial service will follow at 11 a.m., with a reception to follow at noon at the University Club of Milwaukee, 924 E. Wells St. Arrangements are being handled by Feerick Funeral Home. Click here for the official obituary.
In lieu of flowers, the family asked that memorials in George’s name be sent to: