Paying it Forward

George and Julie Mosher in their home on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

George Mosher, 76, is a septuagenarian now, but it hasn’t slowed him down any. Ever the businessman, he still wears a neatly pressed suit and keeps up his habit of meeting a different person out for lunch each day.

His wife, Julie, 71, has returned to health following a 2008 lung transplant and bustles spryly around the house, making coffee for George. The two love to play board games together, with a stack of four favorites sitting on a side table in their dining room, ready to use.

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In the game of life, the couple has won. Having founded and grown Milwaukee’s National Business Furniture to $130 million in revenue, they sold the company in 2006 for $85 million.

But after that, they didn’t just move to Florida and relax.

The Moshers are sharp and active, traveling to see friends, investing in young companies and donating their life’s “winnings” generously. Few people would consider them retired.

For their business success and generosity to the Milwaukee community, the Moshers will receive the 2016 BizTimes Lifetime Achievement Award. The award will be presented to the Moshers at the 2016 BizExpo on Wednesday, May 18, at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

Early lives

George, who grew up in Boston, decided he wanted to go to Harvard Business School before he knew where he wanted to go to college.

His father died in World War II in a German prisoner of war camp and his mother remarried.

“She put all her aspirations for her (first) husband really into me,” Mosher said. “And so I was strongly encouraged by my mother and my second father and I became entrepreneurial.”

“My second father was the type who would take sandwiches to work and I liked hot food. So I felt like if I was going to eat well, I needed to have my own money,” George said.

He worked hard for that money. In his youth, George drove an ice cream truck and owned a small company that helped free drivers stuck in the snow.

George did end up attending Harvard 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 resisted at first, not knowing much about the Milwaukee area, but eventually acquiesced and moved to town, managing the company that had never turned a profit. He was able to make it profitable in about a year.

Julie was born in Racine and grew up in the Quad Cities. In her senior year of high school, the family moved to Minnesota.

“They didn’t teach French at that school (in Minnesota),” she said. “I had taken it at the school I was in in the Quad City area. Instead of that, they put me on the school newspaper to help edit that and also gave me theater, which I had never ever had before.”

She attended the University of Minnesota for college, where she majored in elementary education with a minor in studio art.

After college, Julie came to Milwaukee in 1966 to teach first grade. She became roommates with her sister, who was already living in Milwaukee, and several other teachers.

Love at first sight

The Moshers knew each other for less than two months before they were engaged, but neither of them finds this fact odd. It was simply meant to be, they say.

Julie and her roommates were headed out for that quintessential Wisconsin tradition, Friday fish fry, at a bar called Darby’s next to the SafeHouse in downtown Milwaukee, and George happened to be doing the same.

The rest, as they say, is history. They were married on Dec. 31, 1966. The couple has three children, Karen, Holly and Robert.

The Moshers are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. After having worked and lived together for half a century, they still enjoy each other’s company and still operate in a partnership.

“I call it the amoeba approach. Both people have to change and meld into each other, sort of like the ocean washing away the jagged edges of the rocks,” George said. “Frankly, it gave us more to talk about because we were working together in the company and had more in common. Instead of me having my hobbies and her having her hobbies, we had common objectives.”

A snapshot of the Moshers from their National Business Furniture days.
A snapshot of the Moshers from their National Business Furniture days.

Business acumen

From 1965 to 1972, George grew Business and Institutional from $750,000 in revenue to about $2 million. Having hit his stride, George grew it to $8 million by 1975. The majority owners of the company, which was then based in Milwaukee, took notice and wanted to renegotiate his contract so he made less money, said George, who owned 34 percent of the company.

He wasn’t having that, and instead contacted about 40 vendors with whom he had formed good relationships and started his own company, National Business Furniture, one floor up in the same building, at 322 E. Michigan St. B&I eventually bought out George’s ownership stake for $250,000. But the company never achieved the same level of success as it had under his leadership, and NBF eventually acquired B&I.

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, George said.

“My opinion was that George was one of the smartest business guys I ever met,” Dirksen said. “Part of the genius of his business was he never wanted to own the real estate and he never wanted to carry inventory.”

While B&I had focused on churches and schools, George decided to go after the office furniture market at NBF.

The pair founded the business in 1975. It took about three years to get to the $3 million mark, and then NBF doubled every five years thereafter. The company never had a loss with George at the helm.

“We were early on to adopt an 800 number,” George said. “Telephone calls used to be expensive. Selling to schools, only the minister would really have the right to make a long distance call, so the 800 number was important.”

The use of credit cards also provided a level of security for customers making catalog orders, which helped that model take hold for NBF.

“Office furniture was pretty much bought locally, and when people had a catalog just for the occasional purchase it just made it easier,” George said.

The Moshers both have an acute eye for detail. But they focus on different, complementary details.

George, who served as president, is all about the numbers. At National Business Furniture, he knew all of the sales numbers – down to the individual salesperson – backward and forward. Those numbers guided his decisions, so he felt they were very important.

“Good accounting is key,” George said. “When you have the right numbers, you make the right decisions. When you have the wrong numbers you make the wrong decisions. And if you don’t have any numbers, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Julie, on the other hand, has an eye for design and the softer details. As vice president, she excelled at pioneering the National Business Furniture catalog and its distinctive style. While some furniture retailers simply took a picture of a piece of furniture on a flat background, Julie was concerned with colors, accessories, lighting and layout in a way that was ahead of her time.

“She brought the magic of understanding that how presentation looks matters,” George said. “I think the male personality thinks of shopping as comparing product X and product Y. Women buy everything like men buy cars. ‘Does this look like me? Is it the right price point? Is this how I want to present myself?’”

Eventually, she led NBF in doing its own photography “because we wanted it to look different.” And was instrumental in the decision to print it in full color, as opposed to the two-color catalogs competitors were printing.

“We had a color cover on it, too, which really made people take notice,” Julie said.

Julie sometimes woke up at 2 a.m. to go over the catalog editing and layout, finishing her work as the children woke up so she could get them ready for school and send George to work with the mock-ups.

“She would send work back several times until it was right,” said Kent Anderson, now the president of NBF. “Everything was very much perfect and she insisted on that in all the work product that went to customers.”

The catalog, which grew from 32 to 400 pages over time, was a key driver of NBF’s success. Even as the company acquired online-only furniture retailers, the catalog still drove a spike in sales when it landed on people’s desks. It became a point of differentiation as more companies moved to online only sales.

“When you’re in an office and the catalog kept arriving, people felt more and more comfortable buying office furniture from a catalog,” George said. “The catalog, it’s much easier to see the quality of the product. The Internet, you’re always asking yourself, ‘What’s behind this company?’”

George kept statistics – he knew the lifetime value of a client, what it cost to get a new client, how well a desk would sell if it was in one corner of a page versus another and how many orders a salesperson took in a day, Dirksen said.

“It really was a team effort,” Dirksen said. “George was sort of the numbers guy and Julie was into the soft stuff. What did the furniture look like and where to place it in the catalog. She also had a very good feel for people.”

NBF worked closely with vendors to institute drop shipping directly to the customers before many other furniture retailers did so. It was more cost effective and the product arrived in better shape, George said.

“What would happen is people would try and compete with us and they were not able to do it successfully,” he said.

As a result, NBF acquired a number of businesses over the years: Alfax Wholesale Furniture, a distributor of church and school furniture; Office Furniture Center, located in Boston and Chicago; Factory Direct Furniture in Milwaukee; and OfficeFurniture.com, an Internet office furniture company.

When he retired from National Business Furniture, George Mosher received this frame full of mounted photos of his career from employees. He displays it proudly here on his dining room table.
When he retired from National Business Furniture, George Mosher received this frame full of mounted photos of his career from employees. He displays it proudly here on his dining room table.

Cultural norms

The Moshers set up a generous bonus system to reward employees for the company’s success, which was predicated on their being at a senior level of proficiency in their position, which usually occurred after three years.

They also established a list of more than 80 company norms, which they called Mosher Maxims. Among them: Verify numbers; hire carefully; do not blame people; pay above average wages for above average work; employees must take full responsibility for their jobs; we must conduct business with the highest code of ethics and honesty; simplicity and efficiency are major keys to NBF’s success; continually ask yourself, “Is this function or process necessary?”

On one occasion, Anderson had to travel to Los Angeles to hire a new accounting manager there, and George made sure to give him a Zagat’s guide to the best restaurants in LA so Anderson would be well-fed and taken care of while he was out there, he said.

“He just wanted to make sure his people were taken care of and treated right,” Anderson said. “We pretty much had an open checkbook when it came to staff training or any kind of seminar you might need to go to.”

NBF famously displayed a full-size traffic light in its office. If a vendor who was visiting the office had done a good job, he or she would walk in to a green light. If the vendor was doing a mediocre job, it got a yellow light. And if it did a bad job…well, George wasn’t afraid to let the vendor know with a big glaring red light.

“(George) understands people in a really good way,” said Tim Keane, director of Golden Angels Investors in Milwaukee, who has known George since about 1989. “He understands motivation. He gets how all the analytics work. He did imaginative things, like there was a quiet hour every day where people couldn’t have meetings, so it gave people an opportunity to stop and think.”

While companies like Office Depot, Staples and OfficeMax became competitors for NBF, they never figured out how to sell furniture, George said. They sold furniture kits. NBF’s core customer was a medium-sized business that had a little bit of extra cash and wanted to make the office look nice.

George and Julie Mosher in their home on Milwaukee’s lakefront.
George and Julie Mosher in their home on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

Exiting the business

When Julie became sick, George quickly sold the business for $85 million to German company TAKKT in 2006, so the two could travel to the best doctors and receive her eventual diagnosis – idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. NBF’s annual sales were $130 million when the Moshers sold it.

“They had thought I maybe had three to five years to live,” Julie said. But the doctors, thankfully, were wrong.

George stayed by Julie’s side as she underwent a lung transplant and the grueling recovery that comes with such a major operation.

George had groomed Anderson to take over, and had also trained and mentored a group of leaders who were able to smoothly transition into their roles.

“(George’s) style is very hands-on and very much an expert in everything that is going on in the company,” Anderson said. “He could’ve sat down and done anybody’s job, really, because he started it and grew it from the ground up.”

George took an office at 250 E. Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Milwaukee, from which he conducts his business today. He now mentors entrepreneurs and invests in early stage companies in Wisconsin through Silicon Pastures and Golden Angels.

“George likes it when the company is a business, not a dream,” said Teresa Esser, managing director of Silicon Pastures. “He invested in a woman because she knew exactly how much (a customer) was going to order. She knew her business inside and out. She knew her numbers.”

Notable early investments were BuySeasons.com, on which George received an 8x return and Prodesse, on which he received a 10x return.

He advises entrepreneurs to focus on the customer instead of chasing every possibility that comes along.

“Focus first on finding your first initial customers, work with them to develop your product, and then go out and raise money,” George said. “You have to have a product that somebody wants. Become an expert on what you’re doing. Don’t scatter yourself.”

George has invested about $30 million in 240 investments.

He was also one of eight inaugural founders of Brightstar Wisconsin Foundation, a venture philanthropy firm to which each founder donated $500,000.

“He doesn’t miss much,” said Tom Shannon, president and CEO of BrightStar. “If there are little nuances that most people don’t pick up on, he seems to pick up on them.”

From the design of an annual report to the ins and outs of a potential investment’s quarterly earnings, Mosher isn’t shy with his opinion, Shannon said.

“He’s a very unique and reflective thinker,” he said. “You always want George’s insight because you just don’t know what that will be.”

“If we can develop companies here, then that creates careers that keep people here in Wisconsin,” George said.

The Moshers have also generously donated to several organizations about which they feel passionate, including the transplant program at Froedtert Hospital. The large donation they made to Froedtert went toward HEPA filters to clean the air in the ICU and a piece of equipment that helps resuscitate damaged organs to ready them for transplant.

“It’s a very generous donation that really allows us to continue to provide exceptional care for our patients, specifically our transplant patients, at our hospital through cutting edge technology and allowing us to have this state of the art equipment,” said Alice Archabal, chief development officer for the Froedtert Hospital Foundation.

“A lot of people my age have decided to move to Florida,” George said. “I feel like I earned my money in Wisconsin. I don’t mind paying my taxes in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is home.”

There’s a sense that other people helped them along the way, and the Moshers are in a position to do something to give back, he said.

A 60-60 marriage

George describes the Moshers’ relationship as a 60-60 marriage. Each spent time both on the business and on raising their family. Julie made the decisions and led the efforts at home, while George did the same with the business.

The very fact of Julie’s confidence in his plan to start a business as they were raising a young family was a marvel, he said.

“At some point, George came home and said, ‘I think I’m going to leave my job and start this company,’” Keane said. “I know a lot of people whose spouses would say some polite version of, ‘What are you crazy?’ Julie not only said, ‘I think that’s a great idea,’ but she was an integral part of the whole thing.” 


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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.