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Industry Remembers Retail Innovator Kirsimagi

"Gentleman." "One of a kind." "A consummate merchant." "Never demeaning to colleagues or suppliers." These are some of the ways home textiles executives on both sides of the fence used last week to describe Tony Kirsimagi, who died July 19 at 73.

"He was absolutely a class act, one of a kind and JCPenney is a lot better because of him," stated Don Odell, who worked with Kirsimagi in varying merchandising capacities for several decades. "He made a huge impact on the market and transformed a bedspread department into a fashion bedding department. The industry was turned around because of him."

Kirsimagi retired 13 years ago from JCPenney, where he worked for 30 years, making his greatest impact as a decorative bedding buyer. He drove that business from under $100 million to more than $500 million. He was one of the early merchants to move the business from the domination of bedspreads to decorative comforters.

For Tom Scully who worked with him for well over 16 years, including time as merchandise manager and later as a supplier executive with Perfect Fit, "He was by far the most professional, honest and good buyer, and he did a great job in nurturing people, getting them ready for tomorrow."

"We were in the same area for about 25 years, and he was a special individual who was admired — and by everyone in and out of the company. He commanded respect," said Jake Williams, now retired, but who was Kirsimagi's boss when he was merchandise manager for bed and bath. "He was devoid of ego and artifice; he was genuine and sincere. And he made everything seem effortless."

"It's immeasurable what his impact was on the home textiles industry. He was the best teacher, the best merchant and the best person I've ever been around," said Clyde Collier, who now is vp, national sales manager for Peking Handicraft.

Another colleague turned supplier, Charlie Hunt, principal of Phase II, remarked "He had a great gut instinct, was always a gentleman — friendly but somewhat aloof — and always engendering respect. In addition, JCPenney was a place to do things, to push the envelope, and he knew how to do it. And don't forget, he was a wine connoisseur with a high level of sophistication."

Former colleague Steve McKeever, who retired last year as senior bedding buyer, commented: "Tony was the definition of a true gentleman in business and in life. I have tremendously missed working with him the past 13 years, but I know my good friend is in a great place." McKeever also recollected the Best Party in Town hosted by the Home Fashion Products Association at Kirsimagi's retirement that drew more than 1,500 people in New York.

Alan Holland, currently senior marketing manager for window coverings at Penney and earlier window coverings buyer, remembered: "He had no arrogance, no bravado and a great sense of humor — no classier person. He had a soft approach, and he knew what he wanted and how to get it, and suppliers knew they would benefit. He was one of the premier icons, and I learned a lot from him. He's going to be missed."

"I had the good forture to work for him as an assistant," said Jack Mahon, vp, window products manager, Croscill. "Then I sold him when I went to Crown Crafts. He was honest with vendors, respected them and got the best out of them because he was such a gentleman. Everyone walked away with the same good feeling — whether he bought or not. And he had an uncanny knack for picking what would sell. If I could be one-tenth of a person as he was I'd be happy."

Bob Price, now vp, merchandising for Art Van Furniture, remembers Kirsimagi from two perspectives. "One, as a store manager for Penney and later as a buyer. In my store job I was impressed with how professional he was; he was the first buyer I met. When I became a buyer, he was one of the most gracious buyers I met. I was always amazed at how he kept up with the breadth of skus that it takes to keep up with style and quality."

Nancy Busher, a former Penney buyer who is now window coverings buyer for Luxury Linens, said: "He was a wonderful guy and a great trainer. He treated everyone with great respect and was equally respectful of everyone — large or small."

From the supplier side, Park Smith, principal of Park B. Smith, remarked: "I don't know anyone who didn't love that man. He was one of retailing's giants — smart, kind, decisive and elegant — and he had taste that was unbelievable. I will miss him enormously."

From the viewpoint of John Minihan, chairman of Louisville Bedding, "If you didn't get along with Tony you don't belong in this world. He set the standard as a buyer."

Dicky Lo, owner of Peking Handicraft, remembers: "I met Tony early on in our history, and he took an interest in our company and taught us a great deal about how to deal with large retailers. It was always an honor to work with him, He was a real gentleman."

Bob Pugsley, executive vp, Miller Curtain, commented: "He certainly was a fine fellow and built up the bedding business and worked especially well with vendors."

"He was a great merchant — of another era. He had a huge role in driving Penney to the top in bedding," commented Frank Foley, chairman and ceo of CHF Industries. "He was a consummate merchant, and business is just not done that way anymore."

For Chip Scala, president of the Waverly division of Ellery Homestyles, knew Kirsimagi from Croscill years ago. "He was from the old school, a person to person kind of guy," he said. "He gave you a good guide to where you should be ranking. He had astuteness and professionalism. I'll miss him."

Recalling Kirsimagi from his years at Fieldcrest, Kevin Finlay, president if Ellison First Asia, noted: "He was the classic gentleman. He had an incredible passion about the product and knowledge of the industry. For him, buying was first and foremost about the product."

"He was literally a mensch. It was great to do business with him as well as be with him personally. I wish there were more like him," said Larry Queen, president and ceo of AQ Textiles.

Kirsimagi's survivors include his wife Carol, son John and daughter-in-law Jill, daughter Suzanne and her husband Jeff, father-in-law, sisters-in-law and his cat, China.

The memorial service was held July 25. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Estonian Lutheran Church, NJSPCA, 1119 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901 or United Way of Ocean Country, 650 Washington Street, Suite 2, P.O. Box 1221, Toms River, N.J. 08753.

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