• Warren Shoulberg

Claude Litton To Hang Up His Leasing Pen

WARREN SHOULBERGNEW YORK - There is only one Claude in the home textiles industry in New York and soon there will be none.
Claude Litton, who for the past 32 years has run the industry's major New York showroom building, 295 Fifth Avenue, is retiring at the end of the year.
     A successor will be named next month.
     Litton, 75, as president and ceo of the building, transformed it from a mixed use building to the anchor of the New York home textiles market while establishing an industry identity for himself that made him a single-name persona in the trade.
     An attorney by trade and a one-time Air Force pilot, Litton is also well known for his world-class collection of movie memorabilia, some of which adorns both his office on the top floor of 295 as well as a few of the public spaces in the building. That collection of over 1200 original movie posters, plaster celebrity statues and other artifacts is one of the largest in the world.
     That Litton ended up running 295 is one of those accidental quirks of history. Born in Germany and arriving in the United States at age three, he spoke no English until he was six. He eventually attended New York University and then Brooklyn Law School, where he earned his legal degree.
     That led him to Irving Trust, where he got his first taste of the world of real estate. A friend set him up for a job interview which he thought was for a spot at a law firm, but it turned out to be for a company called Manhattan Properties that owned an office and showroom building at 295 Fifth Avenue. At that time at least a third of the building was not in the home business and many of the showrooms were for Oriental rugs.
     "I developed a business plan, which was to make this the premier building in the industry," he says, a daunting task considering at that time there were showrooms throughout the City and 295 represented less than 10% of the total.
     Litton started weeding out the non-showroom tenants, first the rug companies, then suppliers to the trade and converters and eventually the back office spaces. When he was done the building was essentially wall-to-wall home textiles showrooms and that's the way it's remained ever since.
     There were leaner years, particularly in the early 1990s when vacancy rates shot up into the 20% range, but over the years the building has averaged 95% occupancy. And only the street level bank and the barber shop don't fit the textiles profile.
     Over the years other market centers have tried to take the textiles business out of New York, but none have ultimately been successful. Litton credits two factors: companies need their creative people to be located in New York, and he has staggered the building's leases so major tenant spaces do not come up for renewal at the same time.
     As for 295's enduring position in the trade, Litton said a big reason is that the building has no underlying mortgage, having paid it off in 1939, which gives it great financial flexibility and stability. He also has refused to rent temporary space, which he believes is the biggest mistake a market building can make.
     He is also not shy about taking some of the credit himself. "I pride myself on four things: Being tough, fair and honest and keeping my word. "
     That Litton has become the face of the building - literally - came about kind of accidently too.
     "I started putting my picture in our ads around the same time Lee Iacocca was doing ads for Chrysler. I changed the whole make-up of advertising from sterile pictures of buildings and personalized it."
     Litton says he will miss the personal contact with the trade and the fine art of negotiating. He won't miss the commute from his central New Jersey home, where most of his movie memorabilia collection is housed. He says he'll keep busy by continuing his regular regimen of racquet ball and running.
     He also plans to spend more time with his wife of 20 years, Rosalee (his first wife passed away 22 years ago), and their children and eight - soon to be nine - grandchildren.
     "I'm 75. It's time."

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HTT Cover October 2017

See the October 2017 issue of Home & Textiles Today. In this issue, we look at the Top 25 Online Retailers.  H&TT's exclusive annual ranking of the biggest online sellers of home textiles finds that while pure play etailers continue to fly, bricks & clicks are digging into omnichannel. See details!