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Three Who Mattered

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, March 10, 2008

It's not often, fortunately, that one has the occasion to write the obituaries of three extraordinary notables in a specific field of endeavor.

In the last couple of weeks the home furnishings world lost three iconic players — one who probably had a higher public persona, but the other two were no less significant in their way.

I'm referring to Bob Lauter, senior vice president of Burdines, president of W&J Sloane, and earlier senior vice president of Macy's New York; Jim Stirratt, executive vice president of Dayton's in Minneapolis; and Tony Degomes, one of the most talented textiles and people-people I've ever met.

Perhaps because of where he worked, Bob Lauter was on center stage more than most. But his place on that stage was not just due to an unerring eye for product, a sixth sense for trends and an almost universal talent for dealing with people.

The folks I talked with — both quoted and not — consistently referred to him as "the best boss I ever had — the most influential person in my career." It's been a long time since I've heard people in any business say that about the people above them. And they say, bosses are supposed to be nuturing, teaching, supportive folks. That was then, this is now.

I can attest to Bob's people skills, starting when I first ran into him as a fresh-out-of-school assistant buyer for a competitor in New York, and continuing through our friendship and his informal coaching, which lasted decades.

Jim Stirratt, with abilities and charisma that paralleled Bob's, probably didn't have the recognition because he was out there in Minneapolis. But his influence and impact on the home furnishings business embraced not just merchandising and merchandise — but also the concept of Dayton's freestanding home stores that were the showcases for the better end of the market.

He, too, was notable for his people skills — again a person who was not afraid to move people up, and one who always had an eye out for the next new thing, and anxious to talk with anyone — even business journalists — who could challenge him, or provide him with a grain of a new idea from any place around the world.

And on another level, Tony Degomes was a singular persona in the textiles world of the 20th century — a person who relished the technology needed to create wonderful fabrics, as well as having the talent to create the designs with the technology available. He was one of the pacesetters for the home furnishings world of woven fabrics, and left an enormous legacy both professionally and as a personality.

The home furnishings and retailing communities are poorer, since the enormous personal qualities of individuals are rarely encouraged by contemporary managers. "Tutelage" and "fun" are words seldom used in today's business world.

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