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Living & Working Legends: Kurt Hamburger

Kurt HamburgerKurt Hamburger is the founder and president of Lintex Linens, a company that has focused on table linens and bath textiles but has more recently moved into bedding.
"My uncle was in the linen trousseau business and he said I could come along with him and help him carry his bag...which meant I carried all the bags. After he finished selling, I was allowed to sell negligees. I never sold anything. " -KURT HAMBURGER, Lintex Linens
     Begun in 1967, Lintex was a pioneer in upscale bath, first from Brazil and more recently from around the world, but now its showroom and offices at 295 Fifth Avenue in New York are full of all manner of product.
     Hamburger, who will only approximate his age as "octogenarian," has forged a reputation as someone never afraid to speak his mind or take a stand, even if unpopular with customers, counterparts ... or both.
     As the owner and operator of Lintex, he represents a business model that was once the backbone of the home textiles industry but is now a vanishing breed. Home Textiles Today sat down with him recently amidst all the products in the showroom.
     Home Textiles Today's new series Living - & Working - Legends, interviews with executives who have spent their careers in the home textiles industry and continue to manage the companies they own or help run, returns this week. Each interviewee is asked the same eight questions, reflecting both their experiences and their thoughts on the future ... their own and the industry's.

     HTT: How did you get started in the home textiles business?

     KH: I came to this country from Germany in July of 1938 as a little boy. I graduated from Stuyvesant High School but didn't have any money to go to college. My uncle was in the linen trousseau business and he said I could come along with him and help him carry his bag ... which meant I carried all the bags. After he finished selling, I was allowed to sell negligees. I never sold anything. In 1947 I started as an apprentice at a wholesaler in the linen business. My job was to fold up tablecloths after the salespeople made a mess. I joined the army in the Korean War and afterwards I joined Post and Sherman for the next 17 years. I styled the line and handled 80% of the sales. In 1967 I went into business for myself under the Lintex name.

     HTT: If you hadn't gone in this field, what would you have done?

     KH: My ambition in high school was to go into medicine and become a doctor, in internal medicine. But I had no money. I would have done great as a doctor. My attitude is to help people, and I would never have turned down anybody because of insurance.

     HTT: When did you know you were going to be successful in this business? KH: I knew it when I was at Post and Sherman with the success I had in sales. I was far and away the most successful salesman in New York. And if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. It was the start of discounting, and I sold them all. That made me very successful.

     HTT: What single accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?

     KH: Of all the questions, this is the most difficult to answer for me. I have never borrowed money to this date. I'm self-financed, there's no factoring situation, no borrowing situation. The bank has my money, not the other way around. So this has allowed me to be very independent, not dependent on anybody. It's a feeling of freedom.

     HTT: If you had to do something over, what would it be and how would you do it differently?

     KH: Knowing what I know now, I would perhaps have gotten into some products earlier, like top of the bed and sheeting. And I would have expanded towels. I also would have gone to India and China earlier. I got into it too late, and I stayed in Brazil.

     HTT: What's the single biggest change you've seen in the industry?

     KH: The biggest change - and I regret it terribly - is the demise of the small hometown department store, which we used to sell to in a big way. That was a good business, a faithful business. The same for the demise of the specialty store.

     HTT: If you could do one thing to improve the industry's overall business, what would it be?

     KH: I have no fear or inhibition, and I'm not afraid to say it: I deal only from the top of the deck. I'm fair and I'm honest ... unlike some others that load onto their prices. I do not believe in doing that. Never have, never will. Because of these unscrupulous large retailers who do not discriminate between those that do that and those that do not, that's hurt us badly. I wish that was not so, but that's the reason I prefer to be selective in who I will call on.

     HTT: What's your exit strategy?

     KH: My exit strategy is that I have no exit strategy. I have been approached many times by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs that want to buy this business. They always want me to run the business for them. They want to give me a modest down payment and then pay me out of the profits. My question is: Why would I ever do that? I've been in this business for 64 years, and I'm still going strong.

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