After 95 Years, Still a Linens Pioneer

Brent Felgner, August 13, 2007

Sometime in late May or early June of 2004, a jet plane touched down at Palm Beach International Airport. A woman, an interior designer for the White House, deplaned, went directly to a waiting black limousine, which then whisked her a few miles into town. Her destination: Pioneer Linens, where she purchased several thousand dollars worth of luxury linens and other home textiles.

The goods were loaded in the car, she returned to the airport and jetted off to Sea Island, Ga., where the G-8 Summit was about to be held. She was furnishing the interiors of the homes where prime ministers and presidents would be staying during the annual confab of the world's major industrial nations.

A similar scene played out again the very next day, when the designer returned for table linens to be used for a dinner hosted by First Lady Laura Bush.

"Our customers are the top one percent of the market," said Alan Murphy, who, at 26, represents the fourth generation to enter this 95-year-old business. "We cover the span of the nation. Because of the clientele we cater to and the quality of our products, our customers will fly in on their private jets, come here shopping for the day, have dinner in Palm Beach — maybe stay for the weekend — then fly back to New York, Colorado or Los Angeles."

Indeed, Pioneer Linens, which has made its bones furnishing the homes and yachts and planes of the rich and famous — along with simply the very well-off — is at another inflection point. Operating from a single retail location in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, it also sells through a catalog. But there's more — much more — to be done, family members say.

"We feel we have unlimited potential to build this business," said 92-year old George Greenberg, Murphy's grandfather and the business' second generation, who is mostly retired now, except for his sage guidance. His father, Max, started the business as a hardware store in 1912. George Greenberg has worked in the business since he was eight years old.

"We're looking for a much bigger market — to build in different areas of home textiles," he explained. "We want to grow [within this] demographic, in the geography and in the range of products we sell."

To be sure, the Palm Beaches are continuing to grow at an almost frenetic pace, even as the nationwide housing market begins to stall. While home prices here, too, have been impacted, it's arguable that it has been much less so than other areas of the country. Moreover, there are thousands of condominium apartment units already under construction, most within walking distance of Pioneer — not that anyone would walk.

But even if the merchant were to exhaust most of its store-based potential, an unlikely eventuality, it is currently in a quest to grow its virtual businesses. Like everyone else, Pioneer wants to exploit the internet but the owners are doggedly earnest about making sure returns will balance the investment. They are keenly aware of getting out too far in front of the curve.

And so they pepper a visitor with question after question about what other retailers are doing: Are the sales there yet? (Not quite.) How did the others build and merchandise their sites? (Carefully) Why has internet shopping lagged virtually every market prediction? (The primary consumers' ages, for one. They weren't old enough. But when it finally happens, look out) Is it profitable? (Almost, for some.)

Murphy, who's been with the store for two years now and has been deeply involved with the yacht business, is now also heading up internet development. On customers may browse and shop a designer gallery featuring the likes of Sferra Bros., Anichini, Frette and Peacock Alley.

The online numbers are just a small percentage of the privately held retailer's multi-million dollar business. (Greenberg coyly encourages a guessing game as to the store's sale volume. He allows that it's something more than $3 million — how much more, he won't say.)

Whatever the amount and wherever the business leads, Pioneer wants to leverage its strengths to move on to the next stage in its development.

The roughly 7,000-square-foot store permits the merchandise to do its talking. It is quietly upmarket but not snooty. A modesty dressed receptionist at a small desk greets and directs arriving customers. This is a working retail store with few pretenses.

Its back-office operation — cramped loft-like spaces or slices of plywood workspaces carved from the corners of its "warehouses" — consists of three buyers, two internet specialists, and a small office staff.

The warehouses themselves comprise several thousand feet over two spaces: an adjacent converted store and a second-floor area.

The company boasts that it has one of the largest inventories of any similar retailer.

"Our inventory is second to none," Alan Murphy said. "We have extensive selections and customers who come here and spend $20,000 or $30,000 with us barely put a dent in our back stocks."

Murphy says he's thrilled to be in the business — that it's something he's loved since he was a young kid, working part-time in a bicycle shop and helping out at Pioneer.

"I love retail, I love to sell and I love this business," he declared. "I learned merchandising from my grandfather and I have a blast with this stuff. I tell people, 'I do all that tough-guy stuff, like sheets and towels.' [In school] I played lacrosse and wrestled, kick-boxed a little — but I wear our company color, pink."

His mother, George's daughter Penney, is a vice president at Pioneer, although titles seem to be an afterthought. Originally a teacher, school administrator, businesswoman and at-home mother, she came into the family business 14 years ago.

"Dad brought me in to help at Pioneer," she explained. "I had decided I wanted to do something grown-up, after teaching for such a long time."

With the fourth generation furthering the family succession, George Greenberg expressed his confidence in the future of Pioneer Linens: "I'm very proud of them. They have a real interest in carrying the business on, increasing it and doing a much better job than I ever did."

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HTT Cover October 2017

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