She got in an argument with her son over how to run the carpet department of the store. So, she quit the business she had started in 1937 with $500 worth of furniture in the basement of her husband's second hand store, and opened a new store directly across the street.
Rose Blumkin, was only 95 years old. Known affectionately as Mrs. B, she zipped around her new store, Mrs. B's Warehouse, in a motorized cart working like she always had- seven days a week and fourteen hours a day.
Three years later, she made up with her family and sold her store back to the original store and went back to work.
Her store located in Omaha is the Nebraska Furniture Mart, the world�s largest furniture store in one location. It sits on 77 acres with over one million square feet under roof and over $160 million in sales per year. It sells two-thirds of the furniture in Omaha and large department store chains, which sell furniture in other markets, refuse to sell furniture there. NFM's customer base is a radius of 300 miles.
She built it by selling furniture and carpeting at a huge discount. Rose Blumkin said the key to her success was "telling the customers what they want or should want." and "sell cheap and tell the truth."
In 1983, Warren Buffet- Omaha resident and the second richest man in the United States bought an 80% interest in Nebraska Furniture Mart on a handshake from the Blumkin family for $55 million. He said that he would want to be involved in any business Rose Blumkin was a part of even if it was a popcorn stand. Buffet had often thought of buying the store, and on his birthday just walked in and asked how much they would sell it for and wrote them a check.
About the transaction he said, I would rather have her word than that of all the Big 8 auditors. It's like dealing with the bank of England." The deal has been called the "historic Omaha handshake".
Rose Blumkin's son, Lou and grandchildren Ron and Irv as well as other family members still run the business.
She was one of eight children and grew up in a small town near Minsk in western Russia. Her father was a rabbi and her mother ran a small grocery store. She said watching how hard her mother worked motivated her to keep working and try to do better.
She married Isadore Blumkin, a shoe salesman in 1913. In 1914, Isadore fled Russia in order to avoid World War I military conscription. She followed in 1917. Rose made her way to the United States by way of Siberia and China. She had to use a little bribery to get across the border.
"I told the guard that I was buying leather for the army and I would bring back a bottle of Vodka," she once said in an interview.
"He is still waiting."
Rose Blumkin arrived in the United States not knowing a word of English and with only $66.
During the Depression, to keep her family from starving, she visited clothing stores and noted their prices. She passed out 10,000 flyers advertising that she would outfit a man from head to toe for only $5. She made over $800 in one day.
When Rose was 44 years old, in 1937, she borrowed $500 from her brother and bought furniture from the American Furniture Mart in Chicago and set up shop in the basement of her husband�s pawn shop.
She established her businesses number one principle- sell cheap. Rose priced the furniture 10% over her cost.
Her carpet suppliers sued her for violating Fair Trade Laws by selling so low. She won the case and gained considerable free publicity. Plus, she sold the judge $1400 worth of carpet when it was over.
She built her business despite the fact that manufacturers would not sell to her and banks would not loan her money. The business grew and she built a bigger store in 1948 with her savings.
Rose was a tireless worker, but loved every minute of it. She once told a newspaper, "I come home to eat and sleep, and that's about it. I can't wait until it gets daylight so I can get back to business."
When her legs started bothering her in her nineties, she bought a motorized cart nicknamed The Rose B. Rose zipped around the store and made sales. She said she drove the cart "like a Russian Cossack." If she saw a salesman standing around not helping a customer she would ram him with her cart.
She was quite blunt in her speech and was quick to fire employees she thought weren't working hard enough or had disagreements with. Her son, Lou, was there to smooth out the conflicts caused by her bluntness. He would usually hire the newly fired employee right back.
She quit the Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1988, opened her new store across the street and was soon outselling the original. When she quit she demanded $96,000 for all of the vacation time that she never took. She put up a sign in her new store that said They sell it for $104, we sell for $80." When she merged her new store back with the Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1992, Warren Buffet made her sign a non-compete agreement. She was 99 year old. To sign the papers, she had to make her mark. Rose never learned how to read or write.
She developed her business plan from the beginning and stuck with it. Part of her plan was to make customers for life. When a young couple just starting out would come in, she had all of the wholesale prices memorized and she would cut her margin to nothing. She knew that they would be back again and again through the years when it came time to buy furniture.
During the slow times during her sixty-one years of owning the store, she went as far as selling off her own families furniture to pay the employees and bills to keep the store open. Even in her later years, she left the tags on her lamps and furniture. Perhaps, in case she needed to raise money again in a hurry.
She rented the Omaha Civic Auditorium for a weekend in 1951 and held an all-out three day sale of the store�s inventory to combat the slow sales from an economy depressed by the Korean War. She sold $250,000 and eliminated all debt forever.
In 1975, a tornado nearly destroyed the entire store and caused millions in damage. But, her dream continued and they rebuilt the Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Warren Buffet in his famous letter to his shareholders wrote in 1984 about what he thought Rose Blumkin�s secrets were. He said, first, her and her family �apply themselves with the enthusiasm and energy that would make Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger look like dropouts." Second- "they define with extraordinary realism their area of special competence and act decisively on all matters within it.� Third- �they ignore even the most enticing propositions falling outside of that area of special competence."
Fourth- "they unfailingly behave in a high-grade manner with everyone they deal with." (Mrs. B boils it down to "sell cheap and tell the truth.")
Another of their business principles is "over-deliver and under promise"
Rose Blumkin was extremely generous. She donated a million dollars to the Jewish Federation of Omaha to build a 119-bed nursing home. When she was asked why? Mrs. B said that when she had first arrived in the United States the Hebrew Immigrant Society had given her a free meal. To repay them, she decided that one day she would do something nice for the Jewish people that had helped her.
During the 1930s, Rose and a friend met with supporters in her home to work for a Jewish homeland. That friend was the first prime minister of Israel, Golda Meier.
She saved The Rose, a classic downtown theater in Omaha from demolition. It is now the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center.
She stopped working only a few months before her death. She claimed her absence from the store was not because she was sick, but because she was lazy. She died in 1998 just shy of her 105th birthday.
Warren Buffet upon hearing of her death said, "We are partners. And in most ways, she's the senior partner. She's forgotten more than I'll ever know."