After cutting his furniture industry teeth at Crate & Barrel after college, Brownlee Currey was lured back into the family business, where he worked his way through every factory position to get an even better sense of the business. He has been president of Currey and Company, which employs 130 people and has a manufacturing facility in the Philippines with roughly 450 employees, for 20 years. He recently spoke with Home Accents Today about what he learned from his father, how he runs his business and what he thinks the home accents industry gets right (and what it needs to learn).
Tell me about the early days of Currey & Company, and how your business has evolved.
The business was started roughly in 1988 by my father who needed something to do. He sold his retail business, a chain of stores called Storehouse, a few years before. He was doing product development work and research for a number of people as a consultant, including Crate & Barrel, which was just getting rolling in Boston and Chicago. He did work for Pottery Barn in its early days, and Gardener’s Eden, all associated with Williams Sonoma. He kept bringing people these items he had bought or looked into. Finally, Lon Habkirk at Crate & Barrel told him, “All this stuff you’re bringing us is wonderful, but then we have to have it made. Can you just make it for us? And may father’s answer was, ‘Why not?’” We did a lot of wrought iron at that time, art and wrought-iron benches. That’s how we got started. Some of the skills and abilities that focused on wrought iron naturally transformed well into chandeliers. So, we moved back indoors in the 90s and started producing a fair amount of lighting. By the mid-90s, 75-80% of our business was indoor categories — chandeliers and lamps and accents. The business was [originally] called the Garden Source, but we renamed it Currey & Company to focus on that indoor perspective.
I witnessed this in my teens. My father and I traveled all over the southeastern United States together, visiting factories, sources and people he was working with. I was exposed to it early on. I had a clear moment when I realized that I probably needed to go into the business. In 1995, I had an exceptional photography teacher at college, Dawoud Bey. His work is well known today. I was the darkroom manager and assistant teacher for the photography program. We spent a lot of time together; he kept looking at my work. And he said, “Your photographs are fine. But the stuff you’re doing with all these materials you’re surrounding them with is really different.” I was playing with recycled lumber, cut iron and things I put together from other things. All the stuff I learned with my father — all the carpentry tricks, metalwork, recycling tricks, all the things he had been playing with. That was the moment I realized “I need to do this.” That was the lightbulb moment for me.
Right after college, I started applying with different retail companies — it was the era of the grand lifestyle retailer — and the only one who spoke about their training program was Crate & Barrel. That was my finishing school for the furniture business. I stayed there about five and a half years. I learned how to sell furniture and finally worked my way through the stores to merchandising and quality.
At the time, my father was trying to decide what he needed to do with this business, and he was realistically worried that I might not come back. I moved back to Atlanta in 2001. I spent one and a half years working through every position in our factory here — receiving, the paint department, the assembly department. I literally wired lamps. I did packaging and shipping. I did work as a purchasing assistant which today we call supply chain. Today I’m broadly knowledgeable about the business as a result.
My father retired several years ago and did a far better job than most do of letting go. We talk about the business five or six days a week, but he is not actively engaged in managing the business today. He would tell you he spends the rest of his time being utterly worthless and that it is a delight.
You’ve increased your collection of one-of-a-kinds. How does it set your company apart?
What’s best about one-of-a-kinds it is that they can evolve rapidly. There’s an opportunity, if you are doing it well, to always present something new and interesting. In the past year, it offered something fresh when people were struggling with development, but I firmly believe you always need a little surprise. There is your opportunity to grow and change.
The other part is we have been launching an accessory collection, but it takes a while to build a line with enough that is relevant to the customer and have everything working. The one-of-a-kind business allowed us to supplement that. I’m really proud of what we built there. I think it’s a fantastic complement to our furniture pieces and our table lamp category.
What do you think the home accent business gets right, and what needs work?
I think what’s right, is that there are opportunities for all these individual merchants to express themselves through their product mix. There is a lot of room for adaption and individualism and for people to express their points of view.
I think we are a little too obsessed with the new and don’t always remember to talk about what may be an old idea but no less relevant. Sometimes the industry wants to move on too fast. I’m all for creative progress and development but sometimes we pursue that with such zeal that we may move past some things faster than we should.
We also need to work on the ecological side of things — the whole sustainability piece. We have miles to go before we sleep. We’ve got real work to do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am a huge believer in finding folks who can make a difference and then do my level best to stay out of the way.
What is the most interesting place your work has taken you?
My work has taken me to the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. My work has given me the opportunity to experience Asia in a very real and very broad way. That’s important to me. There’s a drift of culture that spans from China through India — the very heavily Chinese-influenced cultures on one side to the Hindu-influenced cultures on the other side. I was able to experience all those things in depth. That’s been really meaningful. I met a lot of fantastic people along the way.
Thailand is fascinating to me. That’s where you see south India meld into China. It’s the melting pot. It is physically and culturally in between [those two areas]. To be in a position to realize that, has been a gift.
Is there anyone in this industry you have not yet met but would love to?
I’m a contrarian and so I am going to give a contrarian answer. I am optimistic that in time I will get to meet many of the fascinating players that make up our industry. My regret is only knowing many through a child’s eyes. I wish now I could see them in the fullness of their vitality. There were these wonderful characters like Ed Johanson, Riccardo Biscarini and Edward Secon, whom I would have loved to know as an adult. I’d love to know Gordon and Carol Segal as young people opening their first three stores. Another good example is Stanley Marcus, who wrote “Minding the Store,” and was the chairman of the board for Neiman Marcus. He literally wrote the book on how to take care of the customer. That would have been a guy to meet! I am optimistic. I am going to have wonderful opportunities to meet people today, but I’m sad not to know some of the folks from my past better.
Where do you see Currey &Company in the next 10 years?
We will still be a creative business and people will drive what we do. There is a fine art to finding wonderful people, enabling them to do what they do best, and then getting out of the way. That is where the “and company” comes into play. We are not a singular effort. It takes whole group of people to do what we do and get where we go. We’ll be in the home furnishings business and evolve as the industry evolves.
At a Glance
How did you earn your first paycheck?
Working for Pike Family Nurseries in Atlanta. Cleaning the parking lot and loading customers cars – if I remember correctly.
What is your least favorite household chore?
If I never was the one to take the trash out again it would be fine.
What is one thing you wish you could do better?
Communicate. No matter how hard one works at it, there is always improvement to be had.
Favorite type of music?
A little all over the place. These days it is a mix of jazz, electronic music and classical. I’m not much of a rock and roll guy.
What are you reading now?
I’m in the midst of African Forms by Marc Ginzberg, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections by Jenny So and The Expanse novels by James S.S. Corey.