Live and Learn: Saul Feldberg

The upholstery and furniture mogul on building a better office.

I came to Canada in March 1953, when I was 17. Canada and the United States were the golden countries of opportunity. I joined a company called Nightingale Industries. It was in upholstery, making restaurant seating and seating for residential breakfast nooks.

In those days in the upholstery business, you had to learn how to do a complete product from the ground up. Not like today, where everything is precut to size, and the worker does only one part of the process.

I still have the upholstery hammer I used when I started out. With upholstery tacks, the upholsterer had to put them in one by one. With a staple gun, he could zip along and make double the number of chairs in the same time. It was a big innovation.

I started Global in 1966. By then, I knew how to run a plant, how to deal with customers. My dream was to be independent.

We submitted two names for incorporation–Universal and Global. Universal was already taken, so we stuck with Global. The names we wanted sound very ambitious, but the idea was always to move forward and to accomplish as much as possible. Today, our chairs are in offices all over the world–all the way on up to the White House.

We still have our first office chair. It's on display in our lobby. It was our version of an accepted design for an executive chair at the time. A competitor charged $290 for their version. But we came out with our chair at a price of $68. People said it was impossible to produce a quality chair at this price. But when they saw our chairs, and how well they were made, they started to order.

From that first chair we went to another chair, a low-back tilter that sold for $49. It was meant for real estate offices, car dealerships–places where people were making do by sitting on old kitchen chairs. All of a sudden, for $50, they became executives.

When the business was still young, we tried to break into Simpsons department stores. The buyers had agreed to come over to see our plant. We only had about 10 to 12 workers, but next door there was a company that made louvred doors. I asked the owner if he would lend me about 20 workers for a while to make my place look busy. Then I brought in the buyers. When they saw all these people, they decided I had a respectable plant. Years later, I told them what I had done. They thought it was pretty funny.

By the 1980s, our goal was to become a “total office” manufacturer that could supply an entire turnkey office. We wanted to be more important to our customers–the idea was they could buy everything from us in one stop.

As far as lead times and being able to deliver quickly, no one can beat us. Years ago, when Pope John Paul II was visiting Philadelphia, we got a call to supply 1,000 white chairs. The call came on a Wednesday, the chairs had to be there for a mass on Sunday. We got the chairs to Philadelphia by Friday evening. We did the same sort of thing, working quickly, to help rebuild offices after 9/11.

China has really become a factor in our industry only during the past four or five years. Still, we hold our own when it comes to customizable, sophisticated products for the office that can be delivered quickly.

The development of the cheap gas-cylinder lift for chairs was a big change. Before, pneumatic lifts used to be very expensive–it added about $75 to the chair–so going back 25 years, only about 5% of chairs had them. Today, they're on about 90% to 95%.

Four of my children are now involved in the business. After getting their education, they got some real-world practice outside the family business. By getting this exposure, it was a good way of bringing in new ideas when they came here.

We can operate much faster and efficiently by not being a public company. If we make a decision, we just put it into motion.

We're a big company, but still have the values of the small company we started out as. I grew up on the shop floor. I can relate to our employees, because I was there.

Saul Feldberg

Born Nov. 14, 1935, in Skarszick, Poland
Upholsterer; office furniture mogul

After surviving the Holocaust, comes to Canada at age 17. Finds job in upholstery shop making restaurant chairs and benches.

Starts Global in 3,500-sq.-ft. factory with six workers. Creates a $68 executive chair, establishing the budget-chair market.

Opens Global Industries in New Jersey, precursor to global expansion in Israel, Europe, Australia and South America.

Grand opening of Global Group Center, a 100,000-sq.-ft. building, with a showroom and customer training facility.

Now in its 40th year, Global has six-million-sq-. ft. of manufacturing space and ships some 200,000 units weekly.