On the wall of the reception area of S. Lichtenberg’s offices in 295 Fifth Ave. are plaques marking the company’s 25th, 50th, 65th and—very recently—75th anniversaries.
But Lichtenberg’s durability is worthy of something more meaningful than letters on a wall. Founded by Sam Lichtenberg in 1933, the company passed into the hands of Sam’s sons, Alan and Herb, in the 1970s. Alan died in 2003, but Herb remains in charge, assisted by his two sons, Michael and Scott; and Ric, Alan’s son.
Lichtenberg is actually a family business times two. Carl Goldstein, who has been with the company since 1976, and his son Scott, a 1989 alumnus, are two of its key executives.
The fact that Lichtenberg has survived into the third generation is pretty remarkable. According to statistics from American Management Services, a meager 12 percent of all family firms last that long.
It would be tempting to call Lichtenberg one of the lucky few, but that would give short shrift to the family’s business acumen. Its principles, as expressed by Herb, have been “professional salesmanship, astute management and the principles of von Clausewitz!” Not many companies claim 19th-century Prussian military theorists as their guiding light, but it’s understandable considering that both Alan and Herb were West Point graduates.
On a less warlike footing, Lichtenberg has succeeded because of the family’s focus. The company started as a window-treatment manufacturer and has remained one throughout its history. Over the years, Lichtenberg has resisted the temptations other vendors have succumbed to: acquisition binges, buying into other product lines (and someone else’s problems), accumulating huge debt loads in the pursuit of sales that cost more than they’re worth. Last year, the company moved into decorative bedding, but it did so from its own manufacturing base and without acquiring another vendor.
Although it’s a very traditional company, Lichtenberg has also been a trailblazer. Before many other companies, it saw the power of mass merchants in moving huge volumes of merchandise. It was also one of the first companies to source finished products from overseas, solidifying connections with manufacturers abroad while other vendors were still holding meetings to schedule more meetings to form committees to decide whether or not to explore this possibility.
One other feat the Lichtenbergs have managed is to be both competitive and generous at the same time. They have shown this in many ways, including to the author of this piece, who first entered their showroom 15 years ago not knowing a valance from a café curtain. Thanks to their tutelage, patience and good humor, I can now cover this business without embarrassing myself very often.
This summer, Corey Lichtenberg, Ric’s son and the fourth generation, started with the company. American Management Services puts the survival rate for fourth-generation family businesses at 3 percent. The feeling here is that Lichtenberg is going to beat those odds … and for more generations to come.—David Gill