Mrs. B Worked at 103
Rose Blumkin (nee Gorelick and aka Mrs. B) was born a rabbi’s daughter in 1893 in a small village in Belarus. The family was desperately poor. Her mother, on days when the family had no food, would boil water so passersby would see the steam on the window and think they were having soup. Rose saw relatives murdered when Russian peasants would decide it was a good day to “kill some Jews.”
At six years old, she announced she was going to America. At thirteen, she took the first step, walking barefoot 18 miles to the nearest town with a railroad, carrying her shoes so they wouldn’t get worn. As she searched for employment, she was rejected 25 times before another Jewish family, who owned a dry goods store, hired her as a clerk and took her in. A few years later she was managing the store.
At age 23, after a harrowing journey across Siberia and China, then Japan, she arrived in Seattle, Washington and made her way to join her husband in Iowa. They later settled in Omaha. In 1937 they founded Nebraska Furniture Mart.
In 1983 she sold the company to a customer, Warren Buffet, for $55,000,000. In typical Buffet fashion, she and her family continued to operate the company as a division of Berkshire Hathaway. According to Wikipedia, she was pushed into retirement in 1989, at age 95. Finding retirement boring and realizing that her sale to Buffet did not include a non-compete agreement, she came out of retirement. She founded a new business, Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet, across the street from Nebraska Furniture Mart. In two years the new company was profitable. A year after that Mr. Buffet, who has said “I’d rather wrestle with grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny,” bought her out again and merged the new business into Nebraska Furniture Mart. She continued to work every day, utilizing her power wheelchair, until age 103. She would train her children, then her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, by bringing them along to participate in business negotiations and buying trips. The company continues to be managed by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren today.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Mrs. B believed in supporting the needy and her community, donating millions to support the arts, historic buildings, and the elderly.
The following quotes from Rose Blumkin and her daughter Mrs. Frances Batt are taken from an interview on this link:
Quotes from Rose Blumkin at 103
“Tell the truth, sell cheap, and don’t cheat, don’t lie.”
“There is no substitute for work. It is the most wonderful thing in the whole world.”
“I don’t like freeloaders. I don’t like beggars.”
“I’m from a rotten country, Russia. You pulled, you struggled. The wonderful thing, I came to America. You want to work, you’ll make money.”
“Oh, in Russia they are rotten. For a bottle of vodka, they kill anybody.”
“Everybody was selling 50 percent above cost. I had to sell 10 percent above cost — never lie, never cheat — told the truth and American people are the best in the world. They loan me money 37 years. They didn’t want to pay 50 percent and they made me a millionaire.”
“I brought my family over. I build nursing home. I build a kitchen for high blood pressure, sugar diabetes. Everything I could do for the Omaha people. The middle class, they were the best. They made me rich. They loan me money 37 years. I sold 10 percent when all the big shots were making 50 percent. I sold my stock 12 years ago for $55 million to Berkshire Hathaway. At the time, Berkshire Hathaway was selling for $1,000 a share [today it is $396,000].”
“They paid me for my business, $55 million. That was a real big going business and everybody bought $1,000 a share and look how much they getting. That [Berkshire Hathaway] meeting is tomorrow. Oh, aren’t they happy. They didn’t do anything and they made money. I’m the one that worked hard. I came from Russia in 1917 and I worked 80 years today. Day or night, 10 percent above cost and I made a good success. They bought from me my business 12 years ago, for $55 million. Then I got tired not to do anything, so I went and opened up a [competing] store myself.”
Mrs. Frances Batt, Rose Blumkin’s daughter:
“When I think about my mother. Well, my mother always says, ‘Who needs vacations? I don’t need a rest. I love being in business.’
I think she truly exhibits that principle up until today. She is 103 years and 4 months old; we’re now into May of 1997. And where her zest truthfully is (even though her body is weak, she doesn’t move so well and she certainly doesn’t have the kind of speed that she had), her greatest thrill is being at work and dealing with customers. It’s like I always say — it’s her oxygen. She cannot exist without it. That’s her life.
When I think about my mother, it’s a matter, to me, of great pride that a little woman, before the feminist movement, who suffered the oppression of a Czarist government where, in particular Jews had no life, and she had no money, that her dreams were as high as the moon. They were as high as the moon and I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts about her. She has never stopped dreaming and she has never stopped working.
To her, it’s the thrill of the chase, to be involved with people but to deal with them. She’s happy selling them, that’s for sure, but she wants that customer to be happy when he or she is buying something that she is selling. She is such a dynamo and she is of such heroic proportions that as a daughter of hers, I am constantly in awe of her great ambition at this stage of her life. When another person would sit in a rocking chair, she’d think it was a disgrace. You don’t sit in a rocking chair. You move. Believe me, even as weak as she is, her greatest happiness these days (she is really limited), is to put the oxygen tank on the cart and to drive her cart, not slowly, but with great speed, to survey her kingdom, which is now the carpet kingdom, and to deal with people. To make them happy makes her happy.”
Rose Bumpkin passed away on August 9, 1998, just a little over a year after this interview was granted. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue her business and charitable legacy today.
According to Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in his book Thou Shall Prosper, Orthodox Jews believe that Hebrew is the language of God. If a word that defines human experience doesn’t exist in Biblical Hebrew, then that concept doesn’t matter. Rabbi Lapin reports there is no word for retirement in Hebrew. Perhaps that was part of Mrs. B’s worldview as well.
Warren Buffet is known as “The Oracle of Omaha.” Perhaps Mrs. B should be “The Dynamo of Omaha.” If the Lord wills, I hope to possess half the energy at 83 she had at 103. I hope to have a fraction of her impact on my future great-grandchildren.
How about you?
What about Mrs. B’s passion for life, work, serving her customers most inspires you?
How do you serve people? How can you better be a person for others, in your work, your volunteering, your philanthropy?
If you are experiencing physical limitations, what can you do to overcome those limitations and continue to work or volunteer?
Do you have a great ambition for the remainder of your life?
Do you know of someone who is working, either paid or volunteer, past age 70? I would love to meet them and hear their story.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.strategicexit.com