Industry legend and manufacturing giant Harold Whittemore “Buddy” Sherrill died at his home in Hickory, North Carolina, on March 24 at age 96.
Sherrill was born Aug. 13, 1926, in Catawba County, the son of the late O.T. (Oscar Truman) and Ruth Sherrill. Having grown up in the Hickory area of North Carolina, he was said to have developed an early interest in manufacturing and entrepreneurship.
According to a 2019 profile in Business North Carolina magazine, Sherrill graduated from high school in 1943 and soon after volunteered for the Army Air Corps’ aviation cadet program. He reported for duty in 1945, the magazine reported, but the war ended that summer, abruptly cutting short his plans to serve in the war effort.
The magazine went on to note that after he was discharged in 1946, he considered a career in dentistry or watch repair. However, he decided to enroll in the University of South Carolina and graduated in 1950 with a degree in business administration and retail.
He then joined the family business around 1951, starting in manufacturing in roles ranging from attaching springs to jute webbing to hand tying spring systems with eight-way knots, Business North Carolina described in its profile. To this day, this process remains the gold standard in upper middle to upper-end upholstery manufacturing.
During the late 1950s, he shifted from manufacturing to sales. That placed him on the road, selling the line to retailers throughout the Carolinas, while a nationwide sales force sold the line to many well-known retailers around the country, such as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Rich’s in Atlanta, and Bloomingdales and Gimbels in New York, Business North Carolina wrote.
The younger Sherrill rose up the ranks in the business and was later credited for maintaining the company’s domestic manufacturing presence while many other producers shifted to imports during the 1990s and early 2000s.
A formula for the company’s success was his vision that created a vertical manufacturing operation that brought the supply chain of cushion production and solid wood frame production in-house.
This, along with the addition of an in-house shipping fleet, helped the company achieve much quicker lead times, including for custom product that has made Sherrill and its subsidiaries a go-to resource for designers and retailers alike.
His vision also helped create a dynamic market for other suppliers in the region that continue to supply the company to this day with various raw materials.
“After 73 years of consistent, steady and caring leadership, all of us at Sherrill Furniture Co. have grown to love him deeply,” said Thad Monroe, president. “Buddy’s commitment to local craftspeople and willingness to invest in this community to keep case goods and upholstery manufacturing going strong is something that everyone in the furniture industry has benefited from.”
“Buddy Sherrill lived life to the fullest and held nothing back when it came to the Sherrill Furniture family, his people and business that he loved dearly,” the company added in a statement announcing his passing.
Over the years, Sherrill also is credited with creating and growing a well-known and well-respected group of brands it developed and/or acquired in the luxury segment. In addition to Sherrill Furniture, its portfolio includes CTH-Sherrill Occasional, Hickory White, Precedent Furniture, Motioncraft, Whittemore-Sherrill, Lillian August and Mr. & Mrs. Howard.
A car enthusiast who is said to have owned some 50 vehicles, Sherrill also was described as a philanthropist who gave generously to local charities. He also was considered a mentor to many entrepreneurs in the area.
Those who have known him over the many years — including competitors — have shared thoughts with Home News Now about Sherrill and his impact on the industry.
“Buddy Sherrill has been an industry icon since the days I was a young, green merchant,” said Alex Shuford III, CEO of the Rock House Farm family of brands that includes Century, Hickory Chair, Highland House, Hancock & Moore, Jessica Charles, Maitland-Smith and Pearson, as well as Cabot Wrenn. “The way he ran his company always seemed to be with an eye on quality, efficiency and craftspeople. … As a competitor, he was one of the bars against which we measured ourselves. My family and company have the highest respect for what he accomplished and offer sincere condolences to his family and employees on his passing.”
Industry analyst Jerry Epperson, a managing partner in Richmond, Virginia-based Mann, Armistead & Epperson, said he first met Sherrill around 1974 and described him as one of the greats in the industry — along with Hassel Franklin — that have passed of late.
“Buddy was always very kind to me,” Epperson told Home News Now. “Whenever I needed him, he would call me right back, and we had a very nice relationship.”
He also recalled that Sherrill also liked to make sure other people in his organization got credit for their accomplishments, including getting their pictures in the trade press.
“If you talked to him and you brought up something they were doing that was extremely successful, he would say, ‘Well you know, I didn’t do that. Here is really who did it and we are so blessed they had the idea and they ran with it.’ He didn’t want to take credit for anything.”
But Epperson said that Sherrill deserved credit for a number of business practices, including maintaining a domestic furniture manufacturing presence on both the upholstery and the wood sides of the business.
“He knew manufacturing like no one else,” Epperson said. “And he wanted to keep everything as much in the U.S. as he could.”
Others in the industry shared some thoughts about him on LinkedIn. Below are some of those comments:
“I always valued my conversations with Buddy which began in 1981 when I was DMM at Gimbel Bros. and continued throughout my career until I retired in 2020,” said industry veteran Michael Nicotera. “My condolences to his family and friends. He was a pivotal figure in the furniture industry.”
Industry veteran Larry Crink described him as one of the “finest gentlemen I have ever known in the furniture business.”
“As a new young upholstery buyer at Huffman Boyle, he treated me with respect and patience from our first meeting,” Crink added. “As I advanced through my career and assumed the presidency of W&J Sloane Furniture San Francisco and eventually purchased W&J Sloane of Beverly Hills, Sherrill Upholstery remained our biggest supplier throughout the years.”
He added that it was often difficult to negotiate with Buddy because he maintained a calmness and coolness that made it hard to argue when he didn’t agree with the proposal. But that never changed his feelings of friendship for a man he always respected.
“On a personal note, we purchased Ferrari 512 Boxers separately, but during the same time period, and enjoyed sharing tales of racing through the mountains in California and North Carolina,” Crink added. “…His friendship will be missed. Special prayers to his family.”
Industry licensing expert Kerry Glasser said that he met Sherrill 34 years ago just when he was getting his start in home fashions licensing.
“While Buddy was very specific about the types of brand collaborations he would consider, he always had an open door and was willing to give me an audience,” Glasser said.
Others noted that the efficiencies he created in his manufacturing operations were ahead of their time in the industry.
“Buddy Sherrill was a good man who took care of the people working for him,” said Scott Propst, an industrial engineer at Universal Furniture. “Sherill Furniture was lean manufacturing before there was lean in the furniture industry. Rest in Peace.”
The company said that Charles Sherrill, the third-generation owner of Sherrill Furniture Co., is committed to sustaining his father’s vision for the company.
“One thing my dad made sure I understood is that the responsibility of leading Sherrill Furniture is never just about the money,” said Sherrill, CEO and senior vice president of product development. “If it were, then he could have sold the company many different times. This company is and will continue to be all about the people and the families who make this industry possible.”