Salesmanship: Icon among icons

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by Warren Tyler

To put Al Wahnon’s passing in the proper perspective, I had to run through my mind the great people in this industry who have died. Early on I only knew people by reputation, but as I matured in the industry I was fortunate enough to become personally acquainted and even friends with those who were truly icons in the industry.

First and foremost in my mind was Walter Guinan. As chairman of Karastan, he made it the most successful mill ever. In the New York/New Jersey market, the first question women asked when they entered a carpet store was, “Do you sell Karastan?” A “yes” legitimatized your business. Dealers sued to get the line, because they perceived (rightly so) it was the key to success. How would you like customers suing you to make you sell them?

Even with the memories of the past giants of the industry, to my mind, Al leaves the biggest hole. Don’t ask me to explain for he was one of the most complex personalities I have ever met—cantankerous and opinionated, but also passionate, loyal, searcher of the truth as he saw it and staunch defender of those he loved. You always knew where you stood. The greatest sin anyone could ever commit was that of disloyalty. If you worked for Al and left, you were forever a ghost. I left for a year and as far as it was known, I was the only one he ever took back. Knowing Al, for that year I was always on the lookout for big black sedans hovering nearby bearing New York license plates.

We were on opposite sides of the political spectrum and it always astounded me how someone as brilliant as Al could have such extreme views. Our conversations always digressed into shouting matches, so much so that people in my office would leave the room. Disagreeing with Al led him to use such terms of endearment as “moron,” “idiot,” “retard” and promises that he could never remain friends with someone as “brain dead” as I. Remarkably, we always made peace until our next political war. He didn’t suffer fools gladly or at all, and often shared his lament that there were only a couple of people with whom he could have a truly intellectual conversation. The person most frequently mentioned was Fritz Rench of HOST.

His volatile personality was most likely a characteristic of his genius, a portion of which was displayed in his journalistic abilities. In his editorials he had the uncanny knack of slicing up those who, whether inadvertently of not, had crossed one of his lines. He wrote so deftly that even his victims didn’t recognize themselves. On the other hand, he could take serious criticism. I once accused him associating only with the elites of the industry and because the top executives only told him what they wanted him to know, he, like most trade journalists, had little idea of how the industry really worked. To his credit, he listened to the other view of the industry, which came from the streets.

Ten years ago doctors were giving pessimistic opinions about the survivability of one of our children. Because we didn’t want to miss a moment with her we brought her to Surfaces. At 2 years old her skin was bright yellow. When Al looked at the child, he was as bright yellow as little Ryanne and said to me, “See Warren, I told you she was my kid!” What was so shocking about his demise was that Al had been so sick for so long and could have died at any time, you doubted he would ever die, so when he finally succumbed it was a shock.

Al once was doing a series of articles on the numerous industry markets held years back. His plan was to make it look like a marathon and cover all seven or eight markets. He showed up at each one clad in sneakers at a time that no one wore sneakers. As a marathoner at the time, I leaned over to check the fit. To my surprise, Al had no toes. He lost them in combat in WWII.

He was the finest journalist ever in this industry, a charter member of the industry Hall of Fame and a founder and passionate supporter of the Floor Covering Industry Foundation, which has helped hundreds of industry people and their families who have run into hard times. He was Mr. Floor Covering Weekly until he changed course and started Floor Covering News.

I’ve known Al since the time that 295 Fifth Avenue in New York City was the major industry market. Years later, and that was 23 years ago, Al and I ran into each other rushing to get somewhere in the halls of the Atlanta Mart. As he was rushing by, he asked, “Hey Tyler! Do you want to write a column for me?” To which, I answered, “Yes.” He had no idea I could write and neither did I, but it changed my life and career. There is nothing I love more than to write for the people of this industry. Al was my friend, mentor, harshest critic and journalistic hero and I miss him greatly. George Jones sings a sad country song about passed country singing stars that ponders the question, “Who’s Going to Fill Their Shoes?”

No one, Al. No one.

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