by Steve Feldman
I was checking into the Beaver Creek, Colo., Park Hyatt for the National Floorcovering Alliance’s (NFA) spring meeting. As I was pleading my case for a view of the slopes, I noticed Paul Engle, longtime vice president of sales and marketing for Royalty Carpet Mills, standing beside me.
“Paul, I was hoping I’d run into you,” I said as I learned I wouldn’t be getting my preferred room until the next day. “I need to talk to you. We’re in the final stages of deciding our Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2013, and Mike is one of the finalists. I need to talk to you about this.” Mike was Mike Derderian, founder and owner of Royalty.
With a stare that could only be described as blank, he simply said, “I have some bad news. Mr. D. passed away this morning.” (Most people referred to him as Mr. D.)
The girl behind the counter could have had me stay in the janitor’s closet at this point. I couldn’t have cared less.
I checked into my room, took out my cell phone, looked at my contacts and scrolled down to “Mike Derderian cell.” My first impulse was to call. Maybe I had imagined the last 10 minutes of my life. Wishful thinking.
I heard the name Mike Derderian in my early years in this industry, but our paths never crossed. Mike kept a low profile. He wasn’t concerned much about talking to the press and certainly wasn’t the biggest believer in trade advertising. He was simply concerned about making a quality, stylish product and selling it at a fair price.
Flash forward to the fall of 2008. Hurricane Ike had devastated the Houston area, leaving many towns without power. I was at NFA’s fall meeting in Austin, which, although only three hours from Houston, was spared except for a little breeze. I offered my accommodations to a friend and her daughters so they could escape the ravage that was their hometown and at least get a hot shower.
My friend’s 5-year-old daughter, choosing the hotel pool over the shower as her mode of bathing, turned her ankle after jumping into the shallow end and insisted she needed a wheelchair. “Couldn’t walk,” she said, “needing” to be pushed around the vast property. The next morning, after wheeling her to breakfast, I saw Engle who was sitting with an elderly gentleman to whom he wanted to introduce me. Mike immediately asked what was wrong with my “daughter?” I told him she had sprained her ankle. With his wry sense of humor, he uttered in his trademarked soft-spoken manner, “Doesn’t seem to be bothering her on that buffet line.” And with that, I turned around, and there she was, bouncing around the desserts, a miraculous recovery.
After that, I looked forward to seeing Mike with every possible chance. I’d look for him at Surfaces, and he would always stop and make time for me. He could sense that I enjoyed the brief time we would spend together. I’d tell him how I enjoyed being in the presence of a legend. He’d shake his head and then start lamenting how his fiber prices were going through the roof.
On any sales trip to California, we would make it a point to stop by Royalty. It was out of the way, and I knew we were getting no ads. But it didn’t really matter.
Inevitably, our conversations would morph into how he was the only one who knew how to make carpet, how he came to California with $2,000 in his pocket, founded Royalty and built an empire in Irvine, Calif. To him, it wasn’t that he owned all this commercial real estate; it was the fact that there was no vacancy on any of his properties.
Aside from the rising cost of fiber, politics was always a popular conversation. If you were to make the mistake of mentioning a three-syllable word that began with “O,” well, strap in the kids. And don’t make any plans for the next hour.
I’d always tell Mike I would take him to dinner the next time I’d be in his area. He’d quickly snap, “No. I’ll take YOU to dinner.”
There’s a pit in my stomach knowing there will be no more next times.