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Roger Horchow delivers the goods
By Jane Wolfe |

“Not receive my Horchow catalogue?” cried one North Dallas real estate magnatesse when asked whether she would miss the catalogue if it failed to appear in her mailbox 12 times a year. “What would I doooo on evenings when my husband decides to work late?”

The Horchow Collection, king of today’s fancy mail-order catalogues, is to the soon-to-earn-six-figures-set what the Sears Roebuck catalogue was to an earlier America.

It is a window on the world of fashion and entertaining, offering only that which is in good taste and absolutely acceptable for Boston matrons or Texas executives.

The godfather of this national pastime for the rich is 56-year-old, midwestern-born, Yale-educated, Texas-migrated, S. Roger Horchow. It was his idea to sell merchandise from a freestanding catalogue (not one associated with a store), offering items that people wanted or would learn to want if they saw them.

“I was the Czar because nobody knew anything about mail-order” he says. Part of what he knew he learned running the mail-order department at Neiman-Marcus. What he didn’t know, he had the spunk and stamina to try. Columnist Eugenia Sheppard once wrote: “Roger Horchow changed the mail-order catalogue from something deadly dull into a publication that women can hardly wait to open.”

And they not only looked, they bought. Princess Grace ordered from the first catalogue, as did men and women, young and old, Easterners, Southerners, celebrities, hostesses, art buffs. The first catalogue received some 7,000 orders.

In 1984, he mailed 41 million catalogues (including The Horchow Collection, Trifles, Grand Finale and SGF), producing record sales of $65 million. Horchow’s company has turned a profit in the millions every year.

“As a boy selling flower seeds and Christmas seals door-to-door in Columbus, Ohio, I learned one of my most important lessons,” he recalls. “Leam what your customers want before trying to sell them something. If the owner of the home is Jewish, don’t try to sell them Christmas seals, as I did. Stick with the flower seeds.” Today, Horchow tells his buyers: “Don’t buy it unless you can think of at least one person you could give it to.” He knows who his customers are. They have a median income of $58,000; 70 percent are women; they are 40 to 65 years old, and are college graduates who love art, travel and entertaining.

Horchow walks slowly, speaks softly and dresses comfortably, exuding the quiet confidence and debonair style of a Jay Gatsby, yet he is an intensely hard worker who puts in 11 hours a day at the office.

The company is located in the warehouse district of Farmers Branch, where it has always been, and Horchow’s office looks like just what it is-one room in a very cluttered warehouse. Boxes are stacked on chairs where a visitor might have wanted to sit, but he makes no excuses for the mess.

Samuel Roger Horchow comes from a line of Ohio shopkeepers. His grandfather Samuel Horchow owned a furniture store in Portsmouth. His mother’s lather, Samuel Schwartz, had a store in Crooksville.

But neither grandfather inspired the young Horchow to get into retailing. Home one summer from Yale, he worked for the F.&R. Lazarus department store in Columbus, immediately making the Lazarus family, founders of Federated Department Stores (Sanger Harris, Bloomingdale’s, Foley’s), his mentors.

Mr. Lazarus put Horchow to work ironing curtains and slipcovers in Foley’s basement. Then in his twenties, Horchow worked hard and soon was promoted to assistant in the china department, then to top china buyer.

He had heard about beautiful and talented Carolyn Pfeifer, who worked in the fashion department at Bloomingdale’s, so he went to New York to meet her. After seven dates, they were engaged. Carolyn, who was from Little Rock, had superb style and was making a career in New York. At the same time, in the fall of 1960, he was offered a job at Neiman-Marcus. He and Carolyn decided to start their lives together in a new city.

Horchow started as a buyer of gifts, china and glass, working his way up to merchandising manager, then vice president under the watchful eye of his new mentor, Stanley Marcus. In 1968, he was hired by Boston-based Design Research, but found himself in the middle of a feud, and, in a year, resigned. In untypical fashion, Marcus, who believed, “once you’re gone, you’re gone,” rehired Horchow, placing him second in command of an expanded mail-order operation. But a few years later, Horchow packed his bags again.

This time he was hired by the Kenton Corp., a conglomerate of expensive stores including Georg Jensen, Cartier and Mark Cross, to put together a catalogue. Two years later, he had an opportunity to buy the catalogue business-it was losing $1 million a year-but it would cost him $1 million. His savings amounted to less than $50,000, so he went to relatives and friends, including his doctor and lawyer, for help.

Despite the doubters, on June 13, 1973 (3 is his lucky number), Horchow had raised enough to buy the company; in a year, it turned a $1 million profit. For every $5,000 investment, Horchow bought back the stock in 1974 at $125,000-a 2,500 percent return.

His Horchow Collection was such a mammoth success that in 1977 he started his own competition, Trifles (1984 sales $20 million). It’s similar to HC but with broader taste and slightly higher prices. A flood of orders for sale items that appeared in HC inspired him to start a third catalogue of strictly sale items, Grand Finale (1984 sales $10 million).

The rich-customers such as Happy Rockefeller, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra- like everyone else, like to buy things on sale, he insists. To satisfy them, in January, 1984, he started another all-sale book, Savings on Gifts and Furnishings (1984 sales $5 million).

He sends catalogues to 1,500,000 people in every state and 30 foreign countries. In newsletters to his “best” customers, he gives advice on perfect gifts, some of which he doesn’t offer. In 1984, Hor-chow suggested: “Send your loved one a perfect rose every Monday for the entire year or give your wife the use of a limousine once a month for the year.” One lady suggested he should have included giving to United Way or volunteering at a local senior citizen’s center. “My next letter,” he says, “will have more suggestions like that.”

Despite his wealth, Horchow drives a Chevrolet Caprice and lives in the same house he did before starting the catalogue. He and his wife don’t care for fancy, formal furnishings. Their spacious and casual North Dallas home contains works by American artists such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis and local artist Roger Winter, as well as 100 or so objects of folk art. The front entry is covered with Matisse’s Jazz series. Horchow is a fan of the music of the Twenties and Thirties. He loves to play, by ear, on the piano the runes of Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers.

There are, however, some obvious clues to his success-the swimming pool and guest house in his backyard and the sprawling, 5-bedroom house he just built in Nantucket.

Sitting in the living room of his Dallas home, he says, “It’s what you are in life that counts, not how much in material things you can show your neighbors. My parents told me when I was young that you can only eat three meals a day and drive one car at a time. Once you have the necessities, you have everything.”

Horchow is a family man, evident in the catalogues (where his family’s names appear on certain items) and from the pictures on an entire wall of his office. His oldest is daughter Regen, 24, the third-generation Horchow to graduate from Yale. Elizabeth, 20, is a junior at Tulane and Sally, 14, is at Hockaday.

The Horchows give to more than 100 organ-izations. In 1984, his most important gift was Horchow Hall at Yale, a building donated in honor of family members who are Yale graduates. Last year, he gave almost 20 percent of his income to charity. And, the company donated $50,000 in profits to other projects.

Often, Horchow is compared with Stanley Marcus. If asked, he’ll rattle off their similarities and differences, but the question clearly bores him. “Whereas Stanley is very much the taste-maker, I’m more a follower of existing tastes. My job is not so much to be first, as to be correct in taste and quality.”

Entering its 14th year, the company has about 350 employees. But it’s still Horchow who makes the final decision on every catalogue item. “I used to worry that we were getting too big,” he says, “but as long as I can OK every item, we’re not too big.”