Melvyn Wolff built up Star Furniture, supported his alma mater UH
Every Saturday, at the end of his six-day work week, Melvyn Wolff paused to share an Italian meal with the president of Star Furniture.
The lunchtime ritual of more than two decades gave the men a chance to set aside business matters and talk personally, often over a split plate of Carrabba’s spaghetti. It was a small but thoughtful commitment, one of many Wolff made to his employees as he built a small Houston furniture business into a thriving enterprise that ultimately earned him a partnership with billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Wolff, a Houston native who transformed Star into one of the nation’s largest furniture retailers, died Thursday at 86 after a monthslong battle with cancer.
His family and friends recall him as a sharp, meticulous man with a bottomless well of energy. Until the final months of his life, he worked out daily at the Houstonian and appeared at the office in tailored clothes he had chosen the night before.
Melvyn Lee Wolff was born on May 12, 1931, at St. Joseph Hospital to Boris and Fannie Wolff. His father, who fled Russia and arrived in the U.S. around 1915 with no money or knowledge of English, eventually earned enough to purchase part of Star Furniture, a lower-end operation that did a lot of business on credit.
After graduating from high school, Melvyn Wolff set off to Austin to study law at the University of Texas. He soon returned to Houston when his father had a heart attack and assumed his responsibilities at the company. He enrolled at the University of Houston and earned his business degree.
He eventually took control of Star Furniture after his father died and he brought his sister Shirley into the business. Faced with competition from Finger Furniture, which appealed to a similar customer base, he decided to reposition the company to target Houston’s growing middle- and upper-income population, said brother-in-law Marc Grossberg.
“If he couldn’t beat them, he’d go into a different market,” Grossberg said.
The business grew quickly, due in part to Wolff’s penchant for marketing. He turned his stores into galleries of sorts with bedrooms or dining rooms on the showroom floor, making it easier for customers to visualize how the furniture might look in their homes.
He also pioneered the “no money down” advertising approach with deferred loan payments, giving customers easier access to higher-end furniture, Grossberg said.
“The hard part was convincing the lenders that it made business sense,” he said. “He was really good at financial analysis.”
He paid close attention to detail, at times asking financial or operational questions that few employees had considered. President Bill Ward said he often gathered groups to brainstorm and listened intently to those who challenged his ideas.
“You had to be on your toes when you were discussing all of that with him,” Ward said. “He did it in a way where you might disagree on something, but then he’d put his arm around you and take you to lunch.”
Wolff’s commitment to his employees earned him widespread loyalty. Ward said he established close relationships with everyone who worked for him, from warehouse workers to fellow executives.
In 1997, Warren Buffett, who has often extolled the benefits of investing in good leadership, purchased the company and incorporated it into Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio. Wolff stayed on as chairman, a position he held until the final months of his life.
“The first day I met Melvyn, I knew he would be a wonderful partner and friend,” Buffett said in an email. “More than 20 years later, his every action had confirmed that initial appraisal.”
With greater access to capital, Wolff pushed for the company’s expansion. It established stores in Austin, San Antonio and Bryan, and Buffett attended the grand opening of each one.
Wolff, intent on providing students with business education and opportunities, became increasingly involved at UH as his company grew. In 2008, the school changed the name of its Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation into the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship.
He regularly met students for lunch in the cafeteria and invited them behind the scenes at the company to observe how the business operated. He recently gifted $1 million in scholarships to the center and hosted the recipients at his home for dinner.
“He was selfless in doing anything he could to help students and prosper personally and professionally,” center director David Cook said. “He was the most humble guy I’ve ever known.”
Perhaps most memorably, he and Cook each year took about 20 students to visit the Berkshire Hathaway headquarters in Nebraska to learn directly from Buffett.
“I would see him regularly with students from the University of Houston that he brought to Omaha,” Buffett said. “They loved him as I did.”
Wolff is survived by his wife, the former Cyvia Rose Grossberg; children Carrie Boudreaux and Curtis Wolff; granddaughter Sherrie Boudreaux; sister Shirley Toomin; and nieces, nephews, in-laws and friends.
A memorial service will be Sunday afternoon at Congregation Beth Israel, 5600 N. Braeswood.