Walter Hoving

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Walter Hoving (December 2, 1897 – November 27, 1989) was a Swedish-born American businessman and head of Tiffany & Company from 1955 to 1980.[1]


Mr. Hoving was born in Stockholm, the son of Johannes Hoving, a surgeon and Helga Rundberg, an opera singer. He was brought to the United States with his parents in 1903 and attended the Barnard School and De Witt Clinton High School in New York City. He received a bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1920. At Brown, he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

In 1924, he went to work for R. H. Macy & Company in the training program and was an immediate success. By the age of 30, he was a vice president. He also underwent his own training program to polish his knowledge of the arts. For four years, he took courses at the Metropolitan Museum in subjects like painting, textile design, old silver and furniture.

When he went to Montgomery Ward & Company as vice president in charge of sales in 1932, he set up a bureau of design to overhaul Ward's Catalogue. He left the mail-order house in 1936 to go to Lord & Taylor, where he was president until 1946.

Hoving continued to stress the great importance of design, reportedly asking job-seekers to choose between well and badly designed objects and hiring them or rejecting them on the basis of their taste. In 1946 he founded the Hoving Corporation, whose properties came to include Bonwit Teller, the department store, until he sold it in 1960.[2]

Tiffany & Company[edit]

In 1955 he bought control of Tiffany's, which was on the brink of going out of business. He started his regime by getting rid of everything in the store that did not meet his standards, holding a giant sale - the first in the store's history -of everything from silver matchbook covers at $6.75 to a diamond and emerald brooch marked down to $29,700.

Under his guidance, the faltering store reacquired its cachet and a new popularity - Tiffany's salesclerks were under orders to treat everyone, even the most obvious browser, as a potential customer - and by Christmas 1980, its aisles were jammed with shoppers.

Hoving took control of a stodgy Tiffany's in 1955 and, with his fine eye for quality, gave the store its special stamp. Good design meant good business and, under Hoving, Tiffany's sales grew to $100 million from $6 million. Hoving initiated the idea of good quality, said Labarr Hoagland, who retired from Tiffany as executive vice president. Before, you felt you had to have a million dollars to come into the store. But Hoving introduced mass merchandising, not in the ordinary sense, but in the sense of affordable and good quality.

One of the first things he did when he arrived was to hire a Design Director, Van Day Truex. He told him Design what you think is beautiful, don't worry about selling it. That's our job. His conviction of the correctness of his taste allowed him to give great freedom to designers he continued to add to the stores roster, like Jean Schlumberger, Angela Cummings or Elsa Peretti, and a "window dresser" from Bonwit Tellers, Gene Moore, who designed Tiffany's now world-famous eye-catching Fifth Avenue windows.

No item was too small to escape his notice. No cellophane tape, he decreed, was to be used in gift-wrapping boxes with that special Tiffany Blue paper, and there were to be no knots securing the white bows.

His concept of "esthetic excitement" was supremely important to him, and he was able to make it sell. Give the customer what Tiffany likes, because what it likes, the public ought to like was his motto. His skill was knowing that a well designed product would be attractive to consumers.

A tall and distinguished man, always impeccably tailored, Hoving was not hesitant about expressing his tastes outside the store. He won the battle against a plan to put a cafe in a corner of Central Park, and he lost the fight against making Fifth Avenue a one-way street.

Hoving resolutely maintained Tiffany's and his standards, which included no diamond rings for men, no silver plate and no charge accounts for customers found being rude to the salespeople. His firmness in matters of taste took Tiffany's from $7 million worth of business in 1955 to $100 million for the Fifth Avenue store and its five branches in 1980, when he stepped down as chairman.

The only exception to the no-silver-plate rule during Hoving's tenure at Tiffany's - small pins with the message, Try God - illuminated another facet of Hoving's character: his conviction that he was guided by God during his entire career. Hoving was a deeply religious man who had long been actively involved in charitable work. All the proceeds went to the Walter Hoving Home headquartered in Garrison, New York. The Walter Hoving Home is a non-profit, faith-based rehabilitation center serving women 18 years and older who have been involved in drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and other life-controlling problems.[3]

Sales to John F. Kennedy[edit]

Hoving made two sales to President John F. Kennedy. Once in 1960, Hoving met then President-elect, after store hours, and assisted him in selecting a brooch by Jean Schlumberger with rubies and diamonds for Jacqueline Kennedy. Although its cost was not made known, it is estimated that a similar piece would cost $30,000 today. The Metropolitan Museum of Art chose the brooch to be the sole piece of fine jewelry chosen for display in the blockbuster exhibition Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. [4]

Kennedy contacted Hoving again in 1962 after the Cuban missile crisis, and requested 32 Lucite calendar mementos to be presented to close aides who had worked with him during the crisis. Hoving's response varies slightly in different accounts, but the gist of it was, We don't sell plastic. Tiffany's ended up filling the order, but with the mementos in silver. When Kennedy asked if the President received a discount, Mr. Hoving pointed to the picture of Mary Lincoln wearing a strand of Tiffany pearls, purchased of her by then President Lincoln, stating, "Well President Lincoln didn't receive one. [5]

The President returned to the Tiffany shortly after the birth of his son John, to to purchase a gift for his wife. When Hoving learned he was in the store he rushed down to greet him, stopping on the second floor to pick up a silver baby feeding spoon as a gift for the new born. The President thanked him and slipped it into his pocket, purchased his gift and departed, Many months later, Mr. Hoving received a graceful hand written note from Jackie Kennedy, thanking him profusely and apologizing for the tardiness of their thank you note. She explained that she had recently just found the silver feeding spoon while emptying the Presidents suit pocket before sending it to the dry cleaners.

Later years[edit]

Tiffany & Company was a publicly owned company until it was acquired in 1979 by Avon Products, Inc.. Hoving's resignation the following year was one of a series of management changes stemming from the Avon takeover. Hoving was unhappy with the direction Avon was taking Tiffany & Company and found that despite the promises of autonomy he received when he sold the company to them.

He started his own consulting firm that specialized in retail design and management and started work on his memoirs that were never published. He also focused his efforts on his philanthropic activities and relaxed in his home in Newport, Rhode Island playing golf every day.

He would often write the David Mitchell then chairmen of Avon seeking to buy back Tiffany & Company but his offers were never seriously entertained. As always he was never shy about making his opinions known about the present management of the store who he thought were nice people but “boobs”. He sparred openly with Mitchell writing letters to the editor after almost every interview the Avon chairmen gave mentioning Tiffany in an unfavorable light. He often commented on his regrets on selling the store to Avon. He felt that they had reneged on many of the promises they had made to him prior to the sale of Tiffany.

He always sealed all his deals with a handshake which he saw as the ultimate signature of intent and trust. When he sold the air rights to Tiffany & Company to Donald Trump in 1979, he shook his hand sealing the deal. The young Trump was astonished at this old school approach but went on to build his famous Fifth Avenue building right next door to Tiffany based on that handshake. He mentioned this episode fondly remembering Hoving in his first book.

After Hoving resigned Henry B. Platt, a great-great-grandson of founder Charles Tiffany took over the helm for a brief period but was fired five months later by Mitchell for being incompetent though this was never discussed openly. Platt stated he was retiring after 34 years at Tiffany but anyone close to the situation knew this was just not the case. Platt also had the very bad habit of claiming credit for many of the milestones that Hoving had actually initiated like putting together the award winning design team of Angela Cummings, Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso. There was never a time that Platt had the luxury of doing anything unless it was approved by “Mr. Hoving”.

In an interview for the New York Times, Angela Cummings stated: At Tiffany's I met Walter Hoving, she recalled, and he looked at the little portfolio I had and said, You want to work for us, go ahead and try. It was like a threat, but at the time I didn't even know who he was.[6]

Five years after it was bought by Avon Products Inc., Tiffany & Company was put up for sale. Reports had circulated for more than a year that Avon, the world's largest cosmetic company, was giving up on its efforts to run Tiffany. Despite a series of management, accounting and marketing changes, Avon has been unable to bring the stores in line with its corporate financial goals. Hoving, said at the time, They bought it for prestige reasons and that's not a good reason, If Avon can get $150 million for it, they ought to grab it.

In 1984, Tiffany & Company was bought by private investors, and in 1987 it again became publicly owned. Its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Point of view[edit]

Hoving stated in a 1973 interview: Every store must have a point of view. Generally it doesn't. Tiffany's did. We don't claim to have the best taste in America, But we do say it is our taste. For the Tiffany point of view, Hoving acquired space which he thought was the place one’s eye would immediately go to when opening the paper.

A man of conservative political bent, he expressed his opinions in various ways. In one year's annual report, he commented on the taxes paid by the store, saying, It is our hope, but not our expectation, that these sums will be spent with due diligence and a modicum of wisdom. He used Tiffany advertisements as a soapbox, too. Some of them he wrote as little essays with titles like Is Profit a Dirty Word?. He wrote and ran several others all of which ran in The New York Times in the usual Tiffany & Company placement on page three in the upper right hand corner.

In another he assailed the First National City Bank for its "loud and vulgar Christmas tree" and urged the bank to practice "good esthetics". In yet another he attacked as unconscionable the hoarding of silver, an unmistakable reference to the Hunt empire's efforts to corner the silver market in 1980.

Personal life[edit]

Walter Hoving authored two best-selling books, Your Career in Business (Tiffany & Co., 1978) and Tiffany's Table Manners for Teen-agers (Random House, 1960) & Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers [Deluxe Edition] [Hardcover] Walter Hoving (Author), Joe Eula (Illustrator), John Hoving (Introduction)

He wrote Table Manners after seeing his young grandson's atrocious table manners. The book is a perennial favorite and has sold millions of copies over the years. In 2011 a 50th Anniversary Edition was released with a new cover and a foreword by John Hoving, the grandson who had inspired the book.

His 1924 marriage to Mary Osgood Field ended in divorce in 1936, He married his second wife, Pauline Vandervoort Rogers, in 1937. She died in 1976.

Walter Hoving was a brother of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Brown University (Upsilon chapter). He was a co-founder of the Salvation Army Association of New York, and gave his time to the United Negro College Fund and the United Service Organizations, USO.

He died at 91 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was survived by his third wife, the former singer and actress Jane Pickens Langley, whom he married in 1977. She died on February 23, 1992 in Newport as well. Hoving was also survived by a son and a daughter by his first marriage. Thomas Hoving, author of several best selling books, former editor of Connoisseur magazine, former New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner and a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Petrea Hoving Durand, founder of Internet Miniature Pinscher Services Inc. as well as four grandchildren, John Hoving, Samuel Osgood Hoving, Thomas Durand and Petrea Hoving.[7]


Other sources[edit]

  • Benson, Adolph B.; Naboth Hedin Swedes In America (New York: Haskell House Publishers, Inc. 1969)

External links[edit]