Chief Executive Officer of Ethan Allen and philanthropist
Born August 16, 1944, in Srinagar, Kashmir; married Farida Khan, 1968; children: three (one deceased). Education: Earned degree from Kashmir University, 1965; New York University, M.B.A., 1968.
Addresses: Office —Ethan Allen, Inc., P.O. Box 1966, Danbury, CT 06813-1966.
Worked as a bookkeeper in New York City, mid-1960s, and ran a handicraft-import business out of his apartment; financial analyst with Bear Stearns after 1968, and with New Court Securities, where he rose to vice president; formed KEA International, 1973; sold KEA to Ethan Allen, Inc., 1980; Ethan Allen, Inc., vice president, 1980, executive vice president, 1983, president and chief operating officer, 1985, board chair and chief executive officer, 1988. Elected president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, 2002. Established the Irfan Kathwari Foundation and the Kashmir Study Group.
M. Farooq Kathwari has headed Ethan Allen, Inc., the venerable American furniture-maker based in Danbury, Connecticut, since 1985. As chief executive officer and board chair, he has been credited with guiding the company whose brand name was once synonymous with staid, American Colonial styles into an unprecedented turnaround. Kathwari also has a sideline career, however—that of philanthropist and potential peacemaker for his troubled homeland, Kashmir. "To a great degree, politicians and the diplomats have failed in regions of conflict and war," Kathwari contended in an article he wrote for Chief Executive. "The reason CEOs can contribute is that they have a different mind set."
Kathwari was born in 1944 into a longtime merchant family in Srinagar, an ancient city in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir known for its houseboats and canals along Dal Lake. Even his own family was torn apart by the political trouble: when he was five years old, Kathwari's father traveled to the Pakistan-controlled area on business and was detained there. A year passed before Kathwari, his mother, and two other siblings were allowed to join him; an older brother and sister remained behind. They assumed the split was merely a temporary one, but instead they stayed for ten years, living on a mountain whose peak reached 8,000 feet. "Going to school was a hike," Kathwari wrote in a New York Times profile in 2004. "I'd pass trees and rocks and a spring. At the end of October it started snowing. The mountain is a great teacher. It teaches you to pace yourself."
Kathwari's family was able to return to Srinagar in 1960, but without their father. In his teens, Kathwari became a top cricketeer, and went on to captain his Kashmir University team. He majored in literature and political science, but was also active in the student protest movement, and was jailed briefly after speaking to a foreign journalist. By the time he graduated in 1965, his father was already in New York, working at the 1964 World's Fair, and had been sending him college applications and encouraging him to leave.
Kathwari arrived in the United States as a political-asylum seeker. Career-wise, he suffered a somewhat inauspicious start for a future American CEO. He was hired at a factory in Queens, which he thought may have made shower stalls; he did not last very long and was told not to return when he was given his first paycheck. After that, he answered an ad for bookkeeper, and assured the interviewer that he knew the rudiments. That was not true, but the secretary managed to give him a crash course on his first day while the others were away at lunch.
Kathwari earned his graduate business degree from New York University in 1968, and fared better in his job prospects after that. He worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst at Bear Stearns, and went on to another firm, New Court Securities, where he rose to vice president. He also had a lucrative side career as an importer of Kashmir-made handicrafts, sent by his family, which he sold wholesale to Bloomingdale's department store. One day in the early 1970s, he met Ethan Allen's board chair, who admitted that his company's American furniture factories were having a hard time obtaining enough top-notch Kashmiri crewelwork for its upholstery fabrics. Kathwari set up a business with his cousins to provide a steady supply for Ethan Allen.
Kathwari called his new company KEA International, which stood for "Kathwari Ethan Allen," and when Ethan Allen decided to buy it outright in 1980, they offered Kathwari a vice presidency. Three years later, he became an executive vice president at the company, and was named president and chief operating officer in 1985. His control over Ethan Allen's future direction was complete when he was made board chair and chief executive officer in 1988. At the time, the company had steady but unimpressive sales. In business since the 1930s, it had once been an innovator in its field, pioneering the gallery-style showroom in which furniture was displayed in different rooms that mimicked an actual American home. The company dominated the market in the post-World War II years, when mass-market tastes ran to the vaguely colonial, and Ethan Allen's styles remained firmly in the traditional category long thereafter.
Kathwari's vision was to modernize the furniture lines, and the stores as well. There was some resistance from within the company, as well as external pressure, and he managed to successfully fend off a 1989 buyout attempt. After he took the company public again in 1993, its fortunes began to improve considerably. When he had taken over in 1985, Ethan Allen had been posting sales figures of about $200 million annually for past seven years; by 2002, when Kathwari was elected president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, Ethan Allen was selling about $200 million each quarter.
Kathwari's own home was not far from Ethan Allen's Danbury, Connecticut, headquarters, across the state line in New Rochelle, New York. He had married his wife, Farida, by telephone in 1968, since he could not return to Kashmir for the ceremony because of his political-refugee status. She joined him several months later, and in suburban New York the couple raised three children. The elder of their two sons, Irfan, went to Afghanistan as a young man, over his family's objections, to join the mujahadeen fighters. He died in 1992 during the battle to take Kabul. Kathwari established the Irfan Kathwari Foundation in his name, which works to promote understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
In 1996, Kathwari founded the Kashmir Study Group, which he also underwrites. Comprised of scholars and experts from both sides of the Indian-Pakistani dispute, it has conducted studies and offered a framework to end the bloodshed, which escalated in the late 1990s. The group's recommendations have been moderately well received, and its work has even earned tacit support from the United States government. Though Kathwari hopes the conflict might be resolved in his lifetime, he recalls the lessons he learned from the mountain as a schoolboy. "If your nation's been fighting for self-governance since 1586," he reflected in an article that appeared in the business magazine Inc., "you realize that to change things sometimes takes a long time."
BusinessWeek, October 22, 2001, p. 68.
Chief Executive, December 2003, p. 38.
Forbes, July 27, 1998, p. 20.
HR Magazine, May 1994, p. 61.
Inc., November 1999, p. 119.
New York Times, December 26, 2004, p. BU11.