Roger Horchow was 61 years old in 1988 when Neiman Marcus bought his luxury mail order catalogue operation for more than $100 million. His first reaction: “Suddenly I was out of work. I had to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
That wry response is a peek into the personality of one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs in Dallas, Texas history. In an area that has been home to larger than life figures — Stanley Marcus, Mary Kay Ash, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, et al. — Horchow carved out an atypical niche by way of catalogue sales, Broadway productions and autobiographical books.
Horchow passed away at the age of 91 last week at his Dallas home.
Born in 1928 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Horchow was raised in a culturally stimulating environment — his father was an attorney, his mother a concert pianist.
When he was six years old, he had a surprise house guest who had a profound impact on his future. George Gershwin dropped in for a few hours following a Cincinnati performance — Horchow never forgot the sight of Gershwin, sitting at the family piano, playing timeless standards. “It was wonderful, otherworldly music,” the future business magnet recalled.
Horchow went on to study sociology at Yale; during a break, he did a stint at the Lazarus Department Store in Columbus, Ohio. It was a natural fit, Horchow said. “My belief is that in life you stumble into things. Once you do, you do everything you can to make it work.”
Following graduation, and service in the Korean War, Horchow took diverse retail positions that led him, in 1960, to a leadership role in the mail order division of Neiman Marcus. He learned the enterprise, top to bottom, and then began formulating a unique idea — Horchow theorized that mail order goods could be sold independently, that is, not tied in any way to a brick-and-mortar storefront.
In 1973, he went into hock to publish the Horchow Collection, the first high-end mail order catalogue that was not buttressed by a retail location. His attitude was classic Horchow: “I’ll just do what I think is right, and if I am wrong, I am wrong.”
Well, he was right — right eventually to $100 million a year in revenue. Customers like Princess Grace of Monaco and Frank Sinatra could not resist the luxe merchandise which came packaged in a sumptuous visual display.
Horchow and his wife, Carolyn, traveled the world to find the pieces. “Stanley Marcus is a taste-maker,” Horchow explained. “I am more of a follower of existing taste. My job is not so much to be first, as to be correct in taste and quality.”
After he divested the business to Neiman’s, that fondly remembered evening of piano melodies when he was six provided the inspiration for his next venture. “I’d always wanted to have a Gershwin musical on Broadway,” Horchow said. “So I decided to do it because nobody else would…I didn’t want a message. I wanted lots of singing and dancing.”
Not intimidated by lack of experience, Horchow again dipped into his own (now considerable fatter) bank account to produce Crazy For You, an update of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy. It played on Broadway for two years and earned him a Tony Award. Later, he secured a second Tony for the revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.
He produced other profitable musicals; along the way, he invested in shows that created considerable return, including Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Hamilton. Late in his life, Horchow became a major player on Broadway. If it did not actually happen, Horchow’s second act in life would be fiction that no reader would believe.
What accounted for Horchow’s spectacular track record? He was not afraid to take a risk if he was convinced it was a well calculated risk. He was not shy about putting his money where his convictions were. He had a refined sense of taste and a feeling for what might sell to specific markets. But there was one other important dimension to his personality: Horchow could network with people on an extraordinary level.
In his popular book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell profiled Horchow. Describing him as a “connector,” Gladwell wrote that “Horchow has an instinctive and natural gift for making social connections. He’s not aggressive about it…he has mastered what sociologists call a ‘weak tie,’ a friendly yet casual social connection.”
Gladwell noted that on Horchow’s computer, he kept a list of more than 1,600 names and addresses, along with a note about the connection. If you were on that roster, and it was your birthday, you would get a card from Horchow, no matter what your station in life happened to be.
“He has …an ironic charm that is utterly winning,” Gladwell concluded.
That charm, that character and that life force will be missed. RIP, Roger Horchow.