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Cover Story : After Eddie

National Wholesale Co. was well-prepared long before its founder’s passing

January 2009 By Paul Miller
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Professionally, Lynda Swann will never be another Eddie Smith. Then again, she won’t have to be.

The support system her father fostered and nurtured during his 50-plus years running the women’s hosiery and apparel catalog National Wholesale Co. runs so seamlessly that Swann handles her role as president with relative ease.

Perhaps the toughest thing she encounters each day, while sitting in the same office her late father occupied for so many years until his 2007 passing at age 89, is recognizing she’s the top executive. Try telling her that she “replaced” Eddie Smith and Swann quickly clarifies that she and several of her VPs succeeded him in ensemble fashion.

Succession planning is obviously never an easy thing. It’s sort of like choosing your own grave site or writing your will. Not fun stuff. But for Smith, who founded, owned and operated National Wholesale from 1952 until 2005 (shortly after he suffered a stroke and later developed cancer), succession planning was essentially ongoing. Aside from the legalities Smith attended to — to ensure his company would wind up in his family’s hands once he was gone — he didn’t necessarily put together a specific succession plan because it was in place all along.

‘Planning-to-Die’ Meeting
More than a decade ago, Smith attended to the necessary estate planning. “The reason many businesses don’t survive is because they lack this,” Swann says. “Dad actually used to have ‘planning-to-die’ meetings, and they weren’t fun. Now I’m holding the same meetings. If you don’t do this, there are obvious tax consequences, and [your successors] can be forced to sell.”

But for Swann, life after Eddie Smith entailed “a lifetime of preparation, focused on our philosophies and how we operate the business,” she says. “I grew up with that since I was 4. My dad was larger than life to me.”

All in the Family
That life has been full of family mixed with business and vice versa. Smith’s wife Sarah, who died 11 years ago, worked alongside her husband for years, as did daughter Lynda. Son Eddie Smith Jr. was also in the picture for a number of years before leaving in the late ’60s to acquire and run Grady-White Boats in nearby Greenville, N.C. He’s continued to practice what his father preached in building up the successful boating manufacturer ever since.

About National Wholesale Co.

Headquarters: Lexington, N.C.

Year founded: 1952; first catalog mailed in 1976

Merchandise: Mature women’s undergarments and apparel

SKUs: 15,000-plus

Mailings per year: 11

# of employees: 150

Annual sales: $25 million to $50 million

Printer: RR Donnelley

List manager: Belardi/Ostroy

 

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