Words used to describe Walter Guinan include "legend," "icon," "marketing and styling genius," "premier industry educator" and "a mover and shaker." But I would argue that the word "dedicated" describes him best. Dedication to the industry and its people topped his list of priorities.
That strong dedication explains why Walter stayed actively involved with and interested in contributing to the industry and the welfare of its people until the end of his life.
With all of his achievements - and they would fill a lengthy list - Walter never forgot his roots, planted in 1928 when he became a sample boy at Bigelow Sanford Carpets. Unlike some others, Walter recognized that he had been given much by the industry and he felt obligated to give back in numerous ways.
So how did a floor covering industry career unfold for this man who, as a teenager, started as a sample boy? Well, he stayed at Bigelow for 26 years. During that time, a series of promotions elevated him to executive sales, marketing and styling, and design positions. Not too bad for a kid who started out lugging samples.
In 1954, Karastan Rug Mills beckoned and he became the company's executive vice president and sales manager. Three years later, he assumed the presidency. The rest is history. Under his leadership, Karastan grew from sales of a few million dollars a year to more than $125 million annually. It became one of the industry's most recognized high-end producers.
Though the criteria for a dealer to obtain the Karastan line was extremely high and stringent, retailers avidly sought to become a Karastan retailer. Talk about mystique - Walter gave it a whole new dimension.
How did he do it? Walter was an advocate of developing top quality, well-styled carpets and rugs and then using strong marketing, advertising and merchandising to promote them to consumers, end users, decorators, designers, and specifiers. Simple, when you think about it. And did it work? Big time! Karastan achieved (and still maintains) the position of one of the industry's best-known brands.
Walter made the transition from the dominance of woven carpets to the dominance of tufted carpets, and from of the dominance of wool to the dominance of synthetic fibers. He did not fight change. Instead, Walter embraced the good aspects of the new and blended them with the best of the old.
As important as his achievements in manufacturing, marketing, merchandising, and sales are, Walter also distinguished himself through his involvement in industry organizations. He was an active member of the old American Carpet Institute (ACI) and served as chairman of its board. And as the industry changed and tufting surged, Walter was one of the key players behind the merger of the ACI and the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association that created the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). And guess what? Walter was elected chairman of the CRI board - the only person to ever serve as chairman of the board for both the ACI and CRI.
He was an early and continuing supporter of the educational programs of the Retail Flooring Covering Institute and the Western Floor Covering Association (both now under the banner of the World Floor Covering Association).
When Walter retired from Karastan at the age of 65, quietly fading away was not part of his agenda. He had been very much involved in establishing the Floor Covering Industry Foundation (FCIF). Over the years, this foundation has financially assisted a countless number of people throughout the industry in their times of need. As Walter so often said, "We can and do take care of our own." At the time of his death, Walter was, and for many years had been, chairman of the foundation.
Walter Guinan leaves big footsteps that are worthy of following, but they are footsteps that can never be filled.
Editor's Note: Contributions in memory of Walter Guinan may be forwarded to The Floor Covering Industry Foundation, c/o Marianne Gregory, 401 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.