Robert Vanderminden Sr. wakes up every day at 4 a.m. and lies in bed for an hour before setting his feet on the floor.
The 89-year-old patriarch of the Telescope Casual Furniture family celebrated his 65th year at the business in September and says he spends that hour in bed thinking.
“I dream of what we’re going to do that day,” said Vanderminden.
He thinks about his plan for the day, ideas for the business and how to solve problems.
“Seems like such a good time to do it.”
Legally blind from macular degeneration, which leaves him with only peripheral vision, Vanderminden still spends five days a week walking a mile to work, attending design meetings and working on the production floor. And he doesn’t plan to stop.
“I want to work ‘til it’s no longer fun,” he said, adding later, “If you want to be in business any amount of time, it damn well better be fun, or you can’t keep it up.”
Working hard and having fun seem to be the secret of Vanderminden’s success in both life and business. At 14, he started working in the sawmill stacking lumber, making only 21.5 cents per hour.
“I thought it was pretty good at the time,” he shrugged.
He moved up to the machine shop when he was 16, welding and making storage racks. After a short stint in the Coast Guard, he attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to study mechanical engineering, and by the time he graduated in 1951, he had already redesigned the company’s wood furniture line.
Over the next several decades, he changed the company over from wood to aluminum furniture, designed a slot system for the business’s popular Director Chair, invented a slotted tubing system that revolutionized the industry, developed a five-person production line to build chairs, fought off competition from China and raised three daughters and two sons.
He’s the third generation of Vandermindens to run the booming furniture business, which started in New York City in 1903 and moved to Granville in 1921. Vanderminden took it over from his father, who took it over from his father.
“My father was a very smart man and very dedicated,” he said, “and he knew how to get good people. He always said, ‘If you really want to find a place with good people, look to the women.’”
His daughter Kathy Juckett, now the CEO, said whenever her father faced pressure, he used his ingenuity to find ways to keep the business going and keep people employed.
“He’d say, ‘Failure’s not an option. Let’s go,’” Juckett said.
He instilled in all the children a work ethic that valued hard work, perseverance, performance and making the very best quality product. But the family only worked five days a week. The weekends were reserved for fun. They joked that they would show up to church on Sundays dressed in their brightly colored ski clothes, and as soon as the last “Amen” was uttered, the family headed to Killington to ski the rest of the day.
Four of his children, one nephew and four grandchildren now work for the company, which boasts around 250 employees and nearly 300 in the summer. His great-grandson works in the summers.
“We stayed true to ourselves and true to our values and true to how we were raised,” Juckett said. “And we’re still here.”
During an appreciation ceremony at the business Nov. 2 celebrating Vanderminden’s 65 years at Telescope, he told his employees to try to have as much fun on the job as they can get away with. Until he figures out when he’s had enough fun and decides to retire, he’s going to keep walking to work every day and finding new ways to make the business successful. He’s still working on furniture designs to make them easier to build and improve their quality.
“Another problem will come up today that hasn’t been solved,” Vanderminden said, prompting his daughter to add, “You always call them ‘opportunities.’”
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