Irwin Lowenstein, 87, former Rhodes furniture chief, dies

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

When Irwin Lowenstein faced a final problem he could not fix, he came home to Atlanta with his wife, Joel, to be closer to family and friends.

The retired businessman, who’d been a problem solver all his life, could no longer stave off cancer. So he left Sarasota, Florida, in January and returned to the city where he’d raised his children, run a century-plus-old furniture company and had served on seemingly countless community boards, to spend his last weeks with those he loved.

The former CEO and chairman of Rhodes Furniture died February 7. He was 87. He was buried February 9, and later that day eulogized by two rabbis, his five children — Stan Lowenstein, Joanne Birnbrey, Suzanne Reiman, Ruth Shor, and Ellen Italiaander — and five of 18 grandchildren, at a large memorial service at The Temple on Peachtree Road.

“He was that guy when you brought problems to him he’d get out a pen and paper and put the positives on the left and negatives on the right,” Stan Lowenstein recalled. “He always carried a pad of paper with him. If he didn’t write it down he’d forget.”

At that service, and in subsequent interviews, friends, family and former employees remembered Lowenstein as a businessman who felt compelled to give to his community because of his success, and as a man who also put his family ahead of his business; his wife, who survives him, foremost. Every morning, Lowenstein would tell her, “I’m sorry,” to cover him “for all the screwups that were about to come,” Rabbi Peter Berg recalled him saying. Lowenstein also enjoyed golf, tennis, horse racing, a good steak and fine scotch.

“Always get yourself a nice scotch,” his grandson, Zach Shor, recalled him saying.

In business and in parenting, Lowenstein could be insistent and demanding. His often-uttered aphorism to this children — “Because I said so,” — evolved into an advertising slogan for Rhodes: “Because Irwin said so.” Yet those who were close to him said Lowenstein wasn’t driven by a desire to control but instead to bring out the best in others, often in ways others might consider counter-intuitive.

“Believe it or not, he was just like a general,” said George Harris, who served as senior vice president under Lowenstein at Rhodes. “He always had the unique ability of knowing when to get on you and when to pat you on the back. So he knew when times were tough, he had to handle his people a little different than when times were good. This is going to sound crazy, but he’d almost just kick the crap out of you when things were good.”

Harris sand Lowenstein had concurrent careers at Rhodes. Lowenstein, the son of a furniture seller in Louisville, Kentucky, joined the company in 1972, first as president of a division of company showrooms and warehouses in Houston, and in 1977, as president and chief operating officer of the company. Lowenstein served as CEO and chairman of Rhodes from 1988 to 1997.

He guided Rhodes through three recessions and two takeovers by corporate buyers. By the end of Lowenstein’s tenure, Rhodes had become the nation’s fourth largest furniture dealer, with annual sales of $430 million. Rhodes closed in 2005, eight years after Lowenstein’s departure as CEO.

Lowenstein kept active in community affairs both during and after his career with Rhodes. The lengthy list of civic causes to which he devoted his time include: serving as president of The Temple, and the Standard Club of Atlanta, for which Lowenstein appointed the first woman to serve on the board. He also served on the Emory University Goizueta Business School advisory council, the board of directors for the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Home, and headed up multiple Jewish nonprofits dedicated to vocational and children’s services in metro Atlanta.

During his life, Lowenstein won multiple awards from a variety of organizations. Among them: Brandeis University, the American Jewish Committee, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Anti-Defamation League. He also created a youth scholarship fund at The Temple to which the family requests donations be given in lieu of flowers.

“He talked about this temple with such pride, with such joy,” Berg said. “And he believed in our mission from the depths of his soul.”

Berg recalled having breakfast with Lowenstein at the Piedmont at Buckhead senior living community just weeks before his death. He described Lowenstein as full of energy, holding “court with everyone,” telling employees how to better manage the kitchen and smiling at everyone.

Then Lowenstein looked at Berg and told him how proud he was of his family. “I have no regrets,” Berg recalled Lowenstein say. “I loved every day of my life.”