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HIGH PROFILE: Cathryn Sue Browne sits on the board of Women and Children First

Cathy Browne’s business savvy in silk flowers blossomed into a leather venture. Now she’s on the board of Women and Children First. by Rachel O'Neal | January 9, 2022 at 3:12 a.m.
Cathy Browne on 12/28/2021 at the Women and Children First shelter for a High Profile cover story. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Four words changed Cathy Browne's life.

Browne remembers meeting philanthropist Cindy Murphy for the first time about 10 years ago when Murphy asked her about the possibility of providing some furniture to the Women and Children First shelter from her husband's business, Hank's Fine Furniture.

When she arrived at the shelter -- a safe space for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault -- to get an idea of what was needed, a young boy came down the stairs. He wanted to know what she was doing there and she told him she was going to get the shelter a new table and chairs. She asked what she could do for him.

"He said, 'Would you hold me?' Would. You. Hold. Me. Four words changed the trajectory of my life," she says. "I wish I could find that darling boy and tell him what he has done."

Never before a social butterfly, Browne's life began to change. She now sits on the board of Women and Children First and can be spotted at many charitable events -- especially those that support her favorite cause.

"I have been on the board of Women and Children First with Cathy for many years," says Wallace Smith, director of federal services at Garver engineering. "She gives. She supports. She inspires. She believes. She wants better for the least of the least -- the abused, the trafficked, those with seemingly no options."

Browne -- who will prove she can rock a ball gown at age 69 at the Feb. 5 Women and Children First Women of the Year Gala -- says she is more comfortable in casual clothes. She is wearing a black top, jeans and no shoes for this interview. She is seated at the kitchen table in her sprawling house with unobstructed views of the Arkansas River.

She looks nowhere near her age -- instead she still has that girl-next-door look. But this girl next-door can swear like a sailor and has had quite a business career -- one that eventually led her to Hank.

Hank's Fine Furniture has 17 locations in Arkansas, Florida, Alabama and Texas. An 18th location is under construction in Dothan, Ala. She met Hank when she was a sales representative for Natuzzi Leather. It took her a long time -- and a $1,400 cellphone call (remember roaming charges?) -- to persuade him to carry the line.

"As long as I have known Cathy, she never leaves any project undone. Whether it takes her three days to get our Christmas tree just right or fulfill the dream of a new shelter for the mission, I have no doubt that she will find a way to get it done," Hank Browne says. "She loves the passion of the board, staff and volunteers and that keeps her going full speed."

PLAYBOY BUNNY

Browne grew up in Oklahoma City. Her father was a geologist and her mother was the head dietitian at a local hospital. She has one sibling, Greg Meier, whom she adores but admits she tormented him when they were kids.

Her uncle Jack Swedish was a big part of her life. He was the advertising director for Miller Beer and took her on whirlwind trips.

"He was bigger than life to me. My parents were amazing. My dad was my best friend but Uncle Jack was the consummate 'mad man.' He lived in the era with a cigarette and a martini at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and a bar behind his desk."

One summer, Uncle Jack asked Browne's mother if he could take her on a trip to Lake Geneva to introduce a new beer. Her mother agreed. Cathy was in her teens.

"We pull up at the Playboy Club. I was like 'Oh my God. This is so cool.' I will just tell you he introduced me to some really pretty women -- lovely ladies -- and somewhere under somebody's bed in a shoe box is a picture of a 13-year-old girl in a Playboy bunny costume."

Yes. The bunnies let her try one on.

"You have this vision of what things are and they are just cocktail waitresses in really cool costumes," she says.

So she didn't get a copy of the photo?

"Oh, hell no," she says. "I think someone is waiting for me to run for president, maybe."

Uncle Jack piqued Browne's interest in sales.

"It started when I turned down a baby doll because I wanted a cardboard grocery store with a cash register," she says.

She attended the University of Oklahoma at Norman for a few years until her dad got prostate cancer and she transferred to what was then Central State University to help take care of him. He died about four years later.

ANIMAL HOUSE

After graduating from college, Browne went to work for a department store in Oklahoma City selling cosmetics. There she met her first husband, Bill Abney, who was working in a men's store in the same mall. The couple married a couple of years later.

They moved into the Phi Delta Gamma fraternity house at OU where Browne became the house mother and Bill was in law school. She was 26.

At this point in the interview, she goes to get something and returns with a glass from a party held at the house in 1977. The glass has the engraved names of the fraternity members as well as "Mom and Dad Abney."

She says her job as house mother involved "a whole lot of Dear Abby kind of things."

She was still working at the department store and would come home at night and find sticky notes affixed to their apartment door.

"Mom, I need to talk to you. Mom, I need to tell you something," she says of the notes. "We had to yell at them to stop mowing the shag carpet in the hallways and crazy stuff like that. But we would come home and somebody would put a drink in our hands. It was always a party."

One of her favorite frat house stories is of a date night steak dinner. Browne came home early to make sure the meal was on track. She found the frat house's cook passed out drunk on the floor of the kitchen.

She hurriedly went to the law school to find her husband -- this was in the days before cellphones -- to let him know there was a problem. The couple went back and found everything needed for a steak dinner -- meat, potatoes and the fixings for a salad. But there was no dessert.

She recruited some of the fraternity brothers to help get the dinner started and headed out to buy vanilla ice cream, sugar cubes and brandy.

"We probably burned the steaks and potatoes probably weren't done and lettuce was pretty soggy in the salad," she says. "But when we rolled out the dessert and turned out all of the lights in the dining room and Bill lit the sugar cubes that had soaked in the brandy, it was spectacular."

SILK FLOWERS

After a few years, the Abneys decided they were better friends than a couple. After they divorced, she started a silk flower company. She knew some furniture dealers who complained about how their old silk flower arrangements looked.

She rented a van and went around to furniture stores and told the owners she would take their silk arrangements back to her shop and redo them for $10 to $15 a piece.

"That kind of grew into something and the more I did it, the more I was running back and forth to Dallas to get supplies. And then I had to hire a couple of floral designers and we started building artificial ficus trees."

She was encouraged to rent a space at the High Point Furniture Market in High Point, N.C. The spot she rented was out of the way and she did not have a lot of success -- but two life-changing things happened.

At the market she met a man who was a vice president of a furniture company in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. She had been divorced two years and he was divorced. They went out for drinks.

And on the last day of the market, Browne met another man who had 35 furniture stores in Puerto Rico and he liked her prices. He was backed by a very reputable lender and she "knew immediately the check would clear."

He wanted her to go to Puerto Rico to see the stores. She knew nothing about containers or shipping. Despite that, she went.

There she met a man named Jose who took her to all of the stores. She worked up an $80,000 proposal.

"He said, 'OK. How fast can you get them here?' I said 'I don't know. Let me figure that out.'"

She got a loan and went to Dallas to buy materials. She learned how to package her creations and figured out how to ship them to Puerto Rico. She flew back to the territory to get them assembled. She ended up making a profit of more than 50%.

Remember the man from Georgetown who took Browne for drinks? He became husband number two. "The best thing about that marriage was he got me into the furniture business. I realized silk plants are great but do you want to sell a $500 sofa or a $39 plant?"

She lived in Edmond, Okla., and he lived in Georgetown. Her mother was still living and, as she says, "it is hard to separate mothers and daughter cross country." He ended up moving to Oklahoma with one of his two children.

Both were on the road a lot, selling different furniture lines. During one of those trips, they met Hank Browne.

HANK'S FINE FURNITURE

"He was real business-like. I thought he was an ---hole, but he bought the furniture," Browne says of her first encounter with Hank.

Her husband became disinterested in selling furniture while Cathy's sales were flourishing.

"I was really detail oriented. Other women I met on the road sold silk plants or lamps or something like that but no one had a serious line of furniture," she says. "I was getting better and better lines and the husband was getting more and more stagnant."

One night she came home to a voicemail from a man representing Natuzzi Leather. He wanted her to be a sales representative. Her husband heard the message and told her they were not going to accept the offer. "I said, 'Excuse me. He called for me.' And that was the beginning of the end for us."

She accepted and the Natuzzi line took off.

"What Mr. Natuzzi did to the U.S. market is flip the whole leather market in less than a year." At that time, a leather couch was upward of $6,000. A Natuzzi sofa was less than $1,000.

"I was in the right place at the right time and this line was like a rocket ship," she says.

Browne says she was creating accounts as fast as she could but one continued to elude her -- Hank's Fine Furniture. She had called Hank several times to set up an appointment but was rejected.

"I'm all about the chase. If I set my mind on something, I will move heaven and earth to make it happen."

She was driving through Arkansas and decided to give it another shot. This time the general manager put Hank on the phone and they talked from Little Rock to almost to Asheville, N.C. -- racking up the $1,400 in roaming charges. "But I found out it was damn well worth it."

Hank visited the Natuzzi showroom a few times. Part of Browne's sales strategy was to take off her shoes and jump on the couch to prove how tough the Pirelli webbing was. She says she realized she was trying to make a sale to "probably one of the best salespeople in the business."

"This guy's reputation in building his stores -- that just didn't happen by luck. This is one smart guy so I gave a presentation of my life."

It eventually worked. "He gave us the largest single order ever taken at an international market."

He asked her out to dinner a couple of times and a relationship developed. Hank has also been divorced twice. He popped the question at a New Year's Eve party he was hosting at his lodge in DeValls Bluff.

"He said, 'What are you doing in June?' I said, 'I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow.' He said, 'Why don't we get married?'"

On the day they were married, Natuzzi founder Pasquale Natuzzi sent the couple a telegram from Italy. It read: "Laugh and love harder each day. Hold each other close. I know now to what lengths my reps will go to keep the business."

She continued to work for Natuzzi for about two more years until Hank told her "I need you more than that little bald-headed Italian guy." She gave up that job and went to work for Hank as head of marketing and advertising. Both she and Hank have since reduced their workload and his daughter Mary is now president of the company.

"I married Hank but I also inherited three beautiful daughters -- three wonderful, smart daughters who have given us five wonderfully smart grandsons," she says.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST

In the early 2010s, Hank's Fine Furniture had provided some of the furniture for the Arkansas Symphony Designer House and Browne attended a patron party where she met Women and Children First's Women of the Year Gala founder Cindy Murphy. From that encounter, she met the little boy who stole her heart.

The organization's shelter is a 115-year-old house at an undisclosed location. In it, 54 beds are spread out everywhere -- the bedrooms, the dining room, the sun room. The house is in a state of deterioration, Browne says.

And how big is the problem? According to the organization's latest annual report, the shelter housed 13,618 women and children in 2019.

With the support of the city of Little Rock, Pulaski County, the state and the federal departments of justice and the generosity of supporters, Brown hopes all of that is about to change. Plans are in place to create a Family Peace Center shelter for women and children modeled after a program founded in 2002 in San Diego as a way to curb domestic violence. The program has the stamp of approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.

For several years, the organization looked for a place to build a suitable shelter that could accommodate 90 beds but couldn't find anything they could afford. Then the Little Rock City Board voted to lease 3.79 wooded acres in southwest Little Rock to the organization for $1 a year. The land is near a police substation, a community center, health care facilities, pharmacies and a library.

"It's definitely her passion, but it's also her attitude," fellow board member Tiffany Robinson says of Browne's determination to build a new shelter. "She is a girl who accepts the challenge and just refuses to give up until she crosses the finish line. And that determination and that willingness to succeed is exactly what we need."

While the covid-19 pandemic slowed down progress, the board has been working on obtaining grants and donations to build the facility. Browne is hopeful for a ground-breaking ceremony on March 28 -- her 70th birthday.

"That would be the most incredible birthday gift anyone could give me," she says, adding she will make the facility happen or "die trying."


Print Headline: Cathryn Sue Browne

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