Melvyn Wolff, the Houston-born son of a Russian immigrant who transformed his family’s modest store into Star Furniture, one of America’s most successful retail furniture operations, died Thursday. He was 86.
Melvyn Lee Wolff was born on May 12, 1931, at St. Joseph Hospital to Boris and Fannie Wolff. His father fled Russia, arriving in America around 1915, not knowing a word of English or having two cents to his name.
Boris Wolff made enough money to become part owner of Star Furniture. At the time, it was more of a low-end operation that did a lot of business on credit. But that would change once his son took over.
After graduating from high school, Melvyn Wolff set off to Austin to study law at the University of Texas but returned to Houston when his father had a heart attack.
He took over his father’s responsibilities and enrolled at the University of Houston. At the time, the school was sometimes known as “Cougar High,” Wolff said in a 2008 interview with the Houston Chronicle.
“It didn’t have a lot of respect as an educational institution. But it had a certain quality level, and it provided a business education for those who reached out and wanted it,” Wolff said.
After earning his business degree – and a two-year stint in the Army as an officer – Wolff rejoined the family business.
He took control of Star Furniture after the death of his father and the remaining senior partner. After bringing his sister Shirley into the business, Wolff began to reposition the company to better appeal to Houston’s growing middle- and upper-income population – the genesis of the store’s slogan: “Different by Design.”
In 1997, Warren Buffett bought the company. But Wolff stayed on as chairman. Always nattily dressed in clothes he had laid out the night before, Wolff continued his mission to expand the company’s outreach. In addition to the stores in Houston, Star Furniture also opened operations in Austin, San Antonio and Bryan. Buffett was on hand for the grand opening of each store.
“He doesn’t offer advice on how to run the company. He’s a cheerleader and lets each of his managers run their own businesses,” Wolff said in 2008.
Along with Cyvia, his wife and life partner who he married in June 1956, Wolff took an interest in his hometown and his beloved University of Houston. In 2008, UH changed the name of its Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation into the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, regularly taking the top half of the class to Omaha to learn from Buffett.
In addition to his business and educational interests, Wolff and his wife supported the fine arts and Houston’s Jewish community.
Wolff is survived by his wife, the former Cyvia Rose Grossberg, their children, Carrie Boudreaux and Curtis Wolff, granddaughter Sherrie Boudreaux, sister Shirley Toomin, along with many other nieces, nephews, in-laws and friends.
A memorial service is to be held at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday at Congregation Beth Israel, 5600 N. Braeswood Blvd.