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Ethan Allen CEO Farooq Kathwari speaks to Pakistan Club

What does the CEO of a home furnishings business know about solving international strife? Plenty, if it’s Farooq Kathwari, chief executive of Ethan Allan, Inc.. Kathwari also founded and chairs the Kashmir Study Group, a U.S.-based think tank dedicated to solving the conflict between India and Pakistan. Having a business perspective helped him look at the problem of the disputed territory differently than a diplomat might, Kathwari said.

“I said we have to change the brand perception [of Kashmir],” he told students and friends of Chicago GSB at a March 27 event hosted by the Chicago GSB Pakistan Club at Gleacher Center. Also attending were Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations, of which Kathwari is a member, and Aitzaz Ahmed, Consul General of Pakistan in Chicago.

“A brand has not only to be known, but it has to be known for something good,” Kathwari said. He said he wanted the Kashmir Study Group to be known for being objective and helpful in finding a solution to the disputed territory between India and Pakistan.

After completing fact-finding missions, Kathwari said, he brought leaders from academia, politics, and business to his farm in Livingston, New York, where they agreed that any solution has to be nonviolent, feasible, and perceived as honorable by both sides. Some of the Kashmir Group’s ideas, such as regional self-governance, are finally getting attention and being discussed today by those who formerly were adversaries, Kathwari said.

“I believe that the main responsibility of leadership is to help shape the debate,”
he said, noting it has proved true both in his dealings with Kashmir and Ethan Allen.

Since 1985 Kathwari has led a revitalization and reinvention of Ethan Allen. It went from an outdated business model of selling traditional furniture to modernizing its image and the furniture itself. The company spent seven years getting the message across that it sold more than Early American furnishings, he said.

At the new Ethan Allen, women comprise about 50 percent of its management, interior designers are on hand to customize orders, manufacturing plants have been consolidated, and stores nationwide are being relocated to better reach customers.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking moves were was the elimination of discount sale prices and instituting uniform prices across the country, a move many said couldn’t be done. Kathwari proved the naysayers wrong.

Mary Sue Penn