CURTAINS FOR WARNER'S?THERE'S NOTHING CHINTZY ABOUT WHAT'S AT STAKE AS INTERIOR DESIGNERS, BANKERS, LAWYERS SQUARE OFF IN AN UGLY FIGHT OVER A LONGTIME VALLEY DESIGN FIRM

In 1952, Ron and Carolyn Warner pulled together $1,400 and bought a burned-out grocery store at 26th Street and Osborn Road. Together the young 20-somethings shoveled out the soot and the trash, and in its place opened Warner's Furniture and Interiors.

In the early days, they sold just about everything a person needed to get a house together, from sofas to swamp coolers. Ron Warner did the buying and selling and supervised the design. Carolyn Warner ran the books, the money and the warehouse.

Warner's grew over the years until it gained a reputation as one of the best design studios in the West, regularly showing off its work on the back page of Phoenix Magazine.

People used to say that you could always tell Warner's designers at first glance. The men wore starched shirts with coats and ties. Women were in stockings and heels. Everyone's shoes were shined. They always introduced themselves in galleries and stores as representatives of Warner's.

Even today, the showroom is gorgeous, never a chair out of place. The back office has an elaborate library of fabric and more resources than any other studio in the Southwest. And for good reason.

The average Warner's client lives in a $1.2 million home and spends about $200,000 on a job.

Theirs is a world of $30,000 closets, Faberg‚ Easter eggs, expensive antiques, imported needlepoint pillows and fine fabric draperies that puddle perfectly at the floor. It is not uncommon for customers to fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco to look at a piece of furniture that might sit nicely underneath a favorite painting.

Warner's clients often either have not yet moved into their homes or go away for months while they're being "done." They come home to a beautifully decorated, fully furnished, perfectly lighted house. There are fresh linens and towels and, in some cases, the refrigerator is even stocked.

As the business grew over the years, the Warners also made a name for themselves in politics and community service. Ron Warner sat on the boards of Samaritan Health Services and the YMCA. Carolyn Warner ran for governor in 1986. Socially and politically, they were among Phoenix's elite.

So it was a momentous plunge for the most well-established interior design firm bearing one of the biggest names in Phoenix to file for bankruptcy in 1993.

The clue to what brought down Warner's lies somewhere in a convoluted web of lawsuits and financial investigations pitting Warner's against its employees, its customers, the state's largest bank and its law firm for 35 years, one of the most successful in Phoenix.

There are allegations of theft, fraud, mismanagement and enough conspiracy theories to fill an Oliver Stone movie. In a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, Ron Warner contends that his own employees diverted more than $2.5 million in sales out of the company and into their own pockets by running their own business inside Warner's. He also claims they were aided in this by Bank One.

Ron Warner seems to have an eye for talent. Some of the best designers in Arizona have passed through Warner's. Gerald Ebbett is no exception.

In 1966, Warner hired him a couple of years out of the Parsons School of Design to do floor displays. By all accounts, Ebbett is a phenomenally talented interior designer with a particular eye for fabric.

It was no surprise that he would move up in the company.
In 1974, Carolyn Warner was elected state superintendent of public instruction, a post she held for 12 years. She effectively left the business during the first election.

Meanwhile, Ron Warner served on the boards and committees of the YMCA, Salvation Army, United Methodist Church, Arizona Commission on the Arts and a catalogue list of others. He served on the Samaritan Health Services board of directors for 18 years.

He raised money for the Arizona Democratic party, the NAACP, Arizona Boys Ranch and the United Methodist Church School of Theology.

"I've spent about half of each day for the past 25 years working on some community service," Warner reflects. "I enjoy that."

He also ran his wife's campaigns.
In 1986, when Carolyn Warner ran for governor, Ron Warner handed the day-to-day operation of Warner's Furniture and Interiors over to Ebbett. He was more than an employee. He was practically a member of the family. Ebbett, they say, had dinner at the Warner house as often as five nights a week, and is godfather to five Warner grandchildren.

Shortly after Carolyn Warner lost to Evan Mecham in a three-way race, the Warners named Ebbett president of the company. When Ebbett left in 1992, Warner says, he was making $11,000 a month and had drawn about $400,000 in profit-sharing funds.

"Gerry ran the business without any interference from me, which is the way it has to be," Warner says. "You have to give the person that latitude or it doesn't work."

Warner's philosophy may have come back to haunt him.

The late 1980s were not good for either Phoenix or the interior design business. The real estate market was in the dumps. The wealthy weren't spending their money easily and the rest didn't have any.

A proliferation of design centers and wholesale-type markets opened up to freelancers, housewives and just about anyone else with a notion to decorate. Home magazines were telling the masses how to do it themselves.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
1 comments
stoett22
stoett22

It always warms my heart to see how a small business can develop into a million-dollar enterprise with sheer hard work and talent. But when that same business shatters, the feeling can be crushing. Still, this incident at Warner’s not only opened doors to queries, but also opened eyes to the dirty world of money-making.

 
Phoenix Concert Tickets
Loading...