Commentary: Remembering Marvin Girouard and Pier 1 Imports

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Marvin J. Girouard, 80, who worked at Pier 1 for 32 years and was CEO from 1998 to 2007 and led the company as it grew to a $2.8 billion operation with about 1,500 stores, died March 28m 2020.

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The recent news that Pier 1 Imports has decided to close its stores – perhaps spurred on by the pandemic, perhaps inevitable in a brutal retail environment – was a sad day for Fort Worth.

This was a company that had been a major innovator in bringing world culture, fashion and affordable furnishings to everyday consumers. Pier 1 Imports inspired an entire industry and throngs of imitators.

That Pier 1’s announced closings came so soon after the passing of Marvin Girouard, Pier 1’s colorful former chairman and CEO, doubles down on the sadness. With all that’s going on here in 2020, it feels like we haven’t gotten to mourn Marvin or the company where he flourished. At least, not as completely as we might have.

Scott Kirk
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Did you know Marvin? I was lucky to, but I avoided saying much in the immediate days after he passed because in life, he often cast a wary eye to those who used knowing him to impose for favors. Which is odd, because he seemed to love being generous with his time and attention.

All of the top execs I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with have an element of genius plus confidence about them that enables their success. Marvin had that too, but on top of it, he was simply a great guy.

I got to know Marvin because the ad agency where I worked had the privilege of producing Pier 1’s annual report – a high-end showpiece designed to wow/woo investors.

One evening, I needed to deliver proofs of the report for review by Pier 1 management. It was after 6:00 p.m. and Marvin knew I was driving over to their (then) offices at City Center.

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“Call me when you’re on your way. I’ll come down and meet you so that you don’t have to mess with parking.” When I got there, sure enough, there at the curb stood the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company who had gone to the trouble to save me trouble.

Our agency once invited Marvin as our guest to the “Great Conversations” charity dinner, at which every table was assigned a celebrity with stories to tell. Our official celebrity was Daryl “Moose” Johnston, already a rising sportscaster and just a few years removed from being the fan-favorite fullback who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys.

Mr. Johnston was affable and charming, a delight to meet, and he let us try on his Super Bowl rings … but within a few minutes, we all (Moose included) found ourselves fascinated by Marvin’s many adventures.

Marvin was an underwater demolition team beach jumper, the precursor of the Navy SEALS. A Vietnam vet.

Marvin Giruoard in Hong Kong courtesy photo

A hometown friend of Janis Joplin – he went to visit her in San Francisco just before shipping out for his tour of duty, and never saw her again because she died too young.

He was a world traveler who journeyed on buying trips to foreign bazaars and markets in exotic locales – and helped save Pier 1 from a sales slump in the early 1990s.

He was an energetic supporter of UNICEF who counted its internationally famous star ambassador, Audrey Hepburn, among his friends.

Of all his exploits, Marvin might have been most proud that he owned an Aston-Martin, James Bond’s sportscar of choice. Moose would agree: It WAS a great conversation, just not for the reason the organizers expected.

Janis book cover courtesy photo

A while later, as a cost-cutting move, Pier 1 Imports stopped doing the fancy (and expensive) annual reports. Consequently, I soon lost my job at that ad agency, my first and only time to be unemployed since I was 15.

When Marvin found out, he immediately hired me as a freelancer to prepare the presentation for Pier 1 Imports’ annual shareholders meeting. Pier 1 probably didn’t really need me for this, but he knew I needed them. I didn’t have to ask for help, he just reached out.

Then in 2007, when it was his time to leave Pier 1, Marvin called again and gave me the honor of helping him craft the press release announcing his retirement. By this time, I was at my current agency, PAVLOV. Going outside of Pier 1 for such an important communication was unusual, but it helped keep the news a secret until the time was right.

I treasure knowing that Marvin Girouard trusted me. These were all gifts of a business friendship, and I count myself blessed.

If you live in Fort Worth, Marvin had a gift for you, too: The gorgeous Pier 1 Imports building (later Chesapeake Energy’s Barnett Shale HQ) at the western end of downtown. It was designed under his leadership, and he shared some of his thinking with me at the time about the choices behind it. His priority was to give Fort Worth a distinctive new jewel in its crown, tall and visible (unlike the also-beautiful but low-rise campus RadioShack was building at about the same time).

The Pier 1 Imports building’s location on the point overlooking the Trinity, made possible after a church was flattened by Fort Worth’s 2000 tornado, was meant to “stretch” downtown to the west, to spur growth and development, and to elevate the city’s tradition of a shimmering skyline (I had the fun of assisting with a ribbon-cutting event, complete with a parade of Chinese dragons that made the trip over that day from the Far Eastern locale of Dallas).

It bothered Marvin when some wags speculated that he picked the skyscraper’s angled rooftop design to look like a giant “M,” but I know that the CEO who came down from his office to meet me at the curb was not that kind of guy. He was a great guy, though, and knowing him as I did, I love seeing that great M (that’s-not-an-M) whenever I drive by.

Scott Kirk is chief branding officer at PAVLOV, a full-service marketing agency in Fort Worth.

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