Farooq Kathwari–CEO of Ethan Allen and Great Business Leader

Posted on April 19, 2011

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By Jayne O’Donnell, USA TODAY
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — “Pashmina! Pashmina!”

The CEO of one of the largest U.S. furniture chains, determined to introduce a visitor to his beloved cat, is calling in vain out the doors of his stone-and-stucco mansion on the water here. He quizzes his driver and the landscaper on whether they’ve seen the Egyptian Mau.

Farooq Kathwari, who has run Ethan Allen Interiors (ETH) for the past 20 years, is a hands-on CEO and Muslim peace activist with a soft spot for people — and cats.

Interviewed at his fashionably furnished, nearly 150-year-old home and at the company’s Danbury, Conn., headquarters, Kathwari moves seamlessly between talk of strife in his native Kashmir, the new look of American furniture, and the challenges of managing change.

Kathwari, 62, has been juggling business and his own brand of diplomacy since he came to the USA in 1965. He chairs both the National Retail Federation and Refugees International, which provides humanitarian assistance to displaced people.

His awards include as many for global relations as for business.

“He’s so intellectually curious and has more interests outside his work than any CEO I’ve even known,” says Tracy Mullin, CEO of the retail federation. “He’s a true internationalist.”

Kathwari grew up in Kashmir, located between India and Pakistan, the son of a politician/lawyer and grandson of an antiques dealer.

When he was 4, his father traveled from their home in the Indian-controlled part of the Kashmir Valley to the portion controlled by Pakistan and was not allowed to return for 18 years. After a year, his wife and younger children joined him, while two older children stayed behind.

After his father died eight years ago, Kathwari brought his mother, now 85, to the USA to live with him. He takes a visitor to meet her in a wing of the house where she has live-in care. She mumbles a greeting, then, in her native Kashmiri, asks Kathwari when she’s going back to Kashmir, a question he says she poses every morning.

“At the end of the day, these are the things that matter,” Kathwari says after releasing his mother’s hand.

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