Lenny Florence Knows All That Glitters Isn't Gold; He's the Poor Man's Silver Fox

updated 05/17/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Leonard Florence was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but no matter. He's proved a sterling businessman. Growing up in blue-collar Chelsea, Mass., Lenny shined shoes to help his Russian-Jewish immigrant father, a grocer, support his seven brothers and sisters. That was four decades and 22 companies ago. Today Florence, 50, heads the Boston-based miniconglomerate Towle Manufacturing. His speciality is cranking out low-priced gift items, especially in silver, but any resemblance to Paul Revere ends there: Florence is no craftsman but rather the unabashed King of Kitsch.

This year Towle is expected to gross $300 million from the sale of some 7,000 different types of geegaws, including sterling silver tea sets (up to $10,000), silver-plated pitchers (from $60 for the electroplated silver over a metal alloy), stainless flatware (five-piece settings from $30), vinyl ice buckets ($20), Muppet figurines ($15 to $75) and Kliban Cat clay coffee mugs ($15). "I've done all right for a poor boy from Boston," boasts Florence, whose subsidiaries employ 2,400 people. Lenny's personal worth: close to $30 million.

His ceramic Miss Piggys notwithstanding, Florence's empire is built on silver. After graduating with a business degree in 1954 from Boston University, Lenny was approached by a friend, Dewey Stone, who offered half of his failing Raimond Silver Co. if Florence could save it. By underselling competitors, Lenny made Raimond a success. When it was sold in 1968, he took his $1.1 million profit and a year later formed Leonard Silver, building it up the same way. In 1978 he merged with 292-year-old Towle and began producing designs similar to those of old firms like Gorham and Reed & Barton at lower prices. Shrugs Florence: "I'm accused of knocking off my competitors because my products are more visible." Indeed, Florence's lines are sold at K mart as well as Neiman-Marcus.

Not surprisingly, retailers love him. "Lenny's a knockout," exclaims Lester Gribetz, executive VP of Blooming-dale's. The only silverware manufacturer to completely automate his silver-plate operation, Florence now mass-produces 240 Paul Revere bowls an hour (before, a normal run was 40). As a result, he has swamped his established rivals, even contributing to the demise of the hollowware division of the 135-year-old International Silver Company last year. Such Florentine antics have shaken the opposition. "I can't talk about him," confesses an executive at giant Oneida. "He could own me someday."

Two years ago, when the price of silver jumped from $10.50 to $50 an ounce, Lenny used Towle's shining credit rating to raise the cash for diversifying. He then gobbled up floundering china, crystal and metal gift companies. When the price of silver dipped in 1980, Florence escaped major losses because the profits from his recently acquired china and giftware companies soared.

Lenny may think silver but he prefers to wear an $8,000 gold bracelet. He also drives a Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes and a Jaguar and owns four homes—a condo in Bal Harbour, Fla., a ski lodge in Vermont, a town house in Georgetown and a 16-room spread in Brookline, Mass. He rarely sees Charlotte, his wife of 27 years, or their children—Faye, a 25-year-old law student at Boston College, Susan, 21, a Tufts undergraduate, and Mark, 16. Work comes first—16 hours a day, seven days a week, and nine months of travel a year, all in search of the next company to buy. By keeping prices down, he intends to make every table in America sparkle. "Today Mrs. Jones wants to live like Mrs. Rockefeller," explains Florence, "and I intend to let her think she can."

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