When a Replacements customer noticed the company's name listed as a sponsor for a local gay and lesbian film festival last year, she felt compelled to write a letter to CEO and founder Robert Page. She said that she wouldn't buy anything more from the company, which specializes in discontinued china, crystal, and silver patterns. "You should support family values, not the homosexual agenda," she wrote.
Her letter reflected a sentiment often heard in Greensboro, N.C., the small Southern city where Page has been building his business since 1981. Yet such prejudice has not kept Page, 58, in the closet. He has been out publicly for 13 years, and he is deliberately building what may be the South's most gay-friendly company. Replacements consistently scores 100% on the Human Rights Campaign's Equality Index, which scores companies for their policies toward gays and lesbians.
Page has been honored as one of the 25 most influential gay and lesbian executives in Corporate America by the Gay Financial Network. And when gays and lesbians in small towns search for gay-friendly places to work outside such urban centers as San Francisco and New York City, many look to Greensboro. Roughly one in six of Replacements' 630 employees is lesbian or gay.
Yet Replacements is somewhat of an anomaly in Greensboro. The city of 224,000 has few of the support structures for gays and lesbians that its larger urban neighbors to the North offer. Local churches have written letters requesting that churchgoers boycott Replacements. People have spray-painted slurs on the giant warehouse that stores Replacements' hard-to-find treasures. After a local newspaper wrote that Page and his partner, Dale Frederiksen, also an executive at the company, adopted twin boys from Vietnam in 2000, the paper's editor received a spate of vitriolic letters.
Page does not see such attitudes as a hindrance to his company, which is one of the larger employers in town. People may not always approve of him, but they depend on him and buy his wares. Business has remained strong through the economic downturn, and sales are up slightly to $70 million in fiscal 2003, from $68 million a year ago, according to company spokesperson Liam Sullivan. Replacements does 65% of its business over the Internet.
"BRING YOUR PARTNER."
Some potential employees opt out of working for the company when they discover that Page and a number of employees are gay, a fact Replacements representatives make known during the interview process. But many are attracted to it for the same reason. Alice Mitchell relocated from Columbia, S.C., to work as a customer-service supervisor at Replacements after a string of other jobs in which she felt discriminated against because she is a lesbian. Says Mitchell: "You can bring your partner to work events without any fear there's going to be retribution for it."
Replacements has always been a leader in its diversity policies, especially those aimed at gays and lesbians. Workers have had access to domestic-partnership benefits since the mid-1990s. They're eligible for adoption benefits and parental leave. Page says the company has recently made private bathrooms available for employees who are in the process of changing gender, paving the way for acceptance of transgender employees.
Employees can feel comfortable being out about their sexuality, a powerful retainer in a community like Greensboro. Mitchell, who is just 27, says she hopes to stay there until she retires. This type of loyalty is the norm at Replacements, where 83% of the employees have remained longer than two years.
Through Replacements, Page has a significant economic and social impact on his environment. The company supports gay and lesbian events such as film festivals in nearby cities, and Page is a heavy donor to the Democratic Party. When Wake Forest University, a private Baptist school, refused to sanction a lesbian union ceremony in its chapel, Page made headlines by withholding a sizeable donation.
Though Replacements doesn't typically advertise on TV, it ran an ad during the 1997 episode of Ellen in which Ellen DeGeneres' character came out as a lesbian. "Many local markets, including Atlanta, wouldn't run the ad," says Page. The message of the commercial: "We oppose discrimination on any basis."
Page continues to be very public about his values. To the woman who said she would buy no more products, Page wrote back immediately that his company believes all people are deserving of dignity, respect, and equal treatment. "If that is also what you consider to be the homosexual agenda, I proudly support it," he wrote.
Replacements, he says, remains committed to zero tolerance of discrimination on any basis. While such a stance may occasionally cost him customers, it has bought him the loyalty of scores of employees.
By Jessi Hempel in New York