November 17, 2013

Burnett remembered for ‘supah’ life

Rachel Brown

— Shortly before retired carpet industry consultant Reg Burnett passed away last week, he told doctors in his distinguished British accent that he was ready if it was his time to go, that he had lived a wonderful life, daughter Nancy Burnett said.

Reg Burnett, who immigrated from England in the 1950s and set up a consulting business in Dalton 10 years later, was known among those who knew him well for, among other things, his frequent use of the catch word “super,” which he pronounced, “supah.”

“I can tell you he lived a ‘supah’ life,” said daughter Nancy Burnett.

Born in West Yorkshire, England, Reg Burnett grew up under the care of hard-working parents with thrifty habits, Nancy Burnett said. When Reg Burnett was still a child, he started his first business selling eggs. At age 17, he became the youngest officer in the Royal Air Force where he was a pilot.

After leaving the military, he worked full-time during the day and also attended school full-time to earn his degree.

“One of his employers sent him to the United States to work with my mother’s father, and the rest, as they say, is history,” Nancy Burnett said.

First wife Pat Burnett said the two met in the 1950s while he was on a business trip in the United States. They would later move around the Southeast — Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia — while Burnett embarked on what business associates said was a 10-year plan aimed at gaining the skills and knowledge he needed to start his own consulting business for the carpet industry. Burnett would eventually transition from working in the States on a green card to becoming a citizen.

“He was a person who had a presence,” Pat Burnett added. “When he walked in the room, everybody knew it.”

Not that he was loud, she said, but he was the sort of person who commanded attention. The result of his 10-year plan, RBI International Carpet Consultants, came to fruition in 1967.

Four years after he launched the business, he met David Owens, who now co-owns an automotive and marine carpet business in Chatsworth. At the time, 18-year-old Owens was driving a lift truck for a carpet company in Chatsworth where he earned $1.60 an hour. Burnett spoke with everyone he met, from executives to blue collar workers, Owens recalled. One day, Burnett asked him if he wanted a job with his company.

Owens accepted and stayed with RBI for 17 years. People all over the world — Japan, European nations, Canada, Mexico and countries in South America — would call to ask Burnett’s advice before making major business decisions, Owens said.

Burnett had an uncanny ability to predict major shifts in the industry, Owens said. Decades before it happened, he predicted the industry would consolidate from 400 mills to fewer than 75. He predicted three or four mega mills would dominate. He predicted vertical integration of many of the medium and large mills, and he predicted other “technologies, trends and developments that would revolutionize the industry,” Owens said.

Owens credited his own skills and knowledge in the industry to what he learned from working with Burnett. Yet he added that his old boss wasn’t all work and no play.

“In spite of his very proper British upbringing and accent and his professional veneer, Reg believed in having fun while you worked and even had a pretty good sense of humor,” Owens said.

Burnett loved to fly and even gave others lessons. He also loved woodworking, said wife Jean Burnett, and gave many carved pens and segmented bowls to friends. When people remember Reg, she said, “I want them to think of his honesty and his integrity.”

When his children were young, Nancy Burnett said, he would take them to the library on Saturdays, quiz them at the dinner table on geography and math and reward them for good grades.

“When I was very ill a few years ago, my father demonstrated how much he loved me,” Nancy Burnett said. “He and my stepmother persuaded me to return to Dalton so my family could take care of me. He supported me financially. When I was in the hospital, he visited regularly, read and sang to me, and, when it became necessary, fed me. Both before and after my (liver) transplant, he drove me to Atlanta many times for medical appointments. During these trips, we enjoyed our conversations and became even closer.”

In her eyes, as in the eyes of so many others, Reg Burnett was a “supah” individual, and, added Owens, “one like this industry has never seen.”