The Magnolia Chamber of Commerce recently tapped Bertil Lundh as its Business Person of the Year. Lundh, who has run the Porcelain Gallery with his family for more than three decades, downplays the honor.
But the Swedish immigrant and charity activist was an obvious choice, said Chamber president Glenn Harrington. "He is a longstanding, prominent member of the Magnolia business community."
The Porcelain Gallery, a successful high-end business, also serves as a retail anchor in Magnolia Village, Harrington said. "But throughout his career, he's just been the kind of person we like to set up as an example for other people."
Lundh immigrated to the United States in 1949 when he was 24. It was a move he'd though about for a long time. "As a kid, I was always dreaming about America," he recalls.
Lundh said he spent a couple of months in Alaska about five months after he arrived in this country, only to return to Magnolia, where he found a letter to him from President Harry Truman.
"Basically, I was here for seven months, and I was drafted," he said of the president's call to service. That led to a 15-month stint in Korea and five months in Japan.
But he'd already met Jarane, his future wife, before he entered the service. "It was just one of those things," Lundh said of a love connection that led to a marriage that has lasted nearly 53 years.
And it was his wife who was responsible for opening the store, he said. "My wife wanted something to do, so that's how this thing came about," he said of a business that opened in 1973.
At the time, Lundh was already busy with other things. "I was a general contractor for 40 years. We built a lot of banks," including a couple in Magnolia Village, he added.
His son, Steve Lundh, runs the show now, Bert said, but his original decision as to what kind of store to open came naturally to him. "I'd been around the top things in porcelain in Sweden my whole life."
The Porcelain Gallery opened in its present location on a single floor; a second floor was added six years later in 1979. It took a while to build up the business, Lundh said. "But today, we have all the top brands in the world."
Those brands - from Faberge to Spode to Meissen to Waterford and Baccarat - now include sterling and plated-gold-or-silver flatware, crystal and a few objets d'art the store has added since its early days.
Prices aren't for the faint of heart in a lot of cases. For example, a five-piece setting of china starts out around $235, but a high-end set can go for up to $4,800, Lundh said.
"We had people in Magnolia that had those sets," he said of the more expensive one. Lundh also conceded that some of his clients are rich and famous, but he diplomatically declined to name names.
In the 1970s, shoppers at the gallery came from Magnolia, Seattle and maybe Mercer Island and Bellevue, he said. "But today we sell all over the world." That includes in Japan, Saudi Arabia and Europe. The orders are often sent via next-day mail, and ironically the Magnolia business ends up shipping European-brand products back to Europe. "We have a hell of a lot of customers in New York," he said.
The Internet is largely responsible for such a far-flung client base. "We have one of the biggest Web sites in the world when it comes to porcelain, silver and crystal," Lundh said, crediting his son, Steve, for the extensive site's creation.
Lundh has also been a civic-minded Magnolian in the decades he's lived in the neighborhood. "I've been president of so many organizations, you can't believe it," he said. They included, among others, the Magnolia Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce and the Nordic Heritage Museum.
In addition, Lundh was one of the driving forces behind construction of the "Pop" Mounger Pool just down the street from his store on 32nd Avenue West. "We raised a lot of money in Magnolia," he said. So much so, Lundh added, that the pool operates largely off the interest on a $500,000 endowment from supporters.
But Lundh has also been deeply involved in charity work over the years, and he has a special passion these days for the Northwest Kidney Center Foundation. "Of all the diseases, there is nothing, nothing like a kidney disease," he frowned. The foundation helps cover the cost of dialysis treatments for patients, Lundh said.
He and the family business have been fixtures in Magnolia so long most people can't remember when the Porcelain Gallery wasn't there. "I think today we are probably the oldest [business] owner in Magnolia," he said.
Lundh, in his early 80s, said he devotes most of his time to the Kidney Foundation, but he still keeps his hand in at the business. Asked if he ever considers retiring, Lundh put it this way: "Hell no! No, no, no, no way! Retirement, that's no fun. Working is fun."
Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at email@example.com or 461-1309.