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Sigman-Mills Furniture celebrates 70th anniversary

CONYERS — One could say Mr. Tom was ahead of his time. In an era where everything from groceries to cars is now bought while sitting in the comfort of home, Tom Sigman was making that happen 70 years ago. Driving a borrowed truck and armed with a load of catalogs, he met with customers in their homes as they selected furniture and other merchandise and would then personally deliver those purchases. Residents of Conyers, Covington, Porterdale, Social Circle, Lithonia and all points in between have bought essentials for their homes from Sigman Furniture Co. for seven decades.

Many bought on credit, paying $1 to $5 a month in the early days. His family says the man everyone affectionately called “Mr. Tom” was known for turning customers into friends. Mr. Tom passed away in 2011, but the business he founded in Conyers has remained strong and the family he created continues to carry on his legacy in life and business.

Sigman’s daughter, Carol Mills, is now president of Sigman-Mills Furniture Co., which will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a big event on Saturday, Nov. 20, from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mills says some of the specials include a La-Z-Boy recliner raffle; free $70 gift card giveaways; balloon pop discounts; store-wide savings; refreshments and live music.

A memory board will also be displayed and Mills asks if anyone has any old pictures pertaining to Sigman-Mills Furniture or stories to share to bring them when they visit the store. Memory board entries will be accepted through Nov. 20.

The business news of the day often shocks many people as they fearfully learn about supply chain delays, soaring inflation, rising prices of fuel and growing taxation. But for those who study history, they know this road has been traveled before. That is what Mills discovered as she began researching and writing a history of her family and the family’s store.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died a few years earlier and former Vice President Harry S. Truman was leading the country when a young Tom Sigman began his furniture business in 1951.

“It was a huge stepping out on a limb effort to take that gamble in a really tough time,” Mills said. “To me, so much of what was happening then was due to the war and right after the war, which ended in 1945. Right after World War II there were several issues related to production. Everything had been funneled for wartime use. They couldn’t get some of the products. It’s like now and similar to what has happened during COVID. How ironic they were going through some of the same issues we were going through...It inspired me.”

Indeed, the story of her father and the business he grew is inspiring in many ways, beginning even when he was just a boy. Growing up in Social Circle, Sigman’s parents nearly lost their farm to foreclosure. Sigman was only in his teens when he went to a local banker and convinced the man to lend the family money to save the farm. The young teenager worked several jobs and eventually paid off the loan.

Mills said the family struggled to keep the farm going during the Great Depression. But Sigman would not give up. He attended Oxford College of Emory University and worked out his tuition with his mother providing the college with eggs, milk and butter from the family farm while Sigman worked odd jobs on campus. He graduated in 1940 from Emory with degrees in business administration and business law. He worked from 1940-42 for General Motors Acceptance Corp.

“He was very intelligent and single-minded,” Mills said. “There was no halfway for him in doing anything.”

Sigman enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was fast-tracked to lieutenant, which found him traveling across the Pacific Ocean training fighter pilots and mechanics on P-51 fighter planes.

After the war, he married Miriam Stanley, who was an office manager at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. Mrs. Sigman, who has since passed away, was also a gifted soloist who entertained army troops during World War II. She had her own radio show in Macon where she sang for a time. Together they started Sigman Furniture Co. in Rockdale County in 1951. Sigman actually began his career in the retail furniture business in 1935, working for Henson Furniture Co. in Conyers until 1938.

The Sigmans raised their family and were active in the First Baptist Church of Conyers. Mr. Sigman was clerk of the church session for 30 years, and Mrs. Sigman is credited with beginning the kindergarten program at the church.

In 1982, Mr. and Mrs. Sigman retired and sold the furniture business to their daughter Carol and her husband Randy Mills, who served for 20 years as mayor of Conyers. Carol Mills and her two older brothers grew up working in the store and now her children are doing the same.

Randy Mills, who grew up in Columbia, S.C., met his wife while both were attending Anderson College, which is now Anderson University in Anderson, S.C. They completed their education at Erskine College in South Carolina. Mrs. Mills has a degree in English with a minor in journalism and her husband went on to complete his law degree at Woodrow Wilson College of Law, which is now part of Georgia State University. He planned a career in law, but enjoyed working in the family business with his father-in-law, so he chose a different path.

For many years, Mrs. Mills worked in the publishing industry helping produce magazines, one of which was related to the home furnishings industry. She and her husband married in 1977 and are the parents of two children.

Son Steven graduated from Rockdale County High School where he was active in the arts, theater, chorus and played tennis. His mother says his love of music comes from his late grandmother Sigman, whom the children called “Nanalee.” He went to the Oakland Conservatory for two years before transferring to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. He lived in California several years before moving back to Georgia where he now works in the family business as well as owns his own company, Creative Dynamics. He travels the globe with some of the world’s most famous performers on tours where he designs and implements lighting and on-stage production work. He is also a composer. He has worked with many performers and groups, including Bon Jovi, Weird Al Yankovic and Beck, to name a few. At Sigman-Mills, he manages the technology, website development, internet sales and warehouse operations.

Daughter Caroline graduated in 2011 from George Walton Academy before attending Georgia College in Milledgeville, where she received a degree in art and digital media. Like her brother, she too grew up working at the store helping with office filing, making store signs and merchandising a new store addition, a youth furniture department. Today, she is the store’s manager, which encompasses the human resources department, inventory control, merchandise buying, marketing, payroll, hiring staff and employee training.

When asked what her parents might think about the store these days, Carol Mills chokes back tears.

“I think they would feel very honored and blessed, to know a third generation has come on board and are doing such amazing things,” she said, adding that like most businesses during COVID, the store had its share of difficulties.

“It was tough and not only challenging on the business side and at the very beginning when we closed for a few months — but also emotionally,” Mills said. “When you close a business down and you have anticipation of what is to come. We didn’t know at the time it would be extended as it was. It puts your mind in a different framework on how to move forward. We all just pulled together. It was a great effort and teamwork, not only on our end from managing, but the employees were so supportive. The positives that came from it far outweighed the negative. We’ve had wonderful customers who have been supportive to us even with all the supply chain issues.”

Mills said the furniture industry has been hit hard with “issue after issue.”

“Taking a quantitative analysis class many years ago in college, I am reminded how difficult it is to get a clear macroeconomic vision of the world economy after something traumatic occurs such as COVID-19 and its variants,” Randy Mills added. “There was no play book for the Great Recession and there is certainly no play book to reference what this economy has gone through and is continuing to go through with this global pandemic. We closed our operation down March 15 of 2020 for 60 days with a three-week delivery backlog and sales for the year up 20%. One invaluable lesson I learned from my father-in-law, Tom Sigman, was to develop strong partnerships with our factories and our financial partners and to do your homework and be prepared for all outcomes. Mr. Sigman was a stickler for detail in planning for best and worst case scenarios in business and these ‘preaching moments in time’ served me well as my family tried to navigate these uncharted waters.”

Mills said during the shutdown time, he was in constant contact with the company’s domestic factories, its offshore partners and its banker.

“We all tried to envision and create a blueprint to guide our company,” he said. “We wanted these partnerships to be strengthened and in place when the world economy reopened to the unknown. The three major issues facing our industry are to continue to analyze the pent-up consumer demand for the home furnishings products we sell, how hyper-inflation is affecting all products in our business; and the integration of supply chain shortages on consumer demand and inflation.”

Mills offers what he calls a “snapshot” of what is occurring in the furniture industry due to COVID costs increase: Shipping containers up 400%. OSB/Plywood up 200-300%. Foreign valuation vs U.S. dollar up 7.5%. Foam cost and allocation cost up 70%. Domestic freight up 50%. Blown fiber up 32%. Metal parts up 30%. Retention of workers and the COVID disruption of manufacturing, costs up 25%.

“Attempting to forecast where we will be a year from now is like throwing darts at a moving target,” Mr. Mills said. “Most of our domestic factories remain 30-52 weeks out on product. Our offshore partners are 12-24 weeks out and our mattress partner — Sealy/Tempur-Pedic with a local production facility — is four to six weeks out. The supply chain in our industry will continue to be very tight for the foreseeable future as demand remains high. Our business model has dramatically changed from a 45% special order business for custom made products to 10%. Ninety percent of our sales presently are from existing inventory.

“My family spends each morning reviewing our sources in North America and offshore to find products and to get them shipped to our distribution center. I know my father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and my Dad are smiling down at Caroline, Steven, Carol and me now, because they instilled in us a strong sense of love for family and knowing by working together for a common purpose, there is no challenge that we cannot overcome.”

As Sigman-Mills Furniture Co., prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, Mrs. Mills is especially thinking about her family and her days as a young girl working alongside her father helping in the office. She says he always knew each day to the penny what he spent.

“He had an ongoing tabulation he kept in his pocket on used envelopes,” she said. “He grew up in the Depression and didn’t waste anything. He used old envelopes and invoices that came in. He was very resourceful.”

In the 1970s, Mrs. Mills would start a separate business — a wicker store — she set up in the house she grew up in which was across the street from the store. The venture became so successful, it later became part of the family business. She remembers her father being proud of her and “shocked” because she said he did not know anything about wicker and was surprised by its success.

While her two brothers pursued other business ventures, Mrs. Mills remained close to William Thomas “Bill” Sigman Jr. and David Patrick Sigman. In an interview this week, Mills was still grieving over the death of her older brother. The family received shocking news in late October that Bill Sigman unexpectedly died of a heart attack. A resident of northern Virginia, he worked for the Department of Defense (DOD) in Washington, D.C.

“We had no idea what all he did because he couldn’t tell us what he did,” Mills said. “The DOD had given him an amazing award. He was scheduled to retire, but didn’t make to that time. He was one of those people, very unassuming, very wise with such a humble spirit about him... He was a collector of rare books. I don’t know how many — thousands. He was a resource person where people would go to him. He was quite a well-read man and this is just one of those tragic, sad life occurrences we’ll never understand. He was 74. He walked twice a day. He was so fit and he ate properly.”

Her other brother lives in Blairsville where he is a wood craftsman.

“He can build anything,” his sister said. “He had a cabinet shop for years. He just turned 73, and we were just with him for his birthday. His background is wood manufacturing, custom cabinetry and furniture. He builds anything and everything.”

Relatives recently gathered for the funeral of Bill Sigman, who was laid to rest in a cemetery in Conyers on land that has been in the family for generations. Sigman’s mother’s family, the Granades owned a large tract of land that stretches from Smyrna Road north to present day Sigman Road.

Located at 2271 Old Covington Highway, SW in Conyers, Mrs. Mills said Sigman-Mills Furniture Co. has the largest showroom for home furnishings in the east metro Atlanta area with more then 50,000 square feet. The store sells such brands as Kincaid, Hooker Furniture, Universal, La-Z-Boy, England, Hickorycraft, Liberty, Emerald Home, Uttermost, Forty West, Crestview, Jackson Furniture, Ashley, Albany and Fusion. It also sells decorative accessories such as accent furniture, lamps, pictures and area rugs.

The original Sigman Furniture storefront was a small, single-room showroom built with materials Mr. Tom had saved after his father’s general store and gas station business was torn down due to construction of the interstate. The boards were all numbered and reconstructed, with those numbers still visible on the boards today. The venture developed into a full home furnishings store with a warehouse and showroom. The property where the showroom and warehouse are located was part of one of the early settlements of Rockdale County involving Sigman’s maternal family, the Granades, who moved to the area in the late 1840s.

A new modern building opened next door to the original building in 1970 and it remains the anchor store for Sigman-Mills Furniture Co. Mrs. Mills says the store still follows the philosophy her father had when he first started the business. She said it is grounded in Christian principles and the Golden Rule.

“The legacy continues today,” Mrs. Mills said. “It is possibly the oldest continuously operated retail establishment in Rockdale County... Sigman Furniture Co. was built upon faith, an ambitious dream and a borrowed truck. One man’s dream along with his wife’s supportive partnership developed into one of the oldest businesses in the area.”

She said she especially enjoys hearing from families who have been loyal customers for generations with grandparents, parents and then children growing up and buying furniture from the store.

“Many customers share memories of my father helping their family members with their furniture selections and delivery of the furniture,” she added. “It’s like a full-circle experience which makes us happy and proud to be a part of their lives in some way... As three generations of a local, family-owned company, we place special importance on having integrity in all that we do and building lifelong relationships. We strongly believe that as long as we continue to do business like we have since my parents started the company in 1951, we’ll be around for the next 70 years too... ”

Continuing courthouse repairs highlight need for new courthouse in Rockdale County
  • Updated

CONYERS — The cost of a chiller replacement unit for the Rockdale County Courthouse, along with the use of the courthouse for a film, recently renewed comments from the county commissioners about the need for a new county courthouse.

The county courthouse was built in 1939 and expanded in 1973. The current Board of Commissioners attempted to get a $140 million bond referendum passed for a new judicial/governmental complex passed in May 2018. If approved, the project would have included a new building adjacent to the current courthouse, a 675-space parking garage, and green space for use for festivals and concerts.

At the time, the county estimated that bond payments would mean a 4-mill increase in property taxes. Their plan met stiff opposition from citizens. While many acknowledged the need for a new courthouse, they were opposed to the location, the cost, and the increase in property taxes. The referendum was defeated by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

The BOC then formed a bond referendum committee made up of local residents who volunteered to serve. The committee’s goal was to come up with a recommendation for a new bond referendum that could go on the November 2019 ballot.

After six months of study and debate, the committee came up with two options. The first, called the Parker Road Annex, would build a courthouse annex on Parker Road to free up court space for $24.9 million. The second, called the Olde Town Annex, would cost $78.6 million and mean major reconstruction and expansion of the existing facilities, including a 500-space parking deck.

The BOC took both recommendations under advisement, but no decision on either one has been made, and the county has continued to make repairs on the aging courthouse as needed, including an emergency roof repair in November 2018 when, following heavy rains the previous weekend, large chunks of concrete fell from the roof down through the ceiling of the office of the court technology specialist, who luckily was not in his office at the time.

At their Nov. 2, 2021 work session, commissioners were advised that the cost of an air conditioning chiller replacement unit for the courthouse would be $431,871. While it will be funded through American Rescue Plan Act funds, Post 2 Commissioner Doreen Williams noted that this is just one of the many repairs the county has to keep making on its 82-year-old courthouse.

“That’s one of those things that keeps coming up over and over,” she said. “And this is nearly a half a million dollars. We just keep putting Band-aids on our buildings — expensive Band-aids. I just wanted to point that out.”

Later on in the work session, the BOC discussed the use of the courthouse in October for the filming of “Lyle, Lyle the Crocodile.”

Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt Sr. noted that he had a chance to talk to the film’s producer one day and asked why they chose to film at the courthouse.

“You know what she said to me,” said Nesbitt. “She said, ‘Sir, your courthouse was built in 1939. It made the perfect setting and venue for this type of movie.’

“You know, our courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Buildings,” Nesbitt continued. “It was built in 1939. It might be good for the film industry, coming to Rockdale County — and we’re not going to tear that building down, so it’s not going anywhere — but it doesn’t serve the 2021 purpose. This month it is $431,871 for a courthouse chiller. We’re spending that kind of money. There is no ADA compliance the way that it needs to be. We’re out of court space. We have a new judge coming with no place to put that person and no more courtrooms. We are completely out of space.

“And I just wanted to point that out, because I think that’s another example of people not knowing.”

Former Newton jailer ordered to pay damages in inmate beating
  • Updated

ATLANTA — A former Newton County Sheriff’s Office jailer has been ordered to pay more than $638,000 in damages for his participation in an attack on an inmate in the jail in June 2019.

U.S. District Judge William Ray II issued an order Nov. 8 requiring Shermaine Alberto Carlisle, 40, of Conyers, to pay damages to inmate Sean Aaron Hall, 38. The court had previously entered a default judgement for liability against Carlisle following a bench trial in June.

Carlisle was working at the Newton County Jail in May 2019 when Hall was arrested on charges of giving a false name, address or birthdate to law enforcement and possession of methamphetamine. For reasons that have not been explained, a month later Carlisle admitted three inmates into Hall’s cell. One held the door closed to prevent Hall’s escape while the other two beat him savagely and left him unconscious and bleeding on the floor.

Although the beating initially appeared to be an inmate-on-inmate incident, Hall’s attorney, Mark Begnaud, wrote that the ensuing investigation revealed that Carlisle allowed the inmates to have access to Hall’s cell, and facilitated and orchestrated the attack.

“Mr. Carlisle was charged with securing and protecting our client, and he did the exact opposite – he conspired with other inmates to brutally attack Mr. Hall,” said Begnaud in a Facebook post.

“We are pleased with Judge Ray’s award,” said Begnaud. “A worry in an inmate case is that the damages award will be discounted because the client is in custody – we see people who do not want to award that much money to an inmate. Obviously, that did not happen here. We asked for $150,000 in compensatory damages and that was what Judge Ray awarded. We believe that this award is an indication of the new times we are living in – where the fact that a person is in custody does not mean that we value his or her life or injuries any less. We also hope that this is a warning to any corrections facilities in Georgia that misconduct can come with staggering consequences.”

Jail video of the attack revealed Carlisle’s involvement in the incident. According to the judge’s ruling, Carlisle spoke “at length” with the three inmates at the jail pod control panel immediately before the attack. Two of the inmates are seen taking off their jail IDs and leaving them on the table with Carlisle before approaching Hall’s cell. Carlisle released the lock on Hall’s cell, allowing the inmates to enter.

Carlisle was later arrested and charged with battery and making false statements or writings and fired from the Sheriff’s Office. Carlisle was never prosecuted in Newton County, however. The warrant against him was dismissed in August 2020 due to “insufficient investigation” by the Sheriff’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss citing failure by the Sheriff’s Office to provide the DA’s Office with “several recorded witness interviews, failure to identify all the inmates on video committing and assisting with the underlying crime, failure to provide requested inmate records from the jail, and failing to write any disciplinary reports by the Newton County Jail staff regarding the incident.” According to the DA’s Office, without that information, the charges could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

District Attorney Randy McGinley said because the case was dismissed without prejudice, the charges could still be presented to a grand jury within the statute of limitations.

According to a spokesperson for the NCSO, the Sheriff’s Office “separated itself from Detention Officer Shermaine Carlisle because he did not follow policies and procedures. We will not make further comment at this time.”

Hall suffered serious physical, cognitive and emotional and psychological injuries, according to the court’s ruling. The court ordered Carlisle to pay compensatory damages of $150,000 to Hall, punitive damages of $450,000 and attorney’s fees of $38,250, for a total of $638,250.

Carlisle told the court that he has been unemployed since being fired by the Sheriff’s Office and that his wife is also unemployed. He also told the judge he has lost his POST certification.