Furniture Brands has old names, new ways of doing business

Jun. 30, 2013 @ 06:10 AM

In some ways, the story of what is going on at Furniture Brands International's facilities in Caldwell County sounds like old times.

The number of jobs is growing again, particularly in upholstery-related work, and with the economy on the mend production is in full swing. The factories are bustling, and whether to halt for holidays is the bigger question now.

But a big difference between now and 30 years ago is that while the names on the buildings may say Broyhill or Thomasville, because of this modern world of diversified, global commerce the labels on products inside the buildings may reflect a number of Furniture Brands' various companies, said Davy Whittington, a Furniture Brands vice president. The Thomasville wood products plant on U.S. 321 makes furniture for Thomasville, Drexel Heritage and Broyhill. The company's distribution center, better known as Broyhill Plant 23, handles furniture for Broyhill, Thomasville, Maitland-Smith, Pearson, and Lane Home Furnishings.

"Even though we're not the size we were before, several years ago, we still have a large presence in the county," Whittington said.

Furniture Brands, based in St. Louis, first entered Caldwell County as Interco in 1980 when that company -- formerly focused on apparel, footwear and retailing -- acquired Broyhill Furniture Industries. Over the next 21 years, the company built up its furniture presence, including the purchase of Thomasville Furniture Industries in 1995. In 1996 Interco became Furniture Brands.

In the mid-2000s, as the furniture industry was battered by cheap imports, the company closed a number of plants and consolidated operations. Whittington, a Caldwell County native whose father also worked in furniture, said that was a difficult time not only financially for the industry but emotionally for many workers for whom, as for him, furniture runs in the family, and also for local residents who had become accustomed to a locally focused role of the companies in the community.

"It's just that the global economy changed," he said. "We're no different than any other furniture company in the state or region."

But both domestic and global factors now are swinging back more in favor of the U.S. furniture industry, he said.

"American consumers are more open to buying goods manufactured in the United States," he said.

Also, the gap between the costs of producing furniture overseas vs. producing it here is dropping. "It has allowed us to bring more manufacturing back," he said, though U.S. manufacturing likely will never grow back to what it once had been.

A growth area Furniture Brands is seeing now is in upholstered goods, particularly customized orders, where being based in the U.S. allows for quicker delivery after orders are placed.

"We can make custom products here and have them in the customer's home in four to eight weeks," Whittington said. "We can produce goods quicker than they can get them from overseas."

Another area seeing growth is supplying the hospitality industry, where companies had put off major renovations of hotels for several years because of the Great Recession. Furniture Brands played host last week to a large group of visitors from one major hotel chain, which Whittington declined to identify, who came to see the company's production facilities.

One of the bigger changes in how the company does business now versus 20 years ago is that all of its customers used to be retail furniture outlets. Now, Whittington said, it sells to traditional retail outlets, major discount stores such as Costco and Sam's Club, department stores, companies in the hospitality industry and even directly to individual consumers through e-commerce websites.

"That's been a big change, having to adapt to different sales channels," he said.