Family tradition blends with new ideas at Bruex

Aug. 25, 2013 @ 08:08 AM

Keith Johnston does the same thing his father did before him, something that his grandfather patented, but Johnston has added his influence to theirs and created a business that has thrived through an economy and a market that has done the opposite.

Even as the furniture industry has faltered, his company has been able to grow, the biggest problem not being a lack of customers but a lack of veneer, or the sheets that are glued together to make the plywood that Bruex Inc. manufactures.

“We’ve been able to take the bad times and expand,” Johnston said, explaining that the company diversified its customer base, now making high-end sporting equipment and getting government contracts in addition to their big furniture customers.

Johnston is president and owner of Bruex in Lenoir, a manufacturer of curved plywood for customers from huge furniture manufacturers to backyard furniture shops, sporting good companies, even an artist.

Johnston’s grandfather, Bruce Johnston Sr., patented the process of cold pressing plywood in 1972, founding Sterling Bruce in downtown Lenoir. Johnston Sr. ran the company until turning it over to his son in 1977.

Sterling Bruce operated in Lenoir until 1985, when it was sold, but Bruce Johnston Jr., Keith’s father, still ran the operation for six more years. Johnston Jr. and partner Rex Shoemaker started Bruex in 1991, combining their first names to form Bruex.

After seven months, Johnston Jr. bought out Rex and became the sole owner of the company, luring his son into the family business in 2000.

Keith purchased the location on Lutz Street in 2001, and today 25 employees run 40 cold presses and three large radio frequency presses, using the company’s more than 3,000 molds to pump out 600-700 plywood cores a day, each of which can make anywhere from five to 14 pieces each.

Bruex ships those thousands of pieces for more than 120 customers across the U.S. and has forms or everything from skateboards to desk chairs.

When Johnston first arrived 15 years ago, the business model at Bruex was very North Carolina-centered, but today customers from as far away as California buy from Bruex.

Closer to home, Hickory Chair, Fairfield Chair, Sherrill, Huntington and Henredon all buy pieces from Bruex. Johnston said the company contracts with “just about anybody you sit in.”

Curved plywood is still considered by the industry as solid wood, and the process creates a piece that is more structurally sound and stronger than if the piece were cut from a single piece of wood.

Bruex makes a wide variety of quality, such as running boards for the top-of-the-line NordicTrack treadmills and springboards for American Athletics.

“Everything we do is custom,” Johnston said, including pieces for distinct furniture pieces for large manufacturers and small batch orders for a California artist, one of Johnston’s favorite customers, whose orders started out as bar stools and grew from there.

This diversity in customers is something Johnston prides himself on, as he looks forward to keeping his success up, saying that small, deliberate steps are the key to staying afloat and thriving in a volatile industry environment.