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Then and now: Technology, customization changed furniture industry in past 20 years
FURNITURE: 20 YEARS OF EVOLUTION

Then and now: Technology, customization changed furniture industry in past 20 years

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In furniture factories today, companies tout their cleaner atmospheres, well-lit plant floors and skilled positions they’re looking to fill. Technology enhances the work.

Twenty years ago, the furniture industry was much different. At the turn of the century, a large chunk of the furniture manufacturing jobs in the Catawba Valley were building case goods — wooden furniture or frames. Within 10 years, the majority of those jobs moved offshore, Craftmaster Furniture President and CEO Roy Calcagne said in a December interview.

Many furniture manufacturing jobs left the area, and Catawba County wasn’t alone. The industry that remains has evolved and is growing — even more rapidly at the end of 2020 than before the COVID-19 pandemic started, furniture leaders say.

Though many jobs related to furniture manufacturing left the area initially, upholstery and sewing positions never left, Calcagne said. He’s overseen the Craftmaster plant in Taylorsville for about 15 years and worked for Broyhill Furniture in Lenoir before that.

“Upholstery and sewing are still done by hand today and that’s what protected those highly skilled jobs,” he said.

Finding workers for those jobs has become a challenge, though, Calcagne said. “Younger folks watched their parents lose jobs and the message was: Don’t go into furniture, you'll lose your job,” he said. “One of the challenges we’ve had is changing the message to these young people.”

That challenge has changed how Craftmaster and other companies treat workers and market positions.

The biggest change has been the value placed on employees, he said. In the past, furniture jobs were sought after and hard to get. Now, it’s the reverse. Companies have to lure employees with higher pay, better work environments and respect.

“I always use this line, that the old mentality was, ‘You’re lucky to have a job,’” Calcagne said. “Now our mentality is, ‘We’re lucky to have you working with us.’ Your employees are your biggest asset. We’ve embraced that change over the past 15 years.”

Factories have better air conditioning, brighter lighting and are generally cleaner, he said. Wages have increased about 20 percent for skilled positions and benefits are better. Even the titles have changed to reflect the skills and training required for the work, Calcagne said. Employees can move up levels to become “master seamstress” or “master craftsmen,” he said.

“It gives them a career path and recognizes them with a title,” he said. “Our industry over the years has had some really goofy names for positions. … Some of that is changing. These positions get a title of descriptions that are more humane, if you will. For 100 years it was never like that. It’s recognizing they’re higher skilled.”

Many furniture jobs need to be filled by skilled, technology-savvy workers, Century Furniture CEO Alex Shuford said.

“We’re looking for people who have the combination of craft and technology knowledge,” he said. “More expensive and complicated machinery exists today that didn’t exist in the late '90s to early 2000s. … Software has become essential to the operation of companies. They’ve created jobs that didn't exist prior to the late '90s, like software programmers and system analysts. We’ve brought a whole new type of person into the industry.”

On the factory floor, high-tech machines cut fabric or wood, requiring workers with the know-how to run the machines.

Off the factory floor, management software has changed the game, Shuford said. These systems, used by many furniture companies, link departments from accounting to the factory floor to sales and marketing, Shuford said. The systems allow the company to work together more fluidly and allow for more custom products, he said.

“It’s allowed companies to manage more complexity,” Shuford said. "The industry used to be simpler: You would make a whole lot of a few things. The industry that is still here, the domestic industry, makes a little bit of a lot of different things that have a lot more options than they previously did.”

The custom furniture business is part of what keeps furniture manufacturing alive and well in the Catawba Valley. Lower-end, stock furniture that can’t be customized is made overseas more often now, Shuford said, but custom furniture is made here — and new software and technology allows it to be made quickly and in large quantities.

“That ability to do customization at scale, to handle hundreds of thousands of orders a year, is a very difficult thing to replicate offshore and the ability to do it quickly,” Shuford said. “The furniture industry that still exists around Hickory today is vibrant because we've gotten, as a domestic industry, we've gotten very good at handling a complex process.”

Despite the furniture industry growing again, some big names have fallen in the past two decades, Calcagne said. Most recently, Heritage Home Group, which owned what was left of Broyhill, Drexel Heritage, Thomasville, Henredon and more, filed for bankruptcy. It was one of many companies that absorbed family-owned furniture companies but could not turn them around, Calcagne said.

“It’s disappointing when you see these great names disappear,” he said.

This year posed a threat to the furniture industry again, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed manufacturing plants and threatened consumer income. Furniture leaders worried the virus could have a negative effect for months or years. Instead, Craftmaster and several others have seen business bounce back and grow beyond expectations, Calcagne said.

“It’s been phenomenal to be honest,” he said. “The shutdown happened in March and April and coming out of that on May 4 we had no idea what to expect, we thought business would be off. … By June 1 business exploded, literally doubled in that timeframe. All the retailers in the country experienced great growth.”

The company is seeing the highest orders it's seen in years. Typically, the wait time for an order is three to four weeks. Now, it’s around 12 to 14 weeks. Demand is so high, the factory floors are struggling to keep up.

In an attempt to ramp up production, Craftmaster opened another plant in Lenoir in a matter of weeks — one the company planned to open in 2021.

“I was expecting to lay off 100 people permanently after we opened back in May and it's been the opposite — I’m hiring 100 people,” Calcagne said.

He thinks consumers aren’t spending their money on travel or other big expenses, so they have disposable income for furniture.

“There's industries that have benefited from it, especially from the home improvement arena,” Calcagne said. “But we never expected to be on the winning side.”

Bradington-Young, headquartered in Hickory, reported an increase in business, Vice President of Merchandising Cheryl Sigmon said.

“Unlike previous years, we did not experience the typical ‘summer slowdown’ in June and July that many furniture manufacturers across the industry experience during the summer months,” she said. “In fact, orders for our upholstery pieces began trending significantly higher than the same time last year, starting around June, and we continue to see steady demand to date.”

She attributed the uptick to pent-up demand from those who were stuck in their homes and itching to upgrade. People are spending more and more time in their homes this year — it’s their office, their classroom and their safe space, she said. A needed upgrade might have been overlooked before the pandemic. Now, it’s a priority.

Sigmon said she has noticed an increased desire to buy products made in the United States.

“We’ve heard from many retailers that consumers are paying more attention to where products are manufactured,” Sigmon said.

Orders for residential furniture are strong at Hickory Springs, which creates furniture component parts, as well, Vice President of Furniture Jason Porter said.

“Our business is very robust right now,” Porter said. “In fact, it’s the best we’ve seen in about 20 or more years. Furniture component sales returned to pre-COVID levels around June. Today, we are trending above normal and it just keeps climbing. It has not yet leveled out.”

The orders growing beyond expectations is a good problem to have, Porter said.

Calcagne said he’s expecting 2021 to be a strong year for the furniture industry. Sigmon is expecting the growth to continue as well.

“We haven’t seen a trend like this in years, so it’s clear that consumers are prioritizing upgrading their living spaces,” she said.

'The industry used to be simpler: You would make a whole lot of a few things. The industry that is still here, the domestic industry, makes a little bit of a lot of different things that have a lot more options than they previously did.'

Century Furniture CEO Alex Shuford

A move to customization

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