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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Craft renewing: A Morganton manufacturer excels with artisans crafting luxury furniture for discerning consumers

Cindy Hood’s left hand holds the base of the unfinished dining room chair, while her right hand cradles a small electric sander that glides across its legs. She’s been making furniture for 30 years, so she speaks with authority.

“It’s time-consuming,” says Hood, a craftsperson at Chaddock Furniture Workroom in Morganton, while allowing neither her eyes nor her hands to stray from the smooth maple grain. “So many sides. Everything has to be flush.”

One might envision Hood as a lone artisan, working in a shop behind her home in this Burke County foothills town of 18,000 residents. Instead, Hood performs her job in a 150,000-square-foot building, a former Hanes textile factory where dozens of craftspeople are making high-end, made-to-order furniture. Machines aid workers in cutting raw material, while further down the line others apply finish by hand. Elsewhere, workers meticulously hand-tie the springs in a cushioned chair to help guarantee the seat offers “a good ride” for years to come.

A few steps away, Martin Cazares uses a small metal tool to make scratches and dings to distress a maple console, which will then be sanded and have 20 to 25 coats of finish applied, each coating adding character.

These tricks of the trade come from years of experience, not mimicked from a YouTube video or mass produced on a factory floor.

“You almost have to have a lesson in antiquing and how things would age,” says Chaddock President Kevin Ward, describing Cazares’ work. “We have artisans and craftsmen who work here. It takes a special person to want to do what we do. Someone who will say, ‘It’s my job to create a beautiful piece of furniture that will last for generations.’”

While the average sofa lasts just six years, the 200 or so employees at Chaddock Furniture Workroom take a different approach. Sustainability in industry, says Chaddock CEO Andrew Crone, can also be defined by making something that will last.  

“This is the way it was done 50, 60, 70 years ago, but we still do it that way because we think that’s our customer,” he says. “It’s the finest homes in America that our products are going to live in, and that’s really cool.” 

Those homes include the most famous one in the nation’s capital. After the spring High Point Furniture Market last year, Chaddock Furniture sent a dining room table and a coffee table from its Mark D. Sikes collection to Jill Biden’s office in the East Wing of the White House.

AMERICAN COMEBACK

North Carolina’s furniture manufacturing tradition has its roots in the 1800s, when Moravian artisans located in present-day Winston-Salem and Quakers in Randolph and Rowan counties created pieces that remain highly coveted by collectors and museums.

In 1890, six North Carolina businesses produced an estimated $159,000 worth of furniture. Ten years later, 44 furniture factories operated in Hickory, High Point, Marion and other towns, reporting $1.5 million in sales, according to a 2020 report by John Mullin, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

The industry took off after World War II thanks to a booming U.S. housing market. During the 1960s and 1970s, no significant offshore competition existed as North Carolina became the nation’s top producer of upholstered and wooden household furniture. It ranked as the state’s second-largest manufacturing industry, behind textiles and apparel.

By 1990, more than 90,000 people worked in North Carolina furniture manufacturing. But a 1999 trade agreement with China opened the door to imports from Asia. In just 10 years, between 1999 and 2009, North Carolina’s furniture industry lost more than half of its jobs as companies shut down or consolidated. In 1994, China exported $241 million worth of wood furniture to the U.S. Ten years later, that number grew more than 17 times, to $4.2 billion. By 2016, 73.5% of all furniture sold in America was imported, according to the Fed report.

The shift in manufacturing was initiated not by Chinese industrialists, but by North Carolina manufacturers who “sought cost advantages that could put them ahead in what has historically been, and remains to this day, a highly competitive industry,” Mullin wrote.

In recent years, U.S. furniture manufacturers have benefited from increased tariffs on Chinese imports. Companies also have recognized the increased expense of making furniture overseas because of shipping costs and rising labor costs in China. More than 35,000 people work in North Carolina’s furniture industry today, a number that has held steady in recent years.

Some North Carolina manufacturers, such as Chaddock, have responded by targeting the luxury market.

CHADDOCK’S STORY

Guy Chaddock started his furniture company in his native California, basing its reputation on its high-quality finishes, says Crone, who grew up in Hickory and started his career at Lane Home Furnishings after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 2011. He joined Chaddock in sales and marketing in 2016 and was appointed CEO the next year.

In 2004, Guy Chaddock & Co. was about to close in Bakersfield, California, when North Carolina furniture executives Darrell Ferguson and Fred Copeland swooped in and moved operations to Morganton. Their Ferguson Copeland and Chaddock brands operated as separate entities until 2013. Ferguson Copeland, which imported furniture and finished it in North Carolina, was phased out when Chaddock began focusing on the made-in-America model.

That decision appears to have paid off as Chaddock revenue increased nearly 70% over the past five years, Crone says. He declined to provide more details.

Principal owners are brothers Peter and Paul Kennedy, who were also initial owners and investors in Ferguson Copeland. Their late father, Wall Street executive Peter Kennedy, owned furniture company Drexel Heritage in the 1970s and 1980s. Drexel Heritage, which was one of the largest U.S. manufacturers, emerged from Drexel Furniture, which began in 1903 in the Burke County town of that name.

The Unifour counties of Alexander, Burke, Catawba and Caldwell have a long history of furniture manufacturing, boasting companies with global operations including Vanguard Furniture and Century Furniture.

Chaddock’s leaders say the company’s success stems from customizing furniture from heights to widths and finishes to colors, for designers to place in opulent homes, hospitality spots and luxury senior living communities.

“Six years ago, we looked at a path forward and how we wanted to compete,” says Crone. “And we decided to take something people loved about us and just focus on that.”

The company changed its name to Chaddock Furniture Workroom “to celebrate our history of quality, craftsmanship and custom capabilities,” he says. The rebranding is “more representative of our way of working and also to show that we aren’t here to just make furniture but to support and promote the design community.”

“It’s taken us years to get where we are today,” adds Ward, who joined Chaddock as president in 2018 after leadership positions at High Point-based Baker Interiors Group and Hickory Chair.

Like many manufacturers, Chaddock places a major emphasis on the biennial High Point Furniture Market, which is slated for April 22-26. Putting its products before thousands of furniture retailers and designers helps potential customers get a feel for the brand and its quality. 

About 60% of Chaddock Furniture Workroom sales go to designers. The balance of sales are at retail stores, where customers can choose between fabrics, finishes and other elements.

Retail prices for chairs range from $2,000 to $6,000, sofas from $4,000 to $9,000, and dining tables, $5,000 to $12,000.

Customization, such as altering the length, width or depth elements, makes up about 20% of the company’s business. That usually adds additional costs that depend on the complexity of the request. Chaddock is able to produce a 17-foot dining room table or a sectional sofa that can seat an entire sorority house, with 95% of the work is done at its Morganton plant. 

“You can do what you want in almost every case, and we’ll do it for you,” says Ward.

WORKING WITH DESIGNERS

To score in the luxury market, Chaddock cultivates partnerships with industry trendsetters, such as Sikes, based in Los Angeles, and other famous designers like Mary McDonald, Larry Laslo, and the late David Easton. At last fall’s High Point Furniture Market, Chaddock debuted an exclusive line from Houston-based designer Benjamin Johnston, whose collection of case goods, tables, chairs and upholstery was cited as one of the event’s best debuts by the Business of Home industry publication.

“There can sometimes be this ‘Amazon’ mindset where people assume products drop off of a magic conveyor belt in the sky,” says Johnston. “However, I’m in the business of selling luxury, and I love telling Chaddock’s story, highlighting the fact that there are real people making these heirloom-quality pieces.

“Yes, clients are seeking furniture, but they also want a story; they want to be sold on the romance of the pieces they are investing in,” says Johnston.

Cass Beshears and Darlene Allen assemble an oak side table at Chaddock’s Morganton plant.

CHADDOCK’S GROWTH

About 85% of Chaddock’s roughly 200 employees work in manufacturing, and Crone and Ward say they’d hire another 25 artisans if they could find skilled workers. 

“With us, it’s all about the people,” says Ward. “We could easily increase volume.”

The company added 40 workers last year and introduced a companywide pay increase and tenure program for bonuses to help attract and retain employees. Focusing on the work culture helps employees and the company, officials say. Simple things like adding umbrellas to outdoor break tables or better food choices in the canteen lead to employee engagement. They pointed to an example of an employee suggesting the purchase of a different grit of sandpaper, which will save the company thousands of dollars in the long run.

“We want everyone to come up with ideas to be more efficient, save the company money or make employee morale better,” Ward says.

Their goal is to employ a simple, non-bureaucratic strategy. A single door separates the office workers and management from the manufacturing side, or workroom. Because of that close proximity, questions are answered, changes are made and ideas are shared in the moment rather than in days or weeks. Their production is modeled after Toyota’s “one-piece flow” system, which aims to ensure the right parts are available when they are needed.

Customizing to meet individual demand is also critical. Crone notes a designer may love everything about a particular sofa, except it is intended for the home of a 7-foot NBA player who wants to stretch his long legs. Chaddock can make a sofa that will fit. Adaptability sets them apart.

“It’s not easy to compete with us today because we offer so many customizations,” Crone says.

Back in the workroom, David Carswell uses a sprayer to apply finish to the maple legs of a white upholstered sofa. His hands are steady, and he does not use cloth or tape to protect the fabric from stains.

“You better be careful with it,” the artisan says, flashing a smile.


PARTY HOST

When 75,000 visitors arrive in High Point this month for the world’s largest home furnishings trade show, a new leader will be in charge of the host organization.

“We are what Detroit is to the automobile industry,” says Tammy Nagem, who succeeded Tom Conley as president and chief executive officer of the High Point Market Authority in January. “The buys that are set here are what we’re all going to have in our homes in six months.”

The Martinsville, Virginia, native joined the authority at its inception in 2001. 

While Atlanta, Las Vegas and other cities have significant furniture markets, the market in this city of 115,000 residents remains a powerhouse with 2,000 exhibitors filling 11.5 million square feet of showroom space. There’s also the secret sauce of an unrivaled welcoming attitude.

“The hospitality shown here that keeps this event coming back is something our state can be very proud of,” she says.

High Point residents also support the market, now in its 113th year.

“We were doing Airbnb before anyone heard of it,” Nagem says. “People here have been renting their homes to market guests for 50 years.”

The authority has a 13-member staff and $9 million annual budget, about half of that coming from state coffers. A 2018 UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University study reported that the market generates more than $6.7 billion annually to the economy. “For a couple of weeks, we become a really big deal,” says Nagem.

 

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