While Las Vegas challenges High Point, NC, to become the U.S. furniture showroom capital, tiny Arcadia, WI, has taken firm hold to the title of home to the nation’s largest furniture maker and retailer.
It’s from Arcadia, population 3,000, that Ashley Furniture Industries, a privately held company with more than $3 billion in annual sales and more than 18,000 employees, runs its global operation.
Ashley’s rise to the top versus publicly-traded titans like Furniture Brands Intl, La-Z-Boy and Stanley Furniture is nothing short of amazing and largely due to the vision of its founder Ron Wanek.
Wanek was inducted into the Furniture Hall of Fame in 2006. Among his many highlighted achievements:
- In the 1970s, Ashley became one of the first U.S. furniture producers to use European flatline construction;
- In the 1980s, Ashley introduced the “industry’s most successful polyester finishes, bringing color to wood furniture;" and
- Developing Ashley Furniture HomeStores, which now number more than 400 and account for more than $2.2 billion of the company’s annual sales.
Brief Encounters with a Furniture Icon
Ron Wanek I have crossed paths with Wanek on numerous occasions.
Our first encounter was at the 1990 International Woodworking Fair, where the Woodworking Machinery Importers Association (now Woodworking Machinery Industry Association) presented Wanek and Ashley with its annual Innovator of the Year Award. It was a very fitting honor. Under Wanek’s watch, Ashley was one of the first major U.S. furniture companies to successfully import product from Asia. But while procuring product from low-wage countries was profitable, he never lost sight of investing and growing Ashley Furniture’s domestic manufacturing capabilities.
Perhaps one of Ashley’s biggest advantages was that it remained privately controlled when so many of the biggest names like Thomasville, Broyhill and Bassett were bought up by publicly traded conglomerates controlled by decision makers who put short-term returns for investors ahead of long-term potential. In other words, most found it easier to shut down plants and shuttle manufacturing to China than to build new, more efficient plants here.
I got a taste of Wanek’s commitment to domestic manufacturing when I visited Ashley's Arcadia plant in 1993 to write about a double-sided continuous laminating press that had just been installed. Wanek was gracious in receiving me and stressed the importance of staying abreast of technology because it had a habit of becoming obsolete every five years or so.