Carolina Furniture Works, a proud third-generation manufacturer of wood bedroom furniture, has made a conscious decision not to import products.

Carolina Furniture Works

Sumter, SC

Carolina Furniture Works is a third-generation company specializing in the manufacture of solid wood bedroom furniture. The company employs 200 people at its 200,000-square-foot facility.

Keys to Success

* Among Carolina Furniture Works' product lines is the Common Sense Collection, a design which remains successful 50 years after it was introduced to the market.

* The company does not import any of its product line. What's more, it sells its products through small, independent retailers that are less prone to sell imported furniture.

* A new, computerized lumber scanning and optimization system has reduced labor and reject costs, while increasing yields.

 

Tradition and loyalty count for a lot at 58-year-old Carolina Furniture Works Inc., a family-owned bedroom furniture manufacturer in Sumter, SC.

The company's best-selling Common Sense Collection, a five-piece suite in gum and cottonwood with maple and cherry finishes, has been going strong for half a century.

Asked if it was a winner from the beginning, company President and CEO Ernest McCray ("Cray") Weeks III laughs and says, "I wouldn't know." Weeks, 41, wasn't even born then. He has headed the company, which has $16 million in annual sales, since he took over for his father in 1994.

Two of the company's 200 employees, Vice President of Administration Harold Stewart and Julius Green, have been around as long as the bedroom suite. Two other employees have worked at Carolina Furniture Works for 40 years; five for 35 years; 18 for 30 years; and 11 for 25 years.

Their length of service to the company is a source of pride to Weeks, who points out the wall plaque that lists their names and years with Carolina Furniture Works.

That long-term relationship with its loyal employees is one reason Carolina Furniture Works has joined the American Furniture Manufacturers Committee for Legal Trade. The Committee for Legal Trade, which includes more than two dozen other North American furniture makers, recently won the first round in its antidumping petition against Chinese wood bedroom furniture makers.

Weeks says he believes that competition from imports has been a factor for a sales decline that forced Carolina Furniture Works to place about half of its workforce on a four-day work week the past year. He thinks winning the antidumping case will help level the playing field and give his company a chance to be more competitive.

In addition to fighting foreign competition through the antidumping petition filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce, Carolina Furniture Works, which is one of the few U.S. furniture manufacturers to shun importing altogether, is seeking to improve its competitive position through investment in new technology.

 

The Carolina Classic Collection features a 14-step cherry finish, metal-on-wood drawer guides and high-pressure laminate tops.

Last summer it spent more than $700,000 for a new lumber grading and optimization system from Weinig. The new computerized system saves both labor and lumber, Weeks says.

Five Positions Eliminated

The total amount of lumber handled each day by the new system is about the same as before, 16,000 to 18,000 board feet, Weeks says. He adds, "We were able to eliminate five positions. We just moved the employees to other departments."

Knots, splits, checks and other flaws are identified by the LuxScan Technologies scanner and eliminated by the Dimter Opticut 350 saws that are part of the automated line. Once the defects are cut out, the boards are automatically sorted by length. Weeks says the new computerized system is far superior to the manual grading system that it replaced.

"We feel like we're getting better yields and more usable parts out of the lumber," Weeks says. "We're not having nearly the number of miscuts we used to have.

"To compete, you've got to have modern equipment," Weeks adds. By investing in the new rough mill and other equipment, Weeks says he is following the example set by his father, Ernest McCray Weeks Jr., and his father's father, Ernest McCray Weeks Sr. Weeks' grandfather founded Carolina Furniture Works in 1946 as a maker of wooden furniture knobs. He invented much of his own machinery.

Weeks was interviewed in the second week of January, shortly after the ITC ruled for the antidumping investigation against the Chinese manufacturers to continue. He says he expects the petitioners to win their case for having duties put on wood bedroom furniture imported from China. "I think it's obvious their products are being subsidized in some manner."

But confident as he might be, Weeks adds, "We still have to plan, no matter how the (antidumping case) comes out."

Weeks says he intends to do everything in his power to help Carolina Furniture Works be more competitive. "Our plan is to continue to defend our niche, to be a viable company and to ensure the job security of our employees."

 

Carolina Furniture Works has been making its Common Sense Collection since before President and CEO Cray Weeks was born. At one point in its 50-year history, it was the bedroom furniture manufacturer's only collection, and it's still the company's best seller. Gum and cottonwood are finished with maple or cherry stains.

Targeting Independent Retailers

Though the company has cut the work week for half of its employees, it has not shut its plant down nor has it experienced mass layoffs. One reason Carolina Furniture Works has not been hurt any worse by imports is due to the makeup of its customer base, Weeks says. Most of them are independent furniture retailers that operate one to three stores rather than the large chains that have the wherewithal to buy container loads of furniture from China.

Carolina Furniture Works' product line, comprised of six bedroom suites in seven finishes, has carved a niche with those retailers, spread throughout the United States.

Weeks says the company's furniture, predominately solid wood with protective high-pressure laminate tops, is aimed at the lower end of the mid-price range. An average five-piece suite from Carolina Furniture Works has a suggested retail price of $800 to $1,000, he says, though some prices are higher.

The machinery that Carolina Furniture Works has invested in over the years has helped it strengthen its niche. Weeks points to a Shoda router, which cuts end pieces for a case for the Common Sense Collection. It is one of two CNC routers the company uses.

Weeks says, "The most important thing in making a case is making sure it is cut square." The repetitive accuracy of the routers, he says, ensures that the parts fit together perfectly.

Weeks says the company has always emphasized sturdy construction over elaborate design. "We don't go for the bells and whistles," he says. "Instead we build furniture that will hold up like a very, very expensive piece. For the price, it's very, very good."

To illustrate his point about how Carolina Furniture Works adds value to its products, he says the company puts a plywood dust liner under every drawer. Besides keeping dust from falling on drawer contents below, it adds stability to the case, he says.

Finishes Are Emphasized

Carolina Furniture Works uses locally grown gum, tupelo, ash, oak, a little white pine and cottonwood, and finishes them in maple and cherry. "We use a more common wood and put the heavy emphasis on finish," Weeks says. He says the company used to get the cottonwood locally, but now it comes from the Mississippi Delta.

Cottonwood, one of the woods used in the Common Sense Collection, is not usually thought of for furniture, he adds. "It's harder to deal with as far as sanding properties." In 50 years, however, the company has learned how to work with it. "It is a whiter wood so we can put a lighter finish on it," Weeks says.

The company has Heesemann widebelt sanders for flat sanding and Critz mould sanders for sanding edges. "The key to building good furniture is having a good sanding job," Weeks says. He notes that the quality of sanding determines how well the finish adheres to the part.

 

A LuxScan Technologies scanner is part of the new $700,000 rough mill system from Weinig. Some 16,000 to 18,000 board feet a day runs through the scanner, which detects flaws and instructs the Dimter Opticut 350 where to make cuts to maximize yields.

The vintage Common Sense Collection, which includes bed, dresser, mirror, chest and nightstand, "is pretty much meat and potatoes, pretty basic in styling," Weeks says. "But it's constructed really well." The design resulted from a collaboration between his grandfather and a company salesman.

His grandfather, who Weeks says had worked for another furniture company before starting Carolina Furniture Works, expanded from knobs to entire wardrobes. When Ernest Weeks Jr. became company president in 1957, furniture became paramount and the knob-making was dropped.

The 200,000-square-foot plant is still in its original location in an industrial section of Sumter. A series of five aerial photographs hanging on a hallway wall show how it has grown. Wings and buildings were added as growth- fueled money became available, Weeks says.

More Investment Ahead

Carolina Furniture Works buys raw lumber and planes it in one area of the plant before sending it to a "rip-first" system. The system replaces an older, more labor-intensive "cut-first" system, but Weeks intends to replace it with an even more efficient, computerized system.

"Once we digest our latest purchase, we're looking at adding the Weinig system on the rip end," he says.

Weeks says he is aware of criticism that many people believe the U.S. furniture industry is antiquated. He says it does not apply in Carolina Furniture Works' case. Wherever modern, computer-assisted machinery can be used to increase efficiency, he says, "we've tried to be right there, keeping this plant up to date."

In the current, globally competitive environment, he says, "The easiest thing I could do would be to just import it in from China. Then we wouldn't have all the headaches," like rising insurance costs and environmental compliance issues to deal with.

But that, he says, would mean a change in the character of the company and job losses for long-term employees. "We're one of the rare companies, even in our coalition, because all of our products are domestically made."

"At this point," Weeks adds, "we're trying to stay with our niche and give a value in what we're doing. To do that, we're having to invest."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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