I’ve been following and chronicling the struggles of the U.S. furniture industry since joining Wood & Wood Products as a cub editor in 1985.
Taiwan, not China, was the leading source of U.S. furniture imports then. In fact, China wasn’t even a blip on the U.S. furniture import radar screen 25 years ago. But now China is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, representing better than half of the home furniture annually purchased by U.S. consumers.
Being a long-time season ticket holder to the erosion of the domestic furniture industry, I was mesmerized by Michael Dugan’s book, The Furniture Wars: How America Lost a Fifty Billion Dollar Industry. In his riveting account, Dugan, former president and CEO of Henredon Industries, serves up an insider’s view of one failed attempt after another by “outsiders” to rule the roost and tells how their powerplays led to China’s astonishingly fast rise as a furniture manufacturing dynamo.
I long ago arrived at the belief that our residential furniture industry was neglected by being beholden to carpetbagger conglomerates; companies more interested in attaining instant profits to impress their shareholders than in the long-term prosperity of their businesses. How else can one explain the lack of investment in new state-of-the-art residential furniture facilities by the major players over the past quarter of a century?
Dugan’s book not only puts an exclamation on my thoughts, which I have shared in several editorials over the years, it also fills in a bunch of gaps.
The Furniture Wars begins in 1964 with the formation of General Interiors and its purchase of Pennsylvania House. General Interiors was the brainchild of Colin Carpi III, an Ivy Leaguer whose vision was to gobble up major furniture manufacturers to dominate market share in a very fragmented industry. Carpi, like many other “outsiders” who would follow, assumed that he was smarter than the people who made a career running furniture companies. He reckoned he could buy the best, consolidate them and create synergies and market power never before witnessed.
Carpi’s failed plan (and I won’t even attempt to go into the mysterious disappearance of his ex-wife — read the book) is mirrored by many others ranging from Burlington and S&H (Green Stamps) to General Mills and Masco, the latter of which the author serves up an especially stinging condemnation based on having lived through it during his career at Henredon.
Dugan lays out the battlefield, as it were, drawing upon military analogy to discuss the strategies of each campaign. As his chronological tale unfolds, so does the emergence of Asia and particularly China, as a furniture-making powerhouse. Rather than make long-term investments in new technologies and facilities, many of America’s best-known furniture makers began to off-shore their products.
Having built up his case one battle at a time, including the most current being waged by Furniture Brands Intl, Dugan summarizes the domino-effect as follows:
“It is worth noting that the Chinese did not so much come after us as America pursued them. When American managers were given the task of developing imported furniture to sell in the American market, the Americans showed the Asians how to do it. Only now the factory was not their own and there was nothing to stop Asian owners from using what they learned on someone else’s line of furniture. The so-called export of technology was accomplished quickly and innocently. The American manufacturers dug their own graves by teaching the Chinese how to make furniture for the American market...”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree more.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.