Bucking the import trend, Linwood’s new plant in North Carolina has put more than 100 people to work making residential furniture.

 

This hunt board is part of Linwood’s Hart Square Collection.

While wood furniture imports climb and U.S. factories continue to shutter their doors, an upstart domestic manufacturer in Lexington, NC, is finding a market for its new brand.

Linwood Furniture Inc. was formed in 2006 after famed designer Bob Timberlake refused to let his World of Bob Timberlake line be made overseas. It now not only makes the Timberlake line under contract to Lexington Home Brands, Timberlake’s former manufacturer, but produces four collections under its own Linwood brand.

Projected sales are $10 million to $12 million this year. The company has 135 employees, up from the 20 employees the company had when it opened March 2006 in Lexington’s former Plant No. 2 in the Linwood community outside Lexington. Some 90 percent of them are former Lexington employees who were employed at Plant No. 2 before it closed in December 2005.

Approximately 60 to 65 percent of sales continue to be contract work. “We’re very indebted to Lexington Home Brands for giving us the opportunity to make their product,” says President and CEO Bob Shaak. Shaak is a former vice president and general sales manager at Thomasville Furniture who came out of retirement to head Linwood.

Shaak said a dispute between Bob Timberlake Inc. and Lexington Home Brands over the brand license early in the summer should have no affect on Linwood, whose contract to manufacture the brand continues through 2010. “I don’t anticipate any disruption whatsoever,” he said. “We anticipate doing business as usual.”



In June, Lexington sued for the right to keep selling the brand through 2010 after Bob Timberlake Inc., unhappy with Lexington’s marketing and promotion, gave notice of ending the licensing agreement.

Shaak says he expects the sales of the Linwood brand to surpass the contract work, however, as the company continues to bring out new collections of bedroom, dining and occasional furniture. It is already shipping American Classic, Villages of Gulf Breeze and Hart Square. Torrento, a bedroom collection with an Italian/Spanish influence, debuted at the April High Point market, and is expected to ship in the fall. A fifth collection, Louis Phillipe, is expected to ship in late August.



Five other collections are in various stages of planning, Shaak says. A licensed collection with NASCAR race team and winery owner Richard Childress, a Linwood investor, is one of them.

Roy Curry uses the Shoda NC-816P to machine parts.

Made in America

Linwood advertises that its furniture is made in America by American craftspeople, many of them with decades of experience. “That’s something China and the importers can’t give you,” Shaak says. Employees’ pictures, along with their years of service, grace the company’s Web site, www.linwoodfurniture.com, as well as the walls of Linwood’s conference room.

American flags also fly throughout the plant — Timberlake’s idea, says Sam Hendrix, head of the stock room. After Linwood got up and running in March of 2006, the designer came through and said they needed some flags around there. “He wanted everybody to know, we’re U.S.A.”

Artist and designer Timberlake’s reason for not going along with overseas production was simple, he says. “The folks around here, I know . . . I grew up with them. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs.”

They did, but for some the downtime was brief after Lexington closed Plant No. 2 in December 2005, putting 360 people out of work.

“It was a big surprise” when the plant shut down, says Rosemary Blevins as she pauses after clamping a door at Linwood. Thirty-four years ago, in 1974, she remembers, she helped set up Plant No. 2. “There was nothing in here when I came.”

Four months after the closing, Linwood contacted her, she says. “I was really happy when they called me to come back.”

Katie Poole and Curtis Norman give an American Classic sleigh bed a final inspection before the finish is applied.

Investing in the Future

Timberlake’s son Dan, COO and general counsel at broad-based Bob Timberlake Inc., and Jimmy Kepley, owner of Lexington-based, Kepley-Frank Hardwood lumber company, had gathered other investors and formed Linwood. Investors, which now number 25, include NASCAR team owner Childress, retailers Mary and Phil Good of Good’s Furniture House in Kewaunee, IL, and a group from leather distributor Carroll Cos. Linwood bought the 400,000 square-foot plant, its 160,000 square-foot warehouse and its lumber drying kiln from Lexington.

Bryan Starnes, in charge of operations at three Lexington plants including No. 2, says he knew something was in the wind at closing. “I never cleaned out my desk,” says Starnes, now Linwood senior vice president of operations.

According to Shaak, the chance to put furniture employees back to work was one of the things that attracted him to the presidency. Davidson County has a legacy in furniture going back more than 100 years, he says. Since 2000, however, it has lost 5,000 furniture jobs as plants closed

The company’s three-year plan envisions sales rising to the $25 million to $30 million range, and employment growing to between 175 and 200. “If everything falls in place and we keep chipping away at it, I think we’re on course to meet our three-year objective,” Shaak says.

Linwood’s first goal, he says, is to keep the plant running 40 hours a week. “That’s something we’re most proud of,” he says.

The second goal, Shaak adds, is to increase sales and be profitable. The company is on the threshold of attaining profitability, he says. That will come “hopefully by the end of this year if not sooner.”

Shaak and Linwood investors say they are not intimidated by imports, which in the year the company was formed, accounted for 63 percent of wood furniture sold in the United States. “We’re not trying to compete with the imports,” says Shaak. “You find a niche within the market.”

“Not everyone wants the lowest price,” he contends. “People like to buy nice things.” Linwood bedroom, dining and occasional furniture sells in the middle to middle-upper price range. A dresser sells retail for $1,395 to $1,595, and a bed from $995 to $1,495.

“Well-styled furniture that’s affordable will be successful,” Shaak contends. Otherwise, he says, “Why would our sales be increasing, even in these tough economic times?”

One of several beds in Linwood’s Hart Square Collection.

Building a Brand

One hundred and thirty dealers carry the Linwood brand now, Shaak says. It is represented by 28 sales reps operating in all parts of the United States except California and the Northwest. The sales reps, says Shaak, “All came to me. They said they wanted to represent an American company.”

In March 2007, when Linwood introduced its first collection, the traditionally-styled, cherry American Classic, dealers who were in the area for the High Point market came to the plant to see it. Twenty-two dealers showed up, Shaak remembers. “Eighteen dealers gave me an opportunity to get on their floor.”

Linwood showed its subsequent collections — coastal-looking Villages of Gulf Breeze, colonial-American Hart Square, and the Italian/Spanish-themed Torrento bedroom collection — at a High Point showroom during the October 2007 and April 2008 markets.

“I think the dealers have seen the direction we’re going, quality-wise, price-wise,” he says. The quality, he says, comes through the collective experience of Linwood’s veteran employees and the traditional methods of furniture-making they use. All pieces are solid wood or solid wood core covered by veneer.

Linwood uses a variety of American hardwoods, supplied from sustainable forests by Kepley-Frank Hardwood at what Shaak calls “favorable pricing.” The kiln at

Linwood dries lumber not only for Linwood, but also for the lumber company. To his knowledge, Shaak says, Linwood is the only woodworking company in North Carolina that is fully vertically integrated.

As part of its efforts to reduce the carbon footprint, Linwood recycles wood scraps to heat the plant and create steam to run the finishing oven. It saves energy and money by operating during the city’s off-peak hours for electricity use, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Starnes was concerned about employees’ reaction to the hours, which skip lunch. But, he says, “They absolutely love it. They’ve got half a day left.”

Service and Delivery

One of Linwood’s biggest assets is its employees. Another is its attention to quality and service. For example, Linwood promises retailers accessibility and quick delivery. “We have a human being who answers the phone,” Starnes points out.

All product is kept in stock. This means, says Shaak, that all seven finishes of Villages of Gulf Breeze can be delivered 10 days after order, in case a retailer wants to put a wide selection on the floor.

The other collections are ready for shipping 24 hours after receipt of the order, in most cases. In the rare event that Linwood runs out of something, “In six weeks or less, we can make the item and ship it out,” Shaak says.

Linwood collections are relatively modest in scale, and “not scaled for the mega-mansions,” Shaak says. Their style is “nice and clean,” he says, a contrast to imports, where “everything is big and gaudy, a lot of carving and overlays.”

“In retail today, everything looks the same,” Shaak laments. At Linwood, however, “we have a true definition,” he says, citing the Hart Square Collection as an example. Available in pecan, Hart Square draws its inspiration from a collection of 73 historic log cabins and their furnishings, known as Carolina Village. The restored 19th century village, assembled in Hickory, NC, by Timberlake’s friend Dr. Robert Hart, is open to the public once a year.

Although Timberlake does not design for Linwood, he, Shaak and Linwood designer Steve Hodges had visited Carolina Village, camera in hand, and came away with 890 pictures. “Steve and I kept looking at the chapel window,” Shaak says. Overtones of the window now show up in the Hart Square mirror.

“That mantel,” Shaak says, showing a Carolina Village picture, “is [reflected in] that bed.” He points to a Hart Square bed.

Pieces that have a story behind them, Shaak says, give salespeople something to talk to customers about. And, says Starnes, “It’s real. Not a made-up story for our sales line.”

Too often these days, Shaak says, “everything is price” in the furniture business. Linwood is trying to reverse that trend and bring a little romance back to the business, he says.

“We’re treating furniture like it used to be treated — and not a commodity.”

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