When Champ and Jean Land purchased Troutman Chair Co. in 1999, the company's primary product, wooden rocking chairs, could be found in homes and businesses from West Virginia down through Florida.
However, there was one small problem. While chair owners clearly enjoyed their rockers, most had no idea where they came from, or who made them. "This company made the best product in the category, but nobody knew who the company was," Champ Land recalls. "The company didn't package anything, and they shipped it all on their own trucks."
Life is different now at the North Carolina company. Quality is up, sales are up, distribution has expanded, and if you see the company's product, there's no way you can ignore that you're looking at a product of Troutman Chair Co. maker of the "World's Best Rockers."
Named for the nearby town of Troutman, Troutman Chair Co. was started in 1924, but was lost to the bank during the Great Depression. It was subsequently purchased by the Brown family, who owned and operated the company for 65 years before selling it to the Lands. A member of the Brown family, Benny Brown, continues to work as the company's plant manager. The company produces several sizes and styles of rocking chair, as well as stools and porch swings. Chairs are available unfinished, stained or in one of eight paint colors, of which
Champ Land has seen several changes since purchasing the company, though not all have necessarily been positive. "There were seven companies that were in the rocker business when we bought Troutman that aren't around anymore," he says. There is now just one other company making rockers in the area.
"The industry has changed a lot," agrees Jim Faull, president of Faull and Son in Niles, Ohio. Faull and Son have supplied Troutman with swivels for their stools for years.
Establishing the Troutman Chair brand has been a learning process mixed with the inevitable trial and error. Land's first branding initiative was to develop a nameplate for the rocker. Ultimately, after six months of work, hardware supplier Doland Johnson of Hickory, N.C.-based Preferred Furniture Components Inc., came up with the idea to print the company's oval logo onto an existing metal arm brace. The chair was now successfully labeled, but the one inch by half inch oval was not an attention grabber.
The company's second step was to put a hang tag on each chair, with the company's logo on it as well as information about the construction of the chair. The results, according to Land, were less than overwhelming. "We went to market, and we were the only rocker company with a hangtag on the product explaining how the product's built, why it's better, and all the nuances and the things that we were doing, and everybody just kind of yawned," Land remembers. "Now we receive phone calls from our customers requesting them if we have failed to put a hangtag on the product."
Original delivery truck
Land's next branding idea was to re-create the original green Model T truck that Troutman Co. had used in the beginning for deliveries. He actually decided to get a Model A, as the original Model T with its crank start and no reverse was a bit impractical.
"We started taking the car to shows and putting it in our booth," Land says, "and it drew people." The car is now a staple of Troutman marketing, though booth space and hauling costs means that the car doesn't appear at every show, more often making the journey to regional shows. However, an appearance at one such show garnered Troutman an award for best booth display. The award captured the attention of Southern Living magazine, which did a feature article on Troutman.
"Our next branding step was to order reprints of the Southern Living article, laminate it and put a key ring in it," Land says. "We offer that to customers to put on the product and help them sell. And every show that we go to, we display that on the product. That's of interest to some people and it helps our dealers sell the product."
Troutman also offers die-cast iron replicas of the truck as a promotional item which stokes the nostalgia brought on by the rockers, and in turn, sales.
Troutman chairs are special in that they are built without glue, using a technique known as swelled joint construction. Troutman has an on-site sawmill, and lumber that is cut for front and back chair posts is air dried from nine to 16 months in order to reach the desired moisture content. Conversely, the chair rungs are kiln-dried. As a result, when the dry chair rung is inserted into the wet post, the post releases moisture and shrinks; the dry rung receives the moisture and swells, which creates a tighter fit than a glued connection. Over time, the joint will get even tighter.
Another unique aspect to the construction is interlocking joinery. Front and back frames of the chairs are assembled and then clamped together. As the two pieces are clamped, the boring on each piece notches the appropriate dowel in "Lincoln Log" style, so the chair can't be pulled apart.
As parts move through the shop they are sanded before and after assembly. Some sanding is done by hand, and some is done on one of several different Sherrill sanders. Seats are nailed with stainless steel nails that have been treated to give them a bronze appearance. "When we use clear finish on them, they look very good," Land says.
After assembly, rockers that will be painted have a base coat applied. They are then sanded and a second base coat is applied, if needed. They then go to be top-coated. Troutman recently purchased Dux guns for finishing, and has been working with Harley Hamby of Chemical Coatings Inc. to create a warrantable finish.
Depending on the time of the year, Troutman may have as much as a two month supply of top selling items.
Clear finished and unfinished chairs that are going to be delivered on a Troutman truck are shrink wrapped with buffers in between to avoid scraping. Chairs going by common carrier are packaged in a box.
In a typical burst of Troutman creativity, when Land determined the shop needed a shrinkwrap machine, he balked at the cost, particularly since a purchased machine would still require modifications for Troutman's needs. His solution? "My plant maintenance engineer built our shrinkwrap machine," Land says. "He went to the junkyard and got a hub off a Ford truck and hooked a 1hp motor to it." The machine works exactly the way the shop needs it to without modifications and at a fraction of the cost.
On the horizon
Things on nearly all fronts are moving ahead for Troutman. Distribution has been radically increased since the Lands purchased the company. Troutman now ships nationwide and has even pushed into the international arena, with customers in Canada and Germany.
Troutman is also in the process of bringing additional equipment online. They recently purchased a branding machine and will add the Troutman name on yet another place on the chair underneath the arm. The branding will serve at least two purposes it will help build name recognition and also give Troutman an opportunity to put a build date on each product, as Troutman is ramping up to offer a one-year warranty on its finishes. It already offers a lifetime frame warranty.
Troutman has also purchased equipment for a finishing line and plans to have it up and operating by the end of the year.
Land says the challenge of educating customers about quality is an ongoing one, but he sees progress. "Are we succeeding?" Land asks. "Well, we're still here. If you sell goods, you compete against someone, so a lot depends on the value you generate. "
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