Furniture company bucks trends
December 22, 2009 | 12:00 am UTC

There's a lot to envy about  Legends Furniture. The company is keeping its sales stable at a time when many of its competitors have closed their doors or shifted to an all-import model.

Legends' success can be directly linked to four things. It has created a product mix that keeps the majority of its manufacturing in the U.S. while still taking advantage of profitable imports; it has streamlined its operations through a number of lean initiatives; it has increased quality through employee involvement; and it keeps morale high by planning expanded operations in the future.

Manufacturing here and abroad

Approximately 50 percent of Legends' products are manufactured in its plant in Tolleson, Ariz., located on the outskirts of Phoenix. The rest of Legends' inventory is manufactured in China. In general, pieces imported from China tend to have more intricate carvings or highly specialized finishes. For these pieces, it is more cost-effective for Legends to import them.

According to Tim Donk, marketing director, the domestic/import mix offers more than just profits; it also offers valuable information. "We have an insight that a lot of domestic-only manufacturers don't have," he says. According to Donk, Legends' daily interaction with factories in China help keep it up-to-date on both manufacturing issues there and economic conditions in the country as a whole conditions which are not always obvious to the casual observer or the media. Donk believes this gives Legends an advantage over many of its competitors, as it will know right away if the time has come to move its operations out of the country.

Lean shop

In 2005 the company launched a lean program. According to Allan Akeson, plant manager, the lean gospel has been taken to heart by the company. "We keep everything as straightforward and lean as we possibly can," he says. "If it doesn't add value to the product, then we don't need it."

Lean is evident in the shop and its processes. Jobs are prepared in "kits" and placed on a cart with the appropriate paperwork, which is color-coded for the day of the week. Component pieces are loaded onto the cart from shelves stocked (using a Kanban system) with the different sizes of component pieces that Legends uses. Doors are also loaded onto the carts, though they are ordered on a job-specific basis and kitted a day in advance. All parts are labeled and tracked.

Once all pieces for an order have been pulled, the cart goes to a machining mill. There, the job's item number is keyed into a computer, which produces the job's cutlist. Pieces are cut on a machining mill and loaded back onto the cart. From there they go to modular work cells.

Work cells

Legends currently operates four work cells. According to Akeson, the beauty of the cells is that the equipment is small and easily replaceable. "Everything in the cells is totally interchangeable Delta drill press, a Hitachi miter saw, a Porter Cable router you can buy these at Home Depot any day of the week. So if it goes bad, you take it to the store or you simply say I need a new one,' and you don't have a lot of set-up time. The key to it is quick, simple set-ups. A little bit of interchangeability, keep the process as straightforward as possible and keep the material flowing."

After the work cells, jobs go on to assembly and then on to finishing. Legends uses a Rhodes finish line, and combines as many pieces as possible that are receiving either the same stain or paint. To make certain they are able to double up each cart, approximately 50 single pieces are kept on a nearby pad. "We want the highest dollar value per cart coming through that we can," Akeson says.

Pieces are then sealed and dried. "We're looking at reconfiguring portions of the line to achieve longer cure time for possible water-base use," Akeson adds.

After drying, pieces go to a Packsize automated box maker for packaging. Although Legends has over 1,000 SKUs, they are able to make all the boxes they need from just four sizes of cardboard. Legends keeps no pieces in inventory.

Quality and employee involvement

While many companies point to the importance of their employees, at Legends the statement takes on a new level of meaning. "We've been very conscientious about encouraging people to make suggestions and to incorporate new ideas," Akeson says. "One of the things we've done recently as far as improvements came directly from the people."

Akeson notes that employees are often an underutilized resource in that they work with the product and processes and usually are the first ones to spot problems. "They may not know what the solution is, but they certainly know what the problem is," Akeson says. "So if you can get a good rapport with your people, develop that rapport and draw them out, you can evaluate what the core problems are a lot more efficiently."

However, it is in the area of quality where Legends' employee involvement philosophy truly adds to the bottom line. "We do what we can to let everyone know that it's their responsibility to make that quality-level decision," Akeson says. "We're trying to get away from the top-down management structure where everyone is dictated to on how to process. We want people to be able to make educated individual decisions on what is a good part and what is a bad part. By educating them, we free them to make faster decisions. Instead of waiting to find a supervisor to ask if a part is good or bad during an assembly, we empower them to make that decision out on the floor."

Changing to an employee-oriented shop floor has been a big change, but Akeson is upbeat about it and the need for flexibility in today's manufacturing world. "Granted, it's not always easy," Akeson admits. "But if you sit behind a desk, you're dead."

Room to expand

If anyone at Legends wonders what the company's plans are, all they need to do is look around literally. Legends' plant is 140,000 square feet, and currently 85,000 square feet of the facility is in use. "It's refreshing to have the space available as a hedge against any potential change in our work with China," Donk says. He adds that the company has worked hard to be agile enough to quickly ramp up additional U.S. operations if conditions should call for them.

Aside from the space inside the current plant, the company's vision extends beyond its current walls. "We own a large amount of acreage adjacent to our current facility," Donk says. "For now, we lease it to a local farmer. However, its there if we ever need it."

In all things, optimism

Ultimately Akeson sums up the company's position. "We've got a good product. We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we are making every effort to get as close to it as we possibly can. We've got people that really care they honestly care about trying to do a good job and being a part of the company," he says, adding "it's a good relationship."

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About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.