Thirty years ago,  Harden Manufacturing Corp.  was launched in a few cleaned-out chicken houses. Today, this $70 million company is growing aggressively in a stagnant economy, when even the best are faltering.

What's the secret? A great product and outstanding service, says Craig Smith, president of sales.

The product

Roughly 700 Harden employees make the company's line of promotional furniture in six plants located in Haleyville, Ala., and Lacrosse, Va. The company produces bedroom furniture, entertainment centers and curio cabinets.

"Our product puts us in a niche that when business is slow, a lot of people will back up and buy something that's a little less expensive than when the economy's good," says Craig. "And when the economy's good, then everybody's buying. So we positioned ourselves in a niche where the economy doesn't affect us that much. We're going to win either way."

Harden's line is substantial. The company produces 25 different domestically made bedroom suites and it will soon offer eight to 10 imported suites. The company also offers 25 SKUs of curios and 25 to 30 SKUs of entertainment centers.

Harden recently upgraded some of its product. "We always used center mount drawers on our bedroom. We went to a little more expensive pieces with side mounted European slides," says Ken.

How it's made

Foil finishing is an important part of Harden's production process because almost 100 percent of the furniture Harden manufactures is covered with heat transfer foil from Kurz-Hastings. The company uses 25 different foils in its production.

The company has four sheet laminators, two from Fletcher and two from Voorwood. It has four Fletcher table-top laminators and six Voorwood flat foil laminators. The foil Harden uses has a pre-applied hotmelt on the back. The hotmelt glue is activated by heat and pressure that allows it to adhere to the MDF. It's a dry process, says Ken.

Harden also owns 20 Fletcher edge-foiling machines. "They shape, sand and apply the foil in one pass," says Ken.

Product starts out as sheets of MDF from Langboard. Ninety-five percent of Harden's deliveries are made using its own trucks; the company uses return trips to haul back raw materials, such as MDF and foil, to the plant. "We try to do a good job of turning those and bringing in what we need on a daily or weekly basis," says Ken Smith, president.

One plant in Haleyville, Ala., illustrates what occurs in all six plants. MDF is brought into the mill shop where it's cut on one of eight routers or one of three panel saws. Some of the product needs to be pre-laminated and then cut and some of it needs to be cut first and then laminated "to have control of quality," says Ken.

After cutting, the product is edged and it goes to the sub-assembly area. It's sub-assembled and transferred to final assembly where it's put together. When assembled, product goes to Harden's automatic strappers for packaging. Product is then sent to await shipment in the warehouse where it's barcoded with a serial number and a manufacturing date.

The assembly line

Harden distributes a production schedule on a weekly basis, so employees know what to build. Information from the schedule is given to the line supervisors so they know what the line must build each day. Harden also has employees who spend their days pulling parts for the lines. "The parts flow down and the products are scheduled right behind each other," says Ken.

Changeover on an assembly line is a matter of minutes, says Ken, because employees go from manufacturing one SKU to the next. The employees are also cross-trained on the line. Someone who can build drawers may also be able to produce frames and case sides. "We try to rotate the lines every few hours just to cut down on comp-related issues and also to give [the employees] something different to do," says Ken.

Prompt service sets Harden apart from other companies in its league. "We give our customers a good product with a lot of look, a lot of size at a competitive price," says Craig. "Then we give them a lot of service. If you place an order with us, we'll deliver within two weeks, where most of our competitors are anywhere from four to six weeks."

Harden's plants are run based on an inventory balance that the company tries to maintain. "Instead of running cutting cycles, we run based on what we need in our warehouse to continue our shipments," says Craig. "We keep all of our product on the floor at all times. That's one of the reasons we can ship so quickly."

Ken says the company has worked hard to do a good job in its scheduling of the plants and turning inventories.

"Our customers use us as their warehouse," he says. "So we just structured our business to accommodate. I wouldn't say we carry more inventory than our competitors. It's just that we probably do a better job of managing it."

Last year, says Craig, Harden turned its whole inventory package - raw materials, work in process and finished goods - 16 times. This is significant because the  American Furniture Manufacturers Assn.  average for turning inventory is five or six times.

Another aspect of Harden's customer service is that the company will accept a $1,000 minimum order from its customers. "That's not just per plant, that's for the whole company," says Ken. "So customers can buy any mix of bedroom, entertainment and curios that they want to buy to make up that $1,000 and get it on the same truck.

"I think our competitors shoot for the big accounts, and our main focus is the mom and pop business," Ken continues.

Harden turns its inventory and services its customers speedily because the company is focused on automating and streamlining production. "From day one here, we've always looked for that piece of equipment that would give us the extra capacity with the same amount of people or more capacity with fewer people," says Craig.

Three new Northwood CNC routers are Harden's most recent purchase to speed up operations. These will run in addition to Harden's five existing Komo routers. The company also has a Gabbiani panel saw, a Holzma panel saw and an SCMI panel saw, as well as the Fletcher foil edge laminating and Fletcher and Voorwood flat foil laminating equipment.

Drawer assembly

One machine that sets Harden apart is a machine engineered by Carlson that assembles drawers. Previously, Harden had people manually building drawers. One person could build two per minute and there were always carpal tunnel and workman's comp-related issues. With the Carlson assembly machine, Harden can produce four drawers per minute and the machine is ergonomically friendly for workers, says Ken.

Harden is expecting another banner year in 2003. "We've ordered $500,000 worth of routers and we've budgeted another $1 million to $1.5 million worth of capital expenditures to increase our manufacturing this year," says Ken.

"We've been able to continue to grow through the good times and bad times," says Ken. "That's by being aggressive on our sales side and aggressive on our manufacturing side. Our focus has not really changed from what it's been for the last 30 years." 

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