Kevin McLaughlin and Donna Balboni of McLaughlin Upholstering Co. understand that a successful high-end upholstery manufacturer requires artistic vision, production skills and business acumen.
The Everett, Mass., company has experienced significant success during the past decade. It tripled sales, moved to a more suitable building that can accommodate growth and solidified its stature in the industry.
A survey of the nation's top interior designers, published in the April 2004 House & Garden magazine and entitled "The Best on the Best," named McLaughlin Upholstering Co. one of the top eight upholstered seating sources in the United States.
Division of labor
McLaughlin, owner of the family business, hired Balboni as vice president of operations 10 years ago. She handles the business details while he works with interior designers and architects to create residential upholstery.
"Donna has that business mentality and that ability to run things in an efficient way," McLaughlin says. "I tend to be a little more on the artistic side of things and Donna is a numbers person, so that's why it works out really well."
The company's reputation is built on McLaughlin's commitment to quality, knowledge of upholstery manufacturing and ability to meet customer requirements. "He's a perfectionist and that's probably the number-one attraction," Balboni says. "(Interior designers) know Kevin will do whatever it takes to make their clients happy."
An early education
McLaughlin is the third generation to run the family business. Hugh McLaughlin, his grandfather, started the company in 1889. James McLaughlin, his father, later ran it for more than 50 years.
He started learning about upholstery manufacturing at age seven. "As a kid, I used to help in the shop," he says. "When my friends went to the beach, I couldn't join them. I was stuck in that shop working, but it paid off because it's in my blood." Building furniture appeals to him because it's both a useful product and an opportunity for artistic expression.
When McLaughlin took over the company at age 20, most of the work was reupholstering. "I would go out at night in my van with sample books to sell reupholstery work," he says. "Back then we'd get $375 for a sofa, $175 for a chair. I hoped I could sell the fabric because I could make more money on the fabric than I was making on the job."
Over time he recognized that there was a niche for new high-end seating, so he shifted the business in that direction. "The high end just keeps getting higher and better," he says. "There are fewer and fewer (manufacturers) doing total high-end work."
Because the company serves high-end customers, it's somewhat insulated from the economic downturns that can hurt other market segments. "Recessions happen and we're pretty much protected," Balboni says. "We're sort of lucky that way."
The process begins
McLaughlin's customers are located throughout the United States and in some foreign countries. Word of mouth and repeat business bring in all the work it can handle.
Balboni refers to interior designers as the company's sales force and welcomes visits from them and their clients. McLaughlin gives them a tour and shows them how the seating is built. "If you show customers what we put inside a piece of furniture, they're sold on it," he says. "When they sit on it they feel the difference."
The visits invariably result in furniture sales. "I've always found that clients are fascinated by the operation because Kevin is who he is and how he is," Balboni says. "They want this guy to make their furniture."
The manufacturing process begins when an interior designer places an order for a standard design or submits a drawing and requests a quote on an entirely new piece. Balboni calculates the cost and responds. When the designer accepts the quote, signs a work order and provides a 50 percent deposit, work begins. Typical lead times are 10-12 weeks.
McLaughlin first completes a design, often from a rough sketch or description, with detailed dimensions. He doesn't charge extra for the design work. "Do you realize how difficult it is to take that drawing and create that form?" he asks. "How can you ever get compensated for being able to make that come alive like that? You do it because you love it, not because you're making a million dollars."
Next, he sends the dimensions to Frank Pergola, a master frame maker in South Boston who builds most of the company's frames. A native of Sicily, Pergola has been making frames for more than 60 years.
Master frame builder
"Frankie did work for my father and my grandfather," McLaughlin says. "When he was a child in Sicily, he learned from masters who were 75 years old. His methods of framing go way back, but he still works like a young man." Pergola builds frames primarily of solid maple or oak, though he'll work with any wood the designer specifies. For the show wood, he uses more exotic species such as mahogany and rosewood.
"A good job starts from the frame up," Balboni says. "If the frame's not right, then the job's not going to be right."
To determine the optimal comfort level in the ordered piece, designers bring in their clients to sit in various showroom pieces. "We have all different pitches, different seats, different heights, depending on what the person wants," McLaughlin says. "We actually measure people as if they were coming in to get measured for a suit."
When the completed frame arrives, the process continues. In most cases, one upholsterer builds an entire piece from the frame up. Though each piece is different, there are common elements.
For the seat, eight-way hand-tied coil springs are tied into bands of interwoven jute webbing. Sinuous wire springs are used in the sides and backs. Once the springs are properly tied and anchored, they're covered with muslin, which is then stuffed with horsehair or down to create the desired shape and firmness. After the muslin is stitched in place, the piece is ready to be upholstered.
"We do most of our pieces this way," McLaughlin says. "It's an old-fashioned method of upholstery, like what they did at the turn of the century. We use the best materials. You definitely get what you pay for.
"Because they're made by hand on the inside, they have a lot of movement," he says. "As you sit on it, it becomes more and more comfortable because it molds to the way you sit."
The best upholsterers
Balboni says the company employs the best upholsterers and pays the highest wages in the area. "If I were an upholsterer, this would be the place I would want to work," she says. In addition to the high pay, the working conditions are good because McLaughlin gives them a lot of responsibility and a lot of latitude, and he prefers collaboration over supervision.
Some designers return with their clients at this point to ensure that the piece has the desired fit. "It's better for us when they take the time to come in before the final cover goes on because we do a better job based on their needs and their comfort level," Balboni says. This final visit makes clients feel as if they are part of the process and are getting their money's worth.
"Comfort is like an art," she says. "You can make a beautiful piece of furniture, but somehow Kevin makes it comfortable. That's a big part of his reputation."
One married couple wanted to purchase matching chairs. However, they had very different comfort requirements the man was large and the woman small. McLaughlin accommodated them. "Aesthetically both chairs are the same, but the sit is totally different," he says.
When Balboni responds to quotes, she tells the designer how much cover material will be needed. In most instances, the designer selects and orders the material, and has it sent to McLaughlin Upholstering.
"The whole industry is changing with the fabric," McLaughlin says. "People get their own fabric today. They can get in on the Internet, buy it everywhere. You've got to totally make your money on the labor."
Antiques of the future
When the work is completed, Balboni sends a bill and calls the designer, who comes in to inspect the piece and arrange for delivery. "We come with a high price tag, but for a good reason," Balboni says. "When customers get a piece from McLaughlin, they get what they pay for, especially in upholstery because it's a blind item,' " which means that the customer can't see what went inside once the piece is closed up. "We're building the antiques of the future."
McLaughlin Upholstering faces familiar challenges: the high cost of materials, retaining and finding skilled upholsterers, expanding the business while maintaining quality.
"You're only as good as your last job, and every time we do something we have to keep that standard," McLaughlin says.
"We're passionate about what we do. We're very proud of what we do," he adds. "We're always trying to do better."
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