Bruce Cochrane’s furniture manufacturing roots go way back in North Carolina, but his reasons for starting a new company came from far away, in Asia.

Cochrane started Lincolnton Furniture in part because of changes in the Asian import model adopted by so many stateside manufacturers in recent years.

“We’re seeing longer lead times, and quality in construction and finishes is being compromised,” he says. ”The factories in China were subsidized to export product. Those export subsidies have gone away, and these factories are now being subsidized to sell their products domestically.”

The days of cheap and abundant labor in China are ending. The average hourly wage is approaching $3.60 an hour, compared to 30 to 50 cents an hour when the export boom started. Cochrane says that Chinese companies are having trouble finding good employees, with advertised positions drawing a handful of applicants instead of hundreds.

“When I started seeing labor problems in China, that’s when I started to think about (starting a company),” Cochrane says.

Lincolnton Furniture started producing and shipping in February, making bedroom and dining room furniture, along with chairs from the same Lincolnton, N.C., plant in which family-owned Cochrane Furniture also made bedroom and dining room furniture.

Earlier, Bruce Cochrane was president of Cochrane Furniture. The company was sold to Chromcraft-Revington in 1997, and that company made the decision to outsource to China, closing the Lincolnton plant in 2008. Bruce Cochrane himself was later a consultant for other American furniture companies, spending time in China and Vietnam.

The family has deep roots in manufacturing in North Carolina. Bruce’s great-great grandfather made church furniture before the Civil War. The family business made furniture in Lincolnton more than a century ago.

“Our product niche is fine finishes, a focus on solid wood and great quality construction. And it’s made in America,” Cochrane says. “Right here in Lincolnton we’re making the best constructed furniture anywhere. All of our joinery is based on mortise-and-tenon construction. We have water-based finishes from Valspar coatings.

Lincolnton employs 55 people, and plans to have 130 people working here when full production is reached. “Assembly and finishing are the most difficult part of the training process. Training people on these computer-assisted machines is pretty easy.

More than half of the people had worked for the previous company, including one man who had worked for Cochrane Furniture for 32 years. “People hadn’t worked for so long they had lost their confidence to do the job,” Cochrane says. “(This man) had heard the new company was hiring, and could do anything but had only taken whatever job he could, and refused to take welfare.

“I told him, ‘You’re going to be one of the first people I hire,’” Cochrane said. “There’s such despair in not having a job. Not going to work every day, not being with people who are like your family.

“People don’t realize the American worker is almost four times as productive as the Chinese worker. In the United States we’re producing two-and-a-half times more than what we were doing in 1970. We’re just doing it with fewer people.”

Same location, different technology 

Although the geographic location is the same (Lincolnton Furniture is using most of Cochrane Furniture’s 300,000 square foot building) the new company does things completely differently, with a smaller, leaner workforce and high-tech multipurpose machines.

“Our manufacturing process is so different from what a traditional manufacturing facility would do,” Cochrane says. “We’re manufacturing solid wood furniture using state of the art machinery. The all-purpose routers can do the work of 25 different machines, they can drill, sand and rout, saw.”

The plan was to first go through entire product line, doing programming necessary for each product. Program first, then build to order, with machines set up to make one or two parts, not 100. By going through the product line, the goal was to understand the process applications and the parts that will be run, to determine the best configuration for the router. The company is using Microsoft Dynamics AX, ERP software to integrate purchasing and manufacturing.

“The opportunity for flowthrough is greater than I thought it would be. The throughput is so much greater.”

The whole premise of manufacturing is to buy panel stock cut to size and plane it if needed. The SCM Routech Accord 40fx CNC router is most important machine, with a 48-tool capacity tool changer. A second Accord will be added in Lincolnton soon. A Morbidelli Author 4365 router is used to process a lot of flat panels.

The goal is to produce parts quickly and have them sanded, if needed, on a DMC Unisand K flat-panel sander, or a Timesavers 300 widebelt sander. An Accu-Systems tenoner machine is set up to run short length pieces, with a Celaschi tenoner set up to run longer pieces. Also here is a SCM Superset nt moulder, Invicta shapers, and drawer assembly area with Fletcher sander.

The company is using solid oak, maple and cherry. Cochrane expects to outsource turnings, and continues to look at things they can’t do well. He has been contacted by many lumber and wood component suppliers.

Cochrane couldn’t apply his Asian experience to the operation here. “I really didn’t learn anything over there from a manufacturing standpoint,” he says. “When the Chinese had a problem, they would throw labor at it.”

More labor didn’t help produce good finishes. “That’s why you have a lot of dark finishes,” Cochrane says. “The Chinese could hide (defects) in the base coat, but you just lose the wood (appearance).”

Lincolnton is ensuring quality finishes by emphasizing good training. They’re using glaze, three sealers and a topcoat, with sanding in between steps. Finishers have to make adjustments for new methods and water-based finishes that use much less material. (The company also has a Superfici flat-line finishing line available.)

The finishing operation will be high volume, running hundreds of pallets a day once it’s staffed. The finishing room can handle 50-75 pieces at a time.

Biggest challenge 

“The biggest obstacle for (a new company) to do what we’re doing now is finding capital,” says Cochrane, who had to make a personal commitment and dedicate his own funds to get the company going.

There were also two physical issues in the existing building to overcome at the start. The electrical system needed an expensive upgrade to handle current needs safely. And a larger quantity of natural gas combustion was required for water-based finishing.

One thing that hasn’t been a problem is marketing. “Selling the product hasn’t really been an issue,” Cochrane says.

Lincolnton Furniture has five collections, and more than 100 accounts, which Cochrane describes as a who’s who of furniture retailing.

“We have the opportunity to double the amount of accounts we have in a short period of time,” he says.

Cochrane also expects to get a boost from the fact that the furniture is made in the United States. He says this has really changed in the past two years, with dealers telling him that people are coming in the stores asking for made in U.S. products. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful in getting the kind of customer that we have right now.

“We’re excited about it, but it’s still a struggle, from a financial standpoint it’s still very challenging.”

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