To find a success story in domestic furniture manufacturing, organizers of the recent American Home Furnishings Alliance Manufacturing Summit didn't have to look far. Jay Reardon, president of Hickory Chair Co., described many of the improvements the company has made in a presentation titled "Making It in the USA."

Reardon said that each part of the process serves a customer even if that customer may be the next step in the manufacturing process. The company is always looking for niches that larger companies can't fill, he says.

By reducing time to market, Hickory Chair has almost eliminated obsolescence, and this in turn has achieved one of the biggest savings. And they have discovered that 95 percent of total lead time can be considered to be non-value added.

Reardon pointed out that continuous improvement can be achieved without a large financial investment. He emphasized the benefits of cross-training employees, which also cuts lead time. Also, Reardon said that employees had contributed 650 ideas, and he showed the specific suggestions and the employees who made them.

Jerry Epperson of Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., one of the most insightful observers of the furniture industry, said a number of factors in China may reduce imports into the United States, such as removal of export incentives, overcapacity of furniture manufacturing, and currency adjustments. He also noted that there are more than 30 Asian factories that are directly selling to U.S. retailers.

Companies that have invested in flexible domestic production and inventories in order to react quickly to retail demand have enjoyed some success. "People with domestic factories will be pleasantly surprised in the next few years," he said.

Environmental issues

Bill Perdue of AHFA discussed key compliance issues, and reviewed the plywood MACT, boiler MACT, provided updates on Clean Air Act initiatives, electrical requirements, revised bunk bed and tipover regulations, and, of course, CARB.

Are there new market opportunities for domestic manufacturers? Joe Carroll, publisher of Furniture Today, said there are more than 80 channels of distribution including such varied customers as recreational vehicles, cruise ships and museums.

Randy Ford, president of Leggett & Platt Home Furnishings Component Group; Jeff Matuszak, vice president of Moncure Plywood LLC, and Dwayne Welch, executive vice president of Hickory Springs Manufacturing, provided a supplier perspective. Welch said that innovation leads to product differentiation. He searched online for "furniture innovations" for the past 10 years and couldn't find anything.

A union-backed check-card bill in Congress could completely change the rules of organizing, and was discussed by Jim Wimberly, principal of Wimberley, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine in Atlanta, Ga., who is on retainer for AHFA.

Interestingly, several speakers brought up the success bedding manufacturers have had in marketing their products with what some may consider small improvements. One speaker said the industry has been successful in selling sleepnot mattresses. So far, they've kept 96 percent of mattress manufacturing in the U.S.

It's too early to put the residential furniture industry to bed.

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