This article reprinted from Wood & Wood Products' Centennial issue, December 1995

 

My Life in the Furniture Trade

By Jerry Metz

 

March of 1930 found me graduating with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago and going to work for the furniture manufacturing business that my father, J.L. Metz had started in 1898. I always had a keen interest in the beauty of wood and furniture design, so it was only natural that I got into woodworking as a career.

In my rookie year I pretty much got a taste of every phase of the business from design and production to sales and management. One of my earliest assignments had me travel to Grand Rapids to tour some of the most important furniture plants in the U.S. In particular, I remember getting a grand tour of the Robert W. Irwin plant by the man himself. (Along with Baker, Irwin was the envy of the furniture industry then.) Mr. Irwin took great pride in showing me a Root boring machine that they had "kept running perfectly for 35 years!" In those days it was not uncommon to see machines that old still being used because technology was not advancing as rapidly as it does today.

Despite the sorry state of the economy due to the Great Depression, J.L. Metz Furniture Co. continued to grow little by little, specializing in the manufacture of high-quality dining room tables, chairs buffets, china cabinets and serving pieces. We were still operating out of a six-story converted warehouse in Chicago when I started. One floor was dedicated to machining, another for sanding, another for assembly and one for finishing. Work in process would move from floor to floor in big freight elevators. It was hardly what you would call efficient plant flow, but somehow it worked.

In 1932 my father discovered that the Depression was not without opportunity. In one of his most brilliant moves he purchased a shuttered piano manufacturing factory in Hammond, Indiana. It had 7 acres of ground, including a one-floor, 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. He bought the whole shooting match for about $125,000, moved equipment from the Chicago plant and added dry kilns.

About 20 or 30 employees who worked at the Chicago plant became the nucleus of the new facility's labor force. Because Hammond was steel country, there were not many woodworkers to be had, but there were plenty of intelligent, middle-aged women who were anxious to learn the trade and at a lower wage rate than men to boot. My dad was convinced that women could be trained to make furniture and it happened. They became excellent machine hands, cabinetmakers, finishers, etc. By the end of the first year, more than half of the 200 employees at Metz Furniture were women. This was an unheard of statistic in our industry in the 1930s.

To stay alive during the Depression, Metz Furniture remained very highly specialized making dining room furniture using solid birch and mahogany veneers. By keeping our focus on what we did best, we were able to run cutting after cutting of the same thing. Our quality was high while our prices were remarkably low. A 66-inch buffet sold for about $100.

Meanwhile, many of our arch competitors cheated on quality. They would cut corners by using lower quality veneers or cheap hardware and try to win business on price alone.

The cut-throat competition created another golden window of opportunity for Metz Furniture. More and more of my time was spent on the road visiting customers and lining up new exclusive dealers in most major cities and towns. In larger cities, like New York and Chicago, we would have two or three dealers. The fact that we could offer great quality at competitive prices made our products an easy sell. One of our dealers coined the slogan, "Metz Furniture makes Cadillac quality at Buick prices."

Whenever I travelled to visit customers I would always ask them for their ideas. Our closest customers had a lot to say about what we made. They would view the samples long before we took them to market. (We maintained showrooms at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago and in Hickory, North Carolina.)

By 1935, business was much improved and Metz Furniture expanded its product line to include bedroom furniture. In the ensuing years, we developed groups featuring 18th Century, French Provincial and contemporary designs. To keep costs down and quality up, we continued to stick with birch woods and mahogany veneers.

During World War II, the U.S. government gave away millions of feet of birch to England. So during the war, Metz Furniture used lots of soft maple instead. Like almost every other manufacturing business, we did our part for the war effort. Furniture production was cut back to just one group of bedroom/dining room furniture while the rest of capacity was dedicated to making ammunition boxes of various sizes for the Navy.

As for me, I had an officer's commission out of college and shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I joined the Chemical Warfare Service as an operations officer. My assignment involved helping build and operate nine chemical and bomb manufacturing plants on a 26-square-mile complex in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I was a southerner for about four years before transferring to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where a secret project on bacterial warfare was under way.

I was as happy as anyone when the war ended and eager to get back to work. In 1948 Metz Furniture celebrated its 50th anniversary by sponsoring a contest looking for some of our original dining room furniture. I remember personally offering one woman a new table and chairs for her 50-year-old golden pedestal-base table, and she refused! The contest turned out to be a dud because we could not find anybody willing to part with their furniture. At least it was nice to know how highly Metz furniture was valued as an antique.

Also in 1948, I took over as president of the business. Boy, did we ever go to work on mechanizing the Hammond plant! With the war behind us, there was a new surge in woodworking technology and we were right there to jump on it if we thought it fit our needs. We invested heavily in the best in new double-end machines, moulders, routers, sanders, small power tools, and converyorized finishing lines, along with a state-of-the-art plant lighting system. Our new dust collection system was incredibly efficient. Our waste scraps and sawdust were either sold or burned.

During the 1950s and '60s I was very involved with the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers which later merged with the southern furniture group to form the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. I served two terms on the NAFM's board of directors and was named honorary treasurer for life in 1961.

Our business was at its peak in the mid 1960s when annual sales hit $3 million. We employed about 300 people at the Hammond plant, made our own plywood and owned a saw mill in northern Michigan. In addition to our exclusive national dealer chain, we had a few distinguished dealers in Europe. I think Metz Furniture had achieved a well-earned reputation for quality for which I will always be proud.

In 1970 I decided to sell the business. I had three daughters, but none of them was inclined to take over the business. I'm sorry to say that we picked the wrong people to sell to. They decided to manufacture in small lots, sell to any number of dealers and do many other things contrary to the successful ways that we had established. The result was a sad demise of the entire outfit within three or four years.

My retirement proved to be short lived. Several weeks after selling the business, word got around that I was free and available. I was offered a few nice consulting jobs and that started me on a new and interesting career path. The Metz principles of manufacturing and marketing seemed to fit the needs of several well-known furniture makers that needed help.

Also, shortly after my "retirement," Wood & Wood Products proposed that I write "consulting articles." I did just that for a time until readers deluged the magazine with so many letters that a question and answer format was ultimately started.

Over the years, the industry, the magazine and the column have grown. It never ceases to amaze me how far woodworking technology has come in my lifetime. But in the end, it's still the fundamentals like moisture content, panel warpage and finishing problems that give people the most fits.

I hope readers have enjoyed reading the column as much as I have enjoyed writing it. It is my sincere hope that you will continue to ask me questions and that I can hopefully supply the right answers.

Jerry Metz has been a contributing editor with W & WP since January 1971. His monthly column "Consult Jerry Metz" began in 1976.

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