From October 21st-27th, the entire home furnishings industry descends upon a small town called High Point in North Carolina. Nestled between great furniture towns like Thomasville and Hickory, North Carolina is undisputedly the original birth place of American furniture and textile manufacturers. Droves of retailers, wholesalers, and interior designers congregate at High Point in October for the largest home furnishings market in the United States.
What brought me for the first time to this market was the hype around the emerging trend and rebirth of "Made in America" throughout the entire textile and furniture industry. I was intrigued to find that the hype was true and that the signs of this emerging trend were everywhere. From the flags that dotted the road and the retail fronts, the Made in USA signage, and the highly promoted 16,000-square-foot "Made in America Pavilion" to showcase domestically made products such as furniture, lighting, rugs, wall art and accessories.
Many companies touted the launch of their new American-made lines and their intent to expand furniture operation in the U.S. or reopen plants that were shuttered when production shifted overseas.
I can still remember the vivid images of huge furniture factories being shuttered, boarded and abandoned as entire work forces where laid off and manufacturing jobs were moved overseas. Michael K. Dugan talked about this in his riveting book published in 2009 called, The Furniture Wars: How America Lost a 50 Billion Dollar Industry and the impact of globalization on the American furniture business. The American furniture industry went from making 'world class' products to shutting down plants and outsourcing hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs overseas over the course of 5 years.
A new study from the Economic Policy Institute found that America has lost 2.8 million jobs to China in recent years because of failed trade policies and North Carolina was listed sixth on the list of states deeply affected. North Carolina once bustled with a lively domestic textile and furniture industry that for many years felt the deep scar of outsourcing, depleting towns and people's livelihoods.
The story of the North Carolina textile and furniture industry is steeped in centuries of American pride, craftsmanship, innovation, quality and excellence. The industry supplied hundreds of thousands of good paying, quality manufacturing jobs to many North Carolinians. As their jobs were outsourced and the factories closed, many found themselves unemployable, poverty stricken and entire towns completely decimated. Abandoned factories, chained fences, boarded windows, empty retail stores became common place.
The American textile and furniture manufacturers that survived this bleak period found that the mid to high end of the market was a place that was difficult for the Chinese to compete with. Companies like, Duralee, Hickory Chair, Lee Industries, Vanguard Furniture and Habersham found a niche that they were able to capitalize on and dominate. American consumers wanting customized, quality products with short lead and delivery times were much better suited for these American companies than the one size fits all, imported versions.
"It was do or die time for American furniture and textile manufactures. We knew that we could compete and beat importers at their own game if we stayed committed to excellence, customization, quality and design," said Norman Coley, president of Lee Industries. Lee Industries is still a family run and operated business out of North Carolina that started out in 1969 and is fiercely committed to keeping their products, "Made in USA." Lee Industries expanded to the old Conover Chair manufacturing building and currently has three manufacturing facilities in Newton, North Carolina.
Hickory Chair celebrated their 100th Anniversary at Market with a star studded party. Laura Holland, director of Marketing proudly talked about their commitment to Lean Manufacturing practices and their EDGE program (and acronym for Employees, Dedicated to Growth and Excellence.) They operate a 600,000 square foot factory and employ around 500 Americans.
Interestingly, I took the Hickory Chair tour with two editors from a high end Chinese Furniture Magazine. Apparently, American furniture design and styling is a status symbol for the growing middle and upper class of China. They don't want "Made in China", they want "Made in USA." This growing affluent class in China wants American made furniture and style, they have the money to pay for it and American manufacturers are aptly poised for this new growth market for exportation. This time the U.S. will be exporting product and not U.S. jobs.
Duralee one of the big players in the domestic textile business is the largest employer in Morganton, North Carolina which has an unemployment rate that hovers around 12.9%. The company seized the opportunity to buy the old Carolina Shoe Factory in 2005 which now houses the factory that boasts an 180,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 32 acres. Duralee still remains a family run and operated business out of North Carolina that has stood the test of time for 60 years and remains the leader in high fashion, quality, design driven domestic textiles.
In the Made in America Pavilion I found many companies proudly displaying their "Made in America" pride. But, a reoccurring theme I found throughout the market was that many U.S. furniture and textile manufacturers were able to take advantage of the glut of abandoned and closed factories in North Carolina and expand their businesses and grow.
President of Buck Stove, Robert Bailey was approached by furniture giant, Ethan Allen as they were laying off workers, and outsourcing those jobs and asked him if he wanted to buy their large factory in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Bailey said that Ethan Allen was concerned about leaving the factory abandoned and felt a concern for the community sentiment with the company boarding up and leaving town. This tragic Ethan Allen closing, opened an amazing opportunity for Buck Stove (a small business) to acquire a top of the line manufacturing facility for a fraction of its real cost. Buck Stove has been in business for 40 years and is still a family run business making quality products made here in the U.S.A. and their new plant has helped them expand and grow their workforce and their revenues.
The stories are endless; from big established names in the industry to companies just starting out like our Made in USA Certified company -- Stonebridge Upholstery -- the theme of "Made in America" is prevalent and seems to be growing in an industry that was deeply wounded by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.
The bright light is that North Carolina seems ripe for growth and expansion. With old factories being renovated and bought, new factories being built, a highly skilled and motivated workforce, and low cost of living makes this southern state open for business when it comes to "Making it in America!"
Julie Reiser is president & co-Founder of Made in USA Certified, Inc. Made in USA Certified, Inc. is an independent, non-partisan, leading third party certification company for the Made in USA, Product of USA and Service in USA claims. She recently won the 2011 Women Impacting Public Policy President's Award.