An American Manufacturing Renaissance
We recently accepted an invitation to attend Hickory Chair University–in the small town of Hickory, North Carolina–for an intensive and inspiring peek into a 101 year old company charting the way forward for American manufacturing.
Hickory Chair invited our design staff to their facility completely confident that we’d never seen anything like it. This isn’t an assembly line in a faraway country with tired-looking faces turning out thousands of the same sofa, this is a team of 500 people whose passion and ingenuity we count on to create heirlooms for our customers and clients. This is a workroom of skill, attention to detail, and craft learned through many years of refinement and practice. This is a place where creativity is turned into tomorrow’s antiques. The pictures you see here are from our time at Hickory Chair University.
The company’s slogan in the early 1900s was “Chairs Made Better Than Seems Necessary,” which could easily be their motto today. As both an upholstery and a wood products company, they make any kind of furniture our designers can dream up: tables, dressers, beds, desks, sofas, and of course spectacular, iconic chairs. We are completely confident in their ability to deliver what they promise: the best furniture in your home. We are also completely confident that every Hickory Chair item is a testament to how an American business can embrace innovation and still adhere to the traditional principles that made it great in the first place. Hickory Chair employees have probably forgotten more about making furniture than most companies will ever learn. That’s why old companies are cultural treasures that deserve our support.
Several years ago they switched to a lean manufacturing concept made famous by Toyota—where employees are charged with suggesting and implementing refinements in the way things are done. Hickory Chair calls this EDGE (Employees Dedicated to Growth and Excellence). They don’t have a traditional factory anymore; they have a “workroom” that’s completely focused on continuous improvement in the art of fine furniture. Company president Jay Reardon and his team took three days from their busy schedule to educate us on how all great furniture is “crafted” not “manufactured” in this way. We witnessed first hand the focus and collaboration that workers put into each piece. We also witnessed excitement in their eyes as they worked on pieces in the line that a customer had customized in some unexpected way–a challenge they rise to every day.
This may seem simple, but furniture companies just don’t operate this way; they have set methods for doing things and don’t deviate. Hickory Chair makes certain that employees’ minds are used as much as their bodies to produce furniture that is still “better than necessary.” Because their craftspeople completely understand the ins and outs of the production, they are uniquely able to understand how to execute a design modification our designers suggest to them. They approach each piece as a new work of art and are thrilled to make it a reality.
We came away from our stay in Hickory impressed with the culture of continuous improvement that pervades the staff-improving outcomes in tiny ways while keeping cost down. Hickory Chair hasn’t raised prices in over 5 years because of the savings they’ve found through elimination of waste, recycling, reduced energy and labor, better safety, etc. The company’s products are not inexpensive, but they become a better value and better quality every day. That’s the way forward for American companies. Kibler & Kirch shares that core philosophy with Hickory Chair: to engage our customers with the highest quality for the money, the most creativity and attention to detail possible, and the hope that our customers will understand the value of American made goods.”
Text and Photos by Jeremiah Young