LINCOLNTON — The idea came to Bruce Cochrane in China: Why not get back into furniture manufacturing?
Five generations of his family had been in the business, but gave it up in 1996 as the U.S. industry tanked and jobs moved to Asia.
Cochrane spent much of his time in China and Vietnam as a consultant for U.S. furniture makers. Over the years he noticed a shift: Wages rose for Chinese factory workers, and labor shortages cropped up because there aren't enough people for all the jobs available.
Along with that came the increase in transportation costs and the Chinese demand for Western products.
Cochrane felt the time was right to bring furniture manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He recently formed Lincolnton Furniture, a new partnership that will make middle- to higher-priced solid wood bedroom and casual dining room furniture. The products will be turned out in a sprawling Lincolnton factory formerly occupied by Cochrane Furniture.
The state-of-the-art operation represents a $5 million investment and will eventually hire 175. Production begins in December, with a workforce sprinkled with former Cochrane Furniture employees.
By keeping overhead down and using high-tech, multipurpose machines, Bruce Cochrane is betting that made-in-America furniture can compete against lower-cost products from Asia. Products will be previewed next month at the High Point International Furniture Market.
"Some people have said I was crazy," said Cochrane, 59. "But we've got a good business plan, and there are decades of experience among all of our managers and employees. I've got a great deal of confidence in this."
'A pleasant surprise'
North Carolina has lost tens of thousands of furniture-making jobs over the past decade, mostly to Asian countries where labor is cheaper. The N.C. Commerce Department estimates the state now has 1,301 furniture companies employing 32,800 workers.
Industry experts are watching Cochrane's gamble.
Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance in High Point, said Lincolnton Furniture's management team "certainly has a lot of experience" and that furniture retailers appear to be looking for domestically made goods. The new business comes "as a pleasant surprise," he said.
Cochrane is president and CEO of Lincolnton Furniture, and former Capel Rugs CEO Bruce Hric is chief financial officer. Phillip Null, founder and president of Null Furniture of Maiden, is vice president.
Furniture will be made in a 310,000-square-foot building that once housed Cochrane Furniture. In its heyday, the company, which also had a plant in Warren County, did $86 million in sales. In 1996, seeing the handwriting on the wall, the family sold the company to Chromcraft-Revington.
The new owners sold the Lincolnton plant in 2006.
After the loss of three major furniture makers, Lincoln County officials welcomed the news from Cochrane.
"This is an exciting venture," county commissioners Chairman Alex Patton said. "The Cochrane family was well thought of nationwide. Their company was known as being a good place to work. Bruce knows the market in China and is a wealth of knowledge. All the stars have lined up perfectly."
The Cochrane family's furniture roots date from the late 1800s in Iredell County. In 1905, family members moved from Charlotte to Lincolnton and began making mantels and display cases.
The furniture company began in the late 1920s. By the time Bruce Cochrane began working there as a teen, his father, Theo Cochrane Jr. and uncle Jerry Cochrane, ran the company.
Theo Cochrane knew every employee's name and took care of them.
"He was a quietly generous man," Bruce Cochrane said. "He told me when I started work, 'It's not about making good furniture. It's about good people making furniture.'"
'Like an adventure'
Pat Hendrick worked at Coch rane Furniture for 32 years and looked forward to going in every morning.
"They treated everybody with respect," said Hendrick, 54, of Vale. "You felt like part of a family." She's now Lincolnton Furniture's purchasing manager.
Getting back into the furniture business "is like an adventure," Hendrick said. "It's an answer to my prayers."
Jerry Cochrane wishes his nephew success.
"It took guts to do this," said Cochrane, 77, a former Lincoln County commissioner. "I hope this is the beginning of a recovery for the furniture industry."
As crews refurbished the former Cochrane plant, Bruce Cochrane settled into his father's old office.
Restarting the business is emotional, but Cochrane said, "I'm not doing it for sentimental reasons."
Recently, he had a dream - of his father, an avid fisherman, carrying a rod and reel. He remembered his dad's words: "The fishing may not be all that good, but if you don't fish, you'll never catch anything."
"I miss him," Cochrane said. "I think he'd be proud of what I'm doing."