Cary couple build a new furniture future

Couple buck the industry’s decline by focusing on custom, upscale tables

jsmialek@newsobserver.comNovember 5, 2012 

  • Kelly Utt-Grubb’s tips for starting a new business Marketing: To get a brand off the ground, make use of websites, blogs and Facebook. “I think it’s wise to get affiliated with bloggers and people that maintain lists and directories.” Financing: Carolina Farmhouse started with the family’s personal money and no debt by using the website to gain momentum. “Just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want to do.” Expansion: Listen to what your customers want but don’t expand too quickly. “We’ve been very careful and conservative, and I think that’s good advice in this economy.” Expert advice: Make sure you’re doing your research, but a formal business adviser isn’t a necessity. “It’s important to get feedback,” she said, even if just from a mentor. “If you don’t have anyone like that, you can read.”

Sam Utt-Grubb couldn’t find a dining room table large enough for his family’s new Cary home, so in 2010 he took the matter into his own hands.

Though he had seen his grandfather’s woodworking as a kid, he had little experience and didn’t expect the wood-plank, rustic table he had built to become a hit – but friends and neighbors raved over the piece, and soon the Verizon wireless engineer was spending nights and weekends building the tables as custom orders. Before long, he and his wife, Kelly Utt-Grubb, a brand-marketing specialist, decided to make a real business out of Sam’s talent. In January 2011, Carolina Farmhouse was born.

“There’s a lot of people in this area moving in from different places; they’re high income, and they’re looking for custom pieces,” said Kelly Utt-Grubb. “The growth has been exponential.”

By April 2011, Sam Utt-Grubb was so busy building custom-tailored furniture, mostly of white pine, that he left his day job. The couple moved his workshop out of their garage and into a leased workspace.

“It was kind of scary, a little,” he said. “It was just an opportunity that sort of came out of this table.”

The Utt-Grubbs soon hired on craftsman Rob Meginley, and the company has done more than $400,000 in sales so far, Kelly Utt-Grubb said. They now work with seven woodworkers who build commissioned pieces, some out of their own workshops.

“We feel good. We are recruiting these people to work,” she said. Their business has come at a time when many craftsmen and builders find themselves out of a job due to the outsourcing of North Carolina’s historically vibrant furniture industry.

Industry in peril

The state’s furniture industry predates the Civil War. In the early 1900s, North Carolina’s easy supply of hardwood and the Piedmont’s convenience as a shipping location made the area a stronghold for furniture manufacturing. High Point, nicknamed the “Furniture Capital of the World,” is still home to High Point Market, the largest furnishings industry trade show.

But as of the first quarter of 2012, the number of people employed in manufacturing household and office furniture, fixtures and other wood products and office furniture had more than halved, dropping to about 38,000 from 99,000 in 1990, according to data from the N.C. Department of Commerce Employment Security Division.

“It has been mind-boggling,” said Steve Walker, an extension specialist at the Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center at N.C. State University. Jobs moved to Asia, and particularly China, in search of lower wages, he said. And the recession and housing crisis in America has compounded the loss.

Smaller shops that manufacture and market their own furniture were more resilient but have also faced import pressure, he said. Still, companies that tailor furniture – like Carolina Farmhouse – have fared better.

“The vast majority of companies that have maintained a manufacturing presence here are providing more customized furniture,” Walker said. He doesn’t think such firms will ever drive employment back to where it was, Walker said, but they do signal a small hope and can succeed anywhere – even places outside of the Piedmont – if they catch on with customers.

“The growth of the industry will be small stores like that,” Walker said. “It’ll be entrepreneurial sorts.”

Even among larger manufacturers selling business to business, the customization trend is taking hold, said Cheminne Taylor-Smith, vice president of marketing at High Point Market. Demand for made-to-order pieces favors local business, Taylor-Smith said.

“To customize and still deliver in a timely manner, you have to finish it locally,” Taylor-Smith said. “It’s really grown in the last two to five years.”

Tailor-made success

Carolina Farmhouse looks at Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware as competitors, Meginley said, though it is unique from both because of its size and level of customization. Though the business’ website shows some already created pieces for sale, it mostly features examples – such as the popular “Granddad’s Desk,” which costs $1,425 – that serve as starting points and can be re-dimensioned and changed in color. Customers also regularly bring in photos of items they would like mimicked, Meginley said.

A few of Carolina Farmhouse’s made-to-order pieces have landed in high places. One 80th floor Trump Tower resident owns a table, and a wooden entry gate Sam Utt-Grubb built for an episode of Extreme Makeover Home Edition was photographed with Michelle Obama.

This year, Carolina Farmhouse plans to open a design center in Cary or the surrounding area that will feature color samples and provide a space for customers to collaborate with furniture designers on what they want. The Utt-Grubbs have also identified five cities across the country, including Charleston, S.C., where they would like to set up shop, and Kelly Utt-Grubb said she could envision design studios in Asheville and Charlotte.

“We always want to be boutique-y,” she said. “I want to maintain the meaningful aspects.”

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