Made in NC: Soft, comfy sofas? They're still manufactured here

snagem@newsobserver.comJuly 21, 2013 

— Almost a century ago, H.D. Fry Sr. was a farmer, a justice of the peace and a small-time furniture maker who built piano stools and parlor chairs in his barn.

When the railroad came through Catawba County, according to family lore, Fry saw his chance to create a furniture company that could ship upholstered chairs and sofas all over the country.

Hickory-Fry Furniture, which opened in the 1920s, grew to employ 200 workers, according to Fry’s grandchildren, Cathy and Dee Fry.

The siblings are still in the furniture business, hanging on in an industry that has seen many factories close. Since 1990, North Carolina has lost more than 60,000 furniture-making jobs, mainly because many companies moved their operations overseas where they face fewer regulations and can pay workers lower wages.

Most of the jobs that went away, according to industry experts, were in the making of wooden furniture. Upholstered furniture – plush sofas and covered chairs – has proven more durable, largely because U.S. plants can more quickly fill custom orders for fabric colors and designs.

At Carolina Chair, which Dee Fry started in 1999, workers build high-end upholstered furniture.

“It was in my blood,” Dee Fry, 43, said. “It’s one of those things. It’s what you know.”

For decades, furniture was part of the heart and soul of western North Carolina. Around Hickory, everybody knew somebody who worked in the furniture business.

The numbers have dwindled significantly, but many people in North Carolina still make couches for lounging, ottomans for resting feet and chairs for dining around the table. Last year, nearly 38,000 people worked in the furniture industry in North Carolina, according to data compiled by the Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center at N.C. State University.

“The industry is alive and well,” said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade organization based in Hickory. “I think we’re starting to rebound – bottomed out, if you will.”

There’s been a lot to recover from. In 2012, more than 64 percent of household furniture sold in the United States was imported, up from about 41 percent in 2002, according to data from the alliance.

With so many jobs already gone, the housing market bust dealt another blow to furniture makers. People didn’t need to buy furniture when new homes weren’t being sold.

Upholstered-furniture jobs remain

Until 1990 or so, the South was the place to make wooden furniture, said Steve Walker, assistant director of the Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center. The area had plenty of lumber and a cheap workforce.

But federal and state regulations put strict rules on things such as dust collection and disposal – rules that don’t exist in Asia, Walker said. In addition, wooden furniture can be made more easily en masse. An end table can get its start on an assembly line halfway around the world and eventually make its way to a North Carolina living room.

Almost all of the furniture-making jobs lost in North Carolina were in wooden furniture, Walker said.

“That’s what went away,” he said. “The upholstery never really went away.”

Throughout the United States, domestic furniture makers shipped about $5.3 billion worth of wooden furniture last year, a drop of about 1.3 percent from the year before, according to the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

Meanwhile, they shipped nearly $8.1 billion of upholstered furniture, up 3.8 percent from the prior year.

Much the same, but different

Dee and Cathy Fry knew upholstered furniture from the start. Cathy Fry, 56, worked summers in her family’s manufacturing plant, which her father and uncles had taken over.

“It was great seeing my dad employ people and having jobs for people in the area,” she said.

When their family sold Hickory-Fry Furniture in the 1980s, the siblings figured they’d get out of the furniture business. But as the Internet gained popularity, Dee Fry decided he could sell furniture online.

Now, Carolina Chair makes furniture the same way it was made at Hickory-Fry decades ago. A worker builds the frame for a sofa or chair. Another cuts fabric and sends it over to a seamstress, who puts it on the cushions. Someone else assembles the upholstery to the furniture’s frame.

But Carolina Chair has only nine employees. And unlike Hickory-Fry, which sold furniture to retailers, Carolina Chair sells directly to customers – and only online.

“Consumers are more savvy,” Cathy Fry said. “They know how to look on the Internet.”

While many furniture companies used to make lots of couches that looked the same, companies like Carolina Chair are focusing on high-end custom orders.

Although the company sells in North Carolina, many of its products go to customers in New York, California, Florida and beyond, Cathy Fry said.

Carolina Chair has a unique marketing strategy – its furniture sometimes appears on “The Price Is Right.” Game show contestants guess how much a chaise or a sofa costs, and the company gets some publicity.

While Carolina Chair has found success in the online world, it might not be the future of the state’s furniture industry.

Some customers don’t want to buy online, Counts said. If a sofa bought from an Internet company is the wrong color, for instance, returning it can be a hassle.

But Counts said furniture companies that find a niche will likely find the most success.

‘The product matters’

Those wooden-furniture jobs probably aren’t coming back to North Carolina. And as the economy limps toward a recovery, furniture companies are still hesitant to bring on new workers, Counts said.

But there have been some promising signs for the industry. In April, Wisconsin-based Ashley Furniture broke ground on a massive expansion of a manufacturing plant in Davie County.

Craftmaster Furniture bought an old manufacturing plant in Taylorsville this year, a move that could eventually add 100 jobs.

People will always need a place to sit. The future of furniture, Walker said, comes down to building what people will buy.

“This is a rule that has been true forever: The product matters,” Walker said.

Cathy and Dee Fry have built their business on that philosophy. They worry, though, about replacing their plant manager, who will probably retire soon.

As the economy has shifted away from the furniture industry, it can be tough to find workers who have the necessary skills, Dee Fry said. But he’s optimistic.

“The best employee is someone you can train and show them the way you do it,” he said.

The Fry siblings know how to do it. Furniture is in their blood, after all.

Next week: Seafood

Nagem: 919-460-2605; Twitter: @BySarahNagem

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