One Pulaski Square
The Pulaski Furniture Corporation manufactures mid-priced dining room and bedroom furniture, curio cabinets, occasional furniture, such as small tables, desks, and accent pieces, and grandfather, mantel, and wall clocks. The company highlights many kinds of wood in its product line, including pine, maple, oak, ash, cherry, and mahogany. Wood veneers, inlays, carvings, embossings, and other 'fancy faces' are imported, acquired from local manufacturers, or produced by the Pulaski Furniture Corporation. Ornate and nostalgic furniture are the company's mainstays, particularly its line of curio cabinets.
Finding a Market Niche in Furniture Design and Manufacturing
Fred Stanley, Sr. and C.B. Richardson founded the Pulaski Furniture Corporation in the economically depressed town of Pulaski, Virginia, in 1955. Stanley brought experience from employment at the Stanley Furniture Company in Stanleytown, Virginia, while Richardson brought experience as chief operating officer of the RCA Victor Radio Case Plant which closed in Pulaski in 1948. Bernard Wampler, then a recent graduate of North Carolina State University with experience in furniture manufacturing, became involved as assistant supervisor. With the formation of the Pulaski Veneer and Furniture Corporation, Stanley, Richardson, and Wampler reopened the former RCA plant in downtown Pulaski to produce moderately priced bedroom furniture.
Furniture manufacturing has always been a cyclical business, and the Pulaski Veneer and Furniture Corporation endured the difficulties of the industry in its first years. When a slim cash supply required the company to write partial paychecks, hams, flour, and other such goods from the Richardson farms often satisfied the balance. After five years in business, however, the company had reached $5.5 million in sales and purchased the Morris Novelty Corporation, a producer of such novelty furniture items as small occasional tables. The acquisition included a manufacturing facility in Martinsville, Virginia, which became known as 'plant #2,' while several of the Morris family remained as employees. An initial public offering of stock in 1962 provided funds to further expand the company, then renamed the Pulaski Furniture Corporation (PFC).
With new manufacturing capabilities, a new supply of funds and a strong market for home furnishings, the company prospered in the early 1960s. PFC purchased 28 acres of land in Dublin, Virginia, where the company built a wood mill in 1964 to produce the veneer and cross banding used in furniture manufacturing. At this time the furniture designers embraced simple styles which facilitated the manufacture of furniture and kept prices low. As factory employees developed their skills, the company's furniture designs became more elaborate. By the mid-1960s PFC had found a market niche in bedroom and dining room furniture with ornate designs. Though only slightly more difficult to produce, the stylized furniture had an expensive look and gave PFC its identity among such well-known brands as Bassett, Broyhill, Thomasville, and Lane, as well as among small furniture manufacturers. Furniture designer Leonard Eisen came to work for the company at this time.
After serving as superintendent, vice-president of manufactures, and executive vice-president, Bernard Wampler became president and CEO of PFC in 1967. Under Wampler's leadership, the identity of PFC evolved to incorporate nostalgic furniture designs with broad customer appeal. A fall 1971 public offering of 125,000 shares of stock, at $33.00 share, prepared the company as the proceeds were used for the expansion of manufacturing and warehouse facilities. The company required a new plant to produce 'case goods,' dining room and bedroom furniture, and built another facility on its acreage in Dublin. In 1976 construction began at the Martinsville plant to upgrade and renovate the facility, increasing the capacity of that plant by 50 percent.
Marketing Nostalgia in the 1970s and 1980s
Renovation of the Martinsville facility enabled the company to fulfill consumer demand for its landmark Keepsake Collection, a line of nostalgic furniture initiated by Eisen along with Wampler. The product line featured late 19th century, middle-American styles in golden oak wood furniture, a sharp contrast to the ornate, synthetic items the company made at the time. The collection consisted primarily of nostalgic accent pieces, such as hall trees, washstands and shaving stands, but PFC later added dining room and bedroom furniture. Introduced at the biannual furniture market at High Point, North Carolina, in spring 1976, the Keepsake Collection established the standard for nostalgic furniture items in the furniture manufacturing industry and set a milestone as the best selling line of case goods in the furniture industry. In January 1982 PFC shipped the one millionth piece, amounting to over $300 million in retail sales when no other collection had ever sold one million units. The line of furniture helped the company withstand economic recession, as PFC enjoyed brisk sales for nearly eight years before sales declined in the mid-1980s.
As demand subsided for the Keepsake Collection, the company began to produce curio cabinets at its Martinsville plant in 1982. Curio cabinets tended to be used for personal collections of nostalgic pieces, such as dolls, statuary, china, and other items, as well as for personal memorabilia. Like the Keepsake Collection, many collectibles hearken back to seemingly less complicated eras, and curio cabinets gave customers a place to showcase them. The cabinets featured flexible shelving, mirrored backs, unobstructed viewing, and lighting appropriate to the collectible inside. For example, a doll collection required regular lights rather than the preferred halogen lights, because halogen light changed the color of the dolls' hair. PFC's marketing for the curio cabinets focused on collectors, with advertisements in collectors' magazines, rather than toward the general home decorating market. The initial seven curio models priced at $100 retail.
PFC often took a fun approach in its decisions on what kinds of occasional furniture to produce. Other collections included such nostalgic items as player pianos and wooden telephone booths for the home; the latter sold 2,000 units each year for its first three years. In 1984 Eisen introduced a collection of accent and occasional furniture inspired by Hollywood movies. The 'Casablanca' group included a World War II vintage-look console-chest, while the 'Stage Coach' group spotlighted a smaller version of the Wells Fargo Wooton Organizer Desk. Made of oak, the desk featured a pull-down writing desk and organizing slots. The 'Ice Cream Works' featured a marble top ice cream bar with freezer-refrigerator and bar stools, and, by coincidence, was launched in the year of the 150th anniversary of the invention of the soda fountain. Product merchandising for such specialized pieces motivated the development of the Pulaski Galleries. Set within approximately 800 retail stores, the Galleries highlighted eight to 24 accent pieces by displaying each item on its own raised platform.
The company continued to expand its manufacturing capabilities to accommodate its burgeoning business. A 1983 joint venture, Triwood, Inc., in which PFC owned 25 percent, produced particle board and improved the plywood making process. Also in 1983 PFC acquired 17.5 acres and a 815,000 square foot building adjoining the downtown Pulaski, Virginia, plant, as well as equipment, from the Coleman Furniture Corporation. Renovation of part of the plant included conversion to production of plywood, 'turnings,' and machined parts. Completed in 1985, the remaining space was used for a warehouse and offices. The $4 million project involved a new finishing plant, completed in 1988.
PFC supplemented its product line with the 1985 acquisition of the Gravely Furniture Corporation, the leading maker of grandfather, mantel, and wall clocks. In a stock transaction valued at $9.5 million, PFC acquired a 326,000 square foot production, warehouse, and office facility on 79.5 acres in Ridgeway, Virginia. Renamed the Ridgeway Clock Company, under the ownership of PFC the company's first major project involved the production of 1,986 commemorative, Lady Liberty grandfather clocks for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. In addition to a solid mahogany cabinet, design elements involved fluted pilasters, beveled glass doors, polished brass, and an etching of the torch on the clock face. With a retail price of $5,000, PFC donated a portion of the profits to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island renovation project.
In keeping with the company's nostalgic, ornate furniture design, PFC acquired Craftique, Inc. of Mebane, North Carolina, for $5.3 million in 1988. Craftique specialized in the reproduction of antique solid mahogany furniture. In 1991 the company reproduced a mahogany block front desk from the 18th century, a $2,500 copy of an original that sold at auction in 1983 for $687,500. Also, in 1989 PFC opened an upholstery plant in Christiansburg, Virginia.
Ornate styling and nostalgia continued to be of significance to the success of PFC into the 1990s. Furniture industry trends turned toward an eclectic mix of furniture styles which reflected diverse public tastes and a more casual attitude toward home decoration. Eisen's 50-piece collection encompassed several distinct styles, such as a French Empire secretary and a Victorian tete-a-tete love seat with a serpentine-shaped back to keep a young woman and her suitor from getting too close. PFC introduced the popular fossil stone table in 1990, a glass-top table, available in different types, with a metal base and fossil stones from the Philippines along the edge of the table top. By 1992 the company had developed over 100 models of curio cabinets for collectibles, available in a variety of styles, including French, Italian, 18th-century American, Victorian, and modern. PFC became the largest manufacturer of curio cabinets and produced over 1,000 different furniture items as well.
The 1990s: From Fluctuating Revenues to Stable Growth
PFC experienced dramatic changes in its revenues and faced higher production costs in the 1990s. While sales increased from $115.1 million in 1988 to $131.8 million in 1989, in 1990 revenues reached only $132.5 million. During the economic recession PFC experienced a dramatic decrease in 1991, to $120.6 million in revenue. Lower priced furniture and promotional items with lower profit margins tended to sell, while production for fewer units of each piece increased the costs. A production rate of 300 units per style was less cost efficient than a production rate of 500 units per style. The company maintained earnings, but retailer bankruptcies increased, resulting in a loss of $1.2 million from bad credit. The number of credit holds grew also, as previous credit problems required the retention of a product order from shipment until payment had been received from the retailer.
PFC sought to reduce overhead and expand its growth potential through import and export activities. In 1989 the rising costs of lumber led the company to import unfinished dining room chair parts from Asia for assembly and finishing at the Pulaski facility. Led by John Wampler, the son of Bernard Wampler, PFC took advantage of the low cost of labor and materials and the lack of government mandates for safety in Far Eastern countries, especially Taiwan. Also, the Ridgeway Clock company had an export business in place when it was acquired by PFC, providing a network of business associations which facilitated growth through worldwide expansion. Export countries included Europe, Asia, Mexico, the Middle East, and Canada, with sales from export at eight percent in 1993.
A growing demand for different styles of curio cabinet led PFC to improve its production methods. Jim Stout, manager of the original Pulaski, Virginia, plant traveled around the world to study the technology available to improve flexibility, productivity, and cost efficiency. The result involved a combination of technology from Japan, Italy, Germany, and the United States applied to the needs of producing hall trees, consoles, entertainment centers, as well as curio cabinet frames. Computer technology aligned the wood and identified where to cut the board for best yield. With the new technology, wood which entered the rough mill on Monday usually left by Friday as a finished wood furniture product packaged for shipment. Computers programmed for each furniture item provided flexibility in manufacturing schedules. The process reduced the number of workers per machine from six to two, but those two positions became more highly skilled. Implementation of the technology created a total of 110 skilled, higher paying positions. PFC worked with the New River Community College and the Virginia Department of Economic Development to provide training for its employees.
In 1993 construction to expand plant #1 began in Pulaski to accommodate the technology with a new 75,000 square foot factory, bringing the company's total production, warehousing, and office space to 1.4 million square feet. After an investment of $13.6 million, full production began in May 1994, running two work shifts, rather than one, each day. With slow retail sales in 1995, however, all of the company factories operated on reduced schedules, four days a week.
With erratic customer demand in 1995 PFC needed to balance originality with caution. In 1996 the company did produce a collection of furniture for automobile racing fans, the HomeTrack Collection. The 17-piece line included a black-and-white checkered armchair or recliner with racing tire shaped arm rests, a glass-top coffee table with Goodyear tires as a base, and a curio cabinet designed for racing memorabilia and collectibles. The furniture debuted at the NASCAR Winston Cup event in Daytona Beach, Florida, in February. The merchandise was available only at Winston Cup events, through a mobile showroom managed by furniture retailer Heilig-Meyers.
In June 1996 PFC's subsidiary Craftique, was chosen to reproduce the work of Thomas Day, a free, black cabinet maker of the early 19th century, considered the best cabinet maker in North Carolina during the antebellum period. Craftique collaborated with the Thomas Day House/Union (Tavern) Restoration project and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to determine which pieces to reproduce. Day's style spanned from simple to grandiose and incorporated Empire, 18th-century, and Federal design elements. The 18-piece collection comprised three pieces copied from the museum and 15 pieces copied from privately owned furniture, with each piece made to order. Craftique made the furniture from Honduran mahogany obtained from renewable tree planting programs. The reproduction procedure required detailed drawings, precise measurements, and a complex process of matching wood color, grain, and size to conserve the expensive wood.
To accommodate its $10 million import-export activities, PFC purchased an 80,000 square foot building on a ten-acre site in Pulaski which had been recently vacated. The company had been looking for a new site when the local government informed PFC that the clothing manufacturing plant had gone on sale. The town of Pulaski lent PFC $500,000 from its Urban Development Action fund to buy the building. As the second largest employer in the area, PFC created 260 jobs between 1993 and 1997, had invested $14 million in the area, and had previously repaid a development loan. PFC invested an additional $1.5 million to acquire and renovate the property. Operations began in early 1997, warehousing merchandise from Italy, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
As sales and demand continued to fluctuate in the mid-1990s, PFC sought stability by focusing on its main business, mid-priced case goods and occasional furniture. PFC and its partners sold Triwood in 1995. Craftique did not meet the company's profit goals leading to its sale in 1997. PFC also closed its upholstery seating operation, which lost money, allowing raw materials to be used on existing designs. In 1997 sales reached $158.9 million. The company balanced stability and change when, upon the retirement of Bernard Wampler in 1997, John Wampler became CEO of the company.
Acquisitions in 1998 reflected the company's ambition to enhance its core business. PFC obtained a contract to manufacture furniture for hotels and motels, as other furniture manufacturers receded from that area to concentrate on residential customers. In October PFC purchased the Dawson Furniture Company of Webb City, Missouri. Dawson specialized in pine and oak wood furniture which would complement PFC's product offerings with a different product mix and lower-priced furniture items. PFC expected the acquisition to stimulate new product development and expand its distribution network.
Marketing development, a strong retail market, and increased product demand stimulated sales in the late 1990s. In 1998 sales grew to $172.4 million, while in 1999 sales increased to $198.2 million, a 15 percent increase which included $15.2 million in sales from Dawson products. PFC's strength continued to be furniture impulse items such as clocks, curio cabinets, and occasional furniture. At the turn of the century, curio cabinets had become an essential part of the living room for many Pulaski customers. About half of the company's sales in the late 1990s came from its 175 models of curio cabinets, retail priced from $199 to $3,000.
Principal Subsidiaries: Pulaski Foreign Sales Corporation, Inc.
Principal Competitors: Bassett Furniture Industries, Inc.; Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc.; Furniture Brands International.