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Hickory White builds on legacy, adapts lineup and strategy
15 January 2020
With its multilevel footprint, the wood-and-brick building, in fact, is much like many other area factories, some of which are still making furniture, others of which have been converted to apartments or restaurants.
Dating back to 1902, the factory itself is a piece of industry history. Not only is it the oldest known wood plant in surrounding Catawba County, it is also among the oldest in the entire furniture-making region of western North Carolina, a region that has been decimated by plant closures in the past decade or so due to rising imports.
A sign perched above one of its entrances identifies its origins as Hickory Manufacturing Company, a well-known manufacturer of high-end bedroom furniture in its day. The name Hickory White resulted from the merging of Hickory Manufacturing and White Furniture Co. of Mebane in 1988. Hickory White has been a subsidiary of Sherrill Furniture Co. since 1997.
Hickory White’s fine finishes
Today the nearly 200-worker plant produces high-end case goods and occasional furniture for several key divisions, including Hickory White, CTH-Sherrill Occasional, and Lillian August for Hickory White and Mr. & Mrs. Howard for Sherrill Furniture.
While the brick exterior and modest wood paneled hallways and offices reflect a time gone by, the factory floor illustrates how investments in state of the art equipment are making the company a force to be reckoned with at the high end.
In the past four years alone, the company has spent about $3 million on new equipment including highly technical CNC machinery that has allowed the company to make custom components in house on both the wood side of the business — table and chair legs — and upholstery frames.
The company still imports some components such as hardware and other mixed media elements including a variety of colorful stones and marbles from Mexico. It is also using some local metal suppliers for many mixed media components.
However, the ability to build more wood components in house has helped lessen the company’s reliance on outside suppliers, domestic or international.
The net effect is sharper lead times on various wood products.
Thad Monroe, president of the Sherrill Furniture Companies, estimates that Hickory White has a three- to four-week lead time on in-stock white wood cases, adding that “the investment in CNC equipment and enhanced production scheduling systems has improved our lead times in many cases.”
“It is how we keep jobs,” added Dick Ferraguto, corporate vice president of merchandising and marketing for Sherrill Furniture Co., of the company’s investment in technology. “If you depend on outside resources long term, you are at their mercy.”
As a domestic producer, the company touts many custom programs. For instance, it has a custom dining program called Dining Table Works that lets customers choose from 10 base styles, 30 top options and three glass tops. The company also offers Cabinet Shop, a design-your-own cabinet program that lets customers choose from more than a dozen cabinet styles, a half dozen drawer/door face materials, several base styles and five hardware styles in two finishes.
Overall, officials estimate that about 85% of the Hickory White wood mix and roughly 50% of the CTH Sherrill Occasional line is domestically made. This compares with about 20% each for the Lillian August and the Mr. & Mrs. Howard lines.
Another major aspect of the company’s competitiveness is its finishing capabilities. In addition to more than 60 custom case and upholstery frame finishes, the company also offers color match finishes on Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams and Baer paints to name a few.
In addition, the company has a small team of artisans that add handpainted embellishments on pieces ranging from door fronts to table tops. This includes more than 20 different border and panel options, a monogram option, any Hickory White striping color or the customers own personalized design.
Such handwork is a draw, particularly for the company’s interior designer customer base, which has grown to about 60% of business, compared with 40% for brick-and-mortar retailers and boutique showrooms.
Given the demand, particularly for the company’s finishing expertise, officials noted that more than 90% of all orders have some type of customization.
“We have dedicated a lot of time, energy and personnel on the finishing side,” added Dan Hall, chief operating officer, of the plant.
A tour of the 650,000-square-foot factory illustrated the complexity of its finishing, plus the amount of hand work that goes into the wood product, ranging from rub-through techniques to various sheen levels.
“The thing we hang our hat on is finishing, be it casual finishes, rub-through finishes and cerused finishes,” said Jeff Behmer, senior vice president of merchandising at Hickory White and Sherrill Occasional. “At the end of the day, if you want to attract designers, you have to have a spectacular finish.”
The demand for customization — whether it’s finish or the size of dining tables — also illustrates how the business has changed in recent years.
Hall noted, for example, in years past, a company did much larger cuttings, including collections with pieces bearing the same finish and style. Today, a decent sized cutting would be considered 30-40 pieces — with a minimum of about 20 — compared with about 100 pieces some 15 years ago or more.
“We got away from collections 15 years ago,” added Ferraguto, noting that is around the time that cutting sizes started becoming smaller.
But thanks to a team of experienced workers, some of whom have 30 to 40 years with the company, the plant is able to handle both larger orders and one-at-a-time projects involving sophisticated finishes.
While imports have reduced head count to some degree — Hall remembers a time when the plant employed more than 300 workers — the mix of handwork and technology is keeping this historic facility humming, producing high-end designs that have an audience of interior designers and retailers alike.