Furniture stalwart gets creative to stay competitive

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 03:00 PM

How do you make it in the furniture business these days?
Tucked away in an industrial park in Thomasville, Younger Furniture offers a prime example of how to change with the times.
Founder Mike Younger started the business from scratch a quarter-century ago, just before the industry started moving most of its production overseas.
Younger not only kept its manufacturing local, it has expanded its production space eight times over the years to 85,000 square feet.
The company, which celebrates its 25th year in business this month, has been able to find a niche selling customized chairs, sofas and other products to furniture retailers.
During the past 18 months, sales have increased about 25 percent, according to Younger’s daughter, Meredith Younger Spell, the company’s president and creative director.
“We’ve really tried to define our style and brand and come out with more interesting and different styles. We’ve really pushed color,” Spell said. “That has helped us set ourselves apart as a brand. We’ve gotten more retailers to come on board, and our existing retailers have given us more floor space.”
Before founding the company in 1989, Mike Younger spent 18 years with Thayer Coggin, which he described as one of the premier contemporary furniture makers in the country during that era.
He left and went to work for a small firm that later went out of business. During that time, his late wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“My insurance went from free to about $1,600 a month, and I was unemployed. Nobody would hire me because they didn’t want me on their insurance,” Younger recalled.
During his years in the industry, Younger had forged close ties with representatives of the giant retailer IKEA, which turned out to be one of the key factors in getting his company started.
“They flew down from Canada and wrote me a $500,000 purchase order. That’s how I got started,” he said. “I didn’t have any money, but everybody around town, all the sub-suppliers knew me and gave me credit.”
The vendors that supply Younger’s components, such as frames, legs, springs, foam and other materials, are mostly local.
“We cut and sew the covers. We start with the raw frame and assemble it from there. Springs, padding, foam — all that we buy cut-to-size,” Younger said. “We try our best to keep all of our components American-made.”
At the height of its prosperity, the company had more than 100 employees and annual sales of about $20 million, Younger said.
Things slowed down over the years. Younger said during the Great Recession a few years ago, it cut production to two or three days a week, but was able to weather the economic crash because of its conservative business philosophy.
“We lost money, but we didn’t have to go out and borrow it to survive,” Younger said. “We haven’t spent a lot of our money over the years. We’ve left it in the business.”
The company’s work force now numbers about 60.
Younger has changed its business model to cater to independent, high-end retailers rather than large chains that buy their furniture from overseas.
“When people come to us now, they look at, ‘How custom can you really get? What can you give me that I can’t get in a container coming over from China?’” said Spell.
During the High Point Market, new customers who visit Younger’s exhibit space in the 220 Elm showroom complex don’t ask as much about the price of furniture as they do about quality and service, she added.
“Now a new customer, the first question is, ‘Where is this made?’ Everybody’s looking for that domestic source,” Spell said.