The lead time crisis is a complicated, thorny problem. To break it down, Alex Shuford, the CEO of the Rock House Farm family of brands—which includes Century Furniture, Highland House, Hickory Chair and others—likes to compare his company’s current struggles to those of a trendy restaurant on Saturday night. A long line of customers is waiting to get in. They’re starving, and they want to eat at the hottest place in town. But there’s a problem: The wait keeps getting longer, even for those at the front of the line.
“That list of customers who are waiting in line ... continues to grow. So, the next customer that shows up, where [once it was] a one-hour hour wait, now it’s a one-hour, 15-minute wait, now it’s an hour and a half. And we’re turning the tables, but we can’t turn them as fast as the customers are showing up to get into the restaurant,” Shuford tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “To take that analogy one step too far, … there have been periods this year when the number of tables available in the restaurant has had to be reduced. It’s a restaurant with 20 tables, but during the foam crisis, we could only utilize 10 of them. … Everyone who had been waiting in line and told [it would] take an hour before they got a table—we had to walk back through the line a minute later and say: Now it’s two hours.”
Such are the challenges of a furniture manufacturer in the midst of an unprecedented home boom. Though, to be fair, fighting to keep up with demand is a welcome challenge compared to the spring of 2020. After facing an 80 percent drop in sales and shuttering his company’s eight factories due to COVID restrictions, Shuford was contemplating the worst. “I remember walking the Century case goods factory. I was the only soul in the place—it’s an 850,000-square-foot building,” he says. “And the thought that kept running through my head was: I’m a third-generation owner-operator of this business, and I may be that [shuts it down].”
As things began to reopen in the summer, Rock House Farm was profiled in The Wall Street Journal in an article that captured the chaos of manufacturing during COVID. However, almost as soon as it was published, the piece was outdated—the home boom had led to the resurgence of Shuford’s company and the industry at large. “The shock for managers was how fast you went from absolute panic to: Oh, my God, this is beyond what we can handle,” he says. “That shifting of gears was really tough on a lot of companies.”
Indeed, one of the (many) takeaways from the conversation is that the home boom has not been unequivocally good for furniture makers. Supply chain delays have caused rapid inflation, which cuts into already slim margins. Having a full order book is great—but not if you’re losing money on every order.
Elsewhere in this episode, Shuford explains when he expects lead times to get back to historical norms, why his company is locked in an existential struggle with vertically integrated retail brands like RH and Arhaus, and the future of High Point Market, as well as why he’s hopeful that COVID has shifted the focus of the industry away from the “new and shiny” to “classics, delivered dependably.”
“A lot of businesses are prioritizing trust and delivery, accuracy and service, over the next hot new sizzle item,” says Shuford. “It’s beautiful—you’ve dipped it in gold and you make it light up—but if you can’t get it to me, I don’t care.”