podcast | Dec 12, 2022 |
American Leather’s president says manufacturing is ‘like a symphony’

Many brands struggle to fill a High Point showroom in time for Market. For American Leather, bringing 250 pieces this fall was all in a day’s work. Or, to be more precise, half a day’s work. “We can turn up to 500 pieces of furniture a day,” president Veronica Schnitzius tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “I tell people when they come to High Point, ‘Hey, we can turn this showroom twice a day.’”

American Leather may not be a familiar name in the design trade, but it’s quietly become a powerhouse of American manufacturing. Founded in 1990 by engineer Bob Duncan, the Texas-based company has slowly brought more and more of its process in-house, ranging from frame and pillow cutting to foam production. Today, it employs 750 and produces for everyone from RH to hospitality groups like Marriott. Duncan sold part of the privately owned business to Connecticut-based private equity firm Heartwood Partners in 2012. The firm bought North Carolina–based furniture manufacturer Lee Industries in 2016, continuing to expand its manufacturing portfolio with the acquisitions of North Carolina–based furniture maker Brookline Furniture in 2018 and California-based DTC brand BenchMade Modern in 2019.

Schnitzius has played a key role in American Leather’s transformation. Her own backstory is dramatic: At her parents’ urging, she left Medellín, Colombia, for the States in 2001, a period of heightened cartel violence. Once here, she connected with Duncan and was hired as an industrial engineer. Over the past two decades, she’s risen through the ranks, serving as vice president of operations in 2008 before being promoted to president in 2017.

Schnitzius’s focus has been on speed and innovation. During her time at the company, American Leather has developed a lean manufacturing process, partially based on an Italian upholstery method (which allowed them to hire people with less experience) and a one-at-a-time or as-needed production system (instead of batch-making). The company has also benefited from bringing so much in-house: Although it suffered long lead times like many others during the pandemic, the worst delays were mitigated by bringing foam production within its own factory.

This push for vertical integration was a huge leap of faith for Schnitzius, who explains how risky it felt to make a huge investment in new processes and equipment at a time when factories were shutting down due to staff shortages. But a year later, it’s clear that the idea was a smart one, allowing American Leather to control its own production density. “Manufacturing is like a symphony,” says Schnitzius. “You have a bunch of instruments, and when you play the instruments in a random sequence, it doesn’t sound really good. But when you make them connect based on lyrics, they sound beautiful. It is the same thing in manufacturing—making sure that you align the processes, so you produce what you need when you need it.”

With Schnitzius conducting the orchestra, American Leather now estimates a three-week turnaround for its regular sofas and a two-week turnaround for its popular comfort sleeper, compared to six- to 10-week lead times for other big manufacturers that have to rely on external suppliers. Schnitzius hopes the company’s production model can serve as a template for other manufacturers seeking more control over their production operations, competition or not. “There’s plenty of furniture to be built and sold in the United States and in the world,” she says. “There’s space for all of us.”

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by Loloi Rugs and Las Vegas Market.

Homepage image: Veronica Schnitzius | Courtesy of American Leather

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