At the outset of the pandemic, the year ahead was looking pretty rough for North Carolina–based furniture manufacturer Lee Industries. In April 2020, incoming orders were down by 70 percent from the previous year, and then by 40 percent in May. But just as quickly as it had tanked, business skyrocketed in June, and hasn’t let up since.
“There was no way to see that things would bounce back like they did,” Lee Industries president Russell Towner tells Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “All of a sudden—that thing which we now know and seems so self-evident—people were staying at home, they were looking around, not going out to eat, not traveling, and they fell in love with the home again.”
The boom is a good thing—but it has come with a host of challenges. While orders caught up threefold for Lee, lead times have shot up, as well. Some of that is for obvious reasons. For one, with COVID precautions in place, it’s harder to work as speedily. Then, with infections cropping up among personnel, stalled production results in a bottleneck. “If you have a situation, let’s say in your spring-up department, with somebody that’s out with COVID, and you have people around them that are out, all of a sudden you have a significant reduction in the amount of frames that you’re springing up,” says Towner. “You’ve got your upholsterers sitting there at work, but if there’s nothing to upholster … ”
However, the most pressing reason for delays isn’t COVID-related at all. As Towner explains it, the furniture industry is carried on the back of two key chemicals—toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and polyol. Both are critical for foam production (used in sofas and furniture, but also in things like cars and bedding) and produced almost exclusively in Louisiana and Texas, where hurricanes and extreme winter storms have knocked out petrochemical refineries in recent months.
In this episode, Towner talks about the double-edged sword of the recent home sector boom in the middle of a pandemic, and shares insights about the trade from the perspective of a longtime industry insider.
Shoring up skilled labor
Lee takes a multipronged approach to the industry shortage of skilled labor, starting with referral-bonus programs. “We love our associates, and if they’ve got friends, family, other acquaintances, we’d like to have them on board too,” says Towner. As for the long haul, they’re focused on training lines to bring people up to speed, while also taking steps to make existing skilled jobs more productive—a process Lee has recently had time to iron out.
Committing to a POV
Inspired by the RH phenomenon, Towner is focused on elevating brand experience and point of view. For Lee, this strategy means sticking to a distribution philosophy rooted firmly in local partnerships. “We want the dealers, boutiques, showrooms that we do business with to be ingrained in their local community,” he says. “You can’t be all things to all people. You have to choose your lane.”
E-commerce vs. in-store
With more businesses moving online in the past year, Lee is now revamping its website—not to shift its model to online sales, but to engage with the bulk of consumers who spend time there researching before they buy. Towner holds fast to the idea that the in-store experience will bounce back as the pandemic subsides: “How many times have you gone out and had an unbelievable dinner, great company … and this bottle of wine that was like nothing else you’ve ever tasted, and you brought it to bring home and you realized it wasn’t quite as good at home? It was part of that whole environment,” he says. “People still crave being in these spaces and being connected with people, and in particular with their designer, who can make sure the experience at home is just the same as it was in the shop.”
Homepage photo: Russell Towner | Courtesy of Lee Industries