retail | Aug 27, 2023 |
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams shutters abruptly

It started on Saturday, with a note pinned to the gate of a factory telling employees not to come in on Monday. Only a day later, the news had spread like wildfire around the industry: Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams was ceasing operations and letting go of its workforce, effective immediately.

The sudden closure was the second shock wave to hit the furniture industry this month, following the similar shutdown of Klaussner Home Furnishings. While the two companies are dissimilar in their distribution strategies, product designs and size, they had one critical thing in common: They are both owned by private equity investors, which often take a cold, calculated look at their investments and have historically not been kind to the furniture business.

That certainly seems to be the case at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. In an August 26 letter to employees from interim CEO Chris Moye, obtained by editors at industry publications, the company stated that it had been unable to obtain additional financing to continue operations. “In the wake of this unfortunate development, the company will sadly need to wind down operations and terminate the employment of our employees beginning on August 26, 2023,” it read. “Because these events were unforeseen, we were unable to provide you and others more notice of this difficult decision. We are sorry to bring you this news.”

Moye, who had only joined the company in April, came in with a reputation as a turnaround specialist for private-equity-owned businesses. Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has been owned since 2015 by the Stephens Group, a family-run equity firm with a portfolio that includes mostly tech and industrial holdings. The company has no other investments in the furniture business, although it retains equity in Conn’s HomePlus, a 168-location retail operation that began in the appliances sector but has expanded into home furnishings categories including furniture.

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has had a long and winding path since its two namesake founders started the company, then called just Mitchell Gold, in 1989. Gold was a former furniture executive with Bloomingdale’s and, together with Williams—his personal partner at the time, who had a design background—they built the company into a well-known niche player in furniture that capitalized on the then-trend for slipcovered upholstery products. Their brand eventually expanded into additional products in seating, as well as case goods and decorative accessories.

While it had been a major private label supplier to many of the so-called lifestyle retailers like RH, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams eventually started opening its own stores, with 25 locations plus several clearance centers currently in operation.

The company also took a very public stance on social issues, including LGBTQ rights, and was known for providing worker benefits and in-factory services far above what other comparable companies offered.

The two founders sold the company to Rowe Furniture in 1998 but ended up buying it back when financial payouts could not be made. That’s when it brought in a succession of investing partners, the most recent being Stephens Group. The company name was also changed to reflect both founders who, while no longer personal partners, continued to run it for many years.

The pair tapped Allison O’Connor to succeed Gold as CEO in 2019. Even then, Williams stayed on for several years as the brand’s chief designer, and it is believed that both founders retained some equity ownership in the company. Williams cut back his role in the years that followed O’Connor’s ascension as the company’s creative direction shifted toward collaborations with designers like Brigette Romanek and Rafael de Cárdenas; neither founder has been actively involved in running the business for the past few years.

What happens to the company’s assets is unknown at this time. Stephens Group did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Business of Home, and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has made no other statements beyond its initial announcement. The company operates an upholstery manufacturing facility in Taylorsville, North Carolina, which is believed to be a good factory with modern equipment. Its location in the heart of the western North Carolina furniture manufacturing belt could make it an attractive acquisition for other companies in the area. Its workforce will no doubt be in demand by those competitors as well.

The stores, most of which are located in high-profile retail shopping areas with commensurate rents, could also be of interest in light of the current strong demand for prime retail space. Its brand name too might be of some value.

This closing, coming so soon after Klaussner’s similarly abrupt shutdown, is noteworthy—and an unwelcome trend that follows a third furniture company, United Furniture Industries, closing 10 months ago under somewhat similar circumstances. While United was not owned by private equity, it did have an individual investor as owner, despite lack of affiliation with any fund.

The entire furniture industry, which has been struggling since the pandemic boom was replaced by declining sales 18 months ago, remains on edge, and it’s likely that more shoes will drop. Brands like Klaussner, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and Lane Home Furnishings (United Furniture’s retail business) were among the best-known names in the industry. Now, they’re gone.

Homepage image: A selection from the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams spring collection


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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