Saving Norwalk Furniture

NORWALK Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch said she would turn cartwheels if she was still young and agile.
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

NORWALK

Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch said she would turn cartwheels if she was still young and agile.

That's how excited she is about the deal to save Norwalk Furniture.

"This is huge. This isn't only a company -- this is our flagship," Lesch said Tuesday. The people here are artisans, and to lose that craftmanship would be huge, and so would the jobs. And of course, 515 really good jobs are hard to come by."

Production at Norwalk Furniture's various plants came to a grinding halt July 21 when Comerica seized the company's assets after it could not pay back its $11 million debt. Comerica talked of liquidating the company, but company officials fought to bring the bank back to the bargaining table. After a week of negotiations, a deal was struck Monday for Comerica to sell its hold on the company.

IRG Capital Group and Blackbird Capital Partners signed a letter of commitment Monday to buy the assets of Norwalk Furniture. It is expected those commitments will be turned into formal purchase and credit agreements in about two weeks.

The atmosphere on the production floor at Norwalk Furniture was cheerful Tuesday afternoon as business, state and local officials shook hands and exchanged congratulations.

About 250 local plant employees -- almost half of the workforce -- returned to their jobs this past week. New orders were taken on Tuesday, and the company placed orders for fabric so it could ramp up production.

Speaking in front of a custom-made sectional sofa, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher said he has never worked on any project in his year-and-a-half in office that felt as rewarding as helping save Norwalk Furniture.

Fisher helped facilitate half of a low-interest $4 million loan to the company, crucial to sealing the deal with IRG and Blackbird.

Fisher then gave a sales pitch he wants circulated.

"I have a message ... to send to Norwalk Furniture's customers around the world and around the country," he said. "That message is: Stick with Norwalk Furniture. The best has yet to come."

Much of the buzz at the plant Tuesday was not about the possibility of the plant closing, but about future growth.

Charles Rowe Jr., president of IRG Capital Group, said he has a great deal of experience working with troubled companies in the private equity sector.

He helps stabilize them, returns them to profitability and then grows them.

That is what Rowe, the soon-to-be interim CEO of Norwalk Furniture, plans for the furniture company.

Despite the gloomy economic climate, the furniture company is on track to turn a profit by the last quarter of fiscal year 2008, said Jim Gerken, chairman of Norwalk Furniture. This projection does not assume there will be an uptick in revenues.

"It's our view that we are at the bottom of the trough, but after the actions we took to restructure the company early in the year, we've been tracking our projections to that plan, which shows us to be a profitable company without the necessity of increasing sales," Gerken said.

Norwalk Furniture hired an outside consulting firm, Morris-Anderson & Associates, earlier this year to reconfigure the production and operations of the company. Under their direction, several sets of changes helped reduce operational costs to make the company viable in today's market.

"It required a lot of discipline. Unfortunately, it has meant some people had to go. We've consolidated into three manufacturing facilities instead of four. And we recognized inefficiencies in our transportation department, and the way we package our product is changing," Gerken said. "And hats off to the employees here at Norwalk Furniture, who agreed to concessions earlier this year."

Gerken said baby boomers are approaching an age when they typically do not buy as much furniture. Their children, however, known as the eco-boomers, are just about to enter their 30s.

"That is the beginning of the time period that most of our customers purchase products in. We are right at the cusp of a new market," Gerken said.

Domenic Aversa, acting CEO of Norwalk Furniture and the man in charge of the company's restructuring plan, said the first order of business is to return to the level of sales the plant had before it shut down.

From there, Aversa said he would like to see more focus on franchise development and better penetration of large markets such as New York City and Atlanta.

"All the big pieces of the restructuring plan are done. So now it's about good business management," he said.