Norwalk Furniture back in business

NORWALK The name is new. The owners are new. The upholstery is as impressive as ever.
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010



The name is new. The owners are new. The upholstery is as impressive as ever.

Even though Norwalk Furniture is dead and gone, high-end furniture is once again being made in Norwalk.

Because more than a dozen local investors came forward andpurchased the company, Norwalk Furniture's 106-year legacy lives on in Norwalk Custom Order Furniture.

The company is still in its infancy, but about 130 employees are back to work -- producing the samecustom-made couches, love seats, ottomans and other furniture that made the Norwalk name synonymous with quality.

"I think our people are happy to be back to work, and I think it shows in the quality and quantity of furniture they are putting out," said Tom Bleile, an investor and spokesman forNorwalk Custom Order Furniture.

Getting to this point wasn't easy.

For furniture workers and theNorwalk community, this summer was an emotional roller coaster ride.

Norwalk Furniture ran into financial trouble, closed its doors, found new investors -- then opened its doors, ran out of money, closed its doors and lost its new investors.

It looked like game over.

Workers like Bob Schaffer, 45, started packing their bags, getting ready to move on.

Losing his job left Schaffer, a Norwalk Furniture employee of 22 years, with few options. A job opportunity was opening up in Florida in December, and Schaffer and his wife sold their home, preparing to move south.

Florida is a long way from his family in Monroeville, but Schaffer said he had to go to where he could find work.

"It would have been difficult," he said.

But then at the 11th hour, local investors emerged and bought the beleaguered company. Soon, Schaffer got the call telling him to come back to work. He breathed a big sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, not everyone got such a call.

At the height of Norwalk Furniture's success, the company had more than 350 full-time employees, Bleile said. So far, only 85 people have been hired back to the production floor. About another 45 people work in the office.

Under the terms of a low-interest state loan, the company must hire 260 employees within three years. Company officials say they will need several years to enlarge the payroll to that level. That's because this is not the greatest time to be in the furniture business.

The U.S. is in trouble. Some economists say a recession is coming. Others say it's already here.

Whatever the case, new home sales are sluggish. Furniture sales usually go hand-in-hand with home sales, company officials said.

The one bright spot of the current economic landscape is that many people are choosing to remodel their homes instead of finding new ones, Bleile said.

"If people aren't buying new homes, they may be remodeling their existing home. As part of that, they are buying new furniture to go into that," Bleile said.

Unlike stock furniture makers -- whose inventory sits around waiting for buyers -- Norwalk Custom Order Furniture's products are pre-ordered.

Customers order the exact piece they want. Therefore, Norwalk Custom Order Furniture does not have to produce entire lines of products and guess at what will sell.

To fit the times, the company's sales and marketing business models are changing, officials said.

Franchising is a thing of a past. Gone, too, are the days of trying to do too much in-house. Unlike its predecessor, Norwalk Custom Order Furniture is not in the transportation or timber business, Bleile said. The company is now planning on using independent trucking companies and other outside contracts to improve efficiency.

In a short time, the company has made significant strides.

A deal to buy the company was struck in late September, and employees were hired back on a temporary basis by mid-October.

The company is already producing about 115 pieces of furniture every day and filling new orders, said Michael Yassanye, production team leader for the poly fabrication plant.

Workers are also building what remains of about 3,000 items ordered before Norwalk Furniture went defunct, Yassanye said. About half of the backorders have been filled. The other half is expected to be completed within several weeks.

The biggest hurdle facing the company is rebuilding business relationships with ex-franchisee owners and other furniture carriers. Dan White, CEO of the company, has hit the road hard in the last three weeks re-establishing business commitments and developing new ones.

"We've really just begun," Bleile said. "We're trying to work through the problems that were left in the plant when it was closed. We've already gotten through a number of those already. We had disgruntled dealers -- dealers with major problems because their orders were left in limbo when the former company closed."

Company officials say forging business relationships is going well so far. Store owners nationwide understand this comeback is the real deal.

Too many hopes were dashed over the summer when potential investors got ahead of themselves before sealing a deal, company officials said. New company management is being careful to rebuild the business in a slow and methodical way to avoid a heart-breaking repeat of those days.

"The worst thing in the world would be getting everyone back and then having to shut down four weeks later because of lack of order or organization," Bleile said. "So we're taking our time to try and do it the right way. We're bringing people back in an orderly manner, where we can offer them long-term security, not short-term profitability."