Pontotoc — His upholstered furniture plant has been opened only a month but Gerald Washington believes his newest manufacturing operation will revolutionize the industry.
“We expect to do something new for the furniture industry,” Washington said.
A Pontotoc native who started making upholstered furniture frames in a home workshop 20 years ago, and turned a $400 investment into a multi-million furniture concern with six plants employing nearly 1,000, Washington has either the know-how, the gumption or both to make good on his boast.
Just off a recently constructed gravel road, and in the middle of what was rolling fields and pastureland last fall, sits American Furniture Manufacturing — Washington’s latest project that brought him out of a short-lived retirement.
After his company Washington Furniture was purchased by a group of investors, Washington stayed around for a while to help manage the company. He left last year to give retirement a try, and he and his wife Ruby even bought a motor home last fall to make their travels more enjoyable.
But Washington, 59, doesn’t fish or hunt and he doesn’t really like to travel extensively, he said, so retirement wore thin on him quickly. By last fall he was already planning to get back into the furniture business, plotting, scheming and doing a rough sketch of how to make his new company different.
“I didn’t like it at all, not one bit,” Washington said of retirement. “So I just decided to come up here and start a small plant operation.”
Washington, who lives in the southern part of Pontotoc County, said he considered locations all over northeast Mississippi for American Furniture, including Nettleton, Ripley and Bruce, before deciding on the 30 acres where his plant now sits. Just off Mississippi 15 and a few miles from the city of Pontotoc, the plant sits on the edge of what will soon be the county’s newest industrial park. The road that runs in front of American Furniture was constructed by the county last year to serve as the 300-acre park’s access road.
American Furniture already has 150,000-square feet under roof for assembly and warehousing and in the next few months hopes to add another 300,000, Washington said.
Like most furniture companies in the region, American Furniture will produce around 12 to 15 different styles of upholstered sofas, chairs, loveseats and recliners, Washington said. But unlike most companies, Washington said he hopes to incorporate a fairly unique manufacturing system that will help reduce dramatically his overall production costs
How Washington said he plans to do that is by creating a vertically-integrated furniture company and controlling as many major aspects of the production process as possible, including building his own frames and fabricating his own foam on site thus reducing freight costs to bring those pieces in from a supplier.
“I don’t know of another operation doing that,” he said
Washington said he’ll still buy parts like springs from outside sources, and he won’t get involved in running a major trucking operation, but the aspects he can logically control should give him an edge, he said.
“Upholstery furniture is a very competitive business,” he said. “You’ve got to figure every angle. If you don’t, you get left out.”
Also, warehousing furniture will eat up a lot of space at his plant; 250,000-square feet, at least half of the space under roof, will be dedicated to warehousing. While some companies frown on such tactics, Washington said it is all part of a plan that will help him guarantee 48-hour delivery to customers, something virtually unheard of in the industry, he said. Two week delivery is considered standard, he said.
In addition to some unique production aspects, Washington said American Furniture will employ some unique management and incentive philosophies aimed at making his employees some of the most productive around. Currently, he employs around 100, but in the next 18 months that should nearly triple, he said.
“Everybody here will be on some type of incentive, from framers to truck loaders,” he said.
“Although a lot of other industries have given [production] incentives for a long time, this industry has never really figured out how to do it. But I think we have.”
While Washington said he is creating a new kind of furniture company, gone are the days of wanting to build another company like Washington Furniture. Washington said he anticipates American Furniture to be at $50 million in sales at the end of 1999 and that is roughly where he would like to hold the company if possible.
“I just want it to be a small, family business of about $50 million” in sales, he said.
But if times get tough and sales slack off as they are wont to do in this industry, that’s fine with Washington. Although the latest sales statistics by the American Furniture Manufacturers Association showed that new orders for upholstered furniture increased more than 45% compared to March 1997, Washington said that predicting how the industry will do one year to the next, or even one quarter to the next, is really a vain effort and something he’s never really attempted.
Although one to meticulously figure out how much it cost to make each sofa or recliner, Washington said he doesn’t put much time into figuring whether or not it might sell three months from now.
“We don’t try to project. Who can project? We just try to build a good product at the right price.
We get our share regardless, whether it’s a good year or a bad year,” he said. “I figure I can do $10 million (in sales) and make money or $50 million and make money. I try to adjust where I can take care of the good or the bad.”