G.R. Chair OldSchool Values

July 12, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Much like its recycled name, Grand Rapids Chair Co. is a throwback to the bygone days of Furniture City.

Launched six years ago in the East Grand Rapids garage of current president and 40-year John Widdicomb Co. veteran Dave Miller, the rapidly growing company captures the same family atmosphere, made-to-order quality and homegrown work force that once characterized the furniture industry.

Miller likes to joke that his venture saw its greatest growth in its first week, when the company doubled in size from one stall to two, shortly before investing in a vacant fish foundry at 625 Chestnut St. SW in Grand Rapids when his arc welder began disrupting his neighbors’ TV signals.

The reality is that the now 70-employee firm has achieved double-digit growth every year, including 50 percent growth each year since the industry’s cataclysmic downturn. In the year following the completion of an 80,000-square-foot expansion of its manufacturing space in 2002, the company doubled.

“We had to make a decision whether we wanted to be an outsourcer importing from Europe or China, or make the decision to make significant capital investment here and make everything ourselves,” Miller said of the expansion.

Miller left the residential furniture industry convinced that its domestic manufacturers had fallen to global competition. Widdicomb was barreling toward its eventual demise, Sligh Furniture and Howard Miller were quickly bringing foreign capacity online; even North Carolina’s residential furniture hub had been “slashed and burned” by the changing marketplace.

The commercial furniture industry had come to a crossroads. Many companies wholeheartedly embraced offshore suppliers as part of an outsourcing model — G.R. Chair went in the other direction.

“We listened to our customers and they were demanding customization and quick lead times,” said Tom Southwell, vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s been the key to our growth and success. We offer the customer what they want, when they want it.”

When the company built its metalworking facility three years ago, agility was the top priority. Production needed to be lean, quick, and have the ability to undertake massive customization. If Sea World wants a table with a base that looks like an orca, it gets it. If McDonald’s wants the precursor of Ronald McDonald, Sir Speedy, etched into its chair backs — no problem.

“We just had a company in Guatemala call and say, ‘We need 380 chairs in two weeks,’” Southwell said. “I told them it’d be three days late. If it wasn’t in Guatemala, I’m sure we would have made it.”

At the commercial furniture industry’s annual NeoCon trade show in Chicago in June, G.R. Chair introduced a new chair line born from the company’s nimble manufacturing process. The subject of a design and mechanical patent, the Amanda chair is the industry’s first design-it-yourself furniture line.

“If you were to draw a design on the back of that notepad, I could give you a working sample in 15 minutes on our laser-cutting machine,” Miller boasted.

Amanda was previewed at the Hospitality Design Show in April to rave reviews. It marked the first time the company had received orders on a tradeshow floor. From only that limited exposure, sales are still trickling in.

“A lot of times, designers are brought in after the building is built, so they have to tap their knowledge of what furniture is made to fit in that space,” said Southwell. “This allows them to tailor the furniture to meet the building after the architecture has been decided upon.”

The concept was first conceived during a conversation with a client concerning the company’s Diana chair. The client loved the chair, Miller explained; it was strong and comfortable. But they thought the back was boring. His daughter, Allison, a graphic design student at Michigan State University, was home for the weekend, and he talked her into a night of pizza and AutoCAD. When they finally quit at 4 a.m., they had designed 400 chair backs of different shapes, sizes and colors that now serve as templates for Amanda.

Like most of the company’s offerings, Amanda is named for a real person: Miller’s eldest daughter, Amanda Harnish. Interestingly, the concept was chosen by her younger sister: Amanda by Allison.

Browsing through the company catalog, it’s hard not to notice that G.R. Chair is family owned. On page 14, Tommy and Charlie Southwell are seen sitting in Jill chairs having a donut-peeking fight across a Rambo table. Harnish is pictured on the front cover, and again on page 32 with the Jerome table and Diana chair. Diana is a family friend who traded a summer’s worth of rhubarb pie for naming rights on the 2005 debut. Harnish’s brother, Geoff Miller, vice president of manufacturing, is also pictured.

Geoff Miller joined the company after graduating from the University of Michigan, sparking a college rivalry with his passionate MSU alumni father. On the production floor, some machines are painted maize and blue, others green and white.

“He hired himself,” Dave Miller said “He came in one day and said, ‘I know you’re going to want me.’”

Vice President of Finance Greg Brenner joined the company from American Seating shortly after the younger Miller’s arrival, to help manage the company’s growth.

G.R. Chair has played a facilitative role in the outsourcing model — a quarter of its work is private label manufacturing for larger OEMs. A portion of the company’s wood line is sourced from Eastern Europe, but finished and painted in Grand Rapids.

“Our dealers appreciate being able to say the product is made in the U.S.A.,” Southwell said.

“And I like to add, ‘By people who believe in God,’” Miller said.

Fittingly, the company has adopted a name representative of the community. This is the second company to bear the moniker; the original went out of business during World War II.    

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