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Forged In Fire
Altus Inc., Grand Rapids Chair Co., Amneon Furniture and izzydesign all launched within months of the 2001 recession. Another up-and-coming firm, Stelter Partners, launched at the tail end of the downturn.
"Scary is the word I would use," said izzydesign founder and President Chuck Saylor, who wrote the business plan for his Spring Lake firm in late 1999. "The economy was starting to bounce around a little bit at the time, but nobody had any idea that would happen."
After the 17.4 percent slide in 2001, the doomsday prediction of an 8.8 percent drop in 2002 proved optimistic. What followed was the industry's worst decline ever: 19 percent.
It was during 2001 that Doug Huesdash and Jim Bird, then operators of JC Tackit Inc., a supplier to furniture OEMs, were offered the opportunity to purchase a bankrupt maker of cloned systems furniture. Expecting the downturn to emulate the short-lived 1991 recession, they purchased the firm and renamed it Amneon Furniture.
"We were making investments and expanding our manufacturing space, Web sites, brochures, binders — all with the assumption that the market was going to recover in a year or two," recalled Huesdash. "Obviously, it didn't, and we were in a pretty tough spot with the amount of investment we had made in developing and bringing the line together."
Craig Vander Heide and Eric Kahkonen, who had recently sold their first venture, Idea Industries, to then publicly traded Knape & Vogt, had just launched Altus Inc.
"We started out thinking that we would be selling products for the office, but nobody was buying anything new for the office," recalled Vander Heide,
As it searched for its niche,
At izzydesign, Saylor was admittedly nervous. He was passionate about his model, a collection-based furniture company focused on the emerging cultural changes of the modern office.
"When you're passionately committed to a business and you believe in what you're doing, it's incredibly difficult to give it up," said Saylor. "You can't just walk away from it."
Saylor credits a strong support network for getting izzydesign through its most challenging period, particularly communications specialist
"It would have been easy for JSJ to walk away," Saylor said. "A lot of corporations would have at the first sign of the downturn, but they hung in there even when it looked horrible. Even when the industry was dropping 20 percent a year, they didn't pull the plug."
Now six years old, izzydesign is one of the most recognizable fledgling furniture makers in the country.
Stelter Partners, a breakout company experiencing its first exhibition at last week's NeoCon trade show in
"It's really invigorating for an old guy like me," said Stelter, who has seen 50 percent growth in his company to date this year. "You look at the pictures on our walls — it's the youth that is making this happen. And it's all coming out of
Like Amneon and izzydesign, which absorbed much of JSJ Corp.'s Counter Point operation, Grand Rapids Chair Co. emerged from a private label manufacturer, launching from five-year-old Manufacturers Resource Inc. in 2001. With hospitality its pri
"When I started this business in my garage, people told me I couldn't do it," Miller said. "But I did."
Grand Rapids Chair Co. found opportunity in the weaknesses of offshore outsourcing. It established itself with quick, sometimes emergency, turnarounds, commonly fielding calls to replace, for instance, a several-hundred chair order stuck on a container ship in the Pacific. Using that same agility, the 80-employee firm began focusing on mass customization, carving intricate designs into or special shapes out of seat backs. Last year, it turned that skill into a now best-selling offering: the Amanda chair.
G.R. Chair Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tom Southwell found interior designers couldn't get enough of Amanda — or its newly introduced follow-ups Allison, Leigh and Mojo — at NeoCon. The centerpiece of the company's exhibit last week was a large chalk board on which designers could sketch out chair backs and file an order onsite.
"One of the ways the smaller companies are able to fill roles is with customers, especially smaller ones, that need a high degree of customization," said Michael A. Dunlap, principal of furniture consulting group Michael A. Dunlap & Associates. "Bigger companies aren't able to have that flexibility."
Amneon Furniture has found similar success with short runs and custom orders, as have other small local furniture firms, including Bold Companies in
Last year was by far G.R. Chair's most successful to date. In the first five months of this year, generally the company's slowest time, it is 40 percent ahead of its 2006 pace. The growth is necessitating another expansion — it recently expanded its Renaissance Zone site on
Amneon is also seeing strong growth. Currently not an onsite NeoCon exhibitor, it announced last week that it would be represented at the Merchandise Mart in 2008, and will likely invest in a permanent showroom. Earlier this year, Amneon became a full-line OEM with the acquisition of
Now divested from the seating business,
"We've paid our dues to get to this point," said Kahkonen,