Irwin Seating survives its share of adversity

December 2, 2008
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With Irwin Seating Co. celebrating its 100-year anniversary, it’s no doubt the company has already survived a down economy or two. It plans to do the same with this one.

The company was founded in 1908 by the grandfather and great-uncles of Win Irwin, the current chairman and CEO. The two great-uncles — older brothers of Irwin’s grandfather — had already established themselves in the furniture industry, but the three decided to start a small company to tackle the chair needs of classrooms and auditoriums. The company was named The Steel Furniture Co.

Irwin’s grandfather, Earl S. Irwin, was charged with running the company while the other brothers were busy with their companies. In 1932, the Irwin brothers bought out two other investors and renamed the business Irwin Seating Co. Earl Irwin continued to run the company until World War II, keeping it alive through the Great Depression when one-third of all furniture companies went under. “A lot of it was because of very conservative fiscal management — not borrowing money and making sure you react to the negative economic conditions,” said Irwin. “They were never one to borrow or owe but basically saved for opportunities, and that was one of the reasons we lasted, because other people did not during that difficult time.”

Once the war started, the company shut down and dissolved due to the lack of requests for fixed- and stadium-style seating, as well as to meet the steel and manufacturing needs of the war.

“Basically, the business shut down,” said Irwin. “There was no market anymore for classroom furniture and auditorium-type chairs. Everything went to the war effort.”

Irwin said that while the company was “officially” shut down, it still produced a small amount of product. Those products, however, were mainly made of wood and upholstery because all the steel was going toward the war.

“One of the things that’s interesting about our history is, from the very beginning, we were committing ourselves to the technology of steel versus the technology of cast iron,” said Irwin. “We fought that battle for years … eventually steel replaced cast iron in almost every manufacturer.”

Earl S. Irwin’s declining health led to Win’s father, William, taking over. William was unable to serve in the war due to diabetes, but contributed by overseeing the production of M-1 carbine rifles. Once the war was over, William restarted the company around 1945. The company wasn’t reincorporated, however, until 1949.

“He had to pretty much start all over again,” said Irwin. “All of the presses and all of the equipment that we had was used for the war effort. He had the tools and the dies and the designs, but he had to reactivate the location and find the equipment.”

Business with classroom and auditorium seating remained steady through the 1960s. In the 1970s, the company began to make more of the auditorium/theater type of seating. By the 1980s, the auditorium/theater component had taken off.

Win Irwin joined the company in 1975 and worked his way through the company starting as a quality control assistant.

“I worked my way through,” said Irwin. “I went to sales for a while, then I went back to the manufacturing side. I ran the plant here, then moved into being in charge of all manufacturing. Then when my father’s health was bad in 1984, I succeeded him as what would really be only the third president in the company’s history.”

Irwin stated that the current economy is not the first challenge the company has faced.

“What tested us through the years? Lots of things,” he said. “The ’30s were obviously very stressful for all of the companies. We survived that; we survived World War II. We were able to reincorporate after the war because my dad was willing to do it and we still had the ability to start up after the war. We’ve survived the ’70s and the hyperinflation times — very different from what we’re experiencing today. More recently, in 1999-2000, we were very heavy into the movie theater industry. We lost about a third overall of our business because of their collapse.”

During that time, eight of the top 10 movie theater circuits filed Chapter 11, said Irwin, heavily affecting his company. Irwin Seating had expanded internationally to take advantage of the growing movie theater industry, and now had to consolidate its presence. Currently, the company has only two international manufacturing locations, one in Brazil and the other in China, and one sales office in Europe. Still, the company has survived.

“We’ve been pretty steady over the last few years,” said Irwin. “We’re right back at doing what we’re doing. We’ve got a lot of very good contracts in the last couple years for some large arenas and stadiums, as well.”

To commemorate the firm’s 100 years of business, a book is being published titled “Furniture Family: The Story of the Irwin Family and the Ups, Downs and Turnarounds of the Companies They Built.” The author is Gordon Olson, former Grand Rapids city historian. The book was made available as part of the debut of a temporary exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Irwin Seating also held a celebration Nov. 1 at the company’s headquarters with food, games and fireworks for the employees and public.

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