HIGH POINT — Century Furniture celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and CEO Alex Shuford III is planning for the company’s continued success with a multilayered business strategy that incorporates technology advances, employee best practices and ongoing brand building goals.
In an exclusive interview with Furniture Today, Shuford outlined some of his goals for Century, part of the Rock House Family of brands that also includes Hancock & Moore, Hickory Chair, Highland House, Jessica Charles, Cabot Wrenn, Pearson and Maitland Smith.
A lot has changed since Century’s founding. If you had to pick three pivotal moments in the company’s history that changed the trajectory of the company’s growth, what would they be?
There is a legendary story of my Grandfather selling a large contract order of chests to the U.S. Government in 1949 when the company didn’t have many orders. He had been making the piece for weeks before actually meeting with the contracting officer in order to keep his employees busy. The contracting officer came to town and initially turned the item down. Grandfather Harley figured out at way to get this contracting officer back to “yes” and saved the company.
Of course, I’d also say the implementation of SAP in the late 1990s when Century struggled and our customers literally stepped up and saved us by being honest, supportive and forgiving.
Finally, I might have to point to my father’s vision to have he and his children buy the company from the larger family in 2013 and begin the creation of what today is the Rock House Family of Brands.
How did these shifts affect your overall business strategy?
Well, the legend of the 1949 chest sell it still told today as an example of how we always want to “out work” and “out hustle.” Our work ethic is one of our strategic advantages.
The lesson from our implementation of SAP in the late 1990s is that our customers make or break us and that our relationships with them are a cherished pillar of the company. It also reinforced our culture of diligent and smart people working hard to overcome adversity. Eventually, the successful use of this powerful data management system allowed us to handle complexity well beyond what a small company like ours could have normally managed. It opened up a world of options and information that set us up for success in the next decade.
Finally, buying Century from the larger family was a moment of faith and trust. It made us more comfortable with risk and change and made us a viable option for others who were looking for succession plans to approach as a “safe harbor” for their companies and their people.
One of the challenges for domestic manufacturers has always been how to explain the quality story vs. low prices to consumers. What is your currently marketing strategy for telling this story?
We believe there is a place in the market for both domestic production and sourced products and we have long felt that the best product strategy uses what is unique and powerful about both approaches.
Domestically we focus on options and customization, and we work hard to drive compelling choices into our offerings using flexible manufacturing. That said, we also believe that there are wonderful materials and craftspeople the world over, and we insist that our merchants and product designers stay active in seeking out excitement and diversity wherever it can be found.
A balanced approach has stood the test of time in most things from investing to manufacturing.
Data integration into product development is something we’re hearing a lot about these days, and actually while it has existed for quite some time, there does seem to be a pointed shift in companies willing to talk about what they do and how it benefits their customers. What would you like retailers and designers to know about your strategies?
Our industry is certainly behind the curve in this area, but I think there is a general desire to make more intelligent product development choices through data analysis. It starts, however, with the most fundamental data collection method: Go and look, go and ask.
When you take this “direct feedback” approach, couple it with analytics derived from sales/performance data and season it with third party inputs such as consumer trend analysis, then the success rates increase, and the costs of development per sales dollar shrink, which is more efficient for the entire value chain.
Another challenge that remains for the industry is how to recruit younger employees into the manufacturing arena. Do you believe it is better salaries, positive marketing messaging about opportunities, some sort of creative work/life balance discussion, highlighting some of the technology that now permeates the product? What do you think the secret sauce will be in the future?
Wow, this is a critical and timely topic and one that entire articles could be dedicated to for consideration. I think recruiting into the industry will require a mix of improvement in all the areas you mention.
The next generation sees schedules differently than my generation; they prioritize different rewards, and those are not always compensation but often are flexibility and free time.
Most importantly, I think we need to create communities within our industry where networking happens and reinforces to our next generation that there are others who are starting off and moving up with them.
We also must cast a bigger net, be more inclusive and encourage people of all colors, genders and identities to see our industry as the creative and compelling space that it is or, perhaps, can be.
Brand building takes time, and this effort is building the Brand of the Home Furnishings Industry.
Finally, as we all look toward the next generation of home furnishings consumers and an audience that purchases very differently than in years past, what are some of the shifts you are making with regard to marketing, product development, omnichannel sourcing opportunities for your buyers?
There has been a lot written about “the customer journey,” but I think it is the fundamental shift in the way we will be thinking about marketing and sales going forward. Buying for your home is not purely transactional, but rather an emotional journey that begins with “dreaming and exploring.” What a powerful thing! And then often we watch as it devolves into friction and tribulation and transaction.
My companies have work to do on this front — lots of work — but at our core we get that we are building a branded experience that is or should be self-reinforcing the more our designers, retailers and consumers interact with us.
In truth, my hat is off to Restoration Hardware for getting there first, and there are lessons in the success of vertically integrated companies for the entire industry to learn from. I, for one, believe that there is ample space and even a structural need for the “classic model” to exist within the ecosystem. The wonderful creative chaos of our industry thrives in this alternate, non-vertical space. That doesn’t mean, however, we can’t be attentive to successes around us and evolve.
Open mic, what else would you like to highlight about the company, your future plans, the employees?
I’m dangerous with an open mic. … I suppose it’s best to follow good advice I have gotten from one of my executives: “If you can’t be intelligent, be succinct.”
I would only add that our industry is a treasure because it is full of so many entrepreneurial opportunities, and those tend to be both creative and destructive. We are destined to go through cycles, and it is hard for us all, myself included, to try to keep our eyes constantly on the path’s next step as well as the distant horizon.
For our little company, we intend to make plans and draw maps, and then boldly step out and go where it makes sense updating those plans and maps as often as necessary.