Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Kent-Coffey Furniture and Baby Boomers

I need to apply for government grant money. I could do a study on what kinds of furniture our parents were buying in the 40's and 50's. Why not? I hear of people getting money to figure out why there are so many alligators in storm drains or to study life habits of Alaskan cod.

I have a sure-fire way to get the information. It comes in every day from my readers. As the Baby Boomers age they are inheriting their parent's furniture and want to know how much it is worth so they can decide whether to treasure it, sell it or toss it out.

Sorry, I don't know what it's worth because I live in the world of new furniture. But I do know what was hot each year because everyone is asking about the same company.

A couple years ago all my email started, "Hi. We just inherited a Jasper Cabinet secretary..." That went on for several years. I guess as World War II started the entire country ran out and bought a Jasper Cabinet secretary so they could write to the boys overseas.

Inquiries stopped for a couple years then picked up again, slowly at first, but as the weather warms and the attics get cleaned out it is picking up. And they are all asking about the same thing. Considering I get mail from all over the country, it is really weird.

After the war, or toward the end, Kent-Coffey must have been the brand to have. Because most mail I get now starts out, "Hi. We just inherited a Kent-Coffey end table..."

From this I know: 1) another generation of Baby Boomers is dealing with aging parents and 2) a lot of people who bought furniture that year bought Kent-Coffey. Hundreds of brands of furniture, and a significant number of the inquiries are about Kent-Coffey. Go figure.

Based in Lenoir, NC Kent-Coffey produced promotionally priced, but decent quality furniture through the 60's until it was sold to the Singer Furniture Company, a subsidiary of the Singer sewing machine fame. Singer should have stuck with sewing machines because around 1997 the furniture division went bankrupt. In 2001, Kent-Coffey was named as co-defendant in a lawsuit brought by a former Singer employee suing over asbestos related illness. After that the trail goes cold. I would love to hear from former Kent-Coffey employees who can fill in any of the blanks.

Harold Coffey was a great influence on the North Carolina furniture industry. Although competitors, he had a strong friendship with other leaders in the industry such as James Broyhill and John Bernhardt. As a tribute to his legacy his former home in Lenoir has been preserved as a bed and breakfast named Sharon Elizabeths. I called the owners of the B&B who, it turns out, have been researching the company's history and would love to hear from any readers or former employees who have first-hand knowledge of Kent-Coffey's past.

Amanda's Ethical Dilemma

Amanda is an enigma in today's business culture. Somewhere along the line she didn't get the message that ethics and morality are not defined by lines in the sand, but rather waves along the coast that ebb and tide with the complexity of a global climate. She lives by the convictions of her beliefs and they are costing the company money.

They don't want to let her go because when she has the company's money in her hands the CEO sleeps well at night. It's those gray times in between when competitors are "playing the game" to get the sale and Amanda refuses to break rules that cause all the hand-wringing.
But it's furniture... how much angst could there be in selling a nightstand? Plenty actually when there are millions of dollars at stake, egos to protect and an industry ethos forcing deception and hypocrisy at every level of the sales process.

After two decades of trying to micro-manage the retail side of the business, the best ideas manufacturers have been able to come up with are misguided policies for distribution and pricing. The policies were bad enough twenty years ago when they inconvenienced consumers, but in today's wired culture those policies are alienating the next generation of consumers and putting retailers between a rock and a very hard place.

MRP has done nothing to increase business, limiting distribution has not helped brand awareness among consumers and selective enforcement has not made manufacturers loved and admired by their dealers.

What they have done is damaged the soul of the industry by putting people into situations where they have to answer the kinds of hypothetical questions we used to only kick around in classrooms. Such as "Is it right to break a vendor's rule if my boss tells me to?" "If I know my competitor is breaking the rules is it unfair to my company if I won't?"

Every day dealers around the country are breaking MRP and distribution policies. But depending on their size and location they are either being encouraged to keep up the good work or told that if they bend the rules one more time they will find themselves cut off. It is ironic that manufacturers now find themselves faced with making the same ethical dilemas they created for the dealers. Their competitors are breaking the rules and if they want to survive in an increasingly fractured and complicated industry they have to do what they have to do.
So when a multi-store chain in New York lowballs an MRP product and sells it to a consumer in Massachusetts via email, do they cut them off? You're kidding, right? If a dealer in North Carolina gets caught giving a phone quote to a previous customer who lives in Virginia do they cut them off? Absolutely. Well, you have to make an example of someone.

And where does Amanda come in? She is the soul of the industry being corrupted by greed. Her sales manager has made it clear that the very survival of their little furniture store is at stake. Get the sale. One way or another. Go below MRP if you have to, sell to a previous customer's neighbor even if they are outside our distribution area, ask the customer to lie about being in our store within the past 90 days, send your quote via email. Do what you have to do, but get the sale.

"But... but .... but..." Amanda protests. "Everything you've asked me to do is against the manufacturer's written policies."

"Number one" the manager counters, "you're not in Sunday School anymore. Number two everyone else is doing it and we have to stay in business, and number three, do it or find another job."

Trying to protect turf by meddling in the retail process has been bad business.
Now we’re finding it's bad ethics.

Stratospheric Furniture Dust

The air is thin at the top. I mean at the very top. Up where you need supplemental oxygen to breathe. Such as a furniture budget equal to what most people spend on a home. Or where people actually do say "if you have to ask, you can't afford it."

But oh what a view!

Like a Ferrari Enzo or a Bugatti Veyron it is the details that justify the price tag. Hand-made to standards that exceed anything a production furniture manufacturer could do, furniture in this class is produced like a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Here are my picks for world's best quality furniture.


I don't impress easily. Gold fixtures in your mountain chalet... so what? Jim and Tammy Baker had those. Monet and Pissarro paintings in the entryway... nice... but sleazy mafia criminals steal those all the time for their homes. Waterford furniture in the guest room? Now that's classy! More


Burton-Ching furniturePresident Sen Ching is a master furniture craftsman. He learned the art of furniture making as an apprentice and honed his talents restoring and repairing fine antiques. Mr. Ching's mission statement for the company can be summed up as: "how much pleasure will a reproduction provide its owners, not just today, but for generations to come?" More


They call themselves "The Last Great American Furniture Company." Karges makes formal French furniture for the very discriminating buyer. Prices are in line with their heirloom quality, limited distributorship and fine design. I got a note from Joan Karges Rogier of Karges that I'd like to pass on to my readers. "... we want you to know Karges is made in the good old USA by fantastic American craftsmen. Our seating is imported, primarily from Italy, as it has been for 40+ years, but our casegoods are made here in Evansville, Ind. We hope that never changes!" 'Nuff said.