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Hickory Chair Factory Tour: Day One

by habituallychic

06 . 05 . 09

The most fun part of visting Hickory Chair were the factory tours which we quickly learned were as much about the people who make the furniture as it was the furniture being made. More than 10 years ago, Hickory Chair switched it’s manufacturing philosophy to lean manufacturing which “calls for a series of adjacent workstations, balanced and synchronized to leave no inventory between stations.” More importantly, the employees are encouraged to work as a team and to contribute ideas and make changes that can improve the process. As I mentioned yesterday, this method doesn’t lessen quality and in fact, it actually improves it.

The culture of continuous improvement is referred to as EDGE – Employees Dedicated to Growth and Excellence and as we walked through the factory, we saw evidence and heard stories that supported this practice. As the President Jay Reardon pointed out, Hickory Chair isn’t Disneyland. They don’t change anything just because a tour is coming through and so we got to see the production just as it is every other day. They didn’t hide anything from us.

One of the other important aspects to Hickory Chair is that they are always thinking about their customers and how they can better serve them and because of their lean manufacturing process, they have been not had to raise prices in years.

Our tour began with the casegoods factory and I think everyone on the tour will agree that we learned more about wood and veneers that we ever could have in school! Veneer gets a bad wrap but veneers and inlays have always been used in making fine furniture to add movement and beauty especially to drawer fronts. Above are examples of different types of veneer grains. Just as no two people are a like, no two trees are a like and therefore, each piece of furniture will be unique and special. Veneers are also much more stable and better made than most people realize and won’t ever peel.

Even simple ideas like a shadow tool board remind employees to return tools to their proper location so they can be found easily the next day. Organization is the key to any business.

Here is an example of beautiful inlaid veneer boards that will probably become table or dresser tops.

This photo reminds me of Santa’s Workshop which could be a good nickname for Hickory Chair!

There are bulletin boards with reminders and helpful hints in every section of the factory. There are also no visible managers since there are processes in place that allow the employees to quickly see if they are on target to make their daily goals. There is no one breathing down their neck.

Unlike most factories, Hickory Chair has windows and lots of light which enable the workers to better see what they are doing and improves quality. It was over 80 degrees the day we visited by the temperature inside remained very comfortable too.

This table has holes in the top which suck any dust away from the workers.

As someone pointed out, the employees need to see photos of the furniture that is scheduled to be made that week and without them it would be like putting a puzzle together without a photo.

Something else that everyone noticed was how clean the factory looked. One person joked that it looked clean enough to eat off of or at least to observe the five second rule! A clean work space and floor also helps prevent accidents which is obviously very important.

Everything is well organized and labeled so new employees can easily find what they need.

Since almost all employees are cross trained, they are able to help out in other areas. If one person is caught up on their work, they can help someone else who is behind which prevents the line from backing up. An employee was out sick this day so someone else was able to step in and hand apply the inlays to these legs.

As everyone knows, finding the right antique for a client can be like finding a needle in a hay stack. It’s very rare that you can find the exact right size or shape or something that’s not ridiculously expensive. Hickory Chair reproduces many antique furniture styles and also employees the same techniques such as English dove tail joints which make sure that drawers remain strong for the life of the piece. They also have improved on many of the processes for making antique furniture so they are much better made than the originals and will last longer.

You can see the dove tail joints on these drawers. Hickory Chair also makes sure that the inside of their pieces look as good as the outside.

These Murano Chests are waiting to be taken to the finishing room which is actual on the floor above. In order to reduce the movement of the furniture and thus possible damage, a lift was built to move the furniture between the floors.

Here an employee tapes the drawers sides so that the finish is only applied to the drawer fronts.

This desk was spray finished and is now waiting for it’s hardware.

I don’t think most people realize how much hand work goes into making each piece of furniture. In this day when many things can be made cheaply in other countries, it’s a point of pride that Hickory Chair is made with love in America.

Most people probably think of Hickory Chair as a place for traditional furniture but just as you can add custom details to a piece, you can also subtract them. If you remove the pediment on this cabinet, it would be clean lined and modern.

You can see the beautiful wood grain of the veneer on the front of this unfinished chest.

More pieces waiting to be finished are lined up and stacked.

This chest is having it’s finished buffed by hand.

This Milo table was custom finished in gold leaf and even has the red undertones of gilt.

You can also request antique mirror to any casegood which helps make them look as good as real antiques.

After the tour, we were all asked what we were most impressed by and most everyone mentioned the cross training, the family atmosphere and the pride all of the employees take in their work. This is not mindless factory work and since they can produce furniture in small batches, it means that the employees do not get bored and the quality of their work improves.

I was also impressed that President Jay Reardon isn’t sitting up in his office directing the operations from above. He walks the factory floor and knows all the employees by name and what hobbies they enjoy. The company also takes care of it’s employees. They have a doctor come in twice a week since most visits to a doctor’s office can take hours and here they can take 15 minutes. They have a mammogram truck that stops by and they also help employees earn their GED degrees. You can tell that everyone is happy to come to work because they are valued and respected and if they make a suggestion on Friday to improve a process, it could be in place by Monday.

What I really loved is that there is not the mentality of “this is how we have always done things so that’s the way it is and we’re not changing it.” In this economy, it is only the companies that embrace change and look for opportunities to improve the way they do things who will survive. I think we can all learn something from Hickory Chair! Check back soon for the upholstery factory tour where I like to say the magic happens!

Comments Closed

  1. Cristin June 5, 2009 | 3:35 am

    Love your blog and enjoyed the Hickory Chair Factory post.


  2. Anonymous June 5, 2009 | 3:43 am

    So interesting. A really good post. Thanks, Heather. I feel like I was on the tour too.

  3. Suzy June 5, 2009 | 5:18 am

    Very inspirational! It would be great if all companies were run this way. I especially love the fact they have a doctor come by regularly – what a great idea!

  4. Rebecca June June 5, 2009 | 5:33 am

    It is really so impressive. I do not think that I have done a house without one of their beautiful pieces in it.

    What is also impressive is how you retained so much information! I felt like I was there!


    Rebecca June

  5. Tiina of LiviaConcept June 5, 2009 | 5:41 am

    really great post!

  6. coco+kelley June 5, 2009 | 5:49 am

    it’s been so fun seeing your perspective of the tours and the experience!! such an amazing company, right? it’s truly impressive. hope we’ll get to meet eachother the next time around – high point??

  7. franki durbin June 5, 2009 | 12:12 pm

    Oh I feel like I’m there again! We’ll have to compare notes, I’ve still got a tremendous batch of videos & pix to post from the trip – it’s amazing,isn’t it? Can’t wait to get your perspective on the showroom tour. It’s almost overwhelming.

    So glad you made the trip!

  8. Anonymous June 5, 2009 | 12:54 pm

    These posts on Hickory chair are so interesting. Firstly, it is wonderful to promote quality goods made in North America. Secondly, anyone interested in design should have a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in manufacturing these things. Your pictures are great. Let’s bring jobs back home, and take pride in our own goods. Choose quality over made in Asia quantity, be it in furniture, clothing, china, or objets d’art!
    Square with Flair

  9. Dobbygirl June 5, 2009 | 1:12 pm

    Exceptional post!! Well done!!! Being a native of NC, there are still fantastic furniture manufacturers in NC and the US. Even though the furniture costs more, it is well worth the quality and craftsmanship. Thank you for highlighting one of my favorites!

  10. M.Lane June 5, 2009 | 1:21 pm

    This is so interesting! I love seeing how things are made, especially in high quality, caring environments.

    The philosophy of H.Chair applies in every sort of business but at least in the service industry that I know is not often applied.

    Thanks for the fantastic post!


  11. TheCountrypolitan June 5, 2009 | 1:53 pm

    Thanks for the tour! I particularly love the Milo table. Here is some interesting information from their own blog about it…

    Milo Made to Measure Tables
    Milo made to measure tables are the hottest new products from Hickory Chair. Milo is a beautiful table with saber legs. What makes it so functional for your project is their flexibility!

    Milo is available in 4 heights. Choose from 20″ cocktail, 26″ side, 30″ game, desk or dining, or 34″ console heights.

    Milo is made from maple with an inset top that is made from your choice of 5 different veneers: ash, beeswing primavera, cherry, maple or mahogany.

    Milo is hand made to the size you need from as small as 16″ square to as large as 72″ wide by 52″ deep.

    Now that you have determined the dimensions and top species, select from dozens of stain and paint finishes in a variety of techinques. You can also select a combination of two finishes or add hand striped detailing to puncutate the form.

    Every day we hand make one of a kind Milo tables. Visit the web site to find a wide variety of custom made Milo tables. http://hickorychair.com/see_furniture_results.aspx?s=milo

  12. mary June 5, 2009 | 2:21 pm

    This is truly an amazing company. It is seems that the true American spirit is alive and well and evolving.

  13. An Aesthete's Lament June 5, 2009 | 2:40 pm

    I am now officially jealous of your trip. I would kill to spend a day in the factory and watching the steps to completion.

  14. Jennifer June 5, 2009 | 3:29 pm

    I was hanging on every word of this post — great job! so nice to hear about businesses doing good work and taking care of their employees and still making money. kudos to Hickory Chair.

  15. Mimi June 5, 2009 | 4:29 pm

    This was such an interesting post! I very much enjoyed ready your perspective..It felt like I was actually taking a tour of the workshop. I have a true appreciation for the process and craftsmanship of furniture making and all things handmade for that matter. It’s also great to see that this company not only values the quality of their product, but also the lively hood of their employees. I have to forward this to my husband. I think this may be a trip for both of us. Thanks for a great story and Hickory Chair..You are awesome!

  16. The Haute-Shopper June 5, 2009 | 5:34 pm

    Wow, thanks so much for sharing this! I think many forget how much work goes into creating something so beautiful… especially in a day and age when a lot of apartments are filled with Ikea or other put-it-together-yourself type furnishings. An amazing blog!

  17. Averill June 5, 2009 | 6:25 pm

    What fun! I’ve been pining for the Alton coffee table by Thomas O’Brien for Hickory Chair and after reading all your posts, it definitely seems worth the nearly $3k pricetag!

  18. Oliveaux June 5, 2009 | 9:50 pm

    Thank you for allowing us to tag along with you! It is wonderful to see the craftsmanship that goes into each piece of beautiful furniture.

  19. Alicia June 6, 2009 | 5:39 am

    Any company where the president knows his workers by name will always put out a great product. Cheers!!!

  20. Velvet and Linen June 7, 2009 | 2:14 am

    Thank you for taking us on tour with you.
    It was wonderful seeing behind the scenes of the making of some of the beautiful Hickory Chair pieces that I have actually used in projects.
    What fun!