“Clubfurniture.com has proven that successful companies can outsource work within this country. The US makes some of the best goods in the world, and NC makes some of the finest furniture. We are just another example of how creating and offering quality US goods can lead to profitability. We have aggressive growth plans that we expect will create a greater demand for NC artisans and the goods they produce.” Co-founder Darrin King

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Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular weekly feature in Local Tech Wire.The King brothers — Darrin and Jeff — are restoring some of the luster to North Carolina’s legendary furniture industry through the building of high-quality pieces then marketing and selling them over the web.

The two launched clubfurniture.com in 1998 and have steadily grown the business with an emphasis on high-quality products, strong customer service and the promise of “white glove” delivery.

In fact, they refer to the 100 or so workers at two plants in Hickory who build their furniture as “artisans”.

Their success landed the company on Inc Magazine’s fastest growing private company list, taking the 301st spot. Eligible for the first time, clubfurniture.com had to meet requirements such as $200,000 minimum in net sales in 2000, $2 million in net sales in 2003 and selling more goods in 2003 than in 2002. Sales growth over the past four years is nearly 500 percent.

The growth of the King’s business is a bright spot for the state’s furniture industry, which has lost thousands of jobs and closed numerous plants due to foreign competition. The legendary “furniture marts” continue to operate each year, drawing buyers from around the globe to High Point and elsewhere. The Kings, however, are taking North Carolina products to customers by using their web site.

Both Kings are graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and worked for Contract Packaging Resources before launching clubfurniture.com. Darrin worked in sales. Jeff was vice president who led the transitioning of the company from consumer business to pharmaceutical packaging.

At clubfurniture.com. Darrin handles manufacturing, customer service and finances. Jeff handles sales and marketing.

The two answered a series of questions from Local Tech Wire. The name in parenthesis indicates who answered that particular question.

What previous connections, if any, did you have to the furniture industry?

(Darrin) Previously, Jeff and I were sales executives and we worked with traditional manufacturing companies that were challenged by a number of inefficiencies in their supply chain. The Internet obviously offered an opportunity to streamline these inefficiencies, but as the burst of the bubble showed bringing a process online did not necessarily equal success.”

What factors led to your decision to launch clubfurniture.com?

(Darrin) Most people across the country know about the quality and tradition of North Carolina furniture. In fact, many of the people today that have North-Carolina made furniture have had it handed down from previous generations. While some customers can afford to travel to NC to browse showrooms and purchase furniture, the majority of people must rely on their hometown retailer. If you listen to our customers, they will tell you that leaves them with an option that is inferior in quality and style to NC-furniture; nothing they would be handing down to their children and grandchildren.

So, we thought if we could tap into that customer demand by providing access to high-quality, luxury. NC-crafted furniture via the Internet, while implementing best practices to insure affordability, we would have a successful business.

The loss of thousands of jobs and closing of plants to foreign competition seemed to doom NC’s furniture industry – is your effort sign of possible revival?

(Darrin) Clubfurniture.com has proven that successful companies can outsource work within this country. The US makes some of the best goods in the world, and NC makes some of the finest furniture. We are just another example of how creating and offering quality US goods can lead to profitability. We have aggressive growth plans that we expect will create a greater demand for NC artisans and the goods they produce.

What factors made you think you could be successful, given the downward trend in the NC furniture sector?

(Jeff) Furniture is a multi-billion dollar industry and regardless of the economy certain areas are going to remain strong. We have found that the demand for our luxury furniture has not wavered, despite the economy.

Did you have relationships in place with Hickory folks and craftsmen before launching?
Were these people out of work – or fearing their jobs were doomed?

(Darrin) When we started this company, manufacturers were hurting and a number of them had been involved with failed dotcom initiatives. We developed exclusive, low-risk agreements primarily with two NC manufacturers. Then we quickly drove demand, which solidified those relationships. Today, we require 80 to 100 artisans, working for those manufacturers, to fulfill our orders.

What do your customers seem to like best about your products? The testimonials on your web site are quite strong.

(Jeff) Unlike specialty retailers in our customer’s hometowns, we are able to minimize our overhead costs. That means we can deliver unique, quality home furnishings that they can’t find in their local stores for a significantly more affordable price.

You promise “white glove” delivery. Do you set the same standards for delivery as you do for craftsmanship?

(Jeff) We believe the way we treat our customers is one our most critical competitive differentiators; from our first interaction — through the care we put into building our furniture — to our white-glove delivery. Unlike most of our competitors, who tend to send their products via less efficient methods, we use premium shipping. That is because we place a high value on that last mile. We build a great product and we ensure our customers receive their furniture quickly, courteously and in showroom condition.

How do you ensure that your products meet tough specifications?

(Darrin) We provide quality control specifications to the manufacturers for each of our pieces to ensure a consistency in the quality our customers have come to rely upon.

Why choose the web as opposed to just regular custom catalogs?

(Jeff) Our primary business channel is the Internet. We understand though, that some customers are more comfortable ordering furniture via tangible, traditional catalogues. So, we have made it simple and intuitive for customers to request our print catalogue and swatches through our website.

What has been the toughest challenge(s) in implementing a web-based strategy?

(Darrin) Trust is a major factor for all businesses. We have gone to great lengths to build intimacy with our customers. From our first interaction, we work with them to ensure they select the piece that will fit their unique size, style and comfort needs. And our affiliation with trusted consumer organizations such as the Better Business Bureau reinforces that trust factor.

Are you sending a message to other entrepreneurs or traditional manufacturers, such as in textiles, that the future isn’t necessarily bleak? Please explain.

(Darrin) There is a national demand for NC-manufactured goods. By streamlining cost-intensive processes, we have been able to develop a profitable business based on NC manufactured luxury furniture and create opportunities for North Carolina workers. If companies in complimentary markets in this area can reduce inefficiencies and effectively tap into the national demand for their goods, I would imagine they could recognize similar success.

It seems as if you are trying to return furniture manufacturing to the days of old – from when carpenters assembled tables and chairs on demand as opposed to sloppy assembly line work – and that more and more people are willing to pay for better workmanship. Do you concur? Disagree? Please explain.

(Jeff) There was a time when quality furniture was something that families handed down through the generations. In fact, a number of our customers mention that they have a piece of NC-crafted furniture that was originally their parents or grandparents. Our customers would much prefer a product that can withstand the tests of time not only in style but in quality, to the cookie-cutter pieces that clutter the showrooms of their local retailers. That is why our business has been so successful; because we provide furniture that is affordable, easily accessible, but most importantly withstands the tests of time.

How was the company funded at the start? Still privately held? Seeking investors?

(Darrin) Privately funded, not seeking investors.

Do you have plans to expand the business – or branch out into other ventures?

(Darrin) We will continue to focus on providing North Carolina manufactured furniture and will consider expanding our product line to provide for a more diverse customer base.

clubfurniture: www.clubfurniture.com