Broyhill Furniture Industries Inc. was started in North Carolina in the 1920s. The company, which focused on making chairs initially, grew and expanded under the direction of its founder. The founder had entered the furniture business under the guidance of his older brother, and when the business expanded he included several members of his family in its operation. The Broyhill family sold the company in 1980 to a conglomerate. Broyhill’s name and identity were kept and it was made a part of a group of furniture manufacturers. Today, Broyhill Furniture Industries, Inc. is a major manufacturer of medium-priced wood and upholstered household furniture in America.
James Edgar Broyhill founded the Broyhill Company in 1926. His knowledge of the furniture business went back a few years - to 1919, when he worked in his older brother’s company. Known to all as ‘Ed’, he worked as a salesman, bookkeeper and clerk, and gained vital experience in the business of furniture-making. The company, which had started with manufacturing single pieces of furniture, began selling multi-piece coordinated bedroom suites in 1920. Three items of this multi-piece set – a chair, a rocking chair and a bench were provided by a different manufacturer. A fire burnt down the company in 1926. Sensing an opportunity, Ed Broyhill used his house as collateral and took a loan of $5000 to start the Lenoir Chair Company, in Lenoir, North Carolina.
Broyhill began by buying several chair frames which he intended to upholster in his basement. Not long after he purchased the frames, a blacksmith and buggy shop near the railroad tracks became available and he moved his operations there. The buggy shop was used to finish the chairs and the upholstery was done in the dirt-floored blacksmith shop. He moved the work outdoors in summers, and upholstered the chairs under a sycamore tree in the backyard.
Two months into this enterprise, Broyhill purchased a small ironing board factory that was operating nearby, with the idea of using the woodworking machinery in the factory to make his own chair frames, instead of purchasing them. The new company expanded further in June 1927, when Broyhill had a two-story building constructed at the site of the old blacksmith shop. The construction of this building meant that Broyhill could now upholster, pack and ship the chairs in one place. The building also had two small offices. At the end of its first full year in business, the company had manufactured furniture worth $150,000. Broyhill had continued to work full-time in his brother’s company throughout this time.
In 1929, Ed and his brother Tom, who was the owner of the Lenoir Furniture Corporation, bought the Harper Furniture Company, a local business that made colonial-style bedroom suites, secretaries, and desks. The Broyhills hoped that the more diversified line would open the doors of a larger number of sales outlets and retail stores for their products. However, the stock market crashed later in the year and brought on the Great Depression, making them regret their hasty decision to expand.
As a result of the Depression, furniture sales dropped. However, the difficulties of the economy in general did not affect Lenoir, and the company’s sales force of 16 men helped increase the sales every year throughout the 1930s. Ed Broyhill worked for his brother’s company and sold furniture for his own, till 1938.
In 1932, Ed and Tom Broyhill, along with two other investors, purchased the bankrupt Newton Furniture Company in a town nearby, for $12,500. Newton had been engaged in producing low-cost furniture – the kind that Ed Broyhill was convinced would be marketable in the prevailing economic conditions. He bought out the three partners in late 1934, reopened the plant in 1935, and changed its name to Lenoir Chair Company No. 2. In less than six months, the factory had a work force of more than 100 men. A new line of low-priced goods was produced, and it was shipped in carload lots to dealers along with the other Lenoir lines.
All office operations of the four Lenoir firms were brought under one roof in 1935 to reduce wasteful duplication. The older brother Tom Broyhill, suffered multiple heart attacks and decided to stop being actively involved in the business. The responsibility for day-to-day business decisions was now given to Ed.
Although the company had expanded steadily, it had been under-funded at its birth. To make up for the cash deficit that dogged it through most of its first decade of operation, it took long-term loans at very high rates of interest. This ended in 1939, when the company finally found itself in a position to arrange a $100,000 bank loan that allowed a consolidation of debts and enabled it to pay the suppliers in cash.
With the company’s finances in a more stable condition and with the recovery and expansion of the American economy owing to the wartime demand for goods, Lenoir decided to purchase two more plants in 1941. The first was the McDowell Furniture Company. It had a factory that produced a line of furniture whose price-range fell between the low-cost Newton line and the medium-priced Lenoir products. It then purchased the Conover Furniture Company, which specialized in manufacturing knee-hole desks, which was an addition to Lenoir’s line of products. Lenoir spent $110,000 on these purchases. Another company, the Wrenn Furniture Company, was acquired by Lenoir in a bankruptcy auction, and its old and outdated facilities were turned into storage space for the company. Ed Broyhill’s business now included six plants operating under five different names. To reduce the confusion this caused, the sales efforts for these factories and operations were brought under one name, the Broyhill Furniture Factories.
After the United States was pushed into World War II, Ed Broyhill was appointed by the Office of Price Administration as the head of the Furniture Industry Advisory Committee. As the head of this committee, Broyhill’s job was to advise the federal government on the correct division and allotment of valuable resources between the civilians and the military. On 3rd November, 1941 the federal government decided to freeze the prices of all furniture for the period of the war. When Broyhill was elected the head of the Southern Manufacturers Association, he worked to get the price controls imposed by the government lifted. This was important because the sale of unprofitable low-cost products was adversely affected by uncontrolled material costs. He succeeded in getting the government to grant a five percent rise in prices by the end of 1945.
Towards the end of the War and during the early post-war years, the supply of consumer goods was limited and the demand was high. During this time, Broyhill sold its furniture by allotment, and everything it produced was immediately bought by the buyers. By the spring of 1948, production caught up with demand, and this unusual situation came to an end. In 1949, the company struggled to keep its finances in a good condition, and by the spring of that year, had to reduce its plant operations to three days a week.
With profits declining, the company, under the direction of one of Broyhill’s sons, Paul, started designing and developing new lines of furniture in more modern styles. Broyhill decided to make and market a sleeker, more streamlined and simplified line of furniture instead of the elaborate and highly decorative ‘borax’ style that was popular in the 1930s and ‘40s. The company also made a decision to pay its sales forces a salary instead of commissions, thus securing the loyalty of the salesmen.
By the mid-1950s, the company was back on its feet and began to expand again. In 1954, it built a new plant from scratch for the first time. This facility was built on a 65-acre piece of land outside Lenoir to upholster chairs previously made at the Lenoir Chair Company. Broyhill purchased a plant in 1955, which it rebuilt and improved later. Along with the construction of new plants, Broyhill also devoted its finances to modernize many of its old factories by dismantling the old wooden walls of the factories after wrapping them with new steel and concrete structures. In many factories, this makeover was completed when the operations were on.
With the steady increase in the wealth on the American population came a change in their tastes. Broyhill saw that the tastes in furniture had shifted – buyers of moderately-priced furniture no longer sought bulky, elaborate and excessively ornate items, they looked for good quality and a more refined and elegant style. The company started the Broyhill Premier line in 1957 to meet this demand. These items were produced in the old Lenoir Chair Company plant, and an additional sales force of 30 men was employed. Broyhill also set up a lab and established a quality control program to ensure that the Premier line did justice to its name. The launch of this line was advertized nationally through a very expensive campaign.
Although the consumers took to the Premier line, it made profits only in the 1960s. The Premier line was strengthened by the addition of upholstered products, as the concept gained popularity and earned revenue. After the establishment of the Premier line, the company put all its remaining products under the label ‘Lenoir House’. This label included a range of medium-cost, moderately-styled bedroom and dining room furniture, which brought in the biggest part of the company’s revenue.
Among all the new plants and facilities constructed by Lenoir in the 1960s, the best was a three-story office and showroom building that was spread over an acre. The building, set in a fifty acre park, had aluminum columns and fountains on all sides which were lit up at night. By the year 1966, Broyhill’s sales rose up to over $75 million, and the building and its site became a landmark in the city of Lenoir.
In the 1970s, Broyhill diversified and entered new fields and expanded steadily. It started a line of plastic furniture and opened a facility to manufacture these items. It stepped outside North Carolina for the first time when it purchased a plant that manufactured upholstered furniture in Arcadia, Louisiana in 1976. Broyhill began offering a line of furniture that the customers could assemble themselves, and a line of wall units in the Early American style, both in 1978. The company focused on furniture made in contemporary styles. In the upholstered furniture line, it improved and upgraded its fabric patterns. These measures resulted in the company’s sales rising to $265.2 million a year by the end of the 1970s. The company operated 20 factories and had a workforce of over 7,500 employees.
Broyhill made a surprising announcement when it declared that it was being purchased for $151.5 million by Interco, Inc., a company that manufactured shoes and clothing. Based in St. Louise, the Interco, Inc. had recently purchased another furniture company, the Ethan Allen, Inc., and planned to use both, Broyhill and Ethan Allen as the foundation for a home furnishings and furniture group that it intended to set up.
Broyhill, under the new ownership, set about bolstering its market share, and to do this, it reintroduced the ‘Premier’ line of furniture with the hope that the line would capture the upscale furniture market. By 1984, Broyhill began focusing on the marketing side of business to increase its sales. The distribution of its products in each territory was reviewed, and improvements were made in the operations. Broyhill also began concentrating on the products manufactured outside America and the competition they posed.
In 1987, Broyhill decided to close a bedroom furniture operation that it had acquired in Austin, Texas, and sell the property. Then in 1990, the company developed a line of decorative home accessories. The line was called ‘Accents ‘n Stuff’, and signaled the company’s foray into a different field. Interco, Inc., the corporate owner of Broyhill, expanded throughout the 1980s by purchasing a number of companies, including Broyhill’s competitor Lane in 1987. However, the acquisitions stretched the resources of the company, and by the end of June 1989, it had to sell the Ethan Allen subsidiary. It declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in January 1991. In a month after this, Broyhill’s revenues had come down to $785 million.
Broyhill kept its focus on increasing its market share even as the bankruptcy proceedings went on. It conducted a study to ascertain the best ways to efficiently distribute and sell its products, and contracted with dealers in the early 1990s to open stores dedicated exclusively to Broyhill furniture. These outlets were called Broyhill Showcase Galleries, and by September 1991, eight of these galleries had been opened in seven states. With positive public response to these stores, Broyhill continued to open more in the following year.
In March 1992, Broyhill reconstituted its corporate leadership. It elevated loyal, longtime employees of the company to important positions to give the company some stability even as Interco went through a difficult time. It also expanded its product line and introduced products under the name Comfort Time. These items of furniture were designed as recliners, but did not look like typical recliners. Six months later, the company added the Custom Sofa Gallery stores to its Showcase Galleries, intending to open them all over the country.
By the 1990s, Broyhill was in a position to look back at its history as a strong and solid company. It was securely settled in the market for medium-priced furniture, and accomplished in efficient and low-cost techniques of manufacturing. The company looked set to maintain its position in the market and its furniture in the American home for years to come.
James Edgar Broyhill left his father’s Wilkes County Farm at the age of 21 to attend the Appalachian Training School. After four years in the school, he left to join the U.S. Army in World War I. In 1919, after the war, he started working for his brother Tom H. Broyhill at his furniture company in Lenoir as a payroll clerk and later, as the leading salesman. In 1926, he purchased the Lenoir Chair Company, which was in dire financial straits. In the course of building his business in the 1930s and the early 1940s, he purchased five more bankrupt or almost bankrupt furniture factories.
During World War II, Broyhill was a member of the Advisory Committee of the War Production Board, serving as the chairman of the Furniture Advisory Committee of the Office of Price Administration. He was appointed the head of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association for four terms in the 1940s. The post-war boom in America helped Broyhill make his companies profitable, and by 1966, the annual sales figure of his plants was $75 million. Broyhill also became a member and leader of the Republican Party in North Carolina, serving from 1948 to 1965 on the national committee. He was also on the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers in the early 1960s.
In 1980, Broyhill’s furniture business was sold to a diversified holding company of consumer goods manufacturers, Interco, Inc. for $151 million. Broyhill Furniture today is a part of the world’s largest manufacturer of residential furniture, the Furniture Brands International. The Lenoir Chair Company, founded in 1926, is the parent of the modern-day Broyhill Furniture Industries, Inc. James Edgar Broyhill upholstered chairs on contract, but wanted to work on his own. The chair company gained success almost immediately, and Broyhill bought six small furniture plants in and around Lenoir. He organized them all under the name Broyhill Furniture Factories. The early years saw Lenoir produce inexpensive to medium-priced bedroom and upholstered furniture.
Furniture sales dipped in the 1940s and the ‘50s, and forced Broyhill to make some changes. The company started paying salaries to its sales staff instead of commissions, and modernized its factories. A new line of expensive and stylish products was introduced, and quality control and national advertising were given great importance. New lines of plastic and ready-to-assemble furniture were also launched. Between 1966 and 1979, sales more than tripled and reached $265 million. In 1980, Interco, Inc., a shoe and clothing manufacturing company from St. Louise, purchased Broyhill, Ethan Allen, and Lane Home Furnishings. An overstretched Interco sought protection from its creditors in 1991 by filing for bankruptcy in 1991, and began to focus on furniture as its main product. The Broyhill Showcase Galleries were established later to display and sell Broyhill furnishings. By the early 2000s, 340 Showcase galleries and 475 Furniture Centers were operating in the country. Broyhill Furniture Industries, Inc. is now a part of Interco’s Furniture Brands International, and maintains its position as one of the largest medium-priced furniture manufacturers in the world.
In 1962, Broyhill created the Brasilia line of furniture, whose distinctive lines and waves were inspired by the architecture of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Brasilia was planned and developed between 1956 and 1960, and when viewed from the air, looks like a plane or a bird. A lot of Broyhill’s original fabric and tiles use this style. The Palacio de Alvarado and the Cathedral of Brasilia were the most important works of Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed most of the city. The use of clean lines, simple and modern designs and hyperboloid structures particularly in the cathedral, and its parabolic columns make it one of the most famous buildings in the city. It is clear that this city is the inspiration behind Broyhill’s Brasilia line of furniture. The unique items of this line were designed all through the 1960s, after being featured for the first time in 1962 at the Seattle World’s Fair, representing the city of Brasilia.