harley ferguson shuford, jr.; century furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 22, 2008 & JANUARY 28, 2009
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME FOUNDATION OFFICES
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is Tony Bengel. I am interviewing Harley F. Shuford, Jr., better known as Buck, on October 22, 2008, during the October High Point Market. We’re in the offices of the American Furniture Hall of Fame Foundation. So, Buck, let’s begin with the first question, where were you born and when?
SHUFORD: I was born in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents lived in Hickory, North Carolina, but my mother was from Norfolk, and she went back home to have her children where her parents and others could help her. So I spent the first few months of my life in Norfolk. But since then, I’ve spent my entire life living in Hickory.
INTERVIEWER: And you were born in 1937?
SHUFORD: That’s correct, 1937.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things I’ve read is that you, at one point, aspired to be an astronaut and you, in fact, got a degree in physics, so let me ask you about your early life. Had your father already founded Century Furniture when you were born?
SHUFORD: No, he was in the textile business running Valdese Weavers when I was born. Dad grew up in Hickory, as did my grandfather, and my great-grandfather — we go way back.
A. A. Shuford fought in the Civil War, he walked back to Hickory — he was our family patriarch. He started Shuford Mills, a yarn mill, and other businesses including Hickory’s First National Bank, and Telephone Company. He started a lot of things in Hickory — he was one of Hickory’s most prominent citizens back at the turn of the century.
INTERVIEWER: So your family actually began in textiles?
SHUFORD: Yes, started with this first yarn mill in the 1880s. When A. A. Shuford died in 1912, his son, my grandfather, A.A. Shuford, Jr., took over and ran this textile business for about 20 years, up until the Depression. He drowned in the surf at Virginia Beach in 1932 and his son, my dad’s oldest brother, took over Shuford Mills.
INTERVIEWER: Right in the Depression …
SHUFORD: Right in the Depression. And Dad, when he finished school, went to work for his two older brothers in the textile business, so that’s how things evolved.
Valdese Weavers was owned by Shuford Mills. My father worked for his older brother for a few years, but wanted his own thing. He made a deal to acquire Valdese Weavers as his own business and that was the beginning of his involvement in the home furnishing industry.
INTERVIEWER: So did Shuford Mills disappear or become Valdese Weavers?
SHUFORD: No, Shuford Mills was a much larger business, and at one time they had several thousand employees and a dozen spinning mills.
INTERVIEWER: Most in the Hickory area, I assume?
SHUFORD: Most of them. There was one in northern Georgia, several in other towns near Hickory. But my dad liked having his own thing. He still had part ownership in Shuford Mills and was still on the board, but his older brother was a strong individual and ran it pretty much like he wanted to.
INTERVIEWER: And your dad didn’t have much room for his own contribution, I would guess. So he started …
SHUFORD: So he made a deal to acquire Valdese Weavers.
INTERVIEWER: So it was a going concern?
SHUFORD: Yes, but not much of one. Dad jumped into the weaving business, renovated the plant, hired some good people and got his fabric business going in the late ’30s and during the Second World War.
INTERVIEWER: Did he target a different customer base than his brother was targeting at Shuford Mills, or how did that play out?
SHUFORD: Shuford Mills wasn’t in the weaving business. They were making yarn, string, and rope, so Dad wasn’t competing with his brothers at all. I should take a few minutes to talk about Shuford Mills and how it evolved. Alex, after the …
INTERVIEWER: Your father’s brother you’re talking about?
SHUFORD: Yes. After the Second World War, Shuford Mills’ main product was string. They were one of the country’s largest string manufacturers.
INTERVIEWER: So people probably flew kites with string made …
SHUFORD: Perhaps, but most of the string was used to wrap packages; that was very common up until the Second World War. After the war, Scotch tape came on the scene. My Uncle Alex realized that tape was going to take the place of string, and so he decided to start making tape.
INTERVIEWER: From string to tape?
SHUFORD: That’s right — he hired some people who knew how to make tape, built a tape plant from scratch and started making tape. He did battle with 3M over patent infringements for years. But anyway, after struggling for a few years, he got the tape business firmly established and Shurtape, today, is a major manufacturer of masking tape and probably the largest manufacturer of duct tape in the country.
INTERVIEWER: So there’s no yarn anymore?
SHUFORD: The yarn business gradually moved overseas. Shuford Mills now has only two yarn mills that are still running. But the tape business is big, hats off to Uncle Alex.
But anyway, when I was born in 1937, Dad was in the fabric business. I grew up in Hickory, went to prep school in Alexandria, Virginia —Episcopal High School. My dad had gone there, and one of his brothers had gone there. I was never asked whether I wanted to go to prep school or not. It was just assumed that I would go to EHS when I reached high school. John McCain was a year ahead of me at EHS.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I think he went on to the Naval Academy. His father was an admiral. This is fascinating — here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign with McCain as the Republican candidate. How well did you get to know him — at all?
SHUFORD: He was a year older. I don’t remember having any dealings with him.
Anyway, I went to EHS for four years. I started school when I was 5 because I had an October birthday. I went off to prep school when I was 13. I was the youngest person in my class — young going to college, young finishing college, young heading up a furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: What do you remember before you went off to high school about your dad? You must have gone to the mill. You must have known what your dad was doing. What sort of memories did you have early on, say, before you went off to prep school? I guess it was just assumed you would take over the business some day, father to son?
SHUFORD: He might have — I didn’t. Dad and I were very different. Dad was very competitive. In fact, we’d chuckle about his majoring in tennis in college — that was his thing. He was on the University of North Carolina tennis team. He didn’t even go to classes during the spring semester — he just played tennis. When he got engaged to my mother from Norfolk, the Hickory paper put his picture in the paper, not hers, and under it, the headline was, “Tennis star to wed.” Needless to say, my mother’s relatives in Norfolk didn’t think much of this.
INTERVIEWER: The same thing certainly didn’t happen in the Norfolk papers, I imagine.
SHUFORD: But anyway, he was always very competitive in whatever he did, a great salesman and an entrepreneur, and I was not that. So naturally we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.
INTERVIEWER: Did your mother have any — or your mother’s family — have any connections to textiles or furniture?
SHUFORD: Her father was a banker, head of a bank in Norfolk, a very traditional family.
INTERVIEWER: Did your mother and father meet at Chapel Hill?
SHUFORD: He had an uncle, Homer Ferguson, who was the head of the Newport News Shipyards — a huge business. After going to the Naval Academy and serving in the Navy, he was hired by Newport News Shipyards and eventually became the head of it. Dad was in Norfolk visiting his uncle when he met my mother.
INTERVIEWER: So, here you were growing up in a textile household but you weren’t particularly interested in that business.
SHUFORD: I liked science and math. And that’s so different from Dad who majored in French and played tennis.
INTERVIEWER: He didn’t major in business or anything like that? Business administration or ..?
SHUFORD: He did enroll in Harvard Business School after graduating from Carolina, but left after a few months.
So I went off to prep school, and then to Chapel Hill. I originally intended to go to Princeton — to the engineering program at Princeton. I had been accepted there and it was all set. Then about two months before going to Princeton, I switched to Chapel Hill — I was convinced that Princeton was going to be too much like prep school. And I had dad’s encouragement to go to Chapel Hill instead of Princeton. I wonder if he thought I was becoming too studious. Plus, it was a lot less expensive than Princeton, and at about that time, he was struggling with the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: So at that point he already had started Century?
SHUFORD: He had. But anyway, I went to Carolina, majored in chemistry and physics and math, and fully intended to go on
to graduate school.
INTERVIEWER: So you graduated from Carolina in what year?
SHUFORD: In January of ’59.
INTERVIEWER: And you were intending at that point to do what?
SHUFORD: I had decided to take a year off between college and graduate school, and so I came back to Hickory.
But going back to Dad starting a furniture business – it’s an interesting story. After the war, he had a fabric weaving operation, and there was a scarcity of fabric for upholstery manufacturers. So he took it upon himself to start a sales agency — a furniture sales agency, which he called Century Furniture. He would deliver fabric to an upholstery company in Hickory and place an order for his fabric to be put on some of their frames, and he would resell this furniture.
He opened a showroom in Hickory where he showed his upholstery to buyers when they came to the market in North Carolina. So Century started out as a wholesale furniture operation, and that business was quite successful for a couple of years. He said at one time he had a dozen companies making furniture for him.
INTERVIEWER: He was marrying fabrics to frames. How did he know there was a market for those particular products?
SHUFORD: Being in the fabric business, he and some of his people had a good idea about what type of fabrics were saleable. He would show samples in his showroom, and order the frames that sold well.
INTERVIEWER: OK, so he would wait until after market before he ordered them to go flat out with a particular product? What sort of people ... what sort of buyers was he selling to in those days? Were they mostly department stores? Was this broadly middle-priced upholstery? Was this upper end?
SHUFORD: I really don’t know who he was selling to, but there was such big demand right after the war that he could sell most everything he had made, and he made some money doing it. So then, in 1947, he decided to build a factory to make case goods to sell along with his upholstery.
INTERVIEWER: So did he buy some existing upholstery plants?
SHUFORD: There was one upholstery plant that he acquired called Longview Furniture Company.
SHUFORD: Longview is a town next to Hickory. He had acquired an interest in Longview Furniture to make his own upholstered furniture, and then decided to make case goods, too. So in 1947, he built a brand new case goods plant. I mean he jumped into the furniture business in a big way.
INTERVIEWER: So this is 1947 when you were roughly 10 years old and …
SHUFORD: The plant was completed in ’48; it began production actually in late ’48.
INTERVIEWER: Did he have to go to banks to borrow money to get this thing up and running?
SHUFORD: Sure. There were never any stockholders. It was his business outright. He would borrow money to build a factory or buy equipment or whatever, and like I said, he was a good salesman — not only to his customers, but he sold himself to some banks as well. He factored most of Valdese Weavers’ business with Textile Banking in New York, and likewise started out factoring Century Furniture’s receivables, too.
INTERVIEWER: There must have been a western end of the High Point Market even back in those times, right?
SHUFORD: Drexel had their own showroom in Drexel, North Carolina.
SHUFORD: Broyhill had their own showroom in Lenoir; Hickory Manufacturing had their own showroom; Hickory Chair had their own showroom. There were also a few showroom buildings in Hickory, but most large companies had showrooms at their factories. Most buyers who came to North Carolina would come to these factory showrooms in and around Hickory. Some would start here and then go to High Point, or others would start in the High Point area and then go west to visit the Hickory area showrooms.
INTERVIEWER: When I came into the industry in 1979, I remember the Hickory Furniture Mart was already there. The western market was still strong back in the late ’70s and only gradually began to move to High Point. How much of this were you aware of — of markets, of your father’s business, of furniture making?
SHUFORD: Very aware of the markets.
INTERVIEWER: Your mom maybe invited some of the buyers into her home and entertained them?
SHUFORD: Every night, that was just part of it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work there in the summers or after school?
SHUFORD: I worked there after my second year in college. I worked as a machine operator in Longview Furniture’s frame shop for a couple of months that summer,
INTERVIEWER: So you’d come back to work in the summers, but you hadn’t done anything before that?
SHUFORD: Just that one summer.
The summer after my freshman year I went out west with three other guys. I spent a month stacking hay bales in Wyoming. I spent another summer traveling with a friend in Europe for a couple of months. We ran with the bulls in Pamplona and climbed the Matterhorn. Those were very memorable experiences during my years at college.
INTERVIEWER: Well, at one point, you were apparently thinking about becoming an astronaut — I guess when JFK announced the mission to the moon? I remember reading that somewhere.
SHUFORD: I would like to have been an astronaut. I had the science and the math background to do that. At that time, becoming an astronaut sounded exciting. Obviously, I never pursued this dream, but this dream got picked up and used in a citation.
INTERVIEWER: So when you graduated from college, you were thinking about going to graduate school, so pick up the story there.
SHUFORD: Well, the summer after I graduated, I came back to Hickory, having decided not to go straight to graduate school, to think about where and what kind of a career to pursue.
First of all, I joined the National Guard because, at that time, the draft was something that everybody was concerned about. Charlotte had an Air National Guard unit which I joined, and they sent me to Texas, taught me to be an aircraft mechanic. It was a six-year obligation to spend a weekend each month and two weeks each summer at their base in Charlotte.
When I got back from basic training, I went to work at Century as an industrial engineer.
I met some people in Hickory that I hadn’t seen in a long time — made some new friends. One of them was married to my cousin. He and I started a business buying karts made in California and selling them to people in our area. I also took flying lessons and got my private pilot’s license.
INTERVIEWER: So you didn’t learn to be a pilot in the National Guard, this was on your own?
SHUFORD: Yes. I began working at Century as an industrial engineer in the case goods plant, designing some machines, conveyor systems, and rearranging some of the plant — that kind of work.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have some engineering courses when you were at Chapel Hill?
SHUFORD: No, but that came easily for me. You know, if I had to do it over again, I would have been an architect or an engineer.
In 1960, I met my wife, Helgi. She was finishing up her last year at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory.
During the next several years while we were dating, I thought a lot about my/our future and finally decided that working for my family’s business would lead to a better future, rather than going to a graduate school and working for a large corporation. So I settled down in Hickory, and started up Century’s first data processing department.
We put in an IBM punch-card system. These machines were programmed by plugging wires into boards that were placed into the machines to make them do what you wanted done. This was interesting, actually fun work for me.
NTERVIEWER: What were you actually doing? I mean, what data were you processing? What was your idea, your goal?
SHUFORD: Well, we started through the whole company. First of all, we set up to do the payroll, then the invoicing, then accounts receivables, inventory controls, accounts payable, piecework tickets, and so on. One by one, designing the forms, programming the machines, and training our people how to use the new systems.
INTERVIEWER: Was this something you had to sell your dad on? Did he think it was a crazy, modern thing, or what was the situation?
SHUFORD: Well, the punch-card equipment was not expensive and he thought it was fine. But the next step was to sell him on buying a computer. IBM had just come out with their 1401, which was one of the first commercial electronic computer systems — and of course I said that’s what we’ve got to have.
INTERVIEWER: So you did some work with computers, I guess, in your college career. You had some acquaintance with them.
SHUFORD: They weren’t teaching computer courses then. But I was fascinated by what a computer could do, so I browbeat Dad into leasing a computer. He didn’t think it was worth the money and didn’t think Century was a large enough business to have a computer, but he went along with it, and we leased one of IBM’s smallest systems.
INTERVIEWER: And you started doing what?
SHUFORD: I started writing the programs — writing the software for our computer.
INTERVIEWER: So you were actually writing new software. You didn’t buy something from IBM? There was no off-the-shelf software? You didn’t hire a programmer, you did it yourself. So you knew what computer language? COBOL?
SHUFORD: I went to an IBM school in Atlanta for a few weeks to learn their programming language. I came back and spent a year or two designing systems and writing software.
In hindsight, once you design systems for the whole company, you learn how the business works. You learn about payroll and all the things that go into doing the payroll calculations; you learn about invoicing and the products that you’re selling; you learn about inventory control, forecasting, and sales analysis, and accounting. You get into most every aspect of the business. So after a couple of years I was very familiar with what most of Century’s people were doing.
INTERVIEWER: Because you had to figure out what the system was and design for it.
SHUFORD: And write the code, and I enjoyed that. Making a computer program work like I wanted it to was a challenge.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have some help? Did you hire people to assist you in doing that? Or were you a one-man operation?
SHUFORD: We had several keypunch operators. They did all the data entry, and I had a young fellow who ran the machines, who did the actual day-to-day processing. I designed the systems and wrote the computer programs, so that was it. I had four or five people working for me.
INTERVIEWER: So you knew exactly what your costs were? Because a lot of manufacturers don’t have a very good handle on that.
SHUFORD: Determining cost was always a challenge even with good systems. Determining accurate cost requires extensive data collection which can be a major cost in itself.
So anyway, I got a real education in the way things worked at Century. So that’s how I started out in the business.
INTERVIEWER: Were you dealing with two separate plants, an upholstery plant and a case goods plant at that point? Did you have two computers?
SHUFORD: We only had one computer.
INTERVIEWER: Take the story on from there. I imagine your father was becoming convinced that this was valuable stuff because you had a lot of numbers. You knew what your costs were, you knew what your sales were, and you knew what your margins were. I assume you did sales forecasting; that probably was pretty tricky.
SHUFORD: I worked on that for years.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re into computers at Century. Were you doing anything with Valdese at that point?
SHUFORD: No, Valdese was totally separate from Century. I had very little to do with Valdese.
INTERVIEWER: So how did things develop for you?
SHUFORD: I started attending furniture markets not only in Hickory but the Chicago markets as well. I remember riding the train from Hickory to Chicago to attend a January market.
INTERVIEWER: So that must have been some time in the mid-’60s, I’m guessing. The Grand Rapids Market had pretty much been taken over by Chicago at that point.
SHUFORD: And Century had a space in the American Furniture Market building. I remember walking around that building for the first time I was just astounded at the amount of furniture that was being offered, just like somebody that comes to the High Point Market for the first time — just astounded at the vast selection of furniture and the vast number of companies.
INTERVIEWER: So you were showing there in the ’50s?
SHUFORD: Yes, I’m not sure if he had a showroom there when he had his sales agency, but Century had a showroom there very early on.
INTERVIEWER: OK. What do you remember about the buyers? Did you have any strong accounts?
SHUFORD: I really was not into the selling then. I got to know some of the sales force, met some of the buyers, but that wasn’t my part of the business. I didn’t have much of a feel for sales and marketing.
INTERVIEWER: So you were considered an operations man, obviously.
SHUFORD: I was operations.
INTERVIEWER: By the time you had gone through all of these computer system programs, did you have a pretty good idea of what Century could or couldn’t make at a reasonable profit? Had you gotten a sense of, yes, a customer wants that, but we can’t do that and make a profit — or we can do that and make a profit? Is that the way your expertise, your interests were leaning at that point?
SHUFORD: I was definitely interested in the cost side of it. I made a concerted effort to figure out what things were costing us to make, and that was a challenge. I was concerned about the piece-work rates we were paying people to do things, and persuaded Dad to bring in a consultant to set up more standardized piece-work rates, because the plant manager or the foreman were setting rates for the various operations.
INTERVIEWER: Just some figure they drew out of the air?
SHUFORD: Not that bad. We had a person who did some time studies but most rates were based on a previous rate set for a similar piece. They might say we’ll pay the same or we’ll pay a little more or little less because it’s a little harder or a little less hard than this. And I was convinced that we needed a more scientific approach to setting standards. I became familiar with some of what was being done in other companies in setting standardized rates, not only for piece-work rates but for other work. So we hired a consultant from a well-known consulting firm.
INTERVIEWER: Did you analyze the operation as a whole?
SHUFORD: We selected half a dozen guys to work with this consultant, and they developed formulas for calculating standards. And that was one of the steps we made to get away from operating more or less by the seat of our pants — a step toward doing a more professional job of running the business.
INTERVIEWER: And this would have been in the ’60s? Well, was anybody else in the family other than yourself and your father involved in Century?
SHUFORD: My older sister married Snyder Garrison. He joined the Marines after finishing at Carolina, went to OCS, and spent several years in the Marine Corps. Snyder and Nancy came back to Hickory, and he went to work for our family furniture business soon after I did.
INTERVIEWER: In what capacity?
SHUFORD: He started out in quality control, and in about the middle ’60s we needed a chair manufacturing facility. So we built our Century Chair Plant, and Snyder was put in charge of that. Dad didn’t like working for his brothers so he wanted each of his own family members to have their own kitchen, so to speak. Snyder developed an outstanding line of occasional chairs and also developed a sizeable amount of business making chairs for other manufacturers. He made a lot of chairs for Ethan Allen.
INTERVIEWER: And your dad was doing most of the sales and marketing end of all this?
SHUFORD: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: So now Century was making bedroom and dining room both at that point?
SHUFORD: It started out as just dining room for a year or two, then bedroom, then occasional. Now maybe we should back up to the start of Century.
Dad got the case goods plant completed just about the time the first big post-war recession hit, so he went from having this booming business selling all you could make, spending all this money on a new factory, to a business that was struggling — and it was quite a struggle for four or five years just keeping it going.
At one point he bid on a government contract to make thousands of five-drawer chests. It was a big contract and he bid some ridiculously low price to get this business. He joked about being in the room when they opened up the bids. When he heard that the Drexel bid was much more than his, he knew he had made a big mistake. But he went home with the contract to keep Century running.
The factory geared up and ran almost a year making those chests. They got so efficient at running that one piece of furniture, and with a lot of help from his suppliers; they broke even during the last six months.
The next significant thing that happened to Century was the hiring of Ray Sobota to design for us. I don’t know who was designing before Ray, but Century was not making much headway. Someone recommended a designer in Grand Rapids to Dad and he went up to visit and to ask him to design furniture for Century. The guy he went to see turned him down, but he recommended another designer named Ray Sobota. Dad talked to Ray and hired him that day.
Century had many fine, capable people but Ray made the biggest difference. He pulled Century out of the pack. His designs got Century going. Ray was a hard-working, talented designer. Dad had virtually no business when Ray designed Citation — a large collection that must have had 80 pieces in it.
INTERVIEWER: Bedroom, dining room, living room, the whole thing?
SHUFORD: Bedroom, dining room, living room, occasional — it was a big collection. I remember Dad saying that he was going to find out whether the Lord intended him to be in the furniture business. He went ahead and put in a big cutting before the market, and fortunately Citation was a big hit.
INTERVIEWER: That would have been when?
SHUFORD: The middle ’50s.
INTERVIEWER: Did Ray go to the Kendall School of Design up in Grand Rapids? Was he working for other companies?
SHUFORD: He did go to Kendall. And he was designing for several other companies.
INTERVIEWER: So he was an established name? He established himself at least in the furniture industry.
SHUFORD: He had clients that he was designing for in addition to Century.
INTERVIEWER: Did he become an exclusive Century designer?
SHUFORD: He kept several of his old clients. He lived in Chicago and came to Hickory every six months for three or four weeks to draw a new collection — sometimes more than one collection. Ray never wanted anyone to help him with drawings — he preferred to draw out each piece by himself.
INTERVIEWER: He must have been well informed about production and what could be made successfully.
SHUFORD: Another key person was a fellow that was in charge of our machine room, a fellow named Tommy Puett.
Tommy was a very capable guy. Ray had a lot of respect for him and would change drawings if Tommy said it would be better to do it this way instead of that way. The two of them worked out how each piece would be constructed.
INTERVIEWER: What was Tommy Puett doing at Century?
SHUFORD: He came to work for Century as a band saw operator and was promoted to machine foreman...
INTERVIEWER: Now what price points was Citation aimed at? Was it the middle market or...?
SHUFORD: Back then I would guess that Century’s prices were a little higher than Broyhill, not as high as Drexel.
Anyway, Citation sold extremely well. Then he designed some other successful collections, so things were moving along well when I joined the company in ’59.
When I started working at Century, our new group was a collection of reproductions from the Henry Ford Museum.
Ray Sobota had taken it upon himself to visit the museum, and he liked what he saw. They had a beautiful collection of American furniture. So he called up Dad and said, “I’ve talked to the curator and they’re interested in doing a royalty program and I would like to draw some of their pieces.” And Dad just said, “Have at it.” So Ray went to the museum and spent a month measuring pieces and making drawings for the collection. Dad was not very involved in the design process, it was really Ray.
INTERVIEWER: So Ray must have had a fairly good sense of what the market would respond to.
SHUFORD: He traveled with some of the salesmen, and he showed sketches to some of our dealers. In fact, as I became involved in the marketing end of the business, our product development staff consisted of me and Ray. We would decide on what to design for the next market. Then he would draw many sketches.
We traveled together to show these sketches to salesmen and to customers, to get their comments and then settle on what we wanted to do; and then Ray would start drawing.
The plant made a few mockups, to see what a few pieces would look like when finished, and then he would draw more sketches. He could draw a dozen sketches in an hour. We would pin them all up on the wall and together we would pick the ones to be included in the new collection. Then we’d decide the sizes of the pieces.
And so that’s how our design development was done for twenty-some years. I spent a lot of time with Ray; we traveled in Europe together; we traveled all over the country.
INTERVIEWER: So this is when you were really getting into the marketing end of the business? This is in the mid- to late-’60s?
SHUFORD: It was when I became president in 1967.
INTERVIEWER: OK, what was Century’s volume then? When you joined the company, you were doing approximately what?
SHUFORD: Well, I’d have to get that number. Dad made me president of Century on my 30th birthday, and at that time, our sales were about $11 million.
INTERVIEWER: When you were named president, was your father backing out of the business? How did that work?
SHUFORD: Well, if you’re the owner’s son, and he’s still around, most people assumed he was still making all the decisions.
He built the new mill for Valdese Weavers. Valdese was always his business — Century was mine. His new Valdese Weavers plant struggled for a while — that would have been in the ’70s
When Dad got involved in the furniture business, he made his good friend, Roy Boggs, president of Valdese. But Roy was an operations guy, not a marketing guy. And the designs at Valdese were very much the same year after year. Dad finally hired a fellow named Bob McKinnon, who was a salesman for another textile company. Bob McKinnon turned out to be really good at marketing and selling. Valdese prospered under Bob’s leadership; the change was dramatic. The business grew 10 times in volume after Bob came aboard. Hats off to him; he did a remarkably good job. It tickled Dad when his business had a better quarter than my business.
INTERVIEWER: I take it Century was buying some of Valdese’s product, right?
SHUFORD: Yes, we were, but Valdese was selling to a lot of companies.
INTERVIEWER: So your dad, when you became president of Century in 1967, he became chairman, I assume. By that time you had put in the computer systems and gotten a good handle on operations and...
SHUFORD: Yes. I was involved in the operations in the case goods plant for a while before I became president, and so ’67 was a big change for me — to get out of operations and into marketing. I remember before then that our North Carolina/South Carolina sales rep, who was a good friend, invited me to spend a few days with him. He told me that I needed to go out and see what it’s like in the retail world. So we made a date, he picked me up in Hickory and we headed to South Carolina to make calls on half a dozen of his customers.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember some of them? Are they still in business?
SHUFORD: I don’t know, but I do remember going to a small
town and walking into a store where the owner had a customer, so we bided our time, waiting for them to finish up. Then I watched Peter show him photographs of some new things and talk about some of the things he had on his floor — a typical sales presentation. And although it wasn’t a formal presentation, he was selling just as I expected. And then it got to be lunchtime and the store owner said, “Let’s go have some lunch.” I knew that taking your dealer to lunch was pretty standard, but I was surprised when the dealer took us to his beautiful, old colonial home where his housekeeper served us lunch in his dining room. I told Peter later that this life on the road wasn’t as bad as I expected.
INTERVIEWER: So you called on some smaller independent retailers in South Carolina. Was that kind of retailer the backbone of your business at this time?
SHUFORD: Well, we ran the gamut — we were selling some big stores and we were selling to small dealers such as the one I mentioned in South Carolina. But that was a memorable first trip on the road.
When I was made president, I realized that I had a lot to learn about sales and marketing. I needed to get acquainted with Century’s major accounts. So that first year, I spent over a hundred nights in a motel. I traveled in 45 states — visited all of our sales territories, spending two or three days with each salesman.
INTERVIEWER: Were these reps independent reps or were they dedicated to Century? Had your dad built up a sales force?
SHUFORD: He had built up a sales force; I think we had around 24 salesmen in 1967.
INTERVIEWER: But no regional sales managers? In fact, there was nothing between the chief sales and marketing guy, and your reps on the road, right?
SHUFORD: Right. Our reps were very independent.
INTERVIEWER: They controlled their distribution in a real way?
SHUFORD: They did, and that’s why we ended up with a variety of customers in all parts of the country. That first year as president, I met a lot of people, walked through a lot of stores, and really got a feel for the sales and marketing.
INTERVIEWER: Your bigger accounts would have been ... you mentioned B. Altman’s, the old-line department store which no longer exists under that name, I believe.
SHUFORD: That’s right; it’s gone.
INTERVIEWER: What about Macy’s?
SHUFORD: Sold Macy’s some. W. & J. Sloan was a very important account.
INTERVIEWER: Were you considered the low end in their stores?
SHUFORD: No, not at all. We were up there with Drexel and Thomasville.
INTERVIEWER: So you had already gotten into some higher design pieces, collections, like Citation …
SHUFORD: Citation was introduced in the ’50s and was less expensive than Drexel or Thomasville.
INTERVIEWER: Upper-middle, let’s say. Would that be a fair approximation? Upper-middle to low-high end?
SHUFORD: Well, Century was really middle market when I took over. But I started traveling with Ray Sobota, showing sketches and talking about the business. He and I both wanted to move Century up, so we started making more expensive things, improving our quality, broadening our selection. And gradually, over a period of time, we moved up the price points.
INTERVIEWER: What factors drove this development? You saw a niche there that wasn’t being served? Or were your customers demanding better quality, better-designed furniture? Describe some of that development.
SHUFORD: Well, it was the desire to make more upscale things and get away from the competition in the middle price points — to try to separate ourselves from some much larger companies. Of course, Henredon dominated the upper end at that point, but we felt like we could successfully compete with Henredon. So over a period of time we moved up, and I think one of the keys to our success was raising the price points of our product.
INTERVIEWER: So as you did that, I guess your account base would have had to have changed. You weren’t interested in going into Levitz, even though they were coming along pretty strong with the warehouse-showroom concept. Did you see that as being too price sensitive, too competitive?
SHUFORD: Sure. Actually I don’t think grading up really changed it that much. We became one of the most expensive furniture lines in some stores, but for the most part we stayed with the same retailers we had done business with over the years.
But Ray Sobota’s ability to design and to listen to salesmen, to me, to retailers, to some people who worked in the factory ... he made a tremendous difference. He is now 96, but has Alzheimer’s.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things we haven’t covered yet is advertising. Did Century start to do any trade and/or consumer advertising? Describe a little bit of that.
SHUFORD: Well, that was part of the upgrade in the ’70s. We started making more expensive furniture and there was a need to advertise.
INTERVIEWER: In the shelter magazines, the consumer magazines?
SHUFORD: We started advertising in consumer magazines, but we never spent enough money to build our brand like Henredon and some others had done.
INTERVIEWER: Did you do any trade advertising back in the
SHUFORD: Just consumer advertising.
INTERVIEWER: Did you hire an advertising agency?
SHUFORD: We did hire an advertising agency, and over the years we used several agencies, one in Atlanta for a while, then we went with a New York firm for a while. The last firm we used was located in Winston-Salem.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a target for advertising expense, like 3 percent of revenues or something?
SHUFORD: Our budget for advertising varied from year to year.
We also leased some trucks so we could deliver our furniture more carefully and more quickly. We gradually built up a sizeable trucking operation that delivered a big percentage of our shipments even to the West Coast.
INTERVIEWER: Meanwhile, what were you doing on the production side? You must have been adding and upgrading plants.
SHUFORD: The next plant we added was an upholstery plant. But let me back up a little bit. When my youngest brother, Alex Shuford, got out of Carolina, he joined the Navy. He went to OCS, and served three years. Then he went to Columbia to get his MBA before coming back to Hickory.
Dad decided he, too, needed to have something of his own, and so at that time — this was in 1972 — Dad started a new furniture business that would eventually be Alex’s. This was a lower-priced upholstery business which he named Shuford Furniture.
Alex wasn’t president at first. Dad hired a friend of his to be the president and put Alex in charge of administration. Dad decided that this business was not going to use independent reps; he wanted to hire a few salesmen and pay them a salary instead of a commission. And so they began making furniture at a rented factory in Hickory.
INTERVIEWER: Was this both upholstery and case goods?
SHUFORD: Just upholstery. They tried this for a while,
but the business just limped along. It was frustrating for Alex. So after a couple of markets Dad asked some of our Century sales force to also sell Shuford Furniture. Shuford Furniture had its own market showroom — he still wanted it to be separate. But within about four years, Shuford Furniture was folded into Century, and Alex became vice president in charge of Century’s upholstered furniture. So that was our second upholstery plant. Then we built a third upholstery plant from scratch in’81.
INTERVIEWER: So your business was growing fairly well, obviously, or you wouldn’t have been doing that.
SHUFORD: We slowly built it up over the years.
INTERVIEWER: And at this point you were pretty much completely in control of Century. Was your dad still involved?
SHUFORD: In the early ’70s, Dad’s older brother died; Uncle Alex had run the original family business, Shuford Mills, and the tape business for all those years. Dad had two brothers. Uncle Bill, his other brother, died some years before. Uncle Alex ran these businesses in no uncertain way; nothing happened without his say. He was an interesting fellow. He was very much an entrepreneur. When he died, the lawyer handling his estate said they had trouble tracking down over 100 different ventures that he was somehow involved in all over the country. He had an interest in everything from a restaurant in Miami to some vacant land in New Mexico, a hotel in Virginia ... This lawyer told me he spent a year tracking down all of these ventures.
Anyway, when Uncle Alex died, Dad became head of Shuford Mills so he wasn’t around Century much after that. Shuford Mills and Shurtape were substantial businesses, and there were a lot of things that needed to be done. Uncle Alex had let things slide as he got older and became ill, so Dad had his hands full.
I have another brother, Pope, who is three years younger than I am. When he graduated from Chapel Hill he joined the Air National Guard just like I did, but he went to work for Shuford Mills. Uncle Alex did not have any sons, so he asked me to get involved at Shuford Mills. I worked there one summer. But I stayed with Century so he asked Pope to come to work for him.
Dad really took hold of Shuford Mills, and after a few years he made Pope president.
In 1988, Dad decided to buy out all of the other stockholders at Shuford Mills. There were some 140 stockholders at Shuford Mills at that time. People had been given stock when they worked there, and some of these people had handed down their stock to their descendents or sold it to others.
INTERVIEWER: It wasn’t a publicly traded company, but there were a number of stockholders, is that what you’re saying?
SHUFORD: Yes, so he made a tender offer and bought just about all the stock. In 1989, he put all of our companies — Shuford Mills, Shurtape, Century, and Valdese Weavers — into one holding company called Shuford Industries. This company had 4,000 employees and 19 manufacturing facilities.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any stock? Did he give stock to you and your sister and brothers?
SHUFORD: Yes, he gave us all his stock. He said after dealing with his brother’s estate, which took him years to resolve, he wanted to get his estate all settled up ahead of time, and he died without owning a single share. In fact, he died not owning anything. So he put together a big business and over time he gave all the stock to his four children.
INTERVIEWER: He lived until when?
SHUFORD: Until ’94.
INTERVIEWER: Now, somewhere along the way there was a company called CV Industries, I think, that combined Century and Valdese. I assume this was a later development and you’re coming to that. Anyway, so you’re working your way through the ’70s and you’ve moved Century up in quality and price, you’ve become involved in sales and marketing. What other landmark developments do we need to cover as you work your way through?
SHUFORD: I was determined to upgrade our case goods plant and the chair plant. The chair plant was designed well to begin with, but we started to really renovate the case goods plant. We replaced a lot of equipment and installed a whole new finishing system, a new dust collection system, a new lumberyard, a new rough-end — very extensive renovations. We added many computer-controlled machines. I wanted to have a first-class operation. I felt like I could compete with anybody if I had first-rate facilities.
INTERVIEWER: Did you go to Europe and see how they made furniture? Japan? Describe the process you went through.
SHUFORD: We visited a number of factories. One of the questions you ask Hall of Fame inductees is about who helped them in their career. Many people I met through the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association became good friends. They would invite me to come see them and they’d show me around. Also machinery salesmen would take me to see a machine at someone’s plant. I did make some trips to Europe and Japan, and had a chance to visit plants in several countries. One of my goals was to have modern manufacturing facilities with modern equipment, with clean and bright work spaces — not the old, dusty kind of places that the furniture industry was known for. So we spent a lot of time and a lot of money, revamping our facilities.
INTERVIEWER: One thing I don’t want to forget to ask you is how you got your nickname? How did you become known as Buck?
SHUFORD: Well, this goes back to my father’s uncle in Newport News. While mother was pregnant with me, they visited Uncle Homer who had a new grandson who was called Bucky. As they were driving back to Hickory, my mother said she liked the name Bucky, thought it was a nice nickname, and she didn’t want to call me Junior. So that’s where Bucky came from.
INTERVIEWER: So originally your mom and dad called you Bucky.
SHUFORD: I was Bucky at first. Of course, like Jimmy or Tommy, you drop the “y” as you get older. I didn’t care to be called Junior; I didn’t like that at all, so Buck suited me fine, even today.
INTERVIEWER: OK, so you were talking about modernizing your production. You wanted to become a state-of-the-art operation.
SHUFORD: Yes, we did spend a lot of money building additions to the plants and buying new equipment. I wanted to have all first-rate facilities.
INTERVIEWER: Were you aiming for what they usually call just-in-time manufacturing, where you don’t have huge inventories of components lying around, where everything is designed to flow efficiently in one door and out the other?
SHUFORD: The equipment that I wanted was the equipment that would set up quickly, machines that would switch from this job to that job in no time.
INTERVIEWER: So you didn’t have to run a million pieces to make money.
SHUFORD: That’s right. Our whole operation was set up on the basis of making a lot of different things; and the fewer things we could make at a time, the less inventory we would have to carry. So, when I’d go to machinery shows - unlike Broyhill or Bassett, who were interested in speed, how fast something would go - wanted something that was easy and quick to set up, a computer-controlled machine where you could key in a number and the heads would all change and be ready to make a different item. That’s the way I wanted Century to run, and even today they’re running very small quantities.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re talking about short-run manufacturing essentially, are you not?
SHUFORD: Yes. I was hoping the day would come where we would make furniture to order.
INTERVIEWER: Custom order is what you were aiming for, I assume.
SHUFORD: We were concerned about the amount of money we were tying up in inventory. We borrowed money to build these plants and finance these inventories and buy the equipment, and so the less inventory, the better. It was a constant battle — forecasting what you needed. I did the cuttings myself. I decided what we were going to make each week; nobody else did that. I went through the printouts and decided what we would make.
INTERVIEWER: The sales forecasts, incoming orders and all that. They were all computerized so you could call them up …
SHUFORD: I didn’t delegate placing cutting orders to anybody. I did that myself.
INTERVIEWER: What was happening on the upholstery side? On the operations side, you’ve been talking about your case goods plants, I believe.
SHUFORD: Well, in the 1980s, we built a new upholstery plant. There’s not much high-tech equipment that is useful in making custom upholstery. We did build a modern facility with high ceilings, well lit, air conditioned; and we did invest in computerized fabric cutting machines. We bought some very early versions of that. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t work very well. We ran those machines around the clock, and we used computer-controlled equipment to cut parts for frames. But basically, upholstery is still made by hand. We were in the upper end; no two pieces were alike. And we used a lot of the customer’s own fabrics. So, from a manufacturing standpoint — aside from cutting fabric — upholstery is still being made just like it was when Century was started.
INTERVIEWER: So this was during the ’80s when you were upgrading your facilities, modernizing your facilities.
SHUFORD: We started in the ’70s, but it took a number of years.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of changes were you making in your marketing? What was happening to your account base? Who were some of your major customers that may have had a significant impact on your business? That’s a bunch of questions, so just start somewhere you think is significant.
SHUFORD: Hiring Dave Leffler to be our sales manager in 1979 was an important move for Century. Our sales force has always been one of our competitive strengths. Dave was very careful about who he hired and he stayed in close touch with all of his guys.
Another significant thing for us was opening a showroom in High Point. We dreaded making that move. Markets were so inexpensive for us in Hickory. But every market, a salesman would come in and say, “My five top accounts all walked in the first day, first thing. I couldn’t do anything more than speak to them, ask them to make themselves at home. I didn’t spend any time with them, and they told me that they’re going to High Point tomorrow and they won’t be back. We’ve just got to move to High Point.”
And then Drexel moved to High Point and we agonized over that; and then another company moved to High Point. And so, even though Broyhill and Bernhardt were still in the Hickory area, buyers stopped spending a couple of days in the west. Anyway, the writing was on the wall — people were starting to just drive over for the day, see us and maybe one or two other people, then drive back. They didn’t want to pack up and move, and that was a problem. If they came early, they wouldn’t buy because they wanted to see what else was for sale at market. So we realized that if we were going to compete we had to be in High Point, and so I talked to some people about a space in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: Was it the big building’s Bob Gruenburg at that time?
SHUFORD: Yes, and we talked to a few people who had the other buildings — Doug Wilson had a complex over there — but we didn’t find anything suitable. We needed a big showroom.
So then we started talking to real estate people about buying land and building a showroom, and that’s when Jake Froelich approached me about coming into Market Square. That was soon after he, Dave Phillips, and George Lyles had bought the old Tomlinson factory in downtown High Point, and started turning it into a showroom building. So Jake showed me what they planned to do. It was an old place and didn’t look like much at that time.
Anyway, he made us a proposition to put our showroom in Market Square that was very attractive. And he agreed to let us have our own elevator and the top floor all to ourselves. So we set up shop in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: And what year was that?
SHUFORD: Our first market in High Point was in October ’84.
INTERVIEWER: Had you already in the ’70s left the Chicago Market?
SHUFORD: We moved our showroom to the Merchandise Mart, which had most of the high-end furniture showrooms; we thought that was a more appropriate location for us than the old American Furniture Mart. We’ve maintained a showroom in Chicago to this day at the Merchandise Mart. We also had a space in Dallas, and we also had a space in San Francisco.
INTERVIEWER: Back in the late ’70s when Dallas was coming on strong …
SHUFORD: They built that big Dallas Market Center complex and hotel, and we had a good-sized showroom in Dallas. Aside from High Point, Dallas had become much more important than Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: But you ultimately pulled out of Dallas when the furniture market fizzled there?
SHUFORD: Our line is in somebody else’s showroom that’s open to the design trade.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever try Atlanta?
SHUFORD: We recently opened a designer showroom in Atlanta. We have a dozen showrooms around the country that sell to the design trade — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C.
INTERVIEWER: But you still consider High Point your major furniture market?
SHUFORD: Without question. Our showroom here is much, much larger than the others.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, this was after you retired, but what about the Las Vegas Market? Your brother Alex is now CEO of Century, and you must stay in close touch with him. What are you all thinking vis-à-vis Las Vegas?
SHUFORD: We think it would be very expensive to lease a space in the World Market Center buildings there. You know, the Las Vegas Market is just like in Chicago — it will be expensive to get furniture in and out of the building, to get things done in the building, to get renovations done to the showroom. It all becomes so expensive. We’d have to sell a lot of furniture to make a showroom there worthwhile.
INTERVIEWER: You’re serving your clientele adequately from your existing showrooms, I assume.
SHUFORD: Sure, at this point. With this economy like it is now, I expect the Las Vegas Market will have a hard time; they’ve got a lot of space to rent.
INTERVIEWER: Most resources say they’ll have to show where the retailers want to go, so retailers will ultimately determine where the markets are, as they did when you had to make your showroom move from Hickory to High Point.
SHUFORD: Exactly, so I don’t know how this Vegas thing will play out.
INTERVIEWER: Ron Wanek of Ashley described the High Point/Las Vegas situation as a poker game, with both players trying to take the right gambles and win the highest stakes. Fortunately, we don’t have to make those decisions; it will play out on its own.
One of the things we haven’t covered, where I know you’ve made a great contribution to the industry, is your participation in industry associations, particularly the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association and then the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. Describe why and how you decided to become involved, what it’s meant to you over the years personally and to the company — just some of your observations on your industry involvement. Was that something your dad did?
SHUFORD: Yes, he went to some of the SFMA meetings. I attended SFMA manufacturing division meetings regularly when I got involved in operations, and started going to the SFMA annual meetings as well.
When I became president of Century, I was asked to join the SFMA board. I enjoyed those meetings. I made many friends and acquaintances over the years.
John Christian Bernhardt comes to mind first. He couldn’t have been nicer to me. I met his son, Alex, and we’ve been friends over the years. And then there are others like Don Hunziker, Charlie Gordon, Wes Collins, Hamp Powell, Clyde Hooker, Dick Udouj — I got to know at board meetings and committee meetings.
Don Hunziker and I were on the executive committee at the same time for a few years, and we traveled together some. There was a four-year cycle for a member of SFMA’s executive committee. Each member would start as second vice president, then first vice president, president and then chairman, and I went through that at an interesting time. One of the first things that came up was concern about our furniture lobbyist in Washington. I remember a lot of discussion about that.
INTERVIEWER: This was about when? You’re talking about the ’70s? Is this SFMA or AFMA?
SHUFORD: This was several years before the merger. The SFMA executive committee decided to change our representation in Washington. When we went to the board to recommend this change of representation, there was also much discussion about the association’s director in High Point — that was Doug Kerr. So the board decided we should also replace Doug Kerr and put Doug Brackett in charge of SFMA.
When I became president, we didn’t have a representative in Washington. So I went to Washington with Doug Brackett and a few others to interview prospective representatives for our association in Washington. About that time, I was at a retailer’s event in New Orleans, and Don Belgrad was at the same store; we were having drinks at a store opening celebration. Don was the head of the northern furniture manufacturers’ group, the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, and I was the head of the SFMA.
He got me aside and said he heard we had let go of our representative in Washington. He said they, too, weren’t happy with their representation in Washington, and he suggested the two associations could hire one person to represent the entire industry there. I said it made sense to me.
We agreed to see if we could get some people to support it. I went to the executive committee and they said that it made sense. For a small industry like the furniture industry to have two separate representatives in Washington was not going to get much done. So various people talked with others before the board meeting, and the board went along with it.
INTERVIEWER: So is that when Joe Gerard was hired as the Washington lobbyist?
SHUFORD: That’s right. Joe is still one of my good friends. I went up to Washington and Joe was one of the people we talked to, and we felt Joe was the right person for us. I spent a lot of time in Washington with Joe that year.
INTERVIEWER: What about the Northern guys? Did they spend a lot of time bringing Joe up to speed on the industry as well?
SHUFORD: I’m sure they visited with him just like I did. We’d make calls on the Southern congressmen and senators when I was there, then he’d take the NAFM guys to call on the people from their neck of the woods. Joe knew his way around — he represented our industry well.
Helgi and I met Joe and his wife, Gail, in Washington about a year ago, and we spent a couple of days reminiscing about old times.
INTERVIEWER: Is he retired now?
SHUFORD: Yes, they have moved back to Arkansas.
INTERVIEWER: So would you describe this as the beginning of the NAFM and SFMA starting to come together?
SHUFORD: I think so. It took another couple of years. Alex Bernhardt was SFMA’s president when they actually merged the groups. Getting the joint Washington office was the first step.
INTERVIEWER: Did you remain involved in the newly created American Furniture Manufacturers Association?
SHUFORD: Yes, I stayed on the board until I retired in ’95.
INTERVIEWER: Some of these people were pretty much your direct competitors, were they not? Associations bring together a lot of people who are really going tooth and nail at each other in the marketplace. And yet you all get along in the associations, like with you and the Bernhardts.
SHUFORD: We were making more expensive things than Bernhardt but they were friends. Maybe there were some who didn’t go to meetings because they didn’t want to associate with their competitors. But a lot of people did, and I enjoyed getting acquainted with industry leaders like Bob Spilman, Hamp Powell, and Smith Young; we worked on some things together. It was interesting to hear what they had to say.
Then I was asked to be on the High Point marketing association’s board, and became president of that for a year.
INTERVIEWER: When was this, roughly?
SHUFORD: The year we hired Rick …
INTERVIEWER: Was it Rick Barentine?
SHUFORD: Yes, I worked with him for about a year.
INTERVIEWER: Wasn’t it an ongoing point of frustration that you never really could set an effective opening day of the High Point Market?
SHUFORD: We used to wrestle with the problem that some people would open up early, but there was no way we could enforce that. It was an aggravating thing, but there just wasn’t any way to stop it.
The other thing I got involved in came through Henry Foscue. He asked me to come to his office in the big building one day, and he told me about The Furniture Foundation and how it helped support the furniture program at N.C. State University in Raleigh. We talked about it, he explained the history of it and so forth, and then he said he wanted me to take over in his place — that he was aging out. So I did that for a number of years. The foundation had some money invested, and the proceeds were used to support the program at State.
INTERVIEWER: Where did these funds come from?
SHUFORD: They had been contributed by a number of people over many years — companies and individuals. I don’t know what the amount of money is now, but it provided good support for the furniture program.
INTERVIEWER: So you would support professors and scholarships …
SHUFORD: I ended up going down to State on a number of occasions and got to know the faculty down there, and that was another industry activity that I found interesting. The furniture program at State was small — a part of the industrial engineering school, which was very large; it was a little stepchild with only a few professors and not that many students. And we talked about what could be done. The textile industry had their own building and their own facility. I wanted something comparable for the furniture industry, but that never came about.
INTERVIEWER: So much furniture manufacturing and textile manufacturing has left this country, I guess both of those efforts at N.C. State have kind of languished, perhaps.
SHUFORD: Eric Schenk, our VP of operations, is now head of the Furniture Foundation. I was hoping the furniture program would become more important, and I was always disappointed at how few students it would attract. The chancellor and the dean of the engineering school kept saying that they would provide more facilities and more instructors if the program attracted more students. But the program just never did attract many students. We hired some of their graduates; we had some co-op students that went through the program and we’ve hired them. We have several of their graduates still working for us.
INTERVIEWER: My impression is that the furniture industry in general has always pretty much relied on growing its own talent, on home-grown talent, and it hasn’t been so much wed to colleges and universities. In your case, you were writing the computer programs for Century. You hadn’t had any real computer training in your university career. So it seems to me the furniture industry has been a do-it-yourself industry — people found what they were interested in, they pursued it, they taught themselves, they were mentored by other people in the industry perhaps.
SHUFORD: Well, as the manufacturing equipment got more complex, we needed industrial engineers — trained industrial engineers, really skilled engineering talent. We have people now that specialize in writing software. It’s not something you pick up in an IBM class in a couple of weeks anymore; it’s a career path. So there was a need, but not as much now with so much furniture now being made in China and elsewhere.
INTERVIEWER: Any other groups in the industry that you’ve been involved in that we haven’t covered?
SHUFORD: Those three were the ones that come to mind.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you retired as president of Century in about what year? 1996?
SHUFORD: I retired on December 31, 1995. I asked Bob McKinnon, who had done such a marvelous job for us at Valdese, to take my place at Century.
INTERVIEWER: That’s when CV came into play.
SHUFORD: CV — Century and Valdese came about after we split off Shuford Mills and Shurtape to my brother, Pope.
INTERVIEWER: In 1994?
SHUFORD: Yes. After Dad died, I became CEO of Shuford Industries. It wasn’t too long, a year or two after that, that Pope and I were at odds about who was going to be able to do what. He wanted capital for a Shurtape expansion, and we needed money for a Century or Valdese project. When Dad was alive, he decided who got what as far as these major capital improvements. Once he wasn’t there, it was between my brother and me. Anyway, one thing led to another, and we decided to split Shuford Industries. So Pope took the tape business and what was left of the original Shuford Mills yarn spinning business. Pope’s family now owns Shurtape. And my sister Nancy, and my brother Alex, and I own CV Industries.
INTERVIEWER: And that seems to have served your operating needs very well.
SHUFORD: Yes, Valdese has done well. We added a couple more facilities for Valdese. They’re now almost as big as the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: And they’re mostly producing domestically?
SHUFORD: Mostly all domestic. They do import some silk from China and India, but they weave all of their jacquard fabrics here in North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: And they’ve been able to sustain that market very well, apparently.
SHUFORD: Extremely well, and most of their major competitors have gone by the wayside.
INTERVIEWER: What’s been the key to their success as you see it? Production efficiency? Marketing? Trend savvy, all of that?
SHUFORD: Yes, all of that. They have many good designers and probably the most modern fabric weaving operation anywhere in the world.
INTERVIEWER: Who’s running that business now?
SHUFORD: Mike Shelton is the president. He, Carson Copeland, and my nephew, Snyder Garrison, are running Valdese.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s switch back to furniture and Century. In your last active days at Century as president, did you start importing any of your furniture, like accent pieces or tables? Let’s get into the domestic manufacturing versus imports issue and how you balanced the two, what your strategy was, how things looked to you.
SHUFORD: We always had some things made overseas. For a number of years, we imported many occasional chair frames — carved frames.
INTERVIEWER: This would have been from a plant where?
SHUFORD: Some came from Spain and Portugal, and some came from somewhere in the Far East.
INTERVIEWER: So these carved chair frames have been a part of your operation for some time. Was that because it was too hard to duplicate them domestically?
SHUFORD: We experimented with some computer-controlled carving machines, but we never could duplicate the hand-carved frames that we were importing. Century didn’t start importing case goods until the ’90s, after I left. They started out importing the backs of dining room chairs from China. These would be completed and finished in Hickory.
I had bought a number of five-axis routers, with tool changers — you put in a block of wood and the machine would make a finished part. We had a whole bank of these machines making chair parts. But even with this equipment we could buy chairs for much less than we could make them. So Century started buying chairs and eventually case goods from a company in China, and also from a factory in Colombia, South America.
Interestingly enough, there’s a factory in Colombia that makes furniture for Baker, Henredon and us, but we still make over 80 percent of our furniture in North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever consider doing upholstery in Mississippi?
SHUFORD: We had an upholstery plant in Tupelo. We closed it up after running it for a few years.
INTERVIEWER: Was the reason it didn't work because they were essentially a low-end operation, and of course you were at the other end of the spectrum?
SHUFORD: The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.
INTERVIEWER: It seems it’s harder to make furniture than many people think. Over the years, a bunch of outsiders have tried to come into the furniture industry because it looked like such ripe pickings, with all those big margins. Then you actually have to make, deliver and sell furniture, and it’s not so easy anymore.
SHUFORD: Right. I once decided to get into the antique reproduction business, even higher end than what Century was making.
INTERVIEWER: This was back when you were still president?
SHUFORD: Yes. I made a deal with Charlie Sutton from Winston-Salem, who had a very small factory that was making reproductions of very high quality. We bought his business and built him a new factory outside of Yadkinville in a town called East Bend, to make high-end furniture. We also had a license agreement with the British National Trust to reproduce pieces of furniture from their various properties.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the National Trust of England, but it’s very extensive. They own many old estates, and they operate them as parks. It’s an important tourist operation for England. We were approached by a representative from the Trust who invited us to come to England. We did go and made a deal to reproduce furniture from their various properties. It was very difficult to make these reproductions in our factory in Hickory, so we built a factory in Yadkinville to make these high-end pieces. We tried it for three or four years, and found out that it was hard to make money manufacturing these low-volume, difficult-to-make pieces. So we finally closed down this operation.
We had another venture back in the ’70s, when a furniture store in New Jersey owed us a sizeable amount of money.
INTERVIEWER: A furniture retailer?
SHUFORD: A retailer. And so one thing led to another, and we acquired the store — a nice, high-end retailer in Middletown, New Jersey.
INTERVIEWER: This was in metro New York?
SHUFORD: It was outside of the New York area. Anyway, we wanted to get a better feel for the retail business. Some of our competitors were opening up their own stores. However, we found that it was surprisingly difficult to run a profitable retail business.
INTERVIEWER: So after that you never considered trying to get into dedicated stores? I don’t remember any dedicated Century stores.
SHUFORD: Century did try another venture after I retired. Bob McKinnon got excited about a chain of stores called Expressions, and we acquired Expressions. They had a number of franchise dealers, but we found that operating a franchise dealer network was difficult, too.
INTERVIEWER: This was in the late ’80s?
SHUFORD: No, this was in the ’90s when I was no longer involved; it was in ’96, ’97, somewhere around that time.
INTERVIEWER: So during your period as president, you tried to run a store once and you decided it just wasn’t going to be profitable?
SHUFORD: It would take more money and not be as profitable as we thought. We didn’t have the resources to start building or buying our own stores, and then this Expressions franchise business came along, so we thought maybe that was the way to go; but as I said, we found that to be difficult. Since then, Century has stayed with its manufacturing business and designer showrooms.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any other major developments during your presidency that we haven’t covered at Century? Major collections? Some of your key hires?
SHUFORD: There’s a lot more to talk about. I wonder if we
really ought to have another go at it.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, we can get together again. So let’s terminate this session if that suits you and meet again later.
(Second part of interview, January 28, 2009)
INTERVIEWER: We’re starting the second part of the American Furniture Hall of Fame interview with Buck Shuford. It’s January 28, 2009, and we’re in the High Point offices of the Hall of Fame Foundation. So, it’s been awhile, Buck. Is there anything you want to start out saying?
SHUFORD: Well, the world has changed since we got together in October. I mean, who would have believed Wachovia bank would no longer be around. The economy has just become dreadful since we last met. It’s affected our furniture business and our fabric business dramatically, as it has so many other businesses.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I think beginning in October is when the economy took a real nosedive. We thought we maybe were in a kind of slow glide path and then it took a real nosedive in October and the rest of the year. So, the fourth quarter looked very bad for a lot of companies.
SHUFORD: As I look back at my life in the furniture business, we had to work through a number of recessions, but nothing of this magnitude.
INTERVIEWER: Well, as you say, there have been a number of recessions. I think the worst one in my memory was in the early ’80s, I believe.
SHUFORD: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it’s been said that the high end of a lot of businesses, including the furniture business, tend to be a little bit more recession-proof, maybe. Less sensitive to the ups and downs since the people that have money are going to suffer perhaps, but they’re still willing to spend on things that they see of value. What do you remember about that recession — or that inflation of the late ’70s and the recession that followed? Did Century have to lay off any people?
SHUFORD: We worked some short time, but didn’t lay off many people.
INTERVIEWER: Was it hard getting business?
SHUFORD: Being in the upper end, we were not as affected. But I remember the price controls. That was a difficult era. I remember the gas shortage. I was involved in the marketing association here in High Point when the gas shortage hit, and people weren’t coming to market because they were afraid they weren’t going to be able to get gas.
INTERVIEWER: That was after the Arab oil embargo in 1973, I believe, with the gasoline lines.
SHUFORD: That’s when I was involved with the marketing association. Hamp Powell took a very proactive stance. He got some gas supply commitments and guaranteed that buyers would not be stranded.
INTERVIEWER: Hamp, of course, was with Lane but he was the marketing association’s leader at the time, I suppose. What did
they call it then — the Furniture Factories’ Marketing Association of the South?
SHUFORD: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Back when Rick Barentine was the executive director?
INTERVIEWER: Did you have trouble shipping in the aftermath of the oil embargo? Could your trucks get the diesel fuel they needed?
SHUFORD: They did, but it became a major hassle. It really disrupted everything else we were doing.
INTERVIEWER: So, since October of last year, has Century laid off anybody?
SHUFORD: Yes. Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: I read about some other furniture companies in the Hickory-Lenoir area laying off workers, but I can’t remember reading about Century specifically.
SHUFORD: We have cut back substantially. And Valdese Weavers had a very strong business, almost dominating the upper end of the woven fabric market, but their business has suffered also.
INTERVIEWER: So, business pretty much dried up?
SHUFORD: Well, it’s not dried up but it’s down dramatically. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but it’s going to be a difficult time for a lot of people and a lot of companies.
INTERVIEWER: What about on the furniture side?
SHUFORD: Century’s business is off substantially. We’re concerned about some of our retail accounts being able to survive. It’s a tough situation.
But going back to where we left off. When I read the transcript of our first meeting, there were a few things that I did not touch on that I want to include now.
INTERVIEWER: Please do so.
SHUFORD: We talked about what I thought were the principal reasons for Century’s success, and I gave a lot of credit to Ray Sobota. I still think he was very much a part of that. But another reason for our success was our sales force.
Our sales force was one of the real strengths of our company and probably contributed more to our success than most people would realize. Dave Leffler came to work for us in the late ’70s as our sales manager. I think he did a good job in hiring good sales reps. He took his time. He interviewed a lot of people and selected really strong sales reps. He also stayed in touch with them on almost a daily basis. He was really involved in what they were doing, and they made a big difference to our company.
I remember some stories, and I made a note of a couple of them that I would like to include. I was talking with one of our reps about his customers, and he told me that a lot of his customers were his best friends. He said that he had one customer that invited him to stay at his house when he went up to call on him. Now that’s a very personal relationship with a customer. And I think our being a family business helped make these relationships between us and our reps and our customers stronger than at many other furniture companies.
I remember another rep telling me about one of his friends — the owner of one of his biggest accounts. He said, “I kept trying to convince him to buy more furniture from us. He turned around one day and gave me a purchase-order pad. And he said, ‘I told my office staff that when you fill this out and sign it, it’s good. You buy for me.’” And our rep said he didn’t like it. He would much rather sell than have the responsibility of selecting things for this person’s floor and controlling his inventory. But, again, that’s an illustration of how close we were to many of our dealers, and how our reps played such an important role in our success.
INTERVIEWER: Now if I recall, at least at the beginning, your reps were basically independent reps, so they would have carried other non-competing lines, I would assume.
SHUFORD: A few did. But most of them sold just our line. When my dad was running the business, his brother-in-law was Century’s sales manager — but he was more of a goodwill ambassador than a manager. The salesmen were very independent. They ran their own show.
When Dave Leffler became our sales manager, we put more structure into what we wanted the reps to do – the types of accounts we wanted them to work with. That was one of the changes that came about gradually.
One other thing I do want to mention: We had such a personal relationship with some accounts that it was very hard to change our distribution. And in hindsight, we stayed with some people when we should have changed and gone with another store in town. We had some bad debts that we could have avoided if we had been more cut-and-dry with the people we were doing business with. So there was a downside to these close personal relationships. But all in all, I think we benefited greatly.
INTERVIEWER: And these were mostly smaller, independent operators, maybe with two or three stores?
SHUFORD: They ran the gamut. Some of these independent stores were quite large and had a number of branches.
INTERVIEWER: And department stores have been and remain a pretty good slice of Century’s business?
SHUFORD: Yes. Federated Department Stores was our largest account for many years when you put them all together. We didn’t sell all the Federated divisions, but during my time stores like Bloomingdale’s and Burdines were important to us.
INTERVIEWER: How did your reps deal with the department stores?
SHUFORD: Well, at that time they were buying independently. It wasn’t a corporate buying decision like it is today, so our rep in New York would call on Bloomingdale’s and our rep in Florida would call on Burdines. The buyers and merchandise managers of these stores were important to us and we valued their opinions. And we did a lot of business together.
INTERVIEWER: Let me go through some of the questions we ask all Hall of Fame inductees. Of course, we’ve covered a lot of them, at least in part, so perhaps we should just wrap some of them up. One of the questions is: Describe your business strategies. Another is: Describe your management techniques. I don’t think we got into those specifically. What kind of a manager did you consider yourself?
SHUFORD: I don’t know if I could put a label on it, but I made an effort to listen to a lot of people. To listen to our salesmen; to listen to our customers; to listen to our employees. I made the effort to communicate with them.
Interestingly enough, my dad did not like meetings. He couldn’t stand for a meeting to last any longer than absolutely necessary. We didn’t even have a conference room when I went to work at Century. I created a conference room and began getting our group of managers together on a regular basis.
INTERVIEWER: So you identified a kind of executive team that you worked closely with?
SHUFORD: We were a family business, and our key players were Dave Leffler, our sales manager; and my brother, Alex, who was in charge of our upholstery business; and early on, my brother-in-law, Snyder Garrison. When he and my sister split up, I asked my sister, Nancy, to join our family business, and she became our vice president in charge of marketing. So it was very much a family business. Family businesses are great, but they’re also very difficult at times.
INTERVIEWER: I remember you mentioned your sister, Nancy, earlier, but I don’t remember what sort of background she had. Had she participated in the company from early on in her life?
SHUFORD: No, she was a stay-at-home mom, raising her family and was not involved in the furniture business, but she was so close to it since her dad and her husband and her brothers were all involved. So after her divorce, we asked her to come to work at Century. She became a good marketing department manager.
INTERVIEWER: She had a skill at marketing, apparently.
SHUFORD: She was in charge of photography and catalogs and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: Since your dad was anti-meeting, I guess you never really met together as an ownership family very often.
SHUFORD: No, never.
INTERVIEWER: Even after he named you president and backed away at least a little bit from day-to-day operations?
SHUFORD: I talked with him one-on-one about major changes or major capital expenditures.
SHUFORD: But as far as gathering up a group of people in a room to discuss a particular issue or problem — it just didn’t happen.
We had another person that I would like to mention and that’s Sam Hemphill. When Dad first started Century, he hired Sam, a young CPA, to be his treasurer and administrative person.
INTERVIEWER: Does this go back to the sales agency days? The very early days of Century?
SHUFORD: Yes, Sam was Century’s third employee. He, like Dad, was a very competitive person. He played baseball in college. Dad needed somebody to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and keep everything straight. Sam was that kind of person. The business was run pretty much with Dad talking to Sam and Sam taking it from there.
INTERVIEWER: How did you work with him?
SHUFORD: Sam and I got along great. Sam made me feel very much at ease. And for many years he was still our chief financial officer. I have a great deal of respect for Sam and what he did for our company. He was one of our major players.
INTERVIEWER: Had he worked in the furniture industry? How did your Dad come across Mr. Hemphill?
SHUFORD: He was in the Second World War as a navigator in the Air Force, and came to Hickory to work for a CPA firm. And he married a friend of our family. I don’t know who recommended him to Dad or how they first met. But it was very fortunate that Dad and Sam got together. He kept things straight.
INTERVIEWER: With people like Dave Leffler and Sam Hemphill, would they have been given, somewhere along the line, stock in the company? Was that one of the ways you rewarded key employees?
SHUFORD: Dad gave Sam some stock early on. But when Sam retired, Dad bought all of his stock back.
INTERVIEWER: That was standard operating procedure?
SHUFORD: Yes, we owned the business outright. I think I talked in the first interview about Dad buying out the stockholders of Shuford Mills, and bringing it all together as Shuford Industries. However, one of his nephews, Charlie Shuford, and a niece, Ginny Yates, did not sell their stock and they still have some stock in our business today. Charlie has given some stock to his children, and they are stockholders. But that’s the extent of it.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any other key people you want to talk about?
SHUFORD: Well, after reading the transcript of our first session, I wanted particularly to mention Dave, my sister, Nancy, and Sam Hemphill — they made such a difference. I also want to mention Jane Brown who has been my secretary/assistant. She has been a great help to me and others at Century for many years. There are many, many other key people who made Century successful over the years. Many who are still working there today.
INTERVIEWER: Another of the standard questions is: What has been your central personal goal in business?
SHUFORD: I wanted Century to be a success and to grow, and to be a major player in the upper end. I wanted to have modern facilities and I wanted to run the business in an up-to-date, professional way. Century didn’t have a human resources person before. We added such things as pension plans and health plans and paid holidays and vacations, and we spelled out these types of things in employee handbooks. We had each job evaluated and established pay scales so our people were paid based on the job they were doing. There was no discrimination. A lot of this was done so that Century could operate in a more professional manner.
INTERVIEWER: And yet you never had any professional training as a manager, as I recall. You focused on science and math in college, and you did all the computer programming in your early days with Century. But somehow you adopted the idea that it needed to be a professionally managed and run company.
SHUFORD: I’d read a lot about management and had visited a number of organizations to get a better feel for the way a business should run. I attended an executive program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
INTERVIEWER: At what point was this in your career?
SHUFORD: This was in the ’70s. One of the key parts of that program was to write a plan for your company. I went through a very methodical process of writing a plan, and I think that served me well and served Century well — to set down on paper our strengths and our weaknesses and the things we needed to do over the next years.
INTERVIEWER: It became a kind of road map for you it sounds like.
SHUFORD: Yes, it was. That was helpful. I also attended some other seminars about forecasting, inventory control, marketing. Also, I had great admiration for IBM. Since Century was using their equipment, I was invited to some of their seminars and toured some of their facilities. It was interesting to see how they operated and what they were doing.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any business leaders that you particularly admired and studied some of their techniques? Or were there any teachers that really had a significant impact on your thinking and managing?
SHUFORD: A couple of the professors at Carolina during those seminars were very helpful. And some books have been helpful. I learned a lot by serving on some boards of other companies and non-profit organizations
INTERVIEWER: Another standard question: What has been your company goal?
SHUFORD: That’s one and the same.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the greatest problems you encountered with your suppliers and with your customers? Anything stick out in your mind over the years you were active with Century?
SHUFORD: I don’t remember any particular problems with suppliers. The overriding problem with our customers was our selling to some North Carolina dealers. We did big business with some of them, some of them here in High Point. Roses was a big account. Young’s was a good account. And Boyles and Furnitureland South. These stores in North Carolina gave us a sizeable amount of business. And this was a constant source of irritation for our other dealers.
Our good accounts, our good friends across the country, wanted us to stop selling these accounts in North Carolina. But the stores in North Carolina were some of our largest accounts. They could sell our price furniture more readily than many of our accounts in other states.
INTERVIEWER: How were these North Carolina discounters able to undercut some of the local dealers on price because you weren’t selling furniture to North Carolina discounters at a substantial discount yourself, were you?
SHUFORD: No, we sold everybody at the same price.
Not having to collect sales tax on out of state shipments was a big advantage for North Carolina stores. That advantage was eliminated when they were forced to start collecting sales tax from their customers in these other states. And since then many North Carolina stores like Roses have gone out of business. But during my 25 years at Century, that was a big, constant problem.
INTERVIEWER: And it was a big industry debate. Both the manufacturing and the retailing associations had people on both sides of the issue so they couldn’t take any action. Weren’t some of these so-called North Carolina discounters essentially telephone operations with 800 numbers?
SHUFORD: No not really — our North Carolina accounts had big, beautiful showrooms.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, people like Furnitureland South, even back in the ’80s, had good-sized showrooms. They had real stores, but weren’t there some phone operators that were selling furniture especially up into the Northeast, into the big cities?
SHUFORD: No, most of the phone business was done by people that had showrooms here, not just an office. I think most of their phone business was developed by consumers coming here and seeing what they had and gaining their confidence, and then they would place orders over the phone. And if they needed something else, they might not make another trip to North Carolina. Instead they might call the salesperson that they’d done business with. I believe most of the telephone business came about after a visit to North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Did you lose substantial accounts because of this situation with the North Carolina discounters? Or was it just kind of a continual thorn in your side?
SHUFORD: I don’t think we lost a substantial amount of business. I always felt that we would not be able to replace our North Carolina business if we gave it up.
INTERVIEWER: Were you in Woodward & Lothrop, the old Woodies department store?
SHUFORD: Yes, a little bit. We never did do much business with them.
INTERVIEWER: They’re gone now, of course.
SHUFORD: There just were not that many successful upper-end stores in a radius of 200 or 300 miles of North Carolina; they couldn’t compete because of the sales tax, and their higher operating cost. Some people threatened to throw us out altogether if we didn’t cut off the North Carolina discounters. But not many of them actually did that.
INTERVIEWER: Essentially what happened is that the states, in their hunger for sales tax revenue, mostly made that issue moot by insisting that the North Carolina discounters collect the sales tax for the other states, right?
INTERVIEWER: So the issue pretty much went away, I gather. If I remember correctly, it was the early ’90s before they finally worked out the sales tax collection issue.
SHUFORD: So today this is no longer a major problem for Century.
INTERVIEWER: Have you been involved in any other business ventures other than with Century?
SHUFORD: Of course I was involved with Shuford Mills and Valdese Weavers. I also was a director of our First National Bank in Hickory, a local bank that was bought by First Union. And I ended up being on the corporate board of First Union for a while. That was an interesting time — when Ed Crutchfield started acquiring banks all over the country. I met a lot of interesting people on that board. And seeing how First Union operated their banking business was part of my education.
I also was a director of a major hosiery manufacturer — a privately held hosiery business in Hickory. The owner, a friend of mine, wanted somebody besides his family and his executives on his board. So he asked me and one other person, who was the treasurer for another company in Hickory, to serve as his outside directors.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of this hosiery company?
SHUFORD: It was Neuville Industries, and Steve Neuville is still a good friend. He sold his business a few years ago, but for a number of years I went to his board meetings and learned how another business operated.
INTERVIEWER: What civic and charitable activities have you been involved in that’s been important to you over the years?
SHUFORD: Well, there are a lot of those. I don’t know how much time we should spend on this.
INTERVIEWER: Touch on a few highlights; those things that you feel were most rewarding to you personally, perhaps.
SHUFORD: Well, I was on the board of our county hospital for 10 years. I served as the chairman for five years, and there again it was an education to see how a hospital business works.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a complex operation.
SHUFORD: Yes, a complex operation. Lots of different kinds of problems. And lots of different people to deal with — the doctors and patients and nurses and staff and the government. So I got to know something about the banking business, about the hosiery business, about the hospital business.
I also was appointed by the legislature to the board of governors of the University of North Carolina’s statewide system. That was a very fascinating assignment. It was after the state first put its 16 universities together into one big system. I came in not with the original board but only two years later, the first time they added some new members to the board. Bill Friday was president of our statewide university system. I have great admiration for Bill Friday and some of the people on his staff. And the people on that board at that time were outstanding people from around the state. I felt it was a privilege to be a part of the group. And looking back, it was a big job putting into place the systems and procedures to manage these 16 separate campuses under a new statewide board.
INTERVIEWER: It’s perhaps like having a whole bunch of separate factories.
SHUFORD: And they all had their own constituencies. They all had their own plans and procedures. But Bill Friday was marvelous at that assignment. It was a lot of long meetings. I traveled all over the state to these campuses. That was a fascinating experience, and I learned a lot.
I was president of the Chamber of Commerce in our county. I was president of our science center, and president of Hickory’s art museum.
Another one that was interesting: Governor Jim Martin asked me to serve on the North Carolina Arts Council, and that was an all together different group of people. I served as the chairman of the state’s Arts Council for about six or seven years. And again I had the opportunity to travel all over the state. The government — the state of North Carolina — gave the council about $8 million to disperse. The federal government also gave the council some money, so the board’s main purpose was to distribute these funds. We read and discussed thousands of grant applications, and we met with different groups of people all over the state.
Mary Regan was — and still is — the Arts Council’s director, and she did an excellent job. This was another totally different kind of organization — with people from all across North Carolina. It was another interesting learning experience for me.
INTERVIEWER: Since you said your dad was an anti-meeting person, I assume that he rarely got involved in these kinds of civic and business activities. But you obviously devoted a good deal of time to these things over the years. What motivated your decision to get involved with these kinds of activities? You must have decided it was something you wanted to do.
SHUFORD: Yes. I enjoyed getting to know some people on these various boards. I enjoyed seeing how different organizations functioned. So I wanted to do this. Some of it was giving back to the community — wanting to make Hickory and Catawba County a better place to live. But these statewide organizations I’ve found to be fascinating.
Another organization that I’ve been involved with is the Penland School of Crafts. Jean McLaughlin, one of the staff people at the North Carolina Arts Council, was named director of Penland. She asked me to visit Penland and soon after she asked me to be on her board, and I did that for eight years. Again, a totally different kind of thing from the furniture business. I enjoyed taking several woodworking and metalworking classes at Penland.
What else is on the list? We set up a community foundation in Hickory and I was its first chairman. I think community foundations are a great thing. They help a lot of non-profit organizations.
What else? Hickory built a new, up-to-date high school, and the old high school building was vacant. We decided that this building would make a good arts center. While I was serving on the Arts Council, I’d seen this done in other places. So, my dad and I worked together to get this project off the ground. We raised some money to remodel this old building. And we now have, I think, a very fine facility we call the SALT Block that houses the Art Museum, the Catawba Science Center, the Western Piedmont Symphony, and the Hickory Choral Society. SALT stands for Science, Art, Literature, Together.
A foundation was established that would own and maintain the building and provide space and utilities to these organizations at no cost to them. So the art museum got an upfitted space at no charge. Likewise, the Science Center got an upfitted space with no ongoing rent and no cost of utilities. I’ve served on the SALT Block board ever since it started, and as chairman for many years.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you’ve obviously spent a good deal of time on civic, social and educational activities.
SHUFORD: Yes. And I should mention my church. I spent three terms on its consistory, many years on committees, and served as president for a year.
INTERVIEWER: What church is it, by the way?
SHUFORD: It’s the Corinth Reformed Church. It’s associated through a merger in the early ’60s with the United Church of Christ — UCC — which is a very liberal church. Our local church is not that liberal and we have a number of members who don’t like what the national church is doing.
INTERVIEWER: That’s not unusual these days.
SHUFORD: That’s right. I was on the search committee for the minister we have now. He’s doing a great job. He’s walking the fine line of staying with the UCC with a congregation that’s much more conservative. I watched the church dwindle down with our last two ministers, and I’ve watched this minister build it back up.
INTERVIEWER: If there’s nothing else you want to mention along the lines of civic, social and religious activities, let’s get to a few more of the standard questions. Are any of your children involved in Century? Tell us about the family situation at this point.
SHUFORD: I mentioned in our last session that I had met my wife Helgi in Hickory. She was attending Lenoir-Rhyne, a Lutheran college in Hickory. She was born in Estonia. Let’s back up. Her mother was born and grew up in Estonia and married a school principal; they were living in a small town in Estonia before the Second World War. During the war, the Russians took over the country. Stalin’s method of taking control of a country was to remove the educated leadership from the country, and they systematically removed thousands from Estonia. Helgi’s father was one of those that was carted off to Siberia and never heard from again.
INTERVIEWER: Into the Gulag.
SHUFORD: Yes. Later the Germans came in and took Estonia from the Russians. To Helgi’s mother — although the Germans did many horrible things — the German people she came in contact with were educated, civilized people, as opposed to the Russians, who were mostly uneducated and barbaric.
And so when the Russians came back in toward the end of the war, she chose to take her young daughter, my future wife — who was 5 at the time and her son who was 3 — to Germany on a German troop ship that was evacuating Germans from Tallinn in 1944. They spent the rest of the time during the war just surviving in Germany.
INTERVIEWER: What did she have to do for financial support?
SHUFORD: She had none. Interestingly enough, the German government decreed that German families should take care of refugees. She was fortunate to stay with several families during the rest of the war. Each family took them into their home for several months, and then they would go somewhere else. I can’t imagine the circumstances.
But as the Russians came into Germany, she knew she had to go west — she was determined to stay in the western part of Germany. And then, after the war, she and her two children were put in a displaced persons camp — a DP camp — along with other Estonians who had ended up in Germany. They were there for several years. She taught at a school inside the DP camp and in general tried to organize the community life in this camp.
The Lutheran World Federation made a big effort to find permanent homes for these people. The Estonians are nearly all Lutherans. They found homes for some in Canada, some in Australia, and some in America. A church in Cherryville, North Carolina, took Helgi’s family under their wing.
To back up again, when they got to the displaced persons camp, Helgi’s mother met another Estonian who had lost his family, and they decided they might have better luck in settling somewhere if they got married and moved as a family rather than her trying to do this by herself and her two children. So they got married and just by luck they ended up in Cherryville, North Carolina. Helgi went to high school in Cherryville, and a family in Cherryville gave her a scholarship to Lenoir-Rhyne College. That’s where I met her.
Her brother got a scholarship to N.C. State, finished there and then got a fellowship to go to Wharton’s MBA program. He was in ROTC at State so he went into the Army after finishing his MBA. He was assigned to the Pentagon during the era of the so-called “whiz kids” under Robert McNamara. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.
INTERVIEWER: I remember that. This would have been in the
first half of the ’60s, right?
SHUFORD: Yes. After his time in the Army, he went to work for Standard Oil and now he has his own consulting business in Washington, D.C. His firm specializes in locating natural gas throughout the world. His clients include Australia, China and Turkey. The Soviet Union hired his firm to work on a project. He traveled to Siberia in a private jet, whereas his father made that trip in a boxcar.
Helgi finished at Lenoir-Rhyne and went to work for Wachovia in Charlotte. We got married 47 years ago in 1962. Helgi has been active in Hickory’s Service League, the Arts Council, AFS, and other organizations in Hickory: the North Carolina Dance Theater, the Children’s Home Society, the North Carolina Museum of Art. She sang with the Hickory Choral Society for 25 years and still sings in our church choir. She is now a trustee of Lenoir-Rhyne University. We have done a good bit of traveling. We both enjoy collecting American Art.
We have two children. Linda is now married and lives in Hickory. Her big thing growing up was riding horses, and she was very successful in jumping competitions. She had big wins at the Washington International Horse Show and at Palm Beach. She married Brandon Mallard and they have a 3- year-old daughter, Alexa. Brandon works for Century. He now manages our chair plant.
Our son David — a few years younger than Linda — went to Duke undergraduate school and then to Duke Law School. He spent a year clerking with a federal judge in Charlotte. Then he went to South Dakota to clerk for an appellate court judge for a year. One day, the judge came by and said, “David, you might be interested in this.” A judge in The Hague in the Netherlands had sent out a letter to all the appellate court judges in the United States saying that he needed a clerk to work with him in the Netherlands. David applied and got the job. He and his new wife, Liz, spent two years in The Hague where he worked for this judge on the Iran/US Claims Tribunal. That was a great experience for them. They came back to Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago, and he is now working for one of the top law firms there.
INTERVIEWER: So he’s not a part of Century.
SHUFORD: No. He worked at Century for a year after finishing college before going to law school. He was writing computer programs like I did, except now Century is using SAP, which is a very complicated German software system.
INTERVIEWER: Who’s running Century now? Is it your brother, Alex?
SHUFORD: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: You retired as president in what year again?
SHUFORD: At the end of ’95. Nancy, Alex, and I all retired and we asked Bob McKinnon, who had done such a wonderful job for us with Valdese Weavers, to take charge of Century. He and his new people made a number of changes. Some good and some not so good — such as this SAP data processing system. His new operations guy thought SAP would be wonderful, but it was a very difficult system to get up and running and Century suffered for over a year. It cost us a lot of money.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a broad-based, enterprise-wide integrated software management system, right?
INTERVIEWER: And the theory is good but in practice it’s very difficult.
SHUFORD: Very difficult. And after a few difficult years, Bob McKinnon resigned. And we asked Bob Maricich to take over as our CEO. Bob had been brought into Century to be in charge of contract sales and soon after he became Century’s sales manager. Bob Maricich was president for about four years. The Las Vegas furniture market building hired him away to run that facility. And then my brother, Alex, stepped in as president.
INTERVIEWER: Since your retirement in ’95 you’ve essentially been chairman, have you not?
SHUFORD: I’ve been chairman.
INTERVIEWER: And CV Industries is now the umbrella organization?
SHUFORD: For Century and Valdese.
INTERVIEWER: And you’ve continued to come to the High Point Markets, right?
SHUFORD: I don’t stay here like I used to — my brother does that now.
We have another executive, Mike Shelton, who runs the Valdese Weavers operation. Valdese has been a very successful business. We bought three more facilities for them in the last 5 years, and they increased their sales by over 50 percent. They were going strong until about four months ago.
INTERVIEWER: Has there ever been any discussion about taking the companies public?
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, it’s not something you’d want to do with today's economy.
SHUFORD: We did put in an ESOP, an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. We did that after my other brother, Pope, and his family took the tape business as their own. We sold 40 percent of CV’s stock to our ESOP. The government has made ESOPs an attractive alternative.
INTERVIEWER: Does your brother, Alex, have any children that are interested in coming into the business?
SHUFORD: Yes, he does. His son, who is also Alex — the fifth Alex Shuford — is now a vice president and very much involved in Century’s sales and marketing. His daughter, Comer, is working as a sales rep and his son-in-law, Evan, is also working at Century
INTERVIEWER: Since your retirement have you done anything that you haven’t already mentioned? It doesn’t sound like you’ve had much leisure time, actually.
SHUFORD: I still have an office at Century and still keep up with what’s going on at Century and Valdese. But I haven’t become involved in any other business ventures. We bought a place at Pawleys Island (South Carolina) which we enjoy when we can get down there.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s get into some of the changes you’ve seen in the furniture industry. Did you have anything else you wanted to mention before we talk about that?
SHUFORD: No, I think I’ve talked about most everything I wanted to mention.
INTERVIEWER: Here’s the broad question: What do you see as the most serious problem facing our furniture industry today, in the short term and in the long term?
SHUFORD: Well, as I’ve already said, the short-term economic situation is very serious. It’s going to affect a lot of companies. I am afraid this recession is going to last a long time. Jobs are cut quickly, and then come back so slowly.
I was at a business seminar last night, and they were talking about what had gone wrong with the banking business and other sectors of the economy, and how it might take years to get things back to where they had been. And so there will be fewer furniture stores, and fewer manufacturers. It’s going to have a tremendous impact.
INTERVIEWER: Especially since housing has been such a big part of the current economic downturn, and that’s so closely linked to the furniture industry. But the industry has been through these down cycles before. It’s mostly a matter of hunkering down and riding out the storm, and then being ready for the upturn when it comes.
SHUFORD: Yes, if you can. We’ve always said a retailer that owns his own store can survive most anything. But a guy that’s leasing a store has a hard time riding out a recession.
INTERVIEWER: Has Century and Valdese had to go into debt?
SHUFORD: Oh, yes. We borrowed a lot of money to do all of these things I’ve talked about. We’ve never been out of debt. There were always things we wanted to do — businesses we wanted to buy, buildings we wanted to build, machinery we wanted to buy. And we’ve done it with bank financing, still to this day.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever gone into the contract market to any extent?
SHUFORD: We’ve made some effort in that — Bob Maricich was hired to develop Century’s contract business, but contract is still not a major part of our business.
INTERVIEWER: How do you see Century and Valdese surviving in this current downturn? You’ve mentioned layoffs. You have to adjust your capacity.
SHUFORD: We’ve adjusted our capacity to our current level of sales. We’ve made a bigger effort to increase export sales. We have a good account in China. There’s a customer in China that is building a number of high-end retail stores there, and we’re one of his primary suppliers. So that’s an interesting twist.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re sending your normal residential furniture to him as you would to a U.S. retailer?
SHUFORD: That’s right. He has opened up a dozen stores, some of them are big. Of course, this downturn probably will affect him too. But he has big plans.
INTERVIEWER: It’s certainly a huge consumer market over there, and you might be able to get a slice of it.
What would you describe as the major industry changes you’ve seen during your years in the furniture business? What are the key developments?
SHUFORD: Well, the growth of furniture manufacturing in the Far East is obviously the biggest change. We had seen our textile business move overseas, but it was very gradual. Our textile business dwindled over a period of 10 or 15 years. But furniture manufacturing moved much faster. There was so much furniture capacity built up in China so quickly that the industry changed in a matter of a few years instead of 10 to 15 years. That’s obviously the major development.
INTERVIEWER: But Century still makes furniture here. You’ve been able to survive as a domestic manufacturer.
SHUFORD: We still do. It’s mostly because we’re in the upper end and offer custom furniture. We’ve always had custom upholstery, and we started making custom case goods — finishing case goods to order. Interior designers have become more important customers for us. We’re offering them the ability to have a piece of furniture finished any way they want it. We even go so far as to make special pieces for them. If they want a table that’s bigger or wider or whatever, we do that kind of special order now.
INTERVIEWER: And who are your major competitors in this arena?
SHUFORD: Well, Henredon is still a big competitor.
INTERVIEWER: But they would have huge problems trying to do custom furniture overseas.
SHUFORD: But they are still a big competitor. There are others. Hickory Chair has done a nice job doing custom furniture.
Of course, another major change which has happened more gradually is manufacturers opening up their own stores. Ethan Allen set the pace for that, and it proved to be a good model. Ethan Allen became primarily a furniture retailer; their manufacturing became secondary. La-Z-Boy, Thomasville, Bassett, and others have made major investments in their own stores.
INTERVIEWER: You talked about how Century got involved with a retailer in New Jersey at one point. You quickly found out that retail was a tough business, and then you got involved with the Expressions chain.
SHUFORD: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: And that had its problems. So you’ve pretty much given up on branded stores, I guess.
SHUFORD: But now the designer showrooms have become an important part of our business. We now have showrooms in major
cities across the country. We hope that this business will not be hurt as much as the retail business by the current economic downturn. We hope the independent designer will keep us going.
INTERVIEWER: When the market picks up again, are you going to be able to find the workers? Are there still going to be enough skilled workers in the Hickory area?
SHUFORD: Well, there are certainly plenty of them available today.
INTERVIEWER: But they’re going to have to find other jobs and you might lose the heritage of furniture making in North Carolina. You must be concerned about that.
SHUFORD: Yes, but there’s so much less furniture being made here these days that finding people won’t be a problem for now. And who can say what it might be like four or five years out? It’s going to be a different world with this recession. It’s affected so many businesses — not just the United States, but around the world.
It’s just staggering.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your own greatest contribution to the furniture industry?
SHUFORD: I’ve talked about my involvement. I don’t think much more can be said about that.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you took a company and changed it from a lower-end to a higher-end company, to a state-of-the-art company, to a 40 percent employee-owned company.
SHUFORD: Yes. I think we’ve pretty well covered all that.
INTERVIEWER: I wanted to ask about the influence of outside factors on the furniture industry. Have racial attitudes or women’s issues been any concern of yours at Century over the years?
SHUFORD: No, we’ve made a real effort to treat everybody the same. We’ve not had any serious issues along those lines.
INTERVIEWER: Do you continue to look forward to remaining involved as chairman of CV Industries? Or are you thinking about further dialing back?
SHUFORD: Well, I can’t dial back much more. I, my family, my brother and sister and their families, still have a big vested interest in these businesses. So as long as we own them, I think my involvement will stay the same. We’ve had a lot of offers over the years to buy these businesses, but we’ve never seriously considered selling. It’s rare that a business gets to the third generation — even rarer if it gets beyond that. Kids spread out and live other places, do other things. My son, Nancy’s oldest son, and Alex’s oldest son are now members of CV’s board of directors. They will determine the future of our family business.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much for all of the time you’ve given to these interviews. We very much appreciate it.