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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David R. Hayworth, February 6, 1997. Interview I-0099. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The unique challenge of the office furniture business

Hayworth describes the unique challenge of the office furniture business. This challenge, and what differentiates the office furniture business from the home furniture business, is the speed at which clients demand their orders.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David R. Hayworth, February 6, 1997. Interview I-0099. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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In those days, it was strictly sold to the dealers, and the better dealer network you had throughout the United States—we had, you know, from the east coast to the west coast, and from that point in time we maintained warehouses in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.
This was in the '50s?
Uh-hmm. And we shipped carloads of furniture out to the warehouses for distribution in the western states. We did not have a warehouse in Dallas at that point in time—where Katharine and Dave lived—but we later did, some years later we did; not only a warehouse, but a showroom in Dallas. And then in later years we had a showroom in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Seattle. That was the only way you could compete in the west, was to have ready availability to furnish the needs of the office furniture dealers and their customers, the manufacturers. In those days if you had an order, you shipped it. I mean, if it's a big job and they needed furniture, it isn't like a household where a housewife orders a sofa and she waits six months for it; the office furniture business was totally different. When a building's being built and they need the furniture for their offices, it's got to be there on the day that office opens or before the day it opens or you can forget it. That's the way the office furniture business differs so radically from the household furniture manufacturers. And I think that's one reason that household furniture manufacturers, when they tried to go into the office furniture business they would without exception fail. And these were some big people too; big furniture manufacturers who tried this because they thought it was a supplement to their operation. But they didn't understand the principles. You think furniture is furniture and it works both ways; it does not, absolutely does not.
And these showrooms that you had were for the dealers to come by and look at your furniture?
Well, you see, at that time—you talk about the period of the '50s—that was not so important, the showrooms. It later became when your customer was the manufacturer and you would call on—like we had contracts with, for example, Merrill Lynch, Nations Bank, which was NCNB in those days—you know, big banks and, financial institutions. They were our big market. And if you were trying to sell Merrill Lynch and you wanted a national contract, they wanted to see your furniture. Well, they might come to High Point, but if they would just go to the showroom right there in New York which we always had in later years—we had a warehouse in the beginning and then added a showroom—but you could bring them right in. And if there was a special desk that they wanted, you could have that shipped up there so it was right there for them to examine to their heart's content, or shipped to their office for them to use until they made a decision. That's when the office furniture business was becoming more and more competitive. We still had a lock on the market in the '40s and '50s and '60s. We were the largest manufacturer of office furniture in the United States, but a lot of people began to see that it was a very money-making venture, and so that's when a lot of other manufacturers began to make office furniture. And it became more and more competitive.
So beginning in the '60s and '70s.
Well, more in the '70s, and then in the '80s it really got hot; late '60s, '70s and '80s. When I said, make one exception—you know, there's always exceptions to everything—but anyway, there was one manufacturer of television cabinets and pianos which you will readily recognize, which was Kimball out in Indiana. The television business was beginning to slow down, the television cabinet business, and probably very competitive because somebody could always make a cabinet cheaper. You know, how that goes—they had a lot of empty factories sitting around, and somehow they got the idea to try to make office furniture. So the first thing they did was to buy a sample of every single desk that Alma Desk Company made and copy it down to the nth degree. If you ever want to go into something, copy somebody who's made a success, right? And that's exactly what they did, and of course, when they got going they—it took them several years, you know, to get revved up—and they were trying to sell just under us, you see, until they got a toe hold in the market, then they'd raise their prices up. They were very successful and they're still in business, though they're a publicly-owned company and they never break out their individual sales—like their office furniture division is so many million and so and so and so. They still make pianos, you know, and television cabinets, but anyway—and they make household furniture. Now, this is the one exception, and they make a more modest line of household—nothing like Baker, for example, not that price range. But Kimball was very successful; has been and continues to be in the office furniture market. Has done exceedingly well.