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In the commercial upholstery market, is small beautiful?

Markets, Upholstery | September 7, 2015 | By:

Smaller upholstery shops can offer personal service as well as repair and long-term maintenance. “When we’re designing these pieces, we’re trying to build it for not only durability so that it doesn’t get damaged, but so that if it does get damaged, we’re able to repair it relatively easily without disrupting their business all that much,” says Michael McMahon, project manager at Furniture Concepts Inc.

Smaller shops may not always have the staff, but they’re local and they’re flexible, advantages that are still valuable in the business.

With commercial furniture and upholstery becoming increasingly large-scale and increasingly technical in nature, is there still a niche for smaller shops? The answer is yes—if only by the skin of their teeth.

Robert Burkart, owner of Sewline Upholstery Ltd., Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, says one of the biggest problems with commercial upholstery jobs is the strain they put on staffing. With only five people in his shop and ongoing difficulties finding skilled laborers, he’s stretched to the limit all the time. A major commercial gig is welcome, but often difficult to fulfill.

“The public library just got a government grant, and they walked in the other day,” he says. “We got [orders for] 60 and 80 chairs, respectively, of two different types, and 8 wingbacks.” For a large job like that, Burkart says, he sometimes has to call two ex-staffers out of retirement for freelance work, just so he can meet deadlines.

Another issue is profit margins. Sewline doesn’t have the staff in-house to build frames, so it contracts that work out. And very often, restaurant chains and corporate designers will pick out and purchase their own fabric. The upside is that the small shop doesn’t have to worry about technical specs, but the down side is that there’s only labor and foam to charge for, so the shop simply doesn’t make very much money per item.

“One of the things we have is a CNC routing machine that cuts out a lot of our parts for the frames. You just program it in, you hit go, and it cuts all the parts out for you and you know that they’re all exactly the same, they’re all going to fit, it’s great,” says Michael McMahon. “So this machine is basically like hiring another guy to work in the frame shop, and nobody that works in the frame shop has to machine all their own parts anymore.” Photos: Furniture Concepts Inc.

“We’re looking at a restaurant now that’s doing a renovation, and they want to move two booths from the lounge over into the restaurant,” says Burkart. “Well, I have to get my contractor to do that, over and above my price. And then they want to supply materials. That takes away any kind of profits on our jobs.”

But there’s a bright side to being a small shop in this market, too. Smaller, more locally based businesses can take on work that larger shops can’t or won’t do, and that means there will always be a place for them in the furniture-building ecosystem. And they are sometimes more nimble and flexible than bigger organizations, thriving on diverse jobs and eclectic small-scale projects.

“I started this company when I was 17 doing automotive upholstery, and every time I would get somebody who was a good upholsterer, we started doing what they could do, too,” says Larry Schneider, owner, president and CEO of Homestyle Awning & Upholstery, Bay View, Wis. “So we do furniture, we do cars, we do boats, we do aircraft, we do awnings. We just did all the seats for the high-speed ferry that goes out of Milwaukee to Michigan. We do stuff for inventors. Right now we’re doing 25 cushions for a guy who invented a foot massager that takes money for airports and hotels.”

Is diversification the key to his company’s success? Absolutely, Schneider says. “When people come in here and they have a boat seat done and then they have their furniture done, they’re like, ‘Man, you can do anything.’”

Another plus: small shops can offer personal service and are often on hand for repairs and long-term care. “When we build our furniture, we try to build it with the idea that at some point it’s going to have to be repaired,” says Michael McMahon, project manager of operations at the 15-person shop Furniture Concepts Inc., Malden, Mass. “When we make restaurant booths, we make it so that our seats are removable. If the restaurant is local, we’re able to go into the city in the morning, pick up two or three damaged seats, bring them back to our shop, reupholster them, and bring them back before they even start serving lunch. When we’re designing these pieces, we’re trying to build it for not only durability so that it doesn’t get damaged, but so that if it does get damaged, we’re able to repair it relatively easily without disrupting their business all that much.”

Burkart offers the same kind of service. It’s the up side of restaurant chains buying and stockpiling their own rolls of fabric and vinyl: the right material is always available when the seats need to be re-covered.

“I go in before the restaurant opens,” he says. “I can have four seats done today and another four tomorrow. They like that service. Locally, that’s what I’m known for.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Woodville, Ga.

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