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Braxton Culler brings comfort and style to casual niche

Sarah Ingram -- Casual Living, October 1, 2007

The back yard was once as largely ignored and taken for granted as the stars in the sky.

Braxton CullerThen came studies showing sunshine triggers endorphins that make people happy. Or perhaps the inspiration came from findings that breathing fresh air is healthier. Or perhaps it was some subliminal return to the joys of childhood.

Or maybe it was just the outdoor furniture.

"We've made it more fashionable and inviting and comfortable than ever before — as opposed to the picnic table with an umbrella and a few lounge chairs," said Braxton Culler, president and CEO of the company bearing his name. "The outdoors was taken for granted for a long time. In the last five years, more people are utilizing the outdoor area of their homes."

Braxton Culler, a High Point, N.C.-based furniture manufacturer, has been in business for 31 years. The company added outdoor furniture 10 years ago but recently ramped up its production.

"It has definitely evolved," Culler said. "It's big right now. The designers and people with foresight have shown people how to utilize their outdoor areas. Especially with the new homes that are being built, that's an important part of the house."

Culler's company, which specializes in wicker and rattan furniture as well as upholstery, will unveil 10 new finishes at the High Point Market this month. The finishes will be incorporated with fabric in new colors, including soft pastels as well as bright primary colors.

Company officials will also unveil a new logo at the Market.

"The logo we've had has served us well for 31 years," Culler said, adding the new logo more adequately represents the company's image. "The colors are updated and more fashionable."

He was just 27 years old when he founded Braxton Culler. His grandfather Roy Braxton Culler Sr. started in the furniture industry in 1934, and his son Roy Culler, later mayor of High Point, joined him in the business. Then came Roy Braxton Culler III, who worked in the furniture factory during the summers before earning his bachelor's degree in business from Wake Forest University.

Eventually, his father and uncle sold the business to Burlington Industries, and the third Braxton Culler continued to work for several years for Burlington House Furniture before starting his own furniture company in 1975.

It was a heady move for someone so young. "There were a few nights I thought I'd lost my mind," Culler admitted with a chuckle. "We've been very fortunate."

Company officials have changed facilities in High Point twice, and five years ago, they bought a 500,000-sq.-ft. facility.

"We had grown to the point that we were operating out of four different facilities," Culler recalled. "This enabled me to put everything on one campus."

There are two separate buildings on that campus. One houses a warehouse and finishing area, while the other houses offices and the manufacturing of upholstery, including cutting and sewing.

Braxton Culler also has a 26,000-sq.-ft. building in downtown High Point at 310 South Elm St., near the International Home Furnishings Center. Asked the benefits of having a freestanding showroom, Culler said, "That depends on who you ask."

He paused and then added seriously, "Having our own showroom gives us more respectability and more credence. It's a destination.

"It also gives us a good opportunity to entertain dealers between markets." he said. "For a company in Ohio that shows in High Point, it's not convenient for them to show between markets."

The High Point native, who employs 200 people, is loyal to the furniture markets in his hometown. In fact, company officials don't show anywhere else.

"At the present time, I feel very strongly that High Point is the No. 1 market in the United States," Culler said. "We're very comfortable seeing everybody that we need to see in those two markets and showing our line in a major way."

He added, only half-kidding, "Most of my customers don't really care about seeing new merchandise more than twice a year."

Because the company displays its product only at the two markets, they take on added significance.

"We try to put great effort into both markets and try to do them right," Culler said. "It's definitely a group endeavor with what we do here. Everybody steps up to the plate and gets it done."

Culler, 59, doesn't have a hero in the business world that he tried to model himself after but rather tries to pave his own way.

"One thing I've always had is a high work ethic until it's completed," he said. "And honesty has always been an important part."

Culler learned valuable lessons at Georgia Military Academy in Atlanta, having graduated in the school's last military class before it became a private school.

"My father went there, too," Culler said. "I thoroughly enjoyed it and grew up quite a bit during my high school years. It taught me discipline."

In those days, he was also devoted to playing the tenor saxophone.

"I grew up listening to beach music, and I enjoy the older music," he said. "I'm not sure which way music's going, but I'm not going with it!"

Culler and his wife, Ashley, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on Sept. 22. Their children are Kimberly, Brack and Josh. Josh lives in Charlotte and works in retail furniture, while Brack (who is really Roy Braxton Culler IV) is Braxton Culler's vice president of manufacturing.

Work keeps both men busy. In fact, the company just finished a 60,000-sq.-ft. warehouse addition.

"I was in the upholstery business initially," Culler said. "In the early 1980s, we started importing wicker and rattan. It never was made here. But weaving and upholstery are still done domestically."

He has seen major changes in the past 20 years and adapted to market demand.

"We've evolved into a casual lifestyle — more of a resort look," Culler said, giving special thanks to prolific designers and decorators from Miami to Maine.

Now with sophisticated patios graced by far superior grills and comfortable furniture, the back yard has become a desired place for entertaining — or just relaxing in style. Also, homeowners gazing out of the recently popular big picture windows want to look at "something more inviting than folding web chairs."

"People want to make it as inviting on the deck or the patio as it is in the interior of the home," he said.

The company has more than 1,000 fabrics so customers can put together the color combinations they desire. "Probably 90% of our finishes are done here in the United States," Culler said. "As everything is going offshore, I'm probably one of the few people that you can get two dozen finishes from in a four- to six-week period."

Closer to home, Culler was anticipating yet another fall furniture market and its potential. "What I enjoy most about the market is it's like having a big party," he said. "Getting ready is the hard work, and the market, when it starts, is the party.

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