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Meadowcraft Putting pride into product

Don Hogsett, Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, October 1, 2007

Filling custom orders and meeting ever-evolving consumer demands keeps Meadowcraft busy molding its wrought iron forms and making finished outdoor furniture, right here in the United States.

Inside its Birmingham, Ala., plant, some 400 employees have taken its "put pride in the box" theme seriously since the company restructured and re-emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2003, 80 years after it was founded as a decorative ornamental iron maker.

Diana Arcynski conducts test in Meadowcraft lab.

Diana Arcynski conducts test in Meadowcraft lab.

Worker inspects knuckle detail he shaped on end of straight rod.

Worker inspects knuckle detail he shaped on end of straight rod.

Keeping the business profitable and its prices in line is an ongoing challenge. "We're one of the few who are still domestic," said Rory Rehmert, Meadowcraft vice president, sales and marketing. "We import a couple of frames to hit some price points that we just physically can no longer hit, but still we're 96–97% domestic made and we're very proud of that. We're never going to be as cheap as Asia or Vietnam, but there are benefits of dealing with a domestic supplier. The specialty dealers, and even some of the mass merchants, are starting to recognize what that issue is. We've proven we can produce in 15 working days or less, consistently."

The pride-in-the-box concept means any of Meadowcraft's approximately 2,000 employees would proudly take a product home to family, friends or neighbors and claim making it. "That may not have been true four or five years ago, but today that is the mantra," Rehmert said. "If you build it, you'd better be very proud of what you did. That really has helped pull the whole team together, to come up with one common cause."

Terry Charcandy, general manager of the approximately 350,000-sq.-ft. Birmingham plant, took the concept literally and set up a display inside the plant's breakroom so workers can see a finished product, where before they may have seen only the piece they welded. Each quarter, a drawing is held to send that displayed product home with a winning worker.

"There is nothing in this plant built ahead of time," Rehmert said. "It starts with that order hitting the system. Once it's credit-approved, it more or less gets in line, but the line ends in 15 days. It starts with the raw material, we start cutting one morning and by that afternoon, it's bent, formed, welded, painted, in the box and delivered on the truck."

The manufacturing process starts with raw steel, cut into 12-ft. or 20-ft. lengths or in coils to be formed into rods. The straight rod then may be twisted and shaped, for example to allow a knuckle detail in a chair arm. An internal test lab puts the arms, backs and spring rockers of chairs through rigors of extreme temperatures and structural stresses. Welding teams pull parts needed from shelves of an internal "grocery store." With every fifth piece through the process, each employee has the responsibility to check and can stop the flow if any flaw is discovered.

"We tell employees what's going on and let them make the decision," said Tom Keane, plant manager, of the production process. "With coaching and counseling, we get better every day. We're not a cookie-cutter manufacturer. We build custom furniture. The challenge is to make what the customer wants on demand."

Rehmert, who began his career as a specialty retailer and now serves as president of the Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, has a good perspective on the changing industry and its challenges. He especially sees problems ahead for specialty retailers who are trying to stay one step above the mass merchants rather than be truly specialty.

"I think the industry, without significant changes, is going to see more consolidation — whether it be retailers or manufacturers," Rehmert said. "There are a lot of people in our industry who don't really get what our niche is and don't see the change going on. None of us like change, but as fast as it's going on, if you don't wake up it's going to roar on right past you.

"Product evolution has ramped up light years in the last five years," he said. "In our industry, it used to be a dining or a seating group, now it's really a full collection, which could include 18-20 or more pieces. Historically you would get five to seven years out of that product if it was good. Today you might have a great product and get only two years out of it. Consumers are changing more rapidly than they ever have. Our ability to react is also changing; we're forced to run 50–60 new frames every year where it used to be 20. So it puts a load on these folks here to get that product retooled for new product designs because all the tooling is done in-house. "

Rehmert credits Meadowcraft President Jerry Camp with leading Meadowcraft toward approximately 120% growth on the specialty side over the last three years. "It does start at the top," Rehmert said. "He's very big on quality, service, delivery, style and value — that's our core."

Being ready with sales literature, catalogs and swatches at the July Casual Premarket is increasingly important for Meadowcraft. More than a month before the September Casual Market, company leaders had already met once on 2009 lines. "You have to take what you learned at the premarket, decide which are going to be good and what's the next chapter," Rehmert said.

Product for specialty retailers is made to order at the Birmingham, Ala., plant plus its 250,000-sq.-ft. cut-and-sew plant. At another southeast Alabama facility in Wadley, the company has about 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space and a 1.5-million-sq.-ft. warehouse and distribution for its business with mass merchants.

"That business we can't build to order, we have to build in the fall when it's forecast, run in the fall and when they start hitting in season, they give us two and three days to ship so it's a juggling act to make sure what's built is right and is in the warehouse," Rehmert said.

Sam Blount, who already owned Plantation Patterns before he bought Meadowcraft in 1987, refused to buckle during the difficult days before and during its financial restructuring, Rehmert said. Just after Meadowcraft had built a plant in Mexico to help serve its West Coast customers, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack occurred, volume dropped and the company faced a $20 million loss in sales due to bankruptcies of two of its biggest customers — Kmart and Service Merchandise. "If it weren't for the owner of our company stepping in and doing what he had to do, we wouldn't be here," Rehmert said. "We filed and about a year later, almost to the day, we came out. It's been a real refreshing change to see the mindsets change in this facility. The people really understand where we're going and they understand what we've accomplished as company. We're in no way, shape or form done with what we know we can accomplish."

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