Rebirth In Chair City

Peter and Linda Saloom are proving that Massachusetts’ two-century tradition of furniture manufacturing isn’t just history.Based in Gardner and Winchendon, two faded manufacturing towns, Saloom Furniture Co. hopes to spark a comeback for the industry that once made the region famous.

The couple, recently honored at the White House as two of the nation’s Small Business Persons of the Year, live near an eye-catching reminder of that past industrial glory: a 20-foot mahogany chair on Elm Street in Gardner, once declared the world’s largest.

“We want to be part of the furniture history of the area,” says Peter Saloom, the company’s president. “Creating new jobs, transforming and rejuvenating old buildings and machines, having an impact on the local economy. That’s something that drives me.”

The history of the area includes innovations, such as the use of rattan and wicker for furniture, as well as the invention of the punch time-clock and the rise and fall of unionism. More recently the history has been marked by the grim repetition of factory closings.

But, while furniture manufacturing in the state has shriveled–the number of companies has declined by half since 1984, according to state figures –Saloom Furniture has been growing at rates approaching 50 percent annually. In an area pummeled by 17 percent unemployment two years ago, the company has added 80 jobs.

For the past two years the company, which makes custom-ordered tables and chairs, has appeared on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing small, privately held companies in the nation. The owners estimate sales will reach $10 million this year, up from $350,000 in 1986.

How did the Salooms work magic with the table and chair business?

“You have to understand your customer to the point where you are the customer,” says Peter Saloom. Indeed, he is so driven in his customer-focused approach that it sometimes takes strange forms.

For example: When the Salooms asked their customers whether they should make table tops from Du Pont Corian, they got a resoundingly negative response.

Having obeyed the current management dictum of seeking customer input, the Salooms–who take pride in their progressive management practices–flatly ignored the advice. Three years later those table tops, made of a simulated stone material popular in kitchens, are one of their best-selling, most profitable products.

The Salooms say the Corian decision is hard to explain except that, thinking like customers, they were sure that this attractive, low-maintenance surface would sell. It took a year to convince retailers.

Someone else could try that and fall flat, says Michael Holbrook, a management counselor at the Small Business Development Center at Clark University in Worcester. But the Salooms, who sought his help a few years ago, have “extra insight, courage and a feel for what’s happening.” Still, he remembers thinking when he first met the couple that they lacked experience and had “some grandiose ideas.”

It may have been those grand schemes that kept them going. Some people perceive the company’s success as an overnight phenomenon, but Linda Saloom recalls lean years in the 1980s spent in a “ratty old building” in Lowell with an unreliable elevator, where impromptu hockey games broke out in the hall.

Her husband remembers the day he had to “confiscate weapons” from some helpers. “The lady hat-makers on the same floor were scared by our employees,” recalls Linda Saloom, the company’s treasurer. She hastens to add that their current employees are of much higher caliber.

Starting with no cash and an unfinished art degree, Peter Saloom, now 40, began his furniture career in 1979, banging together tables in his parents’ basement in Boxford after being fired from a job framing houses.

“Imagine a 23-year-old bachelor with no home and 23 coffee tables,” he says. He became his own traveling table salesman, eventually landing his first big account with the Crate & Barrel furniture store in Cambridge.

In 1983, now married, the Salooms leased cheap space in a vacant Lowell mill, surviving on Linda’s salary as a rehabilitation counselor–and breaking even on tables.

They persisted. The company hired its first sales representative. Revenues broke $150,000.

Then came the move to Gardner with just four employees in 1986. The Salooms didn’t realize they were settling in a city whose reputation as a furniture center dates to the early 1800s. Gardner’s welcoming sign still describes it as “The Chair City,” even though many of the old companies have folded or departed.

Saloom Furniture moved into a decaying factory on Coburn Avenue that had been idled by the loss of another manufacturer. It wasn’t a pretty sight, Linda Saloom recalls. Roof, floors, wiring–all were rotten.

But, two years later, Saloom Furniture showed its first profit and the numbers have been dazzling ever since. Instead of seeking advice from SBA counselors, they’re now asked to give talks on their application of Total Quality Management. Last year the company expanded, leasing another facility in Winchendon with 80,000 square feet.

The Salooms believe that, despite conventional wisdom, their inexperience has been an asset. Unfettered by “old-think,” but blessed with curious minds, they examined every business issue as a fresh challenge. They sought advice, read books and, eventually, hired a management consultant.

In the process, observers and employees say, they constructed a niche company that was employee friendly, compulsive about quality and–despite their stubbornness about the Corian table top–generally solicitous of customers.

Indeed, Saloom Furniture builds only custom orders for moderately expensive “casual dining” furniture, including ceramic tile and Corian-top tables and wooden and upholstered dining chairs, some of which Peter Saloom designs. From samples in retail stores, customers can create a look from a selection of materials, finishes, shapes and sizes.

“He’s making what his customers want,” a novelty in the furniture industry, says Albert Bibeau, executive director of the Wood Products Manufacturers Association in Gardner. “The philosophy over the years was, ‘We’ll make what we want and customers can like it or lump it.'”

The Salooms also try to keep employees and equipment flexible. Some machines, purchased at auctions, are decades old, bearing trademarks of companies long gone. Because the equipment is affordable, the owners can dedicate machines to tasks as needed. Older companies, the Salooms say, were often wedded to one style of furniture because their set-up and machinery were inflexible.

Three-fourths of the employees at the non-union company have been trained to do four or five different jobs, says Peter Webster, a production manager at the Winchendon facility. The variety is good for employees and helps supervisors relieve bottlenecks, the Salooms say.

Lloyd LeBlanc, the production manager, came to Saloom intending to escape a slow winter in housing construction. He’s stayed four years. “I always wanted to avoid furniture manufacturing,” he says. “I thought they were sweat shops, slave shops. Growing up in Gardner, I heard about it all my life. People couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

But the Salooms put employees “high on their list,” with profit sharing, comprehensive benefits and employee involvement, he says.

The Salooms’ success contrasts sharply with the steady exodus from the region of names such as Conant Ball, Temple Stuart, Gem Industries. and Collier-Keyworth that once meant jobs and security to thousands of workers. Although a handful of the old companies remain, many of the former giants are invoked by cavernous buildings with broken windows. Others, such as Heywood-Wakefield Co., which employed 2,000 workers in Gardner during World War II and survived for nearly 150 years, are memorialized in the names of Gardner’s library and hospital and a new office-residential complex.

But the newcomers see the decline of their predecessors as neither inevitable nor mysterious. Bibeau, of the manufacturers association, agrees.

Some of the area’s older companies succumbed to “complacency,” he says. “They didn’t adjust to the times, didn’t downsize in time.” And, perhaps most dangerous, some descendants of the original dynasties were “skimming” instead of buying new machinery and repairing buildings. When hard times hit, they couldn’t bounce back, he says. “It’s kind of a sad story.”

But the ending hasn’t been written yet.

There are signs that a pair of entrepreneurs may help revive the tradition, with some innovative thinking and new-generation materials.

Despite their modern approach, the Salooms’ Winchendon factory looks much likes its ancestors. The building, peeling barn red paint, sits , in a potholed lot at the end of potholed Murdock Avenue. The Saloom name is nowhere in evidence yet, just the bent and faded signs of a company whose era has passed.

Peter Saloom admits that visitors may not be impressed. But he views his factory with the eyes of a proud father. “I love this place,” he says. “I love the stink, the dirt, the noise. To me, this is paradise.”