Last One Standing – How Kindel Furniture has managed to maintain high-end furniture manufacturing when everyone else has bailed

Jon Smith (center) talks to designers at the recent High Point Furniture Mart.

For about a hundred years Grand Rapids was the Furniture Capitol of The World. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s names such as Baker, Widdicomb, Sligh and Kindel were found in the best homes in America engraved or on little brass plaques inside drawers or behind bedsteads and cupboards or sewn under cushions.

The company founders came to Grand Rapids because of a ready supply of hardwood, transportation and craftsmen with a strong European-based work ethic.

Now, all has changed. North Carolina has become the residential furniture capitol (the Grand Rapids area still holds the title for corporate offices of commercial furniture manufacturers) because of a ready supply of hardwoods and transportation and a lot of mass-production techniques.

Kindel now stands essentially alone in Grand Rapids, in a factory where wood enters through one door and hand-crafted designer furniture leaves from another. Why is Kindel still here after all those years when everyone else left town -“ or simply closed up shop? We asked current CEO Jonathan Smith for some answers as he was packing his bags to join 85,000 attendees at the semi-annual High Point Market in High Point, NC.

“We build hand-crafted furniture for higher-end customers and collectors who are willing to buy a single piece of Kindel that ultimately, after an extended period of time, may fit into the ultimate design for a room. It may take them a bit to acquire all the pieces that are going to go into that room,” Smith explains.

Kindel is licensed by both Mount Vernon and Henry Francis du Pont’s home in Winterthur, Delaware to build faithful reproductions of their priceless antique furniture collections, while still allowing Kindel to be “inspired” by both locations. “There’s a window over the main entrance to Mount Vernon,” says Smith. “It has a nautical motif with great fretwork. We’ve turned that concept into a cocktail table. It is just one example of how we’re constantly adapting as a company.”

Smith brings a fresh set of eyes to Kindel, having joined the company as president and CEO in 2007. His prior experience has been in finance, primarily with Citigroup and Fifth-Third Bank. “I didn’t have varnish in my veins,” he laughs, “so I was able to capitalize on my skills in building businesses and relook at what we have at Kindel and how we can leverage our strengths to grow.”

One of those strengths is building partnerships. “We had a potential partner in for a factory tour this afternoon. She works for a number of libraries and wanted to know if we could build a particular furniture design,” he continues. “Because the design was similar to something we’re already building we could easily modify it and spread the costs out over all of her clients. That way they could afford to have a beautifully designed piece that can withstand the wear experienced in libraries, and be rehabilitated easily instead of having to be completely replaced. That’s a sustainable, green approach, it satisfies budget-conscious library trustees -“ and it is also an inspiration for Kindel to potentially start an entirely new line of furniture. That’s the kind of thinking it takes to survive in this industry, given the competition from offshore.”

All of Kindel’s production is done in-house, from design to manufacture. The departure of the other high-end manufacturers from West Michigan has caused the talent pool from which Kindel draws to shrink. “Kendall [Kendall College of Arts and Design of Ferris State University] has a terrific furniture design program and we have a number of interns from that program go through our design department. What Kendall doesn’t have is a curriculum of furniture craftsmanship. We do have a father and son team working with us -“ the father has been here as a carver for years and his son has been learning the hand carving arts since he was 10. He came to us when he was 18 and continues to learn from his dad, but they’re the anomaly,” Smith explains. “Finding new craftspeople to replace our admittedly aging staff is a challenge, but one we’re facing. It takes a special gift to be able to carve the embellishments on a piece of furniture by hand, or add finishing decorations with a paint brush that goes to a razor point. We’re trying in some cases to see if that gift can’t be taught.”

One reason Smith is going to High Point is to officially introduce a new partnership. Kindel started in 1904 as the CJ Kindel Bedding Company and the new partnership directly relates to those early days. Hypnos, “by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Bedding and Upholstery Manufacturers,” has been making mattresses and box springs for royalty and the gentry for about as long as Kindel has been making bed frames.

“It was a natural fit,” says Smith. “Our customers had long been asking us for advice about mattresses when they bought our bed frames and now we’re able to offer mattresses and box springs that match our quality and it’s one-stop shopping.” Matching the quality of the bed frame should come easily to Hypnos, one of whose beds “the Queen Mum,” Queen Elizabeth’s mother, slept on for 67 years and which they had to refurbish only once.

The prefix “re” seems to pop up often when Smith talks about Kindel. “We have a relatively new program that we call ReNew. I was having dinner at the home of the granddaughter of the founder of Baker furniture. She mentioned that the crib she and her children had slept in had been built by Kindel when her mother was a baby. I asked if it still existed and she took me to the basement to show it to me -“ tooth marks and all. I asked if I could borrow it for awhile and took it up the stairs, put it in my car and took it to the factory the next day. We had records of when it was built, what finishes were used and we literally renewed that crib.”

Now the owners of the estimated quarter-million pieces of Kindel furniture can have their piece rebuilt in the factory where it started out, using the same hand techniques. Because each piece of Kindel furniture is an individual, the costs to renew it will vary “but the results will be well worth it,” assures Smith.

The ability to re-look at existing designs and finishes and a changing marketplace is also something Jon Smith has brought to Kindel. “Once upon a time my grandmother would have a big old china cupboard that she’d have her best china displayed in before taking it out for special family gatherings. Today, I have the same kind of ‘special occasion’ china, but it’s stored away in a regular cupboard, not in a display cupboard. In a few years younger families for the most part aren’t even going to have china that’s used just for special occasions. So, where does that leave the Kindel version of Grandma’s china cupboard? We’ve painted the case white, painted the inside back in a kind of peach -“ and the interior designers out there are asking us where we’d hidden this fresh, contemporary piece of furniture,” he says. “We told them it was the same one we’d always had, we just made it look different.”

Smith continues: “That’s a great example of being relevant.. We will continue to evolve the product line to be relevant to whatever the market is looking for. The buyer in Cairo or Kuwait will continue to buy that china cupboard in a dark mahogany finish with a very high sheen, so relevant is relative.”

Like any successful retail enterprise, Kindel listens to customers. “We’re no different from any consumable product, whether it’s disposable or not. Apple paid incredible attention to what their customer was looking for with the iPhone, but I don’t expect people to be waiting in line for three days for a Kindel sofa. The more we listen, however, to what that consumer is telling us they want to own, the better job we can do in creating that product,” Smith advises.
“What we’re doing is transforming ourselves from a company that relied strictly on high-end retailers that would take what we dropped off on their loading dock and broadening our market to include designers -“ the people who have a really good idea of where the market is going. Color is a good example. Upholstery fabric colors tend to come off the fashion runways, so we’re really beginning to pay attention to that stuff. If we show upholstery fabric in next year’s coming color, then customers will come in and say ‘these guys are really together’ and the more successful we are at that the more successful our dealer network is. We end up being a brand that is highly desirable,” Smith concludes.

The lessons of Kindel’s approach are obvious, and can translate easily to other manufacturing firms. Listen to your customers. Pay attention to what else they can spend their money on, not just to your competition in your market. Be nimble enough, and brave enough, to respond to a rapidly changing marketplace -“ even if your business is more than 100 years old.

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.