Furniture Manufacturer Putting It All Together

ASSOCIATED PRESS

More than a century ago, thousands of Swedish immigrants settled in this city in western New York, learned the woodworking trade and made a living, sometimes a fortune, in the furniture business.

Their finely crafted hardwood chairs and tables turned Jamestown into one of the nation's leading cities for furniture production.

Most of those original businesses are gone. But a kind of heir remains in Bush Industries, a leading company in one of the hottest sectors of the furniture business--the ready-to-assemble market.

"It's a long and proud tradition we have in Jamestown," said senior vice president David Messinger, sitting at a nifty portable desk made from particle board covered with a laminated finish.

"We're carrying it into the 21st century," he said.

Bush Industries' fortunes have risen dramatically since it got into the ready-to-assemble business nearly 25 years ago. Bush was a small company back then, making towel racks and other bathroom accessories. Annual sales were $1 million.

Now the company is the third-largest maker of ready-to-assemble furniture in the country with 2,000 employees and sales of $213 million in 1994. Industry analysts note Bush Industries' impressive development in a market that's growing twice as fast as the traditional furniture business.

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Although several factors have driven the expansion, the most important may be craftsmanship--the same value that put this area 70 miles southwest of Buffalo on the furniture-making map.

While other ready-to-assemble companies make products cheaply to gain an edge in pricing wars, Bush has tried to produce higher-quality furniture that may cost more but is also more attractive, experts say.

"They're the innovators," said Jerry Epperson, an analyst with Mann, Armistead & Epperson who has followed the furniture business for 26 years. "They're the ones that come up with new drawer styles, with new moldings on the front, functions that make their products more user-friendly. Their products just look better."

By continually producing top-of-the-line merchandise, Bush has managed to market computer desks and entertainment centers for as much as $400 in an industry that dared to not sell its products for more than $100 a decade ago.

In the early part of this century, many local companies inspired the same kind of confidence.

The Swedes immigrated to the area after the Civil War. With the New York-to-Chicago rail line running through town, they were able to distribute their goods throughout the country.

By the early 1920s, there were more than 40 furniture manufacturers here and the population had swelled to 45,000, said city historian B. Dolores Thompson. Chairs made in Jamestown were used by the U.S. Supreme Court and a huge market was built for trade shows.

But the industry lost steam as the children of company founders decided not to stay in the family business, or didn't have the capital to invest in new manufacturing technologies.

Today, roughly a dozen furniture-related businesses remain in the city of fewer than 35,000, and only a few companies survive from the original group of hardwood craftsman.

Many companies, like Bush Industries, have been forced to reinvent themselves to remain competitive.

"The business has changed with customer demand," said Carol Lorenc, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce. "For example, take Bush's success in ready-to-assemble computer furniture. In the 1940s, we didn't have computers. They've carved a major world-market niche meeting today's customers' needs."

Along with Bush, the whole ready-to-assemble business has flourished in recent years, due to cheaper products and greater demand. And industry analysts predict sales will continue to grow in the next 10 years.

Bush executives are looking forward to those days, but also believe better times lie ahead for the furniture business in Jamestown.

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