LINCOLNTON Bruce Cochrane’s business adventure started in January 2012 when he opened a furniture manufacturing operation in his hometown of Lincolnton.
The project earned praise from the White House for bringing jobs back to the U.S. and the first lady invited Cochrane to the State of the Union Address.
Great hopes were riding on the $5 million enterprise, but it all came crashing down on Thursday when Lincolnton Furniture Company closed, putting some 50 people out of work.
“It was sad – a very emotional time,” Cochrane said on Friday. “These people were talented and a great inspiration to me. We were like a family.”
A variety of reasons led to the decision, he said. Among them were unexpected costs for such things as rewiring the old building, product delivery problems, sluggish retail business and lack of orders.
“We were undercapitalized from the beginning,” Cochrane said. “Raising capital has always been a struggle.”
Also, “orders didn’t come in the way we’d hoped. We got our line placed very well, but retail business wasn’t good.”
Despite the way things turned out, “this has probably been one of the best years of my professional life,” said Cochrane, a fifth-generation furniture manufacturer. “I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’d do it again.”
If he’d do anything differently “I’d take it a little slower,” he said. “We had too many products initially.”
Cochrane’s family got out of furniture manufacturing in 1996 as the U.S. industry tanked and jobs moved to Asia.
Cochrane spent much of his time in China and Vietnam as a consultant for U.S. furniture makers. He noticed that wages rose for Chinese factory workers and labor shortages cropped up because there aren’t enough people for all the jobs available.
Along with that came the increase in transportation costs and the Chinese demand for Western products.
Feeling the time was right to bring furniture manufacturing jobs back to the United States, Cochrane formed Lincolnton Furniture, a partnership that made middle- to higher-priced solid wood bedroom and casual dining room furniture.
The products were made in a 310,000-square-foot building that once housed Cochrane Furniture. The state-of-the-art operation was to eventually hire 130 people. By keeping overhead down and using high-tech, multipurpose machines, Cochrane hoped that made-in-America furniture could compete against lower-cost products from Asia.
“I knew this would be very difficult,” he said. “But I thought the timing was really good. And I still think there will be a manufacturing footprint in the U.S. in furniture.”
‘A lot of challenges’
Industry expert Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance in High Point, doesn’t see Cochrane’s experience as an indication “there’s not any hope for made-in-America.”
“Certainly, it’s an indication we’re not out of the woods yet in the economy,” he said. “There are still a lot of challenges. Bruce was up to the challenge, but starting from scratch is a huge hurdle. And I don’t think the economy is in the right location.”
Local leaders were pulling for Cochrane.
“We really hoped he’d be successful,” said Alex Patton, chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners. “If anybody could make it, he could. He had a good business plan and an excellent product.”
Patton also feels Cochrane fell victim to a bad economy.
“It was bigger than him,” Patton said. “It’s terrible.”
Carl Robinson Jr., vice chairman of the board of commissioners, bought a bedroom suite made at Lincolnton Furniture and called it an “awesome” piece of craftsmanship.
When he saw “Made in Lincoln County” stamped inside a drawer he felt “a lot of pride.”
After the loss of three major furniture makers Lincoln County officials had welcomed the news about Lincolnton Furniture going into production.
“I think everybody was glad to see (furniture manufacturing) come back to Lincoln County,” Robinson said. “I think this was a great idea. I appreciate him (Cochrane) trying to make it happen.”
Lincolnton Mayor John Gilleland Jr. called the plant closing “a blow to the community.”
“I hate if for him and the employees,” said Gilleland, who serves on the Lincoln Economic Development Association. “It really looked promising. The idea of bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. makes you feel good. When it didn’t work out it took the wind out of your sail a little.”
Cliff Brumfield, executive director of the economic development association, said the Cochrane family has been an integral part of Lincoln County’s fabric for years and that Lincolnton Furniture was a “heart-felt” and “valiant” effort.
“But sometimes even the best intentions and dreams don’t last,” he said.
There are several bright spots on the county’s manufacturing horizon. Tenowo Inc., a Lincolnton textile manufacturer, plans to expand and add 26 new jobs.
Chongqing RATO Power Co. Ltd., a global manufacturer of small engines, and its subsidiary company Denver Global Products Inc., has chosen Lincoln County as home of its North American headquarters. Also, Lincoln County will become the location of the company’s North American manufacturing, product development and engineering and testing facilities. The company plans to hire 450 employees over four years.
‘We all tried hard’
Meanwhile, Cochrane said negotiations have begun to sell the Lincolnton Furniture Co. to another furniture manufacturer or possibly merge with another operation. He expects to know something within the next 30 days.
Looking back over the last year, Cochrane remembers stress and challenges, but what stands out the most is the exhilaration of a new venture. It took him to unexpected places, like the White House meeting with President Barack Obama.
“That was a great honor and experience,” Cochrane said.
For him, the plant closing was a time of “great disappointment.”
“I feel I’m responsible for people no longer having their jobs,” he said. “At the same time, I’m grateful for having the chance to try this experiment. We all tried hard. Everybody put their heart and soul into this endeavor. Nothing ever happens unless you give it a shot. And we gave it 100 percent.”