New owner reopens shuttered factory in Valdese

Little more than a month ago, it appeared the lights would go out for good at the Hickory Hill furniture plant in Burke County, which was set to close amid corporate consolidation.

But Monday, an Ohio-based upholstered furniture company announced it has bought and started production at the factory, making it an unusual reversal – and bright spot – in a landscape and region dotted with empty, sprawling brick buildings that serve as reminders of a lost industrial past.

Kellex Corp. plans to hire more than 50 people and to invest $1.7million in sprucing up and updating the plant in Valdese, about 70 miles northwest of Charlotte.

The 354,000-square-foot complex had employed about 160 but shut down early this month, town manager Jeff Morse said.

Among the clients it had made furniture for was Kellex, which primarily serves the hospitality, time-share and health care industries – including major hotel chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Starwood and Ritz-Carlton. When Kellex heard the plant was closing, it became interested in buying the building to expand.

In addition to placing contract orders within the United States, Kellex also manufactures some of its own products. That's what it plans to do in Valdese: The plant will focus on making a new line of sleeper sofas for the hospitality industry.

“We're a very domestic-driven company,” president Chris Rice said. “Our goal is to provide opportunities (in the U.S.) for those who want to work … There's a lot of good craftsmanship in this area.”

Kellex, based in suburban Cleveland, also has a sales office in Hickory. Even as the overall U.S. furniture industry has suffered, the company has grown, and it expects more than $25 million in sales this year, Rice said.

The company has been able to compete because it custom-makes its furniture and can get it to customers faster than products made in the low-cost Asian factories that have siphoned U.S. jobs this decade, he said.

“The clientele in our industry are looking for something different,” Rice said. “It's not all about price. It's about value.”

The prompt delivery times and greater customization that upholstery buyers seek make the work harder to shift overseas than wooden furniture production, which is more standardized.

As a result, domestic upholstery makers have done comparatively well, while wooden furniture employment has withered. Statewide, the number of wooden furniture jobs dropped by 62 percent between 2002 and 2007; the number of upholstery jobs declined 16 percent.

The Valdese plant will be run by local workers with an extensive furniture background, Rice said. Kellex is in the process of hiring and expects to grow beyond the initial 50 jobs. The average annual wage will be $35,160, above the county average of $29,744.

The project is also slated to receive a $30,000 state economic development grant and $38,000 in local incentives over three years, based on performance.

Valdese has experienced numerous furniture and textile plant closings in the past decade. So when town officials learned earlier this year that the Hickory Hill plant would close, too, it felt as if “someone just kicked us in the stomach,” Morse said.

Now, he said, they're pleased to have found a tenant for the space – a task that can be difficult with older factories. Instead of becoming a vacant eyesore, he said, “it will have a tremendous visual impact as well as an economic impact.”

Monday's news is the second announcement of new jobs in as many months for the foothills town of about 4,500. Last month, trucking company World Wide Logistics said it will locate its headquarters in Valdese and hire 50 people, Morse said.