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Old Hickory Furniture Co.

Old Hickory Furniture Co.

Craig Campbell and Chris Williams have some of the most recognizable work in Hollywood.

And while film critics Siskel and Ebert haven't given it a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," it is entirely possible they have seen it in a sitting - or used it in one.

That's because the furniture Campbell and Williams and their 50-or-so employees produce at the Old Hickory Furniture Co. Inc. in Shelbyville is a hit in Tinsel Town. It decorated the lobby of the Great Northern Lodge in the TV series "Twin Peaks." A piece was in Demi Moore's loft in the movie "Ghost." Like a familiar character actor, Old Hickory furniture shows up in different roles on different shows.

"For some reason I was watching the television show |Babes' one night," Williams says. "They had a dream sequence, and right at the end of it I saw a couple of pieces of our furniture. So the stuff's out there."

Off the screen, Old Hickory is out there, too. Actress Candice Bergen has a few pieces. So do Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Sylvester Stallone and John Madden.

Old Hickory has even made the talk-show circuit. Oprah Winfrey had some furniture specially made a few years back. Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue have a set. In fact, as Campbell's fingers stroll through the colorful pages of Old Hickory's catalog, fine chairs and famous names flow together.

"That's the style of the |Twin Peaks' furniture," he says, pointing to a two-hoop chair with a Native American-style upholstery. Turning the page, he points to a high-back chair with Pendleton blanket upholstery: "That's a chair we made for Tom Brokaw. It's at his ranch in Montana."

Jane Fonda and Ted Turner each have a set of Old Hickory furniture at their ranches - and own a set together. Adrienne Barbeau called a few weeks ago. And Old Hickory will soon be recovering some of actress Daryl Hannah's furniture.

"We're just trying to help the stars," Williams jokes.

Ironically, Campbell and Williams rarely know in advance when they will be helping the stars. An aggressive marketing campaign the two implemented shortly after they and two partners took over Old Hickory in 1990 targets primarily commercial accounts. Most of their sales to private citizens go through interior designers.

Which explains, for example, why the dining room set for singer John Cougar Mellencamp's Nashville home was ordered through a Newport Beach, Calif., design firm.

"I volunteered to make that delivery myself," Williams says.

Still, Hollywood wasn't a market niche Campbell and Williams particularly had in mind when they bought Old Hickory - but it's one they don't mind having. Though they sometimes joke about it, the Old Hickory-Hollywood connection is a phenomenon they attribute primarily to a highly unusual, high-quality product.

The potential of the product was what turned Old Hickory's two principal characters into business partners. Campbell and Williams had known each other since they served as interns in the Indiana General Assembly in 1975. From there, Campbell served on the legislative staff, then ran Ralph VanNatta's unsuccessful Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor in 1980, had a law practice in Spencer for a couple of years, served as chief deputy secretary of state for Ed Simcox from 1983 to 1986, then was general counsel to co-Speaker of the House Paul Mannweiler in 1987 and '88. Williams, meanwhile, worked briefly in state government, then as a bartender, and then as co-owner of an advertising agency in Bloomington for 11 years.

To visitors, the pair might seem like a comfortable comedy team, with Campbell the straight man and Williams the jokester. And yet when Williams suggested the two might look into purchasing Old Hickory - which was then a client of Williams' ad firm - Campbell took him very seriously.

"He saw the potential in the company, and I have always been looking for something with a niche," says Campbell.

In addition to potential, Williams thought Old Hickory offered the promise of a tangible product better than his advertising career. "I thought at the time it was easier to meet clients' expectations with a chair than with advertising, and I still think that's the case," he says.

Old Hickory also offered something else - history.

The company traces its roots back to North Carolina, where a father-and-son team put together some hickory three-hoop rocking chairs for the Tennessee home of President Andrew Jackson - who was called "Old Hickory" - around 1830. A. Richards, the son, later moved to Martinsville, and began to produce about 30 chairs a year.

A descendant, George Richards, teamed with M.B. Crist in 1892 to buy an old church near Martinsville. The pair began to produce chairs and tables under the name "Old Hickory Furniture." The company was incorporated in 1899, and over the years has been owned by a variety of people and corporate entities, including Ramada Inns Inc., which owned it for several years during the 1970s. It was moved to its current site in Shelbyville - an old desk factory rumored to have produced President Kennedy's desk - in 1982.

Over the decades Old Hickory Furniture has made a name for itself, and not just in Hollywood. Old Hickory pieces were placed in national park lodges, such as the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park. Chairs with the company's brand furnished the YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colo., when it opened in 1906.

And Campbell points with pride to a worn but still sturdy chair in the company's lobby area.

"This was one of several chairs that originally furnished the restaurant on the floor of the Grand Canyon when it was built 60 years ago," Campbell says. "They were sent back so we could redo the rawhide. They came from the canyon floor on a mule train, they were shipped to us, we shipped them back, and they went back down to the canyon floor on a mule train.

"This chair was outdoors for 60 years, in the Grand Canyon," Campbell continues, grabbing both sides of the frame and shaking firmly but gently. "And you can tell this chair is still in excellent condition, except for the leather."

Campbell and Williams have been careful to build on that heritage. Their marketing script when they and their silent partners - William Morrison of Marion and Jeff Welsh of Beech Grove - took over the company in January 1990 targeted principally contract designers and specifiers and purchasers in the restaurant and hotel industry. They also divided the country into 10 regional sales areas for factory sales representatives, and implemented direct follow-up to sales inquiries.

In short, Campbell and Williams have worked to develop their existing markets fully and to open new ones, all the while building on the company's strong furniture and strong reputation.

"A lot of people already know about Old Hickory Furniture," says Williams. "They're just surprised to learn it's still available."

Old Hickory's list of commercial clients is growing. The furniture can be found at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., which shares a fence post or two with Nancy and Ronald Reagan's ranch; at the corporate retreats for both Kohler Co. and McDonald's Corp.; at the Arlington Park Race Track in Illinois; at a Connecticut yacht club; and at hotels and restaurants from New York to the island of Maui.

One of the company's biggest commercial clients right now is Disney. Old Hickory furnished the Mile-Long Saloon in Walt Disney World's Frontierland, and now is busy working to furnish two Disney resorts in Orlando, Fla.

It's little wonder, then, that business is booming. Last year, Campbell says Old Hickory produced about 7,000 pieces of furniture; this year, the company is on a pace to produce between 12,000 and 15,000. Between 20 to 25 employees are working exclusively on the Disney order. Fifty-hour workweeks are generally the norm for workers, and Campbell and Williams are looking to start a second shift.

"We both come from very different backgrounds, and we both thought the company had a lot of potential - that with the right kind of marketing effort, it could do a lot more," says Campbell. "And the levels of business we've experienced have pretty well justified that."

The company's product, of course, is its primary sales tool. Old Hickory's furniture actually begins in the Tennessee Valley. There, secondary-growth saplings must compete for light with fully developed trees, so the saplings grow thin but straight in an effort to reach the life-giving light. The result is a tree with few branches (and few knots for furniture makers to contend with) that is very, very thin. Even after 20 to 50 years, which is the age of the trees that Old Hickory buys, the trunk is only a few inches thick.

The hickory "poles," as Campbell calls them, arrive at Old Hickory by the semitrailer load and are stacked behind the old brick building until they can be processed. The company buys one million feet of poles each year, and each pole is processed the same way, beginning with cutting, racking and kiln drying.

Once that is complete, the poles are cut for parts and then sanded to the required bark texture. While hickory furniture with the bark left on is familiar to most, Old Hickory offers four different finish options if the outer bark is left on, four other finishes if the inner bark is the desired style, and two others if the customer wants the bark removed entirely.

"By upholstering and finishing the furniture, we're able to go into a whole lot of new areas - such as the Orlando airport, which is certainly not a rustic setting," says Campbell.

Before those finishes are put on, however, curved and hooped parts are bent and steamed to make the curvature permanent. Then the pieces are measured, drilled, sized and assembled. After the finish and desired upholstery are put on, the chair or settee or whatever is ready to be shipped.

"And everything in the factory," Campbell says, "is either paid for or ordered. We don't really have a whole lot of stock on hand."

There are some difficulties, most of which have to with the wood. Hickory is extremely tough. Campbell says a 16-penny nail can't be driven through it. Old Hickory used to get only a six to eight hours of cutting out of each saw blade, but then started having the blades coated with titanium to increase blade life to three days. Officials at the coating company say that is still a shorter blade life than experienced by other companies that use similar blades to cut metal.

The company also has had some unusual requests. Campbell says Old Hickory has stressed customer service, but a few inquiries have been a little out of the ordinary. Such as the order from a tavern in Alaska for a chair that would not be damaged if a 300-pound man threw it across a 50-foot room. Old Hickory made a model, successfully tested it and shipped it out.

"It's not rocket science," Campbell smiles and says. "It is what it is. It is a funny business, but hopefully we've added a lot of style to it."

PHOTO : The hickory furniture Craig Campbell, Chris Williams and company produce in Shelbyville is a bit in Hollywood - from the set of "Twin Peaks" to Jane Fonda's ranch.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mengle, Rev
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:1893
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