How locals saved a furniture company in Ohio

A look Norwalk Furniture's April 2010 showroom.

Kai Ryssdal: So here's a thought about unemployment. Working off that bit in Jeff Horwich's piece about the ADP report today and how the private sector gained 114,000 positions last month -- maybe the first step instead of worrying about adding jobs ought to be hanging on to some of the ones we already have.

Dan Bobkoff from the public media project Changing Gears has the story of how one Ohio town saved its best-known business.

Dan Bobkoff: For more than 100 years, Norwalk Furniture made custom-order sofas and chairs from its factory in Norwalk, Ohio. So it was a nightmare for Mayor Sue Lesch when the company was on the brink.

Sue Lesch: It is really our flagship company. It's the company we're proud of. We're known for furniture all over the country.

In 2008, the housing crisis depressed demand for furniture. The company's bank pulled its credit line. Norwalk Furniture closed its doors.

Lesch: The closing of Norwalk Furniture was just a shock to the very system of this city.

So, the story could have ended here. A company dies, leaving hundreds without jobs. And yet, today there's furniture being made in Norwalk, Ohio.

Tom Bleile: My name is Tom Bleile. I'm one of the 12 investors who have invested in Norwalk Furniture Corp.

Over just four days, Tom Bleile and a group of local families came together to buy the company. Bleile worked in his family's highway construction business much of his life. But, like many in this town of 17,000, he didn't like its most famous company closing up shop.

It seems kind of crazy. There was hardly any time for the families to do their homework. And they weren't exactly experts.

Bleile: Quite frankly, most of the investors couldn't tell you the difference between a sofa and a loveseat.

But there was something else behind all this. Sure, they hope to make money, but investors like Dan White saw this deal as their civic duty.

Dan White: The people who live here are truly devoted to this town. So, it really wasn't that difficult to get those 12 families to come together.

With financing secured, and Norwalk Furniture sold to the group of families, Dan White became its president. Despite knowing little about furniture or manufacturing, he streamlined the business. The new Norwalk was going to focus just on custom high-end couches and chairs. White says everything else had to go.

White: Running their own trucking fleet, running their own retail stores, etc., were components we weren't going to be interested in.

Three years later, Norwalk Furniture has no bank debt, and about 150 workers like Jim Spears are back on the job.

Jim Spears: I mean, I got hired in here when I was 20 years old. I'm 45 now. I have a wife and three daughters. And it was scary. Definitely a little bit of depression going on there.

Saving Norwalk Furniture has had ripple effects in town. Down the street, The New Horizons Baking Company churns out thousands of hamburger buns for companies like McDonald's. Trina Bediako is executive vice president and she says the Norwalk Furniture story influenced New Horizons' decision to expand here.

Trina Bediako: It kind of helped to reaffirm what kind of community this was. There is growth. The people do care. The businesses do want to thrive.

It's not a totally happy ending yet. Not all the workers from the old Norwalk Furniture were hired back. Norwalk's economy still needs help. But at least these 12 families show what's possible.

In Norwalk, Ohio, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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Mr Kiefer
The use of machinery is key to reducing unpleasant work and increasing efficiency and therefore affordability. This, however—like all things—has limits. A relentless race to the bottom, to cheapness, I mean, is not sustainable. At some point work safety and reasonable wages must be regarded from the standpoint of something other than strict market forces. That too is part of a realistic business plan.

I would add that although our culture's debased notion of civilization probably considers such ideas eccentric, I would also suggest that our architecture and material culture taken all together, including our homes and their furnishings, are true and reliable reflections of who we are and what we value. (They are the things on which archaeologists base their understandings of past civilizations.) When we come to value nothing but cheapness and efficiency in those matters, not only will we force people into the worst possible, least rewarding, labor, we will be relying on people—or machines—who care nothing about what they make to provide us with the things that frame our daily lives. Nor will we have any hope of innovation and improved design from those people who have actually done the work—historically, the primary source of design and innovation. At that point we will betray ourselves as a thoroughly careless people—the absolute worst kind of people the earth has known.

Quickly producing higher priced custom upholstery is one strategy in dealing with Chinese competition.

While the 12 investors in Norwalk Furniture may have not had any experience in the furniture industry; that does not mean they did not develop a realistic business plan.

Thanks for the story.

Mr Rigby,
I agree completely about the value of manufacturing, which is why I disagree with you re: protections. The success—or our hopes for the success—of Norwalk notwithstanding, recent history could not demonstrate any more conclusively that basic manufacturing cannot survive in this country without at least some protections. No?

We have been Norwalk dealers for over 35 years and are proud to say our Norwalk in made in America. If we want this country to come around, we had better be supporting made in America by Americans!

This is not about protectionism, but is about the value of manufacturing as the engine of growth. The lesson is: if we want US growth, we have to have US manufacturing.

Man, what a breath of fresh air this story is! I'm tired of hearing so much emphasis on technology innovation as the salvation of the economy. Stories like this remind us that our lives and livelihoods are built on really basic things produced with basic skills. People need food, clothes, houses—and basic furnishings for their houses. They also need meaningful work.

Also it reminds us that we don't live in an economy—we live in communities. This plant isn't just an income generator, it provides for the life of Norwalk, the identity and pride of its people. If you ask me, that's worth protecting. Protectionism shouldn't be a dirty word.

The story also shows us what, in these hard times, we have to do: take charge of our own lives by working together, nurturing along what we have, and making something real and worthwhile—not just more gimmicks for separating folks from their greenbacks. Rediscovering and revitalizing the real economy like Norwalk is doing is how we'll dig out of this recession.

Thank you!

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