Vt. Furniture Maker Weathers Economy And Irene To Expand

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When Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters swept through Northfield last August, the ripples were felt in some prestigious corporate boardrooms. 

That’s because the furniture in those rooms was made by a Vermont firm inundated by the flood.

We’ve all seen at least one photo of furniture maker WallGoldfinger’s work:  The President and top officials gathered in the White House Situation Room watching the mission that ended with the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  We study their faces, but most of us don’t notice the table they’re sitting around.

"This is that famous picture," WallGoldfinger president John Wall says has he pauses in front of a photo on the wall at the company’s new Randolph manufacturing facility. "Nobody notices, but that’s our table.  That’s in the Situation Room at the White House."

Wall’s firm specializes in the design and manufacture of high end corporate furniture.  

A significant chunk of the work done by the company involves making boardroom tables. 

A single table can be 40 to 50 feet long and cost upwards to $150,000.  WallGoldfinger has been in business for 41 years, but the last several have been especially trying.

 "Four years ago with all the financial problems on Wall Street – AIG and Lehman Brothers – that really hit us," Wall says. " Those were a lot of our clients.  Our sales dropped about 40% that one year."

Sales rebounded after that but then Irene hit, destroying the woodworking shop at the company’s Northfield home.  

In the days that followed, WallGoldfinger struggled to meet their most pressing orders:  They got furniture for Mitt Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, out the door, but an order for the Polish Embassy in Washington had been damaged.  To keep going, they subcontracted work. 

Meanwhile John Wall tried to figure out how to rebuild the business. 

Insurance covered just a fraction of the damage. 

Wall credits the Vermont Economic Development Authority for providing immediate financial assistance, with follow up loans from the Vermont Community Loan Fund and the Small Business Administration.

There wasn’t an ‘aha’ moment, but Wall says over a period of several months following Irene it became clear that the flood provided an opportunity to move to a better space. 

The company found one in Randolph in a sprawling manufacturing building.

Wall says the biggest difference between the Randolph space and the old facility in Northfield is efficiency, not size.  It’s a better layout for equipment and people.

The manufacturing process involves dozens of different wood veneers 1/32" thick. 

They’re are glued to a wood core, shaped, sanded, polished on big machines and trimmed and embellished with all sorts of other materials.

"When you have all these veneers and all the stones in the world and bronze and stainless steel, we use synthetic leathers, we use painted glass.  It’s a huge color palette," Wall explains.

In recent decades there’s been an overseas exodus of furniture manufacturing jobs.  In fact, WallGoldfinger’s new Randloph home is a symbol of that.  It once housed furniture maker Ethan Allen.

Wall says the nature of his product and the demands of his customers have helped protect his business from foreign competition. 

 "You’ve got to be talking to your client everyday, you’ve got to be visiting them almost every week.  The schedules are really tight," says Wall. " We have to ship here at 8 in the morning and it’s got to be at that loading dock at four in Manhattan, so there’s not time to have it go four weeks in a container from China."

When Irene hit Wall worried that his customers would abandon him. 

They stayed, though and WallGoldfinger expects to be adding to its 37 employee workforce in the next quarter and taking advantage of the larger capacity of its new Randolph manufacturing operation.

See the WallGoldfinger photo gallery

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