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Furniture

Ashley Furniture is bigger than you think

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When you think of the biggest furniture brand in the country, names like Broyhill, Basset or Thomasville probably come to mind. Try to guess the biggest furniture retailer in the country and maybe you’ll find Rooms To Go, RH or Ikea.

In all these choices, you would be dead wrong.

The nation’s largest furniture supplier and retailer is a brand that may or may not be on your radar, but is certainly in the American home furnishings buying public: Ashley. And with the recent opening of its 1,000th Ashley HomeStore, the company – unlike any other consumer products brand in the country – is the biggest player at both ends of the product pipeline. It’s as if Amazon manufactures every product it sells or if General Foods controls every supermarket in the country.

Ashley is so dominant in what is still a highly fragmented furniture industry that it remains one of the few consumer product categories in the country with a still robust independent specialty store component and a supplier base that stretches all the way from the Carolina hills. North all the way to China and Vietnam.

With close to $5 billion in annual revenue and now its 1,000 retail stores (most are franchises or licensees), Ashley has accomplished something no other company has been able to do.

It’s what makes Ashley’s history and modern positioning all the more remarkable. Privately owned by the Wanek family and headquartered in the Wisconsin wilds, it would apparently have been one of the most unlikely candidates to reach the pinnacle of the business.

Started in the 1970s as Arcadia Furniture in the city of the same name, Ashley was originally a cabinet and table producer that sold its wares through a Chicago-based sales agency called Ashley Furniture Corp. merged in 1982, but even then it was just a minuscule player compared to powerhouses like Broyhill or La-Z-Boy. But of those modest ones (read: much modest), Ashley started doing things few people did – and that usually made them better than anyone else in the business.

Already in 1984, when the vast majority of furniture was still manufactured in the country, the company began to establish production abroad, in Asia. At the same time, it invested heavily in modern American manufacturing facilities, taking the best of both worlds – not just figuratively, but literally – to become a low-cost producer. It also borrowed a page from another fast-growing US company, Walmart, by focusing on logistics and supply chain technology in a way that was still largely foreign to the furniture business. Meanwhile, Ashley expanded her product line, first into bedrooms, then into dining, and finally into leather and upholstery. He created a sub-brand called Millennium that featured a proprietary finish and turned that business into a state-of-the-art factory in Wisconsin.

The 1,000th Ashley HomeStore (Millsboro, Delaware)Courtesy of Ashley Furniture

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Under Ron Wanekwho later joined the business by his son Todd Wanek, the company continued to expand. Unlike competitors like Furniture Brands or La-Z-Boy, its growth was internal rather than through acquisitions. In 1997, Ashley entered the retail sector of the business with its first Ashley HomeStore in Anchorage, Alaska—perhaps to keep it out of the prying eyes of competitors who were curious to see what the company would do next. The first international store, located in Japan, appeared three years later, while the company continued to invest in Chinese factories.

In 2005, Ashley proclaimed itself the world’s largest furniture maker; by the time, the number of stores had grown to 200. Many were, and continue to be, operated by mainstream furniture retailers who set up freestanding Ashley units adjacent to or next to their existing full-line stores. Two years later, in 2007, Ashley announced that it had supplanted Walmart as the nation’s largest furniture and mattress retailer, a position it still holds today by a wide margin.

Over the past decade, the achievements just kept coming: factories in Vietnam, entry into the mattress and outdoor furniture business, significant philanthropic initiatives, further overseas expansion of its retail fleet and a next-day delivery program. All were under the supervision of Todd Wanek, who became CEO in 2002 and is credited by many in the industry with the company’s unrivaled success.

And although rumors surfaced a few years ago – on the front page of wall street newspaper, nothing less – that Ashley can become public, for the time being it remains in private hands. One of the reasons given for staying private was the family’s belief that there were many more opportunities to be taken advantage of. What would they be? “I don’t know,” Jerry Eppersona leading industry analyst, recently wrote in furniture today. “But I bet Ashley’s people know. They study and analyze our market like no other company, looking for new ways to leverage their industry-leading logistics and technology.”

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For major lifestyle retailers, the store is the brand - until it's notWarren Shoulberg is the former Editor-in-Chief of several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at Columbia University Graduate School of Business; he has received honors from the International Furnishing and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and was quoted by wall street newspaper, The New York Times newspaper, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. He was also a guest on the BOH podcast, and his Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights into key markets and product categories.

Homepage image: Courtesy of Ashley Furniture