By Tom Lassiter
As far as Bill Herren was concerned, there was nothing unusual about the group that dropped by Whitecraft’s Merchandise Mart showroom that day in 2012. They focused intently on the furniture, conducted sit tests, inspected pillows and cushions, conferred among themselves, didn’t ask too many questions and eventually moved on.
That’s what furniture buyers do on an initial visit. They didn’t come back, and Herren thought no more about it.
The call came later. The visitors were interested in a big purchase, but with one condition.
“They said, ‘We’re going to make an offer on Whitecraft, but we want you to come with us. Are you willing to move to Dallas if this goes through?’”
Herren, Whitecraft’s longtime director of Sales and Marketing based in Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t hesitate. Of course, he said.
The sale of Whitecraft to Woodard Furniture was announced in March 2013. Woodard Furniture is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Craftmade International, a company that specializes in ceiling fans; it purchased Woodard Furniture in 2008.
“I’ve been here for a year-and-a-half now,” Herren says by phone, “and I’ve been traveling so much for work that I haven’t gotten to know Dallas yet.”
Herren recalls being in Texas for only seven days last October. Much of that time was spent in China. He returned to China in December and is scheduled to go again in late January, perhaps with side trips to Vietnam and the Philippines. He’ll be checking on product being readied for July’s Preview Show in Chicago.
Herren’s title is Creative Director. The post carries with it everything one might imagine and more.
“Woodard is 12 to 15 times the size of what Whitecraft was,” he says. “So it’s a little bit more challenging. I have much more responsibility here.”
Herren carries the burden with ease. He was his usual unflappable self at his first Casual Market in the Woodard showroom in 2013. He appeared to be as up-to-date on Woodard’s extensive metal lineup as he was on the wicker products carried over from Whitecraft.
|Ad in Gourmet magazine 1975 with Arnold Palmer.|
The Whitecraft brand focuses on vinyl wicker furniture made in the Philippines. Woodard retained the Whitecraft name and continues to have the furniture produced in the same Philippine factory, which remains under the ownership of Manuel Dizon.
By the time the 2014 Casual Market rolled around, Herren had fully absorbed Woodard’s culture and tradition. On the Internet he found tear-sheets of Woodard advertising campaigns published decades ago in leading shelter magazines. Herren framed the ads himself, hung them prominently about the Chicago showroom, and pointed them out to visitors.
Marketing budgets in 2015 don’t support advertising in consumer magazines, but it’s apparent that Herren appreciates the value in recognizing that Woodard once had that kind of marketplace presence. One of the ads features a handsome young golfer with a furniture collection that carried his name: Arnold Palmer.
Herren is one of a three-member executive team that calls the shots at Woodard. The others are Belinda Lavender, vice president of Sales and Marketing, and James Goff. His title is Account manager, but like Herren and Lavender, he juggles many responsibilities. The trio often travels together on business.
“Belinda is the default boss,” Herren says. “We rely on her for most of the business decisions. We rely on James for a lot of the construction issues. We all wear multiple hats.”
Six weeks after Herren joined Woodard, the executive above Herren, Lavender and Goff left the company. His job, Herren says, “was split between James, Belinda and me. We work as a team. We rely on each other and back each other up. It’s the three of us that make the overall decisions.”
|Photo: ©2015 Jason Jones photography. www.jasonjones-photo.com
L to R: James Goff, Account Manager; Bill Herren, Creative Director; Belinda Lavender, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Woodard Furniture.
Woodard maintains its longtime factory in the central Michigan town of Owosso. Administrative operations now are in Coppell, Texas. If you’ve flown into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, you’ve passed over it. Coppell also is the home of Woodard’s parent company, Craftmade International. Craftmade is in turn owned by Litex International, which is based in nearby Grand Prairie.
The Landgrave brand of cast-aluminum furniture remains under the Woodard umbrella. Some production is still in Mexico, though much of the manufacturing now is carried out in Nicaragua, Herren says. Cushions are also made in Mexico.
Most Landgrave product is purchased by designers and built to order before being imported. No Landgrave product is warehoused in Texas.
Woodard’s wrought-iron furniture is manufactured in Owosso. The majority of parts are U.S.-made, with a few sourced from China. Extruded-aluminum parts are sourced from China for assembly in Michigan. Woven goods from China are warehoused in Owosso, where cushions are made for that furniture and all Woodard-brand metal furniture.
Cushions for the Whitecraft line, which is warehoused in Texas, are made in North Carolina.
When pressed, Woodard’s chief tastemaker confesses that he looks to others to carry out his design ideas. “I can’t draw to save my life,” Herren says.
Woodard currently employs no designers. A product designer from the Craftmade-Litex side recently expressed interest in tackling outdoor furniture, Herren says, and a couple of his designs advanced to the prototyping stage. One is expected to make it into the Woodward catalog.
Woodard’s last full-time designer left the company last year to join Pottery Barn Kids. Like many furniture companies, Woodard relies heavily on independent designers.
|Atlas Dining designed by John Caldwell.|
“We’re constantly being approached by designers,” Herren says. “John Caldwell has been designing for Woodard forever. Last year we came out with his Atlas design. The sales have just gone astronomical. It’s been extremely successful.”
Other independent designers in the Woodard stable include Mark Pickett and Karl Mueller. “We don’t have a need right now for full-time designers,” Herren says.
The Philippine factory that produces the Whitecraft line has a staff designer. Eight new collections are under development, he says.
Woodard’s top-quality furniture is complemented by a container program that offers dealers a single source for a good-better-best lineup, according to Herren. The container business has grown to the point where the company had to restrict the number of container orders available to ship before the Chinese New Year. Dealers had to commit early, Herren says, to be assured of product shipping before the holiday break.
“This was the first year we had done that,” he says, “and so far it has worked out very well.”
As 2014 came to a close, Herren was finalizing fabric choices for the 2015 swatch book and considering ways to improve Woodard’s catalog.
“We got a lot of feedback this year, and it was not all good,” he says. “Our catalog is so thick, it’s getting a little hard to use.”
Woodard’s management team went back to its customers, asking what they thought was necessary to be in the catalog and what might be eliminated. The website, which is being revised, is undergoing a similar examination. Herren explains, “We’re asking people, ‘What do you need to see, and what don’t you need to see?’”
The hospitality and contract markets account for about 15 percent of sales, and the Owosso factory has been busy satisfying orders from a rapidly-growing recreation company called Topgolf. Think of it as an upscale, high-tech driving range, with family-oriented amenities including food, drink and activities for kids.
Topgolf, Herren says, “specified a sectional and a bar stool from us. Unbelievable amounts of furniture. The factory is making it on a daily basis and shipping it out.”
Herren trained as an industrial engineer and backed into the furniture business when, in the 1980s, he fled Chicago’s chilly winters to move to Florida, where his parents had relocated. He took a job handling inventory control for a company that made aluminum furniture and sold wicker and rattan indoor furnishings made by Whitecraft. Whitecraft at that time produced only indoor furniture.
Whitecraft eventually hired Herren, where he was in charge of customer service for 16 years. One day, owner Manuel Dizon charged Herren with hiring a new showroom designer. But Herren had another idea; he nominated himself for the job.
Come and look at my house, Herren told his boss. “If you don’t like it, I’ll go find a designer.” Dizon came over the next day. “He spent about an hour looking around,” Herren recalls. “And that was how I started doing the showroom and fabrics.”
Herren put in another 10 years with Whitecraft before Woodard purchased the company. As far as Herren’s concerned, it’s all good.
“I am perfectly fine with this,” he says. “I enjoy the people I work with and what I do. I couldn’t ask for a better company to work for.”
|1949 Woodard – Chantilly Rose wrought-iron furniture print ad.|
|1957 Woodard – Chantilly Rose (updated) wrought-iron table and chair ad.|
|1961 Woodard – Trianon wrought-iron group print ad.|
|1962 Woodard – Mayfield wrought-iron furniture print ad.|