Best Home celebrates 50 years
Larry Thomas -- Furniture Today, May 28, 2012
FERDINAND, Ind. - It's not unusual for coworkers to gather after work and grumble about everything from the local high school basketball team to the latest edict from the boss, and it seemed no different that fall day in 1962 when Clem Lange and Ernest Prechtel decided to have a beer together.
The two worked at a small chair factory in the southwestern Indiana town of Jasper, but on this day, their grumblings about their boss reached a new level. They knew the company was in trouble and were concerned their paychecks would bounce.
"We thought we knew how to build chairs," Lange recalled. "So we decided to start our own company and build them ourselves."
Lange and Prechtel each ponied up $1,100 - a hefty sum in those days - rented the top floor of an old barn and started making upholstered chairs. (A third man who had agreed to join the venture backed out a few days later.)
It was obviously a huge risk for Lange, who was 27 at the time with a wife and toddler at home and a second child on the way. But the two men were determined to succeed - by making the best chairs at the best price.
And succeed they did. The company that Lange and Prechtel started 50 years ago in a barn loft, Best Home Furnishings, now occupies more than 1.1 million square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and office space in four southwestern Indiana towns, has about 825 employees and has annual sales topping $200 million.
"I never imagined it would be anything like this," Lange said of the decision half a century ago to make chairs himself. "I was just trying to make a living ... feed my family."
While it's obvious today that Lange easily exceeded his initial objective, it wasn't always smooth sailing. He not-so-fondly remembers the many trips to textile shows in Chicago, where he bought rolls of discontinued and obsolete fabric, covered them in the back of a pickup truck, and drove back to southwestern Indiana.
It wasn't until about two years after he and Prechtel began making chairs that they began to believe their venture might actually stay afloat for the long term. That was when Lange - thanks to some contacts he had made on one of his fabric-buying trips - was asked to come to Dayton, Ohio, to meet with executives at what is now Value City Furniture.
The Value City people liked what heard, and before long, Lange and Prechtel needed larger quarters. This time, they rented a former grocery store.
By 1968, the company had grown to 17 employees and was producing 60 to 120 occasional chairs per day.
In the early 1970s, the company purchased 5½ acres of land in Ferdinand, Ind., and began building what is now a sprawling complex of three factories, a showroom and corporate office space.
Recliners and swivel rockers were added to the product lineup in the early 1980s and employment had ballooned to 325 by 1989. By that time, Lange and his family were the sole owners of the company, having acquired Prechtel's ownership stake in April 1988.
| || Best Home Furnishings workers assemble chair frames at the Indiana plant. |
| Best Home Furnishings uses poplar and maple hardwoods for virtually all of its frames, and its frame shop includes a large lumber-drying and storage facility. |
| || Clem Lange describes his collection of about 40 classic cars — many of which he has restored himself. |
| Mary and Clem Lange enjoy a break on the porch of White Pines Lodge, which the Lange family built in the 1990s for corporate retreats and meetings with dealers. |
| || After fabrics are cut, upholstery covers are sewn to meet the specifications of each piece of furniture. |
| Upholstered chairs — the first products Best Home Furnishings made — are still an important part of the product line. |
| || Motion upholstery offerings from Best include this fabric sectional, which has a patented bracket system for ease of assembly. |
| A worker puts the finishing touches on a chaise for a collection that was introduced at the April market. |
| || Best employees put the finishing touches on a motion sofa being assembled at the plant. |
The 1990s saw the company expand even more rapidly as it acquired a factory in Cannelton, Ind., that is now its glider rocker plant, and a sewing plant in Paoli, Ind., that was once owned by Simmons Co.
And if you need further proof that life often comes "full circle," consider this: Part of today's 1.1 million square feet is the building in Jasper where Lange and Prechtel were working when they founded what was then called Best Chairs.
Their former employer did, indeed, cease operations, and the site eventually became Jasper Woodworking, which supplied sofa and chair frames for Best until Lange bought the company in 1994. The plant now produces all of Best's motion and stationary upholstery frames (mostly from poplar and maple) and includes a large kiln for lumber drying.
Lange said the company recorded a sales increase every year until 2008, when the recession slammed Best and just about everybody else in the home furnishings business. Sales peaked at $238 million in 2007 and have yet to return to that level.
However, the top line recovered to $210 million last year and should top the 2007 figure by 2013, he said.
Lange said he's especially pleased that no employees have been laid off despite the pressure on sales. Employment has dropped from about 1,000 to 825, but the decrease has come from retirements and resignations, not pink slips.
"This area has a good work ethic," he said. "That's always been an important part of our success."
Today, the 77-year-old Lange is Best's chairman of the board but isn't active in the day-to-day operations. He and his wife, Mary, spend much of the winter at their vacation home in Florida. And when he's back at the family home just outside Huntingburg, Ind., Lange is likely to be found tinkering with his collection of more than 40 classic cars.
The Langes are proud that each of their four children play key roles in running the company today.
Their oldest son, Glenn, is CEO, while Brian is president, Joey is executive vice president and daughter Sheila Wendholt is vice president of public relations.
Most of their nine grandchildren are still in high school or college, and Clem and Mary hope to someday see the third generation of Langes running the company.
Currently, Wendholt's son, Brad, is plant manager of one of the company's three factories in Ferdinand. Her daughter, Lacey Vollmer, owns a photography business that includes Best as one of its customers. (She's married to Eric Vollmer, Best's advertising director.)
Mary Lange said the family recognizes the difficulties of keeping a business in the hands of the founding family after the second generation, and she's especially concerned that ever-changing state and federal tax laws will make that process even more difficult.
However, she said family members already have invested considerable time in succession planning, even though the second generation is only in their 40s and 50s and will continue to call the shots for many years to come.
"That's about all we talk about at our (family) meetings," Mary Lange said. "It's just hard to believe we've come this far."
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