Ashley Furniture makes progress on US$80M, 1 million sq. ft. manufacturing, distribution facility in Davie County, North Carolina; chairman of family owned company says substantial investment vital to compete against 'sophisticated' overseas manufacturers

GREENSBORO, North Carolina , April 6, 2014 () – Ron Wanek rode on an all-terrain vehicle through what seemed like miles of warehouses and new construction. It looked like something between a military base and a farm.

As 80,000 people trudge through the shiny showrooms and exhausting glamour of a big convention at the High Point Market 35 miles away, Wanek is building an $80 million piece of the furniture business.

The company will finish this year a 1 million-square-foot expansion at the manufacturing and distribution site it owns here in Davie County.

As the chairman and founder of Ashley Furniture, Wanek oversees a $4 billion company that is the top seller in the U.S. furniture business and the largest manufacturer of furniture in the world.

And because the company is family owned, he doesn't have to answer to anybody -- except the customers of the 500 independently owned Ashley HomeStores that sell the company's wood and upholstered products.

No public owners -- that's how he has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into expansions of his first operation in Arcadia, Wis., turning it into the largest maker of wood furniture in the nation.

"It takes a substantial investment today to remain competitive," Wanek said. "You're competing with overseas manufacturers that are very, very sophisticated."

During its expansions, the company added a 2 million-square-foot upholstery plant in Ecru, Miss., and millions more square feet of distribution and manufacturing space in California, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida between 1994 and 2004.

He won't try to impress you -- Wanek can come off as a little gruff -- but he is very proud of his company's story.

Wanek can tell the entire story of the modern furniture industry.

He has lived it.

He started making small tables in the early 1970s. Then he got a look at what Asians were building -- and he knew their manufacturing techniques would overwhelm his company with high quality and low prices.

"When I took our executives over to show them what they were up against, they became physically sick," Wanek said. "They said, 'We're doomed.'?"

Ashley makes 60 percent of its furniture in the United States and imports 40 percent of its products from its factories in China and Vietnam. The company also is making a strong push to sell its furniture in the growing markets there and elsewhere in the world.

Ashley announced it would build this warehouse and factory in 2012. But delays about wetlands on the site held up the process for a year. Business had to go on, and Wanek said the company has shifted some of its growing production to other plants.

The Advance site already had 1.7 million square feet of space that Reynolds American donated to attract the company.

It ultimately will employ 550 people in an industry that many feared had all but died in the Piedmont.

Wanek knew this was the best place to distribute furniture in the Southeast. But he was surprised about one thing here.

Most young workers don't know anything about making furniture.

Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371, and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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