End of line for fine furniture name

After 82 years, Hagerstown's Statton is going out of business

December 07, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Gary Rohrer hoisted the cherrywood end table from the showroom floor and turned it upside down.

"There it is," he said to his wife Marjorie, pointing to the green Statton Furniture label imprinted underneath.

For 82 years that label has been synonymous with high-end, high-quality traditional furniture. But soon it may mean high-end collectors' items. Statton, the Hagerstown company that has been owned by the same family for four generations, is going out of business.

A company once as solid as the cherrywood its workers crafted into ornate furnishings, Statton has struggled to make sizable profits for years. Many of its retailers have turned to furniture made by overseas manufacturers that churn out traditional look-alikes at much lower prices.

The company recently held its last public sale, a two-day closeout at its headquarters. Dozens of avid furniture collectors converged on the company's two dusty, dimly lit warehouses and sifted through rows of finished and unfinished pieces affixed with price tags. Like the Rohrers, many of the collectors considered the Statton name as valuable as the pieces themselves.

"It's easy to buy unmarked furniture and say, 'We bought this at Statton,' " said Gary Rohrer, 61, a structural engineer from Boonsboro. "If you're paying for the Statton quality, you'd like to have the Statton name."

Closings, layoffs and other gloomy economic news are increasingly common in Maryland, where the unemployment rate is 5 percent, the highest in 12 years. Last week, the Legg Mason brokerage announced about 100 layoffs in the Baltimore area. Energy giant Constellation, whose financial troubles triggered the company's impending takeover, said it was laying off about 400 workers in this area and 800 overall.

T. Hunt Hardinge III, president of Statton Furniture and grandson of founders Philo and Helen Statton, said that in September the company decided to close its doors for good, after the summer's orders were down 50 percent from the previous year. Moreover, he says, many of Statton's retail clients have gone bankrupt - including two companies in North Carolina that owed the manufacturer almost $100,000 each.

During its heyday, about 15 years ago, Statton employed more than 200 workers. Now the number is down to about eight, including Hardinge. All that's left are supervisors; the last remaining production workers were laid off the day before Thanksgiving.

But rather than file for bankruptcy, Statton has decided to cease operations. That way, it can provide severance, vacation pay and benefits to its workers - some of whom have been with the company for more than 30 years.

"It's so unusual that most [companies] just drift along until they don't have a choice anymore, then, bang, they're in bankruptcy," said Hardinge, 54. "Once you go to bankruptcy, it's all in the hands of the bankruptcy court and the trustee board as to who gets paid how much."

The closing comes after several years of inconsistent returns - profitable for two years, unprofitable the next, yet never a sizable windfall. Meanwhile, the cost of doing business continued to hamper the company.

"Our average labor wage is $17.65 an hour plus benefits," Hardinge said. "If someone from China pays $2 a day, how can I compete?"

Statton's extinction will be all but complete in mid-January, when the company plans to auction off property, trucks, machinery, office equipment and any remaining furniture. That will mark the end of a company founded in 1926 - more than three decades before Alaska and Hawaii gained statehood. It has survived the Great Depression, World War II, and, until recently, countless changes in consumer tastes and preferences.

Statton's decision to close has been a hot topic throughout the furniture manufacturing industry.

"They have always been highly regarded for incredible quality of product they've produced," said Jackie Hirschhaut, spokeswoman for the North Carolina-based American Home Furnishings Alliance. "No question that the manufacturers at the upper end, particularly companies like Statton, are challenged by companies choosing offshore sourcing."

Furniture industry analyst Ken Smith of the North Carolina-based consulting firm Smith Leonard said that overseas competition and the recession have spelled doom for many American furniture makers.

"Companies that have been hanging on by a string are going under with the falling off of the economy," Smith said. "Unfortunately, a lot of great names have gone by the wayside, like Statton."

Statton made its name by offering 18th-century, handcrafted furniture that was exceptional in design and detail: Every drawer is made from a single piece of wood, so the pattern of color variation in the wood can be seen from drawer to drawer. All of the hardware is made of solid brass. Each piece gets a seven-coat finishing.

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