By Jon Chesto

October 02. 2010 12:01AM

MASS. MARKET: Local furniture maker focuses on quality over quantity

David Mc Carthy Edlred Wheeler
David McCarthy

Eldred Wheeler owner David McCarthy doesn’t dwell on what the company has lost – only on what he can do with the respected brand now that it is in his hands again. He is determined to reassemble, piece by piece, a company that he had previously shepherded for 14 years.

Dave McCarthy guides a visitor with relentless enthusiasm through the stacks of maple and cherry planks that line his cluttered woodworking shop in Hanover. A craftsman is busy planing the surface of a tabletop by hand, while a second worker sprays a finish onto a chest of drawers around the corner. The air is heavy with the smell of fresh sawdust.

Space is tight at the Eldred Wheeler furniture company, which shares the room with another woodworking firm. But McCarthy doesn’t expect that problem will last, not with his ambitions to return Eldred Wheeler to its former prominence.

When McCarthy sold the company in 2003, he says it had nearly 100 employees, $7.5 million in annual revenue, and more than a half-dozen manufacturing and retail locations. By the time he bought it back last year, Eldred Wheeler was on the brink of closure: Only a handful of workers were left, the brand generated less than $1 million in annual sales, and nearly all the locations had been shut down.

McCarthy doesn’t dwell on what the company has lost – only on what he can do with the respected brand now that it is in his hands again. He is determined to reassemble, piece by piece, a company that he had previously shepherded for 14 years.

Like many local manufacturers, the Eldred Wheeler furniture business shrunk dramatically in the past decade. But McCarthy’s plan to restore Eldred Wheeler’s luster should offer hope to other specialized manufacturers who want to keep their operations in the United States.

McCarthy didn’t have a furniture background when he was tapped to manage Eldred Wheeler’s operations in 1988. At the time, the decade-old company was a pre-eminent maker of 18th century-style furniture. It didn’t take long for McCarthy to develop a passion for the craft and a belief that a manufacturer can be profitable by emphasizing quality over quantity. He jumped at the chance to buy the company outright when the opportunity arose in 1993.

McCarthy grew the size and scope of the company as its owner. But in 2003, he sold it, with the goal of finding a new passion to pursue. McCarthy says he immediately regretted the decision. He tried several other ventures, including the purchase of the Hill-Top Candy company in West Bridgewater. But nothing could replace Eldred Wheeler in his heart.

Meanwhile, the company McCarthy had helped to build began to fall apart. Eldred Wheeler’s Maine plant was shuttered. Many of the retail outlets closed, one by one. Eventually, Eldred Wheeler became a side business for Curry Woodworking in Avon, and that company’s owners decided to close up shop completely last year, McCarthy says.

McCarthy says he bought the Eldred Wheeler business for a fraction of what he sold it for six years earlier. He picked up much of the equipment at an auction of Curry’s machines for a song. And he was lucky enough to hire back a few key employees who had stayed with Eldred Wheeler through the downturn.

For co-founder Emmett Eldred, it’s been a relief to watch his protege reclaim the reins. Eldred, who still plays an advisory role, says he is hopeful about the industry’s future: There are a fair number of young craftsmen who still want to learn the woodworking trade and a fair number of consumers who see the value in colonial furniture. And he’s optimistic that Eldred Wheeler can buck the trend that has sent countless manufacturing jobs overseas. The Eldred Wheeler collection, he says, certainly wouldn’t have the same feel if it was made in Malaysia or China.

In the year since McCarthy took over, he has opened two shops in Pembroke and Wilton, Conn. He is looking into opening other showrooms in markets where colonial furniture is popular: Cape Cod, Boston’s western suburbs, Connecticut’s Farmington Valley, New York’s Westchester County.

McCarthy expects to double his manufacturing space to about 15,000 square feet within a year, by expanding another space he leases nearby in Hanover. And he hopes to return to northern New England to open another plant near the source of the wood he uses.

He’s remarkably bullish given the economic downturn that has forced even the most well-to-do consumers to watch their spending. Eldred Wheeler pieces don’t come cheaply: Nightstands sell for $900, beds can cost $2,500 or more and secretary desks can sell for up to $10,000.

McCarthy says demand will almost certainly continue for high-quality, hand-crafted furniture. He says Eldred Wheeler items are built to last – and hold their value – for generations, with a classic look that never really goes out of style.

Ultimately, McCarthy says, Eldred Wheeler’s growth depends on its attention to detail and not cutting corners to save a buck or two. He says he’s proud to play a role in growing the region’s manufacturing sector, an industry that has been hobbled by job losses for several decades.

But McCarthy says he doesn’t think he will be the only one. There’s an increasing appreciation for the value of handmade products, a trend that McCarthy says will benefit many manufacturers such as Eldred Wheeler that are in niche markets.

The stamp on the furniture says “Eldred Wheeler.” But a different name used by another U.S. manufacturer could still carry the same meaning: We value quality over quantity. The sentiment might not always be popular in the manufacturing sector. But it could represent the best chance – in this country, at least – for the industry to thrive again.

Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.

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