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Richardson Industries, Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History

company brothers furniture family

904 Monroe Street
Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin 53085-1872
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives:

Richardson Industries was founded by family members with deeply held values regarding the quality of products and the importance of human relationships. Today, these values represent a common language that provides everyone in the company with rare perspective.

History of Richardson Industries, Inc.

Located in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, Richardson Industries, Inc., consists of several different divisions devoted to the various aspects of furniture and woodworking. In addition to its flagship division, furniture-maker Richardson Brothers, the company also owns Richardson Lumber, which sells building materials, produces custom architectural elements via a millwork shop, designs homes, and develops real estate. Richardson Wood Preserving produces treated wood for outdoor use. Richco Structures manufactures both floor and roof trusses for new homes, as well as commercial buildings. Finally, Falls Dealer Supply is a wholesaler of building products, including glass block and treated lumber.

1841-75: Blazing the Trail

Richardson Industries' roots stretch back more than 150 years, when Joseph and Carolyn Richardson moved from New York to Roscoe, Illinois, in 1841. To fund the move, the couple borrowed $400 from Carolyn's father, Peter Burhans. By 1845, the Richardson family--which included three children--had relocated to what would become Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. There, the Richardsons purchased 200 acres of land for farming.

The early history of the company is chronicled in The Richardson Story by Jay Pridmore. In order to clear trees from his land, Richardson built a sawmill near the western shore of Lake Michigan on the Mullett River in 1848, with the help of his brother-in-law, Egbert Burhans. Wisconsin became a state that year, and Richardson's new sawmill represented the start of the Joseph Richardson Company. By 1871, Richardson had given the sawmill its first overhaul; the mill's water wheel and leather belts were replaced with turbines and gears.

Joseph Richardson's enterprise sold raw lumber processed at the mill, and eventually made available a growing selection of such wooden items as hayracks, water tanks, cheese boxes, and farm gates. According to the February 1997 issue of Wood & Wood Products, the sawmill became part of a larger operation that also included a planing mill and manufacturing division around 1868.

1876-1959: Growing With America

In 1876, the Joseph Richardson Company changed its name to Richardson Brothers Company. Joseph Richardson had retired, and his sons, William, Egbert, and Edward, took an ownership stake in the company. According to Pridmore's book, while Edward eventually relinquished his ownership so that he could to move west, he later returned and worked for his brothers.

By the later part of the decade, Richardson Brothers's offerings of wood products had expanded to include furniture. In 1881 the company produced its first chairs, and a factory was built for their manufacture the following year. Despite an economic depression that severely affected business, the company was able to persevere due to its broad offering of wood products. For example, while demand for chairs declined, the opposite was true of cheese boxes.

Several important developments took place during the first few decades of the 20th century. In 1910, Joseph Egbert Richardson, who went by the name Egbert, succeeded his uncle William Richardson as company president. In 1936, Jairus Richardson founded J.S. Richardson to design and produce woodworking equipment.

Early in the 1940s, many of Richardson Brothers's male employees left for World War II. As was the case in many industries across the nation, women assumed occupational roles previously performed by men. According to Pridmore, using machinery made by J.S. Richardson, Richardson Brothers shifted to wartime production. The company produced walnut handguards for M1 rifles, followed by rifle parts for NATO troops in later years. During the war, Richardson Brothers produced a newsletter called Shop Shavings to keep workers connected and informed about company news, even if they were stationed overseas. Only one Richardson Brothers employee was killed during combat.

Richardson Brothers increased its advertising and promotion efforts during the 1940s, using high-end photography and quality brochures to communicate the company's wide-ranging woodworking and manufacturing capabilities to consumers. In 1947, Lemont Richardson was named company president, succeeding Egbert. Also that year, Joe Richardson, Sr. (not the company founder, but rather the son of Egbert Richardson) separated Richardson Brothers from the rest of his family's operations. A new lumberyard was then constructed not far from the company's furniture mill.

Following the war, the company enjoyed renewed prosperity as the economy boomed. During this era, Richardson Brothers sold an expanded, modernized array of furniture, including cabinets and buffets produced in the Federal style. In 1952, a fourth generation of the family took the helm when Bill Richardson, son of Jairus, was named president. He was largely responsible for modernizing the company by working with well-known designers and increasing the company's marketing efforts. Despite his business acumen, according to Pridmore, "Bill was a tinkerer at heart, and nothing pleased him more than devising new and sometimes homespun machines for cutting wood, building furniture and even plowing snow."

Richardson Brothers had become a very self-sufficient enterprise by the 1950s. Pridmore summarized its operations, explaining that the company "milled logs, generated power, devised many of its own tools and operated the business with a talented and motivated extended family whose roots went deep into the wood products business."

The company concluded the decade by forming Richardson/Nemschoff in 1959. The new joint venture was established to produce and market high-fashion furniture. Expanding outside of Sheboygan Falls, Richardson Brothers placed a showroom in Chicago's Merchandise Mart, where it showcased pieces from its Peabody Collection, designed by Larry Peabody, a furniture designer from Boston.

1960-99: Expansion and Modernization

In 1960, Joe Richardson, Sr., made added prefabricated building trusses to the company's product offerings. Two years later, he succeeded his cousin, Bill Richardson, as president by purchasing a controlling interest in the firm. Another important development during this time was an increase in contract business. Richardson Brothers developed relationships with such clients as L.A. Period and California Furniture Shops on the West Coast, and Shelby Williams in Chicago. While this increased business made production more hectic, it also gave the company valuable experience in the area of high-volume manufacturing.

During the 1970s, less expensive furniture imports put pressure on companies like Richardson Brothers. These overseas competitors developed a knack for copying the Early American style that Richardson had begun producing again, as it moved away from the contemporary styles of the previous decade. Luckily, increased demand for high-quality oak furniture did not die, and the company was able to offset the effects of competition from imports.

A major development took place in 1973 when the company reorganized, forming Richardson Industries, Inc., as a holding company for its business segments, including furniture, lumber, and truss units. That same year, Marv Debbink was named general manager of the company's lumber business, as well as its truss unit, Richco Structures.

During the late 1970s, Joe Richardson III returned to his family's company as vice-president in charge of design and product development. He had first worked in the Richardson Brothers sawmill at the age of 16, and subsequently went on to learn the furniture plant's operations from top to bottom by gaining valuable experience in every department. He had then followed a varied path to become a furniture designer, including time at New York's Jiranek School of Furniture Design and Technology; coursework in both art and business; and employment in a furniture design studio, decorator showroom, factory, and retail furniture store. The company rounded out the 1970s by forming Richardson Wood Preserving in DePere, Wisconsin, located near one of the company's two Richco Structures sites.

In 1980, Joe Richardson III made an impression on the larger furniture industry when he designed a new line of bow-back chairs--a throwback to a style produced some 100 years before. The chair was a tremendous hit, and Richardson Brothers was besieged with orders from across the country, including many from new customers. This new product helped the company to expand its business in the West and Northwest.

In the June 1982 issue of Wood & Wood Products, Joe Richardson III commented on the success of his family's company and how he chose to become a part of it, explaining: "I think many family businesses fail because they cater to the family, instead of people. I was raised to believe that whatever I wanted to do was fine."

By the early 1980s, the Richardson Brothers division employed approximately 175 workers. Around this time, the company introduced a line of unfinished furniture that went on to become very profitable. Although Richardson Brothers would later scale back its presence in the unfinished market, in 1982 Wood & Wood Products reported that unfinished furniture accounted for 20 percent of the company's shipments.

Also in 1982 a new manufacturing site was established in Haven, Wisconsin. The plant initially was used to make wall panels for Richardson Homes. Eventually, building trusses were also produced at this site for the Richco Structures unit.

While Richardson Brothers invested in new technology as appropriate, the company continued to use some pieces of equipment that had been in operation for several generations, including an eight-spindle boring machine. In addition, it also "rediscovered" equipment that had been dormant for a long time, including machinery that used steam to bend oak during the manufacture of bow-back chairs.

Computers had found their way into the Richardson Brothers plant by the early 1980s. While they were not widely used in the manufacturing process, computers helped improve several different business functions, including production data processing, costing, and inventory control. Computers were also employed at Richco Structures during the early 1980s. Around this time, as Pridmore explained in The Richardson Story, "computers and telecommunications, ploddingly slow by standards of a decade later, linked Richco with engineers at their supplier, Trusswall Corp. Richco personnel entered raw data on a screen, sent it to Trusswall by modem, and within a short period, they had engineered drawings for custom-made trusses." By 1983 Richco had decided to bring automated design in-house.

Two key leadership developments took place midway through the 1980s. First, the company suffered a loss in 1986 when Charles Richardson, Sr., formerly head of Richco Structures, died. The same year, Glenn Dulmes was named president of Richardson Brothers. This was a historic milestone in that Dulmes was the first person outside of the family to lead that enterprise. Dulmes's roots with the company stretched back to his teenage years. During the 1950s, Bill Richardson had increasingly given him greater--and unprecedented--amounts of operational responsibility, and he played an instrumental role in improving the company. In 1989, Joe Richardson III succeeded Dulmes as president, and a family member was once again at the organization's helm.

By 1996 Richardson Brothers had introduced a line of antique-finished furniture that was well received by many furniture dealers. Around the same time, a new 50-piece line of dining room and bedroom furniture was introduced. Named the Door County Collection, it was "the company's first major marketing effort outside oak in nearly 20 years," according to Pridmore. The March 25, 1996, issue of HFN--The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network explained how Richardson Brothers used consumer focus groups to gain valuable insight that affected the collection's design and price. The Door County Collection was highly successful, leading to first-year sales of several million dollars.

By the late 1990s, Richardson Brothers had a firmly established reputation for quality within the furniture industry, especially for long-lasting chairs. This reputation was communicated in the company's advertising, which displayed a Richardson family member standing on an inverted chair to promote its durability and strength.

In the February 1997 issue of Wood & Wood Products, Barbara Garet described the process used to make the sturdy chairs: "Steam bending makes chairs both durable and attractive. At Richardson Bros., bowbacks are hand bent from a solid piece of heated and pressurized wood. Fingerjoints are eliminated in continuous compound bent armchairs to create the strongest arm possible. Chair backs have doweled chuck joinery with reinforced screw plates. Legs and stretchers are double glued with compressed dowel construction."

A major milestone was reached in 1998, when Richardson celebrated 150 years of operation. In its July 5, 1999, edition, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that, according to a study conducted by Bryant College's Institute for Family Enterprise, Richardson Industries was perhaps the oldest family-owned business in the state of Wisconsin. By this time, the firm employed approximately 900 workers and was approaching annual sales of $100 million.

Despite years of tremendous success, the Richardson family had maintained a reputation for being approachable. In the same Wisconsin State Journal article, writer Jim Chilsen said that the residents of Sheboygan Falls described the family "as wealthy but down-to-earth--the kind who might slap you on the back if they see you at a local bar."

2000 and Beyond

As the 2000s arrived, although Cabinet Maker reported that Richardson Brothers had been able to drop the price of domestic goods twice in 18 months due to more efficient manufacturing processes, the company still faced a harsh economic climate and heightened foreign competition. Subsequently, layoffs occurred in the Richardson Brothers unit. The first workforce reduction took place in 2001, when 70 employees were let go. Although those workers eventually returned, 42 employees lost their jobs at the Richardson Brothers Sheboygan Falls plant in September 2002, followed by another 25 in April 2003. In the April 26, 2003, edition of the Capital Times, the company cited a need to "bring its production into line with customer demand and to reduce accumulating inventory."

Considering the sluggish economy of the early 2000s, the layoffs at Richardson Industries were not out of line with ones at countless other U.S. manufacturing companies. Backed by more than 150 years of success, the company was likely to weather the difficult times and continue its success in the 21st century.

Principal Divisions: Richardson Brothers; Richardson Wood Preserving; Richco Structures; Richardson Lumber; Falls Dealer Supply.

Principal Competitors: Ashley Furniture Industries Inc.; Hamel Forest Products Inc.; Hoida UBC; Midwest Manufacturing; Stan's Lumber Inc.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:
  • 1848: Joseph Richardson builds a sawmill on the Mullett River in Wisconsin, starting the Joseph Richardson Co.
  • 1868: A planing mill and wood products manufacturing division are established.
  • 1876: The Joseph Richardson Co. adopts the name Richardson Brothers.
  • 1882: A factory is erected for manufacturing chairs.
  • 1936: Jairus Richardson founds J.S. Richardson to design and produce woodworking equipment.
  • 1942: The company engages in the wartime production of walnut handguards for M1 rifles.
  • 1952: A fourth generation of the family takes the helm when Bill Richardson is named president.
  • 1959: Richardson Brothers form a joint venture to produce and market high-fashion furniture.
  • 1973: Reorganization creates Richardson Industries, with units devoted to furniture, lumber, and truss units.
  • 1986: Glenn Dulmes is named president--the first non-family member to lead the enterprise.
  • 1989: Joe Richardson III succeeds Dulmes as president.
  • 1998: Richardson Industries celebrates 150 years of operation and is recognized as one of Wisconsin's oldest family-owned businesses.
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