The barrister bookcase was Hale's first foray into the home furnishings market. Photo courtesy of Hale Manufacturing.
Teddy Roosevelt was president when F.E. Hale purchased a factory in Herkimer, New York, and started making wooden bookcases. Hale retired in 1918, but the company that bears his name continues today. And while Hale Manufacturing Co. still makes bookcases, the company has evolved in ways that its founder could never have imagined.
The business is currently run by brothers Jim and Jon Benson, whose father and grandfather purchased Hale Manufacturing back in the early 1950s. While the brothers are proud that their kids are in the business – the fourth generation – they keep it all in perspective, according to Jim Benson, company president: “Certainly, with a family business you can get dragged down in nostalgia. But to be viable you have to keep an open mind and understand that things change, and you have to move fast.”
That’s exactly what the folks at Hale Manufacturing have done over the past 10-15 years. They built a new facility, added new items to their line, expanded their target market, and completely changed the way they sell wood products.
“Traditionally, we were a small niche manufacturer. We had bookcases that we offered out of a catalog – it was pretty standard stuff, maybe with some different finishes,” said Benson. “Then people would call and ask for a bookcase that was, say, 29.5 inches wide. So we would say, ‘Sure, we’ll make that for you.’” Little by little, Hale developed a niche market in custom pieces. “Today, we’ll work off a blueprint to exactly match an architect’s design,” Benson said, adding that the company has even started working with some new materials, including solid surface and marble tops. “We’ve sort of learned, ‘You know, this stuff isn’t so scary. We can do this.’” And with the traditional catalog market waning, it was clear that experimenting with new approaches was necessary.
In 2003, Hale was operating out of three different buildings, spread across about a 10-mile radius. “My brother and I decided that if we were going to take a run at this, we needed to consolidate into a modern building,” said Benson. The result was a new 80,000-square-foot facility in Frankfort, New York, that moved all aspects of the business under one roof.
The decision to construct a new building shaped Hale in ways that extended far beyond giving it a new mailing address. “We determined we would need a 10 percent increase in sales in order to live comfortably in our new building,” said Benson. To accomplish this, the company started offering a full-blown wooden library products line.
The process of diversifying wasn’t easy, he notes. Moving beyond bookcases required designing and building tables, desks, shelving, circulation desks, and just about everything else needed to furnish a library. “We did it one chunk at a time,” said Benson. “We started by adding different kinds of shelving and then reading tables, and we started selling chairs [which Hale does not manufacture]. We can do soup to nuts today.”
To give it the ability to complete custom pieces, Hale had to invest in new equipment. Some was high-tech – the CNC machine, for instance – but some was more familiar. For example, a modern rough mill was purchased to increase productivity while maintaining the company’s woodworking traditions. “A lot of big manufacturers got away from rough mill work. They buy dimension stock and just buzz up plywood panels. We never gave up on our mill,” said Benson. Being able to offer solid wood products sets Hale apart from many of its competitors, he adds, because it provides the freedom to build just about anything a library buyer might want: “Being around solids, and working with solids, you find yourself capable of doing some different things.” The rough mill also allows Hale to easily work with different hardwood species as the market demands change.
It wasn’t only the production end of the company that had to learn new tricks. “There was a tremendous learning curve for everybody, from the top down,” said Benson. “The marketing effort had to be different; all new sales tools had to be created.”
More recently, Hale has taken another big step by branching into residential furniture. “The library market is very cyclical. In the spring and summer months, we go like crazy because most of the installations take place in the summer and into the early fall. Then in the wintertime, the office is busy doing quotes but it’s difficult to keep the production floor busy,” said Benson. With guidance from Collin Miller, director of wood products initiatives for the Northern Forest Center, Hale has ventured into the home goods market as a means of boosting sales and balancing work flow throughout the year.
Somewhat ironically, it was one of the company’s oldest product offerings – one that has been in Hale’s library catalog since the very beginning – that seemed the best fit for this new venture. Barrister bookcases, what Hale calls “sectionals,” are solid wood, stackable units with receding doors. Traditionally used for book storage, the company envisioned expanded uses for this product – storing files, say, or DVDs – in the home. Hale had experienced some past success selling these products through online retailers, but this time the company decided to cut out the middle-man and sell directly to customers over its own website – which also provides more flexibility in offering customized options. “The dotcom sellers are a little bit afraid of that,” said Benson.
This control means the residential line will soon move beyond bookshelves, too. “Our hope is that next year customers will be able to go online and use a configurator tool to design their own wall system,” said Benson. “We’re going to add a wine rack, maybe offer custom tops to hold flat screen TVs. We’ll even incorporate an ipad charging station.” The customized units will be designed to be shipped via UPS.
These features could never have been envisioned when Hale started 107 years ago, but they are a part of modern life today. “The new generation, that’s how they shop. They want products the way they want them, so you have to have a lot of options available for them,” said Benson. “The buzzword today is ‘mass customization,’ and that’s the component we’re starting to get underway.” The company has hired a specialist to help it market these products online. And the production department has had to rethink the way it manages its inventory – stocking more readymade but unfinished parts, for example, that can quickly be assembled, sent through the finishing room, and shipped out the door.
Both the library market and individual consumers tend to place importance on the sustainability of products, said Benson. To this end, Hale Manufacturing, which is FSC-certified, touts the fact that it uses local woods, sourced from within 75 miles of the company’s plant. “We generally buy trailer loads of dried, rough-cut lumber,” said Benson, noting that the mills and brokers know as they’re cutting what Hale needs.
Any waste generated – in block form or sawdust – is sent to a pellet manufacturing plant in town or used to heat Hale’s own building via its Chiptec gasifier, which includes a hog to chip up the blocks. “It’s all automatic; it’s very neat,” said Benson, recalling that, at one time, Hale employed a night watchman to feed the boiler.
Some ties to the past do remain. “We take pride in the fact that we build our products using real wood joinery,” said Benson. “We want to make furniture that’s going to last; furniture that you can pick up and move if you need to.” He said Hale tries to position itself in the middle of the market, offering well-made furniture at reasonable prices. While the company has taken on some very high-end projects when they come along, it has shied away from budget jobs that would require lower-grade materials in order to match competing bids. “You can’t be all things to all people,” said Benson. “Some jobs we have to walk away from, and others are right in our wheelhouse.”
With all the change that’s taken place at Hale Manufacturing, Benson is confident that even more change is coming in future years. There’s just no way of knowing yet what that might be. “The next generation is young, and they have elastic minds,” he said. “They’re very open to change, and I see nothing but better things coming.”
This article series is underwritten by the Northern Forest Center, a non-profit organization. The Northern Forest Center creates economic opportunity and community vitality from healthy working forests in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.