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An employee wrangles furniture at one of United Furniture Industries’ sites. The company, which has four production plants in the Triad, plans to expand its overall workforce by about 14% because of increased demand for its products.

United Furniture Industries, with four production plants in the Piedmont Triad, said Friday that it plans to expand its overall workforce by up to 500 employees because of heightened demand for its products.

The expansion would represent a 14.3% boost over a workforce of 3,500 that has held steady the past five years.

The company said it plans to create between 70 and 90 jobs in the Triad, where it currently has about 1,150 employees.

“We are hiring immediately for these positions. We will continue recruiting, interviewing and hiring until the jobs are filled,” United spokesman Bob Hetherington said.

United, based in Okolona, Miss., makes promotional to midprice upholstered furniture in the U.S., both stationary and motion pieces. It imports wooden bedroom and casual-dining products from Malaysia and Vietnam and sells them under the Simmons brand.

The company’s 850,000-square-foot plant at 401 W. Hanes Mill Road in Winston-Salem, formerly known as Hanesbrands’ Weeks plant, has been a major beneficiary of the surge in upholstery orders.

In 2017, United said it was dedicating 281,700 square feet to distribution, 217,600 square feet to manufacturing and 127,600 square feet to storing furnishings kits from Chinese suppliers.

United quickly surpassed a hiring goal of 200 employees and was at 315 in 2017, according to Robert Cottam, a consultant for United.

It has production and distribution facilities in High Point, Lexington and Glenola in Randolph County where it has a combined 940 employees.

Promotional focused

Promotional upholstery typically is marketed as a lower-cost item used to draw customers into a retail store. The upholstered and vinyl furniture typically is sold in the $299 to $699 range.

Besides its brand, United has benefited significantly from its November 2017 acquisition of legacy industry brand Lane and its Mississippi-based operations from Heritage Home Group. United has seven plants in Mississippi and one in Victoryville, Calif.

“Our company is pleased to be expanding our U.S. workforce in response to the sustained and growing demand for our products, including our newly acquired Lane branded products,” Larry George’s United’s president, said in a statement.

“Our expansion benefits our customers, our industry partners, our existing employees, and the communities we call home.”

United plans to hire upholsterers, springers, frame builders and people to fill other positions. The company’s benefits package includes medical, dental and vision insurance, and a 401(k) company match.

Interested people are asked to apply in person at its plants between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays, or at www.ufijobs.com, which lists the positions available.

No-frills manufacturer

Ken Smith, the director of furniture services for Smith Leonard PLLP, an accounting and business-consulting firm based in High Point, said United’s acquisition of Lane was expected to spur new consumer and retailer interest in the brand.

United’s aggressive expansion plans are not surprising, said Jerry Epperson, a managing partner of Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., a financial-services company based in Richmond, Va.

“United is owned by a wealthy entrepreneur and has excellent management,” Epperson said. “United is a no-frills manufacturer that keeps its costs minimal, allowing them to sell at advantageous prices.

“They have taken their decades-old, value-priced upholstery, expanded into all the new growing upholstery categories, like leather and power motion, and then developed a highly successful wood furniture program, largely through imports.”

Epperson said that by adding a mattress line, Solstice, United has become a “whole home brand, which adds incremental volume from some retailers.”

Epperson said United’s purchase of the Lane brand “has added not just capacity, but it is allowing United to reach price points and retailers that they had not been able to service in the past.”

Hiring

goals

challenging

It is likely United will be challenged to meet its local hiring goals for production workers.

Cottam said one reason why United chose the Weeks plant in 2014 was being able to attract production workers from rural and urban parts of the Triad within an hour’s drive.

“We could eventually get up to 500 employees if we can get the right level of employees,” Cottam said in 2017.

“In terms of strategies,” Hetherington, the United spokesman, said, “in addition to referrals, we are reaching out across traditional and social-media channels to connect with and engage folks who might be interested.”

Local operations for Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Atrium Windows & Doors, Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corp. and Herbalife Ltd. have all mentioned the difficulty of hiring young adults for production jobs.

For example, Ashley has more than 1,600 employees at its Advance operations.

However, Ashley, the nation’s top furniture manufacturer and retailer, remains in full hiring mode.

Part of the challenge is that several thousands of furniture jobs were eliminated in the Triad region, primarily between 2001 and 2012, with the rise of lower-cost Asian imports.

Exacerbating the employment shortage is that many of those workers’ children — the lifeblood of the industry for several generations — don’t consider the industry as a viable option even as industry experts say production pay typically ranges in the mid-$20,000s to mid-$30,000s for wooden furniture and up to $50,000 for upholsters for customization production.

“Yes, (manufacturing) is hard work, but it can offer good pay toward a middle-class life and upward mobility,” Cottam said.

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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