Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Buhler Furniture transforms itself from curio cabinet-maker to commercial casegoods supplier

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CEO Doug Buhler has watched his business shift away from cabinets and retail to niche clients who are willing to pay for long-enduring bedroom and office furniture.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

CEO Doug Buhler has watched his business shift away from cabinets and retail to niche clients who are willing to pay for long-enduring bedroom and office furniture. Photo Store

Buhler Furniture is a dominant name in the curio cabinet marketplace in North America.

About 15 years ago, those handsome glassed-in cabinets your grandmother kept her Royal Doulton figurines in represented about 80 per cent of Buhler Furniture's business.

But who buys curio cabinets anymore?

A large market share in a product that no longer holds a prominent place in family sitting rooms is not worth that much.

That -- and the overwhelming flood of much cheaper offshore residential furniture -- compelled Buhler Furniture to use its manufacturing infrastructure to reinvent itself.

Now, curio cabinets represent about five per cent of the company's sales.

Instead, as much as 50 per cent comes from casegoods work -- beds, sideboards, tables -- for hotels and other commercial customers. And 100 per cent of it is made in Buhler Furniture's Winnipeg shop.

The Delta Hotel contract is 'a real feather in their cap. Not everyone gets to supply Delta. You have to achieve compliance and it's a pretty rigorous test.'

"It was not my grand scheme seven years ago to sell to the hotel business," said Doug Buhler, who acquired the company about 15 years ago from Buhler Industries, the public company named after and formerly controlled by his father Johnny.

"It's just that they are more demanding about what they buy," he said. "If they buy 150 rooms of stuff and it starts to fall apart in the first four months then they've made a bad deal."

His company is one of a handful of casegoods suppliers to Delta Hotels in Canada. It's currently in the process of making sets for all 393 rooms for the Delta's Winnipeg hotel, which is in the process of a top-to-bottom renovation.

Terry Clark, the owner of Acme Chrome Furniture and a spokesman for Furniture West, a regional industry association, said, "It's a real feather in their cap. Not everyone gets to supply Delta. You have to achieve compliance and it's a pretty rigorous test."

Buhler is one of a small number of North American wood-furniture manufacturers that does not out-source offshore. Wood from rubber trees grown on a plantation in seven years is no match for the durability of 80-year-old hardwood trees from upstate New York, according to Buhler.

At some point the much lower price point is not worth it.

Buhler got into the bedroom furniture business about seven years ago and the emphasis on the commercial rather than retail followed quickly.

"That's because the residential (retail) business is going to the Chinese," Buhler said, referring to the preponderance of retail casegoods now made in low-cost offshore locales.

"We used to sell in Sears, the Brick, Leon's, the Bay -- all the major retailers in Canada," he said. "But when people realized, 'Holy smokes, I can buy three Chinese bedroom sets for one domestic one,' -- and unfortunately I am not exaggerating -- how do I change that? I can't."

But there are customers out there, such as Delta Hotels, who want domestic suppliers providing domestic product.

Helen Halliday, the general manager of the Winnipeg Delta, does not make the call on suppliers, but she said she was thrilled Buhler got the contract for her hotel.

"There's a green element to this (because product does not have to be shipped from overseas) and it means keeping Winnipeggers working," she said. "We're delighted."

Buhler was not planning to get into the commercial business. In fact, it took some very persistent badgering from an oilsands camp near Fort McMurray, which eventually said it was willing to pay Buhler a price he couldn't refuse.

While consumers may not want to invest for the future, commercial customers such as large-scale, remote resource companies, hotels and U.S. military bases -- surprisingly, one of Buhler Furniture's top 10 customers -- are willing to pay for sturdy product that can last at least eight years.

Even so, it's a tough market. Hotel construction has been a booming business lately in Winnipeg and, coincidentally, there have been several developments in close proximity to Buhler Furniture's plant. Buhler bid on all those developments, unsuccessfully.

"There is Hampton Hotel that went up 50 feet from our building," Buhler said. "We could have literally wheeled the furniture across the parking lot. But their furniture came from China."

The reinvention of his company is taking hold at a cost. The company has a staff of close to 100 -- much less than it had 10 years ago.

Some say there is the start of a renaissance in the North American furniture market for domestic product and Buhler Furniture is a case in point there are customers to be had.

But it's still a struggle.

"People also say the record player is making a comeback as well," Buhler said. "But is it really? Maybe some audiophiles will search them out. But how do you replace a needle? Do you pay $700 for a custom-made needle?"

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 B3

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Updated on Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 7:30 AM CDT: replaces photo, changes headline

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