La-Z-Boy Chair Company
La-Z-Boy Chair Company
1284 N. Telegraph Road
Monroe, Michigan 48162-3390
Fax: (313) 241-4422
Sales: $850 million
Stock Exchanges: New York Pacific
SICs: 5712 Furniture Stores; 2521 Wood Office Furniture;
2522 Office Furniture, except Wood; 2511 Wood
Household Furniture, except Upholstered; 2541 Wood
Office and Store Fixtures, Partitions, Shelving, and
Lockers; 2512 Wood Household Furniture, Upholstered
The La-Z-Boy Chair Company is the largest independent manufacturer of upholstered furniture in the United States and third overall in the manufacture of residential furniture. The La-Z-Boy company enjoys near-universal name recognition; its name, in fact, has become synonymous with the recliner. Major subsidiaries include La-Z-Boy Canada Ltd., La-Z-Boy Contract Furniture Group, Kincaid Furniture Company, Hammery Furniture Company, and England Corsair Furniture.
La-Z-Boy originated in a love of carpentry shared by two cousins, Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker, both of Monroe, Michigan. In the early 1920s, Knabusch was a carpenter at the Weis Manufacturing Company and spent his evenings repairing furniture as well as building novelty and custom furniture in a workshop set up in the family garage. Despite the fact that Shoemaker was being groomed by his father to take over the family farm, he was far more interested in carpentry and spent his free time in his cousin’s new workshop.
In 1925, Knabusch’s hobby became a full-time business when he left Weis Manufacturing to start his own business. His first project was to invent a new bandsaw guide. Because of his engineering aptitude, Shoemaker was hired by Knabusch and together they completed the project. Afterward, business increased significantly, spurring Knabusch to purchase new equipment. By March 1927, the business had expanded far beyond any expectations shared by the two cousins, and they decided to form a partnership under the name Kna-Shoe Manufacturing Company. Meanwhile, business continued to expand and the partners soon outgrew Knabusch’s family garage. By the end of 1927, with the financial support of friends and family, a new factory was completed north of Monroe. Built in the middle of a cornfield that fronted a cow path, the site led many to say the two men were foolish to establish their factory so far from the city. However, their gamble paid off as rumors of a state highway became reality soon after; the old cow path became M--24 (Telegraph Road), a major north-south Michigan artery.
As a rule, the partners preferred to develop new designs rather than copying the products of other companies. One such design was the “Gossiper,” which was a telephone stand with a built-in seat. Although the “Gossiper” was an immediate success, a large manufacturer soon copied the design and sold it more cheaply than Knabusch and Shoemaker. Other products would follow, but none were as successful as the simple wood slat porch chair that reclined to follow the body’s contour, whether sitting up or leaning back—the world’s first La-Z-Boy recliner. Believing they had a winner, the two men sought to market the new chair. However, when Arthur Richardson, a buyer for the Lion Store, suggested that they upholster the new chair for year-round use indoors, they changed their plans. Lacking any upholstery knowledge, the partners called upon George Welker to assist in upholstery decisions.
To protect their new invention the men incorporated in 1929 as the Floral City Furniture Company, abandoning the Kna-Shoe name because people mistook the company for a shoe manufacturer. Through friends and family, the men raised $10,000 to secure the necessary patents and began production. The men attended their first furniture show in May 1929 and returned with more orders then they could fill.
As their innovative recliner became increasingly popular, the need for a name became apparent. The partners held a public contest to name the recliner, thus finding a name and generating further interest in their product simultaneously. In November 1930, the winning name, La-Z-Boy, was trademarked, and the patent for the new mechanism was issued in January 1931. Soon thereafter, the partners licensed the right to manufacturer the chair to existing companies. Floral City manufactured the metal recliner mechanism and retained the rights to manufacturer and sell the chair in Monroe County. At the same time, Floral City Furniture returned to repairing furniture and manufacturing novelty/custom furniture.
Flourishing during the depths of the Great Depression, the men redoubled their efforts in retail sales. In 1933, the first floor of their factory was converted into a showroom. To celebrate the opening of the showroom, a circus tent was set up in front of the store to display furniture. Soon, the “Furniture Shows” were drawing people from Detroit and Toledo. With Knabusch’s keen marketing sense, the company’s flamboyant shows helped to assuage the anxiety of a people caught in the grips of a horrible depression. While other companies frantically worked for quick sales, Floral City provided entertainment in addition to their high-quality products. Knabusch and Shoemaker were able to sell their wares in ever increasing numbers, while thousands of other businesses faltered and failed. Business was so successful that in 1935 the partners opened a new showroom.
By the late 1930s, problems with the licensing agreements and increasing costs to manufacture the reclining mechanism led Shoemaker to develop a new mechanism. Completed in June 1938, the new mechanism was so different from the original that all new patents were required. The licensing agreements came to an end in 1939, and all manufacturing operations returned to Floral City Furniture.
In order to separate the manufacturing and retailing functions, the La-Z-Boy Chair Company was incorporated in May 1941. A new factory designed by Knabusch and Shoemaker was completed on October 15, 1941, but the new facility would not produce La-Z-Boys until six years later due to America’s entry into World War II. While Woodall Industries produced specialized plane parts in the new building, La-Z-Boy rented out garage space to produce seats for tanks, torpedo boats, turret guns, and armored cars.
At war’s end, the company reverted to civilian trade, and production of La-Z-Boy recliners began at the new building in 1947. La-Z-Boy rode their solid reputation and the Baby Boom into the 1950s. The platform rocker was introduced in 1951. The company’s most unusual promotion took place late in the decade. In 1959 the company built a loveseat designed to look like a car seat. Upholstered in mink, the loveseat was fitted with lights, horns, fins, and tires. Unlike the imaginative promotions of the depression era, which combined style with substance, and marketing with manufacturing, the loveseat was all style.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the company regained the balance of innovation and promotion that had marked the company’s earlier successes. La-Z-Boy began a long-lived marketing campaign that used the support of such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson, Joe Nameth, Alex Karras, and most importantly, Jim Backus. Known for his role as the voice of the myopic cartoon character Mr. Magoo, Backus recorded more than 15,000 television and radio commercials for La-Z-Boy during the 1960s.
A burst of product innovation accompanied this successful advertising campaign. Late in 1960, the partners introduced the Reclina-Rocker. Unlike other recliners, this one formed an unbroken line of support from head to toe and utilized independent seat back and footrest mechanisms. The partners commented that “[the] chair was like magic. It sold well from the beginning. The problem was making enough of them.” Other new products included the Reclina-Way wall chair, which allowed the chair to be placed very close to wall while maintaining the ability to fully recline; the La-Z-Touch recliner, which featured a massage system to reduce muscle tension and stress; and the Reclina-Rest reclining chair. In order to keep up with increasing production and to help the company expand into the national market, La-Z-Boy opened its first factory outside of Michigan in Newton, Mississippi, in 1961.
The renewed marketing efforts, along with the introduction of the Reclina-Rocker, helped La-Z-Boy’s sales increase from $1.1 million in 1960 to $52.7 million in 1970. In March 1972, the company went public, and, in the first year, 600 people bought over 320,000 shares in over-the-counter trading. The company enjoyed continued success throughout the 1970s, experiencing new sales records every year except for 1975, despite the shutdown of the partners’ first company, Floral City Furniture, in 1974. By the end of seventies, La-Z-Boy operated nine manufacturing plants: two in Michigan, and one each in Arkansas, California, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. In addition, La-Z-Boy had established licensing agreements with plants in Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Great Britain, Mexico, and South Africa. In 1979, the company purchased Deluxe Upholstering Ltd., a company that had previously manufactured La-Z-Boy products under a licensing agreement, and formed La-Z-Boy Canada Ltd. as a subsidiary.
New products and improvements to old ones contributed to the company’s continued success in the 1970s. The company introduced a sleeper sofa in 1977 that represented the first major departure from La-Z-Boy’s popular recliners. Applying the same high quality and mechanical savvy to the new product, the sofa featured a removable back, allowing greater portability; an innerspring mattress unique to La-Z-Boy’s sleeper sofa; a counterbalancing mechanism; and a patented weight distribution mechanism. At the same time, the company improved the immensely popular Reclina-Rocker by integrating the Reclina-Way’s ability to be placed very close to the wall, thus creating in the Wall Reclina-Rocker.
In 1982, the company reached a major turning point when Patrick Norton of Ethan Allen, renowned for its marketing savvy, was made senior vice-president of sales and marketing. Norton recalled that upon arriving at La-Z-Boy he found “a company with great plants, a great name, and a great product but a bit short on marketing direction.” Charles Knabusch, adopted son of co-founder Edward Knabusch, assumed the position of chairman of the board in 1985 and, with Norton’s help, concentrated on improvements in five major areas.
First, they actively sought to attract women. The furniture was redesigned in the mid-1980s to attract female customers, and in the early 1990s ad campaigns began to target women. In 1991, the company launched the largest ad campaign in its history without using a single television spot. Instead, the campaign concentrated on magazines, especially upscale women’s titles. Jim Krusinski, director of advertising and public relations, stated that “Women are our primary target audience,” and that, in choosing home furnishings, “it’s common knowledge that many women tend to go to the magazines for ideas.” The new campaign was in stark contrast to past “television-oriented” campaigns featuring various celebrities. Krusinski added, “We won’t go back.”
Second, La-Z-Boy began diversifying product lines through acquisitions and internal product development. Beginning with Burris Industries in December 1985, a maker of high-end motion chairs, La-Z-Boy went on to acquire RoseJohnson Incorporated in January 1986; Hammary Furniture, a manufacturer of residential tables and upholstery manufacturer, in September 1986; and the Kincaid Furniture Company, a producer of solid wood dining and bedroom furniture, in January 1988. In all, La-Z-Boy spent about $80 million on these acquisitions and not without criticism.
In 1989, the company became a target of a hostile takeover by its largest institutional investor, Prescott Investors, which owned 5.6 percent of the shares. Thomas Smith, Prescott’s leading general partner, charged that earnings and share value had not grown at an acceptable rate and placed much of the blame on La-Z-Boy’s acquisitions. However, in the end, Prescott backed off and La-Z-Boy stood by the new acquisitions. In addition to these acquisitions, La-Z-Boy created a new division, the La-Z-Boy Contract Group, composed of three entities: La-Z-Boy Business Furniture, La-Z-Boy Healthcare, and La-Z-Boy Hospitality. By 1993, these divisions and other subsidiaries amounted to 30 percent of La-Z-Boy sales.
In addition to acquisitions, new product development within the company signaled a broadening perspective. La-Z-Boy expanded into stationary and motion modular furniture and continued to support the sleeper sofas introduced in the late 1970s. In 1980, La-Z-Boy’s sales of $160 million were derived almost exclusively from recliners. By 1993, recliner sales amounted to 57 percent of the company’s nearly $700 million in total sales.
Third, La-Z-Boy reevaluated its retail system. In the 1970s and 1980s, independently owned La-Z-Boy Showcase Shoppes were opened across the country. In-Store Galleries within Independent General Furniture Dealers displayed La-Z-Boy furniture in separate dedicated settings. At the same time, ineffective dealers unwilling to push the product were eliminated. By the late 1980s, 42 percent of all the La-Z-Boy dealers in existence in 1980 had been eliminated. In 1989, the company reached a major turning point in its retail operations when it opened the first La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery. These superstores facilitated the display of a much larger and more diverse selection of La-Z-Boy furniture. By 1993, the company was operating 63 La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries and planned to transform many La-Z-Boy Showcase Shoppes into Galleries. The La-Z-Boy proprietary retail system included 750 locations, accounting for about half of La-Z-Boy’s upholstered furniture sales, and thousands of independent retail outlets, regional furniture chains, and a major nationwide retailer.
Fourth, technological innovations placed La-Z-Boy at the forefront of the furniture industry. In the late 1970s, the company automated its material requirements planning process, which greatly simplified the acquisition of materials, manufacturing processes, and distribution. By the late 1980s, La-Z-Boy had introduced computer-aided design (CAD) to expedite the research and development of products, enabling the company to cut the delivery time of new products by 60 percent. Additionally, La-Z-Boy adopted an Electronic Data Interchange to facilitate the electronic transmittal and tracking of orders. As a result, retail operations were able to reduce ordering time and to track the progress of an order more accurately. As of 1993, the company had implemented the La-Z-Boy Screen Test video catalog system that allowed customers to review every style, color, and fabric offered by La-Z-Boy at the touch of a button.
Finally, La-Z-Boy set its sights on globalization. Although La-Z-Boy had licensed its chairs internationally for thirty years, international sales amounted to only one half of 1 percent of La-Z-Boy sales by the early 1990s. However, with the opening of markets in Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union, La-Z-Boy redoubled its efforts to market its recliners in Europe. More importantly, La-Z-Boy made its most significant move towards globalization when it developed recliners designed for smaller Asian body types in 1993.
Beginning in 1987, La-Z-Boy began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, and in 1990 the company moved into the Fortune 500 at number 496, reaching number 460 by 1994. In spite of an economic downturn in furniture sales from 1989 to 1991, La-Z-Boy enjoyed continued success. La-Z-Boy sales rose ten percent to $805 million in fiscal 1994, which represented the company’s twelfth straight year of record sales. La-Z-Boy continued to be the number one manufacturer of recliners with over 30 percent of the market.
La-Z-Boy Canada Ltd.; Kincaid Furniture Company; Hammery Furniture Company; La-Z-Boy Contract Furniture Group; England Corsair Furniture.
Bary, Andrew, “Comfy Again: After a Deep Slump, the Furniture Industry Is Bouncing Back,” Barron’s, November 8, 1993, pp. 14-15.
Cortez, John, “La-Z-Boy Cozies Up to Print,” Advertising Age, July 22, 1991, p. 41.
“In Memory of Edward M. Knabusch 1900-1988,” La-Z-News, March 1988.
Jannsen, Albert B., I Remember When... A History of La-Z-Boy Chair Company, n.d. Kolebuck, Frank, “Automating to Streamline, Producing to Recline,” Manufacturing Systems, November 1991, pp. 30-32.
Kupfer, Andrew, “Success Secrets of Tomorrow’s Stars,” Fortune, April 23, 1990, pp. 77-84.
Nulty, Peter, “What a Difference Owner-Bosses Make,” Fortune, April 25, 1988, pp. 97-104.
Schifrin, Matthew, “Rocking the Recliners,” Forbes, October 16, 1989, pp. 194-96.
Slat, Charles, “La-Z-Boy: Gradually Going Global,” Monroe Evening News, December 5, 1993, pp. 1-2E.
“Sleeper Joins La-Z-Boy Line,” Monroe Evening News, February 14, 1977, pp. 1A, 14A.
—Bradley T. Bernatek