Lean Manufacturing on Steroids!

Rick Coffey Reinvents Domestic Furniture Manufacturing at McCreary Modern, Inc.

By Wanda Urbanska

At a time when most people have written off domestic furniture manufacturing, McCreary Modern Inc. in Newton, NC is not only thriving but expanding. Company President Rickie Coffey, ISE Furniture Manufacturing and Management (FMM) Class of 1978, has combined lessons from NC State University with 40-plus years of industry experience to create a new model that is delivering remarkable results. The Newton, NC-based company, which produces high-end, private-label furniture for companies such as Room & Board, Crate & Barrel, Arhaus, Anthropologie in its six all NC Based manufacturing plants, is gearing up to open a seventh plant to keep up with demand. 

Operating a profitable, debt-free business without the glitz and glamor of many successful operations, Coffey, together with McCreary Modern founder, owner and marketing wizard Bob McCreary, have created a singular model that combines such old-fashioned concepts as producing a quality product based on a foundational commitment to employees, the community, the environment, customers and suppliers with state-of-the-art technology and systems. McCreary Modern is an ESOP Company where the employees own 30 % of the company.

The company’s OEM (original equipment manufacturer) vertically integrated manufacturing model is “truly unique” in the industry, Coffey says. “We have embraced technology, continuous improvement and change management with an extremely flat organizational structure. We have coined the phrase, ‘Lean Manufacturing on Steroids!’” he says. Most organizations “cannot conceive of managing a business with as few salaried employees” as ours.

A consultant recently told Coffey that McCreary Modern needed “‘to start acting like a $200M company,’” he says. “I thought to myself: Dead wrong. We need to keep acting like a $20M company.’ ” To that end, the president’s office at Newton Campus Plant #1 is spacious but is entirely without pretense. Its walls are dressed with bricks and brown wood paneling circa 1980’s.. Coffey recently opened a closet door to reveal the fixings for his usual lunch: Jars of peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of sliced bread. He pulls out a water bottle from his minifridge to offer a guest. The minifridge that he brought to NC State as a freshman back in 1974 is now adorned with Wolfpack bumper stickers and memorabilia. “Why replace it?” Coffey says, a twinkle in his eye. “It works and takes me back in time to when it was packed with beverages you think of when you go to ball games.” 

The brilliance of the McCreary Modern approach has come into laser focus during the pandemic, with its surfeit of supply-chain disruptions. Because of the company’s long-standing allegiance to its suppliers, McCreary Modern wasn’t affected nearly as hard. . “We have a true partnership with our suppliers that goes beyond price,” says Coffey. For instance, a sewing thread factory in nearby Marion, NC–forty-five miles down the road–owes its survival to McCreary Modern, its largest customer. McCreary Modern expects, and receives “exceptional service, just-in-time delivery, weekly follow up and competitive pricing.” 

Question: When you consider the industrial engineering field — supply chains and systems improvements — which aspects of your education are top of mind as you have built your successful career and McCreary Modern?

Rick Coffey: My experiences at NC State were fundamental to my ability to observe, analyze and adapt different manufacturing environments to eliminate waste and drive continuous improvement. The most important aspect of my education was to never stop learning. In my lifetime, we have experienced a paradigm shift in manufacturing. We have evolved from economical order quantities to made-to-order, one-piece flow manufacturing. The engineering skills acquired at State have served me well during my career. Being able to understand processes, systems and human nature are paramount to making good decisions.

Question: Do you think that domestic furniture manufacturing can stage a comeback? If so, what factors may contribute to this? 

Rick Coffey: Yes, and for some family-owned and focused upholstered manufacturers, it never left. McCreary Modern is quite unique due to the fact we are one of the very few OEM manufacturers. In other words, we are not a brand and therefore do not carry the marketing and sales overhead traditional companies do. This allows us to pass extraordinary value to our customers. Secondly, ocean freight has increased dramatically over the last couple of years leveling the playing field for domestic, fully assembled, custom-upholstery manufacturers. Lastly, I do not see domestic case goods returning in any significant way, due to the tremendous investments required in building and machinery. Most large companies that competed in this arena sold off their manufacturing infrastructures when offshoring was the rave.

Question: Share your approach to working with your suppliers. 

Rick Coffey: McCreary Modern is extremely loyal to our vendors and has integrated paperless electronic ordering systems to streamline the supply chain. We focus our purchasing on domestic suppliers. We knew to survive and thrive we must have a strong local supplier base. This has enabled several of our key suppliers, like thread and metal fabricators, to keep their operations open and even expand because of our allegiance to them. 

Question: What advice would you give to others seeking to emulate your success? 

Rick Coffey: Question everything when taking on new opportunities. Every operation has its unique positives and negatives. Embrace the positives and create a culture of continuous improvement. Use every opportunity to learn every aspect of your organization.Never assume that operations or methodologies are universally transferable from one business to another. Empower management and hold them accountable for every aspect of the business. Decentralize functions like Engineering, Quality Assurance, HR and Purchasing.and relocate in the operations.  

Question: What were the most important lessons–and most memorable moments–from your ISE education? 

Rick Coffey: I would be remiss If I did not mention the Head of the FMM Department, Dr. Prak, Mr. Eckwall, Tom Stewart, and especially Ed Clark. Ed was revered by our classmates. So much so, that our Senior Class nominated him as the Professor of the Year in 1978. You know what? He won! His influence is felt far and wide to this day!

Question: What’s a “fun fact” about yourself and bleeding Wolfpack Red that you’d like to share with us? 

Rick Coffey: Our family has supported the Wolfpack student athletes since 1970. We have had virtually the same seats at Carter Finley since that time. My brother Gary Coffey (ISE/FMM) 1974, sister Kelia Coffey (Business Management & Economics) 1981, and daughter Kirsten Coffey (Elementary Education) BS 2012 all graduated from NC State. Kelia played basketball for Kay Yow in the 1970s. We are definitely Red and White for life!