When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, business slowed at Frank Chervan Inc., the Roanoke furniture maker. The plant previously produced some 300 pieces a day for commercial clients such as resorts and senior living facilities.
But Greg Terrill, whose grandfather founded the company in 1932, saw it as an opportunity to dust off the business plan he’d drafted years ago for a new line focused on residential furniture.
Txtur, a new direct-to-consumer brand under the Chervan umbrella, launched last fall. It’s sustainability minded, offering customers the chance to “upcycle” their furniture.
Let’s say a Txtur furniture owner is moving and her couch doesn’t fit in the new space. Or her tastes have evolved, and she just isn’t feeling the fabric or finish anymore. She can return it to the company and receive a credit to buy something new.
Meanwhile, the company will salvage certain materials — high-value components like springs and frames can last a long time if they’re good quality — from that piece and remanufacture it to give it a new life.
Txtur offers pieces for living, dining, bedroom and home office spaces. Couches range in price from about $1,000 for a love seat to just under $2,000 for a sleeper sofa; dining tables go for $500 to more than $800.
The latest monthly report on the furniture industry from Smith Leonard Accountants and Consultants, published in December, indicates that residential furniture manufacturers and distributors have seen a boom in business during the pandemic. In October, new orders were up 40% compared to the same month the previous year. October was the fifth consecutive month in which such growth occurred.
Txtur’s business model is based on the “circular economy,” which Terrill, the CEO and president, said he believes is key to sustainability.
“We can’t have materials be a one-way flow from going into a production process and ending up in a landfill. We’ve got to make a longer, cyclical life out of these materials,” Terrill said. “But it’s hard for a lot of people to do. If you’re manufacturing in Vietnam, you can’t take the sofa, carry it back to Vietnam and have it reworked. But here with us being local it really gives us the ability to do that.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 9.7 million tons of furniture was landfilled in 2018, a figure that has been rising steadily for decades.
Jerry Epperson, a furniture industry analyst with Mann, Armistead & Epperson in Richmond, said companies are having more conversations around sustainability today, in part because it’s something that matters to the millennial generation.
“I think that’s a great idea that has been talked about for a long time, but we don’t really see many people try for execution,” he said.
But a program like the one Txtur has adopted isn’t just a marketing ploy, Epperson said — implementing it takes serious effort.
While millions of dollars of furniture is sold at retail in the United States, he said, much of the industry is made up of smaller companies. As a result, they can develop unique lines and fill specific niches, eco-friendly furniture being one of them.
“There’s lots of niche companies that make the industry a lot of fun,” Epperson said.
Terrill said he believes that the sustainability focus will be attractive to potential customers and that working to protect the environment is good for the company’s brand and bottom line.
“I think people can feel better about having furniture that’s not diminishing the planet or having somebody working in poor working conditions halfway across the world,” he said.
And that feel-good mission also results in comfortable furniture, Terrill explained, as it’s in the company’s best interest to produce high-quality pieces if it plans to repurpose them.
“For us it’s not just about that first sale. Our interests are there with the person making the purchase,” Terrill said. “If we don’t design and build the product right, if we don’t design it to be really durable and also to be repairable, then we’re out money too because they can return it to us and we can get no value out of it.”
The upcycle program will create an organic growth model for the business, Terrill said. Customers who choose to upcycle a piece will presumably take advantage of the credit to buy a replacement.
“People get stuck with their furniture and they feel weighed down by it. We’re saying you don’t need to feel stuck with it. We’ll take it back. We’re not going to throw it away,” he said. “It’s going to get another life. And you have the freedom to choose something else.”
Since Txtur launched only a few months ago, there hasn’t been much opportunity for customers to take advantage of the upcycle option yet. But Terrill said Chervan has done it on occasion for commercial customers.
Terrill said the company is also working to develop offerings geared toward a younger demographic — recent college graduates or young adults living on their own for the first time — which he expects to be upcycled more frequently given how often that group relocates.
William Sellari, the company’s art director, said Txtur’s promise of upcycling is also a draw for customers who are buying furniture for rental properties or Airbnbs, which have to frequently replace furniture.
But Terrill acknowledged the economic benefit of the upcycle program to the company is dependent on logistics. If the customer is in California, transportation costs will eat into savings from repurposing the furniture. It’s much more lucrative if the customer is in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Eventually, Terrill said, the goal would be to open regional service hubs that can upcycle and transport the furniture to other areas in a more cost-effective manner.
The addition of a residential line is a return to the company’s roots. Terrill said Chervan, which initially produced frames rather than complete finished goods, focused primarily on residential furniture until the late 1990s.
“At that time we were a supplier to the industry and the residential business had fled offshore like a wildfire and we were forced to make a rapid change to commercial,” Terrill said.
Chervan, which has just under 200 employees, is unique in that it’s “completely vertically integrated,” he said. Most companies that make wood furniture unbox the components made offshore, finish and upholster them. But pieces are made start to finish at the Roanoke factory; Terrill said the company just buys lumber and foam. That shift occurred when Chervan purchased the shuttered Hooker Furniture plant.
“Our hope here is that we can connect directly to consumers and cut out a lot of the intermediary costs and therefore put more into the product,” he said. “And it allows us to be a lot faster and more flexible too.”
Terrill said the typical residential competitor is not vertically integrated and, as a result, is not well positioned to respond to fluctuations in business. Many currently have lead times of 10 or more weeks, he said. But Txtur can offer a piece with custom finish or fabric in about three weeks, something Terrill said shocks shoppers.
While some are content to buy their furniture online, others prefer to have a sit before adding a new couch or chair to their cart. To reach those customers, Txtur has partnered with Black Dog Salvage, which provided space in its 13th Street showroom.
Mike Whiteside, co-owner of the architectural salvage business, said he didn’t even know Chervan existed since the company was primarily focused on the commercial market. But after learning about Txtur and touring the factory, where he saw raw wood on one end of the plant and an upholstered finished product at the other, he was impressed.
“It just doesn’t happen much anymore in this area,” he said.
Whiteside said he was particularly intrigued by the upcycle part of Txtur’s business, since sustainability and repurposing pieces is at the core of Black Dog’s business.
The Txtur products have only been on display at Black Dog since November, but Whiteside said there have already been some sales. When he’s chatting with customers on the floor and introducing them to the brand, Whiteside always invites them to take a seat.
“I’m a sitter. I love a comfortable chair. That’s just who I am. I don’t have time to sit in a chair and not feel comfortable,” he said. “Their chairs just grab you.”
Whiteside said he finds the company’s customer service and its ability to customize pieces for their clients refreshing and he’s happy to support American manufacturing.
“We’re combating the Amazons and Wayfairs and those guys. When you’re getting a product from them you don’t know what you’re getting and you don’t know where it’s coming from. This [Txtur] is not that. It’s as responsive, but you know what you’re getting and you can bring it back if you want, which is even better.”
Txtur offers pieces for living, dining, bedroom and home office spaces.