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  • Thomas Russell

Rochdale Spears switches focus from Europe to United States

British-owned case goods manufacturer Rochdale Spears saw potential in Vietnam long before companies flocked there last year as an alternative bedroom source to China.

Twelve years ago, the company began manufacturing medium-high to high-end accent and occasional furniture in a 50,000-square-foot plant in Ho Chi Minh City that employed 100. At the time, the plant primarily served the European design and interior decorator trade.

In late 2001, its business model began to shift. At that time, Vietnam gained increased access to the U.S. market with the ratification of a trade agreement between the two countries. The agreement lowered U.S. tariffs on Vietnam shipments from 40% to 3%.

With its eye on the U.S. market, the agreement spurred Rochdale Spears to invest $4.5 million in a new plant in the Binh Duong Province. Completed in mid-2003, the plant now employs about 550 production workers, a more than five-fold increase that doesn't include another 200 who work in administrative, technical and product development areas.

The move has paid off in many ways. For one, 95% of the company's product is now shipped to the United States. Secondly, its OEM clients are some of the most well recognized in the industry. They include accent specialist John-Richard and case goods manufacturers Drexel Heritage, Century and Thomasville. The plant also produces some accent and occasional pieces for Bernhardt's Martha Stewart line.

Rochdale Spears didn't gain such clients by accident. Over the years, it has developed a reputation for producing high-quality marquetry and other labor-intensive veneer work. Its furniture also includes carved elements produced by a staff of about 40 carvers. They and other skilled production workers work with such woods as walnut, birch, alder, cherry, maple, mahogany, acacia and zebrawood.

The company developed a relationship with John-Richard over the past several years, primarily building products for its European Crossroads division. It developed the partnerships with the other aforementioned clients in 2004.

The manufacturer's high-end capabilities place it in a league with several other high-end manufacturers in Vietnam. They include AA Corp., Theodore Alexander and Stickley, which opened a plant in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this year.

Jim Becker, executive vice president of sales and marketing for John-Richard, applauded Rochdale Spears for the authenticity of its finishing and designs.

"For some suppliers, it's difficult for them to understand how to antique or distress," Becker said. "That is one of the things that Rochdale Spears has been able to get a handle on. It (the accent or occasional item) is distressed where you would expect to see it distressed.... They have a very good eye for those details."

Becker also praised the plant's labor-intensive model. That gives the pieces a hand-crafted, versus a machine-produced, look and feel, he said.

"It is produced as if it were being done originally and by original artists," he said. "There is more quality in the work we are getting from them than if it were mass produced."

Such praise pleases Geoff Hawkes, Rochdale Spears' chairman and a lead investor. In an e-mail, he said the company looks at its product as the "jewelry to any collection."

While it is focused on accent furniture, the company also produces larger case goods such as armoires. However, it avoids full collections, thus emphasizing the stand-alone nature of its products.

Based on its success thus far, Rochdale Spears is investing another $400,000 in CNC machinery this year, and is eyeing an expansion next year. The expansion, which will be decided upon early next year, would double the size of the building and boost its overall capacity from 35 to 40 containers a month to about 60.

The decision will depend on whether the company expects to reach that capacity by late 2006. As of late June, the plant was producing about 20 containers per month. Hawkes expects to produce 32 containers a month after the October market, and he's optimistic about the future.

"I'm feeling rather bullish," he said.

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