There’s change at the top for Vanguard Furniture as one Bray replaces another. Last week, the Conover, North Carolina–based furnishings manufacturer announced that president Andy Bray would be stepping into the CEO role, succeeding his father and company co-founder, John Bray, who will remain as chairman of the board.
For Andy Bray, a 30-year veteran of the family business, the move is more of a shift in mindset than a change of scenery. “As president, I always spent a lot of time on the operational side of the business and have had my eye on the balance sheet,” he tells Business of Home. “What makes me excited, and where I want to level up as CEO, is flying the plane at a higher altitude—paying attention to our company values, our vision, and adding the big picture to what I do on a daily basis.”
What does the big picture for Vanguard look like? For one, the company will continue to explore outdoor, a category it entered for the first time last year. For another, it will continue to double down on customization. Bray says that Vanguard’s big bet on allowing buyers to extensively configure their purchases—an effort that has included overhauling its manufacturing process, as well as developing online customization tools—requires incredible focus, but has paid off.
“For a long time, we’ve had the vision of being the industry leader in customized product, and we will continue down that path,” he says. “Managing the complexity of that is very difficult, and it’s what a lot of companies fear because it’s hard. If we were making white boucle sofas all day long, it would be great, but that’s not who we are.”
Customization has been especially meaningful in an era when Vanguard, like many other American manufacturers, has increasingly sought designers as customers in the period following the Great Recession. Bray says that the trade continues to make up a larger and larger slice of Vanguard’s business, and will remain a strategic focus going forward.
One direction Vanguard won’t be headed in under Bray’s leadership? Developing a large retail presence or going DTC. Bray’s experience has inspired him to commit to manufacturing. “I spent 10 years managing a retail enterprise, and my lesson was: You really have to decide what you want to be when you grow up. Either you’re going to wake up every morning and think about how you want to be a great retailer or be a great manufacturer, and it’s very difficult to be excellent at both,” he says. “We don’t have any designs to get into the retail business, nor the direct-to-consumer business. A lot of [companies] are peeking in that direction, but we see an opportunity in being the best manufacturer in the world and staying in our lane.”
The succession comes at a transitional time in the furniture manufacturing industry. After three years of pandemic-fueled sugar high, there’s widespread consensus that the market has cooled and a cautious “what happens next?” vibe in the air. Bray downplays macroeconomic risks, pointing to the coming demographic shift of millennials rising into homebuying years, and says that the company’s focus on a higher-end consumer has helped it weather economic highs and lows.
The bigger challenge is much closer to home: a lack of skilled labor coming down the pipeline. “What keeps me up at night is that some of the people that I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with on a daily basis are irreplaceable. And they’re just not getting younger,” says Bray. “We have apprenticeship programs, and we sponsor a program in our local community college that trains people to join the industry. We’re meeting with some success, but it’s just not enough. … I think the market conditions are right for our industry, but it’s going to be an uphill battle if we can’t find workers in the U.S.”
Homepage image: Andy Bray | Courtesy of Vanguard Furniture