March 3, 2011— -- The Harden family settled in New York State to work on the construction of the Erie Canal, and began making furniture as a small business in 1844.
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When the nationwide call went out in the 1940s for businesses to contribute to the war effort, Harden halted production and began making wooden parts for planes and guns.
"Everything was focused on the war effort," said Gregory Harden, the current CEO of Harden Furniture. He is the fifth generation in a long line of Hardens who have been at the head of the company.
It wasn't until after World War II that their small factory became a business that would come to export 20,000 pieces of furniture a year.
Harden owns 10,000 acres of sustainable forestry, in a 50-mile radius just north of the factory in Tug Hill Plateau. They use these trees to make all kinds of furniture: 100 percent wood products for your bedroom, kitchen or living room.
Harden says that they selectively cut out of mature trees, leaving them to regenerate periodically. They pay close attention to restoration, and often take inventory of the timber on the property.
"We're one of the few people left who specialize in solid wood," said Harden. "We don't use veneers or components that might be embossed."
Each product is made to order and can be customized using 40 to 50 different finishes and over 1,000 fabrics – all from the USA. Harden Furniture recently custom-made a table that's now in the Roosevelt Room in the White House.
"We try to do things out competition can't do," he said.
Yet even with such high-quality materials and high-end clientele, Harden says he still faces challenges that companies that manufacture overseas don't have to deal with, including the high overhead costs.
"There are two price issues when you're a domestic manufacturer," said Harden. "We're at a 20 percent disadvantage because of our labor, and programs that are off-shore competitors don't have to participate in lead to significantly higher manufacturing costs."
The biggest challenge is getting more people to buy products that are made in the United States.
"I think it comes down to people's willingness to pay a little bit more because it's domestically made," he said. "We're very high quality, our price differential versus an import is because of the quality."
Harden says that if people just took a moment to look at the label of the products they buy, it would make a huge difference to American companies.
"In a lot of cases they are overlooking the definite benefits to buying a domestic product. It's not just about jobs… quality, dependability, delivery, beauty, style," he said.
Right now Harden Furniture employs about 300 people, down from its peak of 500. If more people were to buy his products over those that are made overseas, he may be able to change that.
"There's no doubt that we would be able to get back to our peak level of employment," he said. "It comes down to people buying things made in America."
Harden is currently shipping 20,000 pieces a year, and if they spike that up to 23,000 pieces, the company could create 15-20 more jobs.
Harden admits that the price of his furniture is higher not only because of overhead cost, but because of the high quality of wood and manufacturing, which is all done in upstate New York. However, at one point, he did look into importing his products from overseas.
"We discussed it and looked into it over the past 15 years, for a number of years," he said. "The price [difference] would have been significant."
After a brief foray into doing a line overseas, called Tapestry, Harden realized that that the last thing he wanted to do was trade down and introduce a lower-quality product. The line is now being phased out.
"We just didn't feel that doing the product offshore was going to fit with the Harden brand, because you can't duplicate the quality. One of the things you realize is you've got to be a bit of a specialist."
Harden also wants people to know that everyone in the company is treated well.
"We're a pretty tightly knit team here," he said. "We don't have a lot of structure and titles and a lot of formality here. I don't want a lot of layers between myself and someone out on the factory floor."
Harden said he wants people to look into buying products domestically before turning overseas.
"Give American products a chance," he said. "You won't be disappointed."