Quality time

A family of artisans keeps its business independent through a devotion to craftsmanship — and to each other

By Barbara B. Buchholz and Margaret Crane

"Look at the way this is made, John." Eulan McSwain is standing in the prefabricated shed where he and his son, Mike, and their staff of four make furniture. Eulan, a short, ruddy man with bright, deep-set blue eyes, is showing an apprentice, John Nelson, a sample joint from a piece of manufactured furniture. "Notice the less permanent way these two pieces of wood were joined at the corner with a doweled joint," he says. Eulan prefers a hand-dovetailed joint in which two boards interlock to give a more durable connection.

Eulan continues the lesson. He leads John to one of the workshop's anterooms where an old mahogany comer cupboard patiently stands waiting to be refinished. "This is a beautiful hand-dovetailed joint, a construction technique used centuries ago," he points out. "Unfortunately, the piece has been neglected. If it's restored right, it will last a long time. If not, it could just be thrown away. When it's gone, it's gone."

For the craftsmen of McSwain's Handmade Furniture Inc., in Charlotte, North Carolina, the ultimate compliment is to hear that a piece they have made looks exactly like an antique. Eulan and his crew are appalled at the shoddy workmanship that pervades the market and sells for big bucks these days.

The largest furniture companies clustered in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and in southwestern Virginia were originally family businesses. Today few remain in family hands. As in other industries, fumiture-making in the United States has undergone consolidation in recent years. Strong sales have spurred competing manufacturers to gobble up one another. Conglomerates now dominate the industry (see below).

Despite the trend to bigness and the disappearance of many venerable firms a number of small furniture makers are springing up to serve customers who demand quality and are tired of waiting months for mass-produced, look-alike designs. McSwain's is typical of these companies, many of which have employed family members for years.

Started in 1964 by Eulan, the company is a tiny speck of a family venture that has become more visible in recent years. Eulan McSwain, 70, Mike McSwain, 47, and their four workers produce handmade, authentic reproductions of one-of-a-kind eighteenth and nineteenth century English and American furniture for a client roster that has swelled in recent years to 2,500. Many of their pieces feature fine mother-of-pearl and ivory inlays and floral carvings by Mike McSwain. A beautiful antique four-poster bed crafted by the McSwains, with inlays and carving, may sell for as much as $10,000. But McSwain's also makes four-posters for $800, $1,000, and $2,000.

Eulan won't talk about sales or profits, except to say they have been good. He says that he and his wife, Frances, who works in the office handling orders, have plowed most of the profits back into the business. Clearly, the company is prosperous enough to provide the McSwains and their son's family with good homes, vacations, retirement funds, and ample spare time to pursue other interests.

Mike McSwain now runs the business. That the McSwains have moved their small venture into a second generation has little to do with high finance and everything to do with mutual respect and appreciation. This is a family that appears to talk to each other easily, that has no secrets. The parents never pushed their son into the business, but they have the sound values and clear-cut goals that Mike McSwain seems to share.

Eulan started his own business for typical reasons: to control his work and family hours, to have a chance to increase his income, and to attach the family name to a quality product. Yet in some ways he's untypical of entrepreneurs, who tend to be tough, driven, iconoclastic, and unwilling to share control of the business even with family members.

Eulan says he got smart after years of working for others. He had been stuck on an assembly line in a giant textile mill before the Second World War. During the war, he was with the army in Europe and North Africa and wasn't home to see the birth of his only child, Mike (whose real name is Malcolm). It was two and a half years later when he saw Mike for the first time.

What Eulan did best was work with his hands. When he started out, he knew that if he could do that — even though having dirty hands was considered less prestigious than wearing a white collar — it would give him some control over his life. After the war, he took a job selling antiques and building reproductions in a cabinet shop in Lattimore, North Carolina, where he perfected his skills under one of the South's finest cabinetmakers, Hugh Gunthorpe of Shelby, North Carolina. Eulan quickly demonstrated a talent for crafting furniture and was promoted to foreman. He and Frances were able to save money and put down $5,000 to build their first house, a modest two-story frame in the Piedmont section of Cleveland County.

The shop struggled and was sold. Eulan stayed on to help the new owner, but when he asked for a raise, he was turned down. Tired of being underpaid and unappreciated, Eulan took a job with an antiques shop in Charlotte, where he stayed seven years until a better opportunity came along, as a patternmaker for Mecklenburg Craftsmen, a furniture shop. Five years later, when that company was on the verge of bankruptcy, Eulan left.

"I needed to stop feeling enclosed by others," he recalls. The McSwains kicked around ideas on what they should do next. Having their own furniture shop seemed the only way to establish Eulan's independence and make a decent living, although they knew it presented a financial risk.

In 1964 they moved into a less expensive house, in a neighborhood with no zoning restrictions so they could work out of their home and not have to rent expensive shop space in Charlotte. With the $75,000 they received from the sale of their first home, and money from cashing insurance policies, they bought tools and lumber and hung out a shingle.

Eulan took the greatest risk, however, in his designs. Instead of making the matched furniture sets that were then fashionable, he began reproducing antique English and American beds, chests, chairs, cupboards, desks, and doors.

The McSwains operated out of two rooms that first year. While Eulan crafted furniture in the back of the house, Frances was out front selling and promoting her husband's designs.

Today McSwain's, an incorporated partnership, still operates out of the couple's one-and-a-half-story grayish-brown brick home. To accommodate company growth, the home has been enlarged twice, in 1967 and 1974. It sits on seven acres of unmowed farmland, nine miles from Charlotte's business district. Just 55 miles away is Hickory, the country's premier furniture manufacturing center.

The back half of the McSwains' house, which faces the street, has been transformed into a plant-filled furniture showroom of seven rooms. Furniture throughout the house serves as sort of a visual chronology of the development of Eulan and Mike's skills, and a repository for unclaimed orders. "I made that table," Eulan says, pointing to a small Chippendale-style end table with marble and brass top in his living room. The rooms are furnished conservatively and practically. In one, a handsome pair of Chinese Chippendale upholstered chairs flank an antique mahogany Pembroke table with satinwood inlay.

Just 125 feet from the main entrance of their house is the one-story, 4,000-square-foot prefabricated shed where Eulan and his staff build, repair, and restore. The perimeter of the room is lined with handmade wood cabinets filled with tools. Walls are cluttered with paper patterns for popular furniture designs.

The shop is a throwback to the days when master craftsmen and their apprentices slowly made furniture in small quarters, close to where the wood for the furniture grew. The McSwains are not the only oldtime style craftsmen in the country, but most of the others are too small, produce too few pieces, and can't afford regional and national advertising to become known beyond their tight circle of customers.

McSwain's turns out about eight pieces a month, very few of them exactly alike. Customers willingly wait as long as one year for completed pieces. Although the majority of their customers live in North and South Carolina, others come from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Honolulu. Prices are comparable to those of many of the country's top furniture manufacturers, but less costly than many American antiques.

Eulan, Mike, and their four employees are in the shop by 7:30 a.m. each day, five days a week. Each man works independently, filling customer orders detailed on forms that Frances hands to Mike as they come in. The pace is easy, simple. When a piece is completed, Frances digs out the next order and Mike assigns it to an available worker.

While working, the men listen to the radio and exchange banter. They still kid Mike Smith, affectionately called "Little Mike," about the time he made a guitar for his girlfriend who broke up with him shortly after.

"Did she keep the guitar?" Eulan asks.

"Sure," someone replies without waiting for Mike to answer. "You should have seen how hard he worked on that guitar. And then she ups and leaves him."

"Why?" someone else queries.

"Oh, Little Mike had the girls coming and going," Eulan chuckles. "Now he's working on making his wife a guitar. We keep telling him it's a bad idea. Don't do it, Mike."

Eulan and Mike McSwain, the main builders, handle solid rough boards of Honduran mahogany, West Virginia walnut and cherry, and imported rosewood from the Orient and Brazil that have been stored and aged in nearby open-roofed sheds. They tag the boards because each requires a different timetable for drying, except mahogany which arrives already dried. Unlike manufacturers who build their furniture parts by gluing thin layers of veneer on top of one another, Eulan and Mike cut their main sections from boards up to 18 feet long and 36 inches wide.

They work slowly, one piece at a time, mostly alone, sometimes together, first building the massive frames, later adding the intricately carved cornices, scrolls, and curlicue splats that differentiate their pieces from mass-produced furniture. The McSwains are both quiet. Eulan respects Mike's decisions. They rarely slip into their father-son roles in the shop and try to set a good example for the staff.

Mike has sort of become Eulan's alter ego. The father tends to be disorganized and preoccupied with the furniture piece he's working on, so the son orders the daily routine. He knows which new products have to be tackled and how long each should take. He takes care of the machinery and has organized the hundreds of tools in tiny tube-shaped cells — less clutter means less chance of an accident. Mike also photographs samples of McSwain furniture and writes the copy for the company's brochure.

All four nonfamily workers are treated like family. The McSwains feed them and counsel them when problems begin to affect their work. Jack Coobs, 40, the main restorer, has been with the McSwains for eight years. He lauds the support he and his colleagues receive. "A few years ago when my wife took sick and was in intensive care for three months, the McSwains never made me feel guilty about letting up," Jack says.

Mike Smith has been with the McSwains since he was in high school and mowed their lawn. He refinishes antiques and completes the new designs, gingerly applying dyes, stains, fillers, and sealers by hand or carefully with a spray gun. He also drives the company delivery van. Smith gives his mustache a reflective tug as he describes how he became part of the business. In some ways, he says, he's become closer to the McSwains than to his parents.

John Nelson, the apprentice, joined the group about three years ago after moving from New Jersey. The most private person in the shop, he opted to leave a large city to find a quieter retreat, coming to Charlotte because housing was relatively cheap and because he knew there would be demand for his skills as a stained-glass artist. Hoping to drum up work, he called McSwain's on a long-shot. When John asked Eulan if he needed any stained glass, he was told "No," but another pair of hands was needed. John was hired on the spot.

Richard Black, 48, the most recent member, joined about a year ago and works with Mike in the finishing room. He was hired because the finishing work had become too much for one person.

The shop follows no rigid schedules. A worker may need two days to craft a simple nightstand, and as much as two weeks to finish a four-poster bed. Some kinds of lumber are harder to come by and more expensive than others. "Tiger maple is getting difficult to find," Eulan explains. "I've spent several weeks looking for some to make twin matching beds. I just may not be able to come up with it. Imported woods have shot up 50 percent because of the decline of the dollar."

They are their own quality control team. Throughout the work day, the men stop to discuss a project or critique one another's work, whether invited to or not. Once a piece is completed, they date it and sign their names.

Customers hear about McSwain's Handmade Furniture through local newspaper ads, word of mouth, the company's illustrated brochure, or by driving past the McSwain home and workshop and seeing a large sign with the firm's name in the tree-lined front yard.

When customers arrive, Frances ushers them into her office. Her slight Southern drawl and eagerness to solve puzzles helps put customers at ease. Her job is to listen and understand what a customer wants, but she's not shy about offering an opinion. She's become highly knowledgeable by studying the trade magazines that stream into the office monthly and reading the books on period furniture and decorative arts that line the couple's bookshelves. Mention a furniture period and Frances will promptly discuss features and proportions.

She will tell customers when different details they want in a single piece don't go together, creating a "bastard" (she mentions the word sheepishly, hand pressed to her mouth to mute it). But she also wants clients to have what they like and not be slaves to authenticity. "I always know why I didn't make a sale, but not always why I did."

The busiest time in the showroom, of course, is right before Christmas. On busy days, Frances depends on her secretary, who was, until recently, Pat Caudell. Sometimes a celebrity will walk through the door, or call.

"Who is the most famous customer you've ever sold to?" Pat Caudell asks Frances. Frances doesn't answer.

Eulan, arms crossed, has just entered the room and chimes in, "Jim and Tammy Bakker. They ordered chairs and didn't pick them up initially because they said they didn't have the money for them."

"Hush your mouth," Frances says.

"Yeah," says Eulan, "but poor working folks like us are supposed to give our money to people like the Bakkers, who fooled everybody and never even pay their bills." The Bakkers later did come to get their chairs and did pay for them.

Frances has tried to create a professional atmosphere by keeping the showroom separate from the couple's living quarters. A customer is never allowed into their home. "You've got to have discipline in your business, especially a family business." Frances' German and Irish ancestry has made her a prudent, practical, Christian woman, she says. Eulan lavishes praise on his wife. "She's really good at selling." It is clear they enjoy one another's company.

The McSwains also delight in their son, Mike, a 6-foot, broad-shouldered man, who seems to be everything that a family business would want in a successor. Mike followed his father around when he was growing up and began learning the trade. But the son, who describes his teenage years as "wild and rebellious," desperately wanted to get away from two doting parents.

Mike went to the University of North Carolina in the early sixties to study accounting. He got a job as an accountant at Exxon's office in Charlotte. He was soon promoted to management and had a staff of 30 working under him. But slowly Mike began to feel alienated in his affluent surroundings and questioned the direction his career was taking. At 28, eight years after he left home, he decided to return and join the family business. He doesn't regret the years away. "I needed my own space," he now says. "The thrashing out of a relationship with mom and dad, and the maturing that follows, has to be done on your own before entering a family business. Without doing something independent of your family, mom will always be mom and dad will always be dad, and you'll always be a dependent little kid, even at age 50."

When Mike first came into the business he wanted to make it bigger and flashier. He gradually changed as he realized that quality furniture was the best market for McSwain's. Today, many consider Mike as good a cabinetmaker as his father, and some say he's better.

Eulan never tires of praising his son's talent for intricate carving and inlay work. In turn, Mike is solicitous of his father and mother, seeks their advice, and has even come to share their ideas of what's important — a good marriage, good kids, good values, good times. Mike also shares his father's passion for independence. "If you spend all of your time working for someone else," he says, "you don't have time to learn to do things by yourself."

On a brisk Sunday morning, the McSwains drive in the direction of the Blue Ridge Mountains towards Hickory, past forests fringed with pine trees, past manmade lakes. They tour the gracious home of Harley Shuford Sr., founder of Century Furniture Co., one of the country's largest furniture makers.

The McSwains sit in the Shufords' living room and talk about woods and finishes and joints, and particularly about the differences between manufactured and handmade pieces. The privately held Century Furniture is an attractive acquisition target. Years ago, however, Shuford took pains to retain control. He purchased all the stock in the company held by his relatives, who numbered almost 200, and put it into the hands of his immediate family. Shuford's title is chairman, but the business is now run by his children. The next generations consist of three sons, a daughter, and 13 grandchildren.

"I employ more than 4,000 people in this town," he says. "We've got an obligation to my family and to our employees' families to keep the business family-owned. As for me, I have enough money. After all, how many golf clubs can you use? When you sell out, you risk changing the business, getting too interested in the bottom line, and losing quality and service. I figure if we do the right job, the profits will take care of themselves."

Driving back home to Charlotte, the McSwains discuss the perils of bigness. They have been cautious about expanding and taking on debt, and about becoming tempted by a fancier lifestyle as sales increased. "If you're a millionaire," says Eulan, "you've only got that much more to worry about."

Eulan will probably never stop working, but he and Frances haven't been afraid to name Mike as their successor. They have other things to fill their time besides working. While Frances swims in a small backyard pool, Eulan tends his garden. Recently, they took up ballroom dancing and don their best clothing to dance at one of their three clubs several times a week. The McSwains recently restored a small cottage on their property where they plan to live when they retire so that Mike and his wife, Sylvia, can move into the main house.

Mike specializes in intricately carved cornices and scrolls, and custom ivory and mother-of-pearl Inlays. Here he begins to out a small slot into the stump of a chair arm.

While McSwain's Handmade Furniture is financially sound, every business must change with the times, and with a new generation of owners. Mike needs to regenerate it, stimulate growth, and diversify his designs if he plans to hand down the business to his children.

Mike knows he must keep the business fresh, and is toying with the idea of fewer custom pieces and selling off the showroom floor at open houses. At the same time, he acknowledges that this may tie up capital and inventory. What about the next generation? Does Mike want his children to work for McSwain's? His daughter, Pamela, 24, a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, now works as a bank loan officer, and his son, Eric, 20, is a student at Piedmont Community College and a member of the Naval Reserve.

Sitting quietly in a rocking chair by a wood-burning stove in his parents' homey kitchen, Mike hesitates before answering. "The business is here for my kids if they want it," he begins, then he adds with a slight smile: "In my most optimistic moments, I'd like to believe there's nothing my kids can't do if they set their minds to it. But they're going to have to work their way up, whatever they pursue. A lot of children whose parents have made it are handed money. Not my kids. You shouldn't hand your kids everything. They need to work for it; earn what's theirs."

Eulan and Frances nod in agreement. Taking over a family business is not a birthright, but a reward to be earned. That may be the most important legacy they have given their son to pass on to his heirs.

Why family furniture makers are disappearing

One of the last of the largest Carolina-Virginia area family manufacturers bowed out in late 1987 when Masco Corp. acquired Lexington Furniture Industries, owned by the Young and Hinkle families of Davidson County, North Carolina. Of the 10 largest furniture makers in the country, only one family firm remains: Sauder Woodworking in Archbold, Ohio, which specializes in ready-to-assemble furniture. According to Kay Anderson, director of market research at Furniture Today, the industry's main trade publication, a number of forces have propelled the shift:

—B. B., M. C

The McSwain credo

The McSwains have kept their family and their business intact and healthy by observing a few basic principles:

— B.B., M. C.