Sligh workers sad, not shocked
Thursday, May 12, 2005
By Rob Kirkbride
The Grand Rapids Press
HOLLAND -- In its 125 years, Sligh Furniture Co. has made everything
from bicycles to bedroom sets.
Like other companies with such longevity, it has survived by evolving.
This time, the fourth-generation family company will adapt by exiting
West Michigan and dropping one of its best-known product lines.
It will stop producing clocks later this year and will ship all its
furniture production out of the United States.
Wednesday's announcement by company President Rob Sligh may have
surprised many in the area, but it came as no shock to its remaining
It also did not surprise industry experts, who watched the company
move production from its West Michigan roots to follow cheap labor in
places such as Mexico, Philippines, China and Indonesia.
The move is symptomatic of the U.S. thirst for cheap products pouring
out of China and other Asian countries, said Jim Koeman, who worked
for Sligh for more than 32 years.
"If I'm angry about anything, I'm angry about the mindset of
American people who are willing to settle for less quality for less
money simply so we can have more things," said Koeman, who
started at Sligh on his 18th birthday. "We are all to blame."
The U.S. residential furniture industry -- which once had a major
role in the Grand Rapids area economy -- continues to contract under
pressure from low-cost overseas manufacturing, said Harold
Rodenhouse, retired president of Hekman and Superior furniture companies.
"All furniture making in the U.S. is in transition because of
the opportunity to buy offshore for so much less than the cost to
produce it here," he said. "Sligh is one of those
traditional old furniture makers that has stuck it out for a long time."
The end of production at Sligh this fall marks the end of another
chapter in West Michigan's furniture legacy. In recent years, Baker
Furniture Co. moved production from Holland, and the John Widdicomb
Co. plant, dating to the Civil War, closed in Grand Rapids.
But unlike those companies, Sligh's history is marked with sudden and
dramatic changes management took to stay alive.
Sligh had more than 1,500 employees in 1933 when it moved from Grand
Rapids to Holland, opening there with 45 workers.
The company shifted from bedroom suites to desks. Later, it made dorm
furniture to supply growing college campuses.
When that market dried up, Sligh picked up Trend Clock Co. in Zeeland
for $1, turning it into one of the largest clock makers in the world.
"The company needed a replacement for that volume," Rob
Sligh said in describing the transition from dorm furniture to
clocks. "The 1970s provided a great growth market that came at
the right time."
When the clock market started to slow, Sligh shifted to home-office
furniture. Most recently, the company entered the home-entertainment
furniture market in 2002.
"There have been lots of twists and turns in our 125-year
history," said Sligh, the fourth-generation leader of the firm.
Among those are the shifting of manufacturing from Holland to other countries.
A few years ago, Sligh had more than 400 workers. When the 250,000-square-foot
plant and offices are idled in September, the company will employ 23
workers locally in management, engineering, marketing and customer relations.
The hardest part is the loss of longtime employees, Sligh said.
"I've known some of the employees here all my life," he
said. "They were here when I was a kid in knickers who came to
see my dad. And when I was a teen working in every department in the
plant and getting sawdust in my shoes, some of those people are still here.
"The hardest part is talking with our people about a future that
doesn't involve them."
Sligh told workers Wednesday morning of the closing.
Fidel Mireles, who has worked there 31 years, said the few weeks
leading to the closing would be difficult.
"They treated my family good over the years," he said,
noting three sisters, two sisters-in-law, his sons and a few nephews
worked at the company during his career.
Sligh also will have to say goodbye to many longtime clock customers
One retailer of Sligh clocks in Holland said the decision was a loss
for the grandfather clock industry.
"I'm certainly saddened because there was a day when the (Sligh)
clock division was the real money maker for them," said John
Loomis at Teerman's. "I have sold Sligh and sold it well over
Teerman's carries several models of Sligh grandfather clocks, the highest-priced
model costs about $10,000.
Sligh and Howard Miller clocks, also sold at Teerman's, earned a
reputation as high-quality grandfather clocks.
Buzz Miller, president of Howard Miller Clock Co. in Zeeland, still
sees clock-making as a viable business. "It's a product people
want when they see it. But consumers have a lot of choices these
days," he said.
The furniture industry has undergone a radical change in the past
decade, as manufacturers continue to follow low wages around the globe.
But that does not make it easier for those left behind.
Holland Mayor Al McGeehan was saddened by Sligh's announcement. Rob
Sligh called him late Tuesday to break the news.
"Sligh has been a part of Holland for eight decades and here in
this part of West Michigan for (more than) a century," McGeehan said.
He asked whether there was anything the city could do to
"soften" the impact and possibly keep jobs, but "it
sounds like the operations are already in the Philippines and China."
Sligh's news came in the afterglow of the announcement last month
that Johnson Controls Inc. planned to add 525 jobs to its Lakewood
plant with a new product line.
When told of the news at the Tulip Time Governor's Luncheon, Gov.
Jennifer Granholm said Sligh's decision was another reason for the
state to develop high-tech industries to replace manufacturing.
"This is an example of an evolving world," she said.
"West Michigan has been a manufacturing center, but businesses
are moving to lower-cost countries.
"It's clear we have to concentrate on growth areas where we can
Press staff writer John Tunison contributed to this story.
© 2005 Grand Rapids Press. Used with permission