Startups navigate the many challenges of a pandemic

Timing of company launches was complicated by one of the industry’s most challenging periods in recent history

HIGH POINT – Given the option, most would probably not choose to start a company – especially a furniture company – right in the middle of a pandemic. Yet that is the path that some companies chose, perhaps unwittingly, given the path the pandemic took at different stages of their development.

Despite the awkward timing, these companies have not only managed to stay afloat; they also have grown their respective lines during one of the most challenging times in recent industry history.

Take for example, Hi-Rock Furniture, an upholstery leather resource that started in January of 2020, just as news of Covid-19 in China reached mainstream media in the U.S.

At the time, it seemed the situation was confined to that part of Asia. But the next couple of months showed how quickly the pandemic spread to places around the world, including the U.S.

In spite of the challenges, including retail shutdowns and ongoing travel restrictions, the company has managed to do well. For example, its product mix since last fall has nearly doubled to a total of 44 groups of  stationary and motion leather upholstery launched between October 2020 and June and October of this year.

The good thing was that the company was able to start developing its product during the height of the shutdowns in the spring of 2020, using a diverse network of source countries that includes Vietnam, Italy, Brazil and Mexico. The line debuted just as retail demand was reaching a peak, which created demand for and the further development of the product mix.

Ernie Rockhill

The biggest challenge  according to company president Ernie Rockhill is not being able to travel as much as needed to the source factories.

“It has benefited us in a way in that we were still able to develop product in non-traditional ways,” he said of the many late-night zoom calls involving designers and manufacturers. “But at the end of the day, you want to have your fingerprints on every piece of furniture, and the inability to travel made it difficult to do that.

“It is like Christmas when the furniture has shown up because that is the first time you get to see it. Normally, you would be on the ground during the entire process. That has been the greatest frustration of late.”

While vaccinations have helped lower Covid-related transmissions and deaths in many parts of the country this year, the emergence of the Delta variant complicated things for more recent startups. In this case, the challenges have had more to do with materials price increases and labor shortages.

In early May, Chris Pelcher, a former executive with retailer Art Van Furniture, launched a domestic case goods company called Lineage Furniture. While its domestic capabilities can be seen as a major advantage during Covid-related shutdowns in Vietnam and Malaysia, Pelcher said it has not been easy.

“We are not immune, nor are our production partners immune, to labor shortages or certain raw materials challenges,” Pelcher told Home News Now. “Thankfully, we are working through that, and it is not slowing us down.”

Chris Pelcher

“Everywhere and in every part of the business these challenges are happening. The good thing for us is that we have teamed up with the right people,” he added, noting that this extends from its manufacturing partners to its sales team and the retailers that have responded well to its product mix that now includes some 13 bedrooms.

To help manage some of the challenges, he said, the company’s manufacturing partners are holding job fairs and on the job training to help recruit and keep the best workers. He noted they also are buying further out on raw materials, which in turn helps minimize the impacts of future raw materials cost increases.

In turn, he said, the company is staying in close communication with the factories to help provide them the best sales projections in order to help them with their own forecasting, including materials purchasing.

“We are working super close with our production folks, through email, text and by phone all day, seven days a week,” Pelcher said, noting that the factories depend on Lineage for information about what’s selling or what’s expected to sell. “We are doing everything we can to stay on top of things.”

Keeping up with materials supply chain is also a major area of emphasis for Vardaman, Miss.-based upholstery manufacturer JCooper USA,  which just got started this summer.

“One of the big negatives is supply chain issues,” said Josh Enis, sales director. “There are shortages of raw materials, fabrics and covers…China has had their power shutdowns, and you have got Vietnam shutdowns due to the Delta variant. Every waking moment there is an obstacle.”

Josh Enis

That said, he noted that the company is in a strong position from a labor standpoint. While other Mississippi producers are said to have had challenges such as worker absenteeism due to the Delta variant, Enis said that JCooper is in a strong position due to its location near other job markets such as Calhoun, Miss.

“Our labor force is ramped up, and we have a pile of applications, which we can attribute to our location,” he said, adding that the company is fortunate to be able to hire experienced workers in the upholstery field. “You have got to make sure an upholsterer knows what they are doing.”

He said the company also is buying polyfoam from multiple vendors to help ensure a reliable flow of materials.

“We are doing that in case something falls through the cracks with one,” he said, noting that this is important to avoid bottlenecks in manufacturing.

He said a key now as the company continues to add workers and new lines of production is to remain in communication with key customers, particularly when it comes to forecasting.

“Most of them do monthly forecasting,” he said. “It would be helpful for everyone to do quarterly forecasting,” which Enis noted will help not just for raw materials purchasing, but also for the hiring of workers to be able to do the job. “It will give us enough time to fill more positions.”

Rockhill, of Hi-Rock Home, said he is optimistic about the company’s prospects despite some of the ongoing Covid-related challenges.

“I think we are really well-positioned for when things open back up,” he said of improvements in overseas plant capacity and the ability to travel more frequently. “We will be right where we want to be. When people see what we have done through all this, it speaks for itself.”

Thomas Russell

Home News Now Editor-in-Chief Thomas Russell has covered the furniture industry for 25 years at various daily and weekly consumer and trade publications. He can be reached at and at 336-508-4616.

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