Labor challenges in the furniture C-suite

GREENSBORO, N.C. — We’ve heard all about the labor challenges facing retailers and suppliers in the store, in the warehouse, in the factory, but Randy Ariail tells us the challenge has risen to middle management all the way up to the C-suite.

In his latest newsletter, the owner of executive search firm Ariail & Associates here, refers to a “relocation dilemma” and notes that, “Partly due to lifestyle changes brought about by Covid and other social factors, relocation of desirable candidates is still a pressing problem.” 

Randy Ariail

The challenge has only accelerated since the pandemic, he told Home News Now. “It’s very difficult to attract senior executives to more remote areas,” he said. “It can be done, but what’s happening is our engagements are taking a lot longer than they have in the past.” Before the pandemic, the average time from the start of a search to completion was about 45 days, he estimated. Today, it’s more like 60 to 70 days.

 “Covid has basically changed the playing field,” Ariail said. “Pandora’s box has been opened by remote work, and I doubt it will ever close again.”

Ariail’s business is all about recruiting upper-middle to senior executive leadership in the home furnishings industry and primarily on the supply side of the industry. He’s been doing it for 40 years through his own search firm and even longer if you take into account his work before that with a national recruiter. 

In the furniture industry, it has become difficult to attract senior executives for a number of reasons, he said. For starters, most of the manufacturers and importers  are not located in popular urban areas. Instead they’re based in places like High Point, Hickory and Lenoir in North Carolina, Tupelo, Miss., or, say, Dubuque, Iowa.

Nothing wrong with these markets, but a lot of companies today are insisting on more sophisticated recruits, people who are style conscious — good leaders as well as creative types. That’s been particularly true for his high-end furniture manufacturing clients. As Ariail put it, most of these recruits “are going to come from very urban areas (such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta), and some might consider these (furniture bases) backwaters.”

Even when you can line up the right person with the right job, the next problem that crops up is the shortage of desirable housing. 

“People get a great deal on their house when they sell it,” Ariail said, “but where are they going to move when they relocate?” In Greensboro, for instance, a market Arial looks at regularly via Zillow, “You can’t find anything in the $600,000 to $1 million range,” he said. There is inventory for $500,000 and less, and homes listed for more than $1 million, but that sweet spot in between, the one that often suits senior furniture execs, is pretty thin.

Then there’s that Pandora’s box Ariail referred to — how Covid, in many respects changed how and from where many people work and their willingness to be tied to an office all week, every week, especially one outside a major metro market. He referred to the work of Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, who, in a CNBC interview this year, said roughly 56% of workers today have a job that can be done from home. Ariail also has seen a report that said 70% of the non-manufacturing workforce will work remotely at least one week per month by 2025. 

In the video, Lister said she prefers the term, “The Great Reevaluation” over “The Great Resignation” that’s so often bandied about, as “reevaluation” better reflects the balance workers are looking to achieve now since the pandemic gave many a “glimpse” of a different lifestyle that they’re not willing to give up.

Furniture industry companies that are forward thinking are beginning to embrace what Ariail and Lister call “hybrid” work, that is a mix of working from the office and remotely. And there’s no going back, Ariail said; it needs to be part of the overall package many companies offer — along with such things as compensation, benefits, bonuses, opportunities for advancement and opportunities for ownership.

While it may be taking longer these days to get people on board, Ariail contended the industry’s talent pool, on both the supply and retail sides, has improved dramatically in recent years. He used to be more pessimistic, concerned about how the furniture industry appeared “incestuous,” often bent on “recycling people”  for key positions. More recently, though, he’s seen an abundance of good young talent enter the field.

But to attract them, companies need this different mindset he and Lister reference, including an openness to hybrid working arrangements, and maybe allowing new recruits to live in the closest major markets to a company’s headquarters, even if it’s a bit of a commute. The competition for top talent is too fierce to ignore this, and technology — Zoom meetings and the like — has only enhanced the ability to collaborate remotely, Ariail said. It’s eliminating excuses for why hybrid work can’t be done. (In the video, Lister suggests that within a few years, employees may even be able to meet via hologram instead of a video call.

Despite the challenges — and his firm’s focus on recruiting people who are “actively, gainfully and successfully employed” — Ariail has seen plenty of success placing leaders lately. Despite the pandemic, “2021 was one of our better years,” he said in the newsletter. His firm recruited two CEOs for luxury outdoor brands as well as senior sales and marketing executives.

“The market for CMO and senior merchandising executives was also strong with traditional manufacturers. We expect to see more demand for operations and manufacturing executives as reshoring efforts continue.”

He goes on to say relocating candidates is more of a challenge but “certainly possible based on successful marketing.” The opportunity a company is offering, he added later, “sometimes has to outweigh the geographic situation.” And offering a hybrid working arrangement is a piece of that opportunity.

Still, this may not be the easiest of asks for this industry, or any industry that’s slow to embrace change or cede some control.

“Leaders want to lead,” Lister said in the CNBC interview. “They want to make decisions, and they want to have a structure. But I think we’ve just thrown that out the window the last couple of years.

“We’ve got to be comfortable with ambiguity. We’ve got to be comfortable with change.”

Clint Engel

Clint Engel is a veteran home furnishings industry journalist and executive editor of Home News Now. Please share your feedback with him at

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