21-year company veteran shares insights into her vision for the business that offer key takeaways for any rising executive
DALLAS — In mid-May, Veronica Schnitzius celebrated her 21st year with American Leather, a manufacturer known not only for quality and innovation in its stationary line of leather and fabric upholstery, but also in its Comfort Sleeper line of sofa-sleepers and Comfort Air line of recliners.
She started with the company as vice president of operations in May 2002, a role she held for nearly nine years before being promoted to chief operating officer in the spring of 2011. She held that position for 12 and a half years before being promoted to president in October 2017.
During that time, she has seen the line evolve and expand into new SKUs and categories built in its 350,000-square-foot plant, a vertically integrated facility that builds everything from frames to pillows and cushions for the seating line. Custom upholstered pieces are built within three weeks from the time of order, living up to a promise the founders made some 33 years ago that customers shouldn’t have to endure excessively long lead times just to receive a quality, customized product made in the U.S.
Recently she spoke with Home News Now about the company and where she sees it headed in today’s competitive landscape. Here are some key takeaways from that conversation:
+ Establish a core vision and know what that means to your customer base
“American Leather has been known for its operational excellence,” Schnitzius said. “People say that you guys work really fast and are known for mechanical innovation with things like the Comfort Sleeper and Comfort Air. But we also want to show our customers that we can make any kind of upholstery. And our umbrella for the future is about the customer experience. It is about lead times. It is about quality, and it is about how do we meet the customer where they want to be met. So the vision is to evolve the organization where we are known as the upholstery company that gives the best customer experience in the world. At the end of the day, the end consumer or the designer may say all the patents and mechanisms are cool. But they also want to know how does it make me feel, what does it do for me?
+ Know your customer and what’s important to them
Of that customer, she said, “She is sophisticated, she knows what she wants and she wants it when she wants it. She takes the time to research the product and is willing to spend the money to go and buy the best product she can find based on what she is looking for. She takes the time to build a beautiful home or is about to move into a home and is very specific about what she wants, where it is coming from, what materials are being used — that kind of attention to detail. … It is a customer that wants to understand how it is built, what is in and wants answers quickly. She also doesn’t want to wait six months for the product.”
+ Become known for your excellence in manufacturing and use that to your advantage to produce a quality product
For American Leather, this has meant developing a fully vertical operation that can turn around product quickly. For the company, this asset was particularly important during the supply chain disruptions that came with the pandemic and foam shortages of early 2021.
“I think one of the most incredible sides of American Leather is that we are vertically integrated. We build our own frames in-house and our foam (cutting) is in-house, so we have the ability to transform raw materials quicker than a lot of people,” she said. “Actually since 2020, we had this amazing idea to have our own foam operation, and then the pandemic hit. At the time, it seemed like the dumbest decision we have ever made and then a year later we looked like heroes. That’s because we didn’t need a fabricator because we were bringing in buns from South America and Mexico. Se we were actually selling foam to some foam fabricators at the time.”
+ Use your professional experience to your company’s advantage
Thus, her background in operations and engineering has been key to helping the company evolve and grow as a manufacturer. As president, she works with a team of engineers and production workers to keep improving the company’s manufacturing capabilities.
“I always tell people that running a factory is like conducting a symphony,” she said. “You can do anything. You just have to have all the instruments playing at the right time. So one of my biggest passions is processes. … I think that function and that process perspective has helped me create a level of accountability internally. And it is just creating processes of accountability internally that ultimately is going to benefit the customer. My background as an engineer has been to figure out how to solve a problem and solving that problem is for the benefit of the end consumer. How do we get them what they need and get them what they need quickly? So it is about being able to figure that out and having a team around it that understands what is possible, but also that we have to work together to get there.”
+ Understanding the needs of your retail partners
The executive positions the company’s quick turnaround for custom product as a financial benefit to retailers particularly during a period of high inventories.
“We are able to transform dollars into dollars very quickly and that is a huge competitive advantage,” she said. “Customers don’t want to have inventory — inventory is cash and cash is king. … And again, we have this wealth of product to choose from — from ottomans to motion and anything that you can imagine that is upholstery — why would you buy from three or four people and have to get credit lines and all that when you can come to a one-stop shop?
+ Investing in your business and your workers is key because it will reap many rewards for the company, its customers and its employees over time
Which is why on an ongoing basis, American Leather invests millions of dollars in equipment, initiatives and projects that aim to further improve the customer experience.
“We are kind of snobs when it comes to equipment, so we are not going to just buy it cheaper,” Schnitzius said. “We love German engineering, Swiss engineering … and our founders love manufacturing so we make many investments in the factory. We are constantly investing in infrastructure.
“We also spend a tremendous amount of money on preventative maintenance,” she noted. “I can’t ask employees to create an amazing product if their surroundings are terrible. That is just the most hypocritical thing. So we spend money on infrastructure, from the bathrooms, the gym and the wellness center. Everything has to be like the product we create.”