Howard Miller creates value with domestic manufacturing footprint

Company’s legacy of wood production in Michigan approaches the 100-year mark

ZEELAND, Mich. — As it approaches its 100-year mark, Howard Miller has maintained its manufacturing roots here in this corner of western Michigan, making it one of the remaining residential wood furniture producers in the state.

Its domestic products not only include its signature clocks, but an extensive wood line that ranges from curios and consoles to bar cabinets, bookcases and custom modular cabinets.

As with most domestic wood product, the line is made in small batches to accommodate custom orders. Available in multiple finishes, custom products also ship in as little as three weeks, while in-stock products ship within three days — and often in as little as one day from the time of order.

The 300,000-square-foot plant here accomplishes this through a mix of high-tech equipment, including CNC machines, but also the handwork of some 150 craftspeople. Home News Now visited the plant in late June and got to see this process firsthand during a two-day visit with company executives and a tour of the plant.

The rough end of the wood processing operation continues to be a major aspect of production at the Howard Miller plant in Zeeland, Michigan.

The visit offered an inside view of how the company remains competitive as a domestic producer of upper-middle-priced furniture. In addition to the Howard Miller line, the plant also produces the contract line and some home office product for sister company Hekman, which offers a line of domestic contract furniture for higher education and senior living facilities. The furniture for senior living includes beds, dressers, bedside tables and wardrobes, effectively placing it among the largest domestic bedroom producers in the country.

Mike Wallace, operations manager, shows some of the company’s inventory of wood parts to be used in the production of various wood pieces.

Including seating produced in its High Point upholstery operations that produces residential and contract seating, about half the overall Howard Miller line is produced domestically, officials noted. About half of Hekman’s line also is produced domestically, most of which is upholstery made in High Point. A smaller percentage of the overall wood side estimated at 5% or less includes Hekman’s office segment produced in Zeeland.

For both companies, supporting the operations and the employees that work there is about capacity utilization, part of the reason that Hekman began producing office furniture before the pandemic. The decision proved prescient, particularly during the pandemic when demand for office furniture rose.

But, while most of Hekman’s wood line is imported from countries including India and Indonesia, the domestic operations are proving to be a key asset, particularly for clean-lined 66-inch and 48-inch electric lift desks as well as bookcases and file cabinets — both double lateral and single column file units — that align with the core capabilities of the facility, including its custom capabilities.

In the Hekman line there are 11 custom finishes, and in the Howard Miller line there are about 44 finishes, a number that continues to grow.

Joanna LaMar is seen working with stacks of wood components that are ready to move along the assembly line for use in various wood pieces.

“The beauty of what we do here is you have a choice with multiple different finishes and two different species of wood (oak and maple),” said Neil McKenzie, director of product development at Hekman. “So you can custom order your desk the way you want it with finish and wood and we can produce it within a four-week time schedule. So number one, it’s quick, but it’s also the availability of custom at a price that most looking for better goods are going to be willing to pay.”

“It’s paying off, absolutely,” he added of the decision to make more product domestically, including part of Hekman’s office line. “And it’s not just decorators — it’s also big boxes that are buying the domestic.”

McKenzie noted that the plant was extremely important especially during the height of the pandemic when it was difficult and expensive to ship from overseas, particularly because of supply chain disruptions combined with container availability and high container pricing.

Here, a worker is seen building the base and frame of a curio display cabinet, as Mike Wallace is seen in the background looking at assembled frames.

“When we went into it initially, it was for customization, in hardware, custom finishes and custom wood selection,” McKenzie said. “All that was important then. But then, during Covid, and with the cost of transportation, it not only became the icing on the cake, it became the cake too when you looked at it. Especially with the period that we just came through, that really gave domestic manufacturing an edge. Number one, there were less freight costs built into your product and number two, it was speed of delivery. We were waiting sometimes 90 days for a container to arrive and that’s after waiting six months for the doggone thing to be made. So what became very evident not only to us, but to our customers, was that there is an opportunity in selling domestic because of those types of advantages.”

Of customization, he added, there are some that may try to accomplish this from overseas, “but the lag time is so long, it just makes it very hard to pull something like that off. The consumer doesn’t want to wait that long and typically they will pay a little more to have it just the way they want it.”

But a big part of the success of the operation also lies in workers’ ability to perform multiple tasks through cross-training, including the ability to work on multiple pieces of equipment, McKenzie noted.

“All of the people who work here wear multiple hats,” he said, noting that the ability to work on multiple pieces of equipment “gives us flexibility on what we can build out there. … All that can make a big difference. We are also constantly investing in this facility to streamline ways to make furniture without giving up on the quality or the integrity of the product.”

Robert Seaberg, vice president, product development and global sourcing at Howard Miller and Hekman, shows an area holding finish panels under review.

Robert Seaberg, director of product development and global sourcing at Howard Miller and Hekman, has done two different stints at Howard Miller, including during the early to late 1980s. He went to Sligh, also formerly based in Zeeland, for about 10 years, returning to Howard Miller in 2008.

While he noted that the plant is about the same size as previously, he said there were much larger runs in the past when 500 to 1,000 of the same piece would be coming down the production line. Today, product is produced in cell manufacturing units and in smaller batches.

“It’s all cells, it’s one-offs. You go to the finish line and it’s a few of these, one of those,” he described of the difference in the flow of the plant today compared to that of years past. “Before you used to go out to the finish line, and it was hard to know if it was Monday or Friday because the same product was still on the finish line.”

However the layout and cellular nature of the plant today is well suited to the custom nature of the product line. And the mostly clean-lined nature of the product line in turn also is well aligned with the capabilities of both the equipment and the skilled production team, officials note.  

“With this product, a lot of it is very modular,” Seaberg said. “So you can buy a cabinet this year and add to it next year and it’s going to fit together, whereas if you do that with an import … it’s not going to fit together. And if it does fit together, the finish is not likely to match. So we are able to control this type of product where we have very tight specifications on the fit, the function and the finish. That’s the huge advantage.”

Here mantel clocks are seen being sanded and inspected before heading to the finishing line.

He said being able to produce pieces from components kept in stock allows the company to keep lead times relatively low, particular on custom cabinets or consoles in various sizes.

“We produce out of bin stock, so it’s very quick from the time someone orders a custom cabinet until the time that we can ship it. It’s a very short shipping window.”

Buzz Miller, a third-generation company president and CEO who is the grandson of founder Howard Miller and son of former President and CEO Jack Miller, said that the company’s quick turnaround is what is helping it succeed in today’s competitive marketplace.

“We’ll have one model of a curio for example, but we can do it in seven finishes,” he said. “So the retailer can show three different curios on the floor and have 21 SKUs that they can sell to the customer. That’s a benefit to them in that we can do that here. It would take too many containers to bring it in if you were doing it overseas. And one of the problems with curios is that it’s all air – you’re shipping air. It’s kind of hard to do a KD curio and have it look halfway decent.”

But unlike some domestic plants, the company does not just build to order. It also builds to inventory to reduce the amount of product that the retailer has to keep in their own warehouses.

Nearly completed floor clocks that remain a popular part of the Howard Miller line are seen on the plant floor.

“Being in stock, that has always been a philosophy of ours,” Miller noted. “We would always stock it for them, so the retailers don’t have to hold inventory. That was part of our success with the floor clock business. They would maybe have one to show and one to go and then if they needed another from us we can ship it in 24 hours.”

Of course the strength of any domestic operation is also tied to the strength of its workforce.

Like other manufacturers, the company has faced competition in getting good workers.

“Labor has been a real challenge, I would say, for the last 18 months,” Miller said, adding that recent conversations with human resources indicate the trend has shifted toward full employment. “I think we’re blessed to be in west Michigan. We have a great workforce here. We have a lot of people in here with 30-plus years. The difficulty now is that a lot of them are going to be retiring and we will have to replace those people, which is not easy.”

Fortunately, the part of western Michigan where Howard Miller (and companies like office furniture producer Herman Miller, located just across the street) are located has a high level of manufacturing jobs and employment to potentially draw from. According to a recent study by the Michigan Center for Data and Analytics and the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget, some 20.3% of the employment in the western part of Michigan is in the manufacturing cluster, with a significant presence in furniture, including office furniture.

Workers apply finishes on the pallet finishing line.

The west and southwest Michigan regions have the largest share of their employment in the manufacturing cluster at 20.3% and 18%, respectively. West Michigan has a much heavier presence within furniture and related product manufacturing than other regions of the state. The Upper Peninsula has the smallest share of employment in manufacturing at just 4%. And while some jobs require a post-secondary degree, many manufacturing jobs mainly require a high school diploma or equivalent and some on-the-job training. The average salary in manufacturing statewide was also just over $71,700, although that also includes workers with decades of experience.

Today, the company believes its nearly 100-year heritage combined with a quality work environment will be a key asset in recruiting workers in the future.

“We have a great team and there’s a tremendous amount of experience and longevity in our workforce,” said Jim O’Keefe, vice president of sales. “Now a lot of people are retiring and are moving on to the next phase of their lives, and newer folks are coming in and kind of reinvigorating the company with energy. … We’ve had some success in finding some great people.”

To view the full video interview with O’Keefe and Dawn LaMaire, customer service manager, click here.

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.

View all posts by Thomas Russell →

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