An Interview with Caroline Hipple, President of Norwalk Furniture

Without a doubt, the Covid-19 virus has upset everyone’s cart.  To help you see the big picture from a number of different perspectives, IHFRA has talked to directional retailers and suppliers to get their perspectives on the virus and its impact on our business.
Last time, we spoke to David Gunn of Texas-based Knight Furniture to get a retailer’s perspective.
Now, we talk to another industry leader, Caroline Hipple, President of Norwalk Furniture, based in Norwalk, Ohio.
Norwalk Furniture, an innovative maker of custom upholstery, recently also showed its ability to turn on a dime early in April when it shifted product from upholstery to producing personal protection products including face masks and medial gowns for local hospitals and healthcare workers.
The company is now back to making upholstery and IHFRA was fortunate to carve out time with Ms. Hipple to get her input as a leading manufacturer about the Covid-19 virus.
What follows are her comments from an interview with IHFRA’s Executive Director Ray Allegrezza.
IHFRA: This industry is no stranger to disruption. But have we ever dealt with something as turbulent as this virus?
CH:  Well, we certainly have not experienced anything quite like the long- term uncertainty that CoVid19 provides, but we have led through and experienced many crises.
IHFRA: Which ones come to mind?
CH:  Post 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, 2009, the Beltway Shooter, the untimely ends of Storehouse and This End Up due to poorly implemented systems conversions by the parent companies. Norwalk, itself, suffered from the effects of the 2008 recession and lived to tell the tale.
IHFRA: Having navigated through those choppy waters, what have you learned about surviving tough times?
CH: I now know that managing though all of these difficult periods has taught skills that enable us to lead through this one. Courage, creativity and resilience can help you through difficult times. Breeding those qualities into your culture in good times helps you negotiate the difficult ones. While we don’t know quite the path this virus will take, what we do know is what people want in times of crisis and change. We know that communication is key, with your community, your vendors, your customers and your colleagues.  The communication must be frequent, direct, clear and honest.   These qualities win every time. In times of change people want to know the picture, the plan and their  part to play.
IHFRA: In addition to being recognized as a creative thinker, you’ve also earned a reputation as a strategic thinker.  So, what was your thought process regarding the virus?
CH: In CoVid19 we have had to think about this in three tiers. What is the picture , plan and our part to play today (as we respond to the daily announcements and mandates), what is our plan, picture and part to play this week, and then finally what do we want the picture , plan and part to play look like on the other side of this and how to do we get there?  Our core team meets daily to review these strategies.
IHFRA: What do you see the impact of the virus on our business….short term and long term?
CH:  The Governor of Ohio mandated that we shut down on March 24th. We had one days- notice, but of course we were expecting something. In January, one of our key fabric suppliers told us (at the Vegas market) that his agent had just cancelled his upcoming trip to Hangzhou because the Chinese government was closing the city and would extend the Chinese New Year vacation for several weeks. I knew then that something would be coming our way. But I thought it was going to be supply disruption. Fortunately, with that warning we were able to secure enough cover to last us for several months.
 IHFRA: Any surprises along the way?
CH: What I did not realize was that our country, and yes, the world would experience shutdown. We went into our shutdown with our best quarter on record for the new Norwalk. We re-opened, six weeks later, on May 4th. Fortunately, we have a healthy backlog and plenty of raw- materials so we have come back at full capacity. It is quite a relief to hear those hammers flying and the laughter throughout the building.
IHFRA:  You and your team did an amazing job of managing in the midst of chaos.  What do you see as the long-term impacts of the virus?
CH:  My crystal ball is a little cloudy and might be behaving more like one of those trick eight balls, you know the one, where you don’t know what’s going to come up. What I do know is that virtual relationships and customer intimacy, two seemingly disparate states are both critical now. Staying close to your customers, solving problems and business planning together is the way to navigate this new uncertain road. I might have said, hold hands and cross the street together…but in this time of social distancing, I might say ZOOM and make the plan together. Using virtual tools, those that do, will find more success in the long term.
We live and breathe for our markets. For sharing, innovations, visualization and connections. We now must figure out how to provide these experiences differently.  A core team of folks here have been working hard on that during our furlough period. We are in the middle of the roll out. I’ll let you know how we do! Wish us luck!!
IHFRA:  We do!  So, what about the impact of the virus on retail of all types?
CH:  Well, I think that this event will hasten change that has been coming and like the recession of 2008 it will force the strong to be stronger and the less strong to suffer. It is Darwinian. The innovative and adaptive will adjust and thrive, there will be the mediocre that may bump along and the weak will vanish. I believe that collaboration is the key to the new competition. This is where developing a tight network, a tight community banding together to solve the needs of the end consumer is critical. We each have our part to play along the way, supplier, manufacturer, sales rep, retailer and ONLINE. I believe in experiential retail. Let me repeat that…I believe in experiential retail. Especially in the upholstery business where the ” tush”  test must happen in  person. It is hard to virtually get the feeling of sitting in a piece of furniture. With that said, to survive, the in- store experience must be compelling, delightful, practical, skillful and painless. In addition, we must all embrace the online experience and figure out how to deliver a seamless end to end path for the end consume that still includes and benefits the retailer. So much shopping, research, decision making is first made on- line. I think it is incumbent upon the manufacturer to help the retailers achieve this.
IHFRA: Has the government bailout helped?
CH: Of course, I believe that while a little sticky in the initial implementation because of the speed with which it needed to get out there. It has relieved a little anxiety in both the furloughed employees and the companies that have been able to take advantage of PPP. We all know that this is just the beginning, but it certainly has helped make sure we could get people to stay at home so that we could slow the spread of the virus and get the health care system more prepared to handle the volume.
IHFRA: To drill down on this, do you feel that the government is doing enough to help small businesses?
CH: Is enough ever enough? I believe that the most important thing the government could do to help us all is get full testing available NOW, implement extensive contact tracing, understand antibody research and how it can help and develop a vaccine. Until there is a system that can provide all of the above there will be fear of a recurrence and that would be a REALLY tough bump in our recovery road.
IHFRA: When the smoke clears, retailers and consumers may reevaluate many of their previous choices.  What are you doing to continue to be a favored resource?
CH: Wow, we are working hard at it, that’s for sure! Here’s another thing I know about crisis and change. Sometimes you cannot control the macro environment, but you can always control your reaction to it. We wanted to come out of this with pride in how we handled (or continue to handle) the effects of the virus.  In looking back on the past bumps in the road, what seemed to be hard lessons have really been blessings. And what I remember is how I felt about my own, and my company’s behavior in the middle. We are managing with that in mind. We are a domestic, special order upholstery company. We believe that domestic special- order upholstery is a key to getting the sales pump going again for the retailer. It provides a good source of cash flow with low inventory investment and is often the first-place people go to prime the pump. Accordingly, we have been holding zoom business planning meetings with our core customers to prepare for a successful  for life on the other side, tangible, idea generating meetings. The creativity and courage and sharing has been so inspirational. We are delivering a virtual market with trend and fabric presentation and new product introductions. Arming our community with tools to create excitement in the middle of this malaise has been well received. And we are creating virtual on-line tools to make the decision making easier, more fun and beautiful. All of these tools are targeted at the end consumer but delivered to the retailer so that they can be their customer’s hero.
IHFRA: What can your suppliers do to help during this time?
CH: What  can my suppliers do to help? Not bill??? Ha, just kidding. I think do the same thing we are doing for our retailers..continue to innovate, share best practices, be dependable, ship on time and partner to help us provide  the finest product available.
IHFRA:  Peek into your crystal ball and tell me what you see.
CH:  Crystal Ball?  The most likely scenario I have heard (and I have listened endlessly to prognostications) Is that we will have a truncated V recovery….steep down and not a steep all the way back up…but a steep half-way back up and then a “slog” as we work through our ability to test, contact trace, create a vaccine , provide adequate health care and weather a resurgence of the virus in the fall. What that means is that during the slog..we have to be innovative, provide better solutions for our customers and  show up, listen and LAUGH! Oh yeah and PRAY!
IHFRA: As we’ve said, our industry is no stranger to challenges.  Do you feel good about our industry’s ability to weather this latest storm?
CH:  What I know for sure is that we have all been through a lot of hard things before. I am proud of our industry and the people in it. I can’t imagine a group that I would rather weather this storm, TOGETHER we will get through, and not only survive but thrive.

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