Building Brand Relevance: Baker Interiors Group President and CEO Russell Towner
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In recent decades, the manufacturing sector in Western economies has scarcely been in the area of envy. The reasons for its slow and steady downfall are plenty, but all lead to one single outcome- many brands have had difficulties coping with the erratic nature of decline, resulting in numerous manufacturing factories being downsized or shut down. However, for Baker Interiors Group, a US luxury furniture brand, the end game has been starkly different.
To begin with, it is a brand that has been around for more than a century- Baker Furniture, which includes the Milling Road furniture brand, was founded in 1890, and became a part of the furniture products division of Kohler Company, a Wisconsin-based American manufacturing company, in 1986. A few years later, in 1989, Kohler Company added McGuire Furniture, a casual furniture brand founded in 1948, to its portfolio of luxury furniture brands. Yet, earlier this year, the four-generation-old Kohler family business, itself dating back to 1873, decided to sell those three brands to a Chinese-owned and US-based furniture manufacturer and distributor, Samson Investment Holding Company, for reportedly US$35 million. The deal takes the Kohler family out of furniture manufacturing, but it is still not time to bring the curtain down on these furniture brands, as explained by Russell Towner, the President and CEO of Baker Interiors Group, with responsibility for both Baker Furniture and McGuire Furniture. “It has been a challenging time, certainly the decade after the 2008/2009 crisis, but the good news is that even throughout that there were people with the means and interest in buying luxury furniture,” he says.
“I learnt a long time ago that there will always be a need for a table to eat at, a bed to sleep in, a sofa to sit and watch TV on, and then the challenge becomes how to become the best alternative for those people. I like that challenge. Certainly, there are people who have taken, I would say, a more disposable view of furniture, but fortunately we are at a size and scale that if we do our job right, if we remain focused on design leadership and superior craftsmanship, there will be plenty of market share for us to take ownership of. I believe that there is a big movement worldwide to turn back to authenticity. Across the luxury spectrum, people want integrity. That is why I feel very confident about everything that we do, from the way it is designed to the way it is constructed and finished, there is an authenticity of each product. It’s special and unique.”
A couple of years ago, Baker Furniture made headlines when it created custom-made chairs for the State Dining Room in the White House, however its furniture can also be found in the Oscars’ green room, and more. Samson Investment Holding Company is committed to maintaining that level of luxury positioning of the brands, and while keeping some manufacturing jobs on US soil, the acquirer is extending its current portfolio of middle and upper price point segments of the home furnishings industry to include the upper end/ luxury niche of the market. Towner says that laying the groundwork for a new phase is what they are focused on at the moment. “We are doing things on the cost side, in terms of making sure that our factories are run efficiently, and that we have the people who share the same passion and love for this business,” he says.
“In the furniture business, if you are not passionate about home and design, it’s hard to be successful. In all our departments, I look for people who are passionate about the home. We have a team of people who understand our legacy, but yet have their focus on today. One of the interesting things which, I think is unique about Baker is that there is a DNA that exists here and that you can see throughout all of our offerings. There is a thread that has been pulled through since the beginning to this day.”
Baker Interiors Group has 18 corporate-owned and operated showrooms in North America, Paris and London, in addition to over 15 dedicated showrooms operated by carefully selected partners. These showrooms are located in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In addition, the luxurious Baker furniture is also distributed through select luxury furniture retailers and design boutiques in over 40 countries around the world. What lies ahead is strategizing and exploring but, as Towner explains, also remaining deeply rooted into the brand’s principles of design leadership and superior craftsmanship. “For now, we are focused on what I call blocking and tackling types of things, which is an American football reference to basic, fundamental things that make our business better, such as making sure that we have the right customer experience,” he says.
“Our plan is to grow significantly, but we like our positioning in the luxury segment of the business and we have no intention of trying to move our price point down. First and foremost, our furniture needs to be distributed at the right places. We are doing a lot of work across our locations in the US and Europe to revitalize those physical structures to make sure that the visual display of our furniture is how it should be. We are spending a lot of time internally to make sure that we are creating the right experience for people. I am a firm believer that there are two organizational plays right now. One is on price, meaning you are either going to be the lowest price in the market and compete on that, or you are going to provide the experience for people that justifies their purchase. We believe that Baker will be successful if we provide the right experience.”
In line with the company’s international expansion business strategy, Baker Group recently opened its flagship showroom, and one of the few mono-brand showrooms in the region, at Dubai Design District (d3), in partnership with UAE-based home furnishings dealer, Iconic Home. “We are a 125-yearold company founded on the principles of design leadership and superior craftsmanship, and those elements appeal to people everywhere, and if you ask how we ended up opening a store in Dubai, it is because here we have people with the means to afford luxury furniture, but more importantly, they have an interest in luxury furniture and home design,” Towner says.
“Wherever in the world we find those people, we want to make sure that they have access to our furniture. There are certainly cultural elements that influence which styles people prefer. For example, in Asian markets, they love round dining tables. However, we lean very much on our style that is rooted in classicism which we believe is still very relevant today. If you have the attention to scale and proportion and the understanding of the nuances of details, as we do, it will appeal to people everywhere. So, we don’t necessarily think whether there is a design that is specific to Dubai since, I believe, with the intermingling of different styles, the world has become smaller and we don’t tend to look at it per region but as a whole.”
Obviously, Baker Interiors Group is not only remaining relevant in a shrinking industry but reinventing itself with a potential to usher in a new era of furniture manufacturing around the world. To achieve that, Towner says, plotting a new direction is based on both understanding the cultural shifts taking place in today’s world and staying true to the company’s rich heritage.
“I would say that my favorite period is now. I very much view that my responsibility at the moment is to take this company, which has a 125-year-long heritage and legacy, in the direction that will build a foundation for the next 125 years,” Towner concludes. “When I look back, I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite period in the company’s history, but I relish that fact that we have this legacy to stand by. I think it is important that we draw on all of that rich heritage, update it, and evolve it so that it is current today. It is about making yourself relevant today, without losing the core of who you are.”