Universal Furniture appoints new president

After 14 years, change at the top has arrived for Universal Furniture. Effective January 1, 2023, longtime CEO and president Jeff Scheffer will be replaced by senior vice president of sales Sean O’Connor, who will be promoted to president.

O’Connor’s history in the industry runs deep. His father is in the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame, and his first job out of college was at Rowe Furniture, the Elliston, Virginia–based furnishings manufacturer, where he spent 14 years. Since joining Universal in 2011, O’Connor has occupied a senior role through some of the company’s most dramatic pivots, including moving its showroom to downtown High Point, shifting production from China to Vietnam and surviving the chaos of COVID-19.

Just as important, O’Connor has helped oversee a fundamental shift at Universal. Over the past decade, the company has gone from being an importer that focused almost entirely on retailers as customers to a hybrid operation that manufactures domestically and has direct relationships with interior designers. Throughout it all, O’Connor says, the goal was simple: Be the easiest brand in the industry to work with.

O’Connor steps into big shoes. Scheffer, a veteran who began his career as an assistant buyer for a department store in 1978, has had leadership roles at American Drew and Stanley, as well as a past stint at Universal in the early 1990s. Scheffer also has a strong presence in the industry, acting as chairman of the High Point Market Authority in 2017, and serving on the board of the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

“Jeff’s leadership at Universal has been exemplary,” said Samuel Kuo, chairman of Samson Holdings, Universal’s parent company, in a statement. “Both his vision to revitalize the company and his ability to successfully navigate the business through unprecedented challenges, including a recession and a pandemic, are laudable … We look forward to Sean’s tenure as president. We’ve watched him grow and succeed under Jeff’s mentorship and we are confident he will help the Universal brand continue to evolve.”

In a conversation edited for length and clarity, O’Connor and Universal’s vice president of marketing Neil MacKenzie spoke about the past, present and future of the brand.

Sean, when you joined Universal in 2011, it was a very different company. What were those early years like?

Sean O’Connor:
I grew up in the furniture industry. I’m third generation, but I had spent the first half of my career at an upholstery company and didn’t have as much case goods experience. Within six months at Universal, I was traveling to China and diving right into case goods.

The company started changing soon after your arrival. What was happening behind the scenes?

O’Connor: Jeff and I were beginning to develop this concept of “styling up without pricing up.” At the time, we had a sister company and we were using their upholstery. From there, we started developing [our own] upholstery at our factory in China, [where we were already] building product for Bernhardt and Thomasville and other brands. We had a competitive advantage because nobody else had the ability to do upholstery and cases together.

So we started [our upholstery] program in 2015, offering high-end fabrics—Belgian linen and velvets—and that snowballed into working with Crypton and other folks. We set this goal: If we could ever grow to a certain dollar amount, we would look to buy a domestic company. When we moved our showroom to downtown High Point in 2015, the main purpose was to engage with design clientele, and that business really took off—[enough that] by 2019, we bought Southern Furniture in Conover, North Carolina, [which allowed us to] get into special orders [by manufacturing domestically]. The line began to grow and evolve.

Did you foresee this transition when you first joined the company?

O’Connor:
Not at all. Jeff had the vision, and in those early years, he was doing the case goods and I was doing the upholstery. But it took assembling the right team around us. Neil came on, and we later hired a case goods merchant, Shannon Lookabill, and layered in the management team to continue to push forward. But we wanted to engage more with the design community, and the line needed to elevate more—we couldn’t do everything we wanted only at our factory. We wanted to infuse woven product into the line, which meant going to Indonesia. We have since purchased a factory in Bangladesh that does dining chairs. We began sourcing a little more, and it became more than a two-man show.

When did that new strategy become really clear?

Neil MacKenzie:
It was in 2015, when the company decided to invest in the current facility in downtown High Point. We knew that we needed to become more important to interior designers, [and the new showroom on Hamilton Street] was an opportunity to get in front of them. The company had created an exclusive line for designers—

It was on the first floor of the showroom, right?

MacKenzie:
Yeah. And what we learned was that designers had never seen the rest of what we offered. As they walked through the [designer-focused collection], they were like, “This is great, but we’d also really like this, this and this.” We determined internally that we can continue to evolve the style—it can work for the designer as well as the retailer. Obviously, it will be merchandised and sold differently, but as we added other categories and worked with other brand partners like Coastal Living and Miranda Kerr, [we discovered] there are different ways to execute that and keep everybody satisfied. Ultimately, it made us easier to do business with on a consistent basis, because you could come to us for a whole home assortment. It was in 2015 when that direction became quite clear. Then it was just a matter of making it happen.

It’s a slow process.

MacKenzie:
Right. It’s a big ship. It doesn’t steer fast. And that’s just on the product side. There’s also how you manage and service your customer properly, and the different things we’ve done digitally to make it easy for people to do business with us. But a lot of the shift was about the investment in this space. It’s the only store we own, and I think everybody’s really cognizant of: How do you create that environment that is representative of our brand? It feels like a place that you want to come and shop and have fun.

Left: In 2015, Universal opened an expansive new showroom on Hamilton Street in High Point, North Carolina—a move that marked the start of the company’s effort to attract designers as customers. Courtesy of Universal Furniture | Right: The company devotes some of its ground-floor square footage to an educational center and a designer’s lounge. Courtesy of Universal Furniture

Tell me more about that initial push to the trade. What was behind those first 100 pieces when you created that designer-only assortment—price point or style?

O’Connor: It was style more than price point. There was good value in that product, but it was a handful of jewelry-type items that we thought would be unique and different—[especially because] designers buy individual pieces, not collections. But then when everybody came in, like Neil said, it was amazing.

It was clear that 100 pieces weren’t enough?

O’Connor: Yeah. They were like, “What are these other floors [and products]?” And “That’s really cool, but I would rather have this now that I’ve got this big project I’m working on.” It was eye-opening. We had in our minds that this [edited assortment] is what designers would want, and we were told something completely different. We just didn’t have enough.

There’s a lot of potential for “channel confusion” when you work with both retailers and designers.

O’Connor:
If you have 100 SKUs for designers and 115,000 square feet for retailers—we like to refer to it as Disney World—they want to walk through that. And also, for our retailers, why can designers have that particular collection and we were telling them they couldn’t? Our ultimate goal is that we want to be the easiest company to transact with, but it was starting to get a little bit like, “I don’t understand this.”

How does that goal of being easy to work with shape your decision-making behind the scenes?

MacKenzie: A year and a half ago, we launched an upgrade to our back end. We call it the B2B storefront for designers. They can log in. They can transact. They can check their order history. They can check pricing and availability. We just recently added a texting service for designers, so now they can text our designer concierge team. We’re open year-round by appointment to designers. All those things go to the heart of: We want to be easy to work with.

Sean, a Universal employee told me that you’re very approachable and open to new ideas. What shaped that approach?

O’Connor:
If a customer’s reaching out with something, or a designer has a problem, we owe it to everybody to listen as much as we can. Can we always execute on it? Not always, but we don’t hold up all of our opinions as though they’re the only ones that work.

MacKenzie: The investment in Conover is a perfect example. We were hearing from the design community: “Hey, this is really great stuff, but I wish we could have X, Y and Z.” Could we execute that from an import model? It would have been really complicated. But what could we do domestically? The investment in Conover was something we knew we needed to have to appeal to a certain segment of the design community. And they still may very well buy the ready-to-ship option. But it’s nice to know that if they need this for a project and they want it in blue, they have 100 blues to choose from.

Sean, what comes next for the company—and for you?

O’Connor: We have a unique model in that we are vertical. We own our factories, and we can move and change where other people can’t. And we have an ownership that is open to change. So we’ve got quite a few things up our sleeves for the upcoming years. We’ve actually got most of next year already done. So coming into this role, I feel a sense of relief that we have a really clear path for what’s going to happen in the next 16 to 18 months. I think we’ve gotten past a lot of the problems with moving from China to Vietnam.

But the amount of things that Neil and I have learned over the last five years is unbelievable: How to lead a company through the challenges of COVID, through seven price increases in 18 months, moving factories from one country to another, building a domestic manufacturing facility. Our factory in Conover was voted one of the top three manufacturers to work for in the Catawba Valley area. I mean, we’re literally across the street from Lee and Currey, and we’ve gotten to their level in less than two years.

So we’re continuing to evolve and build. We don’t really know what it’s going to be next, but it’s a matter of making sure we have the right team around us. But we’ve got a pretty good model, and we’ve had a good teacher. So I kind of know how to do it at this point.

Sean, what will you take away from watching Jeff in this role?

O’Connor: There are so many things, I couldn’t even name them all. I worked for a great CEO at Rowe in my early years coming into the business. Then to come in and work for Jeff, and to also have a dad that’s in the hall of fame—I’ve had some really good mentors. There are a lot of things that go through my mind: “Well, if we have to make this decision, what would Jeff do in this scenario?” He’s shown us the right way to do it.

There is going to be a big transfer of information and knowledge over the next several months. One of the things I’ll be challenged with is replacing myself as a merchant.

Replacing yourself sounds harder than hiring for anything else.

O’Connor:
It is. For a long time, this job was literally me going to China by myself, or with Jeff, and developing a handful of sofas—that’s now a very large portion of our business. So I’ll hand over the reins to that. … I’ll still pick the style direction and we’ll still work with everybody, just on a larger scale.

Neil, what does the next step for you look like?

MacKenzie:
This Market, we’ll go all in. We have 15 events over five days. Over time, we’ve become a resource to the design community. We’re easy to work with, we support educational events, and we’re a resource for designers. I’m proud to see how our showroom has evolved into a destination—we don’t ask [people to come in] anymore; people come to us.

Looking ahead, I think there are some little things we can offer on the back end to enhance the ease of transacting, and some things that hopefully we can announce later this year. Again, it’s all about trying to make it easier to get what you want when you need it.

Homepage image: Sean O’Connor and Jeff Scheffer | Courtesy of Universal Furniture