On a trip to the Lower Salmon River in Idaho, Alan Davis had his first vision for his own company. Someone had brought along a two-piece chair that didn't last through the trip. He wanted to create one for himself that was invincible and wouldn't break under any weight. He tinkered and tinkered in his wood shop, and when he assembled the first prototype, he pieced it together like a puzzle in 10 minutes.
That became the very first chair, the Blue Ridge chair.
“I’ve always been a tinkering woodworker,” Davis said. “I started out working on custom wooden kayak paddles. I’ve always been really fascinated with the industrial process. I have this great woodworking shop with all these great tools and I feel like I’ve never really utilized them to their potential. My pipe dream was to come up with some dumb little widget that I could use to manufacture something.”
Manning his booth at the Get In Gear Fest last weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, Alan Davis would remark to various prospective customers looking at his handcrafted ash wood, foldable chairs and tables: “Pretty clever, eh?” or “Come take a seat, you won’t get up,” he'd say. Davis, 64, takes immense pride in Blue Ridge Chair Works, the business he started in 2000 after leaving the screen-printing T-shirt industry, which he was led to through being a river raft guide. He estimates that he’s sold around 100,000 chairs.
SNEWS sat down with Davis to hear his story. In Asheville since 1996, Davis has focused on keeping his chairs U.S.-made, finding customers who appreciate craftsmanship and will pay more for quality, and reflecting his ruggedness and simplicity in each piece.
Why is it so important to you to keep your manufacturing and resources not only in the U.S., but within 100 miles of home?
Alan Davis: I realized early on that I am creating meaningful living wage jobs in a severely economically depressed area of Franklin, North Carolina. In order for Liberty Wood Products to produce Blue Ridge chairs, they have created 2.5 full-time positions and then the labor fluctuates with the workload. You’re talking an upwards of 200 chairs a week and they can knock them out. Those people love their jobs. Those people put that chair in that box to go to Japan, they are over the moon with that, which I am so proud of. That warms my heart more than anything. This area has so many resources. I did make it a priority to keep my manufacturers and supply chain as close as I could and that’s right down to my packaging. My farthest supplier is my packaging guy and he’s just over the border in Tennessee. But all the sewing, all the hardware, all that is right here. I really tried to spread the work around so I was supporting as many people as possible. I want people to remember me as being a really righteous, old-school, by-the-book, win-win kind of guy.
Why do you export most of your sales outside of the U.S. to places like Japan?
AD: One time five or six years ago, I was leaving the beach and I just happened to notice a garbage can full of broken beach chairs. There was not one beer can in there. For a while, I had a photo of that on the front page of my website. Americans shop at Amazon and Walmart, which are absolutely price driven for everyone. Blue Ridge is not a price driven brand. I didn’t choose that direction poo-pooing Americans. It was really more of self-preservation. What’s the path of least resistance for Alan? It was recognizing who my customer really was. There are other countries in the world that still have a middle class. We don’t. Those $8 chairs will end up in a landfill, and I don’t want my chair contributing to that. (His furniture is mainly sold online on Amazon, directly from his website, at Wayfair.com and Houzz.com, but also through a few smaller surf shops.)
What do you want others to know about Blue Ridge Chair Works?
AD: A piece of me is in each chair. This is the only time in my life that I could do something that was a true reflection of me. I give what ultimately I would like to receive: integrity, honesty, and quality. Somebody once told me something that really resonated with me. One of the marks of success is when you are satisfied with what you’ve done and you’re willing to give it all away. I think I’m just now getting to that point. It has become very important to me that Blue Ridge Chair Works carries on along with this legacy and this standard of excellence and quality. That’s what made me successful. During the hard times, when the recession happened, when I was really struggling, customers opened up their box and they went ‘wow.’ That’s really what kept me going. The other thing that I can really attribute to my success is I didn’t sell out. I didn’t compromise my company. I can’t tell you countless number of times I’ve been approached by Chinese manufacturers. I could’ve done that 100 times over, but I thought that what I was doing was really important and I recognized that I am kind of a dying breed.