Disruption is nothing new, Cole tells industry group

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Alan Cole recited a love letter to furniture at an industry conference June 17, but at times it was tough love.

“I love furniture, I do,” said Cole, who retired as president of Hooker Furniture Corp. in 2014, in his State of the Industry address to the American Home Furnishings Alliance Specialized Furniture Carriers Logistics Conference in Wilmington, N.C. “I’m passionate about the furniture business.”

“My mother and father, when they went on to glory, they left a lot of furniture,” Cole said. “I put it all in one room. But I don’t see furniture, I see stories. It’s a business that’s made of dreams. It’s a business that’s made of hope. It’s a business that has a legacy. … This is not an industry of stuff.”

It’s also an industry in flux.

“The word is disruption,” he said. “That’s become the new normal.”

But it’s not necessarily bad.

“Disruption is good because it forces us to be better to survive.”

Online sales are claiming a larger share of the market each year, Cole noted.

‘You can’t afford to lag’

“Does anyone here believe they’ll get to 100 percent? I don’t, because we’re better than that.” He compared it to predators hunting a herd of animals.

“They’ll get the weak and the fledgling. You can’t afford to lag today. Be calm and be nimble. It’s going to be OK for those that mind their business.”

The furniture industry has a history of disruption, Cole said, mentioning several innovations, trends and developments, including motion furniture, the La-Z-Boy, Ethan Allen, Levitz and Broyhill Furniture Galleries retail models, the structural changes of the 1980s, the rise of Asian manufacturing in the 1990s, the Rooms to Go, IKEA and Ashley HomeStore proliferation and many others even before the surge of online marketplaces.

Disruptions don’t start out as disruptions, Cole said. They may start as an idea or event that’s not even widely noticed, until it gradually becomes a trend, then reaches a tipping point and finally causes a disruption. The best way to react, he advised, is quickly.

“The law of the jungle in business, and in furniture it’s especially true, is not that the big eat the small, it’s that the fast eat the slow.”

Disruption creates opportunities

Disruption doesn’t have to be deadly. It may ultimately fail. Or, it can create opportunities, Cole said. It’s a process rather than an event, starting with incremental change that’s often undetected or dismissed. It’s seldom one idea but rather a continuum of progressive ideas. It’s an attitude that over time becomes the prevailing culture.

Disruptors see the same conditions as everyone else, Cole said, but come to a different conclusion. They aren’t paralyzed by fear but have the guts to take decisive action. If they err, it happens quickly and can be corrected quickly. Success requires a relentless quest for superior execution and often seeking intelligent partnerships, alliances and joint ventures.

Companies that are reluctant to change, that execute poorly, are “a ticking time bomb,” he warned. But he closed with fond thoughts for the furniture business.

“We have a great legacy to protect in this industry. I have no doubt that we will.”

Doug Clark is content manager and government relations liaison for the Home Furnishings Association who writes its Policy Matters blog.

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