The Andaz New York, the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Marriott Tampa Waterside in Florida all have something in common: guestroom and conference room furniture from Los Angeles-based manufacturer Vaughan Benz, a company helmed by CEO Scott Vaughan and President David Benz.
During the BDNY Conference in New York City, Benz shared the story of his firm’s growth with Hotel Management, explaining how furniture and manufacturing for hotels have changed over the past three decades.
In the early- to mid-1980s, Vaughan and Benz were working for a Los Angeles-based cabinetry shop that built high-end residential furniture. When the owner died, he left the business to the two proteges, who relaunched the company under its current name in 1986. At the time, the shop focused on residential work, but in the early 1990s, something happened that convinced the partners to move their attention to hospitality furniture.
The week before Christmas 1992, the workshop got a call to come save the day at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas: The expensive, huge TV armoires the hotel had ordered for a penthouse suite would not fit into the property’s elevators. “We were called out to make a miracle,” Benz recalled. The hotel had guests coming for New Year’s Eve and there was no time to waste in making sure the rooms were ready. Taking a cue from Solomon, the partners found a way to cut the armoire in half, fitting it into the space provided and making their miracle. “We were told to just bill them for our time,” he said. “We billed them what I thought was an outrageous amount of money—and not only did we get paid, we were sent a thank-you letter.” This, to Benz, was a sign of where the partners should focus their expertise, and in 1993 the company dropped its residential clients and focused full-time on hotels.
Vaughan Benz was an early company to take advantage of manufacturing partnerships with Chinese firms. It started manufacturing its products in Chinese factories in 2001, and the partners “had a front-row seat to the economic boom of China,” Benz said. “When we got there I thought I hit the jackpot because China was on sale and we were selling ‘made in China’ furniture at ‘made in U.S.A.’ prices.”
Getting the proverbial foot in the door, however, was a bit more challenging. Making deals in China, Benz found, relied on introductions and personal relationships. One of the company’s employees was from Taiwan and had lived in Hong Kong, and Benz asked if she had any connections that could help the firm find a partner. “Her old boss had a friend who was an American citizen that owned a furniture factory in mainland China,” he recalled. “He came and visited me and we started doing business with him first.”
On his second trip to China, Benz visited a new Western-style hotel in Shanghai with furniture that looked similar to what Vaughan Benz was creating, but mass-produced. While Benz was seeking out the business that had created the furniture, he received a letter from the owner of the company he was looking for, noting their shared visions. The two businesses teamed up, and the Chinese factory was soon producing Vaughan Benz designs, helping drive the company’s growth over the better part of the next two decades.
Over the years, Benz has seen trends come and go in guestroom furniture, with classic styles giving way to contemporary ones with metal and wood integration. A pain point, he said, has been incorporating furniture as millwork into guestrooms—in other words, furniture that looks built into the space. “It's very complicated to do in guestroom quantity because walls are not necessarily square and dimensions may change or they've got a lot of variations, but you've got to make it all look perfect,” he said.
Clicking with Clients
Beyond trade shows, Vaughan Benz relies primarily on referrals and networking to connect with clients. “We have sales reps around the United States and Canada who are in the major markets, so they call on clients,” Benz said. But positive word-of-mouth is priceless, and the company relies primarily on referrals. “Most of the people we already know know somebody else,” he said, adding that a potential new client had come by the company’s booth at November's BDNY event based on a recommendation from one of the client’s competitors. “He wanted to talk to me about a new project ... That's always really nice.”
Logic in Logistics
To keep internal projects on track, Vaughan Benz holds staff meetings and project manager meetings every week. One of the biggest additions to the company’s process, Benz said, was new proprietary software. “They call it ERP software—Enterprise Resource Management,” he said. “We bought some out-of-the-box stuff, [but it] wasn't clickable to our business. It's been a waste of money and we basically hired a software engineer to develop our own software. That's going really well. It's been a huge investment, but we have an integrated system that all the jobs run through.”