Lawrence Chalfin is always in the mood to try something new. The president of Samuelson Furniture has learned over the years that in order to stay on top, one must evolve.
Samuelson began life as the Invincible Parlor Frame Company, founded in 1935 by father-son duo Harry and Samuel Chalfin, who founded the company together. Invincible briefly opened its doors in the Bronx, New York, before shifting to Paterson, N.J. In the beginning, the company’s forte was un-upholstered chairs and furniture frames designed by Harry Chalfin, a chair maker from Russia.
“They used to sell two club chairs and a sofa frame for $6.75,” Lawrence Chalfin said. “Then in 1955 my father, Sam, became one of the first to import hand carved reproduction chair frames from Italy. That brought the company to another level.”
Lawrence entered the family business in the 1970s, and seized on the opportunity to add upholstering and finishing to Invincible’s repertoire. This was at a time when showrooms and design centers were emerging as sophisticated ways to market products to a wide audience, and Chalfin wanted to use them to showcase finished products.
“We created a whole new market for the interior designer,” Chalfin said. “It was incredible. We carried on like that for 25 years.”
With this success came rebranding efforts. Chalfin renamed the company IPF International, then after the passing of his father he rebranded the company in his name as Samuelson Furniture. The company began to change its focus in the early 2000s and transitioned to be exclusive to the hospitality sector.
One major challenge Samuelson adapted to over the years was increasing international competition, particularly from China. Chalfin watched as domestic furniture companies closed one by one, starting with showrooms. Today, Samuelson retains a small-scale domestic manufacturing operation, with about 35 employees in manufacturing roles and 25 administrators. The company also has an office in mainland China with 12 employees, and a further three workers in Vietnam.
“We never gave up on manufacturing, it’s just a smaller slice of our business,” Chalfin said. “We are still furniture makers; we know how things are built and what can and can’t be done realistically. That’s why we are successful.”
Much of what Samuelson releases today is custom furniture work. The company builds to designer specifications, and will be introducing a 50-piece domestic collection in the spring of 2019.
The man who introduced upholstery to a company that faithfully produced un-upholstered frames for 35 years is not about to shy away from experimenting with new trends. To that end, Chalfin is exited about continued integration of technology into furniture, and including LED lighting, Bluetooth charging and integrated speaker systems. However, while he expressed enthusiasm for the utility and freedom these devices offer, he cautioned against hotels spending too much on technology without ensuring it is something guests are asking for—and will use.
“LED lighting, for example, is a very worthwhile investment. But anything that is not intuitive, or if you have to explain to a guest how to use it, it’s probably not the greatest idea,” Chalfin said. “Innovation is wonderful, but it sometimes creates a bottleneck for the front desk or the client when it’s in use.”
Still, Chalfin said after all these years it’s the people at Samuelson that make the company work.
“We just celebrated our model maker last November, he’s been here for 50 years and he’s an incredible wood worker,” Chalfin said. “There is no single star here. It’s the group that makes it work. It’s the way my grandfather did business, it’s the way my father did business and that’s our point of view.”
Logic In Logistics
For any business that relies on importing or exporting materials, tariffs remain top of mind. Chalfin said he is unsure what impact tariffs will have on the global economy due to its fickle nature, and he is waiting for the marketplace to provide the answer. Still, he said he expects a strong international presence to remain for the near future, though any company that manages to retain domestic manufacturing, even on a small scale, will see some benefits. “I don’t think large-scale manufacturing at the upper end of the hospitality casegoods market will become a reality in the U.S.,” Chalfin said. “There will still be an offshore requirement that will need to be fulfilled going forward; but having a custom manufacturing operation gives us tremendous flexibility.”
Clicking With Clients
Chalfin said the greatest challenges facing Samuelson and the furniture business as a whole are related to increasing pressure and contracting timelines for production. Because of the large number of new businesses forming that are targeting hospitality, Chalfin said he is calling on hotel owners and decision makers to do their due diligence and research who they work with ahead of time. “All sorts of players have entered the arena recently,” Chalfin said. “One of the most important factors for a client to understand is to know who they are doing business with and retain relationships that are meaningful. There are lots of options in the marketplace, and very few of the real deal still exist. The cost of making an error of judgment is huge, and the savings of going with a lower price spread is not anywhere near the costs if the train goes off the track.”