Richardson Industries has begun a $500,000 upgrade to its Sheboygan Falls manufacturing plant, where it’s ramping up production of high-end furniture destined for Fortune 500 boardrooms, universities and hospitals.
The project comes as the 168-year-old company continues its push into new markets to make up for the decline of its once-booming yacht interior division, which has never fully recovered from the recession.
In the near future, the project could create 75 or so new jobs and spark a revival of Richardson’s finished wood products division, company leaders said.
“That could be viewed as our future,” said Gary Kane, the company’s CEO and president. “It’s a great opportunity for us and Sheboygan Falls and for this plant, which has been here since the 1800s.”
The move comes as Richardson enters its sixth generation of family ownership after the 2014 passing of David W. Richardson, one of the principal owners.
Kane, who in 2012 became the first non-family member to serve as CEO, said the company at one point had more than 350 people producing dining and bedroom furniture in Sheboygan Falls before its furniture production went overseas in the early 2000s.
The company has evolved considerably since then.
Richardson has made substantial investments in its Richco Structures division, which produces floor and roof trusses, and now employs about 140 people at its plant near Whistling Straits.
But its wood products division in Sheboygan Falls has never returned to its past heights; the company currently has 350,000 square feet of production space in Sheboygan Falls but uses only about 15 percent of it.
The company began making fixtures and furniture for the yacht industry in 2002 and at one point employed about 60 people in that division before the market plummeted during the recession.
The yacht interior market has come back to some degree, and employment in that division has grown to about 25 people, though Kane said it likely won’t return to its prerecession high.
In addition, two years ago, Richardson sold its lumber division, which had been in operation since the company’s founding in 1848, and began producing custom kitchen cabinets through a partnership with Paul’s Cabinet Shop in Plymouth.
However, company leaders say their strongest growth potential is in building conference tables, lecterns, credenzas and other high-end furniture on a contract basis for companies, government, universities and others.
“We’re creating a new market inside of this community from around the country,” said Brian Free, who pitched the furniture business to Kane in August and was hired in early March to serve as general manager of finished wood products. “It really is exciting.”
The plant upgrades will be completed in the next two months, but even with limited capabilities, furniture production has already brought in enough revenue to represent about a quarter of the wood products division. In a year or two, Kane expects that to jump to 75 percent.
A recent visit found engineers programming a 44-foot-long CNC machine to drill and rout high-pressure plastic laminate for a lectern.
The work was being done in a 20,000-square-foot building wing that a month ago was used for storage.
So far, they’ve hired about 10 workers to serve the furniture business, and Free has already begun recruiting for the 30 or so workers he’ll need to ramp things up.
“The customers are waiting,” Free said. “It’s exciting to be able to create jobs and create a new market in this area.”