Lori Sadowski lived in, on and around furniture her whole life. From a young age, she followed and learned from her father through many of his jobs within the North Carolina furniture world, gleaning hands-on experience of the ins and outs of the entire process from building to covering to selling. In 1989, Lori and her father started McKinley Leather Furniture together with Lori’s sister. From the beginning — and now more than ever — Lori has helped build her family business into one of the most respected furniture manufacturers in North Carolina. Her knowledge of this luxurious material and creative incorporations of it into the home have made Lori somewhat of a leather furniture guru and we learned a lot from her. Get to know this impressive, community-involved and quality-driven executive and hear some of her best furniture advice and stories.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got into the furniture world.
I grew up in the furniture manufacturing world. My father was the General Manager of Hickory Hill Upholstery Co., and I worked various jobs in the office and factory during summers. When I left home for college, my father had changed jobs moving to a leather furniture manufacturing company, Hickory International Leather. I worked with him in merchandising on a part-time, temporary basis. Mostly, I helped accessorize and set up their Market showrooms. I originally studied education in college, but then graduated with a degree in business administration. When I graduated, it just felt natural to go out on the road as a manufacturer’s rep.
What do you love about working with leather as opposed to other types of material?
Leather is an emotional covering. It is amazing to see the colorations and various textures that our tanneries have developed. I love the natural aspects of leather. Even though you have a specific article, each hide is unique. I love seeing how it all works together.
How many people does McKinley Leather employ? How do you choose your artisans?
We only have 24 full-time employees, so we are a small, boutique operation. We always personally interview applicants and look for those with experience. We have had a very low turnover since we started in 1989, but now those employees are retiring and we have an extremely difficult time hiring new craftspeople. The skilled labor shortage is one of our greatest challenges right now. Larger companies are paying signing bonuses and even getting government incentives for their workforce. We always hope that if we can get them in our door and work within our small business, family culture that they will stay. Unfortunately, higher wages from my competition has taken quite a few of our employees. It is an ongoing battle.
What’s the North Carolina furniture industry culture like?
The North Carolina furniture industry is thriving in spite of inconsistent business. Creativity abounds throughout this industry, and it is exciting seeing how others are responding to the challenge to remain relevant in this ever-changing business climate.
As a woman in a typically male-dominated industry, what particular advantages or disadvantages have you come across?
I have four sisters and my parents raised us to dream high and not allow gender to define our capabilities. My advantage is that I have strong attention to details that many men would overlook, and I have the tenacity to take care of those details. This can also be a disadvantage, as I can miss the big picture from focusing on the smaller parts.
Is there a recent project you’ve done that sticks out as truly fulfilling? Why?
All of our projects are fulfilling to me. The Industrial Revolution and manufacturing are built on repetition. I enjoy the assembly-line feeling of doing the same task, keeping an eye on quality and maintaining efficiency. There is always a bit of excitement, even in this rigor and rote, because leathers have their own life and require finesse for the most beautiful outcome.
However, our custom projects present more challenges. It’s like traveling to a place where you don’t speak their language. You have to listen to their ideas and figure out how to bring them to life. Heather Daily (a renowned Southern interior designer) brought a challenge to us about 18 months ago. Her desired designs incorporate hand-lacing across two adjoining pieces of leather, like on corners, that would not normally have even been sewn together. McKinley customers have loved taking Heather’s designs and methods and applying them to their visions. To me, that’s what it’s all about — inspiring others to take our designs, along with Heather’s designs and personalize them with their own flair.
Reading through your blog, a line stuck out to me: “We believe that beauty is only great when matched by what is inside.” Can you explain this bedrock belief?
It feels like a sham to me when a piece of furniture is beautiful on the outside, but not built well inside. A customer cannot see that part, but they will clearly feel the effects within a relatively short time period. At the very least, leather itself is chosen for its longevity (four to five times longer than many fabrics), so the inside construction has to be built to last as long as the leather. But for me, it’s more elementary than that. I don’t change furniture very often — I select items that I love and don’t want to give them up. My team and I want to build furniture that will last through generations and that only comes with a solid foundation. We have found that hardwood frames with joints that fit well for a strong base and 8-way hand-tied spring suspension will uphold substantial wear. Our end goal is always integrity and beauty — we would never even consider not starting on the inside.
Has your business shifted in light of this new on-demand, “buy with a few clicks” mindest, especially of younger people?
McKinley Leather has always operated on short two- to three-week production lead times, so it is second nature to us. We continue to partner with quick, responsive suppliers so that I can fulfill my commitment to our customers. Since we are a custom furniture builder, rather than one who works from cut and sewn covers in a limited selection of leathers, it is a struggle to have the “right” materials on hand. We depend on historical data to achieve this. My track record is very good on this, except for when it might be the most important — when we open a new account or hire a new sales rep. In these cases, we know we have something to prove, but they frequently order/sell something that is off the curve. That’s really where the partnerships come in to play — we work with suppliers that will go to bat for us when we miss our forecasts.
Tell us a misconception (or two) about leather furniture you wish your customers knew.
I talk a lot about furniture lasting a long time, but this does not mean that cushions don’t soften and relax with use. As cushions soften, your weight presses lower into the seat and the leather on the seat cushions stretches as low as you go. Customers usually want a soft seat when they first get their furniture but are then unhappy with the amount of wrinkling and puddling that occurs. Furniture will only get softer as it is used, so we would prefer to firm up our cushions on initial orders. Unfortunately, many customers really want that softness from the very beginning.
Another common problem is fading from heat or light. Once leather has faded, you cannot go back … at least not much. Uniters North America sells some phenomenal products in their Leather Masters line and can offer some remedy, but it’s better to select the correct leather for intended usage. Leathers that have a pigmented topcoat (designated in our line as Aniline Plus Pigment, or “AP”) work better in a room with direct sunlight or heat from multiple windows like a sunroom, but they are still not infallible. We recommend investing in windows that block UV rays to protect your furniture and flooring. It’s shocking how quickly an unprotected full aniline leather can fade. Our beloved leather sofa, chair and ottoman (30 years old) were originally placed in our basement. When we moved to a new home, we placed this furniture in a sunroom. We do not have direct sunlight coming into the room, but quite a few windows. The furniture started noticeably fading within one week. We had already had this set for 14 years. We replaced our windows immediately and the fading subsided, but we were unable to recover the original coloration.
If you could only keep one piece of furniture (that you currently own) for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Loaded question! I have a hard time parting with any piece of furniture that I own. The leather sofa, chair and ottoman mentioned before were built 30 years ago. The leather is faded but still intact. I know that my friends think we are crazy when they enter our house and see it still there — especially since we build so much furniture — but it carries so much history for us. My older son (who’s now 23) raced his cars across the ottoman, leaving scratches. Our various dogs have created their circular nesting path on the chair’s seat cushion. It’s comfortable and we use it daily. We even have a leather chair that we had built for — and then inherited from — my husband’s father more than 30 years ago. Other than a button that is hanging loose, it is still beautiful and my favorite seat in the house. I always think of Big Joe every time I sit down. I have more pieces that I want to keep for the rest of my life, like a custom sideboard that we had made for our dining room. It has served our family Christmas and holiday gatherings for more than 20 years. I don’t think I need to go on … each piece carries a story and it comes back to our family. THIS is why we commit to making quality furniture to last for a lifetime. It seems self-defeating in a world that needs repeat customers, but we want to build furniture that can transcend generations because I am sentimental and that’s where my heart is.
Thank you, Lori, for this lovely leather-covered conversation. Find out more about Lori and McKinley Leather here.
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