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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5: Lorri Kelley

Furniture industry veteran Lorri Kelley became president of contemporary furniture resource BDI Furniture last summer, taking the reins from the company’s founder, Bill Becker, who is remaining with the company as design director.

Kelley, who was executive vice president of sales and marketing at Palliser Furniture immediately prior to accepting the BDI post, brings three decades of furniture industry experience to the job. She recently spoke with Senior Business Editor Larry Thomas and Editor in Chief Bob George about why she took the post and the challenges and opportunities BDI is facing.

Home Furnishings Business: What attracted you to the job?

Lorri Kelley: It was a true honor to be asked to step in and lead the company. I absolutely loved my role at Palliser. We were a fabulous team and I loved every minute of it. Palliser and BDI share a good number of the same retailers, so when I was traveling ... I could see BDI on the floors and was aware of their impeccable reputation. As Bill Becker and I started talking about this opportunity, I was very flattered, number one, and secondly, what was so exciting for me was that BDI had so many great retail partners. When I was asking them about their BDI experience, it was glowing. The remarks that I got from the retailers centered on about how much of a pleasure it is to do business with BDI, how much they respected the leadership, the thought that went into the product development, and salability of the styles. They loved talking about just how successful they were partnering with BDI.  That is rare.

I was expecting the other shoe to drop. (laughs). So when I was asking what the company could do better, it was just ‘bring us more product,’ because the product sells. The service is exceptional. The quality is great. The designs are obviously good. And the relationships are good. BDI has that exact same philosophy, so it blended well with my own philosophy on how I build relationships with retailers.

HFB: Has it been a difficult transition to a design-driven company, given that many furniture manufacturers have more price-driven business models?

LK: It really hasn’t been a big change for me. Product design is critically important to the assortment. It certainly has to be product that is well designed with great quality, and the research is done to make sure what you are designing and bringing to market has a purpose and will be successful. So I didn’t really see a major diversion here when I joined BDI. This company is known for its exceptional design. One of its core values is driven by design and sweating the details to make sure we produce a product that is not only beautiful, but its functional and incorporates great technology.

HFB: What challenges and opportunities do you see for BDI?

LK: I think the opportunity is to partner with the right retailers and the right distributors to get the word out about BDI. I believe there are not enough folks who know a lot about the company and how beautiful the product line is, and how successful they can be selling it. We need to look at the business model and continue to expand on the product assortment, while not losing the eye for that great design and function. Getting in front of more retailers is one of the main reasons why we expanded our (High Point) showroom. By investing in a larger showroom -- we got lucky and were able to be right across the hallway so our retailers who had bought from us for a long time knew right where to find us – it gave us an opportunity to expand and give the product room to breathe, and showcase them in the manner that they deserved.

HFB: Do the large number of furniture markets make it more difficult to focus on good design since there’s pressure to unveil new product at every show?

LK: Right now, we show only in High Point, so it does alleviate a little bit of that pressure. In my past jobs, we tried to have something new for each market. It became a real challenge to determine what introductions are introduced at what time. At BDI, we have worked really hard with the product design and development team on implementing a process that allows us be a little more forward thinking, which allows for time to do homework, and make sure the products are brought out at the right time to fit the right opportunities. That process will help us to attack each of those High Point shows.

HFB: How are you addressing the apparent lack of interest in the home office category at many retail stores?

LK: I actually look at that as an amazing opportunity. There have been very traditional companies like Aspen and Hooker that have driven a lot of the office business in the traditional executive office settings with the bookcases and the big executive desk. We’re seeing that consumers, particularly younger ones, and even the Baby Boomers, are shifting away the more traditional styling to something that is cleaner. Gone are the days where you need lots of file cabinets because we’re keeping documents electronically. And as a result, people are wanting work spaces that are better suited for mobile devices or tablets. That provides us with a great opportunity.

I also believe that retailers are beginning to shift into the more transitional to contemporary styles. Actually, one of our most successful office collections, the Corridor collection, I would classify as more of a softer contemporary, even making the statement that it could be defined as transitional. But we do see the beginning of a shift away from the big, home office … into something that’s more modular, certainly cleaner, and takes up less space.

HFB: Do you see BDI expanding into other categories such as bedroom and dining room?

LK: I believe in focusing on your core competencies. I think there are a lot of opportunities for us yet in the categories where we have a leadership role, like office, entertainment, media cabinets, occasional, storage and shelving. I think there’s great opportunity for us to continue to focus on expanding that assortment.  We want to continue to maximize the categories where we do have a leadership position. For right now, the team is focused on finding ways to continue to own those categories.

There’s a lot of (new) pieces that I think make great sense at it relates to those areas — such as work tables. Not conference tables, but work tables that still allow flexibility. There are a lot of rooms in homes where you need a nice work surface or multi-function cabinets for basic storage. And shelving, I know that has tremendous opportunities. And for media pieces, we’re still watching what’s happening with electronics. We’re constantly looking at how we can take those media cabinets and expand them to address the ever-changing audio and TV markets.

Additionally, I believe that if you design a cabinet that is beautiful, it can serve many places in the home. So we’re designing cabinets in that credenza category that allows for multiple uses within the home. Maybe you might want to use it as a dresser, or you like more eclectic styling.

HFB:  Will there be a lot of distribution issues if BDI expands into more traditional furniture stores?

LK: BDI already sells a lot of traditional retailers. And we do a wonderful business with contemporary stores and small to mid-size independents. I don’t really see that changing. I do think there is a market for a softer, transitional styling -- maybe softer contemporary is a better way to say it -- that might broaden the appeal, but again, I don’t really see a distribution issue. We’re very protective of the brand, and we want to make sure we’re partnering with the right retailers who understand what we do. We’ll look at other opportunities that may come up, but I really see us looking to continue to be important to our current partners.

HFB: Does it present any special challenges being a female CEO in a male-dominated industry?

LK: I started in this business when I was 25 years old. I am just used to … being in an industry that has a lot of men in executive positions. There are a lot of very smart women in our business that are serving in a lot of different roles. A lot of people outside this business don’t understand that (because) it’s still dominated by men, even though women are making the buying decisions.

From my perspective, I have been very blessed throughout my career working for some really, awesome men. If there was ever a hint of (sexism), I never really felt that at all.  Never did. Not one time. That taught me a lot. n

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