The David Edward Company, a local furniture manufacturer, started in 1963 when founder Edward Pitts traveled to Baltimore during his sophomore year at Harvard. Now a 300-strong, two-facility (one in Baltimore, the other in York, PA) manufacturer, the company uses “old-world methods” to create the David Edward product line as well as products, under license, for other furniture lines. Such as? Robert A.M. Stern, Michael Graves, Sheeply Bullfinch to namedrop just a few. Pitts now resides part-time in Fells Point and Key West, Florida, handing off ownership to his sons, David, Gregory and Kevin, three of his six children.
“The single most important thing about David Edward,” says Pitts, “you will see it when you walk into the factories, behind the reception desk in big brass letters, it says, ‘Unconditional positive regard for the Individual.’ So if you join the company, we guarantee you, that you individually will be treated unconditionally with regard. Sometimes four letter words like love are less appropriate for business. But that is love. Unconditional positive regard.”
We sat down to talk to Edward Pitts about being one of very few furniture manufacturing companies in Baltimore and what he thinks has kept him alive and well in a very competitive design market.
Q: What about Baltimore made you believe you could have a successful furniture manufacturing business here?
A: Baltimore has the materials. We have cherry, ash, oak, maple, which all come from western Maryland and western Pennsylvania. So within 90 miles we have our main source of material. And in Baltimore we have a talented, skilled work force. Because of its many mom and pop operations, the people in Baltimore are individually skilled. They don’t just assemble something like they do, for example, in Detroit. Also, a good deal of furniture companies went belly up over the years, and we were able to hire the cream of the crop of their skilled workers.
Baltimore’s cost of living is another reason. At the time when we started in 1963 Baltimore’s cost of living was the lowest.
Lastly, Baltimore has an unusually talented group of interior designers and architects, more so than most cities. I am always amazed when a local business or homeowner hire a designer from out of town. We have so much talent in this town as far as the A&D (architecture and design) community is concerned.
Q: What do you think is critical to having a successful design company?
A: The art of small business is the art of niche-manship. Every company must have a niche — a specific area in which they can compete.
We make EVERYTHING in house . We make all of our own frames, all of our own metal products, we have our own metal shops, we ship our own trucks.
There have been certain specific principles that we have followed doggedly. One is total vertical integration. Total control. When a bank is going to open or a home is going to need to be ready for a party, we don’t have to call up to say that our frame maker is on vacation or that our cushion company had a fire. [If we did that] we would have no control. But because we make everything, absolutely everything in-house — we don’t import a thing — we have complete control over the product. We do this because if you have control over the product and the delivery of the product, you have control over the quality of the product and you have control over the cost of the product.
Another principle that we adhere to is that we are in a number of different markets; we manufacture for about 12 other manufacturers. We are the exclusive manufacturer for Robert A.M. Stern. He is one of the top architects in the world. Ads for Robert A.M, Stern will always have David Edward in the bottom left corner. We make one hundred percent of his furniture. We make all of Michael Graves’s furniture – the father of post-modernism. Also, we manufacture a residential line. You know of Jack Lenore Larsen? Considered the father of American design. He eventually sold his business and since we used to manufacture all of his furniture, we bought the Larsen name. It is now our Larsen Collection. If you wanted a Billy Baldwin sofa that goes back to the 20’s we can make you a Billy Baldwin sofa.
We manufacture our own product for healthcare and we got the award last year for best design in healthcare furniture. And we manufacture courtroom furniture and library furniture…we are very flexible.
Q: What is the style within your own home?
A: It is Edwardian.
Q: What do you look for when you hire your designers?
A: Promise. We have young designers from all different backgrounds, have them with our company for a year. You just don’t know what you can expect. We have a fairly sized in-house design team that can turn out amazing pieces and products.
Q: Because you have minimal marketing and advertising would you say you depend on word-of-mouth and returning customers?
The A&D community know who we are. Anywhere in the country. Not so much in Baltimore. You are never a hero in your own hometown, believe me. We do business in Baltimore but it is very little. We do more in San Francisco, than we do in Baltimore. We do more in Seattle and Portland.
Architects and designers know that we are dependable, we are good listeners, we are not a big deal company, we think very primitively. The end user may not know who we are, but we have had the same accounts and have had our furniture at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in the same hospitals and institutions for years, because the stuff lasts.
Our stuff is not trendy, if you are looking for trendy interior we may not be for you. We are classic. It just looks fine forever. It is all classic design.
Q: What was it like when you first started noticing your furniture in prominent places like the IMF and World Bank?
A: I’ve never been able to take it in. I’m always worried about the next order. The minute you get too happy with what you are doing you are in trouble. You really have to keep earning it day after day.
Q: How do you feel about overseas competition and being undercut by prices?
A: We have competition because other companies will come back to the client with a lower price because they will do production in China. We won’t do that. So yes we have competition. Because we will not compromise our quality.
Q: I didn’t realize that the furniture manufacturing company was more of a business endeavor than a passion for furniture…
A: It was a passion for trying out my management style, which is “the unconditional positive regard for the individual.” Is that effective? There have been a lot of management styles over the years. I was interested in using this company as a laboratory for this management style and after almost 50 years it has worked and it still works. And we continue to grow.
Q: What has been the key to David Edwards staying in business so long?
The furniture manufacturing industry is a highly cyclical industry. I have taught my sons one thing that they have listened carefully to. It is a cyclical industry. If you want to last, you go into the down cycle with no debt. We do not believe in leveraging, borrowing money, we borrow as little, and least often, as possible. Then, if you go into a recession with no debt there’s a pretty good chance you are going to come out. David Edward will be 50 years old in one year.
We have the same philosophy and it has not changed. What we are selling is value. When you are selling to Johns Hopkins, a hospital, or some big university, or courtroom these facility people know what they are talking about. They are looking for value. They want to know, “What are we going to get for this $300 chair? Why is that worth $300?” If you are vertically integrated, you make everything yourself, you can really sell value. Our stuff is not inexpensive, but we are dirt cheap compared to anything comparable. That is the niche we are filling.
Q: What was the first client you had when you knew you had made it?
A: Chase Manhattan bank. I basically demanded myself a meeting with the head of purchasing for the bank. Spoke to the head furniture buyer, nearly getting thrown out of the bank, got an appointment for them to come down to Baltimore to see the plant. Well, since then we have major business from them every year. From David Rockefeller’s office on down, we were supplying the furniture. That is what got us over the hump. If it weren’t for Chase Manhattan bank we never would have made it.
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