- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) - Someone recently asked Mike Oliver how his High Point furniture supply business has managed to stay around for 90 years.

Arthur A. Oliver & Son Inc. survived the Great Depression, the Great Recession and countless other challenges to remain independent and family-run.

The majority of its business is upholstered furniture, which Oliver said has been one of the keys to the company’s longevity.

“When people say ‘furniture,’ they lump everything into one category,” said Oliver, the third-generation president of the company, which was founded by his grandfather. “Yes, a lot of jobs have been lost, and there are a lot of empty buildings. Upholstery never got hurt quite as bad as case goods. Overall, the business has stayed here. When you go buy a sofa, you want it a certain way, and it’s very hard to do that from China.”

Arthur A. Oliver began the business in High Point in 1924, with a catalog and a truck, apparently drawn to the large number of furniture factories in the area, according to a company history.

The Great Depression took a toll, but he weathered lean economic times.

“He lost his home, but he kept his business,” Mike Oliver recalled.

Through the late 1950s and 1960s, the company grew its business in cutting, sewing and upholstery supplies and expanded to the Hickory area.

Alfred Oliver, the founder’s son and father of the current president, died in 1968. His wife and Mike Oliver’s mother, Lee K. Oliver, was named president.

The change took place at a time when very few women held such roles in the business world, and there were dire predictions about the company’s future with a woman at the helm, Lee Oliver recalled.

“I did not know the business. I only knew what (Alfred Oliver) talked about when he came home, so it was a learning process for me,” she said. “People didn’t pay much attention to me. It was a tough business.”

Oliver, now 87, was 41 at the time with two young sons, and recalled how some of the company’s salesmen left when she took over, taking valuable customers with them.

But she was credited with having the same keen business sense as her predecessors. She changed the payment structure of the company’s sales force from straight salary to commission, to provide them more of an incentive.

She also was prudent with the company’s finances.

“I was very careful about things. When we bought our first computer, I thought, ‘Why even venture into that kind of money?’” she recalled. “I guess I was very tight.”

Lee Oliver served as president for 25 years. Mike Oliver took over in 2000.

Contracts with local furniture companies like Haworth and Steelcase and Hickory-area companies like Bernhardt make up a lot of its business, he said.

“Medium to upper-end furniture is really what we focus on,” Oliver said.

Only about 13 percent of family-owned businesses are successfully handed over to the third generation of ownership - a point of pride for the Olivers.

“The company has gone through a lot of evolution,” he said.

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Information from: High Point Enterprise, https://www.hpe.com


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