Hubbardton Forge harmoniously mixes Old School blacksmithing tools with forward-thinking manufacturing processes and business practices that have netted the company numerous awards.
The art of blacksmithing and forging have been around for centuries, and typically yields both highly traditional and ornate (think old-fashioned lanterns with ornate scrollwork) or simple and timeless l(i.e. a clean farmhouse-style aesthetic). Not many factories push the limits of what this age-old metal can do in order to look entirely modern and fresh, but it is a challenge that Vermont-based Hubbardton Forge proudly accepts.
While the company embraces tradition and has working factory presses that date back 100 years, its craftsmen have also created entirely new machines and tools from scratch in order to make the more progressive designs envisioned by its product design department even possible. Very often what appears to be a simple design at first glance can only be achieved by employing a series of complicated and time-consuming techniques.
That same juxtaposition of old and new applies nearly everywhere else in the company. For example, alongside each work station – from the hand-hammering and hand-bending areas on the factory floor to where the wiring and order-packing takes place – is a large, full-color flat-screen TV that displays the details of the job at hand. With 3-D images and the specifications typed clearly (and which can be magnified on-screen for easier reading) on each screen, there is less change of a mistake being made.
In the product design department – comprised of David Kitts, David Martin, and Zach Pyle – each individual’s artistic strength is different, allowing for a well-rounded mix of skills to produce each cohesive design. For example, where one designer prefers to experiment with form by creating sculptural models out of paper, another may opt to experiment with CAD. Furthermore, a state-of-the-art 3D printer has provided long-term, cost-and time-savings in the manufacture of prototypes.
The design team’s innovation has won the company multiple Pinnacle Awards for Excellence in the Lighting category (a competition that centers on product styling) from the American Society of Furniture Designers as well as the highly coveted ARTS Award co-sponsored by the Dallas Market Center and the Accessories Resource Team. They have also received honorable mention in the Innovative Green Design Awards (IGDA) from New York Home magazine.
The three designers note that their inspiration comes from sources as diverse as unique odds and ends discovered while Dumpster diving to mediums not previously associated with lighting plus customer input. Hubbardton Forge’s new Platinum finish is a direct response to a market need. The fact that the products are all made in the U.S. means turn-around time to react to requests (whether in quantity, custom dimensions, or shipment) are superior to what the customer can expect from a manufacturer with a factory overseas.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
It turns out that Kermit the Frog was right, especially for a manufacturer that uses metals, paints, and chemicals. However, Hubbardton Forge has managed to turn make its iron-forging factory with its multiple chemical baths, lots of water usage, and spray finishing into a lean green machine.
One wouldn’t imagine of the country’s oldest and largest commercial forges would be the winner of a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence and Pollution Prevention in Vermont (a state where environmental preservation is serious business), but the company has earned the honor approximately eight times. In particular, the factory has been praised for its mechanical tumbling processes that have led to a 97-percent reduction in water use and the elimination of hazardous waste. The recycling of water waste plus innovative techniques in the finishing department are other noteworthy attributes that are costly to implement, but eco-friendly and considerate to its employees.
Although Hubbardton Forge lighting looks beautiful on its own, in a tough economy even a luxury product need to grab the consumers’ attention. The idea of offering a gallery program is relatively new to the company, but it was an undertaking deemed necessary. To help lighting showrooms merchandise the line effectively, Hubbardton Forge hired Kit Hastings, who was previously one of Swedish retailer IKEA’s top display/merchandising directors, to develop and install gallery displays in select lighting stores nationwide.
According to Hastings, the secret to a successful display program lies in “a perfect combination of product and communication that is visually appealing, stimulating, and entices the consumer to purchase.” But that’s not all. “It should create brand awareness, leave an impression, and fit in with the rest of the showroom and its business philosophy,” he adds.
Hastings’ program for Hubbardton Forge takes out the guesswork for the showroom. “We have a basic color palette that works well with our finishes and creates a calm and inviting feeling that enables the consumer to focus on the true beauty of the product,” he explains. “I decide which of these colors to use in a way that works well with the rest of the showroom.”
Deciding which products to hang in the display is almost a scientific process. Hastings procures print-outs of data on each showroom’s sales to determine which styles have sold well and which have not. He also assesses what types of products have sold well in that particular region.
In addition to turning the idea of what can be done with hand-forged iron on its head, the team at Hubbardton Forge has marched to the beat of its own drum ever since trained blacksmiths George Chandler and Reed Hampton founded the company in an old Vermont barn back in 1974.
The company’s designs got attention, but what also made waves within the lighting industry was the fact that it did not have a rep network. Instead, retailers who viewed the line at the Dallas Market Center – the only permanent showroom the company has – would place orders directly with the employees.
Employees at Hubbardton Forge (affectionately nicknamed “The Forge”) are also different from the average factory in that everyone is cross-trained to handle several duties. Workers on the factory floor can often switch places if the need arises. Customer service staffers have all witnessed (and experienced) first-hand what the production process entails and can knowledgeably answer any and all inquiries from consumers or retailers.
Over the past few years, Hubbardton Forge decided to implement a national rep force. “We had a long, over 30-year history of increasing sales as well as a fiercely loyal customer base,” explains Bruce Hathaway, national sales manager. “The sales philosophy essentially was along the lines of ‘Build great products and support it with stellar customer service people and your sales will grow,’” he quips. “It’s like the ‘If you build it, they will come’ theory.’ Our decision to build a national sales force was driven more by showroom request than an internal decision on our part. It was the next logical step in our company growth.”
In a short period of time, the company has amassed 23 sales agencies to cover all the continental U.S., visiting showrooms on a regular basis. Having this rep force allows us to have better visibility on how our products are being displayed and ultimately creates a ‘branded’ experience for the customer walking in the door,” Hathaway states.
Focused on the Future
One of the areas that Hubbardton Forge will be expanding into over the course of this year is social media. “Our social media strategy is evolving in ways designed to engage our customer base as well as the end consumer, primarily by partnering with key accounts in their social media efforts,” explains Cathy Miglori, marketing manager.
At the beginning of this year, two long-term employees were promoted to the newly created positions of regional sales managers. Amy McGuire is in charge of the Eastern portion of the country and Sharron Freese handles the West. They will be responsible for the management, training, and development of the network of sales reps.
“Sharron and Amy’s former positions as territory development specialists have evolved over the past three years as we have expanded our sales force,” notes Steve Rice, vp/sales.
“In their prior roles, Sharron and Amy were the primary touch point with our customers for all sales initiatives and essentially functioned as internal sales managers for our customers and our new evolving sales force,” Miglori remarks. “Their expanded role to travel in the field and work directly with our reps and showroom customers was a perfect way to leverage their strengths and the strong relationships they have fostered over the past several years.”
With the new gallery program and rep force in place, Hubbardton Forge has been able to foster brand awareness on the consumer level while maintaining a leading edge position in the lighting industry when it comes to product development.