Eyeing a bigger slice of the wooden furniture market

Published in thestar.com.my, dec 2019

Interview with CHARLES LEE [LUMBERMART]
Doing the best: Lee aims to make artful furniture from wood instead of settling for mass-produced products.

Although he had early exposure in woodwork during his schooling days, it was a random job opportunity that acquainted Charles Lee with wood products and led to his eventual rediscovery of carpentry.

The trained accountant had then just returned from abroad and had ended up working with a timber company. After five years, Lee realised that he quite like the production of wood products.

Around the same time, he also started noticing that parquet flooring, which was gaining popularity in the 1990s, was also starting to get a bad rap among consumers.

“At that time, everyone was complaining about their parquet floors. Some parts of the floor was more shiny and the pieces were coming out.

“I wondered why the product in other countries looked so nice but ours don’t look good. Then I realised that what was lacking was really the installation skills. There was nothing wrong with wood flooring. They’ve been around for a long time. What was wrong was the workmanship, ” he says.

Upskilling: Good workers are given the opportunity to learn from masters.

So he founded Lumber Mart Sdn Bhd in 1999 because he thought he could do a better job than most other flooring providers in town. Besides, it seemed like there was good money to be made in wooden flooring.

But Lee admits that they had a bit of a blunder when they first started. In an attempt to provide better workmanship, they mainly copied “whatever others were doing overseas”.

He soon learned that there were methods that had to be modified to accommodate the local climate.

“People always say our climate is not good for wood flooring. When I went to the US, they told me the opposite. They said our climate was good for wood flooring.

“Wood moves when the temperature and humidity change. And here, they are relatively the same throughout the year. In temperate countries, the variance is high so it is harder to control wood.

“So I did some research, bought books and attended conferences. Then I got my craftsman degree in flooring, ” he shares.

By 2003, the company had discovered and patented what Lee thought was the best installation system for wood flooring. It was a termite- and water-resistant wood flooring installation system.

Lee also took up a study in flooring inspection and is currently the only certified wood inspector in Malaysia.

Tools of the trade: The company uses a lot of traditional hand tools to craft its pieces.

New lines

With his works in flooring gaining traction, Lumber Mart started getting demand for wooden doors. Since he was already dealing with wood, why not extend its use in doors, customers asked.

And that was what Lee did about four years ago.

Once he started making wooden doors, he noted that most of the equipment could also be used to make wooden furniture.

“So we might as well extend to furniture.”

Then he found that the furniture segment started producing a lot of wood waste. So he used these leftover pieces to make wooden accessories like cheese boards.

Along with these new product lines, Lee has also had to acquire new skills. He became interested in techniques like dovetail

joinery and hand-buffing and he applied them in his furniture making.

Lee is proud of the fact that his custom-made furniture collection is built with traditional techniques. There are no nails involved.

“And there are no nails in our workshop, ” he emphasises.

Skilled workers: New employees have to be trained to use traditional tools.

If his employees required one, they had to justify their case.

Naturally, this means Lumber Mart’s products are priced a little on the high side. But Lee points out that unlike most mass-manufactured furniture, his are unique pieces that last.

“For solid wood pieces, they are not that much more expensive than normal custom-made furniture that use plywood.

“I don’t like to do cheap things. I don’t mind it if people say, ‘Charles, you do so expensive things’. But I mind it if people say, ‘Charles, you produce rubbish’, ” he laughs.

“Whatever I build, I can use it myself. Things that cannot meet my standards, I won’t build it, ” he adds.

Uplifting the industry

Malaysia is fairly known for its furniture making industry. They make up a sizeable portion of our export.

However, Lee notes that the bulk of the industry mainly deals in the original equipment manufacturing segment. This caters more to the lower range market, which has lower margins.

He opines that there is a need for the industry to upgrade to get a slice of the higher-margin pie, which is currently dominated by countries like Italy, Spain, and more recently, China.

He urges other local players to aim for excellent products rather than settle for mass-produced furniture.

“Our local industry is very far from the real thing. We are not trying to preserve the old art 100%. If you do it fully using traditional methods, it would take too long to finish a piece, there’ll be no commercial value. Likewise, if they are just commercially produced, they are not that nice. So you have to balance both.

“At Lumber Mart, we are combining traditional techniques with modern technology. And there is a pocket of market for this, ” he says.

Masterpieces: This product is among the few made in collaboration with Hucker.

According to Lee, there is demand for unique carpentry works, such as for hotels, particularly in the Middle East. If local furniture makers could upgrade their products, it’d be easier for them to make a name for themselves in the international market. “We have all the resources here, why shouldn’t we be designing award-winning pieces?” he asks.

This thought also led Lee to seek out the services of renowned furniture designer and master woodworker Thomas Hucker, whose acclaimed work has permanent collections in New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, as well as art galleries and museums across the United States and Europe.

The collaboration saw the development of four signature pieces under the Backley x Thomas Hucker by LUMBERmart collection.

“One of the reasons we wanted to bring sifus like Thomas in was because I wanted my boys to see how he did things. Our employees helped him and they were able to learn as well, ” says Lee.

Lee notes that there is a lack of know-how among locally produced technical talents.

“Compared to overseas technical schools, a lot of our guys here were taught more about the machinery. They are trained to operate the machines so that is more for mass manufacturing. Many can’t do actual carpentry.

“So when they work here, they have to be trained all over again with the tools. But they like it because they are learning new skills, ” he says.

All its employees start off learning about basic woodwork at its flooring department. Those who display an affinity for woodwork will then be brought on work on its wood accessories products and then promoted to its doors line.

The ultimate promotion, Lee says, is to its furniture-making section.

Currently, its flooring products generate about 70% of revenue. But Lee says the flooring market is becoming more saturated and he hopes to expand its furniture arm and export more of its wood accessories.

Lee acknowledges that there is quite a bit of market education needed to also encourage consumers to give local furniture makers a boost.

“It is a challenge trying to change the perception that imported products are better. But our products are just as good. A lot of people didn’t know we can do things like what we are doing here.

“A lot of customers are paying a huge sum for what they think are expensive furniture but they are not getting the value. After a while, these pieces start to peel. A lot of people with deep pockets are still buying mass-produced, but good quality pieces. We ask our customers to pay a little more, have it done in solid wood and they will last, ” he says.

Lumber Mart is also eyeing the corporate market to build fit-ins for property projects.

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