ROANOKE -- Over the past two decades, Singer Furniture Co. has operated as a subsidiary of an aerospace company, a sewing machine manufacturer and, most recently, as a corporate raider's booty.
Fighting for a share of the cyclical furniture industry was tough enough. Having to do it under the thumbs of diverse owners spread from Connecticut to Florida made business even more difficult.
In 1987, for example, Singer Furniture planned to expand into the ready-to-assemble furniture business by buying another company. But the venture never happened because Singer's corporate parent refused to put up the money.
Such restraints were removed when management and investors bought the company in May, said Dennis Ammons, the new Singer president.
Since the buyout in May, Singer has been controlled by people who have spent their working lives in the furniture industry. The company has shed restrictions imposed by owners who looked only at the division's contribution to the bottom line.
Each of the parent corporations controlled the capital and "we were robbed" when they invested in other operations instead of furniture, Ammons said.
In the last five years, the company has been owned by Singer Co., SSMC Inc., Semi-Tech Microelectronics (Far East) Ltd. and Bilzerian Partners Ltd. Partnership I. The most recent owner was a company controlled by Paul Bilzerian, a corporate raider recently convicted of securities fraud.
"Now, we don't have the barriers to grow and acquire that we had in the past," Ammons said. "The only barrier today is financial feasibility."
What the new owners, nearly 20 managers-investors, plan to do with Singer is "to take it to a larger company, always doing what we do best," Ammons said.
The new Singer has "improved working conditions and management relations. ... I want to operate it like a family. We can do that and still be aggressive in the marketplace," he said.
In a couple of years, Ammons wants to buy another furniture company, possibly one with an upholstered line, to complement Singer's bedroom and dining room pieces. He's interested in "anything that will make us a full-line supplier."
"We want to get rid of the stigma" of the distant owners and concentrate on meeting customers' needs for furniture, Ammons said. Customers, not corporate directors, "are first in our minds."
The announcement that the company was for sale hurt the business. Last year's sales dropped to $125 million from $133 million in 1988 and profits were down, according to estimates by Furniture Today, an industry publication. The privately held company does not report its results.
Because of the declines, the company started programs to improve its costs, products and quality. One of Singer's eight plants, a small dining room furniture operation at Lenoir, N.C., was closed.
In Roanoke, nearly 150 production and office workers were laid off this spring because "demand was down to a point where their jobs were no longer justified," Ammons said. He wants to recall them when sales are up again.
Gaining greater market penetration, at a time when furniture sales overall are slow, is the first challenge of the new owners.
Ammons admits that the retail furniture business is flat. Home furnishings are not getting their share of discretionary spending, he said.
The maturing baby boomer generation has not been convinced "that they should buy furniture. They're still buying BMWs and stereos," Ammons said.
Furniture sales to resort condominiums, a small part of Singer business, also are off because construction has slowed.
Jerry Epperson, furniture analyst for Wheat, First Securities, said business "is terrible. ... Singer has been through a lot of transition, a lot of managers. Sometimes it's easier to start when business is tough."
Kay Norwood, who watches furniture for Interstate Securities in Charlotte, N.C., said the industry "appears to be dead in the water. The economy is very soft and people normally don't buy furniture when it is."
Manufacturers have been cutting hours or laying off workers "but I would like to think the next move will be positive," she said.
Ammons believes Singer's sales have bottomed out and started upward.
Potential sales growth is with such chains as Heilig-Meyers, Haverty's, Levitz, Reliable, Nebraska Furniture Mart and Finger Furniture, he said.
James Riddle, marketing executive vice president for the 310-store Heilig-Meyers chain in Richmond, said, "We've had Singer on our floor for years and years. ... We feel good about what's going on there."
If Singer's promises are filled, "I don't see anything but more business," Riddle said. His company is the fourth largest furniture retailer in the country.
Ammons wants to expand in markets where his company has strength, moving out only after a strong base is established.
He will not report the terms of the management buyout but said his group was able to acquire the company "with much less debt because of the support of three major partners," who have not been identified.
Unlike some companies, the debt "was not leveraged at levels that would strip all profits and take us out of the picture," Ammons said. Payments on the debt are well within the profit structure budgeted for the operation, he said.
Many of Singer's bedroom suites of a dresser, mirror, chest and headboard are in the wholesale price range of $400 to $700 while dining room suites are from $500 to$1,300 wholesale. Retail prices generally are at least double that amount.
The company's operating headquarters was moved from Atlanta to Roanoke a few years ago.
The owners talked of taking it to High Point, N.C., "in the middle of furniture social life," Ammons said. But, he said, "I think we can get along just fine in Roanoke. It's home."