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Updated: July 30, 2018 Fact Book 2018

An iconic brand tackles change

Photo / Fred Field
Aaron Moser, president and CEO of Thos. Moser Handmade American Furniture in Auburn, is the second-generation leader and son of the founder. He stands with the company’s high stool and the continuous arm chair.

Thos. Moser Handmade American Furniture has made chairs for presidential libraries and gifts for CEOs and dignitaries from its Maine headquarters and workshop. A replica of the so-called “speaker’s chair” of the Congressional Congress was recently presented to author David McCullough in Philadelphia. Moser furniture is in boardrooms and law firms around the world.

Yet like any business, it has to keep the orders coming in and meet payroll for its staff, in this case 55 craftspeople and about the same number on the support staff. It has to remain relevant for baby boomers that are downsizing and millennials that may value hand-crafted products but don’t want to pay hand-crafted prices.

The person who is leading the high-quality furniture maker into the new age is Aaron Moser, 56, one of four sons of Thomas Moser, who is semi-retired. Moser, who is president and CEO, had a previous career as an executive chef and has extensive knowledge of the hospitality industry. He’s not a woodworker, but he’s thrown himself into the family business.

Photo / Fred Field
As is the tradition at Thos. Moser in Auburn, craftsman Robert Fisher signed his name to his work.

Forerunner to a movement of ‘makers’

Walking around with Moser in the company’s Auburn headquarters, he moves as comfortably through the woodshop as he does through the show room. He is knowledgeable about the company’s work and its products, which can sell for $10,000, but he also has a highly developed sense of marketing and consumer tastes.

In the woodshop, he lingers around the power planers that get rough wood in shape for the craftsmen. He marvels over a CNC machine, perfectly cutting pieces for what will be study carols at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library. He stops to chat with woodworker Jim Wisser, who is putting his signature to the bottom of a handcrafted desk.

Later, seated at a Thos. Moser table in the showroom, he muses on the company’s position in a competitive furniture industry.

“How do you grow and maintain the quality? That’s our competitive advantage,” Moser says. “We don’t have a monopoly on cherry. We don’t own craftsmanship. We don’t own technology. It’s like hollandaise sauce. It’s always the same ingredients. It’s how you bring these things together — this formula that’s unique to us.”

In a day and age when people are obsessed with iPhones and personal technology, he says the Moser products offer a needed counterpoint. In a sense, among a growing movement of “makers,” Thomas Moser was an original maker.

“Experience. Embrace. Nurture. It’s a counterbalance to the tech world,” he says. “It’s a considered purchase. Our typical buyer has long been an admirer. Their kids are out of college. They see value in relationships.”

He sees value in offering something that’s still handmade.

“We want to widen the brand. It’s handcrafted furniture,” he says.

Photo / Fred Field
Craftsman Jim Wisser with a rotating clamp carrier at Thos. Moser Handmade American Furniture in Auburn. The company uses machinery to get wood into shape for the craftsmen. Then the handcrafting begins.

An era of change

Namesake Thomas Moser, 83, lives in Harpswell, about 45 minutes from the company’s Auburn operations. He still makes the trek in a couple times a week, often to work on oversized American flags made of wood. Moser was a Bates College professor who quit his job to start making furniture. That was 1972, at a time when Maine was seeing an influx of back-to-landers. Moser offered something more refined: highly specialized furniture that, with its Windsor chairs and traditional styles, harkened to another era altogether. Which may be one reason the furniture is in presidential libraries and has been used for visits by popes.

“I would say that Tom’s legacy is greater than sparking a renaissance,” Peter Korn, executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, told the Portland Press Herald in 2015. “He has also, among other things, proven that an American company can still manufacture quality furniture in the U.S. successfully. But his most important legacy may be the tens or hundreds of thousands of pieces of furniture that will remain in use in people’s homes for generations to come. If every piece of furniture is a prescription for the life to be lived around it, as I maintain, then Moser’s furniture will continue to advocate for the Shaker-related values of living with simplicity, integrity and grace.”

Not everyone in Maine may appreciate that Moser is a national brand, with six stores mostly on the eastern seaboard and a client list of CEOs and statesmen.

“A prophet scorned in our own land,” Aaron Moser says of his dad.

Thos. Moser does not disclose its sales figures, but in story in Mainebiz in 2014, the company said it had sales approaching $20 million.

Photo / Fred Field
President and CEO Aaron Moser says the quality of the furniture depends on the quality of wood it buys from a small network of trusted suppliers.

There’s a notion, Aaron Moser acknowledged, that the furniture is out of the reach of the average buyer. It’s not uncommon for a chest of drawers to cost $6,000 to $10,000 or for a stool to be $1,000.

“There’s a myth that Moser is not affordable. Our hourly rate is like a body shop. It just takes more hours to build [the furniture],” Moser says in response.

Moser’s furniture is in the George W. Bush Library in Dallas; Grace Farms, a nonprofit with innovative Japanese architecture in New Canaan, Conn.; and the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. But the bulk of its larger customers are institutions like university libraries or an MIT science lab, corporations and law firms.

“We make 40-foot conference tables,” Moser says.

Moser has instituted “lean” building techniques. Instead of stockpiling inventory, it builds much of the furniture after it has been ordered, saving on warehousing.

“At one point, we had $1 million in inventory sitting on the shelves. We went to lean manufacturing. Build one at a time. With technology and CNC machines,” he says.

We’re challenging the conventional ways.

In some ways the company remains old-school. The wood, often cherry from the Allegheny plateau, goes from the planer to the CNC machine to the woodworker to the finishing process, and, once completed, sits near a loading dock. It will be carefully wrapped. Some of the furniture is shipped, but the company also makes “milk runs,” personally delivering furniture to buyers.

“We’re challenging the conventional ways. Everyone gives advice. If you want to do furniture go to High Point, N.C. Beliefs are always changing,” Moser says, adding that the company remains independent and unconventional. “We have customers who enjoy Moser. We’re feisty. We’re entrepreneurial. We’re hungry.”

Customers come to Moser for quality, for aesthetic reasons.

“Our quality is the best it has been. Signature has a lot to do with it. Lean manufacturing. It wasn’t Tom Moser that did that,” Aaron Moser says.

A typical customer is 55 to 70 years old, with six years of higher education.

“It’s been fairly consistent and that’s the problem,” he says. To broaden the market, the company is not looking so much to younger customers as larger customers — institutions and corporations.

Moser is building out relationships, with individual customers and institutions. The company is doing more business-to-business and trade work — relationships can mean $250,000 in sales on the institutional side versus $4,000 from a typical individual customer.

With retailer L.L.Bean, Thos. Moser produced five hand-built fly-tying desks, made with American black cherry and featuring dovetailed drawers, with a price tag of $12,000.

“With L.L.Bean, it’s two iconic brands. We don’t want to get into making $12,000 fly-fishing desks. It’s more about storytelling. It’s a platform to get the story out there,” Moser says, adding that at that time they’d sold three.

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