While Ashley Furniture may be close by in Arcadia, the company has blossomed far past the boundaries of the small city and its surrounding area.
Ron Wanek, founder and chairman of Ashley, has led the way with his family for the company to become the success that it is today as a major furniture manufacturer.
The Wanek family’s entrepreneurship is a part of who they are, as it dates back long before Ron.
The family’s business history in the area dates back to 1842, when Ron’s great-great-great-great grandfather James Reed established the first shop in what is now the area of downtown Winona — located at the corner of Second and Center streets, according to Bailey Waldera, who works in Ashley’s public relations department.
While Reed’s shop wasn’t the start of Ashley, it was the start of the family’s entrepreneurship drive that would lead to the worldwide company.
Over a century later, from 1961 to 1970, Ron began his journey in the business world when he worked for Winona Industries.
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Waldera shared that Ron had the opportunity there to learn from business leaders in the field of cabinet manufacturing.
Ron held onto this knowledge as he took the next step in his career — buying a building in Arcadia with a group of investors to start manufacturing tables.
The business took the name of its home, becoming Arcadia Furniture Corporation.
After a few years of working on the business and revamping it, the investors in 1976 took the next step in growing the company by purchasing Carlyle Weinberger’s Ashley Furniture Corporation, which established the Ashley brand in 1945 with its home being in Chicago.
The two businesses merged by 1982 to become Ashley Furniture Industries — a company that is now the largest advanced manufacturer of furniture in the world and the continent’s largest furniture retailer, Waldera said.
“Since the beginning, we’ve taken pride in not just building beautiful, affordable furniture but consistently innovating in new technologies, new materials and new ways to increase speed to market,” Waldera said.
Changing over time
To keep those impressive titles, the company has had to transform over the years — keeping up with the changes in the world and the interests of the consumers.
Over the years, the company has majorly evolved and rebirthed 17 times, Waldera explained, with the help of a large amount of in-depth market research and productive capital investments.
“Our company is constantly looking for ways to innovate by strategically developing new products and aggressively tailoring our operations to address the demands of our customers and remain competitive,” Waldera said.
Recently, as part of a rebirth of the company, the focus has been on the growth of technology, automation and robotics, which Waldera shared is due to the fourth industrial revolution — commonly known as Industry 4.0.
To keep up with the new technology being introduced into the company, Ashley has to focus on educating its employees and expanding their skillsets.
Within its own facilities, Ashley has put in the effort to create Advanced Technology Maker Centers, allowing employees to advance their knowledge and their careers.
As for outside of Ashley’s facilities, to help prepare the future workforce, the company — along with the Wanek family — has donated in the past five years nearly $10 million to science, technology, engineering and math education opportunities at K-12 and post-secondary schools throughout the country, according to Waldera.
Additionally, to continue strongly over the years compared to other furniture companies, Ashley started a “blended approach” in 1982, Waldera said.
She said this approach allows Ashley “to integrate affordable suppliers with our U.S. manufacturing operations which lowered the cost of our furniture. Ashley was built on a continuous improvement mindset which has been the foundation of our company culture. Our mission statement summarizes this: improve quality to reduce cost, do more business which leads to being profitable and keeps us in business.”
Waldera also said that the approach helped “introduce Ashley’s presence overseas, allowing the company to experience the latest innovations, materials, and designs on a worldwide scale. Additionally, growing the company’s footprint and serving our customers faster has expanded us across numerous states. This has helped with expanding our product offerings, having more space, suppliers and capabilities.”
Keeping jobs here
By continuing to advance over the years and match the United States’ changing economy, Ashley has been able to keep a lot of its jobs within the country.
Waldera said the company has also benefited from keeping the company within the Wanek family, as she explained doing so has allowed Ashley “to reinvestment in the business and adapt to the customer demand.”
The business is currently led by three generations of the Wanek Family with Ron as the founder and chairman; his son Todd Wanek as Ashley’s president and CEO since 2002; and Ron’s grandchildren Travis Wagner, Laura Forsythe and Cameron Wanek — who is Todd’s son — now taking on leadership roles within company.
Waldera shared that every day the company has continued to keep the goal of “continuous improvement. We’re always working towards our mission of improving quality and reducing our costs so we can pass that savings along to our customers. With this that we can do more business, be profitable, and stay in business for years to come.”
Ashley now has over 35,000 employees, including 4,000 employees in Wisconsin alone, Waldera shared.
Some of these employees help customers directly at stores, which are in 64 countries around the world — more than 1,075 locations in total.
The furniture sales do not just stop there though, as Waldera shared that the company sells furniture in a total of 155 countries.
As for other employees that work on the manufacturing and distribution side of the business, there are multiple super plants across the nation, including in Arcadia; Ecru, Mississippi; Advance, North Carolina; and Leesport, Pennsylvania.
Ashley also has supporting locations in Wisconsin, Mississippi, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Not all of the production exclusively happens in the United States though, as Ashley also has five advanced manufacturing locations on the other side of the globe in Vietnam.
Waldera said, “The so-called ‘Amazon effect’, having an expectation to deliver your products in a couple of days, is why regional manufacturing and distribution are important. Our distribution centers are strategically located throughout the U.S. to provide capability to deliver to our customers in shorter time frames, including California, Washington, Texas, Georgia, Florida and Ohio.”
Supporting the community
While Ashley’s leaders have many employees and facilities to think and care about, they also take time to support the local community in their home Arcadia and its surrounding communities.
Ashley, over many years, has worked to support the area’s children in need, education, music and the arts, with non-profits including Ashley’s Angels and Ashley for the Arts.
The company’s work to help others doesn’t stop there though.
Waldera shared that over the years Ashley and the Wanek family have donated millions of dollars to help find a cure for Type 1 diabetes and congenital heart defects.
Ron also is the lead benefactor, according to Waldera, for the Soldier’s Walk in Arcadia’s Memorial Park.
“The founders of Ashley call Arcadia, Wis., home; it is important to them and to the people of Ashley to leave an everlasting mark on our surrounding communities. Our support focuses on caring for our communities, protecting our environment, investing in medical innovation, educating our future generations, and serving our valued customers and teammates,” Waldera said.
Speaking Wednesday about the impact Ashley and its owners have had on the community, the Arcadia Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors said, “Since 1970, Ashley Furniture has been a leading employer within our city and region, and has been a strong supporter of our local communities and various organizations.”
The board continued, “Having a company that employs more people than the amount of residents in Arcadia has contributed immensely towards creating a positive economic impact for the business community. Arcadia would not be what it is today without Ashley’s presence, partnerships and contributions to the community.”
Kevin Mayzek, Arcadia’s new mayor, said Wednesday that, because of Ashley, along with other local employers such as Pilgrim’s, the city is likely “an envy of a lot of communities around here because we have so many job opportunities.”
It seems like the future is a bright one for the company, as stores and manufacturing facilities continue to pop up across the nation, like in recent years in area cities such as La Crosse and Chippewa Falls.
Waldera said Ashley’s goals and plans for the future are “to continuously strive to achieve our mission ‘to be the best home furnishings company.’” Right now, with the state of the global supply chain, we’re constantly looking for better ways to innovate and grow our operations to better service our customers around the world.
“We are focused on strengthening our brand and our company so that we can remain the furniture manufacturer and retailer our customers have come to know and trust over the past 77 years,” she said.
IN PHOTOS: Ashley for the Arts 2021