By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
VERONA – Having been born and raised in High Point, N.C., R.W. “Hoppy” Whitaker knew a thing or two about the furniture industry.
But for the past 25 years, he’s been taking care of the industry from his company in the Magnolia State.
Whitaker is owner and president of Whitaker Sales, one of the largest furniture manufacturing suppliers in the region. The company, located in the Tupelo Lee Industrial Park South, carries hundreds of components, including legs, buttons, bobbles, zippers, tacking strips and packaging materials.
“We handle everything but wood, fabric and foam,” he said. “If we don’t have it, we can get it.”
The company carries about 600 items at any time, and sells about 1,000 items.
“We’re the Walmart of the furniture industry,” Whitaker said with a laugh.
Whitaker worked for a company similar to his own when he was transferred to Mississippi in 1976. After a management change, he started his own company in 1988.
With advice from friends, colleagues and mentors, Whitaker took the risky step of getting into a competitive business that had its share of veterans. Working as a salesman for another company was one thing; going out on your own was another story.
“Even though I worked with them and knew them, it was risky for them to go with a new guy; they were taking a chance doing business with me,” he said.
Building those relationships, Whitaker grew his business “bigger than I imagined.”
Whitaker Sales is spread over two buildings, spanning 85,000 square feet. Customers are primarily within a 100-mile radius of Tupelo – the bulk of the upholstered furniture manufacturing industry in the state. But customers are located across the country, as well as in Australia and Brazil.
Many of Whitaker’s 14 employees (12 full-time, two part-time) have been with the company almost as long as the business has been around. The biggest employee upheaval happened last fall, when one longtime worker retired and another left to work in the school system.
“And we have good and loyal customers. … We don’t have as many customers as we used to since so many smaller companies aren’t around anymore, but we have bigger customers,” Whitaker said.
That decision to stay in Mississippi and build his own business paid off for Whitaker.
“We wanted to give it a shot, anything to make a living,” he said. “I was fortunate. … It all kind of fell into my lap, but at the same time, it took a lot of hard work.”