A worker forges two of the "petals" of a "Dahlia" chandelier. See finished product below. Photo courtesy of Hubbardton Forge.Courtesy photo.
by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Situated alongside Route 30 in Castleton Corners, Hubbardton Forge produces modern lighting fixtures and a variety of other forged items for a high-end market. Since its launch in 1974, the enterprise has evolved from “two guys, an old barn and some borrowed tools,” in the words of the company's website, to a 120,000-square-foot plant with a payroll of about 230.
Sales are seeing “steady growth,” in the words of David Kitts, director of design and engineering. He declined to give specific numbers; the last publicly reported annual sales figure given to VBM was 2016's $35 million.
In addition to its lighting fixtures, Kitts tells VBM, “We definitely dabble with [home] accessories, mirrors, bath hardware ... and then we do quite a bit of custom objects – they could be anything from stair rails to steel benches and metal sculptures.”
The last-mentioned grace such settings as the Marriott Residence Inn in midtown Manhattan.
“It's probably safe to describe us as transitional,” he said.
Asked to define that adjective, he refers to “pieces that maybe have a traditional, historical reference, but then maybe we soften it, clean it up, make it a little more contemporary. And then at the same time we might start off with a contemporary [design] and then soften it up and make it feel a little more traditional – try to bring it to this sort of middle area, where it might have a little more mass appeal.”
Photo: An interior setting with a "Dahlia" chandelier. Courtesy photo.
Sales take place through retail lighting showrooms, commercial projects with institutions ranging from college libraries to assisted-living facilities, the company's shop.hubbardtonforge.com website, and third-party web merchants such as Wayfair, Lumens, and YLighting.
The company maintains very little inventory: Instead, the customer chooses an item displayed in a showroom, for example, as a design, and the forge then produces a new copy of the item to order, from the raw materials. There is no assembly-line production.
Springing from what the website describes as “a deep respect for all art forms,” a sensitivity to design is central to the enterprise.
“We have about 1,200 base items, and within those 1,200, if you start adding the finish options and different glass colors and shade colors, you have maybe 40,000 different configurations,” says Kitts, who supervises a team of seven designers and product engineers.
By way of example, he put the finished products' prices at $600 to $6,000 for a dining-room chandelier.
“There is a value to the product in that it's made to order,” vice president of marketing Jeanne-Marie Gand says.
Hubbardton Forge moved into its Castleton plant in 1988.
George Chandler and Reed Hampton, the “two guys” with the barn up the road in its namesake town, sold the company to a private equity firm in 2007 and are no longer directly connected in the firm.
In 2014, with space constraints limiting operations at the plant, the company purchased what Gand describes as “a large home just a couple of miles down the road, with a very large barn.”
The company now uses that property, also in Castleton, for conferences, product testing, meetings, training sessions and the like.
While the forge continues to do the overwhelming share of the manufacturing, the company has just launched a new line of nickel- and chrome-plated bathroom fixtures, HF Reflections, that is produced overseas, mostly in China.
The off-shoring of the line's manufacturing – all design and quality-control functions remain in Castleton – stems from environmental issues involved in the plating process that make domestic production problematical.
Plating has “really been driven offshore for the last 15 years,” Kitts notes, “but it's what people normally have in their bathrooms.”
Asked if locating some manufacturing would damage the company's made-in-USA branding, Gand points out that “the overseas partners are just for a very small bath line. We don't do plating ... it's really pretty much incidental.”
Asked about the role of changing US policies on Asian imports generally – including lighting fixtures and their components – Kitts sees little more than uncertainty.
“As far as the industry is concerned, there's already so much embedded overseas in the Philippines, India – I don't think anyone knows, a month from now, a year from now, what's going to happen.”
Ultimately, however, the trade issues work in Hubbardton Forge's favor. Who else in Vermont, or even the United States, can and does advertise forged lighting fixtures as local products?
“I believe that we are the only lighting manufacturer of our kind in Vermont, and [there are] only smaller makers elsewhere in the States, with the exception, perhaps, of Hammerton,” Gand responds, referring to a Utah manufacturer.
Hubbardton Forge's niche as a domestic manufacturer compares in some ways with that of Rutland's Ann Clark Cookie Cutters (VBM, February 2019). Not only does virtually every Hubbardton Forge product boast the American-made appeal; as with Ann Clark, the idea-to-finished-product process is much faster than its Chinese analog in reacting to demands from the market. It's a question of agility.
Photo: An interior setting with a chandelier. Courtesy photo.
“We can have a product from start to finish in five to six months,” Kitts says, “but in China you're looking at 14 to 16 months.”
“Having everything under one roof, from our designers ... to engineering to production, our forging, our welding, right straight through to packing ... allows that process to be so much faster, especially when you're talking about custom products,” Gand points out.
Asked to identify the secret of the enterprise's success to date, Kitts says, “We've evolved a lot over time, we've maintained industrial quality, service - just the agility.”
“Having designs that year after year really ... take people's breath away,” Gand adds. “We have designs that become the focuses of people';s homes, hotel lobbies – people can really see the handcrafted nature of what we make here.”
Emphasis, of course, on the here.
C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.