published Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Chattanooga's Smart Furniture expands with business

T.J. Gentle, president and CEO of Smart Furniture, talks about the furniture he supplied to The Company Lab for the Gig Tank summer accelerator program.
T.J. Gentle, president and CEO of Smart Furniture, talks about the furniture he supplied to The Company Lab for the Gig Tank summer accelerator program.
Photo by Tim Barber.
IF YOU GO

What: Smart Furniture open house at the Co.Lab

When: 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. today

Where: The Co.Lab, 55 Main Street

A Chattanooga furniture company is tripling its downtown office space and expanding into a 50,000-square-foot warehouse to make room for recent growth.

"In our warehouse right now, we're literally busting out of the seams," said T.J. Gentle, president and CEO at Smart Furniture. "And our office is the same way."

So Smart Furniture is taking over a third floor in the Market Street building that houses the company's headquarters. After four years with about 25 employees, Gentle has hired nine new staffers during the past year.

Revenues grew by 61 percent last year and the company is on track to add another 40 percent this year, Gentle said. He declined to say what those revenues were.

"We continued to grow really well even when the economy was bad, and now that the economy is improving, it's like we have the wind at our backs," he said. "We're seeing rapid growth."

Part of that growth is driven by an innovative shopping platform the online furniture peddler released in April. The system, called SmartSpace, allows shoppers to see exactly how new furniture will look in their own space by uploading a photo of, for instance, a bedroom and filling it with virtual furniture.

"Five years from now, Smart Furniture will be the place to buy furniture," Gentle said. "We're going to sell furniture online better than Amazon. We already do."

The company used SmartSpace to design a furniture makeover for Chattanooga's Co.Lab, then donated $25,000 in furniture to make that design a reality last week. The Co.Lab now sports tables with racks in which to park skateboards, colorful chairs designed for fidgety workers and sleek, built-in planters.

"We love the colors, and it's been super functional," Co.Lab creative director Tianna Buckwalter said. She added that the larger tables have encouraged collaboration in the shared workspace.

For Gentle, giving the furniture to Co.Lab is a way to stay connected to Smart Furniture's entrepreneurial roots. The company secured $10 million in two rounds of startup venture capital and is always striving to be at the forefront of the furniture world, he said.

"Now there's this entrepreneurial movement in Chattanooga," Gentle said, "and we're the senior statesmen to that movement -- so we want to continue to bring that into the community."

Smart Furniture's recent growth spurt comes six years after the company was forced to totally reinvent itself in order to survive the recession. Before 2008, Smart Furniture was designing and manufacturing 100 percent of the products it sold, focusing on custom solutions.

But in 2008, purchasing dropped dramatically and the company shifted gears in order to stay alive. Smart Furniture used its expertise in customization to sell products made by other companies. Now, Smart Furniture makes only 10 percent of the products it sells.

"From that point forward, we've grown about 500 percent," Gentle said. "We exploded from that. The hard times caused us to focus on a market and strategy that ended up being a much better market for us."

The company will be showing off the Co.Lab's new setup during an open house today from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Co.Lab.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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