Creative comforts

Out of their Brookfield office, John and Dori McKearn have been designing and marketing high-end furniture that is sold all over the country for the past five years. Unfortunately, the furniture they design isn’t sold anywhere in southeastern Wisconsin. However, that may soon change.
The McKearns and their company, Brookfield-based J.D. Chamberlain Ltd., are in negotiations with a high-end furniture retailer that has stores in the Milwaukee area, and they are hoping to begin marketing the furniture locally later this year.
They declined to name the retailer.
John McKearn said J.D. Chamberlain has had double-digit growth every year since the company started five years ago. It grew to about $2.7 million in revenues for 2004 and is projected to have about $3.4 million this year.
John said he and Dori started their company at 17160 W. North Ave. as a way to nurture the artistic process, which has made J.D. Chamberlain a fun and eclectic place to work.
“One of the things from the get-go was I know where we’re going, and I like building things,” he said. “I love unleashing talent. What interested me about this business model is creating a business that would facilitate the creative artistic process – a business that is good at supporting people that are trying to generate beauty and fun.”
Part of his motivation, John said, was allowing Dori to be able to express her creative energies. She had worked in interior design and furniture sales for more than 25 years.
“A lot of (the mission) was explicitly saying that we would unleash Dori and her qualities,” John said. “She has a simple elegance, and very Midwestern values toward sales and customer service. A lot of what this company is trying to bring into the business is releasing some of her qualities.”
J.D. Chamberlain was started after John and Dori diverged themselves of a 33 percent stake in another furniture company. The couple helped that company grow from $2.2 million in orders in its first year to more than $20 million in orders by the time they left, John said.
That company had its business tied to one country and one industry there, a situation John said he didn’t feel comfortable with. The couple also was increasingly interested in improving quality control, another reason for their departure.
“We wanted to create furniture that appealed to us,” John said. “We thought with (Dori’s) artistic orientations and knowledge of design, we could develop some good products. And as a businessman, I wanted to correct some mistakes and have more diversity with the manufacturing base.”
With those ideas in mind, the McKearns worked to establish relationships with manufacturers overseas to build furniture designed just for their lines. John said the company has outsourced every part of its business that “does not have a strong return for our customers.”
So, all of the furniture manufacturing is done in the Philippines, which has a large furniture manufacturing base.
The company’s presence in the Philippines has allowed it to establish relations with more than 20 different furniture makers there, John said. That depth of resources enables the company to make its designs in a variety of materials.
“Our goal when we sat down was that we wanted to bring together the best of strong, well-run progressive business models, strategies and policies with the creative artistic process,” John said. “That’s really where we want to be in this industry – the combination of disciplines. It’s tough to do, but anyone that can do it is a monster. We’re well on the way.”
J.D. Chamberlain has several ways to design a new piece of furniture, John said. Many pieces are designed by Dori, who works with a designer at the firm to create a drawing, complete with specifications and materials lists.
The design is shipped to one of the factories the company deals with in the Philippines, where it is then built. Dori, sometimes accompanied by John, then travels there to make design changes before the piece is produced.
Dori recently completed a trip to the Philippines to oversee final production for J.D. Chamberlain’s spring line.
“They don’t get the fine-tuning – some of the Western ways,” she said. “I changed almost every piece, some in multiple ways. But it is a fantastic result.”
That result doesn’t look like the pieces that are available in most furniture stores, especially those in the Milwaukee market. For the most part, Milwaukee furniture stores are lacking the type of artistic feel that J.D. Chamberlain’s collections have, Dori said.
“When I’m going to stores I find that a lot of the traditional stores need that spark,” she said. “We like to think of ourselves as that spice. You put in a little of the exotic spices and wow, it makes it really fun. I hate predictability, and when we design, we try to do the unexpected and make it different than the norm. And when you look at our line, I think you will find that.”
J.D. Chamberlain Ltd.
Address: 17160 W. North Ave., Brookfield
Web site:
Revenues: $2.7 million in 2004
Industry: Furniture design and manufacturer
April 29, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display