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Sean O'Connor reflects on new leadership role at Universal Furniture - Home News Now

Sean O’Connor reflects on new leadership role at Universal Furniture – Home News Now

New company president assumed responsibilities Jan. 1, replacing long-time executive Jeff Scheffer, who retired in late December

HIGH POINT — On Jan. 1, Sean O’Connor began his new role as president of Universal Furniture, taking over a position from long-time executive Jeff Scheffer, who retired from the company at the end of 2022.

O’Connor has been with Universal since 2011, most recently as senior vice president and before that, senior vice president sales, and vice president of sales.

Before joining Universal, he was at upholstery resource Rowe Furniture for just over 14 years, serving as national sales manager and before that, marketing representative for western North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and also for Tennessee and central Arkansas.

Sean O’Connor

At the time Universal announced the change in leadership in mid-September, O’Connor said he was focused on a singular goal for Universal — “continuing to prioritize the development of furnishings that resonate with retailers and interior designers.”

“More than anything, we want Universal Furniture to continue to be known as the easiest company to do business with,” O’Connor said. “We look forward to continued success in the future as we build on the relationships, craftsmanship and design expertise that has brought us this far.”

In an interview with Home News Now, O’Connor recently expanded his thoughts about this new opportunity for him and the company and what it means to its existing and expanding customer base.

HNN: First off, congratulations again on your new position. While this is a new leadership role for you at Universal, you also have been in leadership positions previously. How do you think these leadership roles have prepared you for the job?

O’Connor: I’ve had the privilege of working with great mentors over the last 10 years, who have been shining examples of what it means to lead. Watching them and working with them has definitely prepared me for the presidency. In this new, much larger role, I look to the sharp executive team I’ve created as we make decisions about what is best for the company and the customer.

What do you consider the biggest challenge the company faces as you begin this new role? 

O’Connor: While we are certainly watching the economy closely, we had a great 2022 and are carrying that momentum into 2023. We’re in stock on 95% of our whole home assortment and are seeing a return to normal in terms of the overall flow of goods.  Our factory in Conover, North Carolina, is back to eight to 10 weeks on bench-made special-order products, so we are in a good position to support our customers going into 2023.   

And what would you say is the biggest opportunity?

O’Connor: Special-order upholstery and outdoor represent two key areas for growth. We launched these two businesses during the pandemic and have seen supply chain obstacles and increases on materials and labor since day one. We are now in stock on outdoor and have returned to our normal lead times in Conover, North Carolina, for our special- order upholstery.

Outdoor was a category that was already gaining momentum in 2019 and the pandemic has fueled this category as time has gone on. We believe we are well positioned to support the customer and help introduce new customers to these offerings in the year ahead. 

Obviously, a company like Universal has other strong leaders in its rank, some of whom have just recently been promoted. How do you think the team you have in place will help the company succeed in the short and long term?

O’Connor: Both Neil MacKenzie and Shannon Lookabill have great leadership abilities on top of the specific discipline experience they bring to the table. And each has a different perspective. All of our strengths combined will deliver well-reasoned decision making. Most of us have been working together for a while now and we feel confident in the roles that we play and how each of us impacts the company in moving us forward.

Heading into 2023 what do you think will be among the biggest issues facing not only Universal, but the industry at large?

O’Connor: Some of the uncertainty regarding the economy, inflation and interest rates and its potential impact on business as a whole. And although real estate is slowing, we still see a big demand for home projects that will keep interior designers busy in 2023.

Your company is uniquely positioned as both an importer and a manufacturer. How does this position the company for the future?

O’Connor: We feel like we have the best of both worlds by combining these competencies. From an operational and financial perspective, it builds company stability because we can control our supply chain, quality and costs better than companies who primarily source products. From a product standpoint, it gives us incredible flexibility to be creative problem solvers and develop products without being bound by one way of doing business.

Can you speak of any big plans the company has from a product standpoint, whether in certain style categories or product segments?

O’Connor: As with every year we have new introductions in the works and will be able to share more on that as we get closer to spring market. 

And for those who haven’t done much, or any, business with Universal in the past, what would you tell them about the company and why it’s becoming a more important resource in the marketplace?

O’Connor: We’re in the business of attracting and retaining customers. All our employees understand this. And we strive to be the easiest company that our customers work with. No matter what part of our business you interact with, we all have a common goal of putting the customer first.

In conclusion, tell us something about yourself that people in the industry don’t know about you.

O’Connor: I played football for Lenoir Rhyne University until I was injured my junior year and became the captain of the college golf team my senior year. I have three kids I love to spend time with. My youngest is a sixth grader, my daughter is a junior graphic design major at HPU and my oldest is an industrial design major at James Madison University. Both of the older kids have been working furniture markets for the last three years and aspire to be the fourth generation of O’Connors in the furniture industry.

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