Ashton Harrison had retired in 2011 after selling her Shades of Light business.
But the entrepreneurial spirit was still alive in her.
“I just love a challenge,” said Harrison, who founded the small lighting products retailer in 1986; grew it into three locations, including the main store on West Broad Street across from Willow Lawn; created catalogs and a online store; and added rugs and other items to its lineup.
Now, she’s tackling her latest venture — trying to rejuvenate Brass Beds of Virginia, one of the few brass and iron bed manufacturers still operating in the U.S. that had been struggling financially in the years after the Great Recession and housing crisis in 2008.
Sales had declined, and the company was bleeding red ink.
Harrison joined a group of eight investors to buy the assets of the Richmond-based business for an undisclosed amount from its co-founder in June 2016. Founded in late 1975, Brass Beds of Virginia had enjoyed strong customer demand for much of its life.
Harrison initially thought she would simply be a passive investor. One of the others in the group was going to run the business.
“I thought I could help them with marketing and building a new website,” Harrison said.
But the business was in pretty bad shape when the new ownership group bought the assets. Production had stopped. Materials and supplies needed to be ordered. It took a couple of months before the first beds were made and shipped from its factory in Scott’s Addition.
After a little more than a year, Harrison knew she needed to do more to salvage the business.
Harrison stepped in and became the CEO and a managing member of the Williamsburg Beds LLC, the entity the investors created to operate the Brass Beds of Virginia business.
“My plan was to retire, but I don’t like to fail,” said Harrison, who was a vice president at the now-defunct furniture retailer This End Up from 1977 until she left in 1986 to start Shades of Light.
“When you see your investment going down the tubes and you know you can save it, you step in and get the job done,” she said. “As I said before, I like a challenge. And I would call this a big challenge.”
Since taking over in September 2017, sales at Brass Beds of Virginia are up about 66 percent for the 12 months that ended in late October compared with same period in the prior 12 months.
Through the first 10 months of this year, the company had generated about $614,000 in revenue. That’s up from $474,000 the business generated for all of 2017 and up from the $397,000 generated in 2015, which was the last full year under the former owner.
While the company isn’t profitable yet, Harrison has been able to stop the hemorrhaging of red ink and has begun to restore the company’s financial health.
The business is close to breaking even on an annual basis, she said. Some months, the company makes money and, some months, it loses some. She expects the new Brass Beds of Virginia to be on firm financial footing sometime next year.
“You don’t turn around something that quickly. It’s not something that happens overnight,” Harrison said. “The trends are improving.”
The company has introduced new designs and new products, such as brass or metal desks, dog beds, console tables, coffee tables and curtain rods.
“Ashton has done a fantastic job,” said Al Rider, another managing member of the Williamsburg Beds LLC who is the former lead managing partner of the former local private equity firm Colonnade Capital LLC.
“It was still losing money, and she has turned it around and has grown the business and bringing on new designs,” he said. “She understands the business. It was a culture that needed to be shifted, and she’s doing it.”
Brass Beds of Virginia started in late 1975 with two workers.
In the early 1970s, William Bridgforth began a business by buying brass beds at auctions, fixing them and selling them. A couple of years later, Pat Hudgins joined him, and the two business partners bought and repaired old beds.
Then, they decided to make brass beds, and the business took off as Brass Beds of Virginia.
In the early 1980s, they started making iron beds.
Demand was good enough that they moved the factory to Leigh Street in Scott’s Addition in 1988. Then in 1999, the company bought a building at 3210 W. Marshall St., where its factory is today.
In its heyday, beds were sold at about 80 to 100 stores, including about a dozen or so stores that had a more dedicated space for Brass Beds of Virginia products. Those stores were the heart of the business, Hudgins said.
Bridgforth sold his interest in the business to Hudgins in 1988 to focus on the Brass Bed Collection store in Carytown that Bridgforth and his wife operated and later renamed Bridgforth’s. The store has since closed.
Hudgins ran the business, growing it to about 35 employees.
The company’s problems began after the 2001 recession, Hudgins said.
“We had just moved into the new building and the recession hit, and some of the stores that were dedicated stores that had multiple locations ... some of them started to close and our sales kept falling off,” Hudgins said.
Sales picked up just before the Great Recession took place in 2008. “It was very difficult at that time,” he said.
Sales languished for the next several years, he said. Consumer bedding trends changed. Metal prices soared. Health insurance costs increased.
“It was hard to make the numbers to continue to work,” Hudgins said.
“I reached a point, factoring in my age [he’s 71 now] and factoring in the last eight years of challenging environment economically with the recession and put all of that in the hopper, I got to the point that I had had enough and I was going to shut it down,” he said.
“I tried and tried to keep it for the employees. The main reason I hung in there as long as I did was for all of the people who worked there, some of them for decades. We had a great product, and we had a great reputation,” he said. “I just didn’t see any hope of things improving. We tried to work on sales. But when you have the ball rolling down a hill, it is hard to push it back up.”
Hudgins was going to shut down the business until Richard Levin, owner of Levin’s of Virginia bedding and home furnishings store in Norfolk and one of Brass Beds of Virginia’s biggest retail customers, intervened. He put together the group of investors to buy the company’s assets and revive the business.
Hudgins’ business made the last bed and shipped it out in early June 2016. The deal with the investor group to buy the assets closed later that month.
The first beds under the new ownership group are made employing the same craftsmanship that had been used for the past 40-plus years.
The new owners employ 10 people, including five who had worked for the previous owner and had worked in the business for a decade or more.
“Having them is the success to our company,” Harrison said.
The company uses a steel and cast-iron interlocking bed frame that distinguishes it from competitors. Employees hand bend brass pipes.
Making a brass or iron bed takes about two days of labor.
The company produces about one brass bed a week and eight to 10 iron beds a week, Harrison said.
The company has about 45 iron bed models and 30 brass bed models.
Iron beds range in price from $1,100 for a twin to $3,900 for a complete queen bed including a headboard and footboard. Brass beds sell for between $2,000 for a twin to $6,000 for a queen.
Benches sell for $490 to $900, and dog beds range in price from $484 to $595.
About 85 to 90 percent of revenue at Brass Beds of Virginia comes from its iron products, Harrison said, but brass products are seeing a resurgence. “It is a decorating style that is coming back,” she said.
What about changing the name given brass beds are such a small part of the company’s overall business? Harrison said that’s not under consideration.
“It is about branding yourself,” Harrison said. “You take the name and you brand it with whatever your current product is. Pottery Barn doesn’t sell just pottery. We are known for more than just brass.”
Wallace E. Epperson Jr., a longtime furniture-industry analyst with Richmond-based Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., said he is not surprised that Brass Beds of Virginia lives on.
“They have been around since the ’70s and they have a lot of heritage in their name,” Epperson said. “They are still making American-made beds.”
That is unusual given that about 95 percent of the medal beds sold in the U.S. are made offshore, primarily in China, he said. In the wood furniture category, about 84 percent is made overseas.
“It is a sign of quality they are still doing it,” Epperson said.
Products from Brass Beds of Virginia are sold from its warehouse location or online. The beds also are available at about 25 to 30 stores across the country, including Levin’s of Virginia in Norfolk and Virginia Wayside Furniture in western Henrico County.
Maury Childress, vice president of Virginia Wayside Furniture, said the family owned store began carrying beds from Brass Beds of Virginia last year. The store displays four models.
“We liked it because it is locally made and it is very heavy-duty type iron and brass beds compared with most imports. Their beds are very heavy and very durable and will last your lifetime,” Childress said.
“It is really the value of the product and the workmanship in how it is made,” he said. “I went to the factory and looked at it before we decided to carry it. The way the product is built, the quality of the workmanship and the value is the reason we put it in here.”