It’s been a Gas(ser)
Liberty company marks 75th year in chair-making business
LIBERTY — Odds are if you’ve sat at blackjack or poker table, or played the slots, at a casino along the Las Vegas strip, it was in or on a Gasser chair.
Same for dinner or lunch at Leo’s Ristorante in Howland, or an event at any of the three Avalon Inn and Country Club locations in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, or at The Lake Club in Springfield in Mahoning County.
The chairs really are all over the place — overseas in Europe and and Australia even — so much so, it’s a running gag in the Gasser family to spot one in the wild, on television or in the movies.
“My daughter who was traveling out West last summer sent me a photo from Casper, Wyo. She was in a little place called the Deluxe Diner and they had our chairs in it that were, I don’t know, 20 years old,” said Mark Gasser, president of Gasser Chair Company. “It’s always fun to discover that stuff.”
It all happens in Liberty at nondescript manufacturing buildings on Logan Way, which is where the renowned chair making company also has its headquarters.
This year, this month in fact, Gasser Chair is marking its milestone 75th anniversary in business.
It was 1946 when brothers Roger, Louis and George Gasser formed the company in a sheep barn on property their parents bought from the Wick family on Logan Way.
Then, George, the youngest, was still in high school; Louis, the middle son, was in medical school; and the oldest brother, Roger, was working as a machinist.
“Our grandparents, their parents, bought the house and the farm from the Wick family and so they had an empty barn with nothing to do, so Dr. Lou decided they should build chairs,” said Gary Gasser, CEO, George’s son and older of the two Gasser brothers who run the company now.
The company, however, didn’t start with chairs.
Early on, the three brothers had some small success in making and selling aluminum dinette sets locally. It wasn’t till George loaded up some aluminum chairs in his car and drove to Chicago to attend a restaurant trade show and returned with orders that the company pivoted its focus to the chair market.
The barn was taken down in the late 1970s. But before it was, it was the production hub — the bottom floor was wood and metal fabricating and the second floor was upholstery, assembly and shipping.
Finishing and shipping on the second floor created a bit of an issue that required a creative solution.
“They would back up trucks, we had to block the road and put a plywood ramp down and slide the chairs down into the trucks,” Mark said.
The company grew into a large supplier of chairs in the restaurant, hospitality and gaming industries, and made chairs for private and military clubs.
The company has dipped its toe into the office supply market, mostly from the angle of supplying chairs to hotel conference centers, but has mostly stayed away to focus elsewhere.
Its introduction into the gaming industry in the 1960s fueled some growth, but not till the company introduced in the late 1970s a protective vinyl edge for chair backs — developed by George — that the company really started to grow.
“In that short period of three, four, five years, (we) tripled or better our sales,” said Gary. “At times it became very difficult to handle the increase in sales. Having too much businesses can almost be as bad as not having enough, and we’ve been both places.”
That growth didn’t come without pains.
Gasser had no sooner introduced the protective edge than they were in a court battle with a competitor who copied it. Gasser Chair spent years suing them, eventually proving to the court the competitor forged papers to the court showing that company had it first.
“We ended up with a multimillion dollar judgment against him, and no way to collect it because he just didn’t have it,” Gary said.
Customization was and remains the name of the game at Gasser. It’s vital, Mark said, given customer desires in the hospitality, gaming and restaurant industries to stand out from their competitors and have their decor become part total package.
The company’s philosophy is nothing is standard.
“We’ve always catered to customers who want it their way, they want it this height, this shape, this size,” Mark said.
On a recent day, Mark walked the company’s manufacturing facilities where employees churn out all different shapes, sizes and styles of wooden and aluminum chairs from scratch.
The company makes wood chairs in a 75,000-square-foot facility that doubles as a warehouse. When those components are stained and finished, they move onto the 100,000-square-foot metal fabrication / extrusion / upholstery / production facility for assembly with other chairs made by the company.
Gasser Chair also owns about 60,000 square feet of warehouse space in two buildings in Hubbard, and operates a rigorous testing facility that’s contained in its corporate office.
Scratch-making the chairs is a competitive advantage in the industry.
“We have found that typically when we can get a customer to come and visit us and see what we do, it really helps to close the deal,” Mark said. “A lot of our competitors are really assemblers. They buy components from different sources and put them together, maybe they do the upholstery. We are one of the few left that still from the ground up build the furniture.”
Most of the raw materials, Mark said, comes from local vendors. It makes sense logistically and supports the local economy.
“If you have somebody within a couple miles that can supply what you need, why go elsewhere for it?” Mark said.
Not unlike other businesses, the viral outbreak has taken its toll on Gasser Chair. The doors to the Logan Way office are locked and the parking lot is empty. Most of the office employees split time between there and working remotely.
The company employs about 80 workers.
Before March 2020, the picture could not have been more different — the parking lot was busy and the office was buzzing. It employed about 150 people in January 2020.
But being a nonessential business, it had to shut down early on in the pandemic. Many in its customer base, likewise, either closed or were operating at reduced capacity.
The pandemic also limited exposure at trade shows. The company planned to attend 18, but participated in maybe two after they were postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. To make due, the company reimagined space in its office to meet with customers virtually, and also for company training.
“We found some black fabric so we could drape the walls so you’re not looking at block walls,” Mark said. “Basically, we brought in all the samples we used at trade shows and put them on display here.”
Not making chairs at the start of the outbreak, however, didn’t keep the company from producing. It pivoted to making plastic face shields for health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic.
“It kept us busy for a little while, and it felt good to be doing something meaningful,” Mark said.