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By John Dayberry Hickory Daily Record
Posted May 8, 2017

HICKORY — Ask people about John Bray’s influence on the Catawba County community or on the American furniture industry and you’ll hear plenty about the longtime Hickory resident’s leadership abilities.

Andy Counts, chief executive officer of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, described Bray as “a true leader” whose influence reaches far and wide.

“His influence goes beyond Vanguard and the Catawba Valley and permeates the entire home furnishings industry,” Counts said. “An authentic gentlemen and professional, he can bridge difficult divides and find common ground. His guidance has strengthened our organization, the High Point Market, and the industry as a whole.”

The AHFA, which represents more than 200 leading furniture manufacturers and distributors, plus about 150 suppliers to the furniture industry worldwide, presented Bray, chairman and CEO of Hickory-based Vanguard Furniture, with its highest honor — the Distinguished Service Award — last November. It is one of many honors the 75-year-old Bray has received for his service to his community, his industry and his country.

Bray grew up in Fairmont, a tobacco-growing community in Robeson County. He earning a degree in business administration from Wake Forest University, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1964-67, receiving a Bronze Star.

Bray said his military service proved valuable in the business world.

“In the Marine Corps you strive to accomplish your mission and take care of your men,” Bray said. “In business it’s really no different. You strive to accomplish your mission and take care of your employees. And in both environments, we’re all no better than the people surrounding us. That’s why building a team is critical. For me, that has been an all-encompassing motto that has served me well.”

After the Marines, Bray began his furniture-manufacturing career in Hickory. In 1970 he joined Vanguard, which at the time was a promising furniture-manufacturing start-up company. He has been there ever since.

Today, Vanguard is a highly regarded maker of upholstery and case goods, with nearly 600 employees at seven manufacturing facilities in North Carolina and Virginia.

Committed to continuous improvement and determined to remain on the cutting edge of new technology, Bray introduced computer-aided design to Vanguard’s upholstery operations and pursued development of the technology to digitally “drape” fabrics on upholstery frames, enabling consumers to preview custom upholstery orders via computer — whether online or in a store.

“We have embraced change,” Bray said. “After all, you’re either growing or dying. We’ve always tried to be on the cutting edge. It’s part of our DNA.”

Bray said he and the leadership team at Vanguard have learned much about ways of getting people to accept change.

“I’ve encountered very few people over my career who won’t go along with change once they are shown the need for change and how it will lead to success,” Bray said.

In 2010, Bray realized the declining number of skilled upholsterers could potentially cripple upholstery operations in the Hickory area. He joined a group of industry and education representatives in establishing the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy at Catawba Valley Community College to recruit new workers and train them in the industry-specific skills they would need to replace the hundreds of upholstery craftsmen retiring throughout the Catawba County region.

“Finding enough skilled people to do the work will be a challenge as far as I can see into the future,” Bray said. “There used to be a feeder system that helped us meet that demand. Not anymore. We have to find a way to meet the demand, and the Furniture Academy helps us do that.”

Bray considers the Furniture Academy a success story.

“It’s a great example of how education and industry can work together to solve problems,” Bray said. “A combination of the Furniture Academy and in-house training is working really well for us.”

Garrett Hinshaw, president of CVCC, said Bray has helped to redefine furniture manufacturing and its future sustainability.

“He was one of the primary champions of the development of the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy and assured that our college had the capacity to deliver a high-quality program,” Hinshaw said. “John has served on the Catawba Valley Community College Board of Trustees for the past six years as an appointee of the governor. He has provided solid leadership and demonstrated a strong commitment to the community. He is the type of person that believes in doing things the right way and always willing to roll his sleeves up to get things done.”

Bray is a longtime proponent for employee health care. Vanguard opened one of the region’s first worksite health clinics and one of the first medical home plans, which drew national recognition.

Bray has served on many boards, including those of the High Point Market Authority, Frye Regional Medical Center, the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce, the Catawba County Champions of Education, the Bank of Granite and CVCC. He is a longtime member of the AHFA Board of Directors and served as chairman in 2010.

In 2012 he was recognized as Business Man of the Year by the Lenoir-Rhyne University Business Council, and in 2016 was inducted into the Furniture Industry Hall of Fame.

A longtime music lover, Bray has been singing with the Hickory Choral Society for four decades. In a nod to this favorite pastime, his AHFA Distinguished Service Award plaque names him an “Industry Troubadour.”

“That’s my escape,” Bray said. “It requires me to use another part of my brain.”

Bray and his wife, Connie, have been married for 52 years. Their son, Andy, is Vanguard’s president. Their daughter, Laurie, is the company’s chief operating officer. They have four grandchildren. John and Connie Bray enjoy playing golf together, and attend First United Methodist Church.

Bray is a believer in lifelong learning, and a staunch advocate of education.

“Education is the lifeblood of our future,” he said. “You can’t shortchange education.”

In his day-to-day life, Bray follows the Golden Rule.

“It’s also important to meet everyone where they are,” he said.

“We’ve got to realize that we don’t all have the same life experiences.”

Bray said his goal at Vanguard has long been to have a team in place that could carry on without missing a beat if something should happen to him.

And while he said the company’s team is quite capable of doing that, Bray thoroughly enjoys his role.

“I look forward to coming to work every day,” he said.

“I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had.”

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