“Where the hell did you guys come from?” the man probed. “One day you were here and then all of a sudden you were just doing everything.”
The answer: Jenison.
“Most people are extremely surprised when they walk through this facility,” Jeup said of his 20-employee manufacturing operation tucked a block off Port Sheldon Road and Chicago Drive in Jenison.
It’s not that unusual, he explained, for a couture design shop to be hidden in flyover country. After all, a fellow named Eames used to do it in Zeeland. But still, even with West Michigan’s industry knowledge and infrastructure, it’s a surprise to find the upstart company here.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that have been in the business for probably 10 to 20 times longer, and obviously, they’ve had no choice but to go to those foreign countries to get product made,” Jeup said. “But there is still wonderful opportunity for design. The education base is still here, probably will be for many years to come. This is a gem for the nation, honestly.”
A young woodshop and architecture junkie from Clinton Township, Jeup was introduced to the trade at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. From there, he took a job at a small outfit called Designers Workshop, a sister company of John Widdicomb, a furniture manufacturer that has since moved to New York.
Five years later, when Designers Workshop was struggling in a rapidly changing market, its owners were looking for an exit and turned to the 28-year-old Jeup. He bought the company, renamed it Jeup Furniture, and began retooling it for a creative flair and a new market.
“I didn’t know a lot about what I was doing when I started,” Jeup said. “Thankfully for me, I had a pretty strong vision of what market I wanted to tackle.”
Jeup aimed his startup at the high-fashion furniture world. Still new to the business, he hadn’t learned how to make a low-margin, commodity-type product — and he didn’t intend to.
“I wanted my company to be unique and special,” he said. “I founded the company around innovation, design and quality.”
Eighty percent of the firm’s clients are residential, with most of the pieces customized to fit or match a particular space, sometimes with the customer’s own material. Every piece is hand-signed and numbered by Jeup himself. The pieces are sold primarily through interior designers and architects, with only a small percentage buying direct. The clients are high-profile to say the least: actors, athletes, musicians and the business elite — “people who know what they want, and are willing to pay for it,” Jeup explained.
“That’s what our customers come to us for. They want to have their cake and eat it too,” Jeup said. “Technically speaking, we sell service. This is what our clients are missing in imports: flexibility.”
While he argues that his market isn’t “recession-proof,” he did note that roughly 80 percent of the nation’s wealth rests in this small demographic.
Another 20 percent of his business is hospitality: purchases of a few dozen pieces at a time by high-end hotels such as The Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Wynn Resorts and Marriott.
“My product line is a great value, but it’s not priced for the average consumer,” he said. “You won’t see it at Crate & Barrel — at least I hope not. I have had them rip off our products a couple of times.”
It’s a compliment to be copied, he said. All the leaders in innovation get copied, from BMW to Apple and, locally, Herman Miller.
“I don’t mean that in an egotistical way at all,” he said. “I like to think that we’re innovators, and others are following suit. … If not I get really angry.”
The company’s ascent into high fashion began at the Chicago Design Show in its first year. The main goal, Jeup said, was to be noticed. By the end of the three-day affair, he had a dealer in Chicago. Instead of carting his product back home to Jenison, it stayed at the Merchandise Mart, a few floors down in The Bright Group’s permanent showroom.
“In my opinion, that was a grand slam,” Jeup recalled.
Eight years later his products are now on display in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Miami, Chicago, Scottsdale and Denver, along with Jeup’s personal favorites: Taipei, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Last year, his company was featured in The China Times, one of largest newspapers in Asia.
“We’ve entered China by exporting, not importing.”
Interestingly, he has no showroom in Michigan, just the manufacturing facility.
“People ask why I don’t have a showroom here. I tell them there’s no market,” he said. “The closest market is Chicago. You can design and build it anywhere, but then you have to sell it.”
As an example, there was the initial response to his business plan.
“People couldn’t fathom that we were going to sell a table for $4,000, because they wouldn’t do it themselves,” he said. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry about whether it’s going to sell. Just do it.”
Jeup credits some of those initial skeptics, his first employees, for the company’s success.