For many decades, Stanly Fixtures and Rusco Fixture Company, located just a few miles apart in Aquadale and Oakboro, were friendly competitors, trying to gain the upper hand in the competitive retail fixture manufacturing market. while helping whenever possible.
“We bid against each other, we worked against each other, but at the end of the day, if they needed something and I had it, I would give it to them and they had something. I needed, they would give it to me,” said longtime Rusco employee Barry Slater.
The two fixture fitters have worked for big names in apparel over the years, including Macy’s, Belk, Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus, designing and assembling the interiors of each space with cabinets, jewelry boxes and other types of furniture.
Unlike other lighting companies that might focus on mass production of the same types of products, such as cabinets or specific doors, Rusco tailors its work to company demands.
“We’re definitely more into custom work and that’s the niche we’re looking for,” Slater said.
After years of competition, the two were thrust into the same orbit in 2019 when Don Russell, owner of Rusco, which opened in 1976, bought Stanly Fixtures, although each company continued to operate independently. It was only last November that the decision was made to merge the two companies under the name Rusco Fixtures. Slater is one of the company’s vice presidents.
“In the midst of Covid, there wasn’t enough business for both places,” said Stephen Russell, vice president of Rusco and brother of Don, of the decision to combine forces. Rusco’s original employees of Oakboro moved to the 125,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Aquadale, located along North Carolina Route 138 next to the elementary school.
Much like the sprawling facility (which has an active on-site source and housed a movie theater about a century ago), the venture itself has a dynamic and interesting backstory.
“There are a lot of layers, I can tell you that,” Slater said.
A family business at heart
When asked what the best part of working at Rusco was, Stephen Russell was quick to answer with one word: “Family”. His family has been a common thread connecting the two lighting companies over the decades.
It all started with Ben, Russell’s father, who began his career in the fixture industry at Young Manufacturing Company in Norwood in the early 1950s. He left to start his own business, Russell Fixture Company in Locust, Utah. early 1960s. This business lasted about three years before closing; Russell then began working at Stanly Fixtures, which opened in 1959. His sons Roddy, Don and Stephen also spent time at the manufacturing plant.
“I started here, sweeping floors in 1964,” said Stephen Russell.
Don’s son, Jeff, remembers playing around the facility on Saturday.
“I ran in the dark there,” he said.
The Russell family remained at the Aquadale facility from 1964 to 1976. It was then that Ben, along with his three sons, opened Rusco Fixture Company in Oakboro.
During his tenure at Rusco, Jeff has worked in nearly every state this side of the Rockies. One of his most memorable experiences was spending a summer in New York City as a teenager. Stationed across the river in New Jersey, he and his team traveled into the city each morning through the Holland Tunnel, where they worked on setting up American Express offices in both towers of the World Trade Center.
Stephen recalls telling Jeff upon leaving Stanly Fixtures for the new business in Oakboro that “I’m never coming back.”
That was the plan, even after Don bought Stanly Fixtures in 2019. But the pandemic and Don’s death last April changed plans for the future of both companies.
“We all had our jobs and knew what to do, but Don ran the business,” Slater said. “Don did it all.”
While Stephen and Jeff, who is now president of the company, are still going strong, they don’t have to look too far when they decide to retire and step down. Stephen’s son Seth is a fourth generation Rusco employee and Jeff’s son Mitchell is a fifth generation employee.
Even when the companies merged, no turf wars emerged, according to interviews with several employees.
David Hargett, who spent 11 years working at the Aquadale factory, most of which was part of Stanly Fixtures, said the merger with Rusco, including the discovery of his new colleagues, had gone “pretty well unfolded”. He is one of three full-time builders, the other two came from Rusco. “There hasn’t been much change on my part.”
There have been several benefits for Rusco employees during their move to the Aquadale facility. “There are more machines and much better equipment,” said Danny Hatley, another of the full-time builders.
The end of an era
While both companies at their peak had over 200 employees, today Rusco Fixtures has approximately 50 workers, most of whom are involved in the construction and installation of the various materials (doors, cabinets, housings, lights) that are attached to the plant.
One of the most indispensable workers was Joe Furr, 82, who forged a strong relationship with the Russell family over his many decades of service. Having worked at the original Rusco factory in Oakboro and the new iteration in Aquadale for nearly 45 years, there’s not much involving the company that Furr doesn’t know.
“He’s known me since I was knee high,” Jeff Russell said.
Soft-spoken and tight-lipped, Furr is the type of employee who loves his job but seeks to avoid any form of attention.
“I like the business,” he said, noting that he’s built all kinds of furniture during his tenure. “They’ve been good to me.”
Although Furr, who retired on July 1, will miss coming to the facility each day and interacting with his peers, he said it was time to go.
“Joe is by far our best builder,” Slater said. “The experience and knowledge that he has in his head when he retires, he takes it all with him.”
Having known him for many decades, dating back to their time in Oakboro, Stephen said Furr was like family.
“I will miss him, he has been with me for so many years.”
If Furr reconsidered his retirement plans, Slater said, the company has an “open door policy” and he can always come back.
“He’s always welcome to come back and work where he wants to work, when he wants to work.”