Blog: A tribute to Jeff Dilley, Vietnam sourcing expert and friend to Furniture Today

When Furniture Today first learned of sourcing expert and Vietnam veteran Jeff Dilley’s passing this past spring, it brought a mix of shock and sadness. Dilley — who always seemed to have an amazing amount of energy, passion and commitment — was a loyal friend and resource to Furniture Today. In short, his impact on our international coverage simply can’t be overstated.

After all, it was Dilley who first introduced the paper to Vietnam and the country’s wood furniture manufacturing sector at the height of the wood bedroom furniture antidumping case in late 2003 and early 2004.

At the time, long-time industry journalist, case goods expert and my friend Powell Slaughter led the paper’s coverage of the shift of wooden bedroom from China to Vietnam due to antidumping duties on Chinese-made wooden bedroom furniture. And it was Powell’s relationships that helped prepare him and me for our first visit to Vietnam with Jeff in the summer of 2004. At the time, I was still a rookie at Furniture Today, so I was lucky to be chosen by Powell and the paper to tag along.

But it was Jeff Dilley who opened the door to both us, thanks to his many relationships within the Vietnam Ministry of Trade, the Handicraft & Wood Industry Assn. of Ho Chi Minh City and many of the factories we wound up seeing, roughly about two dozen in five days on the ground. As anyone in the industry can imagine, this was a grueling schedule, one that almost left me at wits end by day five as Powell fondly recalls. Yet Jeff navigated the journey with authority — and of course some frustration, which Powell and I have remembered well over the years — given the challenge of getting to certain factories.

Being a former U.S. Army Strategic Intelligence Officer and military adviser during the height of the Vietnam War, Jeff had formed an attachment to the place – and the people – as had many other veterans. His military experience perhaps made him a little gruff, stern – not to mention loud – in his communications with Vietnamese people who had a tenuous grasp of the English language. He wrote his emails in all caps, and this is how he often sounded when speaking to the Vietnamese. Still, he was never mean spirited, and you could always sense his affection for those he had come to know in Vietnam.

Lo and behold, Jeff had another trip planned for me and former Casual Living editor Cinde Ingram the following summer of 2005. The schedule was not as intense as the trip the year before, but it did include a mix of case goods and outdoor furniture plants, many of which we had not yet seen. In some ways, the trip was redundant given how close it was to our first. Yet Jeff’s goal was to help us build more connections to the Vietnam industry, not only plants and people in the Ho Chi Minh City area, where the first trip was concentrated, but also farther up the coast closer to Da Nang, where we saw many outdoor furniture producers.

After this trip, I wouldn’t return to Vietnam until more than 10 years later, although Jeff always was trying to get us to come back, a veiled effort perhaps to revisit and build upon our first trip in July 2004. That subsequent trip was with a team from Holland House, who also were extremely gracious in arranging my travel and bringing me to certain factories. Then I returned about two years ago with former Furniture Today videographer Mynda Bullock, whose filming skills and eye for detail allowed us to tell a compelling story about the, plants, places and people we saw.

But while Jeff Dilley did not participate in these last two trips, he was always in the back of mind thanks to his connections to the Vietnamese furniture industry and its people, whom he always took the opportunity to introduce me to over the years at both the High Point or Las Vegas markets.

Jeff often had the interest of others first, and that is why he took such interest in helping us learn the landscape and meet important people in Vietnam. To better understand his interest in others, take a look at his obituary; not only did he have an amazing military background with many medals and honors, he also had an impressive  background in the private sector, including helping transform a Delaware mobile home park into a cooperative that gave residents great control over their properties.

Yet it was his experience in Vietnam – including more than 100 trips since his visit in 1994 as an advisor to many industries from furniture to construction equipment and from seafood to recycling to name several – that made him a true sourcing expert.

Vietnam has grown in importance, thanks largely to antidumping and China tariffs, the combination of which led to it having the highest amount of furniture shipments to the U.S. market in 2020. Jeff would have said “I told you so” to this development.

Today things remain a challenge due to not only the difficulty securing containers, but also pandemic-related shutdowns, including a temporary shutdown at one of Ashley’s cut and sew plants in the Ho Chi Minh City area. The plant has since reopened, but sources tell us that other area factories are also are temporarily shutting down due to rising numbers of COVID cases. Reuters also reported that a supplier to Nike also shut down three plants this week due to COVID outbreaks. Our hope is that there will not be anything near as drastic as a country-wide shutdown still affecting Malaysia.

Jeff would probably look at this with concern yet with the belief that Vietnam will come back even stronger post pandemic.

Whatever happens, we miss you greatly, Jeff, and all you did for Furniture Today and the industry. While you are no longer with us, your impact will be remembered and felt wherever our travels take us in the future.

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