How the NBA and NCAA's Favorite Folding Chair Gets Made
If you haven't sat in a Spec Seat, you've definitely seen them: they're the chairs celebrities like Beyoncé and athletes like LeBron James sit in courtside at most NBA arenas. We toured the Taiwanese factory where all the chairs are made.
Photos by Amy Chyan
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Jay Z and Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kim Kardashian—Spec Seats have cradled some of the most famous butts in America.
Even if you haven't sat in a Spec Seat, you've definitely seen them: the Taiwanese manufacturing company supplies a majority of NBA arenas with the customized folding chairs found courtside and in locker rooms. They are also the "Official NCAA Supplier for Portable Seating" for championship events like March Madness; other clients include Major League Baseball, the MGM Grand, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and Shanghai's Mercedes-Benz Arena.
That's a lot of big-time names for the relatively modest factory hidden among green rice paddies and farmhouses in the Guanyin District, a rural township in Northern Taiwan. Named for the Buddhist goddess of mercy, who is often depicted standing or sitting on a blooming lotus flower, Guanyin's lotus farms draw hundreds of thousands of visitors during the summer. But it is arguably the folding chairs, and the tiny 40-employee facility here that makes them, that are Guanyin's most famous asset.
Spec Seats employs about 40 people at its Taiwan facility, where they make up to 350 folding chairs a day. Until very recently, most of the process was done by hand.
"Even after all these years, we've chosen to keep our business small," said Frank Lin, Spec Seats' 81-year-old chairman. "We choose our customers and our customers also choose us."
If a chair is going to support the butt that broke the internet, quality is important. Once, when a customer complained about the cushioning going flat on a 4,000-unit order for a stadium, Lin replaced the entire lot at no extra cost. His only request was that the chairs be sent back to Taiwan so he could examine and improve them.
"Sales of up to millions happen here every day, but all I think of is how I can run this place even better," Lin said.
A sports enthusiast whose previous business ventures included importing supplies for athletic facilities, Lin worked as a distributor for a folding-chair company for two decades before starting Spec Seats Technologies in 2000. He knows the industry, and has dozens of patents related to the humble folding chair.
Spec Seats' sales director is Jordan Hergott, whose family has been in the portable folding chair business in the U.S. since 1925. The Hergotts supplied their American-made chairs to NBA venues in the 1970s, but the original family business was later bought out by a competitor. When Hergott began distributing Lin's chairs, he said, it was like knocking on old friends' doors. The Memphis Grizzlies' Fedex Forum bit first, in 2002; then it was Time Warner Cable Arena, home for the Charlotte Hornets. Today, over three-quarters of NBA arenas are Spec Seats clients.
Lin believes that running a successful business is like planting bamboo in soil: it takes years of nurturing before something sprouts, but then it grows exponentially. Early on, Spec Seats was filling orders for just 40 chairs at a time; today, it's a million-dollar company making 350 chairs a day.
Spec Seats' largest order came from the NCAA, which they've supplied since 2006: more than 30,000 chairs for the Final Four. "At the time, we didn't really believe it was possible," Hergott said. The NCAA has renewed their contract with Spec Seats three times since.
"It's not just another factory," Hergott added. "It's a factory that has had a relationship with an American family for a long time. It's gone out and produced the highest quality folding chair that's customized and is the most recognized in the NBA."
The Spec Seats warehouse smells like a hardware store. Inside, just up the stairs, is the office Lin shares with his secretary; a calendar and a framed poster of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, mid-dribble, decorate the walls. (The Warriors are Lin's favorite basketball team.) An additional meeting table, with Spec Seats' logo chairs neatly tucked underneath, completes the furniture ensemble.
Giving a tour around the factory, Lin zips through each area with great agility. Spec Seats' showroom displays the variety of custom options on offer—single arm rests, double arm rests, arm rests with cup holders, not to mention enough sports logos and brands to fill an empty arena.
A modest photography studio in the adjacent corridor—draped white backdrop, and permanent lighting fixtures—makes it easy for a photographer to snap shots of finished prototypes to send to the client for confirmation. Two sample chairs are made for every order: one is shipped off to the client for inspection; the other is kept at the factory as a model to work off.
Up until a few months ago, factory workers made every component of their chairs by hand, from seat construction to the metal frame finish. To make the welding process more accurate, though, Spec Seats spent over a year developing a new robotic welding arm; now that the machine has been installed in the factory, Lin says, a process that used to take eight employees requires only two. A second arm will be operational soon. (According to the company, automation hasn't resulted in job cuts; rather, those employees are just transferred to other parts of the assembly process.)
We stood in front of the robotic arm as it pressed up and down on a metal chair's frame, its precise movements like some sort of programmed jig. When the dance was over, two Spec Seats employees at the station removed the frame before locking down a fresh piece.
In another building a few kilometers away, more employees sewed the custom covers and assemble the seats, still by hand.
Lin isn't afraid of copycats taking away his customers or a startup disrupting the industry: "If there's no competition, there's no business," Lin said as we continued to tour the factory grounds. He believes that Spec Seats is too far ahead in its designs and well established with its reputation. While rival companies are working to catch up, he's already made the next move.
Next to the robotic arm, Lin told me that if I come back next year, things will be different—something else will have changed, another aspect of his folding-chair factory improved.