Comfort is the watchword at Mitchell Gold's eponymous furniture business, which he (below, right) and Bob Williams (below, left) founded in the small manufacturing town of Taylorsville, N.C., in 1989. For them, comfort involves more than down feathers and velvet slipcovers, however. Gold and Williams have created a furniture plant that employees enjoy working in, an unusual notion in a county where, as recently as the 1980s, air-conditioned factories were rare. Mitchell Gold's plant, in contrast, boasts an indoor walking track, a gourmet cafeteria, and on-site daycare facilities (in addition to AC). Shirley Roberts, an employee since 1991 who now oversees 127 workers in the cloth sewing room, says, "Mitchell does a lot to make our lives better."

Workers at neighboring businesses have benefited too. "Mitchell and Bob are always willing to give their employees benefits that nobody else has," notes Cass Ballenger, a retired Republican congressman who owns a business in nearby Hickory, N.C. "In order to compete, other companies have begun to follow suit."

Of course, it takes more than happy employees to run a thriving operation at a time when many factories are slashing hours or shutting down completely. Gold expects to generate $100 million in sales in 2005. The business has posted average annual revenue increases of about 20% since 2000, compared with 3% in the overall furniture industry during the same period. Contemporary designs and the use of unusual upholstery fabrics have propelled the business. "When we started out, we noticed that a lot of people were wearing prewashed jeans," Williams recalls. "So we started applying that philosophy to our upholstery: We look at what fabric people are wearing and put it on furniture."

Another key to success is working well with retailers such as Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and Pottery Barn. The trick, says Williams, is creating product lines that remain true to the Mitchell Gold philosophy while catering to each store's style. Restoration Hardware, for instance, prefers the dramatic club chair look, while Pottery Barn likes casual couches. "Most of the time, I just come up with ideas, then figure out which customer would groove on that idea the most," Williams says.

Meanwhile, back in Taylorsville, Gold and Williams are quietly changing one other aspect of local business. When they founded Mitchell Gold there 16 years ago, they stood out among local business owners because they are partners in life as well as in business. Once, a worker made a homophobic comment on the factory floor, but he was shushed by a well-respected older woman who worked as a plant inspector. "When Bob and I first founded the business here, we were a little naive," Gold asserts. "But there's been a lot of learning at this factory, and I think people respect us. People respect us because we respect them."

Nadine Heintz