Hearth & Home November 2015

The main entrance to Summer Classics’ corporate offices.

Summer Classics Headquarters

By Tom Lassiter

Bew White finds just the right building to house his five divisions, a showroom, cut-and-sew operation, warehouse and more.
L to R: Dick Cross, Co-CEO; William White, President and CMO of Gabby; Bew White, owner and CEO, Summer Classics.

You know a makeover is big when the project manager brings his travel trailer to live on-site – and parks it indoors.

Roy Dollar parked his 22-ft. Airstream in the warehouse while he oversaw renovations of Summer Classics’ new headquarters and distribution center in Pelham, Alabama. The company consolidated operations from several nearby sites and moved into the nearly 500,000 sq. ft. facility just in time for the company’s annual Garden Party in August.

The building, constructed in 1966, formerly housed a hardware distributor that had ceased operations around 2009. The building stood vacant on the 18-acre site until Summer Classics bought it in summer 2013.

The purchase, according to the Birmingham News newspaper, was financed by a $3.275 million loan from the city of Pelham. The city also provided $800,000 and tax incentives, said Summer Classics president & CEO Bew White in a telephone interview. “Then we pulled the trigger and spent an additional $3.5 million on the building,” he added.

“We took a very mundane building and tried to make it worthy of Summer Classics,” said architect Mack McKinney, whose firm, m2studio, pllc, worked on the project. The structure, he said, “had no architectural elements of interest at all, other than it was just big. We tried to do what we could, and it turned out very nice.”

The building, prominently located on a major highway and near retail and commercial properties, allows Summer Classics to place its five major divisions under one roof for the first time. The divisions are:

  • Summer Classics, which makes and distributes high-end casual furniture to resellers.
  • Summer Classics Contract, which supplies casual furniture to the hospitality, healthcare and other contract markets.
  • Summer Classics Retail, which operates company-owned stores.
  • Gabby, which designs and imports interior furnishings.
  • Parker James, which supplies casual furniture to larger retailers through a container program, and also offers private-label options.

Also at the new facility are offices for Gabriella Light, LLC, a newly formed holding company for the five divisions. The holding company, White said, “will make the accounting process a lot simpler.”

The one-story building has 50,000 sq. ft. of office space, expanded from an original 40,000 sq. ft. A 10,000 sq. ft. retail showroom was built. White said that incorporating a retail operation was part of the financing deal with the city. Summer Classics eventually will close its nearby existing retail store, he said.

The building includes a dining room/breakroom for employees. A local Italian restaurant provides food service, according to White. There’s also a catering kitchen for special events.

Another feature of the new headquarters is a museum. It features some of Summer Classics’ most popular products over the years. 

The opportunity to purchase and renovate the building came at an opportune time.

“We were out of space,” White said. “I didn’t have an office anymore; there were three people in my office. I was working out of my car.”

Employees of the various Summer Classics divisions were situated in three separate buildings in nearby Montevallo. The company’s cut-and-sew operation, which makes cushion covers, was five miles from the former Summer Classics distribution center, ­where cushions had to be united with frames for shipment.

The new cut-and-sew cushion department operates in 50,000 sq. ft., adjacent to the distribution center.

Bringing everyone together in one location will boost efficiency and strengthen company-wide esprit de corps, said Birmingham interior designer Ivy Schuster, of Hatcher Schuster Interiors. White, she said, “wanted everyone to feel like they’re all working together in this one building.”

The new facility brings together more than 200 employees in an environment that reflects the taste and style associated with Summer Classics’ products.

“This place is fabulous,” White said. “It’s a dream place to work, I think.”

Other amenities include an exercise room (still to come) and a chapel. A chaplain will make weekly visits, White said.

Schuster worked closely with White to create the atmosphere he desired. She said White’s challenge to her firm was simple: “What can we do to make this special for Summer Classics – really special?”

Both agreed that the interior of the building needed more daylight. On Schuster’s first visit, it also needed artificial light, and there was none.

Copper thieves had entered the empty building and stripped out all the copper wiring and plumbing. Schuster had to use her smartphone as a flashlight to be able to see.

The office area runs deep into the building, with office suites situated on either side of a wide hallway. To bring in daylight, skylights were installed at periodic intervals, flooding the hallway with light.

Tall windows were installed in offices along the hallway, allowing daylight to penetrate work areas. The windows, however, are not standard products.

L to R: Bew White standing behind (at left) Caleb Davis, an intern in construction; Ivy Schuster of the design firm Hatcher Schuster Interiors; and Roy Dollar, Project Manager.

White purchased 400 mahogany doors, each with 15 beveled-glass windowpanes, from an Alabama salvage company. “I got a deal,” he said.

Pete Simonson, head of the company’s maintenance department, is a skilled craftsman. He combined parts of two doors to make the eight-ft. windows that line the hallway. The executive suite also features the refashioned units as doors and windows.

The company previously had used the same technique to make large windows for its Pelham corporate showroom and its showroom in High Point.

Some of the refashioned mahogany windows were weatherproofed and used to replace the existing windows in the building’s front façade.

The showroom is unique among Summer Classics company stores in that Gabby products have been added to the standard lineup. The company is working on yet another concept, White said, “a boutique store in a high-end area with mostly indoor and some outdoor.” The new concept will be called Gabriella Light, the same name as the new holding company.

White wanted each Summer Classics division to have its own design aesthetic within the building, Schuster said, and they do. “They all have a little different feel,” she explained. “For example, in Gabby, we used more glass and contemporary finishes.”

One design challenge was how to break up the long hallway, Schuster said. A company that places less importance on design might have settled for a tunnel-like corridor devoid of personality. That’s not the Summer Classics way.

The solution was to install a series of pilasters at various points and mount wall sconces made by Gabby. “As you look down the hallway and see the columns and lighting,” Schuster said, “it doesn’t seem as long as it really is.”

McKinney, the architect, focused on the exterior of the building. Schuster, whose firm specializes in commercial properties, concentrated on space planning and ensuring that the remodel brought the building up to code. Compliance included installing a sprinkler system, she said.

Dollar, the project coordinator, has a long association with Summer Classics and paid special attention to finishes and furniture. “He really understood the product and aesthetic side of it,” Schuster said.

Dollar’s home is a 90-minute drive from Pelham. His Airstream trailer was his home during the week. “He was so passionate about being there,” Schuster said. “He wanted to be there as much as he could.”

The building, Dollar and Schuster agreed, reflects the vision of the company’s founder. “Bew is one of the most creative people I’ve ever worked with,” Dollar said. “He has excellent vision.”

That level of creativity kept ideas flowing during the remodeling process, Dollar said, and many of those ideas were incorporated into the final result. “We went through quite a few change orders on this project,” the project manager said.

The existing office area had vinyl tile flooring. The nine-in. squares were adhered to the concrete pad with a glue containing asbestos. All that had to be removed by specialists wearing protective coverings for handling hazardous materials.

A new layer of concrete was poured to make a fresh surface that could be stained and finished, Dollar said. Fresh concrete was omitted from a 12-in.-wide band around the perimeter of a conference room and certain other areas. Reclaimed heart pine planks were laid in those bands, warming up the offices with natural materials.

“Bew and I are very much into reclaimed materials,” Dollar said.

White’s office, Dollar said, features antique oak perimeter banding on the floor. Walls are paneled in acacia. One of Summer Classics’ Vietnamese suppliers created the paneling and matching bookcases to fit the space.

The reclaimed/recycled theme includes much of the office furniture. Southern Living magazine, headquartered in Birmingham, had remade its offices and donated its former furniture to a charity organization.

Summer Classics was able to acquire “pretty much of what we needed,” Dollar said, including desks, chairs, bookcases and seating for guests.

Planning for the transition began with Dollar going to each Summer Classics building and office to assess space requirements. The detailed planning paid off with a relatively smooth transition. “It was amazing how well it transferred,” he said.

And the on-site Airstream? “It has been a godsend,” Dollar said.

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