A Tale of Two Friends
By Tom Lassiter
Unless you explored the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart at last September’s Casual Market Chicago, or made an effort to keep up with Charles Vernon since his 2014 retirement from Gloster Furniture, you may not have heard of Woodline Shade Solutions.
The South African company’s main product line is parasols; North Americans know them as umbrellas.
Even if you don’t know the name, you have seen Woodline’s products. The company, founded by Fritz Walter in 1990, has designed and manufactured umbrellas for well-known outdoor lifestyle companies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Brands that have trusted Woodline to make their private-label umbrellas have included Gloster, Barlow Tyrie, Smith & Hawken, Country Casual Teak, and Williams-Sonoma.
In the European market, Woodline has made shade products for Garpa, a Germany-based retailer of home and garden furniture, and Tribu, a Belgian firm that sells high-fashion outdoor living products around the globe.
Visitors to Woodline’s space on the Mart’s seventh floor last September probably encountered Vernon and Walter, carrying on like longtime friends, which they are. Vernon has no official title with the company. His role is counselor, advisor and strategist.
“We have a very simple objective,” Vernon said in a Skype interview from his home in England. “We want to be the best shade company in the world.”
Fisherman, Surfer, Engineer
Walter’s entry into the umbrella business didn’t result from an in-depth analysis of the outdoor market. He had expertise in engineering and woodworking and was looking for opportunities. He saw some French-made wooden umbrellas and thought he could make products equally good if not better.
Confidence is never in short supply for Walter, who has the improbable resumé of a serial entrepreneur. Woodline is one of his 14 companies, which range from a maker of saltwater fishing lures and marine equipment to a game farm.
A native of Namibia, Walter attended college in Germany and earned a degree in marine engineering. But after growing up sailing, fishing and living an outdoor life, it took only three days of wearing a suit and shoes for him to realize that an office job was not in his future.
Inspired by the National Geographic magazines he read as a child, he resigned and headed for Alaska to become a commercial fisherman. He lived on Kodiak Island and worked the Bering Sea decades before “Deadliest Catch” became a cable TV sensation.
“It was great fun and a very good education,” Walter said in a Skype interview from South Africa.
He returned to Namibia for a brother’s wedding but ended up staying to become “a professional beach bum for some time.” He fished. He windsurfed. He read. Eventually he got bored.
Walter took a part-time job as a representative for a German machine tool company. The furniture industry in South Africa, rich in timber, was exploding. Factories were going up, making product for export to Europe.
“I was totally involved with setting up factories, machines, tooling and production lines,” Walter recalled. “I spent a lot of time traveling to and from Europe.”
The job allowed Walter to employ his engineering training, introduced him to world-class machinery, and taught him about various wood species and their characteristics.
A type of eucalyptus known for its straight grain and unusual strength especially impressed him. Mines in South Africa used the timber for bracing to prevent shafts from collapsing.
When the time came for Walter to pursue other opportunities, he thought eucalyptus might be just the wood to make the umbrellas he designed.
“We could manufacture very competitively, and we had great quality,” he said. “We ended up with an export order to France.”
When a massive storm later clobbered France, “Everybody lost their umbrellas – except ours,” he said. Woodline’s reputation as a maker of strong, handsome umbrellas took root.
The business grew slowly. Walter did all the product design and engineering. He also tackled other projects.
“I did all sorts of stuff,” he said, “specialized things and problem solving, just to create enough income stream to keep the factory going. And we worked extremely hard.”
Long hours were commonplace and suited his nature. Even today, he said, “I’m not a good sleeper.”
Walter photographed his products and made a brochure that was circulated through South Africa’s European embassies. Eventually it caught the attention of Tribu’s owner, who ordered 120 units. “We had our challenges, but we managed it perfectly,” Walter said of his first large order.
Woodline then exhibited at Spoga, the huge garden trade fair in Cologne, Germany. A visitor stopped by the booth and showed great interest in Walter’s umbrellas. “He was very into the design and concept, because it was totally different from anything else,” Walter said.
The next day the man returned with a team of nine, including an engineer, a designer and a marketing person. “We like your concept and products, and we’re going to be working with you,” they told him.
Garpa, previously unknown to Walter, placed an order for three containers of umbrellas.
“And that’s how it took off,” Walter said. “It’s just grown and grown.”
|Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.|
Relocating to Jeffreys Bay
Woodline is wholly-owned by Walter and his family. The company is vertically integrated and produces almost every component used in its products except for fabrics. A few specialized stainless-steel or aluminum items are produced to Walter’s specifications by other manufacturers. Until this year, production has taken place at factories in northeastern South Africa. The headquarters was in Johannesburg.
The company recently relocated to Jeffreys Bay on South Africa’s breathtaking southern coast. The move, nearly 1,000 miles, will consolidate production and management in the community where Walter makes his home.
Jeffreys Bay has an experienced labor market with manufacturing and administrative personnel, Walter said. The town is about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from two ports, including South Africa’s largest container port.
The new factory will go online in March with more capacity than the facilities it replaces. Woodline owns additional property adjacent to the factory site. “We can grow our capacity as we need to, as demand increases,” Vernon said. Woodline’s products currently are sold in about 50 nations.
Vernon expects the company to thrive in Jeffreys Bay. “I know from experience with Gloster that, if you base a business in a small town, you can get a real family feeling within your organization,” he said. “You can provide excellent customer service. That happens a lot in America.”
Gloster’s U.S. headquarters is in South Boston, Virginia, where the population is about 8,000. Jeffreys Bay has a population of about 40,000 and is one of the fastest growing towns in South Africa.
|Papillion dual-pole umbrella.|
Following His Passion
Walter’s diverse holdings include real estate companies, a renewable energy company, and farms. He said he realized a couple of years ago that, at this stage of his life, Woodline “is actually my passion.”
Last year Walter got together with his friend Vernon following Vernon’s retirement from Gloster. Walter told of his plan “to take Woodline to the next level, to make it a special company.”
“Charles,” Walter said, “I know you too well. You’re not going to sit at home and do nothing. Would you be interested?”
Vernon already had made known his intentions for life after retirement.
He planned to continue working with his son Tom’s football (soccer) academy in Ghana. Right to Dream Academy provides children from all over West Africa with an education and opportunities. Thirty graduates are studying at high schools and colleges in the United Kingdom and United States. More than 20 graduates are playing professional soccer in Europe.
Vernon planned to continue leading a couple of furniture industry-related charities in the U.K., as well as an education initiative to train the next generation of skilled furniture craftsmen. He and his wife wanted to spend more time visiting their children and grandchildren, who live in Africa and New Zealand.
“I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to stay with the industry,” Vernon said, “and I realized I did in some way.”
Vernon had two criteria: He would not join any venture that would compete with Gloster, and whatever he did, it had to be fun. Woodline passed both measures. “I said to Fritz I’d help him,” Vernon said. Woodline “is the only commercial thing I’m doing.”
Vernon’s role would be considered unusual in any field. He’s a coach, a mentor, a seasoned, successful industry veteran, and a cheerleader.
“I am not an executive in Woodline,” Vernon explained. “I’m there to help Fritz get his business from where it was to where he now knows he wants it to be.”
The globetrotting Vernon visits Africa frequently, but his son’s academy in Ghana is more than 3,000 miles by air from South Africa. Vernon and Walter meet face-to-face as necessary and communicate regularly. Vernon also increasingly interacts with Woodline’s management team.
The role allows Vernon to avoid being “lost in the day-to-day,” he said. He can “stand back and help (Walter) develop the strategy, and then keep reminding him that what we’re aiming at is a different thing from running a company.”
Recall the “simple objective” that Vernon laid out earlier: To be the best shade company in the world – not the biggest, not the most profitable, but the best.
Vernon and Walter’s formidable aim is to create a culture that encourages high performance and exceeds expectations at every level, from design and engineering to manufacturing, shipping and customer service.
Determining “best” in any instance is a totally subjective undertaking, Vernon pointed out. His unique role “puts me in a nice position,” he said. He gets to coach and advise while, “as an outsider,” he’s free to judge whether Woodline meets his own subjective standards.
“How do you define ‘best?’” Vernon asked. He answered with more questions. “How quickly do you answer customers? How quickly do you ship? What’s your quality record?”
Vernon the coach will help pose the questions Woodline must answer and mentor the management team that will deal with the day-to-day.
“My motivation,” Vernon said, “is to get (Walter) and his team to do better. And that’s a really nice position to be in.”
Vernon noted that during his time at Gloster, the company generally prospered more when it focused more on creating fresh designs and producing top-quality products than on meeting sales targets.
“If you get it right, the money follows,” Vernon said. “I believe the time when true value is created is when one is concentrating on a principle rather than on a figure, assuming the people you’ve got are competent and capable to do it.
“People have to get it, have to understand it, be enabled and empowered. And that’s an exciting journey.”
Walter, Vernon said, is “a guy of immense capability and self-knowledge. Many people in business think they know how to do everything. Fritz knows what he’s good at, and he knows where he needs help. That’s a great credit to him and very motivating for those who work with him.”
|Safari wood market umbrellas.|
The Innovations Continue
Woodline’s product lineup includes umbrellas made of wood, aluminum and stainless steel. Walter has developed a range of wall-mounted umbrellas, prompted by the need for urban apartment dwellers to have shade on their high-rise balconies. He has engineered a new line of umbrella bases, designed with the American market in mind.
“We have underground bases, on-ground bases, deck-mount bases, freestanding bases, moveable bases – and every one of them is interchangeable,” Walter said. “All these kinds of things I design myself.”
He’s also developed two new, weighted-base systems for freestanding umbrellas, especially in the U.S. market. One is a frame that uses standard-size paving stones, available at garden centers and home improvement stores. Simply stack the heavy pavers in the frame, and you’re done. The other is an aluminum form that the homeowner fills with ready-mix concrete.
Walter has set more challenges for himself. He wants to create mechanisms that make opening and closing an umbrella easier, especially for the elderly. But easy also has parameters, he said. “You can’t make them too high-tech” because maintenance becomes an issue.
“I still perceive that an umbrella should be simple, easy to use and highly practical,” he said. “But we never take any shortcuts in materials or designs.”
Walter, ever the sportsman, is inspired by the technical advances he sees in sailing and yachting. Perhaps some of the lightweight, yet incredibly strong materials used in ocean racers can be employed to make the next generation of innovative umbrellas. The superlight fabrics being used to make sails also intrigue him.
The material can’t meet the UV standards required of umbrella fabrics, at least not yet. “But that is the kind of materials I would like to work with,” Walter said, “to come up with super-models of umbrellas for the designer world. That’s what’s going to come out, and it will be great. I’m putting a whole concept together.”
Meanwhile, the reinvented Woodline Shade Solutions is taking shape in Jeffreys Bay. The new factory soon will be fully operational, and the management team will look after daily operations, allowing Walter more time for “what I am best at, which is designing and developing.”
Vernon, the outsider, will critique and coach. Together, they plan to create “the best shade company in the world.”
While still having fun.