Fabric in His Genes
By Tom Lassiter
An interview with the president of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, LLC.
Hearth & Home: You and your family have been involved with the development of Sunbrella as a casual furniture fabric since Day One. Tell us how that came about.
David Swers: “The ancient history is that in 1981, my father – Allen Swers – had an idea. He saw fabric on an awning and it just struck him: This is fabric, yet it survives three years in the Florida sun.
“He had always been in the textile business. He ran a large company, moved up from literally the mailroom, to salesman, sales manager, to head of the company in 30 years. He knew the indoor textile business extremely well. He decided he didn’t like the corporate life, and became an independent rep. Finally he moved to Florida because he didn’t like New York.
|Allen and Renee Swers.|
“But he saw that awning, made a couple of phone calls and learned that Chet Gant was the division manager for Glen Raven, which made the awning product. So my father literally did the old-fashioedn salesman trick, called him up cold and said, ‘I’m going to be in town. Can you give me 30 minutes? I’ve got something.’
“They ended up meeting, and that 30 minutes turned into almost a three-day brainstorming session. Chet loved the idea (of developing a Sunbrella version for outdoor furniture).
“They agreed to start the business. My father would pretty much run it, because they (Glen Raven) didn’t know what to do. They wanted to hire him, and my dad said no. He wanted to stay an independent rep.
“Glen Raven didn’t have any designers back then. They were (producing) only stripes and solids, very simple. Nobody knew or even thought about what a design was. My mother, Renee, designed the first line. I remember the dining room table was filled with layouts to get the proper repeats. That’s how it started. Then, in 1982, it was introduced.
“There was some real interest the first year or two, then it just stopped.”
Why? What happened?
Swers: “People didn’t trust it. It was too nice, too soft. They were used to PVC or cotton, which didn’t perform.
“Glen Raven lost money on that product. Sunbrella did not sell well for eight or nine years. One of the reasons was my dad was calling in and telling them what to produce. They (Glen Raven management) knew it was a great idea, but there was not enough focus, which kind of dovetails with where I come in.
“In 1988, I was working for a large commercial bank in corporate finance. I was head of investor relations. My background was an MBA from Duke; it was a highfalutin’ sales job. My dad asked me if I wanted to join him. I was 30 at the time and said, ‘Sure.’ I became an independent rep working with my dad. I was a trainee, folding samples and doing all the stuff that you do to learn the business.
“After about a year and a half, Glen Raven and my dad thought it would be good to have somebody in the office focusing on Sunbrella for casual furniture. On Nov. 1, 1989, I came to Glen Raven as a salesman. Basically, I was the focused person. Furniture was my focus.
“A lot of things happened over the next couple of years. I joke that I fired my mother. In 1992, I think we hired our first designer.
“The vast majority of our business back then was in awning and marine, and we had some convertible-top business.
“We saw some real pickup as we started to do a little bit more design, as market umbrellas came on in ’93. Things build on one another. All of a sudden you could have a performance product – Sunbrella – that could go on a market umbrella and that looked like cotton, which everybody wanted. It really captured a lot of imaginations. It was ’93, ’94 when things started to catch on.”
How was it that Glen Raven stuck with Sunbrella for casual furniture when the takeoff, the market acceptance, was so slow?
Swers: “Glen Raven is a 137-year-old company. The family thinks long-term. If they believe in something, they’re going to stick with it and try to make it work.
“When we started with Sunbrella in 1961, when awnings were traditionally cotton, it took awhile for people to understand that Sunbrella fabric may look similar, but the performance is real. It takes a while for that to (register) with people.
“In the early days my dad would work with the furniture stores. He would say, You have that (Sunbrella) awning up there. That’s the same fabric. He would say, Do you own a boat (with a Sunbrella cover)? He would try to get their confidence in it, because you’ve got to build confidence with people who are going to have to sell it.
“Often the furniture storeowners would put Sunbrella in their own backyards for two or three years to see if it really worked. That’s because there were other non-performance acrylics out there from Europe that were better than cotton, but not really very good.
“Even if you get a manufacturer to accept Sunbrella, you’ve got to get the retailer to accept it, and then you have to (educate) the consumer.
“We’re an ingredient product; we’re “Intel Inside.” In other words, people buy an umbrella; they are not buying Sunbrella. They buy furniture that hopefully is covered with Sunbrella. We’re an ingredient. We don’t get to sell the consumer anything directly. And so it’s harder.”
Although you’re an ingredient, you’ve got what’s probably the best-known brand in the industry.
Swers: “Today. Not in 1982! We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of long-term planning to get to this point. It was not done overnight.
“It took a lot of time to build that brand – but not just the brand; it’s the brand promise. And that’s something I always push. A brand is often associated with marketing and name recognition. What we really strive for is the brand promise.
“When people buy Sunbrella, they know that they are getting a product that will perform; that they’ll be satisfied with it; that the customer service, the manufacturing, and the quality – all of the different parts and pieces – are top-notch. That’s what we deliver. Not just a product, but everything that’s involved with it. That, to me, is what makes it a complete package. And that takes time to build the reputation, (and for the consumer) to be able to say, yes, that’s the one.”
Again, what does that say about Glen Raven?
Swers: “When I worked at the bank, everything was geared toward, How do we maximize our profits to get the stock higher every quarter? The focus was not long-term; it was quarterly.
“Glen Raven? I joke and say it’s generational. The thinking is, How do we make sure we’re here for the long-term and address things differently? That’s a rare mentality, and it’s very difficult to have unless you’re privately owned.
“We’re here for the long-term. We want to make sure we’re the best supplier we can be for the customer, to make sure they’re happy, make sure their customer is happy, and, at the end of the day, that the consumer is happy. If we do that, good things happen.
“That has been something that I embraced as part of the philosophy here. That’s the kind of culture that’s different than in a lot of places. That’s the only reason all of us stay here so long, by the way. The management team – everybody – has been here 20-plus years, other than the new people that we hire.”
What about some of the newer markets, such as Sunbrella for interiors? What about Sunbrella Rain?
Swers: “First of all, you don’t want us to stand on our laurels. We have the largest R&D team – about 12 people at our Anderson (South Carolina) facility, including several PhDs – who constantly study our current markets. How do we stay ahead? How do we make sure we have not only the best products, but the best performing products, the products consumers want? What are they looking for? Rain is an interesting example. Rain was developed because people wanted a product that would dry quickly.
“We actually developed two or three different versions. Some I think were better. But I remember talking with a storeowner who said, People understand the barrier. Water can’t get through. You’re done (explaining the performance benefit).
“I placed some experimental cushions at my own house that actually let the water drain through. It dries in an hour, hour and a half. But it didn’t catch on.
“In some ways it was a better solution. It wasn’t expensive. But as several retailers I talked to said, they also have to be able to explain it quickly to the consumer. And people understand a barrier.
“So you do a lot of R&D, but you have to always keep in mind, what do consumers want? What are they going to buy? What’s easy for everybody across the whole value chain?
“It takes time to sell a new idea and once it (takes hold), it’s great. And Rain is growing.”
And residential (indoor)?
Swers: “We’ve been in residential now for 14 years. It only started taking off four years ago. That was another one – it’s taken 10 years for people to know who we are, for us to learn a lot of the nuances.
“Performance is a misused term, and this is a very important topic. What does performance mean? Performance in outdoor might be the UV characteristics (of the fabric), that it won’t fade and deteriorate.
“Performance for indoor tends to be how easy it is to clean. I’m not saying the UV (resistance) isn’t important, because there’s a lot of sun streaming in. (But the key) is ease and clean-ability. You can get just about anything out of Sunbrella. Performance, and how you define performance, is critical.”
Before Sunbrella came along, did any fabric maker use the word “performance?” Did the category exist?
Swers: “Not really. We’ve certainly helped performance become a category within indoor. It always was in outdoor. Performance was always required. And performance is how you define it.
“Is performance a finish that makes it easier to clean, at least until it wears out? Is performance lasting one season? Two seasons? Three?
“What’s happening is that everybody is trying to commoditize the term. We realize we’re going to have to start explaining it, and it could be different for different markets.
“Sunbrella has the longest UV color stability possible. We make sure we use the best pigments, the best stabilizers that are proprietary. Even though there are similar suppliers, our formulations are ours. We’re willing to put extra money into what it takes.
“We work from a common inventory. We take that fiber and turn it into fabric that goes to awning, marine, automotive, and casual markets. As you can imagine, there are certain markets that require certain things that others don’t.
“So we have common inventory that hits the pinnacle that we can get to, and that’s what our R&D staff works on all the time. How do we continue to improve the UV (resistance) and stability of Sunbrella? How do we make it easier to clean? How do we improve the design, the hand?”
|Sunbrella Sur Last boat cover.|
Glen Raven is a diversified company, with plants around the globe and products ranging from fine textiles to fabrics used in mining and road construction. How important is the casual furniture market to Glen Raven?
Swers: “Casual is our largest business at Glen Raven today. Awning and marine, combined, are not as big as the furniture business is today. The indoor side is still a small portion, very small, but growing.
“We’re the largest supplier in the marine industry for trailerable-boat covers. When you’re whipping down the Interstate at 70 miles an hour, acrylics don’t really work well, because there’s so much stretch in the product. But polyester recovers. Glen Raven’s Sur Last product is polyester. We try to make sure we know all the attributes and weaknesses and use the appropriate products for the right markets.
“Now, when you’re at the marina, and you look at the boat tops, they’re all Sunbrella. Our expertise is in these types of performance categories and understanding them. There are advantages and disadvantages to every single thing; it’s just a matter of where you use it.”
How has the cut yardage business grown through Trivantage? (Trivantage is Glen Raven’s distribution subsidiary, stocking Sunbrella fabrics and selling quantities as needed).
Swers: “I’m going to answer your question a couple of different ways.
The real volume is in cut yardage to manufacturers. It gives them the ability to offer more product without carrying any inventory. It gives us the ability to offer more product and get people to try things, whereas before, they had to commit to everything. This way they can try things without a lot of commitment, and if it sells, it works well for everybody.
“At the patio store level, the kiosk has been a good way for the retailers to say, Look at all we can offer. The kiosk is a way to offer what’s called COM, Customer’s Own Material. Customer’s Own Material is very normal in indoor furnishings, but it wasn’t for the casual industry. It took a little bit of training for a lot of the industry. But we looked at it as a natural progression as an industry matures, that choice is usually a good thing.
“At the patio stores, it didn’t take off as well as I had hoped. I really wanted them to create a place for the consumer to get a true performance product to use wherever they want; a place for them to get COM for their barstools, their sofas.
“I actually did the kiosks the first time in 1999, and they didn’t work. They failed miserably. It was a good idea, but we didn’t have the right infrastructure. At that time, we had to work through our outside distributors, who had their own agendas.
“Years later, when Allen Gant III came to work for me, I said it may be time to rethink kiosks. Now that Trivantage was part of the company, we could make it work. We could think, What’s good for the industry? What’s good for everybody? The industry was more accepting of COM. And that helped make it successful. Again, it’s 100 little things that build on themselves. What didn’t work at all in 1999 started working great 10 years later.”
Is the Outdoor Room as much a part of the American home as the kitchen and the family room? Will the Outdoor Room be with us for decades to come?
Swers: “Personally, I think it will be part of the vernacular. It will continue to grow. The outdoor space, particularly in North America, is viewed as very important. We have an outdoor lifestyle. That lifestyle isn’t necessarily everywhere. There are parts of the world where there isn’t an outdoor lifestyle, or where the outdoor lifestyle isn’t that important. People still want shade, so they don’t get sunburned. There are parts of the world that don’t want any sun at all. But certainly in North America, (the Outdoor Room) is becoming more and more popular.
“There are big builders starting to include Outdoor Rooms with expensive homes, but that’s one out of five homes, one out of 10, if that. So how popular, really, is it? I think there’s still a tremendous amount of room for growth; we have to get the idea that outdoor space is important to a broader segment of the population.
“One of the things we’ve talked about here is that people will spend 10 grand on a dining room suite they never use except for the holidays. And they spend nothing on their Outdoor Room, to speak of – maybe $500 for a set at some major retailer and they use it three times or five times a week. So I think there is a disconnect for the vast majority of people in the U.S., even though we’re in North America with such an emphasis on the outdoors and leisure time at home.
“How many builders are actually building Outdoor Rooms? And if they are, they are at the very high end. Yet look at any golf course, and you still won’t necessarily see the number of homes that you would expect with better product. I still think there is a long way to go, a lot of potential.
“The question is, how do we, as an industry, get there? That’s one of the things Glen Raven is trying to do with our advertising, to broaden the awareness. It’s changing that mindset of, How important is your Outdoor Room? And if it is important, where does your money go? Follow the money.
“We want to grow the industry. Our team feels there’s a lot of growth potential in casual. What’s good for the industry is good for us.”
In how many nations is Sunbrella available?
Swers: “Well over 100 nations. We have local offices in almost every country in Europe. We have salespeople worldwide, not necessarily in every country, but positioned strategically to be able to hit just about every country.
“Again, we’re trying to build the whole casual industry in all of these countries. It’s really new in most of these places. First-world countries, in a broader, mass perspective, can afford an outdoor lifestyle. When you move outside of North America, Europe and Australia, the market is typically high-net-worth individuals and commercial.
“Again, we see the long-term picture, and where do we see the world going? It’s going to grow, but it’s not the same everywhere.”
To serve these global markets, Glen Raven is producing in the United States, in Europe, and in China, correct?
Swers: “That’s what I call the three major spheres. It’s all about supporting our customers as locally as we can.”
Is there any licensed manufacturing of Sunbrella products in other countries?
Swers: “No. Sunbrella is our brand. We manufacture to our specifications. We have had only one licensee that manufactures Sunbrella fabrics – Sunbury Textiles – and we have had a 22-year partnership with them. In July, Glen Raven signed a letter of intent with Sunbury to purchase that company.
“Their focus is the high-end decorative market, and that’s been a great partnership for over two decades now. We have not licensed anybody else in a long time. There was a partnership a long time ago in Australia; it dissolved in the ’90s.
“We have found that it’s better – for the brand and the brand promise – for us to control that destiny. What we want in the fiber, how it’s woven, how it’s inspected, how it’s finished – all those details are key.
“We’re not perfect, but if we do something wrong, we try to make it right.”
How did the Sunbury deal come about?
Swers: “We’ve had these discussions, on and off. The timing was right. Sunbury is a highly specialized mill with incredible design and the capability to do very small runs. We see this as an opportunity to leverage both our strengths.
“Sunbury will become part of the Custom Fabrics Group, and we plan to keep what they’re doing. Both companies are excited. The acquisition is expected to be completed during the first week of October.”
The Sunbury acquisition seems like a home run for Glen Raven.
Swers: “Glen Raven doesn’t do a lot of acquisitions. The work ethic, the capabilities, we felt, would be a good add-on for both companies. We’re completely aligned and fully focused on where we want to go. We’ll be stronger together.
“It’s a global business today. Awning and marine are probably more global, in some ways, than casual. Europe and the U.S. are the two big markets in marine. It’s the same for convertible tops. That’s a first-world business.
“With indoor furniture, we think there’s a lot of opportunity with a true performance fabric, worldwide. We’re introducing product now in many more markets, on the indoor side. We do see adjacent markets, where we can bring the performance expertise that we have, as an opportunity for growth. And we’re all looking for growth.”
What is an adjacent market?
|Sunbrella Ventana Collection exclusively at The Shade Store.
Photo: ©2017 The Shade Store is a registered trademark of the shade store, llc. Ventana collection and sunbrella are registered trademarks of glen raven, inc.
Swers: “To me, adjacent to casual furniture was indoor. I look at window treatments as another adjacent market; it’s shade. We’re now offering Sunbrella fabrics for window applications – curtains, drapes, and Roman shades. We also make Sunbrella sheers.
“We’re all about shade. Sunbrella – that’s how we started, in the shade business.
“Go to The Shade Store. They’re high-end retail. They have about 40-plus stores and are growing fast. Plus they have an Internet presence. They manufacture window treatments, and they’re a licensee to utilize Sunbrella for windows. They’re our first.
“We also have several manufacturers that produce curtains and drapes from Sunbrella fabrics, along with several catalog companies.
“We feel Sunbrella fabrics for window applications is a very interesting, long-term market. I joke around here – in 10 years, we’ll know.”
Here’s something else we may know more about in 10 years: the Internet. Do you know the percentage of casual furniture being sold online?
Swers: “I certainly don’t, but it’s more and more every day – I can tell you that.
“E-commerce started a long time ago, and in some ways it started with catalogs. Catalogs have done a great job of bringing product to market, and then people go to the website. They’ve done a great job of displaying product in a very unique, nice way and then figuring out, with white-glove delivery, whether people will spend the money on this type of product without sitting on it and touching it. And that’s grown. And it is somewhat generational, in my opinion.”
What does this mean for casual furniture storeowners, the mom-and-pop stores that have been the backbone of the industry, and the smaller chains?
Swers: “This subject came up in our board meeting last week. We’re constantly looking at what’s happening in the marketplace. The consumer is making the choice of how they want to buy the product.
“One of our board members spent 35 years with Wachovia, now Wells Fargo. He remembers back when ATMs were developed. They really became popular in the early ’80s, and internally the discussion back then was, There won’t be any branches in 10 years. Well, there are three branches within a mile of each other in Burlington (North Carolina, Glen Raven’s hometown) and there are even more ATMSs.
“There always seems to end up being equilibrium, some balance. I’m not going to tell you I know what that balance is, but I do believe there’s going to end up being a balance. It’s not all or nothing. First of all, consumers are different by generation, but consumers also change as they age. I remember what I bought at 30 was very different from what I bought at 40, which is different from what I’m buying now that I’m 50 and nearing 60.
“It’s all about how you can bring value to the consumer, how you work with that customer. There’s always going to be a large segment of the population that is very different. Some don’t want that personal touch and they prefer to order from home. Others can’t wait to go out there and interact and do the sale.
“So is e-commerce growing? Yes. It grew from nothing to something. Will it take over the whole market? I doubt it. There is going to be some equilibrium that will be reached among all the different channels.
“What we don’t know is where that equilibrium will be. I think we all have to adjust a little bit and look to see how the consumer is going to want it. If we don’t adjust, they’re going to do what’s easiest for them, unless we give them a reason to do something different.
“That equilibrium will be reached. We all have to figure out where the stress is on dealing with our channels. It’s a difficult situation as things change. How do we work with everybody to somewhat maintain the status quo? But you’ve also got to figure out how to move toward the future. That’s where we’re all in the same boat – mom and pop, manufacturer, supplier.”
Casual furniture is a fashion business. Have you observed a change in how fast the cycles of colors and trends come and go?
Swers: “The acceptance of things, I think, has changed. There’s more acceptance, and quicker acceptance, to product than there used to be. People are willing to look at different things, try a different construction. Let’s try a different look; can we do a different hand? Everybody is much more open to exploring ways to get there. That makes the fashion cycle go faster.”
The past couple of years have seen changes of ownership at some of the leading casual furniture manufacturers. What trends do you see? What forces are at work?
Swers: “The trend for a while now has been consolidation in almost every industry. Casual furniture is still a relatively small industry with lots of family-run companies, which I personally like. But that also could mean opportunity for those who are in that segment. There’s a lot of money floating out there in private equity.
“There are opportunities for scale that you can’t always get unless you combine. Scale does give you some advantages that those without scale don’t have. So it’s going to continue. It can be good. It can be bad. It’s like anything else. It really depends on what people do with it.”
New manufacturers and marketers continue to enter the casual furniture industry. Some, like Klaussner Outdoor, enter with a sizable presence. Others may make a more modest entry. But they keep appearing at each Casual Market Chicago. What does that say about the health of the industry?
Swers: “It tells us a couple of things. Compared to some other markets, casual is growing. Other markets, where some of these people have come from, adjacent markets, aren’t doing well and haven’t necessarily done well for a long time. So people are looking at where they can grow.
“Everybody is looking to where there is some growth. The more noise we all make about this industry brings a lot of things. It brings competition, brings new players, brings new ideas, new ways of doing it. That, in the long run, would be good. In the short term, for the current players, it makes for a little instability or chaos. But that’s usually how it works.
“It’s very dynamic, and dynamic usually is good. It makes it more exciting and keeps you on your toes. There are still a lot of family-run companies, particularly on the retail side. That hasn’t changed a lot.”
Succession is a huge question in family-run companies.
Swers: “That’s true in every family-run company. Allen Gant is retiring from Glen Raven this year. He’s been CEO for I don’t know how many years. He’s third generation in a 137-year-old company, and there’s only been three Gants as CEO. The first non-family CEO (Leib Oehmig) takes over this year. That’s a succession issue, and it’s going well.
“Again, it’s something different. And family companies have to figure out what’s the best route for them, for the future. And that’s not always easy. That’s usually when some ‘event’ happens.”
We’ve seen domestic manufacturing regain some strength on the indoor side, in upholstered furniture. With so much emphasis on cushions and fabrics in the outdoor business, on customization and quick delivery, do you predict the return of some casual furniture-making jobs to the United States?
Swers: “I think the answer is yes. We’re seeing that already – some to the U.S., some to Mexico.
“I’m going to have to use the word equilibrium again. Equilibriums change based on a whole bunch of outside factors, and the industry is changing again and has been for a couple of years. I think that’s a good thing.
“We’re seeing a different level of interest in quick delivery; uncertainty overseas; costs going up tremendously. China is becoming much more expensive to produce (goods) than it used to be.”
“Companies are more global now than ever, and that’s part of the necessity. It’s one of the reasons we have to be global.
“We found that we need to be near our customers, no matter where they are, and our customers are getting more global every day. We want to be partners with them and with the retailer.
“Jobs from Glen Raven never went overseas. That was a promise I made to the Gant family – that we would never take American jobs overseas. Any jobs overseas would only be a plus.
“Again, we’re in this for the long haul. I say that because I’ve been with Glen Raven for 28 years now. Everybody here tends to be long-term players, long-term thinkers. It doesn’t mean we don’t have yearly accountability, but we want people thinking long term. What’s good for the industry is good for Glen Raven.”