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Hearth & Home April 2016

Allen E. Gant, Jr., in front of a few swatches of the company’s fabrics.

Endless Possibilities

By Tom Lassiter

Allen Gant continues to steer Glen Raven into the future through innovation, transformation, creating new markets, and being wide open to new ideas.

The company that invented pantyhose now builds roads and bridges in India. Glen Raven didn’t plan to get into that business when it bought an industrial/technical fabric company in 2007. But the acquisition brought with it possibilities; it didn’t matter that those possibilities went beyond yarn and looms, the root of Glen Raven’s expertise for more than a century. Now a Glen Raven division is helping India and other nations engineer and construct modern highway systems.

Similarly, the company sees opportunity in the world’s demand for clean water. Glen Raven has made filtration technology a research and development priority.

North Carolina-based Glen Raven is known to the casual furniture industry as the maker of performance fabrics bearing the Sunbrella brand. It’s the dominant supplier in a highly competitive business, and simply maintaining that position would be challenge enough for most companies.

Glen Raven, however, looks beyond the obvious and takes a different approach. It seeks market opportunities that are transformative, opportunities that allow it to apply its research, development and manufacturing expertise in unexpected ways.

CEO Allen E. Gant, Jr., says those fields are the most fertile. They have the potential for the company to become an important player, perhaps rapidly. Pioneering new markets also offers the possibility for greater margins.

It’s a business model far removed from the market conditions that drove much of the U.S. textile industry out of business or offshore over the last 20 years. Glen Raven (formerly Glen Raven Mills) understood the impact of fundamental market changes far earlier than many other U.S. textile firms. More importantly, instead of retrenching and attempting to grit things out, Glen Raven took radical steps to ensure its survival. Doing so set the stage for an era of continuing transformation.

Finding ways to eek another penny of profit out of a yard of Sunbrella fabric doesn’t generate much enthusiasm at Glen Raven.

“We are not very good at being a low-cost producer,” Gant admits. “We’ve got to be competitive; I understand that. Our products have to deserve the place they hold in the marketplace. But if you said, ‘Come make a billion T-shirts,’ we have no interest. That’s not where we’re going to live.

“We’re going to solve innovative issues that are out there in the world marketplace. Whatever it takes, we’re going to be involved. And, hopefully, we can make some money out of it.

“It’s a different way of thinking. It’s a different way of looking at business.”

No Use for Landfills

Think about this: The trashcan in your kitchen contains more waste than Glen Raven’s U.S. operations sent to landfills in 2015. Glen Raven’s domestic fabric-making plants, distribution centers and administrative offices – well over two-dozen facilities – generate no landfill waste. Zero.

The company’s operations in Europe and China are close to reaching that goal.

Glen Raven didn’t pursue this policy because the company is run by ecologically obsessed tree huggers. The 136-year-old company chose this course because it’s good for business.

“If we don’t reduce our carbon footprint, and if we don’t do it responsibly, then we will have to pay a higher tax later on,” Gant says. Making landfills last longer helps keep taxes from rising, he explains, so “our cost of doing business will be lower.”

Food waste is mulched to fertilize the company’s landscaping or is sold. Bags for food waste are made of biodegradable cornstarch, not plastic. Acrylic yarn and scraps of Sunbrella fabric are recycled. So is paper and cardboard, aluminum and glass.

It takes effort to eliminate landfill waste, Gant says, and space to separate and temporarily store recyclables. Ultimately it’s a break-even proposition.

“It’s not complicated. It’s pretty simple stuff. But you’ve got to do it,” he explains. “Innovative thinking – that’s just where we are.”

This kind of mindset – to view recycling as an opportunity to reduce future tax burdens – is not widely held in corporate America. It’s just one example of how thoroughly Glen Raven has embraced a company-wide vision distilled into four words: “Let endless possibilities begin.”

That motto might seem more fitting for a lofty think tank full of Ph.Ds, or a high-tech Silicon Valley business focused on digital products and virtual worlds. The motto, introduced in 2012, is not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Instead, it captures the essence of a transformation that evolved over the last 20 years and that now is part of Glen Raven’s DNA.

Gant says it took a couple of years to sink in, but the phrase now resonates through all of the company’s divisions around the world and its more than 3,000 employees.

One hundred and fifty feet below the streets of midtown Manhattan, the largest and most expensive transportation infrastructure project in the U.S. is underway. East Side Access will connect Grand Central Station to the Long Island Rail Road via a six-mile-long tunnel.

The soil is being held in place by Glen Raven’s StrataGrid, a high performance soil reinforcement product made with polyester yarns that have a high molecular weight and extraordinary tensile strength. These yarns are then knitted into a dimensionally stable network of apertures to form the geometric grid shape that offers tensile reinforcement to the soil in both the vertical and horizontal directions.

StrataGrid is coated with a black saturation coating to provide further chemical and mechanical benefits that preserve its durability in any environment.

Glen Raven – the company that ditched pantyhose when pantyhose became a commodity product – seeks opportunities where it can carve out a proprietary niche and develop a dominant, profitable business. Sunbrella, Glen Raven’s best-known brand and the leader in outdoor fabrics, exemplifies that strategy.

Family-owned Glen Raven enjoys freedom unavailable to publicly traded companies. The company has no debt, Gant says. It nurtures a corporate culture that encourages innovation. It understands that progress doesn’t come without failure, and that failure offers invaluable learning experiences.

“‘Let endless possibilities begin,’” Gant says, “takes away the sting of making a bad decision.”

Glen Raven is able to take the long view of market development rather than being hobbled by stock analysts’ forecasts and quarterly earnings reports. Sunbrella, which came to market more than 50 years ago, took decades of persistent marketing and creative promotion to achieve its position of market dominance. The brand is the cornerstone of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the company’s largest business unit.

The president of a U.S.-based casual furniture manufacturer recently marveled that today’s performance fabrics truly are amazing. “I don’t see how they can get any better,” he said.

Gant has a different view. 

“I am not nearly satisfied with this product,” he says while seated in a club chair upholstered in Sunbrella fabric. “It’s a great product, but absolutely can be better.”

Exactly how to make it better isn’t the issue. What’s crucial, he says, is maintaining “the environment to ask tougher questions about how we can make it better.”

The company as a whole is subject to the same scrutiny.

“We’re in the process of transforming the company,” Gant says. “We’re looking at every piece of the company and how each piece adds value. How can they add more value?”

Extending Transformation

Glen Raven is devoting more resources to research and development (R&D) than ever before and inviting customers to engage in collaborative creative thinking.

One example is new applications for shade products. Don’t think of umbrellas; envision, for instance, a shade structure that protects a playground or a parking lot or an outdoor area at a healthcare facility.

“We’re doing R&D now on all kinds of shading applications that we’re going to give to our customers,” Gant says.

A partner with expertise in metal or carbon fiber engineering might take a concept to reality. “Hopefully, they will use our product in implementing these shade configurations,” he says. “We’ve now got our customers thinking creatively about the business.”

Across the street from Glen Raven’s corporate headquarters, design and construction firms are transforming 100,000 sq. ft. in a century-old structure, built by Gant’s grandfather, into “the most innovative design center in the world.” The project, a “mid-eight-figure investment,” will bring together under one roof the creative and R&D personnel from all Glen Raven divisions.

“We want to create a space that is conducive for innovation and for letting endless possibilities begin,” Gant explains. “We want a space that has incredible light, incredible feel, is open, is communicative, is innovative.”

Customers and suppliers will be welcome there to “do innovative thinking about what the market really needs.” Gant then clarifies the statement: “It does not matter what market. This is an open environment for that kind of thing to happen. We’ll have incredible collaboration going on.”

Maybe the challenges, he says, will have to do with making electric vehicles lighter, stronger and more efficient. Or space flight. He’s not kidding.

“That’s the kind of thing we want to work on,” he says. “And I’m going to tell you, people are having fun. They’re having fun, and they’re working their asses off. They are really working hard. Which is what you want, isn’t it? It’s right amazing. Kind of perfect.”

Endless possibilities at Glen Raven know no boundaries and are limited only by imagination. “The future game,” Gant says, “is going to be played on the mental side of the equation. That’s where we’re going to expand.”

Glen Raven’s Concept Gallery serves as a resource for innovative thinking. Its mission is discovery, inspiration and creation, aided by exhibits and speakers to inspire new ways of thinking.

Developments Overseas

Glen Raven opened a 190,000 sq. ft. Sunbrella plant in China in 2006. The factory was built to serve China’s booming casual furniture market; much of its production eventually comes back to North America as cushion covers.

The plant was built with room to spare for future growth, Gant says; it opened with 40 percent of its capacity unused. Now it’s completely filled with fabric-making equipment, weaving Sunbrella for furniture applications as well as for the Asian hotel industry. Additional capacity is possible only with additional construction.

Glen Raven’s 1998 purchase of the French textile firm Dickson gave the company a foundation for growth and expansion in Europe. The Dickson acquisition involved three companies. One made awning and furniture fabrics, similar in nature to Sunbrella. Another made technical textiles used in making automotive tires and for personal protective gear. The third made tarps for commercial and industrial uses, as well as graphic fabrics.

The sun control business is significant in Europe but not, Gant explains, because of the lack of air conditioning. Much of Europe lies at higher latitudes, far north of New York City, where the summer sun never gets far above the horizon. That means bright sunlight shines directly into homes and offices for many hours a day. Awnings are the best way to control the glare, he says.

The nation with the highest per capita use of shade material is Sweden, he points out.

Through Dickson, Glen Raven has been able to manufacture and market its Sunbrella fabrics throughout Europe. “We’re introducing Sunbrella in a significant way in Western Europe,” Gant says, “and a lot of that is on the upholstery side of the business. We’re implementing that now.”

Glen Raven in 2008 purchased Strata, a U.S. company that made plastic net extrusion for a variety of applications, including soil stabilization. Strata already had partnerships in India, and those have expanded significantly under Glen Raven’s ownership. The company next targeted Brazil and its developing infrastructure for similar expansion of its soil stabilization and engineering business.

Brazil eventually may be ripe for expanding Glen Raven’s sun control business as its economy continues to improve, Gant says. There are no active plans to produce Sunbrella upholstery products in Brazil.

The Marine Industry

Glen Raven’s plant in Burnsville, North Carolina, produces fabrics used by sail makers, as well as other specialized textiles. To withstand the extreme forces exerted by wind on a sail, Gant says the fabric must be balanced; that is, the warp and weft must be equally strong. Otherwise the fabric will tear more easily.

“We know how to do that,” Gant says, “and nobody else can figure out how to do it. So we have an advantage.”

Glen Raven also plays a role in protecting the proprietary hull designs of competitive offshore racers. When cranes lift the sailboats from the water, parts below the waterline often are draped with a shroud to conceal the design of the skeg (the rearmost extension of the keel). It’s another application for lightweight Sunbrella fabrics.

Automotive & Other Markets

If you own a late-model vehicle made in North America, there’s a good chance that the headliner is made of Glen Raven fabric. The company landed its first automotive headline client in 2001, making headliners for the Cadillac XLR. It now has the largest market share in automotive headliner fabrics in North America.

“We’re looking at some different applications in the automotive (field) that we’ve never looked at before,” Gant says. “Are we selling anything? No. But we’re beginning to explore those areas. I really am hoping that this new facility will open some new areas of investigation to us.”

Products made by Glen Raven Technical Fabrics protect workers from fire hazards and arcing electricity while remaining comfortable to wear. The mining industry uses the company’s products to ventilate mineshafts, stabilize walls, and provide a conduit to move fast-hardening concrete slurry into position to provide ceiling support.

The company’s filtration products have application in water purification (through reverse osmosis filters) as well as in the natural gas, beverage and dairy industries.

“We’re going to be putting more innovation into filtration,” Gant says. “The world needs clean water.”

The Road Ahead

Glen Raven’s succession plan calls for president & COO Leib Oehmig to assume the CEO role in 2017, with Gant continuing as chairman. It will be the first time the company has been led by a non-family member. Gant and Oehmig are of like minds, Gant says.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s talking or I’m talking,” he says. “The continuity of leadership is at the essence of where we are. I don’t want Glen Raven to spend one second of its creative energies worrying about who the next guy is going to be.”

Glen Raven employs three younger members of the Gant family. The family and board understand the dangers of nepotism. “You can’t give people jobs just because they want a job,” Gant says. “They have to bring something to the table. And in this case, all three of those boys bring something to the table, doing great jobs for the business. But none of them is ready to be CEO, at least for the time being.”

Glen Raven published a company history in February, written by its longtime public relations counsel, Mark Brock. The book is aptly titled “Transformations” and focuses primarily on the huge changes that have taken place over the last 25 years. A copy was given to each Glen Raven employee.

“‘Transformations’ is the true story of what we are,” Gant says. “We’re in constant transformation.” The company culture now reflects the momentum of perpetual transformation.

The company’s motto rolled out just four years ago. Even Gant, the motto’s most enthusiastic proponent, seems a bit amazed by what has transpired since “Let endless possibilities begin” debuted.

“I don’t think we realized the consequences of it and what it’s done for us,” he says.

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