An Exciting Ride
By Tom Lassiter
The problem with being a design leader – with producing fresh, fashion-forward products that sell – is that some competitor undoubtedly will rip you off. It happens in all the fashion industries, from eyewear to jewelry to apparel.
It also happens with casual furniture.
Seaside Casual Furniture, arguably the most design-oriented company in the expanding plastic lumber category, has seen design ideas ripped off again and again.
But Kate Carret, Seaside Casual’s CEO, doesn’t use terms such as “ripped off” or “stolen.” She prefers to say, “borrowed.”
“We put a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of effort into research and development and design,” she says. “And the hard part is not to get sucked backwards when you see that being, let’s say, borrowed by others.”
The borrowers, she says, usually change things a bit. In the process, the design “always seems to get cheapened a little.” The knock-off furniture probably retails for less than what Seaside Casual charges for the original product.
|MAD Fusion chaise.|
Yet it’s gratifying, she explains, when Seaside Casual’s dealers respond by ignoring the copycats.
“They know who came out with it first,” Carret says. “They know who’s knocking it off. They know who’s going to be there if there is a problem, and they know the problem is going to get taken care of.
“Everybody has problems, but are you going to be around in five years to answer the calls regarding that problem? They know we will be.”
Carret (pronounced kah-RAY) speaks with matter-of-fact confidence. Though Seaside Casual marked its 20th anniversary last year, it grew out of a much older, family-owned business – Arnold Lumber Co. It was founded in 1911 by her great-grandfather, and today the company is much more than just lumber; it offers everything from design services for kitchens and baths to an outdoor living division that provides almost every building material and masonry product for an Outdoor Room.
Stability is in Seaside’s DNA. So is loyalty to customers, as well as to employees.
Kate Arnold Carret is a fourth-generation owner-executive in the Rhode Island-based enterprises. She is CEO of both companies; her sister, Alison Arnold, is chief operating officer and devotes most of her time to the lumber business. A third sister, a teacher, is a silent partner not involved in daily operations.
Their father, Arthur “Art” Arnold, is still active in the businesses. He spends most of his time on the plant floor or in the lumberyard, looking for ways to improve efficiencies. And because he can, he spends a good bit of time in Florida.
“His big passion is operations,” Carret says, “so we complement each other very well.”
Seaside Casual’s knack for product innovation has been rewarded at Casual Market Chicago with two Design Excellence Awards. The first was in 2001, for the Shellback Adirondack rocker. The most recent was last September, for the MAD Fusion Chat Chair.
Like Seaside Casual and Arnold Lumber’s success, design expertise has been nurtured in-house.
“We have a team that we use, inside,” Carret says. “It includes sales, and leadership, and a designer, and an engineer. We try to get everybody’s input.”
Carret doesn’t rule out working with an independent designer some day. She’s a graduate of Boston College with a finance degree from the Carroll School of Management. She worked abroad with an international business consulting group before being lured back home to the family business. She’s always open to looking at things in a new light.
But for the time being, the plan is to keep the design process in-house. Because, Carret says, “It’s worked for us so far.”
|MAD Fusion Chat group with DEX Round Chat table.|
Seaside Casual got its start in 1996 after the Arnold Lumber Co. door shop made a few Adirondack chairs out of mahogany. The chairs proved to be popular, especially after “an enterprising delivery truck driver” put a few on his truck and showed them off on his daily route. The company developed a good, local business in mahogany outdoor furniture.
A couple of years later, a salesman approached Seaside with a new material: HDPE, or high-density polyethylene. It’s the same material as that used in plastic milk jugs. HDPE is strong, durable, and can be extruded in lumber-like dimensions. It can be cut and milled just like wood. But unlike wood, it requires no maintenance. The color is consistent throughout, and high-quality HDPE is resistant to fading caused by the sun’s UV rays. Rain and freezing precipitation don’t faze it.
In short, HDPE looked like the perfect material for homeowners who want long-lasting, zero-maintenance outdoor furniture.
Seaside Casual took a gamble on the new material. The company trademarked a name for its HDPE plastic lumber, calling it EnviroWood. The first Seaside Casual EnviroWood furniture came to market in 1999, and the company soon knew it had a hit on its hands. Seaside Casual soon phased out its mahogany lines and focused solely on creating HDPE products.
Paul Cotnoir, who had joined the company in 1999 to pitch its wooden furniture, was skeptical at first. He remembers thinking, “Wow! I’m not sure this stuff will sell.”
The marketplace convinced him otherwise. The HDPE furniture, he says, “was a natural to sell. It had a good reception, and we built it from there. As time went on, the clamor for plastic became more and more.”
Cotnoir is still a sales representative for Seaside Casual, working a territory that reaches from Indianapolis to Mobile, Alabama, and eastward to Jacksonville, Florida, and the South Carolina beaches. Seaside Casual is his only line.
“I’m a factory guy and proud of it,” he says.
Seaside Casual furniture arrives at specialty retailers with a 20-year warranty and price tags that connote an investment, not an impulse buy. The EnviroWood material (made from recycled milk jugs) isn’t inexpensive, and the product is 100 percent American-made.
Cotnoir says consumers get it. They grasp the perceived value. They like “the recycled thing,” he says. “It does well in the Arizona heat and the Minnesota cold. Whatever environment you find it in, you can make it relatable. This is a product that works.”
|DEX Chat group.|
Raised in the Business
Kate Arnold Carret literally grew up in the lumber business. She remembers, as a youngster, riding through the lumberyard with forklift drivers before safety regulations made that sort of thing taboo.
The Arnold family home was next door. Her dad kept an axe handle ready to grab whenever the office security system set off a buzzer in the night. “He had a few people break in,” Carret explains.
All of which is to say that she inherited her father’s drive and devotion to the family business.
“My dad was a very, very hard worker,” she says, “very passionate about the company, very passionate about his employees, and always a believer in continuous improvement.”
The status quo “was never good enough,” she says, “and I think that was ingrained in my sister and me.”
Carret went to work with Bain & Co. after college, eventually winding up on assignment in South Africa. It was intense, exciting and exhausting work that also catered to her yen to travel. She took “a culinary vacation” in France, which led to an unexpected turn of events.
“I met the chef, fell in love, like a movie,” she says. They married. “So I ended up running the cooking school with him.” Travelers from the United States, Australia and Great Britain were a large part of the school’s business.
“And then 9/11 happened, and people weren’t traveling as much. My dad was panicking, wanting all of his chickens back in the coop. So we came back.”
The timing was right for Seaside Casual, which was starting to gain traction in the casual furniture industry. The business, she says, “desperately needed some executive attention.”
Manufacturing took place in spaces wrestled away from Arnold Lumber. Product had to be moved from shed to shed for different operations. There were no CAD machines to make drawings of components, no CNC equipment to automate repetitious milling operations with zero mistakes.
Carret and her chief financial officer, Joe Parent, decided the furniture company needed room to grow. They bought a 100,000 sq. ft. building, thinking that the casual furniture operations might take half the space. The rest could be used for the lumber company’s millwork operations.
“Within a year it was full of Seaside,” she says.
Carret brought more than management expertise to Seaside Casual. She also brought the sensibilities and interests of a youthful mother who enjoyed socializing with friends in the backyard – plus the critical eye of a graphic designer (a skill that initially had landed her the job with Bain & Co.).
These influences and talents became crucial as Carret sought to differentiate Seaside Casual’s product line from those of other plastic lumber furniture companies.
She says candidly of those early days, “When I looked at our products, a lot of it wasn’t stuff that I would necessarily buy.”
It was the early 2000s. Crate & Barrel’s focus on simplicity and more modern designs, she says, was more in tune with what people of her generation (and many Baby Boomers) were interested in. By comparison, Adirondack-style furniture – even executed in EnviroWood – tended to look a bit stodgy.
“When I thought of my pool area, my backyard, my patio,” she says, “I wanted a little bit more. I wanted more fun with color. More simplicity in design and straight lines.”
So Carret took a crack at designing casual furniture to suit her own preferences. She didn’t have the specific training, but she knew what she liked. She tweaked, softened and modified Seaside’s existing products.
“I took some of my personal tastes – as a consumer and a woman who decorates and enjoys it – and put them into the designs,” she says.
The Seaside Casual design team began to stretch its muscles. It was a natural evolution for a company that made the leap from mahogany to HDPE. “We’ve always been a step or two into thinking what could be next,” Carret says. That means putting the time and investment required to develop new products and looks and get them to market.
After new seating products, dining collections followed, and then the Nantucket Collection, the first deep-seating collection constructed of HDPE.
“We feel like we pioneered and pushed the envelope on design,” Carret says.
Seaside looked for ways to expand collections by adding accessory pieces, such as buffets and serving tables. The design team continually looked for ways to make the furniture more refined and finished.
An important innovation is what Carret calls hidden fasteners. These stainless-steel hardware elements, which are totally out of sight, bind frame components together. They replace the standard screws and taps and bolts that are so obvious in many plastic lumber designs.
Hidden fasteners are more expensive to produce than standard systems, Carret says, and require extra component engineering, which also adds expense. But the result is furniture that offers “the sophistication of the indoors.”
Carret’s observation is that the closer outdoor furniture is to interior spaces, the more sophisticated it needs to be.
|SYM dining benches with MAD 85-in. dining table.|
More recently, Seaside Casual introduced the MAD Collection, or Modern Adirondack. The furniture takes its inspiration from classic Adirondack styling, but with a lighter, streamlined execution. The scale is smaller, too, which has helped Seaside earn more business from the contract markets. The smaller pieces seem to have the right proportions for boutique hotels and condo balconies.
Seaside also introduced a charcoal gray color with the MAD collection. This variation, with gray seats and backs on a white frame, seemed perfectly timed.
Carret says, “Gray is the new black, right?”
The introduction was not an accident.
Carret and her team saw gray coming like a fashion steamroller. They keep an eye on what’s happening in the interior furnishings world. They pay attention to features and ads in magazines of all sorts, especially fashion and lifestyle publications. They monitor trends in upholstery colors and what’s new in the paint department at home improvement stores.
“We try to keep our eyes on those trends,” she says. Listening to customers also is critical. They are the ones dealing with homeowners who are interested in specific colors and combinations, she says. Those requests have weight at Seaside Casual.
Paying attention to trends led the company to introduce furniture with a greater emphasis on color.
“We noticed that people wanted to have a little more fun outside, with playful pops of color,” she says. The design team noticed people doing more mixing and matching, “that fusion of mixing colors. That’s when we introduced MAD Fusion.”
MAD Fusion results from joining brightly colored EnviroWood seats and backs with a white or otherwise neutral frame. Another variation uses a woven back and seat panel on a frame of a contrasting color. Seaside offers 10 frame colors and 16 slat colors in EnviroWood. There are six frame colors for seating with woven seat and back panels, and three choices of colors for the woven components.
Listening to customers’ concerns about Seaside’s premium prices led to the development of a sister company, Coastline Casual Furniture. Coastline’s two collections, Harbor View and Café Fusion, use HDPE components that are somewhat smaller in scale, which reduces costs. Connecting hardware is in full view. These attributes allow the furniture, which has a 10-year warranty, to come to market at more affordable price points.
Seaside Casual has the European market in its sights. Europeans, Carret says, are open to American-made products when those products meet their scale and price expectations. Seaside Casual made adjustments after some initial export efforts and now has product being distributed in Spain, Portugal and other European nations. Exports also go to the Bahamas and Brazil.
Back home, Seaside Casual depends on its network of brick-and-mortar retailers to reach consumers. The retailers number about 650, says Andy Boyce, vice president of Sales. A 20-year employee of Seaside Casual, he has known the Arnold family even longer as a neighbor.
|Andy Boyce, vice president of Sales.
Photo: ©2017 Robyn Ivy Photography. www.robynivy.com.
Seaside Casual allows a handful of e-commerce-only vendors, including Wayfair, to sell the line. Most acquired the line more than 10 years ago, and new e-commerce vendors are not allowed unless they have a physical retail presence. Seaside also allows some catalog vendors to carry its products. All must adhere to MSRP pricing, Boyce says. The same is true for brick-and-mortar stores that sell the product online.
This strategy, he says, allows the consumer who feels compelled to buy online to do so without putting brick-and-mortar stores at a disadvantage. If that consumer is able to get to a physical showroom, she probably will find a better price.
“The Internet is a great awareness vehicle,” Boyce says, “but it’s not where our business gets done.”
“Brick-and-mortar stores are always going to be our bread and butter,” Carret says. “That’s where a lot of our really true, long-lasting relationships are.”
Boyce says the company’s path to success “is not magic.” Rather, it’s based in “a culture of how they treat customers and how they treat the public.
“The business principles are very simple,” he says. “They watch the bottom line; they watch the costs. But more importantly, they have this core thing, where the customer will be satisfied, no matter what.”
Carret entered the family business already steeped in those principles and added her instincts for color, design and youthful good taste.
“We started off with simple items,” Boyce recalls. “When Kate came on board, she’s just taken the company to a whole new level. It’s been an exciting ride.”