Focused on the Brand
By Tom Lassiter
Photo: ©2017 Dan Routh photography. www.danrouth.com.
It’s no accident that the Sunbrella brand is arguably the best-known name in outdoor furnishings. Glen Raven has worked for half a century to build the brand and expand the product line’s reach into all sorts of markets under the sun.
Sunbrella enjoys name recognition with perhaps one in five Americans, says one of the executives in charge of managing the brand’s reach in the casual furniture industry.
Sunbrella’s presence in the marketplace is so strong that it sometimes causes the team at Glen Raven’s North Carolina headquarters to don kid gloves when consumers call with a gripe.
“People say, ‘My Sunbrella umbrella is broken.’ Or, ‘My Sunbrella furniture is broken,’” says Alexis Maklakoff.
That’s when someone at Glen Raven must explain, gently and diplomatically, that Glen Raven doesn’t make umbrellas or outdoor furniture.
“They don’t necessarily know Sunbrella is just the fabric, which is a good problem to have,” says Maklakoff. “The brand is working.”
Decades of continual product improvement and a commitment to fashion-forward design have made Glen Raven’s solution-dyed acrylics a standard fabric, or an option, by almost every maker of quality outdoor furniture.
Maklakoff, whose title is Business manager, Decorative Fabrics, is one on a team of executives with responsibilities for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. The Custom Fabrics division of the 137-year-old company serves the casual industry and other markets.
Allen Gant III is Casual Market manager, making him the point man in dealing with casual furniture manufacturers and specialty retailers.
Gant, who has been in the job since September 2015, also has responsibility for managing Glen Raven’s so-called catalog clients. They include Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and more than 40 other online and print catalog merchants that purchase Sunbrella performance fabrics. Many also have a retail storefront. Combined, these merchants give the brand a huge presence in the American marketplace.
“What’s great about the catalogs is that they’re extremely focused,” Gant says. “They know what they’re going after. They have the size and the buying power with which to do custom lines without a problem.”
Changing market conditions over the last 25 years led Glen Raven to reinvent itself in order to survive and thrive. The company, which invented pantyhose and once concentrated on apparel fabrics, withdrew from those markets to develop niche businesses where it had, or could envision, a leadership position. One of those was performance fabric for the outdoor products industry – the Sunbrella brand.
Suzie RobertsCustom Fabrics vice president of Sales, U.S. Responsible for Glen Raven’s outdoor, indoor, and contract fabric markets. Also oversees Glen Raven’s industrial fabrics business, as well as research and development.
“Custom Fabrics is the largest (business unit) of the Glen Raven group,” says Suzie Roberts, Custom Fabrics vice president of Sales, U.S. “And Sunbrella is the primary brand within Custom Fabrics.”
The Sunbrella brand’s current prominence in the outdoor furnishings industry, the executives say, is the result of decades of sharply focused attention listening to customers and markets, and developing programs to serve their needs.
“We pride ourselves on being able to partner with our customers,” Roberts says. “What can we do to make them more successful?”
For some customers, such as leading casual furniture makers, that can mean developing exclusive Sunbrella fabric collections. For specialty retailers, it means providing showroom and point-of-purchase items, such as posters, literature and fabric demo kits, free of charge.
Merchandising managers, such as Marcia Blake, travel constantly to visit specialty retailers. She shares product knowledge and, as an acknowledged authority on outdoor décor, offers tips on merchandising and selling Sunbrella products – all at no charge to merchants.
“It’s all about retail at the end of the day,” says Maklakoff. “What sells is the touchpoint to consumers.” In working with furniture makers and retailers, the ultimate goal is to ensure that “the Sunbrella brand is represented on the floor in a meaningful way.”
This hands-on trio at Custom Fabrics reflects Glen Raven’s international reach and experience. Roberts came to Glen Raven with the 1998 purchase of the French-owned textile company Dickson; at the time, she worked in sales for Dickson’s U.S. division, Elberton Mills. Dickson was a leader in awning fabrics in Europe, and Glen Raven maintains the Dickson brand in that market.
Maklakoff worked for Dickson and another European textile firm before Glen Raven acquired Dickson. He then spent 10 years in Hong Kong as Glen Raven’s International Sales and Marketing manager for the North Pacific Rim.
Gant, at 32 the youngest of the team and a member of the family that owns privately-held Glen Raven, already has experience in several areas of the company. He soon will mark a decade with Glen Raven, which was founded by his great-grandfather.
Gant, one of about a half-dozen family members employed at the company, is the son of Glen Raven CEO Allen Gant, Jr.
Allen Gant, IIICasual Market manager. Responsible for the casual furniture market and catalog customers.
David Swers, president of Custom Fabrics, says the executive team serving the casual industry “is highly dedicated. The ideas that are generated are amazing – different but complementary. You can tell when people love what they do.”
Providing options throughout the casual furniture supply chain, from manufacturer to specialty retailer, and ultimately to the consumer, has been a key ingredient in Glen Raven’s strategy to build the Sunbrella brand and solidify its presence.
The Sunbrella Kiosk Program, which launched about eight years ago, is an example of how providing consumer options helped the brand grow its business.
The kiosk program is dear to Gant because it was one of his first assignments upon joining the company. He graduated with a double major in textile and mechanical engineering from NC State University.
“I designed the kiosk just like a skyscraper in New York City,” he says. “I made my square-footage footprint small, and I went straight up.”
A Sunbrella kiosk – less than 30-in. wide and 7½ feet tall – makes available in a retailer’s showroom hundreds of fabric samples. All may be ordered as cut yardage through Glen Raven’s distributing division, Trivantage.
Trivantage ships the required yardage from one of its 15 regional distribution centers to a manufacturer’s cut-and-sew operation to be made into custom cushion covers, pillows and the like. Or the fabric may be shipped directly to the consumer for her own upholsterer.
The goal of the Sunbrella Kiosk Program, Gant says, “was not to push made-to-order” sales. The idea behind the kiosk initiative, he explains, “was to make (a wide array of fabric) available and see how the customer responded.”
What happened brought about major changes in the way the Custom Fabrics division operates.
Prior to the kiosk program, Gant says, about 70% of the division’s business was in stock fabrics. Stock fabrics are always kept in good supply and are made available to any furniture company customer. Furniture makers typically select a certain number of stock fabrics to keep on hand, ready to fill orders from retailers. Stock fabrics are one of the keys to making quick-ship programs possible.
Today, stock fabrics account for a significantly larger percentage of the division’s sales. Custom orders have grown significantly to become nearly half of sales.
Customer fabric orders – sometimes known as COM, or customer’s own material – are “the way the market is going,” Gant says. “It’s what the consumer wants.”
The kiosk program has grown over time, with approximately 650 units in place at specialty retailers around the nation.
The shift to more custom orders had a ripple effect that led to changes in Glen Raven’s Sunbrella manufacturing facility in Anderson, South Carolina. The result, Gant says, is a more agile and responsive operation, able to do shorter and more varied fabric runs to satisfy market needs.
The Sunbrella line has around 900 collections, Gant says, each with a number of variations. This makes for more than 20,000 SKUs in the Sunbrella lineup.
Roberts, Maklakoff and Gant make it clear that the reputation of the Sunbrella brand as a performance product undergirds every activity, from manufacturing to delivery to consumer satisfaction.
“Performance is integrated into every single ounce of what we do,” Gant says. “You can make the best product in the world, but if you can’t get it to customers in a timely fashion, forget about it. We want to perform.”
Custom Fabrics currently has an initiative to ensure that it has a clear, uniform message for customers as well as consumers throughout the world. Glen Raven also manufactures Sunbrella-brand products in France, to serve the growing European market, and in China to serve the many furniture-manufacturing operations there.
Manufacturing customers now shop globally for suppliers, Roberts explains, and Glen Raven wants them to hear a consistent message whether at a trade show in Milan, High Point, or Shanghai.
Alexis MaklakoffBusiness manager, Decorative Fabrics. Responsible for the outdoor, indoor, and contract fabric markets.
“Everything we do, all the touchpoints for the brand, are consistent no matter where we are in the world,” Maklakoff says. “The same is true for ads, across the world. We’re going to be in over 100 magazines worldwide. When you see the ads, they will have the same look and feel.
“Global customers appreciate that,” he says.
Just as Glen Raven stresses a consistent brand theme worldwide, the Custom Fabrics management team appears to be a well-synchronized team, working from the same playbook.
“We want everybody to know that Sunbrella is a promise,” Roberts says. “It’s a brand promise that you’re not going to have to worry about that fabric.”
Gant talks about the fabric business, the Sunbrella brand, and the casual industry with equal measures of enthusiasm and sincerity.
“We’re selling a dream,” he says. “We sell a lifestyle” that’s open to countless interpretations.
“When I walk around the casual show in Chicago, it’s thrilling to me. A showroom is basically an interpretation of (a company’s vision of) an outdoor lifestyle. Each person has his or her own vision. There’s a ton of creativity there.”
No matter what brand of casual furniture is on a retailer’s sales floor, Gant says, shoppers approach it with a “fabric first” mentality.
“It’s the first thing you see and the first thing you touch,” Gant says. “It’s a major, major component.” Fabric, he says, “is the majority of the buying decision” when it comes to new furniture.
Glen Raven wants Sunbrella to be a customer option regardless of frame material or maker. “Our goal,” Gant says, “is to work with every single manufacturer.”
Maklakoff continues that theme. “We make a conscious effort in working with manufacturers and retailers, together, to better understand how we can serve them,” he says.
Specialty retailers are in a unique position to cater to discriminating consumers who increasingly want unique home fashions, Roberts says.
Specialty retailers, she says, offer the choice of custom orders as well as “beautiful stuff on the floor. The consumer just needs to know it’s there.”
Figuring out new ways to deliver that message to consumers has been “one of our targets for the last few years,” Roberts says.
The significant investment required by high-quality outdoor living products can cause younger adults to delay those purchases until later in life. Glen Raven wants to build awareness of the Sunbrella brand among those younger shoppers, preparing them for future furniture buys.
“You’re going to see some pretty cool stuff come out of our brand that reaches a younger consumer,” Gant says.
No one’s saying what these products may be. Only one thing is certain: The Sunbrella brand name will be prominent.
“It could be anything,” Gant says. “We’re going to be full of surprises for the next couple of years.”