Filling the Gap
By Tom Lassiter
Had things gone according to plan, Marc Kaufer probably would be a Philadelphia lawyer. Had things gone according to plan, his time in the umbrella business would have been limited to that summer job he had while in college.
But plans have a way of changing.
Kaufer didn’t go to law school after earning his undergraduate degree from Tulane in 1995. Instead, he listened to his elders.
His future father-in-law, an attorney who wished that he had taken another path, urged him to find another career, one that Kaufer would relish. “You won’t enjoy being a lawyer,” he told his son-in-law.
The man Kaufer calls his uncle, a close family friend who owned Frankford Umbrellas, had repeatedly told him that the business had huge potential, more than he was able to develop. Think about it, Eli Aghen said. You could really make something of this business.
Frankford Umbrellas, founded in 1898 to produce rain umbrellas, in the 1990s primarily made beach and market umbrellas. Most sales were to the contract market – swim clubs, hotels, seashore resorts, and beach shops in New Jersey and Delaware. Frankford had a showroom and sold umbrellas to individuals who sought them out, but residential sales were minimal and not promoted.
Frankford Umbrellas in those days was old-school, and served a geographically- limited market. The company had a reputation for making solid products, standing behind them, and listening to customers. Isadore Frankford, a son of the founder of S. Frankford and Sons, still worked there. He could fix just about any umbrella, no matter how unique or delicate.
So Kaufer took his elders’ advice, ditched his ideas about law school, and hatched a new plan.
He went back to work for Frankford, where “Izzy” Frankford had taught him how to repair umbrellas, including those made by other companies. Under the old-timer’s tutelage, Kaufer learned how to spot design flaws and devise improvements.
At night Kaufer went to grad school, pursuing a master’s degree in finance. He spent his days immersed in the umbrella business, working to fulfill the new arrangement he had made with his uncle.
“I learned and I learned and I learned,” Kaufer says, “all the tiny details of an umbrella that you would never, ever think would matter. It was just drilled into my head that we want the product to last.”
Kaufer absorbed Frankford’s old-school approach.
“Customer service. The customer knows best. Don’t rip people off. You don’t want people to come back; you want them to recommend you. You want the product to last as long as it possibly can.”
Meanwhile, Kaufer and the team he developed reached out to bring in new business. They doubled the number of Philly-area condominium customers using Frankford umbrellas around pools and in common areas. They expanded the number of amusement park customers they served. Every hot dog cart vendor needs an umbrella, and Frankford increased its penetration in that small but highly visible Philly market.
In every case, these were commercial installations where the customer placed a high priority on longevity and value.
“Slowly but surely, we kept bringing in the business and getting the foundation that we needed,” Kaufer says.
In 2003, three years ahead of schedule, Kaufer achieved his goal. He completed the buyout of his uncle’s company and became owner, president and CEO of Frankford Umbrellas.
|Eclipse Cantilever, 10-ft. square umbrella.|
The Casual Channel Opens
Keith Lasota owns Sun & Beach Patio Furniture in Pompano Beach, Florida. He added Frankford Umbrellas to the store’s lineup about a year ago.
Frankford’s products, he says “are a very good commercial and residential umbrella, extremely well-made.” He particularly likes Frankford’s crank mechanism. Crank handles are solid stainless steel, while the crank housing is made of a rugged ABS plastic, the same used in power tools’ housings and Lego toys. “Lesser umbrellas,” he says, use less durable materials.
Frankford guarantees the crank and tilt mechanisms for two years in commercial applications, five years in residential use.
Frankford makes its canopies from solution-dyed acrylics using fabrics by Sunbrella, Outdura, and Recasens (a family-owned textile company founded in 1886 in Barcelona, Spain).
Frankford’s canopies are made of 9-oz. fabric (usually referred to as marine grade). The company gives its canopies a 10-year warranty against fading when used in residential applications, says Laura Dudley, Frankford’s National Sales manager.
Babmar Modern Outdoor Furniture introduced Frankford Umbrellas in 2016. Babmar is a privately-owned brand of outdoor wicker furniture, based in San Diego. Babmar concentrates on the contract market but also sells its products through a retail location.
The Monterey market crank umbrella is Babmar’s biggest seller, with sales split about 50-50 between residential and contract customers. Babmar just filled an order for market umbrellas for Harrah’s Resort Casino in Las Vegas.
Frankford’s products, says account manager Ilya Shekhtman, “are in that perfect niche. They offer commercial products at a good price to the consumer.”
A six-and-a-half-ft. square umbrella sells for about $600, Shekhtman says. A 9-ft. octagon is priced around $800.
Gloria Stagmer, assistant manager at The Bruce Company of Wisconsin, says Frankford’s products offer a big jump in quality for just a few dollars more than the competition. The walls of Frankford’s aluminum pole are noticeably thicker than competing brands, she says, a feature that her customers are quick to understand. They don’t mind paying the price differential of about $50.
“Here in Wisconsin (near Madison), we have a lot of wind issues,” Stagmer says. Customers “can see just how much beefier that umbrella is.”
Frankford’s 9-ft. autotilt umbrella “is very popular,” she says, and she likes the ease of operation offered by the company’s cantilever models.
Tropicasual, with two retail locations serving South Carolina’s beach resorts, has sold Frankford’s beach umbrellas for years, says Debbie Proctor, general manager. The beach umbrellas, she said, “were far superior to anything you can imagine. I never had one brought back.”
When Frankford expanded its lineup, Tropicasual didn’t hesitate to bring on the new products.
“I’ve sold a lot of different brands and types,” Proctor says. “This is far and away better than any other thing I’ve ever sold. I’ve never had any issues.
“I’m very happy with them,” Proctor says. Frankford “has filled a niche that we hadn’t had before.”
Laura Dudley, National Sales manager.
The niche that Frankford products fill, as described by retailers, squares with the way the company says it has positioned itself.
“There is a very large gap between the Galtech/Treasure Garden price points and the TUUCI price points,” says Dudley, the National Sales manager. “Frankford falls right in between. We are closer to Treasure Garden than Galtech, but our quality is by far closer to the TUUCI level.
“Our retailers love the fact that they are getting a premium-quality umbrella, but not at a premium price,” she says. “We have a great business model. We are looking to fill that need in the middle, and we feel that’s a pretty big need.”
Frankford touts its warranty program. In addition to the 10-year residential-use warranty on fabrics, fiberglass and aluminum models carry a five-year frame warranty. There’s a three-year rib replacement program for fiberglass umbrellas, which covers any breakage. The customer needs only to pay shipping.
“We do that because we have so few break, even in wind,” Dudley says. “All the customer does is pay shipping.”
Frankford offers two cantilever models, Aurora and Eclipse. Both can be rotated 360 degrees with “infinity tilt” mechanisms that allow the canopy to be stationed at any angle within its range of motion.
Aurora models come in 9-ft. square and 11-ft. round versions. Eclipse, which features a more robust mast, comes in 10-ft. square and 13-ft. round versions.
Retail prices start at $3,071 for Aurora models and $4,345 for Eclipse models. Aurora models are rated to withstand winds up to 30 miles per hour, while Eclipse models can withstand winds up to 40 miles per hour.
Dudley joined Frankford two years ago as the company’s first National Sales manager. She previously had worked for a distributor of contract outdoor furniture for several years, where she got to know Frankford’s products and reputation.
“We are well known in the contract world,” she says, “and we bring the same superior quality to the retail world.”
|Monterey fiberglass, 9-ft. octagon umbrella.|
Frankford manufactures its frames with a partner factory in China. Kaufer began exploring manufacturing in China in 1999.
“We didn’t need cheap,” he says. “We needed specialized. We needed high quality. China was just on the edge at that point, and I found the right factory to do that.”
Canopies also are sewn in China. Frames and canopies are shipped to Frankford’s headquarters, where they are assembled and sent to retail customers. In 2010 Kaufer relocated the company’s offices from Philadelphia to the suburb of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.
The company is unique in that it has no minimum purchase requirement. A casual furniture shop that wants to give the product a try can start with just one umbrella.
Frankford, which has about 35 employees in New Jersey, will quick-ship from its stock program of 25 fabrics within three days. It will special order any fabric available in the Outdura, Recasens, and Sunbrella lines. Fabric is airfreighted to China, where it is cut and sewn. Completed special order canopies are flown back to New Jersey where they are married with the appropriate frames. Special orders are filled in three to four weeks, Dudley says. There’s no extra charge for air freight; the company has negotiated rates and built that cost into its pricing.
Lasota, at Sun & Beach Patio Furniture in Pompano Beach, says he doesn’t stock many Frankford umbrellas. “Everybody wants the flexibility to choose their own frame color, and then there’s the myriad fabric options. They have relatively quick turnaround, so there’s no need to have them in stock. They’re extremely responsive.”
Kaufer says that Frankford’s program is designed to make it easy for specialty retailers to give his company a try and then stick with them over time.
“I want people to make money,” Kaufer says. He tells retailers, “You know what’s selling. You know what colors to order. How about every two weeks you call me and order umbrellas?”
|Owner Marc Kaufer in the factory.|
Kaufer says the company keeps several months worth of inventory on hand in New Jersey. “We never run out of umbrellas,” he says. Retailers in 2018 will get a list that details product in stock and ready for quick shipment.
High-quality umbrellas, designed to last and sold at affordable prices, Kaufer says, are another way for specialty retailers to differentiate themselves from Big Box stores. Frankford, he says, makes umbrellas to fill what he calls “a very large gap, a big hole in the umbrella industry.”
Frankford’s experience at high-end beach shops – where its durable beach umbrellas are sold alongside $500 bathing suits and $1,000 sunglasses – convinced Kaufer that his products could compete in better outdoor living stores.
“Why would somebody buy a $250 beach umbrella?” Kaufer asked himself. But they did. And as he improved the product, he sold even more.
The decision to enter the high-end outdoor living market was the result of a well-thought-out plan, he says.
“The transition required us to take our game to another level,” he says, “to be the best that we can be. That’s one of the things I love about it. It’s difficult. It’s such a challenge.”
Among the challenges was producing a catalog. Frankford didn’t have one before 2017. But even before the catalog was ready, Dudley had recruited a small team of experienced sales reps who began visiting specialty retailers around the nation.
The company now has 18 sales representatives who cover 45 of the lower 48 states, plus Hawaii. Dudley says Frankford now “works with over 120 high-end retailers, who between them have almost 175 locations.”
The sales reps provided feedback on Frankford’s initial catalog after the company’s first sales meeting.
“They tore my catalog apart,” Kaufer says. “They tore apart my photos, they tore apart my messaging. They ripped me apart for hours. And all constructive, all respectful.”
The next catalog took more work than the first, Kaufer says appreciatively. “We upped our game so much.”
Although Isadore Frankford died in 2009, he’s still a presence at the company that bears his name. Kaufer refers to him and his uncle, Eli Aghen, all the time.
Izzy told Kaufer, “Do not build obsolescence into your product. It will bite you in the rear end. You have to make something that’s going to last!”
A man who makes things for a living has to be comfortable with the quality of his products and their reputation, Kaufer’s mentors told him. “You want to sleep at night. That’s the most important thing.”
Kaufer chuckles. “I went into the business with such an advantage, because I had these two veterans who were there for me and guided me. I learned from their mistakes. You know, they had a combined life of 100 years in the industry.”
Shawn MacDonald, vice president.
As the president and CEO of a successful, growing enterprise, Kaufer seems to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about other people’s businesses – those of his customers.
People depend on Frankford products to make their living, he explains. If Frankford can’t immediately fill a retailer’s order, “they don’t have umbrellas in stock and they don’t make money.”
Frankford Umbrellas is an established company getting to know a new distribution channel. It’s a complicated endeavor, with lots of challenges. Yet Kaufer can break down the complexities and present them in terms that anyone in his company can grasp.
“I always tell everybody, ‘You know, we’re the short-order cooks. If we don’t get the food out on time, our customers don’t get a tip.’
“So we have a real obligation to our clients, to make sure they make money. If we do that, there’ll be sunny days ahead.”
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