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Hearth & Home September 2019

The view from atop the Grand Staircase at Sunbrella HQ, looking across the street to Glen Raven’s corporate headquarters. The Blend coffee shop is on the first floor at the lower right.

Where Creativity Thrives

By Tom Lassiter

PhotoS: ©2019 dan routh photography.

Allen Gant, Jr., had a vision, of retaining Glen Raven’s past while taking it into the future; his goal was to stimulate employee collaboration and innovation.

9am on a midsummer Thursday.

The Blend, the coffee shop just inside the main entrance to Sunbrella HQ.

Three guys lingering over cups of java, chatting and smiling as if they’ve just finished 18 holes on a Saturday afternoon.

In walks Allen Gant, Jr., Glen Raven’s chairman of the board. Nothing changes.

The three guys don’t even look up, and their unhurried conversation continues. The chairman’s expression telegraphs pure satisfaction.

Another top executive might not look so kindly on three employees lingering over coffee with the workday well under way. Not Gant. He sees his Glen Raven associates at ease, sharing information, ideas, and perspectives.

Zero. Potential for creativity: 110%.

Allen Gant, Jr. and Allen Gant III at the foot of the Grand Staircase. The staircase and surrounding area can function as a meeting space for upwards of 300 people.

That’s exactly what Gant envisioned would take place in Sunbrella HQ, the new home of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, maker of Sunbrella-brand textiles. Employees moved in late last fall, transitioning from their former quarters across the street in Burlington, North Carolina.

Sunbrella HQ, a 100,000 sq. ft. structure, is old and new at the same time, and strikingly handsome. The ambiance is soothing yet stimulating. Employees of Custom Fabrics go about their responsibilities in an environment that fosters impromptu conversations and easy collaboration. Departmental lines on the second floor, where creative teams are stationed, are invisible. Sightlines on the long, east-west axis are unobstructed. A sharp-eyed marketing associate can look eastward and determine if the designer she needs is available.

It’s primarily an open-office environment with oodles of common space. But within steps of every desk are soundproof private spaces to gather one’s thoughts, make a private call, or have a confidential conversation. The four-person spaces with facing two-seater benches are dubbed “rail cars.” Close the sliding door and you can easily imagine yourself on a fast train to Brussels. The door’s smoky glass elevates the privacy.

“The best meetings are hallway meetings.” That’s a line from David Swers, president of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. Swers advocates spontaneous conversations. To Swers, an impromptu, face-to-face exchange provides the best information. Email, voicemail, and texts are poor substitutes.

David Swers.

Hallway meetings in the division’s former quarters – a round, multi-story building with curving hallways and cubbyhole offices – were possible but far less convenient. The layout hobbled spontaneity, and a meeting with more than two or three risked causing a traffic jam.

Not so at Sunbrella HQ. To Swers’ liking, and in accordance with Gant’s vision, the building’s mission is to provide a fertile environment where creativity thrives. There’s space, space, and more space to chat, brainstorm, or just think. Rooms for scheduled meetings don’t have whiteboards or easels. Employees simply write on the glass panels that overlay Sunbrella wall coverings.

Gant is passionate about what fueled his vision for Sunbrella’s new home. It was built by his grandfather in 1900 and known as Plant One. The 119-year-old textile manufacturing plant, steeped in Gant family and corporate history, has been in virtually constant service since then. It was silent for two years before being repurposed to become Sunbrella HQ.

“Our most valuable asset is the brainpower we’ve got,” Gant says. Competitors can, and do, make fabric using similar synthetic fibers. Glen Raven’s competitive advantage, he preaches, is cultivating an environment that allows people to excel, individually and corporately.

“The ability to give people the freedom to innovate,” he says, is “something that (our competitors) don’t have.”

Sunbrella HQ was designed to remove as many workplace stresses as possible. Every aspect that impacts employee comforts and needs, from lighting to ultra-private restrooms, was considered.

To Gant’s way of thinking, reducing stress allows for more creativity. Do everything possible to make it easy for people to do their jobs, and they’ll excel naturally. This approach for the flagship division of Glen Raven aligns perfectly with the company’s motto: “Let endless possibilities begin.”

One of the two light wells has a staircase connecting the two levels at Sunbrella HQ. Each light well at ground level was excavated to a depth of 10 feet and filled with soil to become an interior garden.

Allen Gant, Jr. in the Sunbrella fabric archive, located just steps away from fabric designers.

Living History

Glen Raven CEO Leib Oehmig jokes that Allen Gant Jr. “can’t walk 10 feet in Sunbrella HQ without telling a story.” It’s not an exaggeration.

Plant One was the initial building erected by the family-owned company that now has more than 60 locations in 17 nations. The casual furniture industry knows Glen Raven for its Sunbrella brand, the line of performance fabrics that revolutionized outdoor furniture.

Other Glen Raven divisions include Technical Fabrics (high-performance products for commercial and industrial applications), Trivantage (which distributes cut yardage to awning, marine, and upholstery markets), and Switch Four (which creates software solutions for business).

Evidence of Plant One’s nearly 120 years’ service is everywhere. Gant serves as an interpreter during a walking tour, explaining the history behind clues that are visible to all.

Those dark, linear stains on the golden pine floors? He calls them “railroad tracks,” a pattern left by equipment that once traveled back and forth, servicing the spinning frames.

Nearby are scores of shiny metallic shards embedded in the wooden flooring, now polished smooth. The circular metal shapes are detritus from the spinning process. Now they gleam underfoot, reminders of another textile era.

A mid-20th century aerial photo leads Gant to point out the spot where a relative once maintained a trout pond. Trout aren’t native to central North Carolina; the waters are too warm. But a trout-loving Gant figured that water from Plant One’s chillers would accommodate the species, and he was right. Gant laughs at the memory as he shares it with his son, Allen Gant III. The younger Gant is director of Outdoor at Sunbrella.

Plant One was built to accept raw cotton, spin it into thread, and weave it into fabric. A repurposed steam locomotive powered the equipment via a system of belts and pulleys. Later, the plant was converted to electricity.

More than 50 years ago, the first yardage of a new Glen Raven product was manufactured in Plant One. The breakthrough fiber was solution-dyed acrylic. Fade and stain resistant, it was perfect for awnings and marine applications.

Glen Raven called the fabric Sunbrella.

Allen Gant III (left), director of Outdoor for Sunbrella, with his father, Allen Gant, Jr., Glen Raven’s chairman of the board. The grandfather of Allen Gant, Jr. founded the company in 1880.

Sarah Dooley, Sunbrella Upholstery Marketing manager.

Large, high-topped tables give Sunbrella designers plenty of space to work with fabrics.

The Human Factor

Glen Raven executives understood that a new structure could be designed and built for the growing Custom Fabrics division for much less money, but Plant One – with its distinctive masonry, towering wooden columns (each made from a single longleaf pine), and rich history – offered intangible benefits.

Could Glen Raven harness those attributes to benefit the company? Could the company, Gant recalls asking, “trust our brain power, the people that we employ, to use this space in a pretty innovative way?

“And the more we talked about it, the more the human spirit came back into the equation,” he says.

The potential offered by Plant One to be a transformative space, coupled with the innovative track record of Sunbrella’s employees, tipped the scale. Glen Raven would invest in Plant One. Privately held Glen Raven will only say that the cost ran into “eight figures.”

“We joke about it,” Gant says. “It is a substantial investment, but it’s the investment for our future. It’s an investment for our customers and our suppliers and our industry. We believe that all of our stakeholders will benefit greatly.

“Would we do it again, knowing what we know now? Absolutely. No question about it.”

Once the decision was made to renovate Plant One, the challenge was to select an architectural firm that could preserve its assets while transforming it to serve for the decades ahead.

Five leading architectural firms – including three acknowledged to be among the world’s best – were interviewed multiple times. The selection committee included some Sunbrella staffers well known in the casual furnishings industry, including Suzie Roberts, vice president of Sales for Custom Fabrics – Americas, and Greg Voorhis, Custom Fabrics Design director.

Each firm was asked to submit proposals describing how it would approach the redesign. Each submission offered unique, creative approaches, Gant says. But one stood out for insights and experience that particularly matched Glen Raven’s goals. TsAO & McKOWN Architects, led by principal Calvin Tsao, was awarded the contract.

The firm’s expertise, Gant explains, includes designing spaces that encourage communication, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas. That meshed perfectly with Gant’s vision.

Although the company was confident in its choice of design firms, the first months of interactions between the Brooklyn-based architect and the North Carolina client led to some head scratching at Glen Raven.

Glen Raven people initially were concerned with the obvious, such as which departments would be on the first floor versus the second. The architects were looking deeper for clues that would make that decision.

According to Gant, “Tsao said, ‘Forget all that. Let’s look at how we can make it innovative, and how we make it so people can work together.’”

A team of architects converged on Sunbrella’s offices. They studied how Sunbrella associates used their workspaces, where two and three people sometimes shared an office. They noted where people went for face-to-face conversations and with whom. They studied where art resources were stored, and the machinations that designers went through in developing new products.

They wanted to know how orders were taken and how they flowed through the company. They interviewed everyone, from the CEO down to employees on the loading dock.

“Our people had trouble with that,” Gant allowed, “because we’re a pretty private business.” People wondered, why does that matter?

That big question was answered when Tsao delivered his initial conceptual drawings. The arrangement of Sunbrella’s functional areas took into consideration the unique needs of each department. The design team operates differently from sales, which has different processes from marketing. Yet they all need to work together, interdependently, cooperatively.

Similarly, sales and customer service departments have their own unique functional requirements. Rather than a cookie-cutter solution, shoehorning departments and people into cubicles with designated square-footage per person, the architects produced a space plan designed to enhance how Sunbrella people work.

The client instantly recognized the genius in the architect’s concepts. Gant says, “The light bulb went on. We said, ‘We’ve made the right decision with this guy.’”

Plant One and other Glen Raven facilities seen in an archival photo, probably from the 1950s. Plant One is behind the water tower in the foreground.

The Glen Raven campus today: Sunbrella HQ (light-colored roof) is at the far left. On the right are other Glen Raven division and corporate offices. Sunbrella staff made the move across the street last fall.

The renovation took more than three years, and the plan evolved along the way. Some spaces were designed to be chameleon-like, says Allen Gant III, serving varied purposes from day to day.

“One day it’s going to be business as usual,” he explains. “The next day, we’re going to have three customers here presenting fabric. The day after that, we’re going to train 150 sales reps.

“The ability to design a space so that it will change and alter itself as we need it is a really tough thing to do.”

The Grand Staircase, which greets everyone coming into Sunbrella HQ, is a case in point. Visually, it’s reminiscent of the new staircase off the main lobby of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. It’s impressively broad and is an obvious route from the first to second floor. The wooden staircase is also an inviting place to sit quietly in the morning sun or to gather 300-plus associates for a company meeting.

The structural steel supporting the Grand Staircase is hidden. “Engineering-wise, it could be done much simpler, but you couldn’t seat 300 people,” Gant III says.

Beneath the Grand Staircase is a hidden gem, a state-of-the art auditorium for presentations, training, and meetings. There’s tiered, conference-table seating with space for laptops, notebooks, and charging ports. The telecommunications equipment allows meetings with Glen Raven locations and associates around the globe.

Acoustics are perfect in the soundproof room, where the walls and seating are covered in Sunbrella products. Exterior sounds don’t intrude, nor does any sound escape to bother others. The auditorium is designed for efficiency. All the seating returns itself to a stored position once a person steps away.

As work progressed, the scope of the project grew. Flexibility is great, but “you can take that too far,” Gant says. Rather than pack too much multi-purpose space into Sunbrella HQ, the company decided to construct an attached welcome center, complete with a concept studio, café, and makerspace (a collaborative work space) that would serve all of Glen Raven.

The welcome center, which should be completed soon, is physically connected to Sunbrella HQ. A pedestrian bridge will connect it to the buildings housing the corporate and other division offices.

The welcome center, Gant says, will become “the heart of Glen Raven Corporation,” uniting the east and west campuses.

The Highest Reward

Architect Calvin Tsao says he’s pleased with the initial feedback on how well Sunbrella HQ is serving its occupants. “The early reports have been fantastic,” he says. Tsao is “very happy with the architecture side,” but leaves it to others to critique the building’s functionality.

One review, however, carries particular clout. Tsao got a phone call from Allen Gant, Jr., around Christmas last year. Sunbrella HQ had been occupied for only a few weeks.

Gant, Tsao says, was “extremely emotional. I’ve never had a client pleased to such a point of emotion, acknowledging our work with such sincerity.”

Tsao recalls Gant saying that the architects “managed to give him what his heart desired, and perhaps even a little more. That,” Tsao says, “was the highest reward we could get.”

Random Observations

Sunbrella HQ is an acoustic marvel. Two groups of people just 20 feet apart can have animated conversations, yet their voices don’t annoy one another. Chalk it up to high ceilings and generous presence of sound-absorbing Sunbrella wall coverings. There’s no background noise, no saccharine elevator music. Just calm quiet, rather like an art museum. That’s quite a contrast to the roar of textile-making equipment that once filled the space.

The lighting is phenomenally even. Daylight, a little or a lot, seeps into all but the most private spaces. The source of artificial lighting is visible and direct only in a few areas, such as the designer’s space where fabric colors must be viewed in perfect conditions. The color temperature of the light there matches and supplements the natural daylight. Otherwise, one never sees the direct source of light that gently spills from overhead, reflected from the light-color ceiling.

Clerestory windows along the rooftop spine allow ample light to reach the center of the second floor. Some of that light spills down to the first floor through two centrally located cutouts. On the first level, the concrete floor was removed and dug out to a depth of 10 feet. Now those light wells are lush with green plants.

Ultimately, Gant III says, hardwoods may be planted. Glen Raven takes the long view, so the trees will have plenty of time to mature and room to grow.

Each functional area has a break room consisting of a full-size refrigerator, a sink, countertop, a microwave and space to prepare a snack or lunch brought from home. Waste receptacles are non-existent. This facility, like all Sunbrella facilities, is landfill free. Recycling is part of the business plan.

Buildings with large open spaces are notoriously drafty. HVAC distribution systems, typically suspended overhead, usually are the culprits. But Sunbrella HQ appears to be draft free. Most conditioned air seeps upward from vents in the wooden floors, while some falls down from overhead ducts. Big ceiling fans high in the second-floor ceiling turn lazily. One never hears or feels the HVAC cycle on or off.

Allen Gant, Jr. stands near one of the many spaces available for impromptu meetings. This one on the second level is called “The Picnic Table.” Behind him is one of the light wells that allow daylight to penetrate to the ground level, deep inside Sunbrella HQ.

Sunbrella associates say rainy days are special. “It’s kind of a magical thing when the weather changes,” says Sarah Dooley, Upholstery Marketing manager. “The whole building comes to life with it. It reminds me of being a kid and hearing the rain.”

Weather moments, she says, are also reminders about Glen Raven’s performance fabric products and the emphasis on durability and quality. Rain, she says, “makes for a fun little experience.”

Meeting rooms, and there are plenty, have deliberately informative names. “Sales 4,” for instance, is in the sales department and seats four.

The meeting space with the most fun name is Fish Bowl 20, a centrally located, glass-walled space. Curtains of Sunbrella fabric can be drawn for privacy. A stairway leads to another space atop Fish Bowl 20, which is outfitted with cushy lounge furniture. It’s good for brainstorming, quiet conversation, and panoramic interior views.

The planners and dreamers thought of just about everything for a modern workforce with associates ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something. Sunbrella HQ provides a secluded family room with a refrigerator and a lock on the door, perfect for nursing mothers, says Dooley. “Just to have thought about that makes a huge difference,” she says.

Glen Raven’s business culture, which encourages employees to grow, experiment, and have the freedom to make mistakes “is built into the building,” says Voorhis. That, he notes, “gives us less stress.”

And then there are the bathrooms.

“I’m a bathroom fanatic,” the chairman says. “I think every bathroom in a commercial building should be nicer than your bathroom at home.”

By that, he means nice and private. So every restroom – “and they are all over the building and half of Georgia” – is made to accommodate just one person, protected by a door that closes like a bank vault.

The lights come on automatically; ventilation is “threefold what the specs call for. Top to bottom, it’s soundproof.”

The restrooms are situated in banks of eight, with four on either side of a short corridor. No knocking is necessary. Green “vacant” signs turn to red “occupied” when the latch is turned inside. Don’t look for the usual gender signage. These restrooms are first come, first served.

“Male. Female. Whatever your calling is, we don’t care,” Gant says. “It’s individual. And every one is exactly the same.”

And the verdict?

“I love them,” Roberts says.

“We are so much happier with the bathrooms,” Dooley says. “So much happier.”

“Privacy,” Roberts says. “It just works.”

Allen Gant, Jr. chairman of Glen Raven, and Suzie Roberts, vice president of Sales for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics.

Looking Ahead

Glen Raven held a board of directors meeting last spring, where the No. 1 topic was forecasting the future. Not the next quarter, and not 2020 or even 2025. The board’s task was to imagine what Glen Raven must tackle to be successful over the next 30 to 50 years.

That sort of long-range attitude is rare if not downright non-existent in the rest of American enterprise. Glen Raven’s status as a privately held, family-controlled enterprise certainly helps make that kind of perspective possible.

But that long-range view is not a departure from the past; it’s just the latest case in point. The company is renown for crafting a vision, building confidence in a venture, and sticking with an innovation it believes in until the rest of the world catches up. Sunbrella is the foremost example of that stance.

The transformation of Plant One to become Sunbrella HQ aligns perfectly with the company’s history of investing in its future.

“The time horizon for us is way out there,” Gant says. “We’re 139 years old, and we’re interested in being here another 139 years. We’re going to amortize this investment over a long period of time.”

Oehmig, the CEO, says the HQ investment is the same as constructing a new production facility or another capital asset. Sunbrella HQ is “an investment that should have that type of payoff for us. It’s more than brick and mortar,” he explains; it’s an investment “in our people that will inspire them and put them in a position to do their best work.”

Sunbrella HQ has been in service for less than a year, but early returns indicate that the facility is meeting its goals.

The open floor plan and ease of circulation have resulted in “constant collaboration,” Voorhis says. Dooley agrees. “That whole hallway meeting culture is able to really blossom here,” she says.

Custom Fabrics has seen customers visit more frequently. Customers who used to visit once or twice a year to consult with the Sunbrella team now seem to pop in almost every month. “They get so much more accomplished when they are here,” Roberts says, “that it saves having to have two or three more meetings.”

Ultimately, Oehmig says, the success of Sunbrella HQ will be measured by how it benefits customers. “If we can help our customers reach their goals,” he says, “then we will be successful.”

In the long run, Glen Raven is counting on extending and growing its track record with Sunbrella. Sunbrella HQ now houses about 130 employees. There’s space available to raise that total to 400 without driving a nail or moving a wall.

Ed. Note: The International Casual Furnishings Association (ICFA) has announced that Allen E. Gant Jr., chairman of Glen Raven, Glen Raven, North Carolina, as well as Jack and Gwen Raseman, founders of Deck-N-Den Limited in Kalamazoo, Michigan, will be recipients of its 2019 Lifetime Achievement Awards.

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