By Tom Lassiter
|Terri Lee Rogers, CEO of OW Lee, participating in the Rock ’n Roll Pasadena 1/2 Marathon.|
Terri Lee Rogers likes to run early in the day and knock out four to five miles. Her usual route is through her neighborhood, but sometimes she runs the trails in the foothills behind her California home. Determination fuels her pace, overcoming her body’s objections and pushing her toward the endorphin rewards that all runners crave.
The ever-present concerns of a corporate executive recede, pushed away by the necessity of maintaining pace and wind. Production forecasts, budgets and shipping challenges can wait.
“I run probably three times a week,” says Rogers, president of OW Lee. “I never liked to run, but I’ve gotten to a point now where, all of a sudden, it’s become something I don’t want to do without.”
Becoming a runner was part of what Rogers calls a lifestyle change. It wasn’t easy, but she set her mind on it and mastered what was necessary to achieve her goal.
“I got started a little late” in life, she admits, “but at least I did it.”
She did it, and then some. Rogers doesn’t just jog around the block. She’s improved her endurance to run in half-marathon events. For you non-Olympians, a half-marathon is 13.1 miles.
“That was on my bucket list,” she says.
The focus and resolve that turned this grandmother into a long-distance runner also helps maintain OW Lee’s ongoing success.
A Family Business
Two of Rogers’ adult children work at the company started by their great-grandfather, Oddist W. Lee, in 1947. Leisa McCollister handles Marketing and, more recently, expanded her responsibilities to include Manufacturing Cost Analysis. Her brother, Paul Rogers, oversees Product Design.
Terri Lee Rogers’ brother-in-law, Chris Goff, is vice president of Production.
Yet it’s almost as if everyone who works for the Ontario, California, company eventually becomes like family.
“I think that’s part of why we’ve been here a long time. We treat our employees well. We follow the rules. We have good benefits. The whole Obamacare thing, it really didn’t affect us at all, because we were already compliant.”“I’ve got one guy who has never missed a single day. This guy is unbelievable. He comes to work. Every. Single. Day. That’s what he does.
Employment two years ago stood at around 200. OW Lee’s workforce is now double that, and growing. The company added a second shift early this year. “One of our issues now is finding qualified welders,” Rogers says.
Sales increased by about 25 percent from 2012 to 2014, Rogers says, primarily through specialty retailers. Sales are on track this season to rise another 20 percent.
Company founder O.W. Lee was a wrought-iron man who once worked with Bob Brown, founder of Brown Jordan. Later on, according to company lore, Brown and his partner, Hugh Jordan, helped finance Lee’s start-up venture.
Lee first concentrated on making wrought-iron gates and railings for booming post-World War II Southern California. Later the company began making metal dinette sets. In 1954, OW Lee made its first patio furniture.
A number of companies in recent years have made business-page headlines by leaving California and moving to Utah or Idaho or some other western state. The boilerplate reason is to find a more tax-friendly location or otherwise “reduce the cost of doing business.”
Don’t expect that from OW Lee.
The company owns its 100,000 sq. ft. plant and just purchased an adjacent 57,000 sq. ft. building. While real estate can be replaced, the company’s loyal California workforce cannot be replicated.
The employees at OW Lee, once a union shop, no longer are organized. “The employees didn’t see the benefits in a union, so they didn’t join and the union went away,” Rogers says. The union couldn’t do anything more for the employees than OW Lee was already doing.
“We still try to follow the same formula we had in the past as far as giving increases or reviews. That works for us, because our employees feel they are being treated fairly and getting rewarded for their hard work.
“We’re able to do well and stay in California,” Rogers says, “and we’ve got all of our employees here, and they have been here forever.”
|The OW Lee factory in Ontario, California.|
A backyard conversation changed the fortunes for OW Lee and ignited a trend that benefits the entire outdoor furniture industry to this day.
The family was gathered in patriarch Bob Lee’s backyard, seated around a gas fire pit made by a company best known for its gas logs and grills. Brian Lee (Terri Lee Rogers’ brother, then in charge of product development) thought OW Lee could make a more handsome version. He recalls that it happened around 2000.
“I said, ‘This is something we could do,’” Brian recalls. “We were doing really well with club chairs. I thought we could sell more chairs if we had a fire pit.”
Three years later, OW Lee debuted its first fire pit at the Casual Market. The company’s trademarked name for fire pits and related products was Casual Fireside.
“We were surprised, honestly, that it got such interest,” Rogers recalls.
Retailers thought consumers would love it, and they were right. The product that Brian Lee expected to be an accessory quickly became a stand-alone sales leader.
Homeowners bought fire pits to incorporate with existing furniture groups. They bought fire pits to pair with OW Lee’s furniture. They bought fire pits along with furniture made by other casual companies, confidently mixing and matching colors and surfaces to create their own Outdoor Room aesthetic.
Twelve years after the original introduction, OW Lee continues to innovate its fire pit line. The company’s 42-in. and 54-in. fire pits remain strong sellers. A 30-in. round unit was introduced at the 2014 Casual Market, an acknowledgement that homeowners with smaller patios and balconies also enjoy the ambiance provided by dancing flames.
The company introduced some scaled-down club dining chairs, specifically made to go with the 30-in. fire pit.
“They’re plushy, cushiony chairs,” Rogers says. “We tried to market (the package) so that the person who doesn’t have a gigantic backyard can still have a nice deep-seating area in a smaller patio.”
As the fire pit trend roared forward, sales of the products grew to account for 30 percent of OW Lee’s sales, Rogers says. That percentage has declined somewhat. Sales of fire pits through April of this year accounted for about 17 percent of the company’s business. “There’s a lot of competition now out there with fire pits, as you know,” she says.
Brian Lee’s original insight, that fire pits might drive seating sales, proved to be absolutely correct. No one, however, could have predicted the extent to which fire pits would energize casual furniture sales.
Fire pits, Rogers says, are “really, really putting some teeth into deep seating.”
Demand for comfortable seating for conversation, for coffee table dining, and for clustering around a fire pit has surged in recent years. Outdoor dining, perhaps the most important category in casual furniture sales at one time, has slipped in popularity.
An industry-wide design trend may be attributed to the popularity of fire pits. Crescent-shaped sofas, with deep, curved cushions, were almost unknown before the fire pit rage. A crescent frame positioned near a fire pit allows everyone on the sofa to enjoy the flames from a similar distance and angle.
Feel Like Money
OW Lee, a retailer says, has capitalized on the demand for deep seating by making products that meet and exceed customer expectations.
Erik Stanton, general manager at Daylight Home Lighting & Patio in San Luis Obispo, California, gives OW Lee products high marks across the board.
“OW Lee doesn’t skimp on their cushions,” Stanton says. “When you sit on them, you can tell. They feel like the money that you’re spending.”
Stanton says the company’s stock fabric selections “really seem to work with what people in our part of California want. They nail it. Every year, we can’t believe how well it sells.”
Stanton notes that OW Lee has continued to refine its fire pit engineering, making the product more reliable. OW Lee’s early fire pits employed a device called a thermocouple. Its job is to shut off the flow of gas should there be a flameout. This is critical for gas appliances used indoors. Outdoors, the safety benefits of a thermocouple are negated by the presence of unrestricted fresh air. Furthermore, exposure to rain and salt air may cause a thermocouple to corrode and malfunction, resulting in a dealer service call.
OW Lee, Stanton says, “eliminated that feature, which makes it one less thing we have to worry about.”
|St. Charles dining.|
No Kid Gloves
Terri Lee Rogers has worked in the family business for 20 years, but she had a previous career as a paralegal. That training still serves her well, she says, when reviewing contracts.
When she first went to work for her father and mother – known to many in the casual industry as Bob and Beverly – she chose to start at the bottom “answering phones and doing collections.”
Her logic? “I requested to answer the phones so that I learned who everyone was on the outside (customers and suppliers), and what everyone did on the inside,” Rogers says.
“I started with collections because of my legal background, but soon found out how important the relationships were with our customers, both on the sales side as well as collecting receivables.”
Rogers went on to work in almost every department, including order entry, human resources, shipping and billing. Eventually she concentrated on sales and marketing, becoming vice president in late 1995.
The responsibilities, she says, weren’t handed to her. She had to earn them.
Her parents, second-generation owners of OW Lee, “did not treat us with kid gloves. We had to perform, and that’s what we did,” she says of herself and her brother.
“You see your parents work so hard to build something, and you have a responsibility back to them to keep things moving forward.” Plus, she notes, “You have a responsibility to pay it forward to your children. So that’s where the ethics come in, where you feel like you owe it both forward and backwards.”
Careful stewardship through the years paid off for OW Lee when economic calamity struck with the recession of 2009. Even though sales declined, the company stayed in the black.
“Fortunately for us, we’re pretty conservative as far as financing and debt, so we were able to shrink those (areas) and still be profitable,” Rogers says. “And that’s important. If you’re not profitable at the end of the day, who cares how much sales you have?”
Growing the Business
Twenty years ago, when Rogers assumed responsibility for sales and marketing, 90 percent of OW Lee’s sales were in California. “I didn’t like that,” Rogers says. “My goal was to manage sales and even out distribution across the country.” Rogers wanted to ensure that if California suffered a recession, OW Lee would have sufficient business elsewhere to see it through.
The company in the ensuing years strengthened its distribution dramatically in the West and southwestern United States, where OW Lee’s generous seating designs and hefty metal frames seem tailor-made for the climate and lifestyle.
Building equally thorough distribution in the East remains a goal. “We still have a lot of opportunities on the East Coast that we’re trying to develop,” Rogers says, “and hopefully we will capitalize on those opportunities.”
Several points favor OW Lee’s goals. In an era when there are so many similar-looking casual furniture styles (intentional or not), OW Lee’s designs stand out. The materials used and attention to detail in construction cannot be easily replicated by imports, and the designs, dealers say, seem right for American consumers.
“Their furniture collections address what most people are looking for,” says John Billings, owner of Daylight Home Lighting & Patio. The store has carried OW Lee for more than 30 years.
“They’re always strong on comfort and durability,” Billings says. “One of their greatest strengths is warranty and service. It’s our No. 1 outdoor line.”
Karen Galindo of Outside in Style in Austin, Texas, calls OW Lee “our favorite brand. Everything about them is about building a super-high-quality piece of furniture that the consumer is going to love. But it’s also about building relationships with their customers. They always do the right thing.”
Galindo credits Rogers with developing “the single best Internet policy in our industry.” OW Lee’s Internet policy limits discounts on goods sold outside of a stocking dealer’s home territory. Brick-and-mortar dealers, on the other hand, “can do whatever you need to do to be profitable and competitive in that market.”
On the retail floor, Galindo says, “OW Lee sells itself. You can buy a more expensive chair, but you can’t buy a better chair.
“I don’t think there’s a more innovative outdoor furniture company out there.”
Like a Marathon
OW Lee’s generously scaled furniture hit a home run in the marketplace. But Rogers is very aware of the waves of retiring, downsizing Baby Boomers and the fact that young adults favor urban living, with smaller spaces for outdoor living.
Those, she says, “are markets we shouldn’t ignore.”
Regardless of the scale of the furniture or trends in finishes and fabrics, the Outdoor Room is here to stay. “It’s not going to slow down anytime soon,” Rogers says. “Anything that makes outdoor living easier and more entertaining and more stylish, I think that’s the road to go down.”
Long-term success in the outdoor living industry takes the energy and resolve of a long-distance runner. This business is like a marathon, and OW Lee is in it to win.
INDUSTRY AWARDS TO OW LEE
2014 – ICFA Manufacturer of the Year; Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2013 – ICFA Manufacturer of the Year; Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2012 – ICFA Manufacturer of the Year; Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2011 – ICFA Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2010 – ICFA Manufacturer of the Year; Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2009 – Luxe 30 collection wins two ADEX awards for design excellence
2008 – ICFA Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2008 – ICFA presents Bob and Beverly Lee with Lifetime Achievement Award
2003 – ICFA Manufacturing Leadership award in wrought iron/wrought aluminum
2001 – ICFA Manufacturer of the Year
DESIGN EXCELLENCE AWARD
2001 – International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market
Category: Wrought Iron/Wrought Aluminum Metro Spring Chair