By Charles Vernon
I didn’t travel to America until I was 30 and running a European case goods company at the time. I visited High Point and came away both confused and personally inspired to do business in the U.S. in the future. That was 10 years before I joined Paul Wallevik – a long-time friend of mine – the owner and founder of the Gloster Group.
|Louise and Charles on their three-month retirement holiday in India.|
I have never been modest or unambitious, so once I was on board at Gloster we quickly decided to make it the best outdoor furniture company in the world. To do this, of course, we had to address the world’s largest and best market – North America. My inspiration from 10 years prior now had the opportunity to be realized as a real business.
I quickly learned that doing business in the U.S. is as different from business in Europe as Japan is. In the outdoor business, the products, emphasis, practices, channels and much more were different, and some of it completely new to me. I had seen U.S. companies fail in Europe by not realizing this, and I came across many Europeans who were not able to reach their potential in the U.S. because they were not willing to accept that so much is different.
However, I discovered that my two fundamental principles in doing good business were the same. You have to have a product that the consumer wants, and you have to build your business through relationships. Those two principles had sustained my previous business life and were the same in the European and international outdoor furniture business.
With products, I knew that everything has its cycle, getting in on the right turn of the wheel was critical, and often luck played a part. For Gloster in the early ’90s, the timing was perfect. Teak was on the rise in the U.S. and Gloster’s teak manufacturing expertise in Indonesia was globally second to none. We already had traditional products and some designer-oriented European products, but we urgently had to develop U.S.-centric products.
|L to R: Louise and Charles Vernon with Dorothy Simons, the owner of Dodds and Eder, Long Island.|
We also knew that the teak bubble would burst at some time, and we had to look beyond our existing skills and develop the ability to manufacture using other materials and methods. Further, and more complicated, we had to open our minds to working with other suppliers that had expertise we didn’t have, rather than making everything ourselves.
We had to develop the ability to predict where trends would go, and at the same time be on the edge so that we could be original rather than just derivative and commercial enough to achieve volume.
Key in learning these and many more things were the relationships I had with many people across our industry. I am a naturally social person; I enjoy meeting people and exchanging views on many issues. This is partly as a result of my boarding school education – I was away from home from the age of seven – and partly my eclectic heritage with a German mother and a father from an aristocratic English line.
When I started working in the U.S., I found an openness and frankness that was refreshing and exciting. People told it as it was, and usually in a forthright but polite manner.
I was most lucky that the then-owner of Gloster, Paul Wallevik, trusted his managers to run the business as though it were their own. Paul is a remarkable man who knew what he was good at and what others could do that he couldn’t. He freed us up to “get on with the job.”
I also had a special relationship with Villy Nielsen, who was a friend of many years and was running Gloster’s manufacturing in Asia. We would finish each other’s sentences and, even though separated by many thousands of miles and seven hours’ time difference, were able to be radical and achieve things very quickly.
We built a U.S. team of professionals; our families often became friends and I was able to learn about American ways and values in a manner that cannot be taught in schools. Many of my former colleagues are now lifetime friends.
|L to R: Clay Kingsley of Kingsley-Bate, and Charles Vernon.|
The U.S. is such a large country and, even though it is one country, it has many nuances and different markets. I realized that to learn all about it, one had to travel and see for oneself and meet the retailers and commercial customers. This took time and considerable effort but, as a result, I was able to form relationships all over the country and make friends who would tell me the truth about what was happening in our industry and in Gloster’s world.
I was used to working with outside designers and, for the U.S. market, I often “sweated” ranges with European designers. I had not worked with American designers before, and had the privilege of working on several projects with John Caldwell. I found a new way of working to produce spectacular results.
At Gloster we had started life as an OEM supplier, a business that continued as an important element all the way through my time. I had open access to many players in the market. This proved to be very valuable in both learning the business and increasing the OEM business.
I served on the Board of the Summer & Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association (SCFMA) and there I met and became friends with many direct and indirect competitors. I’ve never liked the old adage of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” as I tried to never have enemies among the competition. Despite being European and having grown up in a semi-socialist “Nanny-state,” I believe passionately in free-market, open competition.
When I came to the U.S. I had an in-built prejudice against the rep system. In Europe there were many issues surrounding reps and I brought those with me. However, I quickly came to appreciate the value of reps and was very happy to learn from Ted Hesson, Craig Welch, Brad Elliott and many others. I learned about our industry, Gloster’s opportunities, and I saw the value of strong relationships in developing business.
One of the most unexpected and rewarding consequential results of all these things was to work with outside suppliers. This can be difficult for a manufacturing business to do because we tend to believe that the way we do it is the only way to do it.
When we expanded Gloster into aluminum and woven furniture, we found partners who were able to work with us to grow our and their business. Particularly with Albert Lord at Patio Renaissance, we formed a team and behaved like we were one company with common goals.
Upon reflection though, the added ingredient, beyond product and relationships that is necessary to turn philosophy into success is passion. I always believed in what I did and put my whole self behind it. Running Gloster took up a large part of my life and was a reflection of my life – not something added on but integral. I couldn’t do it by being anything other than sincere. Passion is a crucial element of purpose.
|L to R: Charles with Albert Lord from Patio Renaissance.|
I retired from Gloster in the U.S. in September last year and enjoyed a wonderful send-off party at the Casual Market. I had withdrawn from the European business at the start of 2014, and, after 22 years, decided to make a total break from Gloster to avoid the prospect of being a “ghost” around the organization, constantly telling people that we had tried something before and it didn’t work.
I felt it was important that I moved on to other things and didn’t want to worry about what the new management and owners were doing (Paul Wallevik sold his shares to his longtime Swiss partners). At the same time, my departure freed them from the past so they could more easily do what they saw as the way forward.
I look at my time at Gloster with huge pride and satisfaction, but am also very happy to leave that behind. Gloster will always be a large part of my life and the company’s achievements during my time are my legacy, but I cannot have any emotional involvement now that I have left my former colleagues.
In my retirement I have replaced Gloster by being a “retired gentleman.” My objectives are to have fun and help people wherever I can. My many non-Gloster activities are now getting much more of my time and are all doing well, especially my son’s soccer Academy – Right to Dream (www.righttodream.com) in Ghana where I have been chairman since it started 15 years ago.
Among those other activities are several furniture-related areas, now including an important one in the outdoor market.
When Gloster started supplying parasols 20 years ago, we worked with Woodline in South Africa and I became friends with the owner, Fritz Walter. We have stayed friends, and recently he asked if I would help him refocus and develop his business. Woodline reminds me very much of Gloster when I joined 22 years ago, and I realized I could bring a lot to the party and have fun doing it.
I know that in helping Fritz with Woodline we will develop on the same principles of excellent products and strong relationships that were my legacy during my time with Gloster.
In my view, Woodline has all the right ingredients to be a world-leading shade company, and has an owner with a passion for his business and an unrivalled skill level that will ensure success. I am delighted to work with somebody who can both develop amazing products and run his company by putting customers at the center of activities.
I can only say “watch this space” to see Woodline develop over the next few years. So, I have retired but I still haven’t left this industry that I enjoy so much!