The Evolution of Danny Jelley
By Tom Lassiter
Every top-notch casual furniture company must have an executive team with a diverse range of skill sets.
There’s got to be someone who grasps manufacturing and someone who truly understands the challenges of retail sales. There must be a person who comprehends performance fabrics, including trends in colors, textures and patterns.
The team needs someone who can build and motivate a national sales force, and a person who can spot innovative materials and identify new opportunities. The team must have a confident decision-maker at the top who is at ease in an extremely seasonal business. That person must enjoy the challenges of making products in one hemisphere and selling them in another.
At Veranda Classics, the executive team basically consists of one. Danny Jelley, who has spent nearly four decades in the casual furniture business, wears all the hats. He’s just as comfortable describing a new composite material as he is discussing the mundane details of warehousing and distribution.
Danny Jelley is a casual furniture Renaissance man. He does it all.
A Diverse Career
Jelley, a native of Tennessee, is senior vice president for Product Design & Development at Veranda Classics, a business unit of Foremost Groups. The Veranda Classics name is relatively new in the specialty store arena, but the parent company has been producing casual furniture for more than a decade.
At first, Jelley says, Foremost served low-end mass merchants before making custom products for larger specialty retailers. The company had a Chicago showroom near the Merchandise Mart but kept a low profile.
“They were just flying under the radar when they hired me,” Jelley says. “They asked me to give them a different kind of identity in the marketplace.”
Jelley didn’t go after the position with Foremost Groups. He was wrapping up a decade with Agio as vice president of Product Development & Design when a headhunter cold-called him.
“I had two headhunters come after me in a period of six weeks,” he recalls. “After 10 years, I was ready for a change, and Foremost made me an offer.” That was in late 2013.
The offer almost flopped. The job, Jelley was told, would require him to move from the Nashville area, where Agio had an office, to New Jersey. Jelley told Foremost that condition was a deal-breaker.
“I said, ‘Let me open an office in Tennessee, and we can talk.’ And so they did.”
Jelley has worked for some of the biggest names in the industry during his nearly four-decade career. In addition to Agio, he was director of Merchandising at Meadowcraft in the mid-1980s. He later tackled the same job for West Point-Pepperell, which at the time made PVC and acrylic fabrics for outdoor furniture, as well as fabrics for indoor furnishings.
“It was totally different,” Jelley says. “I had to learn weaving and weaving structures. I had to learn how to do prints and buy textile art and convert that into screens. It was a pretty interesting process.”
Jelley, who has an English degree and taught at the college level before jumping into commerce, is a lifelong learner. His proficiency at highly technical and artistic fields, such as textile construction and furniture design, he says, “just evolved.”
The result of that evolutionary process makes him the point man at Veranda Classics. It’s the latest stage in a career that has touched on just about every facet of the casual furniture industry.
Jelley taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for fewer than two years before joining JC Penney’s Merchandising Management program. He was still a relatively green Merchandise manager when the owner of one of the best-known furniture stores in Chattanooga recruited him to launch the store’s casual department. The store was A.P. Fowler’s, and the year was 1980.
“I came on as Merchandise manager,” Jelley says. Along with owner Dick Fowler, he and Mike Hartley “literally built that patio shop.” It became, he says, “the largest outdoor patio store in the Southeast.” Hartley, who drove the delivery truck in those early days, now is vice president of Fowler’s.
Jelley honed his retail sales skills at Fowler’s, learning lessons that serve him well today. When specialty retailers share concerns or ask for advice, Jelley has the bona fides to provide trusted answers.
Jelley chuckles as he recalls his initial compensation package. Fowler opted to give Jelley a 2% commission on all patio shop sales, including sales by other associates.
“I outsold all the other salespeople,” he says. “At the end of the year, he had to pay a commission check that was more than half my salary. He had a hard time letting go of that check.”
Fowler’s was a full-line furniture store selling brands such as Baker, Drexel Heritage, and Henredon. Jelley brought on some of the biggest names in casual, including Telescope, Brown Jordan, Tropitone, and Mallin. “And we were a huge Meadowcraft dealer,” he says.
Jelley had a couple of seasons under his belt when owner Dick Fowler bought out other family members who operated other locations.
“We went from one store to 10 stores, overnight,” Jelley says. “In 1982, ’83 and ’84, we were one of the Top 100 furniture companies in the United States. That was in the days before the big consolidations.”
Jelley was made Merchandise manager for indoor furnishings as well as outdoor for all 10 stores. “It was a great industry,” he says. “I enjoyed it.”
Meadowcraft, a leading maker of wrought-iron furniture in the 1980s, noted Jelley’s flair for merchandising and recruited him to become its Merchandising manager. His many duties included overseeing production of the company’s catalogs and collateral material, “and actually working with the engineering department designing furniture.
“I’m not a trained designer at all,” he says. “I just had an eye for it.”
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A Pattern Develops
Meadowcraft bought a lot of fabric from West Point-Pepperell, and the fabric maker took note of Jelley’s talents and skills. West Point-Pepperell hired Jelley to be its director of Merchandising. The fabric business was “a whole other ball of wax, completely different,” Jelley says. His initial focus was on the outdoor business but later expanded to include fabric for interior furnishings.
By now, it’s apparent Jelley’s career follows a pattern. Employers hire him for a specific job that eventually balloons to include much broader responsibilities. That only happens when a person is extremely capable.
The 1980s was a decade of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts, especially in the textile industry. During Jelley’s nearly nine years with West Point-Pepperell, the company went through three changes of ownership. His next stop was Tietex International, another textile company also serving the furniture industry. Jelley focused on outdoor fabrics at Tietex, where he remained for the better part of a decade.
His next stop: Agio.
Jelley’s tenure with the huge furniture maker began in 2003, when the economy was on an upswing and the Outdoor Room concept was just taking hold.
Jelley says his most memorable time at Agio was the year the company did a licensing program with Disney, creating four casual collections based on Disney’s Florida resorts.
“We worked with the Disney people for a year putting the program together,” he says, “and they were wonderful. Just wonderful to work with.”
On opening day at the Casual Market, Agio hosted 300 people for lunch in its showroom. “It was crazy,” Jelley says. “It was the most exciting, funniest show I have ever done.
“And then, three weeks later, the market tanked. That whole Disney program just fell flat on its face because nobody was buying anything.”
The year, of course, was 2008.
Jelley spent more than 10 years with Agio, during which time the giant casual company shook off the effects of the Great Recession and continued growing its presence among specialty dealers as well as mass merchants and, more recently, full-line furniture stores.
“Danny is an old pro,” says Agio president Bob Gaylord, “and I use that term in the most respectful way. He is schooled and experienced in furniture design and fabrics, the two most important aspects of our industry. I know he has made a tremendous impact on the future of Veranda Classics.”
Foremost Groups, the parent company of Veranda Classics, was an established player in the casual furniture industry before recruiting Jelley, even though the company was not well known at the retail level.
In 2009, Furniture Brands International struck a deal with Foremost Groups to manufacture outdoor furniture to be sold under its Lane and Broyhill brand names.
Casual furniture manufacturing is just one of several diverse industrial sectors where Foremost Groups operates. Others include bath products, such as shower enclosures and bathroom cabinetry; the Craft + Main brand of interior furnishings; commercial food service equipment; range hood inserts; and high-end kitchen cabinetry custom-built in China for North American homes.
Joe Chen, a 1980 graduate of Boston University, is owner, president, and chairman of Foremost Groups. Corporate offices are in East Hanover, New Jersey. Chen, Jelley says, is an American citizen who has lived in the United States “almost all of his adult life.”
Foremost Groups initially subcontracted its outdoor furniture production to established factories in China. A year or two before hiring Jelley in late 2013, Foremost purchased a factory.
“That was one of the things that really drew me to Foremost,” Jelley says, “that we own our own factories.”
There’s also a new product development and sample center for prototyping, enabling Foremost to do “all of their manufacturing basically in one facility.”
Products sold under the Veranda Classics brand primarily are aluminum (cast and extruded) and resin wicker. The factory also produces steel casual furniture that is sold to other vendors.
Jelley characterizes Veranda Classics as “mid- to upper-end. Our sweet spot is $1,500 to $2,500 retail. That’s our target. We try to keep our collection so that it will retail under $3,000.”
A shopper should be able to purchase a Veranda Classics four-piece seating group or seven-piece dining set that hits the retail “sweet spot” yet has a “much higher perceived value,” Jelley says.
All Veranda Classics products are fully finished in China, including cushions. Fabrics primarily are sourced from U.S. vendors but may be manufactured in Chinese facilities. “We use primarily Sunbrella, Outdura, Phifer, and Abercrombie fabrics,” Jelley says.
Veranda Classics operates distribution warehouses in Woodland, California, and East Hanover, New Jersey. All casual furniture products are landed in Long Beach, California, and trucked to the distribution centers.
At the Merchandise Mart, Veranda Classics occupies the 9,000-sq. ft. showroom on the 16th floor that previously served Lloyd Flanders. The showroom was remodeled just in time for Casual Market 2016.
Hanging on an interior wall of the showroom are examples of tabletops, each with a distinctive look and finish. One looks like tooled leather. Another looks like cast stone. Yet another looks like wicker.
All are made of a proprietary product called TerraFab. Examples of TerraFab’s versatility can be found throughout the Veranda Classics showroom.
“It’s basically powdered stone, fiberglass, and a binder,” Jelley explains. “We can mold any organic or nonorganic material that can be molded.”
The process allows minute detail to be transferred to the composite resin, which then is hand-finished to replicate the look of wood, stone, concrete, porcelain, or wicker.
“We can mold virtually anything out of TerraFab,” he says. “It has allowed us to create a lot of new and interesting products that are cheaper and more weatherproof” than the original material.
Veranda Classics initially contracted with the Chinese factory that created TerraFab to make its tabletops and other items. Market reaction convinced the company that “it made a lot of sense to purchase the factory so we could control the product,” Jelley says. Soon after, production was moved to a new manufacturing facility and design center.
Jelley has guided Veranda Classics over many initial hurdles to get it established as a contender among upper-echelon casual furniture makers. He has set his sights on building up the brand’s presence among hearth and barbecue retailers; developing an Internet sales policy to “go after online business in a different way,” and simply building brand awareness.
“People just don’t know who we are,” Jelley says. “They don’t have a clue who Veranda Classics is or who Foremost is.”
The Mart showroom is a giant step in that education process, he says. It “makes a big, big difference.”
Once Jelley can get retailers into his showroom, his challenge is to get them to see Veranda Classics products through his lens. Some merchants have “tried to box us into a lower-end category,” he explains.
Eventually, though, those customers come around. “They found out that we make a really nice, quality product. And we have a tremendous perceived value compared to some of the products that they are purchasing for far more money.”
Jelley speaks with a confidence developed over the decades. His track record at retail, in the world of textiles, and in casual furniture, is strong.
When Foremost Groups was looking for someone to elevate Veranda Classics to the next level, he was the natural selection.