A Family Affair
By Tom Lassiter
Leib Oehmig took over the reins of Glen Raven last October, adding the position of CEO to his duties as president. He succeeds Allen E. Gant, Jr., who remains chairman of the board of the family-owned business founded by Gant’s grandfather in 1880.
North Carolina-based Glen Raven is a global company that makes Sunbrella-brand products, which are widely used in the casual furniture, marine, and shade markets. Glen Raven also owns Dickson-Constant, Europe’s leading manufacturer of technical outdoor fabrics. In recent years, Sunbrella fabrics have made inroads in the decorative (interior furnishings) market. Sunbrella solution-dyed acrylic textiles literally created the market for performance fabrics.
Oehmig, a native of South Carolina, graduated from Clemson University with a bachelor’s degree in business. He later earned a master’s degree in business administration, also from Clemson.
|This photo is of the history/library room at Glen Raven’s Corporate campus in Burlington, North Carolina; it’s where books, photos, maps, products and other artifacts from the company’s 138-year history are held. The desk is the one used by company founder John Q. Gant.|
Hearth & Home: You’re the first person to be in this position who is not a member of the Gant family. What is that like?
Leib Oehmig: “The Gant family has a very unique way of embracing all their associates. They’re a very employee-centric family, and so they have always made us feel like family. Glen Raven is just not a very hierarchical organization. CEO just defines what I do; it doesn’t define who I am. I think everybody here kind of has a similar-type philosophy, that we are just a group of people trying our very best to support our customers and, hopefully, grow the business in the process.
“But I understand the magnitude (of being the first non-family CEO) and that’s why it was a four-year transition period. Now, members of our executive committee are all non-family; on our board, we have both family and non-family representation. All the feedback we’ve received so far is positive.”
How did you come to work for Glen Raven?
Oehmig: “I grew up in a textile family. From the time I was 15 or 16 years old, I spent my summers working in textiles. My father spent 30 years in the textile industry, making bottomweight textiles, greige fabric. (Greige, or gray, textiles, are unfinished, unbleached, undyed fabrics.) He was in a segment of the industry that was really being hammered by imports.
“Beginning in the late ’70s, there was no way to keep those products from being commoditized. I watched my father close plants and saw the impact that it had on the community.
“After college, I was recruited by another textile manufacturer. My father said, ‘If you are sincere about getting into this industry, I suggest you give Glen Raven a call. From what I know about the family as an outsider, they have high integrity, and they’ve got something special going on with the Sunbrella product. Give them a call.’
“So I went to Anderson, South Carolina, where Glen Raven had a plant they bought from West Point Pepperell, and convinced them to take a chance on me. That was in 1989.”
(Note: Oehmig returned to Clemson University for graduate studies while continuing to work for Glen Raven. Meanwhile, the company decided to invest in its Sunbrella-brand product by constructing a new, state-of-the-art facility in Anderson.)
What happened after you earned your MBA?
Oehmig: “My first project, coming out of management training, was to lead a team to design and build and operate the Anderson plant. To be a part of creating jobs and something that is going to support that community really was appealing to me. That’s why I decided to invest myself on the operations side of the business.
“I spent the first 15 years of my career managing facilities, research and development – all things operational. I think I’ve had 13 positions within Glen Raven.”
Glen Raven makes Sunbrella products in North America, Europe, and China. Are there plans to open any new Sunbrella plants?
Oehmig: “No. We built our facilities (in Europe and China) for expansion, much like we did the Anderson facility. One of the great things about being a privately-held company, and I think specifically with this group of shareholders, this family, is that they think generationally about the business. They are very willing to invest.
“We’re still making significant capital investments in all those locations around the world. We work from a global capacity plan, so we try to look at where we can produce the best support for the customer base. We have capital projects going on in France and in China, and have a tremendous capital plan for the U.S., all in support of Sunbrella and Dickson performance fabrics.”
|Anderson Plant – Jacquard.|
Glen Raven also has significant operations in India.
Oehmig: “That’s another business unit, Glen Raven Technical Fabrics. One of the fastest-growing businesses is a joint venture in India doing geo-textile infrastructure build-out.
(Note: Geo-textiles are used to reinforce soil structures, such as highway ramps and approaches to bridges. Glen Raven makes geo-textiles in India and employs engineers and others to design and construct highway ramps and bridges and similar projects that require moving and compacting earth.)
“Our mantra is not about what’s now; it’s about what’s next. How can we leverage our global capabilities to better service our current and prospective customers? If we do everything we can to help our customers grow their business, then everybody in the value chain is going to benefit.”
People in the casual furniture industry see that attitude reflected throughout the Custom Fabrics division. Everyone, starting with the top executives, always seems so focused on customer needs. How does Glen Raven foster that sort of attitude and company culture?
Oehmig: “I think the question is about competitiveness. What we have tried to do – and we’re still on this journey – is to ask, how do we support that customer?
“It also has to do with the people that we bring in. How do we create this maniacal attitude about supporting that customer base and allowing them to grow? That’s a cultural thing that goes back throughout the 137 years. If you’re able to have that level of focus, if you are very customer-centric, then I think you will be successful.
“That focus has driven us. We didn’t go to China chasing the low-cost rainbow. We went there because we had customers that wanted to compress the cycle time for product getting from the U.S. to China. That allows them more design time, more time to make selections. That’s the reason we went. Fortunately, it gave us a base of business that allowed us to put infrastructure in place to help grow the Chinese domestic market.
“We want Sunbrella, wherever it is produced, or our Dickson products, wherever they are produced in the world, to be exactly the same.
“All of the equipment that is in our plant in China is the same equipment you’ll find in any of our plants in Europe or the U.S. And everything is to Western construction standards – HVAC, everything – and not only for the integrity of the product. A Glen Raven employee anywhere in the world will have the same type of conditions, the same environment, be treated the same, have the same focus on safety and well-being.
“A company is not going to do that if it’s just trying to drive costs out of the product. For us, labor costs are a relatively small component of the product cost; therefore, we want to do it.”
Are there any new Sunbrella products in the pipeline? Are we going to see Sunbrella put to a new use in the marketplace?
Oehmig: “Most of our work right now is in the design phase. How do we achieve another level, in terms of performance attributes, that resonates with the consumer? That will allow our customers, whether at the OEM furniture level or the retail level, to make a compelling story and help grow that part of the market.
“To your original question, yes, we have new things, from an engineering perspective, that we’re working on all the time. And we have some exciting things that are still in the lab, that we’re not talking a lot about. But what we are doing all day, every day, is trying to elevate that whole idea of design and performance married together, to create something beautiful, with performance attributes that improve the lives of people.”
So Glen Raven thinks Sunbrella can be better?
Oehmig: “Absolutely. We spend more on research and development today than we ever have in our history. It’s all about what’s next.
“We’ve got an advanced projects team that is working on sensor technology. We spend a lot of time cultivating relationships, whether it’s with academics or companies in Silicon Valley. We’ve got development projects with Google. We want to really understand (sensor technology).”
So we might one day see market umbrellas with canopies that generate electricity to power LEDs and light the Outdoor Room at night?
Oehmig: “Absolutely. Imagine if you could sit on your sofa and instead of having to dig around for a television remote, you swipe the arm of the sofa, and it brings up the entertainment guide on your screen. There are too many great companies that want to capitalize on this same market space. We’ve got to always be thinking about how we make that compelling case around design plus performance.”
|Chief Executive Officer at rest.|
Where is the Outdoor Room trend these days? Has it peaked?
Oehmig: “I don’t think so. I can walk around my neighborhood and see
beautiful homes, but they haven’t made that investment in the Outdoor Room. The encouraging part is that we still have a relatively low percentage of people who have made an investment in their Outdoor Room. The challenge is, how do we make it compelling for them to make that investment? Part of that is in better product from all of us, and part of it is in communication, to make sure our messaging to the consumer is what it needs to be.”
There’s growing awareness about the harmful effects of too much sun exposure and the impact of global warming. Will Glen Raven ever incorporate those concerns into marketing shade products?
Oehmig:“Every year we’re hearing more and more about the harmful effects of UV, and I think that in our messaging we’ve got to continue to address that. But also, how do we create solutions that are easy and attractive? There’s great opportunity there.”
Glen Raven has made a concerted effort to raise awareness of its shade solutions among architects, engineers, and environmental designers. The company has held seminars and design competitions. Tell us about that.
Oehmig:“We want to continue to push the idea of attractive shade, to make it compelling for architects to incorporate that into their designs. We are, in fact, doing some things that create significant health benefits that also can be aesthetically pleasing. To get architects really thinking about that in a different way, you’ve got to get that message to resonate.”
Solair retractable awnings are another Glen Raven shade product. Hearth & Home has written about how popular these products are in Europe, yet the U.S. market appears slow to adopt motorized, retractable awnings. What’s the status of that business?
Oehmig: “The shade market for us, globally, is not growing at the rate that it should be growing. It’s growing in low single digits, but it should be growing at a much faster rate. This isn’t just a Glen Raven thing; we’re talking about market growth and Glen Raven within that, based on health benefits, global warming, and things that are driving the need for shade.
“We’ve done focus groups, and people who have retractable awnings in the U.S. absolutely love them. The challenge is the idea of having something permanently affixed to the house. It has to be considered structurally, and it has to have power run to it. All those things make it a more complicated sales process when there are other forms of shade that seem much easier to install.
“The other part is aesthetics. How do we make them aesthetically pleasing all the time, when they’re not extended? So it’s a challenge for Solair and for people who participate in that market. We’ve engaged some industrial designers and others to determine what the next generation of shade looks like.
“The shade market is what we do; it’s not a hobby. We’re willing to make the investments and spend the energy to elevate shade in the minds of consumers and the market. Hopefully, we will do the things that we need to do to earn our share.”
How did the Great Recession affect Glen Raven? How is the Sunbrella and custom fabrics business today compared to what it was before the downturn?
Oehmig: “We took the same hit everybody else did. Glen Raven, as a company, broke through the pre-recession threshold faster than the Custom Fabrics Division did as a business unit. It took us until 2012-2013 before we started to see our way clear. To lose so many retailers and boat dealerships, which are our channel, and have them just disappear, was heart-wrenching. But we’re now beyond where we were, pre-recession, and we’re continuing to grow. We feel good about where we are now.”
|Anderson Plant – Robotic Warper.|
A lot of Sunbrella fabric makes its way to the consumer on products through mass merchants, such as Costco and other Big Box stores. Then there are the upscale, designer fabrics from Sunbrella that are available through specialty retailers selling higher-end casual furniture. How does production split between those markets?
Oehmig: “We’re privately-held and don’t give out a lot of details in terms of the market split. What I will tell you is that the specialty business is the most important to us. It’s the largest.”
In terms of yardage or revenue?
Oehmig: “All of that. It was working with specialty retailers that really helped drive this whole Outdoor Room phenomenon. We’ve never lost sight of that. For us, specialty is our focus. We continue to try to create differentiation through our design and styling and support of those retailers, because, for us, that is at the heart of what we’re doing.”
Trivantage, which distributes cut yardage and other supplies to jobbers, workrooms, retailers and furniture makers, is Glen Raven’s third business unit. How is that business performing?
Oehmig: “It is everything we hoped it would be. Those customers have always been an important channel for us. The idea was, how do we make it easy for the customer? We want to be a one-stop shop. We want to supply Glen Raven-produced products, but there are a lot of other products, from hardware to other soft goods, available as well. If there’s a competing fabric for a particular application that we support, we’ll support that
supplier as well.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the progress Trivantage has made.”
Update us on Sunbury, the Pennsylvania fabric maker and longtime Sunbrella licensee that Glen Raven purchased last year.
Oehmig: “As we looked at how to accelerate our penetration of the highest end of the decorative indoor market, the conversation would come back to Sunbury. We had been partners for 22 years. They have unique capabilities in design, as well as operationally. We closed the deal at the end of September. I’m excited about where we are now, and more excited about the potential, now that we are operating as one Glen Raven.”
The team Custom Fabrics soon will move into a repurposed building that’s undergone a dramatic renovation. What’s the significance of that?
Oehmig: “That building was the first plant the Gants built, and it was the birthplace of Sunbrella. We want to create a workspace that is more collaborative for everyone associated with Glen Raven, and especially for the partners who come here. We want to make it an inspiring place to work, and we’re really excited about that.
“It’s an investment in the business, much like we would invest in a new plant or new technology. This is making an investment in something that we think will take us to another level.
“We are totally committed to this market. We think there’s enormous opportunity as an industry, and we are very excited about the future.”