Friendship & Business
By Tom Lassiter
The Great Recession, coming just a year after Kannoa got started, might have brought another company to its knees. But it didn’t cause feisty Kannoa to founder.
A March 2015 fire destroyed Kannoa’s Florida headquarters, warehouse, and inventory. That was on a Thursday. Four days later, the staff was back at work, making calls to reassure customers as the patio season was about to enter full swing. Exactly a week after the fire, Kannoa once again shipped product, furniture that had been “on the water,” aboard ship in containers, when the blaze erupted.
For a company barely more than a decade old, Kannoa has seen its share of adversity. It has also achieved at least two milestones of success in the outdoor furniture industry – a spacious, permanent showroom at the Merchandise Mart that debuted at the Preview Show in July; and a licensing deal with one of the nation’s best-known lifestyle brands. The Eddie Bauer Home collection launched in 2017 at the Las Vegas Market, where Kannoa has a permanent showroom, and gets significant exposure in Kannoa’s Chicago showroom at the Mart. The company also has a showroom in High Point.
The Miami-based company was founded in 2006 by friends who grew up together in Venezuela. Philip Boulton is Kannoa’s CFO, and Luis Blasini is the CEO.
The previous careers of Kannoa’s top two executives had nothing to do with the casual furniture industry, yet their experience turned out to be perfect preparation for becoming outdoor furniture entrepreneurs.
Boulton’s family was engaged in logistics and port management in his native Venezuela. “They basically ran the port of Venezuela,” says Kannoa’s Global Director of Sales, Sebastien Manni.
Blasini’s mother, Manni says, was an art dealer. Blasini is the creative force at Kannoa; he designed several of the more striking items in the company’s catalog.
“Luis creates it, and Philip moves it,” says Manni. “That’s how the partnership works.”
|Maui Leisure Chairs.
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 TOM LASSITER.
The casual furniture business takes pride in its many family-owned businesses and the close relationships forged between individuals in the various sectors of the industry. Kannoa builds upon that tradition.
Manni once operated retail stores in the Miami area, where he sold rustic Indian goods imported by Blasini, who also owned retail stores. One day Blasini mentioned that he had seen some interesting new products on a recent trip to China. “I think I’m making a change,” Manni remembers his friend saying. “I think I’m going toward outdoor.”
Soon Manni was retailing outdoor products sourced by Blasini, who quickly sold his retail interests and brought on his old friend Boulton – who also had financial experience – as his partner.
“It took off from there,” Manni recalls.
Blasini’s LinkedIn page spends more time describing Kannoa’s company philosophy than it does talking about its products.
“We set out to build an outdoor furniture company based on four pillars: Design, Functionality, Durability, and Harmony. From the beginning we had an innate sense that these concepts had to guide not only the furniture we manufactured, but also the company itself. At Kannoa, people come first. We strive for a relaxed, informal work environment. We consider our clients and suppliers part of our work family and offer all our support in the processes.”
Manni surmises that the company’s emphasis on people grew out of the lifelong friendship between the founders. Other members of the Kannoa executive team and at its sister company, P’kolino (a youth furniture company), include fellow alumni from Boulton’s alma mater, Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Babson emphasizes entrepreneurial education and networking among its alumni.
“We are very much a family in this office. Everyone gets along, and we still operate that way,” Manni says. “It’s not bottom line first; it’s people first in many situations, and we’ve treated our clients that way. We took the time to get to know them after hours as well, and that’s really helped us. It’s given us some real strong partnerships with our vendors.”
Here’s an example that suggests Kannoa’s people-first approach pays benefits.
A Florida retailer called Kannoa’s office after hearing about the devastating fire. He first inquired about container product about to land. Then this, Manni recalls:
“His exact words were, ‘Put an order in the system and charge my card so that you can get something going. I know you guys need money coming in.’
“And he was right. Those are small victories. Those are the phone calls that touch you.”
Immediately after the fire, P’kolino co-founders Antonio Turco-Rivas and J.B. Schneider offered fellow Babson alum Boulton the use of office space. The Kannoa team purchased new computers, redirected phone lines, and downloaded operational data from its off-site backup server. The company was back in business in short order.
The early morning fire, caused by an electrical malfunction, started in the warehouse in an area where cardboard was stored. Staff, including workers in the cushion department, were quickly ushered to safety by a warehouse worker, Manni says. The inferno consumed everything except one chair.
There was one other call after the fire that warmed hearts, Manni says. Allen Calzadilla, president of Skyline Design, called to see if everyone was OK. He then offered Kannoa use of his company’s warehouse space for product about to land.
The call, Manni says, “reminds you that humanity is there. I’d like to think I’d make that same phone call.”
Kannoa had already accepted P’kolino’s offer of warehouse space and thanked Calzadilla for his generosity. Kannoa later purchased a stake in P’kolino.
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 TOM LASSITER.
Luis Blasini’s furniture designs look rooted in upscale and fashionable South Florida. They are clean, often curvy, and modern, with a distinctly contemporary vibe. The Kannoa catalog prominently identifies Blasini’s creations. Design credit for other collections, most of which are somewhat less cutting-edge, often goes to the Kannoa Design Team.
“Most of our frames are pretty simple,” says Manni, who is French-Canadian. “They’re not overly done; they’re not elaborate. We look at our frames as the canvas. Then we add our colors (in woven resin), and that’s where we allow you to create.”
More than a dozen resin choices, plus Sunbrella-brand fabrics, “let you create your own style,” Manni explains. “With any of our frames, you can create a transitional, all the way to a modern contemporary home.”
Blasini’s artful, sophisticated designs are too fashion-forward for all but the most contemporary residential environments. Which is why Kannoa is a favorite of the resort, hospitality, and cruise markets.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines “are pretty strong partners,” Manni says. Carnival has outfitted 27 of their cruise ships with Kannoa products. “We’re almost fleet-wide,” he says.
Las Vegas destinations featuring Kannoa products include M Resorts, MGM Hotel, and Hard Rock Hotel. Greystar, a national residential real estate management company, with hundreds of properties, places Kannoa outdoor furniture around pools and in other common areas.
A new customer is Drive Shack, a competitor to Topgolf, which has opened one Florida property and plans to open 10 next year. Marriott and Hilton properties also are customers.
Design trends at hotels, resorts, and recreation venues influence consumers when they design or expand their Outdoor Rooms, Manni says. “People want to recreate that result.”
Designers and design showrooms account for about 35% of Kannoa’s sales. “It’s a great segment for us,” he says.
The design and hospitality markets were actually more important to Kannoa in the company’s earliest days.
The company was just getting established and building a fledgling retail dealer base when the Great Recession struck. The economic calamity pummeled casual furniture retailers. Many went out of business as consumer spending on discretionary items all but stopped. Few survivors were willing to take on a new line in 2008 and 2009, especially a contemporary line.
Kannoa aggressively went after hospitality and resort prospects in order to survive. “It was guerilla marketing,” Manni recalls, “a lot of knocking on doors. Luis and I personally traveled a lot.”
Kannoa also invested time and energy in trade shows. In the depths of the recession, Kannoa had five employees and did 11 trade shows in one year. “We got a lot of leads, and then we tracked them down,” Manni says. The Kannoa team, he says, clawed their way to success.
The hospitality and resort markets gave Kannoa the toehold it needed to survive until the consumer economy started to recover.
Today, the company employs six sales representatives and contracts with “another dozen or so independent reps.”
The Sarasota Collection, a retail store in Sarasota, Florida, has been a vendor for more than 10 years, says proprietor Marcus Anast. The store sells interior furnishings and displays outdoor products in a garden showroom. Anast remembers when Kannoa’s owners pulled up in a big truck and invited him to check out their furniture for the first time.
“I said, ‘Good. Put it in the garden. I’ll take it all,’” Anast recalls. “I’ve been doing business with them ever since.” Kannoa, he says, is his “lead line.”
He calls Kannoa “the Infiniti” of outdoor furniture. It’s not the most expensive but stands up well to the best-known competition. The brand, he says, is “for the person who wants the look but doesn’t want to pay the price” required by the most prestigious marques.
Kannoa is getting some traction in America’s heartland, too. Manni says Kansas retailers Seasonal Concepts in Overland Park and All Things Barbecue in Wichita are getting strong consumer response.
|Explorer from Eddie Bauer Home Collection.|
Kannoa requires no dealer minimums. If a customer wants one woven resin chair in a specific color, Kannoa’s company-owned factory will make it. The factory, which employs about 60 people, mostly weavers, opened in 2013 in China.
Kannoa has partnerships with a number of other Chinese factories that handle specific product lines, Manni says. Kannoa offers furniture in anodized aluminum and steel in addition to woven products. Teak furniture is sourced from Colombia, South America.
Products bearing the Eddie Bauer brand are made in another facility in a different region of China.
The Eddie Bauer relationship came about rather by chance, Manni says. He was in Kannoa’s High Point showroom (he thinks it was 2015) when an Eddie Bauer executive came by and mentioned that her company was interested in licensing the brand to an outdoor furniture company.
Some years earlier, Eddie Bauer had had a licensing relationship with Lane Venture, but the deal had dried up when that company experienced a downturn and an eventual change in ownership.
“We talked about the market; we talked about who we were,” Manni recalls. They lounged in Kannoa’s resort-look furniture, discussing licensing for a brand with a decidedly different history and cachet.
The Eddie Bauer executive was Christina Malone, a senior account and product manager who handles licensing. Manni figured Kannoa wasn’t a likely partner, given the companies’ divergent styles, and offered suggestions of other manufacturers that might be more in line with Eddie Bauer’s direction.
“It was very much a social conversation,” Manni says. Malone left to check out other showrooms but kept returning to Kannoa, saying she was having trouble finding a good fit.
When she asked if Kannoa would take on the line, Manni pointed to the pink chairs in his showroom and said, “Look . . . we’re not Eddie Bauer.”
|Explorer nine-piece dining set from Eddie Bauer Home Collection.|
Malone’s search continued over multiple High Point Markets. At one point she came back to Kannoa and asked again if Manni’s company would take on a licensing deal. He recalls his answer:
“Look, we’re not an Eddie Bauer line. If you’re looking for someone to plug it into their channel with distribution, it’s not us.”
As it turns out, that’s not what Eddie Bauer wanted at all.
“They weren’t in a rush. They liked the way we mixed materials and colors. They liked our marketing and they liked our approach.
“I came to learn,” Manni says, “that our DNAs have a lot of links. They wanted someone who understood the brand and did the brand justice. I think that’s what they saw in us.”
Malone says that Eddie Bauer was looking for more than just quality outdoor furniture from a licensing partner. It was important that the licensee produce furniture in a variety of materials. But just as crucial was the human factor, “that they are good people to work with and that they stand behind their product the way we do.”
Furniture in the Eddie Bauer line is decidedly transitional in nature and quite different from Kannoa’s styling. It also is devoid of a distinctly rustic or lodge look, which is in keeping with a fresh overall direction at the famous outdoor apparel company. Colors are more muted, textures more refined, and the overall impression is that the collection will be a worthy competitor with better brands in the outdoor furniture arena.
Kannoa’s sales team is responsible for developing the dealer network for the Eddie Bauer Home outdoor furniture product line. J.B. Schneider, who also holds a position at P’kolino, is director of product development and marketing of the line for Kannoa.
The fit, which was so important to Malone, is a good one, Manni says. Eddie Bauer, he says, “treats their team well, and they have a very long-term approach.
“The reason they went for us? I think there was a personal connection, and she knew we would put our heart into it.”