A Sunbrella story
GDA Staff -- Furniture Today, February 23, 2012
GLEN RAVEN, N.C. - The story of Sunbrella Performance Fabrics is a yarn of fairytale proportions.
The Glen Raven Custom Fabrics brand began as an alternative to cotton awning fabrics in 1961 when Roger Gant Jr., grandson of Glen Raven founder John Q. Gant, came across a sort of fairy godmother in the form of Monsanto - then a purveyor of colorfast fiber.
Gant knew that Glen Raven had been making the same essential cotton awning fabric since the late 1800s and that it was time for a change.
He struck a deal with Monsanto and replaced cotton with its acrylic fibers with pre-extrusion pigments. He followed the decision up with an unheard-of five-year warranty and made the strategic decision to advertise the Sunbrella brand directly to consumers.
Once the 1970s rolled around, boating opened up a new channel for Sunbrella fabrics in the marine market, convertible tops for the automotive industry followed, and field-marketing initiatives were well on their way to making Sunbrella a household name.
PUMPKINS INTO CARRIAGES
By the 1980s, furniture fabric had entered the picture and demand was beginning to exceed supply for the newly minted Custom Fabrics division. Glen Raven consulted with the Wharton School of Business about a growth plan.
The decision was made for the division to exit Burlington and make competitor West Point-Pepperell an offer for their Anderson, S.C., plant, thus giving West Point an exit strategy that it was more than happy to employ in the face of a costly market share battle against a stronger competitor.
Jump a decade ahead and, once again, the Glen Raven Custom Fabrics division was bursting at the seams. In one of the boldest moves of his career, then and current Glen Raven President Allen E. Gant Jr. gave the green light to build a 1-million-square-foot facility to accommodate the long-term needs of the division and incorporate the landfill-free, sustainable practices that are part of the Glen Raven mission.
Vice President of Operations Randy Blackston remembers putting 60,000 miles on his odometer visiting yarn manufacturing facilities. "Then we went to Europe to see how they did it and learned a lot," Blackston said, whose current lineup of German and Swiss engineered - and Italian design driven - custom machinery makes the Anderson plant go.
The first bobbin of Sunbrella Pacific Blue yarn was made the day after the Super Bowl in 1995, and the working facility was completed in 1998. Everyone from the old plant was retrained to make the transition from circa-1900 fabric mill to automated, vertically integrated and sustainability-driven modern plant and research facility.
"We employed a leave-no-associate-behind philosophy," Blackston said. "And that says a whole lot about the kind of business Glen Raven is."
ENTER PRINTS CHARMING
The outdoor furniture industry was heralded into the Sunbrella realm in the early 1980s, but it took close to a decade for the look and hand of the product to evolve. Father-and-son marketing team Allen and Dave Swers - along with a $500,000 sample warper - were instrumental in taking product development via dobbies and jacquards and customization to the next level.
Then Sunbury Textiles entered the picture as licensed partners and introduced a high-end line of Sunbrella jacquards, and crème de la crème jobbers responded in kind. Fast-forward to 1998 and another bold stroke from Allen E. Gant Jr. comes to pass with the acquisition of Dickson SA of France. The purchase also included an extensive jacquard-weaving mill in Georgia, opening the door to highly decorative fabrics for home use - indoors and out.
"The industry is far more sophisticated from a color and design sense, which adds to the number of fabrics we design," said Leib Oehmig, president, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. "Global sourcing and manufacturing have also added to the complexity of the industry, requiring investments in people, technology and systems. As our consumers' needs grow in complexity, we have increased our commitment to meet and exceed those needs."
Today, Design and Creative Director Gina Wicker and Design Manager Greg Voorhis lead the Sunbrella design team in developing beautiful offerings in jacquards, dobbies, prints, velvets, ribbed textures, linens and dupiones for the indoor, outdoor, awning and marine markets, as well as exclusives.
Sunbrella provided furniture fabrics for the 2011 Southern Living Idea House in Horseshoe Bay, Texas. The fabrics were used for sheer draperies and outdoor furniture by Ballard Designs, among other applications.
INVITATION TO THE BALL
The acquisition of Dickson SA of France was the first step in a globalization process spearheaded by Allen E. Gant Jr. Next on the list was Asia.
At the dawn of the millennium, many of the furniture manufacturers on Sunbrella's radar were establishing plants and partnerships in Asia. Glen Raven Asia in China opened its doors for business in 2006 with a 190,000-square-foot plant.
In 2007, stateside expansion kept up the pace as well. The Astrup Co. and John Boyle & Co. were acquired, two of the nation's largest distributors of fabrics, hardware and finishing supplies for the awning, marine and casual furniture industries.
Today, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics' shingle hangs across the U.S. and in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Australia, Vietnam, China and Africa. Sunbrella has emerged as a global player in myriad markets and sets the sustainability standard worldwide.
"Our core best practice is one that we have always employed: Work diligently to understand our customers' needs and then deliver on those needs," Oehmig said. "We use this approach in every facet of the business, and while we're not perfect, we always strive to exceed expectations."
THE GLASS SLIPPER FITS
2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Sunbrella, and Glen Raven Custom Fabrics celebrated by holding design and special events in New York and at furniture, marine and industrial trade shows. A video history and book were produced and corks were popped across the globe.
This month, Casual Living will honor Glen Raven Custom Fabrics' Sunbrella brand as its Supplier of the Year at the inaugural Casual Living Conference in Sarasota, Fla., Feb. 22-24.
"It is truly an honor to be recognized as a part of a dynamic industry, and [the award] reaffirms our commitment to be the best supplier partner possible," Oehmig said. "We broke the news [to employees] at the end of a staff meeting where the main topic was how to meet the market's needs for the 2012 season. The award was a surprise, very much appreciated and generated a highly enthusiastic response.
"For us, this recognition represents affirmation that everyone's hard work at Glen Raven is recognized by an industry in which all of our customers and trade partners are going the extra mile to meet today's challenges. We have communicated the news of the award throughout Glen Raven and let everyone know that we want to earn this type of recognition every year. The overall response has been a combination of enthusiasm, excitement and humility."
1961 - Glen Raven introduces the Sunbrella brand of performance fabrics for awnings.
1973 - Boaters begin to discover Sunbrella fabrics in increasing numbers.
1982 - New lines of Sunbrella fabrics, designed for casual and outdoor furniture, are developed for a marketplace dominated by vinyl.
1986 - Based on growing demand for Sunbrella fabrics, Glen Raven acquires the Equinox Plant in Anderson, S.C., from West Point-Pepperell.
1988 - BMW becomes the first car brand to adopt Sunbrella fabrics for its convertible models.
1992 - A $500,000 investment in a sampler warper dramatically expands product development, customizing options and customer outreach.
1994 - Sunbury Textiles and Glen Raven enter into a joint venture to create a decorative offering of Sunbrella fabrics for high-end jobbers.
1994 - Glen Raven breaks ground on a million-square-foot manufacturing center in Anderson, S.C.
1994 - Four hundred material handlers go to training to become computer controllers in collaboration with South Carolina Special Schools Technical College.
1998 - Glen Raven acquires Dickson SA, one of Europe's leading suppliers of awning fabrics, transforming Glen Raven into a global company.
2004 - The Glen Raven Anderson plant is awarded the ISO 9001 Quality Management System certification.
2006 - Glen Raven opens Glen Raven Asia, a business unit that includes a 190,000-square-foot Sunbrella fabrics manufacturing center.
2009 - The Glen Raven Anderson plant is awarded the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System certification.
2010 - Sunbrella fabrics officially enter the contract market, meeting vigorous industry testing standards.
2010 - Roger Gant Jr., former Glen Raven president, board member and second- generation descendent of the founder of Glen Raven, passes away. Gant is credited with helping launch the Sunbrella brand in 1961.
2011 - Sunbrella celebrates its 50-Year Innovation Journey by producing a video and limited print edition history of the brand.
2012 - Glen Raven Custom Fabrics' Sunbrella brand is awarded the Supplier of the Year Award by Casual Living at the inaugural Casual Living Conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla.
Industry Related Content
Furniture Today's Ray Allegrezza Speaks with Stephen Bogart about Fine Furniture's New Bogart Line