Leisure Design tells its story to the U.S. market
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, March 17, 2011
Richard Bockner grew up listening to his father's stories of the dawning days of the modern casual furniture industry. Don Bockner helped his own father build Cana-Foam Products Ltd. by being one of the first North American manufacturers in China.
Now, Richard has a pretty good story of his own. Four years ago, he launched Leisure Design under the Cana-Foam umbrella, an ambitious attempt to serve the toughest part of the Canadian casual living market, the middle. Now, he wants to do the same in the U.S.
"It took us four years to get into the middle-to high-end retailers here in Canada," Bockner said. "But the dealers who bought from us have bought more and more. We haven't lost any business since we started."
That encouraged Bockner to open a permanent showroom at the 2010 International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market last September. He learned quickly that U.S. attitudes are much different.
"We didn't expect buyers to be so price-driven," Bockner said. "I thought dealers who went to the showrooms on (floor) 17 had budgets to spend on (high-end) sets, but their first question was always about price, not the warranty or anything else."
Not that Bockner had a problem with price-conscious dealers. His woven furniture line may have a polished, high-end look, but price points for Leisure Design chat and dining sets range from $2,000 to $3,500. Leisure Design looks like a relative bargain.
Buyers also discovered the company offers fast turn-around. Given that Leisure Design's cushions can be made at the Toronto headquarters and much of the furniture is warehoused there, dealers can expect to see their orders in a matter of weeks instead of months.
All this sounded good to Mike Friedrichsen, who met Bockner in Chicago and joined Leisure Design two weeks later as director of U.S. sales and marketing. Bockner said he got everything he wanted out of the show. He got the word out about Leisure Design and found someone to lead the U.S. sales effort.
"When we go back in 2011, I'm expecting to see numbers," he said.
Comfort pairs with sleek lines in the Cityview Sectional.
Don Bockner with his son Richard Bockner.
The biggest challenge Bockner and Friedrichsen face now is selling a company few U.S. dealers have heard of. Its roots, however, go way back. Bockner's grandfather, Cecil, founded Cana-Foam in December 1964. He took out a $5,000 loan and bought a couple of machines to produce foam mattresses.
Several employees who started with Cecil are still with the company, Bockner said. So is its first customer, Sears Canada.
Like his son, Don joined Cana-Foam with his own ideas about how to grow the business. As Cecil continued to serve mass merchants, Don branched off to sell outdoor cushions to patio shops. When he decided to produce the whole piece of furniture, he flew to China in the mid-'80s to produce one of the first lines of outdoor furniture there.
"[Don] always had a good reputation in China," Bockner said of his father. "He talked straight, paid his bills on time and was easy to work with. Looking back, I don't know how he did it. To get things made and shipped on time without e-mail or cell phone service was incredibly stressful."
In 2000, Bockner and his brother, Andrew, joined Cana-Foam and launched Andrew Richard Designs. Their aim was to create uncompromising outdoor furniture for the upper echelons of the commercial sector, highend designers and discerning architects.
Bockner quickly fell in love with the business. He said he still gets a kick out of seeing a piece of Andrew Richard furniture at a hotel, restaurant or resort when he's on business trips and vacations.
"What people remember about their vacations are usually experiences on a balcony, by the pool or at the beach," he said. "It's the outdoor furniture that makes these places special. It's the means to enjoy the outdoors."
Eventually, Bockner decided he wanted to do more than serve the upper 5% of the market via Andrew Richard Designs. Tapping a broader market with Leisure Design in Canada wasn't enough, either.
When Bockner suggested he wanted to expand to the U.S. marketplace last year, his peers thought he was crazy. The economy wasn't back on its feet yet, they told him.
"I pushed to start anyway," he said. "Isn't this the time to do it, when dealers are looking for new things to get customers back into their stores?"
To Bockner, the United States looks to be every bit the new frontier that China was for his father three decades ago.
Worker smiles as he nears completion of this hand-woven chair.
Friedrichsen can tell plenty of his own stories about the casual living business. The former national sales manager of Treasure Garden was an Apollo Award-winning retailer in Cleveland before that. But when he flew up to Toronto just after joining the company, Friedrichsen was captivated by Don's stories.
"I didn't get a taste of the whole romance factor until I talked with Don," Friedrichsen said. "It solidified my decision because I knew the passion the family had to have to build this powerhouse that dominates all of Canada in that industry. The whole thing is built on relationships."
Don's anecdotes would certainly help lend Leisure Design instant credibility with U.S. dealers, but he chooses to stay on the margins.
"He'll give his two cents when we ask, although his feedback is worth a lot more than two cents," the younger Bockner said. "I wish he'd be more involved, but he's done it already."
Leisure Design hired its first U.S. sales team at the Casual Market last year. Jeff Lynner and Corky Brown began pioneering the line in the New England states, New York and New Jersey. Friedrichsen joined the company in October and immediately began building the rest of the team, starting with industry veteran Mike Birg to service Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.
After overwhelming response from dealer surveys in the Midwest, Kevin Gardiner was added to service Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. Scott Reitz joined the team to cover Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Last month, Charles Sudlow was hired to call on dealers throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Jan Ehrlich will be bringing Leisure Design to dealers in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Newcomer Jennifer Libudziewski has been brought on to help Friedrichsen introduce the product line to retailers in Southern California.
"We're building the ‘A' team," Friedrichsen said. "We anticipate having the entire country covered in time to be ready for premarket. It'll be the best sales force in the industry when it's all said and done."
Bockner isn't blinking at the challenge he faces. He said all the reps need to do is get retailers to try a set or two on the floor. The furniture will do the rest.
If everything goes as planned, one thing is certain. Bockner will have a fantastic story to tell.
Another worker begins weaving the sides of a large piece.