Green choices at core of Outdoor Lifestyle
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, November 1, 2008
Eco-friendly choices and energy efficient investments made sense to Outdoor Lifestyle President Fred Ilse long before the green trend began taking root in the United States.
A founding member of the Sustainable Furniture Council, Outdoor Lifestyle invested earlier this year in high-efficiency lighting for the warehouse and finishing areas of his factory in Stanley, N.C. The lights cost about 50% more to purchase, he said, but use about 40% less energy to operate than the outdated lights they replaced. Ilse expects the payback on his investment to take less than a year. Meanwhile, the brighter lights make it easier for workers to apply hand-finishes that are true to the color ordered.
"Saving energy is not just good for business, it also is helping make our business more efficient," Ilse said.
Kathy Haney, vice president, credits Ilse's upbringing with shaping the company's eco-friendly profile. "With European influence growing up, Fred was already more energy-conscious when he got here, so he brought that mindset to the table," she said.
Ilse's earlier investment in a battery-operated forklift saves on energy costs. Other investments in counter-flow rinse systems for the computer-controlled powder-coating line limit Outdoor Lifestyle's use of water and, combined with use of environmentally friendly chemicals, minimize waste water discharges. All excess aluminum and powder is reclaimed and recycled. Post-consumer recycled corrugated boxes, plastic and customized pallets are used in shipping product.
Operating its powder-coating system in 10-hour shifts, four days a week, also saves on energy costs while allowing flexibility. Ilse explained the 10-hour shifts are more efficient because of the amount of heat needed to start the powder-coat cycle. The shifts also are efficient for workers, all of whom are trained to perform at least two jobs. Many are willing to work overtime that fifth day of the week when needed.
"When I first put this powder-coating line in here, I had various options as far as the washer and the outlets," Ilse said, recalling decisions he made in late 2000. "I was realizing that energy was only going to get more expensive."
He faced those decisions after his company bought and renovated a nearly 70,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing plant. At the time, Outdoor Lifestyle had outgrown the two 5,000-sq.-ft. buildings it had leased in nearby Gastonia.
When first incorporated in the United States in 1992, Outdoor Lifestyle was importing fully finished cast aluminum furniture and warehousing it near the airport in Charlotte, N.C. Although relatively close to the company's current U.S. facility, it's on the other side of the world from where Outdoor Lifestyle was founded in the early 1970s by a geologist in Cape Town, South Africa, who turned his die-cast molding hobby into a small business.
After a partner expanded the company's distribution to the United States, they were struggling to manage the change. Ilse stepped in and ran the company from South Africa for two years. He bought out the former partner and brought aboard his brother Hans Ilse, an engineer who still oversees Outdoor Lifestyle's South African plant.
Hans also spearheads the company's annual exhibitions at Spoga in Cologne, Germany, GLEE in Great Britain and other international shows. Outdoor Lifestyle supplies about 80% of the high-end market in South Africa, Ilse said.
In the United States, Outdoor Lifestyle recently expanded its permanent showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. It also participates in the Hospitality Design Expo and supports its contract reps with product and/or literature needed at other contract and regional shows.
Because Outdoor Lifestyle sells its furniture to both specialty retailers and the contract channel, no changes were required when more hospitality customers began asking for eco-friendly products in 2006.
"We started with hospitality from the very beginning, but we knew retail was our meat-and-potatoes and that's where our focus was," Haney said. "Our retail customers are so important to us that we did not want to make them suffer for our growth. We wanted to grow slowly and be able to service both efficiently."
One of its two sales reps dedicated to the contract market had the foresight to get Outdoor Lifestyle's products included in contract catalogs, which resulted in a larger volume of orders. Within the last six years, Outdoor Lifestyle added a complete contract sales force for full coverage across the nation in both retail and contract, Haney said. Although designed to withstand weather, much of the company's furniture is being placed indoors as well.
"What we're seeing now is growth within the contract arena because we do have that full dedicated sales force," Haney said. "From this awesome sales force we have, we've been able to pick up some major accounts and chains."
Among the hospitality clients Outdoor Lifestyle has developed products for and supplied are Disney Resorts' Grand Floridian, Disney Hong Kong and national high-end restaurant chains.
Because of its warranties and its U.S. factory, the contract market has found Outdoor Lifestyle is an international company that can offer custom capabilities, Ilse said.
"In the past year, we were very fortunate in that our retail was up a small percentage, but our contract and hospitality side was growing so quickly," Haney said.
Looking ahead, Isle expects 2009 to present more financial challenges for dealers.
"We have the financial strength to weather this thing but we have to do it smartly," he said.
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