Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, July 14, 2012
When Steve Elton speaks of Brown Jordan, his words reflect the inspirations that directed his life onto the path leading to his new position as the company's chief brand officer.
Serving as the brand's champion and guardian, Elton feels excited when others share his passion for Brown Jordan's artistic, high-end furniture. It's a subject that first grabbed his attention more than 30 years ago and has shaped his life since.
"As I've gotten to this point in my career, I'm challenged by and driven by looking for what's next, looking for who else we can tell the story to, how we can grow the brand, how we can inspire other people to come to the brand and be part of the brand," Elton said. "I think this is the position I was destined to have. I get up every day and I can't wait to start talking to people about the brand at any level or whatever I'm doing. Brown Jordan is part of who I am."
Elton finds rewards in Saturday evening conversations with sales reps as they return from spring sales events at dealers' stores. He values his relationships with founder Robert Brown's family and designer Richard Frinier, who entrusted to him the aluminum medallion embossed with the company logo a decade ago.
At the time, Frinier was leaving his post as the brand steward after 20 years of telling the story and protecting the Brown Jordan brand. The medallion was symbolic, Frinier told Elton as he passed it to the then sales rep. The gesture hit home for Elton, who refers to the company as a family. Elton later played an instrumental role in recommending Brown and Frinier for Lifetime Achievement Awards. And he helped bring Frinier's award winning design savvy back to Brown Jordan's family fold.
Elements from the Richard Frinier Collection for Brown Jordan recently won the International Interior Design Association's best of show award in the Group/Seating Outdoor category at the 2012 Hospitality Design Expo in Las Vegas. Honored and humbled by the recognition, Frinier said, "This means we have listened to our following, and there is no higher accolade for a designer than to have people make an emotional connection with their designs."
Elton understands those emotional connections all too well. He had worked with company leaders and the renowned designer to develop the co-brand that revitalized the Brown Jordan brand. "As accomplished as Richard is, and as prolific as he is, his life meaning is this and it's where his heart is," Elton said. "I think Richard has helped us with product development and made us more relevant."
Not satisfied with resting on past laurels, Elton works closely with current company leaders, including CEO Gene Moriarty and President Chris Carmicle, a member of Brown Jordan's executive team for 10 years. "I feel like I have the support of Gene and Chris, and I've learned a lot from them by just being together in a short period of time," Elton said. "I know we've got a ways to go and I want to be part of telling that story and growing the company to be the best that it can be. I still get up every day and I can't wait to see what's coming next as far as our story or anything about it."
Steve Elton speaks with Veronica Schnitzius, VP of product development for American Leather, and others in the Brown Jordan showroom.
EXPANDING THE BRAND
Elton said Moriarty has been a mentor to him through the years. Both Moriarty and Carmicle have been supportive and instrumental in the evolution of his role within the organization. He appreciates the opportunity Carmicle gave him through his promotion as chief brand officer.
Elton is also glad to say Brown Jordan realizes the importance of being at the ICFA Preview Show and will be actively introducing lines. In doing so, it will provide its reps with an advantage.
Another new company direction was unveiled last month with the announcement of the first of Brown Jordan's licensing initiatives. CT Acquisitions, maker of Danver stainless steel cabinetry, is developing Brown Jordan's first designer line of custom outdoor kitchens. "By offering the most extensive selection of outdoor kitchen cabinetry and related equipment in the industry, the Brown Jordan collection will reflect the outdoor leisure and entertaining heritage of our brand," Carmicle said, noting Danver's proven track record of quality and innovation fits with Brown Jordan's core tenants.
More licensing agreements are on the horizon. "We're licensing our brand name to companies that are not necessarily outdoor," Elton said. "The whole concept of it is to expose the brand name to more people, benefiting both, and use these partnerships to educate about the brand and the brand name, other than just the traditional channels that we have today. Over the course of the next eight to 12 months, it will be a pretty comprehensive package of who we have partnered with."
Flowing product through four channels of distribution presents both opportunities and challenges for Brown Jordan. In addition to specialty retail, "we also have a huge design following, a hospitality following and a high-end furniture store following," Elton said. "Some (manufacturers) have one or two channels. I think that is a strength of ours, but I also think it's a challenge for us."
In addition to innovation and quality, Brown Jordan has traditionally been known for trying out different materials and thinking outside the box. That's true for not only product and distribution, but also marketing strategies. "We're known for our forward thinking from a product standpoint, but I think it's in our DNA," Elton said. "If you go back to our founder, forward thinking includes everything about your company."
FROM FIRST TOUCH
Elton's personal experience with Brown Jordan dates back to a young couple who walked into the high-end furniture store he worked in after completing college and asked for the brand by name. "At that time, Brown Jordan was only available through designers and some real high-end retail specialty stores," he said. "I think I had worked there eight to 10 days when this young couple came in from Westfield, N.J., and they asked for Brown Jordan. At the time we had other high-end lines so I showed them things on the floor, but they said no, they only wanted Brown Jordan. So I brought the book down and wrote $4,000 worth of Tamiami for them."
Reflecting on the fact the couple would not waver in their choice, Elton later studied the Brown Jordan catalog and noticed the paper was thicker, the photography was well-done and first became enamored with Brown Jordan. "I really was intrigued by it, and it really was my first touch and my first inspiration of what Brown Jordan was," Elton said.
Elton's goal of joining the company took much longer than he had originally imagined as a young man who chose to attend design school in New York rather than law school, although he had been accepted by both and it was against his parents' wishes. He married and began managing stores in Princeton, N.J. He was buying for the stores and selling as much Brown Jordan furniture as he could in hopes of attracting attention from the company's then president, Bill Markowitz.
"I was fortunate enough that he took a chance on a young guy with a young family," Elton said. "He made me wait for years before he hired me, but he took a chance and gave me an opportunity." Markowitz assigned Elton to the Washington, D.C. territory because Elton knew retail and spent time teaching the sales staff about Brown Jordan. Working the store events gave him instant credibility, and retailers quickly saw that Brown Jordan brought added value to the relationship.
Just before Elton left for Washington, D.C., he had been hired to open Treasure Island stores on Long Island. He remembers driving away from Long Island in a car with his wife and their then 5-year-old daughter. "My wife looked at me and I looked at her as we drove away and she said, ‘We'll never be back,'" Elton said. She was excited about the move and what it meant for his career as they drove one car to northern Virginia and rented a little a bungalow that they lived in for eight years while he opened beautiful high-end stores to sell Brown Jordan. "I was lucky," Elton said. "I only knew retail and I only knew Brown Jordan." Today, Washington D.C. is Brown Jordan's largest territory, competing only with New York in terms of volume of sales.
Looking back, Elton said his first brush with Brown Jordan was being inspired by an elegant brand that had consumer awareness it still possesses. "From then to today, the difference was that it was a young consumer and that we had collections in the line that were attainable," he said. "We had beautiful, expensive collections but we also had collections in the line like Tamiami and Lido that were attainable to the younger customer. Today, Brown Jordan is moving to strengthen this category."
The initiative he referred to, Woven Advantage, was introduced last September to great success at a time both dealers and consumers were shopping for value products. "We had, I think, just over 100 placements and the buy-in has been very strong," Elton said. "I think it's important from a product standpoint that you listen to the feedback. Brown Jordan is high-end, it's not inexpensive and we're really looking hard at how we make our brand more attainable to different segments of the population."
Woven Advantage is expanding it into different segments of the business and it's a prime directive now but not one Brown Jordan is rushing, Elton said. "This business for us at this point in time has been purely incremental. It has not affected our other business," he said, noting mistakes by other companies in the furniture and automobile industries who have tried similar strategies without success. "We've gotten more placements, we're having a strong year as far as the season is concerned so we're going to expand it on that program, and you'll see it in July."
Also, Brown Jordan is looking at reintroducing some collections from its past -- the same basic footprint in a different format. "You can learn a lot from your own history," Elton said.
TELLING THE STORY
Sharing the company story became a passion for Elton over the years and he stepped up to train other sales reps. "We have a fantastic story, we've got a beautiful brand, great quality and this legacy and heritage, but we need to spread the word and become better at telling the story; we have sort of taken it for granted," he said. "As we've grown in business over the last few years, it now enables us to put people in positions that can help us grow the brand but also tell the story."
Brown Jordan sales reps visit dealers and participate in events in March, April and May on a local level. "My wife has not seen me on a Saturday in March, April or May for 23 years because I've always been somewhere - in the early years, it was in Washington - but somewhere throughout the world doing one of these events," Elton said. "I think it shows that we take it to the next level. We expect our reps to do the same thing. We tell them if you want a day off in March, April or May, take Tuesday, don't take Saturday because it's your dealers' busiest day when they get the most traffic and you need to be there to bring added value. The coolest part about it for me is that I love the Saturday drive home, when you get a call and have a conversation with reps." Those reps oft en are enthused by what they've seen or heard from dealers or consumers. They learn what products are needed and what questions are being asked.
Over the past year, Elton has spent even more time on the road than normal and he says he feels guilty that he can't get to more places. "I've spent a lot of time on the industry going places to see where we are, who we are and what the perception is," he said. "It's inspiring when I travel and meet someone who has a history with the brand, and it encourages me to inspire them. Another thing I've found by doing that is you get time with the reps, and obviously I've grown up with a lot of them, but by being on the road you get time having a meal with them or being in car driving from one place to another and you really get to access them and get them inspired by what's going on and inspired by the brand itself."
Not long ago, Elton was in Harrods in London at a Meet the Expert Day with several European companies. "It was amazing to me that Brown Jordan had 87% of the volume for the day and it was amazing how many people that came in knew about Brown Jordan - they had read about it or their sister had it or it had touched them at some point in time," he said. "It was so great. Those are the things you live for, to have experiences like that where you're in a foreign country and your brand takes four weeks to get there and you're standing there with other companies and you have people standing in line waiting to talk to the Brown Jordan guy."
Steve Elton speaks to interior designers at the Decorative Center Houston about trade fabric trends and inspiration.