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Tight-knit Singleton family finds joy in work and play

JudyJudy and Duke Singleton, seated in front, are literally backed up by Chris and Ashley Singleton, Darcy Sherer, Mary Beth and Roger Singleton
WHEN IT comes to birthing businesses in a garage, Steve Jobs and Bill Hewlett have nothing on Duke and Judy Singleton. The couple launched Tropic Aire, a patio enclosures startup, in 1973 out of their garage in Columbia, S.C.
     Over time they added outdoor furniture, dropped the patio enclosures, opened offsite seasonal Christmas stores under the brand Santa's Closet, and even for a time owned a baby boutique, That's My Baby. Today Tropic Aire and its second location, Pineapple Porch, are destination specialty stores known as much for their family culture as their quality outdoor furniture and home decor products.
     "You hear over and over ‘Don't hire family, don't hire family,' but it has worked out very, very well for us," Duke said.

In it together
     Like many members of the second generation in a family business, Duke and Judy's grown children have differing levels of involvement. Despite that, the company is an integral part of all of their lives.
     Chris, the youngest of the three, knew early on that he wanted to make the family business his career. He started working at Tropic Aire when he was 14 years old and is now general manager. His wife, Ashley, does the company's bookkeeping.
     Roger, the middle child, is a police officer but keeps his hand in the family business working on and off as needed. His wife, Mary Beth, started part time in Santa's Closet and now manages Pineapple Porch.
     The Singleton's oldest child Julie worked with her parents for several years, managing That's My Baby and helping with Santa's Closet. Although she's since left the business, her oldest daughter, Darcy Sherer, works part time at Tropic Aire, spending much of her time making home visits to assist customers in planning their outdoor space.
     The family is just as close outside of the business. Duke and Judy, Roger and Mary Beth, and Chris and Ashley, and Judy's dad all have homes on a 40-acre family tract on the outskirts of Columbia.
     With all of this contact, decision making can sometimes simply evolve out of their conversation. "We haven't had any major conflicts," Duke said. "We are very close-knit people, who are not at all jealous of one another and we all share a high work ethic."
     That camaraderie - coupled with Judy and Duke's love of what they do - comes into play when the Singletons consider succession planning. Although they have talked about working with an outside consultant at some point, they haven't put anything in place yet.
     "It will work itself out, as all things good and bad have in the past," Judy said. In the meantime, neither Duke nor Judy is ready for retirement.
     "We are a great team," Duke said. "I've always had more of the long-range view, and Judy is more impulsive so we temper each other."

Different markets
     The Singletons started thinking about adding outdoor furniture to their "porch business" before the late 1970s. Their first retail showroom opened in 1981. Three years later they doubled their space to 3,000 square feet.
     Tropic Aire moved to its current location on the west side of Columbia in 1987, when the Singletons also launched Santa's Closet and That's My Baby. As demand for outdoor furniture grew, the family continued to adjust. Porch construction ended in 1990, and the baby boutique closed in 1995.
     These days the Tropic Aire showroom occupies 15,000 square feet, 5,000 of which are converted into Santa's Closet from Nov. 1 through the end of January.
     The family's past success with seasonal off-site Santa's Closets ultimately led to the opening of Pineapple Porch earlier this year in an upscale mall on the east side of the metro area.
     "They called us because they wanted a Christmas shop, so we went out there and opened a temporary store," Judy said. "They liked us and we liked them, so when they offered us a good lease we decided to stay."
     Because of the location, the family decided to carry a substantial mix of home décor as well as outdoor furniture in the new 4,000-sq.-ft. showroom. They also used a tagline to differentiate the new location, calling it "Pineapple Porch, Tropic Aire with a Southern Flair."
     "The store has a completely different feel from Tropic Aire," Mary Beth said. "For example, I can't give a piece of sling furniture away and they sell it all day long."
     Although the Singletons don't necessarily recommend opening a second location in a tight economy, the new store added revenue in 2010 and offers even more potential going forward given its high-traffic location and affluent demographics.
     Overall, however, the Singletons are finding customers in their market to be extremely price conscious.
     "I think we've worked more with customers than in the past on pricing to maintain our sales, and we do that," Duke said. "We'd rather make a little bit than lose the sale."
     "It's certainly not every customer every time, but we are seeing more and more people who want a better price than what they see," Judy said. "It's just a hard market."

More than a little respect
     The Singletons employ about 15 people, including two long-time associates who are considered part of the family - Hollie Gray, store manager, assistant buyer and a sales assistant, and Michael Chavis, who works in the warehouse.
     The family's primary expectation of their staff is to show customers and each other respect, treating them as they themselves would like to be treated.
     "We are consultants, not high-pressure salespeople," Judy said. "We try to make friends with our customers and they seem to appreciate that."
     That philosophy extends to suppliers as well.
     "We want to send out a big thank you to all of our suppliers for giving us such great products to work with," she said.
     When Duke and Judy started in the outdoor furniture industry nearly 30 years ago, they knew nothing about selling furniture; they just knew it made sense.
     Learning by trial and error, they built a business that now draws people from throughout the region and supports two generations with the third in the wings.
     It's a success that Duke and Judy don't take for granted.
     "I think the fact that we have been doing this for more than 30 years means something to people," Duke said. "They like coming in and seeing all of the family, and I think that gives us an edge. We're very fortunate."

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