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Henry Vanderminden IV: President, Telescope Casual Furniture

Family business serves as life's passion

Henry Vanderminden IV
Henry Vanderminden IV

When you grow up in a family business, there's no getting away from it. It's part of the daily dialogue and something that sets the family apart as much as it keeps it together. That intensity can prompt some sons and daughters to head out on their own, but for others, like Henry Vanderminden IV, it nourishes the soul and comes to define a big part of who they are.

"As a child I saw what my father did, what my grandfather did, and I was fascinated by the factory. So by an early age, I had it in my mind that I would work there too, that it was my life's passion," said Vanderminden, who was named president of the company in 2000 when his father, Henry "Hank" Vanderminden III, announced his retirement.

Telescope Casual Furniture has thrived under Vanderminden's watch — although he is quick to credit the efforts of other family members, employees, sales reps and vendors as well as his own.

Telescope Casual won a 2008 Design Excellence Award for the Windward sling chair. New additions to the collections are expected by March.

In addition to winning the Casual Furniture Retailers Association's Manufacturer of the Year Award in 2004, 2007 and 2008, Telescope also won a 2008 Design Excellence Award for its Windward sling chair and has been named by an industry-wide survey as top manufacturer in quality as well as in fast, reliable delivery for three years' running.

"The last four years have been our best consecutive years ever," he said.

That bodes well for the company in today's economy.

"I think our industry is up against the toughest challenges it's ever seen, but I know that our company is positioned very well to grow in a shrinking market share," Vanderminden said.

Pushing forward

Vanderminden's confidence in Telescope is grounded in its 105-year history as well as his personal experience with the company. He started working there at age 14. After earning an engineering degree, at age 21 he became quality control manager. Several months later, he was named assistant sales manager, then eventually vice president of sales, while earning a master's degree in business administration along the way.

Vanderminden began advocating for more product variety, bigger production volumes and faster ship times early in his career. That shift in the company's evolution still defines it more than 20 years later and is part of the reason he believes the company is well positioned for growth.

"We are a domestic manufacturer of high-quality products, with quick shipping and lots of variety. This is who our customer base is going to rely on. Rather than having a strategy based on container business, they are going to buy as they need product," he said.

He believes the next two years will shrink the market share both because of the economy and because of the hefty increases in raw material prices over the last two years that the manufacturers are forced to pass on to consumers.

That said, he expects that mass merchants will be hit harder than specialty dealers because their customer base is the most vulnerable.

Vanderminden also believes the outdoor furniture industry will begin to recover earlier than many other industries simply because of the nature of its products.

"Outdoor living is of high importance to North American consumers. You see it everywhere in residential homes to commercial applications," he said, adding both markets are far from saturated.

In the meantime, Telescope isn't resting on its laurels. "We are going to push forward more than ever with new products, new concepts and new programs," Vanderminden said.

For example, the company will introduce additions to its Windward Collection by March rather than waiting for the September market after recently purchasing more equipment to keep up with the unexpectedly huge response from dealers.

Building consensus

Vanderminden describes his leadership style as more coach and mentor than hierarchical, an approach suited as well to the dynamics of a family business as to his personality.

He's unabashedly passionate about all things related to building outdoor furniture, and the industry itself, and believes being able to share that passion is one of his best leadership attributes.

A long-time board member as well as a former president and chairman of the board of the former Summer & Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, Vanderminden is now a board member and strong advocate of the new International Casual Furnishings Association. He is also a long-time member of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association and serves on that board as well.

"The AFMA is mostly made up of indoor furniture manufacturers, which gives me a nice perspective," he said.

While he acknowledges the industry has much to do in reaching out to consumers and expanding its visibility, he is optimistic.

"Perhaps the outdoor industry is not big enough or not quite there yet to fund something like a 'Got Milk' campaign, but I truly believe it will come. And it will come a lot faster having one association, the ICFA, with suppliers, retailers, sales reps and manufactures all in it together," he said.

Telescope's long history in the industry gives added weight to Vanderminden's optimism, as does its 30 sales reps who, following in Vanderminden's footsteps, are determined to keep Telescope growing for another hundred years.

"The business was successful when I started full time in 1987 ... and we improve on that every year," he said.

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