Keeping ‘family’ in the family business guides Lowery’s growth
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, August 20, 2010
When the vast majority of those staffing a business are family, there's an undeniable energy about the place that is hard to miss.
It can make running a successful business day in and day out more challenging given that the mix of experiences, feelings and expectations involved in family relationships are not easily set aside when transitioning from home to work. But it can also add depth and stability to the operations while creating an inviting atmosphere that draws people in.
Such is the case at Lowery's Lawn and Garden, in Berwick, Maine.
Founded 40 years ago by Ken and Marlene Lowery as a home-based, wood furniture manufacturing and retail business, the company now operates from a 17-acre site on a major highway with more than 48,000 square feet of showroom, warehousing and manufacturing facilities.
All three of the couple's children - Aaron, Keith and Brian - have made the family business their career. Although there is one other employee, Bob Goddard, who is not kin, the plethora of relatives help customers feel at home.
"When customers find out that we are all related, the next thing you know they are coming back in calling us by name and feeling like old friends," Marlene said.
That inviting, easy atmosphere has defined the family business since 1970 and sets the course for the second generation's future success as Ken and Marlene look toward retiring in a few years. All three sons are committed to keeping Lowery's Lawn and Garden on track.
"We've all grown up with the business all around us," Keith said. "One tends to have a sense of pride and dedication when your name is on the front sign."
From left: Aaron, Keith, Marlene and Brian Lowery.
Ken and Marlene started out making wooden tables and adirondack chairs that they sold in their front yard. Over time, customers wanted umbrellas to go with their tables and then director chairs.
"That's when we started with Telescope," Marlene said. "The business just evolved, getting bigger and bigger."
They moved to the present location in 1985.
"It gave us a much larger lot and showroom with plenty of room to expand and display our products," Ken said.
By 1989, they had added two warehouses and moved the manufacturing to the site as well.
Both Aaron and Brian, the oldest and youngest child respectively, worked for their parents during the summers when they were in high school. Aaron knew from the start that he wanted to stay in the business, while Brian thought he might try something else first and then come back to it. Keith, on the other hand, wanted something else entirely,
As it turned out, all three joined Lowery's full time following college.
"We didn't pressure them," Marlene said. "We just told them that we'd be happy to have them."
With such a small staff, the Lowerys wear several hats. Ken does most of the manufacturing, now limited to sheds, while Marlene takes care of the financial aspects as well as sales. Aaron handles all of the delivery and works with his father manufacturing shed parts during the off-season. Keith does all of the buying and works with Marlene and Goddard in sales. Brian does it all, helping out as needed, as well as preps all of the outdoor furniture for the floor.
"Everyone has a little different field of expertise," Marlene said. "It's evolved over time, with everyone really liking what they do."
Although Ken and Marlene still make all of the decisions, they talk everything over with their sons to get their input. The couple plans to retire within the next few years and has done the necessary financial planning to pass ownership of the business to their children, who will be equal partners.
All of the Lowerys are frank about the realities of working with immediate family. As Ken says, "Sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's not."
The good thing is that with 17 acres there's room to put a little space between each other in times of frustration, Marlene said with a laugh. Overall, the family believes the benefits of working together far outweigh the challenges.
"It's an advantage to have the support we can give each other when needed-and to have the ability to not beat around the bush when something needs to be addressed," Keith said.
Lowery's At a Glance
Owners: Ken and Marlene Lowery
No. of employees: 4, 3 of whom are their sons
Major outdoor lines: Homecrest Outdoor Living, Kettler, Kingsley- Bate, Laneventure, Lloyd/Flanders, O.W. Lee, Poly-Wood, Seaside Casual, Telescope, Tropitone, Treasure Garden, Winston and Woodard
Lowery's Home and Garden's sales dropped by 17% in 2009, but Marlene credits that more to weather than the recession. This year's warm early spring jump-started the season and pushed the business right back up 16%.
The company draws customers from a large area throughout New England and often delivers orders more than 50 miles away. As far north as it is located and given its size, Lowery's competition is fairly limited.
"With two warehouses we have a lot of product on hand that others don't, which sets us apart," Marlene said, adding that with the short Maine season inventory is critical.
Top categories are aluminum, teak, outdoor wicker, umbrellas and replacement cushions, with recyclable resin a growing interest.
"People love it because it is heavy so it won't blow over, it's very low maintenance and they can feel good about buying a recycled product, so there are a lot of pluses," Marlene said.
Having dropped grills in the past, Lowery's added three lines for 2010 and did well. The company also does a strong commercial business primarily in wrought iron.
Whatever the category, once the customer comes through the door, Marlene is confident that she can make the sale.
"I don't push anybody; I just explain what's available to them," she said. "They might not buy that day but usually by the third trip to the store, they buy."
That includes even those who arrive thinking they are going to buy a $500 set, which they won't find on the floor at Lowery's.
"They walk through the store and see 15-year warranties and made in the USA and how beautiful the sets are," she said. "The next thing you know, they are walking out with an at least $1,200 set."
Marlene's upbeat outlook extends to competition from the mass merchants. While she acknowledges they are a challenge for the industry, she believes they play a role in her success primarily with the younger market.
"As the years go by and that customer gets older and wants and can afford something of more quality, that's when they are going to come and see me," she said.