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Dougan Clarke: TUUCI founder, CEO

Raising design levels of shade

Dougan Clarke

Here’s a recipe for excitement: Drop an inspired entrepreneur into an industry on the cusp of a sea change, then do what you can to support his vast talent.

Such has been the case with Dougan Clarke. The Ultimate Umbrella Company, Inc., started off with a bang in 1998, selling its marine-grade umbrellas to the contract market. Clarke quickly realized his vision and his umbrellas had little to do with the 9-ft. market umbrella that then defined the shade industry as a whole.

Within a year, he changed the Miami-based company’s name to its acronym to differentiate it from any mass market connotations of the term “umbrella.” Then he started to innovate.

“We found that just the pure construction wasn’t enough to put us on the map as a unique shade manufacturer, so we started looking at different ways to construct a parasol,” Clarke said. “Then we came up with a design called the Manta.”

The contemporary creature-like design was unlike anything the market had ever seen. The Manta would make history by earning the Lillian B. Winchester Best of Show Award at the 2001 Casual Market’s Design Excellence Awards, the first ever such win for an umbrella design. Although the event was overshadowed by the Sept. 11 tragedy, Clarke’s intention to redefine commercial and residential shade came across loud and clear.

“The category seemed to be wide open, and to us, it still seems that way,” Clarke said. “There is so much out there to accomplish and that we can accomplish.”

Clarke doesn’t limit his optimism to shade or TUUCI. He is bullish on the future of the entire outdoor furniture industry.

“I think patio furniture design if not in its infancy is at least still in its juvenile stage right now. There is so much more to do in terms of functionality, raw materials and fabrics,” he said.

Time to push

In positioning TUUCI as a shade specialist rather than an umbrella manufacturer, Clarke has helped give retailers a reason to treat shade as a category rather than just an add-on sale. He believes this shift in perspective is particularly important in today’s market.

“The retailers have to go for it and bring in the pieces the salespeople can be passionate about and that can really convey a sense of lifestyle and emotion while telling a story of durability and functionality,” he said.

“The ones that stick their necks out and don’t just flirt with a particular thing but go strong and have a real presence on their floors with unique design are the retailers who are most successful,” Clarke added. “They then become the authority to the clients of what is hip, what is now. They make that emotional connection.”

Given the mechanics and design involved in parasols, Clarke says they are the perfect product to establish that authority. “There is so much to tell and so much to romance,” he said.

Crescent Lounge
Crescent Lounge

Clarke has designed all of the products TUUCI currently offers, drawing his inspiration primarily from the natural world and his lifelong passion for the ocean. Although he is still hands on in guiding the company he founded, Clarke’s responsibilities have changed since the early days, when he did everything from cutting and sewing fabric to manufacturing frames and components. The company now has more than 100 employees, including eight in Holland and four in Vietnam.

Clarke shares credit for TUUCI’s success with his partners Tom Parker, president, Charles Munroe, COO, and Ward Usmar, vice president of sales and marketing. The group, along with Ron Planken, director of TUUCI’s European distribution and manager of its Holland facility, share a passion for the business.

“Our goal is to really enjoy our lives and to help our team members enjoy theirs,” Clarke said. “That philosophy carries through to our products and how we design them. We want to improve the comfort and accessibility of outdoor spaces and make them more enjoyable.”

Passing it on

Clarke’s long-time mentor is Fred Herman, the father of a high school friend and owner of a boat shop. During high school and college, Clarke spent summers at the shop rigging boats and working with fiberglass, teak, acrylic polymers and other marine-grade material. When he decided to start his umbrella company, Clarke worked out of Herman’s shop.

Clarke’s gratitude also extends to the enthusiastic support he and TUUCI have received from others in the industry.

“We have a lot of people to thank. Little things can happen along the way that can make a big difference,” he said. “I’m now trying to make that same difference when the opportunity arises with other people and companies just entering the industry.”

In particular, Clarke acknowledges Mike Echolds, Bill Brown, Bill Echols, Oliver Ma, David Swers, Richard Frinier, Gary McCray, Joe Logan and the staff of Merchandise Mart Properties.

Along with helping others when he can, Clarke supports the industry through the International Casual Furnishings Association. He believes by having manufacturers and retailers on the same board of directors, ICFA can promote the industry with a singular focus.

“Previously, with manufacturers having their own organization and retailers theirs, it just didn’t seem like everyone was firing on all cylinders,” he said. “We have so many bright, energetic and creative people on both sides of the equation that it only made sense to put the two interests under one roof.”

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