Dudley Flanders, President Lloyd/Flanders

Taking stock: We are all in this together

Kristine Ellis, October 1, 2009

Dudley Flanders

Truth be told, Dudley Flanders had no choice but to become one of the most visible leaders in the casual furniture industry. His father cut a large swath through the industry in his time, and Don’s mentoring of his son was as much about service as it was about business.

“Our family has always worked on the issues of any industry that we were in, so I have a legacy of working not only for the company but also to better our industry,” said Flanders, president of Lloyd/Flanders and chairman of the International Casual Furnishings Association (ICFA).

That work took on a new intensity over the last year as both his company and the industry fought to withstand the economic battering. Now that it appears as if the worst is over, Flanders is taking stock of gains, losses and lessons learned.

“Unfortunately, we all need some lean times occasionally to force us to look at every aspect of our businesses,” he said. “If something isn’t giving us the return on the investment we need, we have to find another place to put our money. That’s true whether you are a supplier, a manufacturer or a retailer.”

On the plus side, such scrutiny makes operations leaner and owners more aware.

“Most of the retailers I’ve talked to have said, 'Boy, I have my organization so lean right now that if I get back just a portion of what I had, I’m going to be doing great,’” Flanders said. “I think this has forced a lot of owners to get a closer ear to the ground. We’re the same way; we are closer to the action.”

In fact, Flanders has surprised more than a few retailers by following up on an order himself.

“People ask how I knew they placed an order,” he said. “Well, I’m watching. It’s just a sign of the times.”

Flanders hopes that the closer communication between retailers and suppliers, forced by tough market conditions, continues.

“We need closer all-industry communication because we are all in this together,” he said. “It is easy to forget that during the good times.”

The ICFA eventually might be the perfect vehicle for nurturing communication, but Flanders admits that as yet it hasn’t met his expectations.

“I think that most of it was a question of timing,” he said. “We rolled it out about the time the recession hit, so we were asking people to join and pay dues when they were looking to cut, cut, cut.”

The goal for the coming year is building the retail membership, and Flanders is optimistic a new retailer-only sub-board can guide the organization in offering the benefits and programs needed to build that membership.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” Flanders said. “Is it slower than I had hoped? Yes, but in the last 18 months, almost everything is slower than I’d hoped.”

In the meantime, bringing everyone to the table has been good for the industry.

“It’s never happened before, so obviously there is going to be a learning curve,” he said. “But we’ve had some very good meetings and some candid conversations, so I think we are moving forward.”

One consequence of the recession that Flanders hopes does not continue is retailer fear of the early buy. As he points out, the off-season production behind the early buy is critical to maintaining factories and workforces.

“Particularly at the upper end of the business where quality is essential, these are not temporary employees. These are craftspeople,” he said.

Because most retailers have sold through their inventory in the last year, Flanders hopes they will be more willing to take advantage of stock product incentives.

“We provide them with significant enticements to buy a portion of their inventory during the time we need the business,” he said, adding that dating in particular is a plus. “We are not asking to be paid until they can reasonably be expected to sell the product. In many industries, retailers have to floorplan product, arranging for financing and then paying for it every time they sell a piece. In our industry, we don’t ask them to do that. I think we make our programs extremely generous by tying them to dating.”

For their part, the manufacturers and suppliers have to continue to be more responsive to retailer needs.

“We need to do everything we can to help them build their businesses,” he said.

Factories that have implemented lean manufacturing have already greatly improved delivery rates. Further improvements in production as well as introduction of new products and assisting dealers in opening new distribution channels will all aid in differentiating the specialty market from mass, something Flanders believes is more important than ever.

“I think we all need to concentrate on what we do best, which is providing furniture customized for the ultimate consumer, and doing so quickly and with wonderful service,” he said.

Flanders describes his leadership style as familial, fitting for the Lloyd/Flanders culture where everyone is treated as family. While he prefers to macromanage, he takes the more difficult aspects of leadership to heart. Closing the Fort Smith, Ark., facility in 2006 and cutting back the Menominee, Mich., workforce this past winter were necessary but painful low points.

“Those decisions were very tough,” he said. “You are affecting people’s lives.”

Over a 30-plus year career, however, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. He particularly enjoys giving others opportunities and seeing them do well.

“Whether it’s inside our factory or with our reps or watching a retailer grow, I take a lot of satisfaction in other people’s rise to success,” Flanders said.

“And then there is the pride of product,” he added.

The purchase of the Lloyd assets in 1982 by Flanders Industries was the defining milestone in Flanders’ career. His dad, who had temporarily stepped into another career, was back, and together they helped pioneer the outdoor wicker furniture category.

“My dad and I have a rare compatibility,” Flanders said. “It’s been a wonderful partnership and I can’t think of a better person to have learned the business from.”

Regular conversations over the years with Larry Shaw, one of the founders of Lyon Shaw, have also benefited Flanders. “I respect him a great deal, and I certainly have appreciated using him as a sounding board,” he said.

If following in his dad’s footsteps pulled Flanders into the industry’s limelight, it is his own approachability and skilled consensus building that have kept him there.

As he points out, once people come into the outdoor furniture industry, they tend to stay. In a sense, Flanders’ leadership epitomizes what he likes most about it.

“The warmth of all of the players makes you want to continue to work here,” Flanders said. “Although we compete tooth and nail, our competitors are also our friends, and in a pinch, we will help each other out.”

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