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Bill Markowitz, President, The Veneman Group

Growth reflects rebirth

Kristine Ellis, Andrea Lillo -- Casual Living, May 1, 2009

Bill Markowitz
Bill Markowitz

At a time when many manufacturers and dealers are playing defense, The Veneman Group is in full growth mode — adding a category, entering into new licensing agreements, expanding showrooms, even putting out feelers for a merger.

You can’t be that aggressive during a recession without an experienced leader at the helm.

Bill Markowitz, president of Veneman, has worked in the furniture business for nearly 30 years. Twenty-five of those years have been in the outdoor furniture industry, including almost 20 as a Brown Jordan executive.

Markowitz and business partner Tim Shannon purchased Veneman from Tropitone in 2003 because they believed the line’s potential was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Their success has proved them right.

“[Veneman] has been a rebirth for me, because it has been a chance to be involved in all aspects of the business,” Markowitz said.

At purchase, Veneman primarily served the commercial market providing sand-casted aluminum furniture for resorts and hotels in particular. That emphasis hasn’t changed under Markowitz’s leadership, but the offerings have grown significantly.

The new owners added woven resin furniture designs early on, and just last month launched their first rattan collections at the High Point Market. Markowitz said they are also looking at natural wicker and abaca, a hemp-like plant, as other possibilities in the near future.

The expansion has come at the urging of Veneman’s customers.

Veneman’s Tulip Collection
Veneman’s Tulip Collection, part of its rattan entry, fits an array of indoor and outdoor settings in hotel properties or homes.

“A lot of specifiers for the hospitality market, and the hotels and resorts themselves, have been asking us if we can help them in other areas because they like dealing with us,” Markowitz said. “So there are a lot of things that I think will expand our horizons within the next couple of years.”

He also is open to a merger with the right partner company. “There is nothing on the table at this point, but there is the possibility of combining our company with another that outfits hotels and resorts — if there is a partnership that makes sense for both of us,” Markowitz said.

In the meantime, Veneman signed licensing agreements with designer Roger Thomas and Disney. The High Point debut of these collections along with Veneman’s growth in other areas led to expansion of the manufacturer’s High Point showroom from 2,800 square feet in the high-end Hamilton area to nearly 7,500 square feet in the International Home Furnishings Center’s Main building. The growth also led it to double the size of its booth at this month’s Hospitality Design Expo in Las Vegas. Last year, Veneman moved into a permanent showroom on the 15th floor at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Both new brands will translate well to the high-end residential market, which remains an important, albeit much smaller, part of Veneman’s growth strategy, Markowitz said. In fact, he believes that in the current economy, Veneman offers even more value to specialty dealers because it is a domestic manufacturer geared to customization.

“I think most of the savvy specialty retailers realize that the days of purchasing large early buys are gone,” he said. “So they are not carrying as much and as deep an inventory, which gives them a chance to work with their customers to fit their lifestyle.”

In the past, he added, “They pretty much had to sell what they had in stock, and I think most retailers have found this to be dangerous because at times then your competition sets your price point.”

While Veneman’s ability to turn-around custom orders makes it appealing to more specialty dealers, there is the very real issue of capacity. Veneman’s hospitality and high-end design markets keep its manufacturing facility going year-round.

“We have the ability to plan for some spikes, but we definitely are not looking to expand too much,” Markowitz said of serving the specialty retail channel. Looking ahead, he sees the company “more as a source to help people when they need it.”

Veneman’s growth over the past five years has increased its employee base from the teens to more than 40 people. That growth, combined with Veneman’s commitment to be a good corporate citizen within its communities of Garden Grove and Westminster, Calif., are two areas of great personal pride for Markowitz.

“We want to be looked on as a shining example of what can be done with honest, hard work,” he said.

After being active for many years in the Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, Markowitz is now a board member of the American Home Furnishings Association.

Whatever his role, throughout his career in the casual industry his biggest enjoyment has been the people.

“Having been on the retail side for many years, I was working with the finer merchants in the country and enjoying it every day,” Markowitz said. “Now that side has taken a back seat, and I’m dealing more with the hotels and resorts, and the design side of the business, and it’s given me a whole different look on the same industry.”

That change in focus did not alter his conclusion. “It’s been fun,” he said.

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