Matching innovative fabrics with industry needs
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, October 1, 2008
Some things never change. After 20 years in the outdoor furniture industry, Dave Swers is just as driven to get out and talk to customers today as he was when he first went to work for his father as an independent sales rep back in 1988.
“I’m not an office animal,” Swers said. “My dad used to call me up if I spent more than two weeks in the office and tell me to get out into the field. He believed that you have to get yelled at occasionally.”
While being facetious about the yelling, Swers is decidedly serious about the importance of close contact with his customers. Looking at their needs from their perspective has been a guiding principle during his 19 years with Glen Raven. For nearly two decades, Swers has been instrumental in transforming the industry’s expectations of outdoor fabric. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been fulfilling.
“This is a very tangible, very satisfying business,” he said. “I love to see our product out on the floors, and I love it when I hear that people like it.”
Swers started with Glen Raven in 1989, when its furniture business was still being handled by his father’s firm. Allen Swers had approached the awning and marine fabric company in 1981 about using its solution-dyed acrylic fabrics for outdoor furniture. Glen Raven subsequently launched Sunbrella Furniture Fabrics but left it to the Swers family to make it happen. “My dad did everything from selling and marketing to planning, and my mom [Renee] did the design,” Swers said.
By the end of the decade, both his dad and Glen Raven’s then general manager, Dave Edgerton, believed it was time for Glen Raven to amp up its internal commitment to outdoor furniture and Swers was the person to do it.
A million different things
As Swers describes it, it took about nine years for Sunbrella acrylics to become “an immediate success.” Contributing to the tipping point in the early 1990s was its use of Sunbrella on market umbrellas.
“It was the perfect product to showcase Sunbrella acrylic because people were so used to seeing umbrellas in cotton canvas versus a PVC product,” Swers said. “A market umbrella wouldn’t necessarily look good with an open-weave fabric, but with Sunbrella it looked great. So we had the marriage of the right product with the fabric.”
Adding momentum around that time was the start of the Glen Raven and Sunbury Textiles partnership. A smaller mill, Sunbury helped bring Sunbrella and decorative design to the industry by letting customers order smaller quantities, thus reducing their risk.
But perhaps the biggest turning point for Swers personally — and the industry as a whole — was Glen Raven’s 1998 acquisition of Dickson. Not only did it give the company strong fabric design and sales teams, the jacquard looms and infrastructure significantly increased Glen Raven’s plant capabilities.
A few years later, Glen Raven went into the residential and contract furniture markets.
“By going into residential, we were able to think like a residential business, meaning we went to the boucles and the chenilles,” Swers said. “It certainly sped up our transformation into a more decorative Sunbrella offering.”
Chenilles, sheers, velvets and other new fabrics are often cited by specialty dealers as the key to their ability to differentiate and the most exciting trend in the industry today. While some want more exclusives from their manufacturers, Swers believes that pairing the right fabric with the right product and then merchandising it well is more important.
“Several things have to work together to drive growth,” he said. “Certainly, having fabrics that perform better and also have the hand, the tactile sense and visual excitement is part of it.”
Proud of Glen Raven’s innovation, Swers emphasizes the company is committed to working as closely as it can to help its customers be successful. The dilemma for the company and the industry as a whole, he believes, comes down to size. In an industry of relatively small- and medium-sized companies, it is difficult to get the message out to the vast consumer market.
“We’ve all talked about the fact that the industry hasn’t gotten anywhere near the market saturation it should have,” he said. “From a product standpoint, everyone is doing a good job. We just need to work together as an industry more.”
Swers added the new International Casual Furnishings Association, of which he is a board member, is a step in the right direction.
Named vice president and commercial business manager for Glen Raven in 2007, Swers is responsible for all of the company’s sales. He calls himself a neophyte in the awning and marine markets, but he sees similarities between the markets and opportunities for more integration.
Known for his dogged persistence, Swers credits the mentorship of his father, Edgerton and Harry Gobble, now president and general manager of Tri Vantage, Glen Raven’s distribution division, and Swers’s boss for the last 18 years. Swers is particularly grateful for the support of Edgenton and Gobble and their willingness to venture beyond the realm of a traditional textile mill.
Saying he takes a Socratic approach to leadership, Swers depends on plenty of input when it comes to pushing forward.
“I work with a lot of smart people and have taken a lot of good advice from some good folks — people like Suzie Roberts, Gina Wicker, Hal Hunnicutt, Chris Price, Philippe Petot ... too many to name,” he said. “They are people who know the business and whom everyone in the industry knows.”
Having come to the industry from the world of corporate finance, he treasures Glen Raven’s team-oriented environment.
“Glen Raven is a family-owned company, and I really respect the way they run the business,” Swers said. “It’s also what I like about the outdoor furniture industry in general. People are ethical and try to do the right thing.”