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Rock Wood president Jennifer Mulholland ready to play in the big leagues

Fifteen years ago, when Rock Wood Casual Furniture first displayed at the International Casual Furniture Market, not a single piece of its outdoor furniture sold. And no wonder.

“We had some of the worst teak garden furniture you've ever seen in your entire life,” said Jennifer Mulholland, president and co-founder of the Oakville, Ontario-based company with her husband, John. “We were so new at what we were doing that we had no idea what was going on. We didn't know how to sell it, and we didn't know how to buy it.”

Refreshingly frank, Mulholland doesn't shy away from admitting her mistakes. Nor is she reticent when it comes to her achievements. Since that less-than-stellar entry into the industry, Rock Wood has grown into an award-winning manufacturer of consistently high-quality teak. It is now on the brink of another transformation.

“All I can say is, if you are going to the Hospitality Design show, we will blow you away, totally,” she said. “And by premarket, I'll have morphed [the designs for retail] .... It will be exceptional.”

Mulholland was a public relations consultant when she and John decided to go into the import business after visiting friends in Indonesia. Their initial products were handmade jewelry, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets along with their first efforts at teak garden furniture.

While they didn't sell anything at their first Casual Market, they did make valuable contacts — almost in spite of Mulholland's competitive nature.

“John was much better at this than I was,” she said. “He said we had to meet people in the industry ... that we could be competitors but on a friendly basis. I was more cutthroat.”

Soon after that first show, the couple rented warehouse space and took apart all of the two containers worth of teak furniture they had on hand. Then they hired a cabinetmaker to teach them how to repair what they had as well as to show them how to make good furniture.

Mulholland has handled sales and marketing for the company from the beginning.

“I like selling. It is exceptionally hard work, but it is a lot of fun too,” she said, adding she also likes the creativeness required by her job and the people in the industry. In fact, the only thing she doesn't like about her work is disappointing her salespeople or her dealers.

“That is really very distressing, so we try and make sure that it doesn't happen very often,” she said.

Her leadership style has grown out of her relationships with past bosses, both good and bad, as well as from what she's learned heading up her company. She has three fundamentals: Treat people as adults and they will act like adults; let people do what they do best; and delegate, something she learned through experience.

“I thought I could do all of the sales myself,” she said. “That idea crashed and burned pretty quickly, then I learned how to hire salespeople — simple things, like you don't give somebody the entire United States. I did that to the first person I hired.”

Despite the misstep, that salesperson is still with the company, as are most of those she hired early on. There are now 15 employees in the office, with more than 5,000 in the factory in Indonesia.

John remains Mulholland's mentor and inspiration.

“He is an excellent business manager and he has really grown within this business,” she said. “I have to say, he certainly opened my eyes to a better way [of doing business]. You have to be friendly and rely on the other manufacturers to help you, just as you would help them. ”

The Mulhollands are glad they entered the industry when they did, as it gave them time to learn and allowed their business to evolve as the industry itself evolved. She firmly believes the best is yet to come, with next season in particular representing a giant leap for Rock Wood.

“It's taken us 15 years to get here — to know what we are doing, to have the right product and the right price — and we're now poised to play in the big leagues,” she said. “It's going to be an incredible year, and the next year will be even better.”

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