Pioneers of recycled plastics
Delayed gratification works for Poly-Wood
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 11/3/2011 6:37:31 AM
MARK PHILLABAUM HAS A SOLID PIECE OF ADVICE for those whose jobs depend on coming up with good ideas. Be patient, because the best ones can take a while to materialize.
Phillabaum and Doug Rassi founded Poly-Wood, Inc. in 1990 when they hooked up with a local recycling center in Syracuse, Ind., to turn shredded plastic milk jugs into durable all-weather lumber. Rassi leveraged his background as a manufacturer of PVC fencing, but Phillabaum took a while to put his experience as a casual living retailer to good use.
"It seems dumb on my part, but we started out building piers and boat docks with the boards," said Phillibaum, who still runs his store, The Living Quarters, with his mother in Syracuse. "I figured that was a good idea since I was always having to scrape and repaint my pier."
A few months later, he found himself staring at a couple of Adirondack chairs he had on display at the store. "I thought, ‘Hey, those can rot and need repainting, too - why don't we try to do furniture?'"
Now, of course, Poly-Wood is known for its outdoor furniture, even though it also markets to the marine and agriculture industries on the strength of the durability and weatherproof characteristics of the poly lumber. The company even works with local governments and construction companies on bridge-building projects.
"Diversifying the mix of markets we serve has really helped us, especially over the last few years when the economy hasn't been great," said Director of Sales and Marketing Chad Yordy, who joined the company in 2006 to help build the contract business.
With his background in PVC fencing, Poly-Wood co-founder Doug Rassi fi gured out how to extrude recycled milk jugs into plastic lumber, which became the foundation of a growing business in outdoor furniture, farm equipment and marine products.
Poly-Wood co-founder Mark Phillabaum owns a 10,000-sq.-ft. casual living store and 15,000-sq.-ft. antique store, where he fi nds design inspiration for new outdoor furniture.
Although the agriculture industry is showing the most potential at the moment, outdoor furniture also continues to grow. Poly-Wood's furniture business has been good enough over the last few years to encourage the company to expand its presence at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, where it moved from a temporary space to a 3,480-sq.-ft. showroom on the 17th floor last July.
"Just from the space allocation, the showroom gives us a chance to display the true depth of the product line and what we have to offer," Yordy said. "It gives us more of a sense of permanence. It's telling buyers we're here to stay."
Good thing Phillabaum caught himself staring at those Adirondack chairs in his store 21 years ago. He's continued to learn that great ideas can come from just about anywhere.
As great as Phillabaum's idea for furniture was, Poly-Wood didn't get off the ground without some luck. By the time Phillabaum and Rassi were able to sketch designs and put together a few prototypes, the Casual Market had no space for them. So Phillabaum used a connection at a nearby hotel and set up their samples there.
"Our first major account was The Sharper Image," he recalled. "We set up a private party in the hotel and got [Sharper Image CEO] Richard Thalheimer to come over. He saw the first product we made by hand and loved it. He wrote a million-doll ar order. Doug and I looked at each other and wondered how we were going to make everything he wanted."
Luckily, there weren't a lot of choices. At the time, the company had an Adirondack chair, an ottoman, a side table, a dining set and a chaise lounge. It also offered just three colors - white, teak and hunter green. The duo delivered on the order and set Poly-Wood on its way to more than two decades of growth and stability.
Initially, however, Phillabaum said there was some pushback from dealers who thought they should pay less for the furniture since it was made from recycled material, not brand-new wood, metal or resin. That was early on in the green movement, before most people knew about the processing costs that went into recycling.
Consumers, on the other hand, caught on fast and drove the demand at retail through word of mouth. They'd see an Adirondack in The Sharper Image catalog, for instance, and ask their local casual furniture dealer if they had the chair. Their primary motive, said Yordy, was the track record of the Poly-Wood lumber. Consumers learned it was used in marine applications, which made them confident in the durability of the furniture.
"I think the consumer has a good perspective on it," Yordy said. "The foremost requirement is performance. Then when they see it's green, it's an added value. It's a good equation to have, but I don't think we'd have this success based on just the green aspect. The consumer demands performance above everything else."
With performance and the green appeal serving as the foundation of Poly-Wood's success, Phillabaum has been responsible for coming up with a steady stream of new designs to keep consumers interested. He also owns an antique store and finds plenty of good ideas there. In fact, the idea for the rocker Poly-Wood won a Design Excellence award for in 1991 came from one of his antiques.
"It was a 100-year-old rocker design that worked really well with our lumber," he said. "I love the old-style designs in some of the furniture. I can take a traditionally indoor product made in the 1950s or turn of the century, change the design a little bit and make it into an outdoor product."
Other ideas require and test his patience. Poly-Wood lumber has its limits. While it is rigid and durable, the material does have some give to it. Phillabaum can work with boards that are only so long before that give is too much. Ideas that required more length than the boards could provide were finally realized when the company discovered how to incorporate other materials. Its Euro Collection, for instance, combines sleek aluminum frames with the recycled plastic slats.
Phillabaum's head continues to burst with more ideas, some he can use now and others he knows aren't feasible right now.
"You can have ideas for years then get the technology that allows you to do it," he said. He can wait, because Phillabaum knows how worthwhile the wait can be for a good idea.
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