The Next Generation
Jamie Sorcher -- Casual Living, 9/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Take a look around the outdoor furniture industry and you will find quite a mix of personalities. Here, we highlight the new guard - those who are already taking their place in the business and making their mark.
So who exactly are these up-and-comers? Well, they're all types, but we've chosen folks who are under 40 and who are gaining the experience to make many contributions in the years ahead.
Some, like Greta Cosey of Telescope Casual, took a year after college to find herself before committing to a role as a fifth-generation executive in the family's business. Kyle Johansen, recently named merchandise manager at HOM Furniture, started working in the family business right after high school just like his father did. After college and some outside experience, there wasn't really a question of what his path would hold.
Please read on for our first installment of a three-part, non-consecutive series. If you have someone you want to recommend, please drop us a note. In the meantime, welcome to the future.
What these young executives all have in common are their progressive viewpoints on how business is going to be done now and in the future. Nicknamed the Xers and Millenials, these folks grew up with a familiarity with communications, media and digital technologies.
According to Cosey, media and merchandising manager for Telescope Casual, and who is part of the fifth generation coming through the company now (including her three sisters and cousin Adam, who is also included here), her peers offer plenty of insight as to what younger people want with regard to shopping, technology and trends.
"We really try to leverage social media as much as possible through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube," she said. "It is one of the best ways to reach the next wave of consumers who have their smart phones in their hands all the time! I love social media and how it allows companies to really portray their personalities. With traditional advertising, you don't always accomplish that. It's nice when your customers can relate to you on a personal level; it just brings your business relationship to a whole new level especially within smaller industries like ours."
Cosey, who handles two major photo shoots each year for the company's catalog and advertising images, did her own thing after graduating from Skidmore, but was, of course, quite familiar with Telescope and the opportunity to be part of the legacy. "It has been in my family forever," she said, adding that it was during her first pre-market of her junior year in college that proved "eye-opening" and what ultimately sold her on her career direction.
"I shop online a ton," noted Adam Vanderminden, advertising director at Telescope, and also a rising star. "I am one of those people who will stand in your store and check pric es. I always find the best deals that way. Knowing that today's consumers are doing that, dealers have to take it back to that value-add and the sales experience - it's about more than the price. So your online presence is really important, but your salespeople and your services are even more important. That is what is keeping brick-and-mortar stores alive."
Vanderminden said that while the Web is becoming more important, he sees the future direction of the industry as a crossover between the Web and traditional furniture stores. "There is much more online shopping, but there is still going to be the demand to actually go and sit on new product. Dealers should use the Web to advertise and promote and inform consumers."
In fact, said Vanderminden, one area where the Web is becoming more key for shoppers is with peer reviews. "I will go to chat forums if I am looking for advice on a product," he said. "If you read online reviews, you'll find thousands of enthusiasts out there willing to help you find the best thing to buy. When I go to buy something, I walk in knowing more than the salesperson. My generation wants to have as much information as possible."
Vanderminden, who studied at Green Mountain College in Vermont, happened into the business in 2005 when the director of marketing retired. "I was thrown into the lion's den," he said with a laugh. "I had been doing portraits and painting as well as some sculptures. Every once in awhile I would come back and use the manufacturing facility to make crazy, weird aluminum sculptures." Eventually, Vanderminden learned the computer side of the arts and that landed him where he is now.
THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS
Linsey Fluty, hearth and grill manager at Ray Murray, got her start early in the casual outdoor industry - when she was 17 while still in high school - and began her career at the same company she is at now. "I started in customer service, but it was NRG Distributors at the time. I was the buyer for all the purchasing and then I worked my way up to be the general manager," she said.
In that time, Fluty said many trends have come and gone, but one in particular, is the future of the business.
"The outdoor kitchen is definitely a growing trend in the Midwest and the Northeast," she said. "The people looking for more upscale landscaping and those who are adding amenities like outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are part of a trend that will continue to evolve. People are trying to get more out of their homes - either they're staying put because they can't sell their homes or don't want to."
Johansen, merchandise manager for multiple HOM brands including Seasonal C oncepts and a second-generation executive in the family-owned company started by his father and uncle, also sees the outdoor room as the future of the business. "The casual business has been riding a nice steady wave of price increases in the product because of the innovations we've had - no-maintenance tables and Sunbrella fabrics - all things that build the tickets. Couple this with the idea that the outdoor room is becoming one of the most desirable rooms in the house for customers to build upon and it's a good recipe for success," he said.
And while online shopping presents challenges, Johansen doesn't see it impacting the industry too greatly. "A large amount of consumers will always want to buy through traditional channels," he said. "People like to test furniture to be sure it's comfortable. Consumers - especially women - love to shop and decorate their home by hand selecting in person. It's not quite the same as a TV or even a T-shirt, which is easier to buy online. There is much more personal connection and emotion involved in buying furniture and it's a big ticket purchase. A better HOM Furniture website will lead to more customers shopping our stores so that is our current approach," he said.
Johansen also sees an opportunity for the outdoor room in the northern areas of the country and the Midwest. "Even though it snows in May sometimes, people really want to spend time outside. If you're cooped up in the snowy weather for six-to-eight m onths, you want to get out of that and enjoy the weather when it's nice. What better way to do that than with an outdoor room, which is more substantial than just a musty old patio set sitting out there. We need to push the outdoor kitchens, islands, outdoor seating and deep seating products with cushions where customers can really spend time outside. You can only sit outside in a dining set for so long before you're uncomfortable," he said.
Johansen, who had an internship at The Brick in Canada, said he learned an important lesson from the then-CEO who now heads up Art Van. "When I was there in 2005, I got to work with Kim Yost, who said to me, ‘You want to be involved in the business? Work in the purchasing department because that department touches every department in the company whether it's operations, sales, strategy or product. You work with the purchasing department, you work with every department.' And that is what I have focused on since I have been here," he said.
For Joe Weisman, executive in training at The Chair King, the 62-year-old family business has been "breakfast, lunch and dinner" since as far back as he can remember. Having grown up working summers in the warehouse during high school, Weisman graduated from the University of Houston and was ready to join Chair King full time, but got some additional business experience before taking on his key role at the family business.
Traditional channels in the industry are definitely being challenged, he said, as shoppers take to their smart phones. "But that customer is not our bread and butter," Weisman said. "Like everyone else trying to catch that customer, we launched our e-commerce site late last year and we are going after that customer by investing in our website and doing stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest," he said.
Cautiously optimistic is how Weisman feels about the industry now. "It's been a good year, but a difficult one, too, because there is no consistency," he said. "We're following the same patterns as other retail outlets have seen. It's going to be interesting to see what will happen with the election coming up."
Weisman, like many in a family business, plans to build on the successes of what those before him have accomplished and to make sure the company has a long future ahead.
When asked if his young children will be tapped for positions down the line, he laughs. "I would love that, but I was never pushed into this. It was not ‘you're going to come work here.' In fact, it was more, ‘don't come work here; do something else, do something different, but we would love to have you if you're interested.' You never know, but it would be cool to have my kids be the fourth-generation."
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