Executives on the rise
Millennials and Xers are the next generation of outdoor industry leaders
Alexa Boschini -- Casual Living, 1/1/2013 2:00:00 AM
Houri Bederian grew up in the outdoor furniture industry via her family's business, Beka Casting, where some of her earliest memories involve shadowing her father. He made a mold for the company's AC-003 table top, but to her, it looked like he was cutting shapes out of Play-Doh, and the 7-year-old Bederian wanted to help.
Rett Haigler transitioned into the outdoor industry a bit later in life, focusing his studies on public relations and beginning his career at a non profit. He and his team are now responsible for the long-term growth of Trivantage's entire retractable awning category.
Joey Shimek has been with The Outdoor Greatroom Company from the ground up, growing the business alongside his father and two uncles. He's advanced from sharing a tiny office as an intern to managing the company's sales for the Eastern United States.
As children, Leisa Rogers McCollister and her brother Paul Rogers spent summer days at the OW Lee factory finding uses for boxes from shipping - he built forts, while she transformed hers into a "house" adorned with upholstery scraps and magazine pages. They've now gone from playing in boxes to thinking outside of them, becoming the fourth generation of their family to contribute to the company's legacy.
Bederian, Haigler, Shimek, McCollister and Rogers are among the rising stars in the outdoor industry, young professionals under age 40 whose unique experiences and fresh perspectives will help shape the future of a constantly evolving business.
Today, these rising stars are already making their mark in high-level positions - Bederian is Beka Casting's marketing director, Haigler is business manager for Trivantage's shade solutions division, Shimek is The Outdoor Greatroom Company's Eastern U.S. sales manager, McCollister is OW Lee's marketing and project manager while Rogers is a designer for the company and works in research and development.
Like most business leaders, they paid their dues and forged their own paths before they landed the jobs they have now.
Breaking into The business
Bederian initially ha d her sights set on a legal career. She took a part-time job at Beka while she was in school, counting and bagging hardware in the warehouse before moving to the packaging department and office duties.
"When my father got sick, I started to help out more at Beka," Bederian said. "After he passed, I started working at Beka full time, and I grew proud and fond of what we do here. My father and mother built a legacy, and when I started to understand and appreciate that, I started to love working here, and I knew I wanted to carry it on, not only for my parents, but also for me and my future."
Shimek said he has always been interested in his family's business, from its earliest incarnation as fire products manufacturer Heat-N-Glo to The Outdoor Greatroom Company's current focus on the complete outdoor room. By the time the business evolved into The Outdoor Greatroom Company in the early 2000s, Shimek was ready to help the company grow. He started as an intern, and has worked with the company full time since graduating from college.
"When (uncle) Dan (Shimek) started this company almost 10 years ago, it was very exciting to me that I could be a part of something from the ground up," Shimek said. "I looked at it as an opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in the hearth business and be involved in a successful company."
OW Lee has a rule that family members who want to work at the company in a serious position must first go to college and work outside of the company for five years. McCollister started college as an interior design major before switching to marketing.
"The younger me envisioned myself working at a glamorous job in a big city, and I viewed OW Lee as the polar opposite," McCollister said. "Once I entered the workforce my priorities changed, and I began to see OW Lee as a stable industry leader in an interesting and unique industry. I found that OW Lee was a great fit for my training in design and marketing."
Rogers initially studied marketing and said he learned to design furniture by trial and error. But a background in marketing works to his benefit, he said, as it drives him to create designs that are both innovative and sellable.
"The products we design have to be innovative and thoughtfully designed as well as comfortable, because if it's not comfortable, it simply won't sell," Rogers said. "On top of that, the materials we are able to work with must withstand extreme climates. Because of these parameters, casual furniture designers have had to be extremely innovative, resulting in some of the most well-made and thoughtfully designed products available."
Haigler studied public relations in college and began his career at United Way. He worked at a couple of advertising agencies and earned his MBA from Wake Forest University before accepting a position as marketing communications manager at Glen Raven for the Sunbrella and Solair Shade Solutions brands. In January 2012, he transitioned to business manager for Trivantage's shade solutions division.
"Sunbrella has a long history in the industry, and the opportunity to introduce a brand new category (retractable awnings and other dynamic shade products) to help dealers diversify their offering was intriguing to me," Haigler said. "A challenge for sure, but we've proven that with a strong team, a good base of sales reps and a great product, we can be successful."
Growing Pains And Welcome Change
These young professionals have faced their share of challenges, from juggling a wide variety of responsibilities to ensuring their companies remained competitive during the recession. They've spent the early years of their careers weathering the toughest economic climate since the Great Depression. But as a result, Shimek said he's seen an increase in people who want to invest in complete outdoor rooms, people who are staying in their homes longer than in previous years.
"Many consumers are spending as much time outdoors as they are indoors, so it has become more important for them to purchase high-quality products," Shimek said. "They are putting a lot more money into their backyards because they are using it so much more. I think it will continue to evolve as the industry grows."
Haigler agreed the economy has played a significant role in the outdoor industry's growth. The experience has motivated manufacturers to be "lean and mean," he said - they know what customers want, and aren't afraid to demand more from suppliers.
"As a purveyor of a new category of products for patio stores, we have been approached with intrigue and cautious optimism," Haigler said. "But the fact that we are receiving the attention bodes well for us and for the patio stores' futures. It shows that they are hungry to grow their businesses by making some radical changes."
Rogers said the most notable change he's seen in recent years is the sophistication of the products offered, as more people seek high-quality furnishings to breathe new life into their old homes.
"My earliest memories of OW Lee products were mesh chairs, bistro sets with attached vinyl seats and one or two deep seating sets offering about 15 Sunbrella fabrics," Rogers said. "Now with the expansion of the outdoor room concept, I am impressed every year with what OW Lee, our vendors and our competition introduce. It seems like every time I think there are no more new ideas in our industry I am proven wrong."
Bederian and McCollister both wear many hats in their marketing positions, including website and catalog management, issuing press releases and assisting with trade shows and photo shoots. Thanks to the ever-growing role of technology, Bederian said she keeps customers abreast of the latest developments at Beka via Web-based marketing.
"It's important to let my customers know what we are up to," Bederian said. "We stand by our product 100%, and rather than taking an existing design and calling it our own, we take pride in coming up with new and innovative designs that are parallel to what the industry is demanding at the time."
McCollister agreed that technology is vital in business today, a trend she believes will only grow more prevalent. "I see a great opportunity to use technology to grow the industry," McCollister said.
"There is so much untapped potential that I see in that realm, and I think the casual industry's younger generation is the one to do it."
The Wave Of The Future
These rising stars all agree the industry is evolving, and that those who embrace change while still upholding the values that have helped their companies succeed in the past will thrive in the future.
"Working alongside my mother, she brings to Beka the foundation and the history, and I come in with new and modern designs, colors and materials," Bederian said. "I focus on Web-related marketing, and bring in new ways to show that Beka stands out from the crowd."
According to Shimek, "the days of cheap tables and chairs are long over." He sees the complete outdoor room as the wave of the future, rife with customized products that reflect consumers' individual tastes.
"Our engineering group has really put a lot of time and effort into custom products and that helps set us apart from our competitors," Shimek said. "Every consumer wants something different than their neighbor, so it is important for us to listen to the consumers and make product that they are going to enjoy for a long time."
Rogers and McCollister also see designers broadening their horizons with more vibrant fabric choices and new materials.
"I think fire pits will remain big and fabric colors seem to be more adventurous," McCollister said. "More and more people are looking to turn their patio into an outdoor living space, complete with all the comforts of an indoor room."
"I see more cushioning and upholstery as a growing trend since more and more end users are accepting performance fabrics that are able to withstand being outdoors indefinitely," Rogers said. "As a designer, I'm excited to see new materials being experimented with such as Sunbrella strapping."
In Haigler's view, Millen-nials and Xers bring "fresh thinking, flexibility and creativity" to the industry that will help it continue to evolve in a changing world.
"There is certainly a strong base of young people on the supplier side as well as at the retail level," Haigler said. "We are starting to build relationships amongst the younger generation that will become the future of the casual industry. With that comes great responsibility, and I think we are going to be in a great place to take it on."
We would love your feedback!