With retro roots and a signature style, California Umbrella forges ahead
Jamie Sorcher -- Casual Living, 5/1/2013 2:00:00 AM
Ever watch mad men? the TV show has gone A long way toward reinvigorating the stylish, iconic home furnishings of the 1960s.
For Bryan Sanches, sales manager of California Umbrella, it was one of his favorite programs and piqued his interest about the opportunity to work for a company that had a rich history steeped in that kind of nostalgia.
"When you watch that show, anytime you're near a pool or a patio, especially when they're out in California for that one episode, you see those patio style umbrellas with the fringe on the edge," he said. "That is California Umbrella. We still have that pagoda umbrella in our line. It is our signature California Umbrella look going all the way back to the 1940s."
When he joined the company five years ago, there were just three employees. Today there are 20. Early on, there were only two manufacturer reps. Today there are more than 35 reps that cover every territory in the country.
"When I started, it was a small company in refresh mode - trying to reestablish itself. It was kind of struggling at the time," Sanches said. "We needed to find a new way to reintroduce California Umbrella. It's an old established brand, but had changed hands a couple of times."
Despite turnover in company ownership over the years, loyalty remains high. "I get people mailing in pictures of their umbrellas that are 40 yea rs old," Sanches said. "They just bought a new one, but then they email us a picture of an old California Umbrella, that was handed down to them from their folks, right next to their new one on their patio."
A restructuring and revamp last year which retooled the product line has already proven to be a positive course of action. "We added quite a bit and got rid of some older items that were more antiquated," Sanches said. "We expanded our fabric options and fabric profile for our umbrella covers and stretch covers. In total, about 45% of our line was refreshed."
It's also instrumental that the company continues to play off its strengths like producing its own source materials. "We make all our own fiberglass," Sanches said. "We have a real strength in the cost of that fiberglass so we started to feature more fiberglass ribs and components in our program. We have a three-year warranty for our fiberglass components. It's a niche product that gives us a step in the right direction."
Founder and Chairman Mark Ma with his son, Abraham Ma, president. Mark, a pioneer in the global umbrella market, started the factory group in 1974 and has cultivated manufacturing partnerships with countless companies. He continues to be an engineering force for new and upcoming products, as well as expanding the company's production capabilities and product lines.
As California Umbrella evolves, the industry does as well. "It's changing to more special order and to e-commerce which we really believe in," Sanches said. "The future - with our type of product especially as a commodity - is moving toward ‘showrooming' and being more capable of reaching a consumer quickly with an express product of their choice. We have had to establish ourselves that way so we can react even though we're a smaller company."
For instance, he explained, when consumers walk into a patio store looking for a high end set of furniture, they want to be able to walk out with some of these accessory-type items. "Patio retailers that are trying to establish themselves in the e-commerce side of the industry find that umbrellas are an easy way to get started with that," Sanches said. "Our program is tailor-made to be accessible to a patio retailer that wants to do that. Even if they have a little bit of stock from us, we can expand that selection to over 2,400 unique items. We can ship out within a matter of 48 hours. We could ship directly to the consumer or we can ship to that store so the consumer can pick it up in the store and the retailer can maintain that relationship with the customer. Our product line is built around that kind of flexibility."
Also part of the forward momentum is a total reinvention of the company's website that is in the works. "Right now it is very basic," Sanches said. "It's the kind of site a start-up company might have, but it's a simple, low cost way for us to keep our name out there. We tend to run our business like a start-up would, but now we're growing and this is the next step."
Perhaps the greatest asset the company has is this startup mentality coupled with its youthful team of executives (management is in their early 30s) who all have a fresh perspective on doing business in today's ever-changing economic and technological environment.
"Everybody that works here is young," Sanches said. "So we think in those terms. Our industry is undergoing a lot of change which brings opportunity. But at the end of the day, an umbrella is an umbrella is an umbrella. The overall idea of what an umbrella looks like and how it performs hasn't changed."
Even as the industry has changed to a market style product, Sanches is confident of California Umbrella's plans to remain top of mind. "We have a vast array of that product in our line to stay relevant and to compete, but a lot of the niche things and the way we use fiberglass - it all harkens back to that type of original look," he said. "That's why we're not only a nostalgic brand, but a resurgent one. People tend to go back and look for inspiration. They look at what they bought before to think about what they want to do next. People know the California Umbrella name. In fact, we have all the old catalogs here and we refer to them for inspiration for our future advertising. It is a big strength for us and we like it. That is part of our appeal."
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