Our guest today is COO Alliance Member Glen Raven’s VP of Operations, Randy Blackston.
As VP of Operations, Randy is responsible for global manufacturing of the Sunbrella Branded Products. He’s also directly responsible for the operations of 5 manufacturing plants with 1,500 associates.
His biggest achievement includes the design, engineered staffing plan with job specs, plant layout and machinery specification for the million square foot operations facility in Anderson, South Carolina. Randy led the corporate wide sustainability initiative, achieving landfill free status in all operations in North America, France, and China.
Randy has an expansive amount of skills and experiences with Glen Raven, being at the company for over 29 years.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- How a family owned business can thrive with multiple relatives
- What Randy focuses on during day to day operations
- How the business differs in different countries globally
- How the pandemic affected Glen Raven’s employees and their work conditions
- How to socialize change inside a company that has old systems which need to be modernized
Connect with Randy Blackston: LinkedIn
Glen Raven – https://glenraven.com
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Our guest is Glen Raven‘s VP of Operations, Randy Blackston. He is responsible for the global manufacturing of Sunbrella’s branded products. He’s also responsible for the operations of five manufacturing plants with 1,500 associates. His biggest achievement includes a design-engineered staffing plan with job specs, plant layout, and machinery specifications for the 1 million-square-foot operations facility in Anderson, South Carolina.
Randy led the corporate-wide sustainability initiative to achieve landfill-free status in all operations in North America, France, and China. Randy has an expansive amount of skills and experience with Glen Raven being at the company for many years. He is also a member of the COO Alliance. Randy, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
When you and I first chatted, it was about the Sunbrella product line and brand. I was like, “Everybody knows that thing.” Is that your marquee product line?
That’s our flagship product. The Sunbrella product was invented in 1961. Once that product was invented, we started manufacturing it domestically, but now we are manufacturing it around the world. We have got manufacturing in Europe and Asia, as well as domestically here in North America.
These are pretty successful companies. You guys started in 1880 and are still a privately held organization. You are not a small company. Can you give us some without giving away exact details, but some rough ideas, how big you are?
You mentioned the domestic operations piece. In terms of Glen Raven Global, we have around 3,000 lives around the world is how we like to look at that. We have three different divisions. We do everything from manufacturing the Sunbrella branded products. We also have a division that manufactures fire-resistant products under the GlenGuard brand. We also have a distribution arm of the company. We also have other brands that go into different, decorative upholstery businesses and shade businesses as well.
As Sunbrella is the marquee, what percentage of your revenue might that make up, or is that too granular? Are there other brands like the fire-resistant stuff, that are as well known in the marketplace?
There are other brands. For example, in Europe, our leading brand for shade products is the Dixon brand. Dixon is a company that we acquired many years ago that manufactures a shade product. In the Dixon brand, we have a brand that you probably see a good bit, jet skis. I know you do snowmobiling. You probably see the brand for those products up there. There are several different brands that we service around the world.
How much of your growth has been from acquisitions and organic? Do you do a lot of acquisitions as a company?
We have done a few acquisitions, but primarily, a lot of what we have done is organic growth. In terms of the facility that you described in the opener, humble roots, there are about 400 people in the early-“90s that were manufacturing the Sunbrella branded product. We launched a Greenfield Initiative to go out and to learn from all the different manufacturing arenas here domestically and internationally, trying to understand not just how to build a world-class fabric plant or a world-class yarn plant, but taking it down to a notch, let’s understand world-class manufacturing and then we went on a voice of the customer tour looking at how our products were used by our customers.
With the world-class and then the voice of the customer concept, we sat down at a CAD machine and designed this facility. From 400 to there are over 1,500 domestically and the around the world piece, those earlier designs, and concepts have been replicated and expanded upon around the world. We have had some acquisitions, the European product, Dixon was through acquisition, but most of it is through organic growth.
I had to do the math because I was trying to figure out what 1 million square feet look like in my head and I will tell you what I came up with. I was like, “Is it bigger than a grocery store? It has to be as bigger as Walmart.” I looked up how many square feet a football field is. A football field is 48,000 square feet. The manufacturing facility that you built and launched is bigger than twenty football fields lined up beside each other. That’s ridiculous.
It’s like a shopping mall.
That’s bigger than a shopping mall. I was thinking in my head first a football field. That’s big. The twenty football fields, how do you even go about designing something like that? How many years was that in the making?
It was several years in the making. We designed for two solid years, and then we broke ground in 1994 and finished the expansion in July “97. We broke it up into four unique phases. We did the yarn prep and the early stages of that facility. We also then went to phases 2, 3, and 4. When everything was complete, it was all under 1 roof and after about 3 years of tough construction. If it wasn’t for that first group of 400 pioneers, it would have been very difficult to pull that off. It’s a very old company, 1880. We are family-owned.
That familial feel that we have in the company builds for a lot of buy-ins in terms of continuity of who your team is and not a lot of turnovers. That culture is ingrained in all of our associates. When we launched that first project in “94, we kept growing and growing bit by bit, and it wasn’t any one individual’s job. I had a key role in the design of that, the material layout, and handling of it. In terms of what we accomplished, it was a team effort.
One of the greatest things our company CEO and president was my partner in that project. He hired all the people, set up all the training procedures and policies, and that type of stuff. I was in the engineering behind-the-scenes type role and together, we had a lot of camaraderie. We worked together. Many years later, we are still doing the same thing and seeing the company grow at this level. It’s been outstanding.
You have been there for many years. How many people were in the company roughly when you joined?
In terms of size, it’s still a pretty big company, around 2,000 people, but we have sold businesses and we have exited markets. We have had a saying, “Don’t fall in love with a mirror.” To give you a quick story, our former CEO, his father invented pantyhose. He had a small knitting plan and invented the pantyhose product. For many years, we were the leading provider of pantyhose. When the rest of the world viewed it as a commodity product, there was very little value in the brand, we sold that product. Within the textile industry of which I’m part, there are a lot of companies that sell commodity products.
Those commodity products are the fabrics that we wear, but we chase the brand that’s on those fabrics. Whether it be a Polo Ralph Lauren or a Levi, those are the brands that have the premium. The great idea that the Gant family had back in 1961 was to label this Sunbrella-branded fabric. This fabric is an ingredient brand that allows you to live a worry-free lifestyle. This product does not fade. It resists water. It’s the most cleanable product that I have encountered.
To give you an example, the chair I’m sitting in is a Sunbrella-branded chair. The shade over my window is a Sunbrella-branded shade. The window treatments in my office are all Sunbrella-branded products. That product gives you a worry-free lifestyle because you don’t worry about it. If someone were to spill something on it, you’d simply wipe it off. If it happens to get soiled, in the boating industry you can have some pretty nasty stains, you can put this stuff in bleach in a certain detergent mix and it doesn’t fade.
When you have got a product that’s that serviceable, it helps you live a worry-free lifestyle. The Gant family branded that product back in 1961. Owning that brand and being married to that brand, we could find somewhere else in the world to make a shade product cheaper. We have a bilocal cell local strategy that, “Let’s make the best product here with the people that live in this community.” It has served us incredibly well as we have grown this business to 3,000 folks around the world.
You have said you have global operations. How much of your manufacturing is still done in the US?
Somewhere around 50% at least.
The stuff that’s being done out of Asia or Europe, is that mostly being done to serve those markets and more?
It is to serve those markets? When we went to Asia, we didn’t go out there to chase inexpensive labor. We went out and built a brand-new facility according to Western-engineered standards. We have a very low turnover, which is almost unheard of in that region, and built a world-class manufacturing facility. We have what we call the umbrella brand promise. That’s to have industry-leading performance metrics and everything that you measure, whether it’s the durability of the fabric to water and strength retention under sunlight. There are many things and folks don’t understand that there are a lot of disposable fabrics. You could go out and purchase a long chair and you can see them for $30 or $40.
That fabric, I have seen it many times, you are probably good for one summer, but after summer, 2 or 3, a 4-year-old can put their finger through the fabric. Those polymers aren’t able to withstand the test of time. As we are a global manufacturer, we are testing to the high desert. A lot of your work is in the high desert area. In Arizona, we also study the tropical climates, high UV, high moisture, and all of those climates that we don’t know where the product’s going to ship. It could be the convertible top to a $300,000 car. It could be on a $1 multi-million dollar yacht, or it could be like my office chair. We don’t know where you are going to take it. We have got to put it through all these tests to make sure that product can withstand the test of time and give you that worry-free lifestyle.
Is it still a family-owned company or is it privately held?
It is a family-owned company.
How involved is the family in the business? Are they passive, actively involved, more board, or operational?
The former CEO is the chairman of our board. He’s still driving and working with us. We have got probably 4 or 5 family members in the business doing roles everywhere from the commercial sales role to sustainability, to the supply chain. We have got folks throughout the company that are family members that chose to work for the business that they own.
Being a family-owned company that’s hundred years old, what are the struggles with that? I grew up in a family-owned business, and then my ex-wife was in a fourth-generation family-owned business. There are lots of upsides to it. I’m not diminishing all that. I’m just curious, what are some of the struggles and the lessons on how to make it work well?
In terms of working very well, our family board guides the business, but we also have an operating board that’s the best minds from around the world looking at business, finance, marketing, and different aspects of modern business. That group will challenge us to make sure we are meeting our potential, and that’s it. I said early in the conversation, we have a saying, “Don’t fall in love with the mirror.” We have got to continuously reinvent ourselves to understand what’s the best version of us. Once we are doing that, we have virtually no issues.
In terms of the product lines that you sold off or stopped, how does the company make those decisions? I don’t think people do that enough.
In terms of products that we would either sell off or not manufacture anymore, quite frankly, it’s a pricing game. If you can’t afford to live in that commodity world, there were more backpacks on middle school kids with Glen Raven fabric than many other companies. You can think back to when backpacks were popular in the mid-“80s, probably did hundreds of thousands. You were talking about a football field. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of yards of that product every week.
Over time, as that product became viewed as a commodity, if this price cannot be achieved in the market, you have got to innovate. Innovation is key to that product line. In any product line, if you can’t innovate and declare, “This is why this product commands this price,” then you have got to innovate and do something in a different direction. That’s what we have focused on in terms of the origin of the operation that I’m in.
When we first started this, we were primarily doing shade fabrics. We didn’t make decorative office chairs or shade treatments in 1994. We continued to innovate. Push the boundaries of what’s possible, innovate, and as you find yourself in that commodity world, and if you can’t engineer price out engineer, cost out to meet the price, you have got to innovate. That’s part of the game.
What do you focus on day-to-day in your role?
In terms of my role as vice president of operations, reporting directly to me, I have a director of engineering that focuses on global best practices, operational strategies, and cost and quality management systems. I also have an individual that’s the director of Sunbrella Care. That’s our customer actions point. Any action to the customer, after-sales experience, a lot of people call it customer service, but in our world, that at Sunbrella care, we want to make sure that customer understands when they call, they are in the care of someone.
That’s also our voice of the customer opportunity to understand how our product’s performing. You can find us even in the app store. You can go to the app or the Google store and type in Sunbrella Care. It will give you a full video and a list of things to make sure you understand everything there is to know about our Sunbrella-branded products. In terms of safety, staffing, and compliance, I have a director of HR that’s focused on all of those risk mitigation points then each facility has a director of operations. In terms of my role, I’m working within that director group whether it’s engineering, staffing, or within each facility. I’m engaging those folks on the metrics that we monitor this business. Hire a good team, make sure they have the resources that they need, and stay out of their way.
What are you seeing in terms of globally, the differences in doing business? You have got operations in multiple countries. Are the countries similar or are there some vast differences in some areas?
There are incredible differences. The first one that I can think of is cultural differences. In Europe, the work schedule’s different. They take the month of August off and think that we work short days. They work long days. In terms of the cultural differences from here to Europe and from the US to Asia, the thing that pulls us all together is that familial tie of being a family-owned and operated business. We are all great friends and we engage each other. For the most part, I do not speak their language, but I try.
I enjoy entertaining them at my common places, the places that I go to every day. I try to show them, “This is where I ate lunch when we discuss this topic.” I engage them on a personal level, I have been to most of their homes, and they have been to mine. Once you get to that point, our goal is to make the best shade fabric, performance fabric, and decorative furniture fabric and have you figured out a way to make it better?
Do you take any of the ideas from the way that they are running their business and bring it into the North American operations at all?
I’m in the middle of a project. We launched right in the middle of COVID, a $70 million project. It was based on, myself, the director of engineering, the European director, and his engineer. We were all at a common technology show in Europe. There was a piece of technology there that caught their eye. We did it differently here in the states. $70 million later, we have got a common way of doing it.
It doesn’t have to originate in the US for it to be a best practice. A best practice is a best practice. That’s much like the COO alliance. The greatest opportunity I have had is coming to a group of other like-minded COOs and, “What have you faced this week? What are your challenges this week?” If somebody else has figured out how to work around that or how to engineer around that, we will grab it it’s all over Glen Raven’s world. It doesn’t have to be invented here. It has to be the best procedure.
What’s interesting about that is you are one of the larger members of the COO Alliance. Maybe not in terms of employees. We have got something that is around where you are or bigger in an employee. In terms of the revenue size, I know you are revenues, I won’t disclose them, but let’s say they are big. You are there learning from CEOs that are doing much smaller businesses, and you are extracting those best policies and practices, which is cool.
Talk about the impact of COVID. I’m sure we are smart enough as an organization to navigate around. Being a company that had been in business for many years, when COVID hits, I’m pretty sure that you weren’t a distributed workforce or a, “Let’s all work from home company.” How did you navigate that?
2020 is one of the most difficult years of my life. I’m going to lay that out there and share that raw emotion with you. I vividly remember, our general manager from Asia was traveling for Chinese New Year, and we were talking about this virus that was discovered in December of 2019, this Coronavirus, and what it means. We were talking about the lockdown that’s occurred. He said, “I’m not in China now. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”
The world is on complete lockdown. I remember going outside that night, looking up at the sky and the number of airplanes. You’d go out there’d be 3 or 4 anytime you’d look up because I’m right between the Atlanta and Charlotte airports. We have got air travel constantly. They are both very busy airports, but the amount of air travel is slowing down. Safety is our number one goal and objective. How do we keep 3,000 people around the world safe? We immediately mobilize a COVID action team looking at what have you learned in Asia about how the disease spreads, how it travels, how you contact it, and how you manage it.
There were times that 80% to 90% of our associates of that 3,000 number are making product. They are in facilities, and how do we keep them safe? The beauty part to prevent color-to-color migration, we have a very intensive, air conditioning system that turns the air over many times per hour. They are 30 to 60 times per hour. We have this system that keeps the airflow. It’s almost like breathing outside air. Early to adopt masks or testing, we found a company that was helicoptering in test kits every Tuesday that could do 100% testing of 1,500 people. Europe and Asia had their team tested.
We are offering free vaccinations to our team members. We are atomizers. In terms of COVID prep systems, we probably spent $300,000 to $500,000 on different systems and break room setups so that our folks could continue to manufacture the product to be safe. We have been very fortunate. We haven’t lost a person around the world through these preventative measures.
What percentage of your team was able to work from home then? Did the office staff or marketing work from home?
I was talking about our customer-facing function with the Sumbrella Care team. When you have a small group that could work from home, they did accounting, commercial, and finance. The typical roles did remote work. I spent a total of ten days not in the office in all of 2020.
Will the company start to hire more people remotely now? Will you make that change, or will you go back to the way that we always did it before?
We have a campus-first philosophy. We do allow remote work. If you are in a zone that that’s an ultra-high risk if you can work from home, work from home. I’m thinking back to before the Delta variant came out, we were encouraging folks that could come in, “For this familial field that we have within our company, let’s get together, innovate, thrive off of human connections,” and we are getting better at doing this via video conference and stuff. I have solved many more big tasks, standing in the hall, walking to lunch, that incidental collaboration, “Have you thought about this? That’s a great idea.” You were talking about how we are looking at remote work, but quite frankly, one of the big biggest challenges for us is the launch of our brand’s usage through COVID.
We are bleach cleanable, and how do you make sure you clean the viruses away? We have seen a huge surge in the amount of our Sunbrella products that have been used through COVID. It’s not just for the bleak cleanable, protective side of it. It’s for the lifestyle that we can sell or that you can enjoy, quite frankly through the product.
If you follow boating is boating up, our garden patio sales up around the world. There have been 3 or 4 NBC, CBS, ABC, and television, shows about the outside lifestyle booming in this country. As folks are not going inside to sit down in a restaurant through the lockdowns, everyone has learned how to reconnect with their family and go outside. With the number of pets, boats, patio umbrellas swimming pools, everything is going toward that outdoor lifestyle.
You heard me mention earlier about the 2020 expansion, but, for 2021, we have launched another multi-year expansion plan for about $250 million to service that brand. It’s not all domestic either. This is a global launch with new factories in Europe, and the US and expansions in our facility in Asia, so that we can be the solutions provider when you want to go outside or sit in your living room and not worry about your favorite chair fading. We are continuously investing in that umbrella lifestyle.
I love your obsession with that. You are always going back to the product and how great it is, and the usability. It feels like there’s such a belief in it and a core around it that it permeates every discussion. I love it. Is Glen Raven unionized or non-union?
We do not have unions in our domestic facilities, and internationally there are certain, representation groups, but we have a great working relationship with all of our associates around the world.
Unions may have had their place back in the “50s and “60s. When you are a great company and you take care of your employees, there’s no reason to have a union. It gets in the way. Is that why you think you are not unionized? It’s you have a great place and care about people.
You can see familial culture through all levels of our organization. Quite frankly, we are very proud of the culture that we have. Every leader within the company, including myself, has gone through a psychometric evaluation. Anybody that applies, we carry them through a battery, and a test, and it tells us if they are a good fit for our values or not quit. If the test comes back and it’s not a good fit, there’s not a second interview.
We make sure we appreciate what’s going on. We listen. When we sit down to a pile of resumes that match our culture, the individuals have that skillset that we are looking for, at that point in the game, we are looking for passionate people. If you can find somebody that’s passionate about what they do, why they did that, why they majored in this, why did you major in Industrial Engineering, Electrical Engineering, or Marketing? You find somebody that can talk passionately about why they took the steps that they took in life, or why they engaged in this certain outdoor sport. You find folks that have a spark of passion that makes the job easier from that point forward.
It makes a massive difference from that point forward. I have got a question about some of the legacy systems. When a company’s been around for so long, it must be easy to get trapped into, “That’s the way we have always done it. That’s the Glen Raven way. It could be 140 years old.” How do you change and, and socialize change inside of a company that has been around for so long that may have some systems that need to be changed?
We have to make sure our team members are involved in organizations that speak about change like this. The reason that I have signed up for the COO Alliance is to understand new systems. I have been taking notes, through all of the sessions, learning about how folks track customer care claims, how folks track after-sales service, and back to that original point that I made, don’t fall in love with the mirror. Just because you do it that way, that’s the way we are going to do it from now on. One of our CEOs as a CEO innovated pantyhose, and that same individual decided to leave pantyhose. If we can innovate something and back out of something at that level, operating systems, that’s second nature. It is part of our DNA not to be in love with how it’s being done today to innovate.
We do that with the products that we sell and the systems that we use. We do that with the technology that makes the product. The facility that we launched in 1994, I’m going to reach out and say probably only 30% of 40% of the technology that was installed at that period of time is still here. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of initial investments that have been retired and set aside for new technology that does better, more efficient, and higher quality products or it provides some feature that our customers are looking to see, with a new product that we don’t make. It’s part of our DNA.
Let’s go back to the 21 or 22-year-old randy. You are starting out on your business career. What advice would you have wanted back then to be true nowadays but you wish you’d known when you were younger?
I wish you had seen that version of me. There’s still a lot here. I would focus less on what I can accomplish. Early on, I was one of those workaholics. I have got completing projects. Let’s early on, when we have got this new concept design a plant, “Here it is. Here’s the plant that I designed.” It’s not a me I world out there. I had great relationships with those that were in the branches. I suffered somewhat with relationships across the enterprise.
I wish that I had focused more on relationships with the expanded team and through the COO Alliance and other professional development opportunities. I focused more on active listening, regardless of who I’m with. I have heard you say many times, “It’s your job with your experience to share that experience, but not an opinion.” I spend considerably more time working with the extended leadership team from a physician of support sharing experiences, checking for understanding of the strategy, and engaging folks. Every day, I have got to understand who I was is the person that’s going to take me where I want to go. I have got to innovate myself.
If we are green, we are growing and we are ripe, we are rotting. Thank you very much for sharing. Randy Blackston is the Vice-President of Operations at Glen Raven. Thanks very much for being on the show.