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Why FiberBuilt Umbrellas may emerge from a rugged 2008 in better shape.

Casual Living 5/1/2009
By Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 5/1/2009

Bridgewater Umbrella with South Beach style canopy Bridgewater Umbrella with South Beach style canopy has a special enlarged vent with fabric-covered joints for added wind resistance.

FiberBuilt Umbrellas President Paul Knapp doesn’t mince words when he discusses 2008. It wasn’t a great year for the company. Certainly it didn’t produce anywhere near the 35- to 40-percent growth rate FiberBuilt enjoyed in 2007.

But unlike many U.S. manufacturers, FiberBuilt is seeing its business snap back into place like one of its signature fiberglass umbrella ribs. Part of that has to do with the product itself. Although other manufacturers produce umbrella lines with fiberglass ribs, FiberBuilt was the first to offer the innovation when Knapp started the company in 2000.

“I had a fishing buddy who said he had this fiberglass rib and asked if I thought I could sell it,” Knapp said. “The original rib is made like a fishing pole. Aluminum or wood ribs bend but don’t bend back or break, but the fiberglass rib bends right back into shape.” FiberBuilt’s Decorative Table Bases FiberBuilt’s Decorative Table Bases combine function with convenience.

That alone set the company apart in the umbrella business, but Knapp didn’t stop there. He looked at the umbrella pole to see how he could improve that. His work led to the development of FiberTeak, a patented fiberglass and aluminum pole made to look like teak or bamboo. National Sales Manager Amy Forseth says it was an innovation so practical customers understood its value almost immediately.

“The beauty of this type of pole is it looks and feels like real wood, but you don’t have any of the problems,” she said. “It’s not going to warp or swell in humid environments. It’s not going to crack when there’s no humidity.”

The company’s 20,000-sq.-ft. facility in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., includes a fiberglass shop next door to its warehouse and assembly facility. That is where Knapp works his magic.

“I take an actual piece of material and mold it,” Knapp said. “I can make the pole look exactly like whatever material that original piece is, I just have to figure out how to reproduce it. But once I see something, I just try to mold it and tinker with it.”

Knapp says he draws his inspiration from almost anywhere. He walks trade shows to see what the trends are in casual furniture. He even used a picture frame on Forseth’s desk to try a new look. That didn’t work out, but he has broken through with a new pole that has a palm tree look. He’s actually been nearly finished with it for several months but held back from producing it because of the economy.

“We’ve had some tough times, and we’ve been trying to find the bottom,” he said. “We went to four days for a little while, but we’re past the bottom now. We’re back to five days and getting a good volume of orders in. Now I can see how fast we can develop [the palm tree pole].”

The company’s slow-down last year may have good results for FiberBuilt and its customers. Knapp and Forseth were compelled to visit stores and give training. She braved the snow and frigid temperatures of Upstate New York to work with dealers there, while Knapp visited dealers in Phoenix. Both say they will continue to travel throughout the year.

“If our dealers don’t know all the features and what the purpose is of our umbrellas, they’re not going to be successful selling it and they’re not going to want to carry it,” Forseth said. “If they don’t have a story to tell, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”

She added both retailers and reps have been grateful for the support and are particularly impressed to see the president of the company out on the road. Knapp says he’s more than happy to travel.

“That’s what we have to do — we have to work harder right now,” he said. “But I like to do that so I can feel where the market is. I need to get my fingers touching things that are working and moving so I really know what’s happening.”

The Augusta, Bridgewater and Bambusa are Fiberbuilt Umbrella’s FiberTeak simulated wood pole provides the look of bamboo without the risks of cracking, warping, swelling or splintering.

The company is also making a major push to become an all-in-one shade solution. FiberBuilt already has a tight hold on the upper end of the market because it expanded into residential from the commercial market, where it had to deliver a high-quality, durable product that could withstand heavy use. Now, FiberBuilt offers good, better and best options for its residential customers. The range goes from the Garden collection with vinyl coated canopies and two-piece aluminum poles to the Bridgewater collection, which features canopies made from marine-grade fabrics and FiberTeak poles.

“Considering that all our SKUs include not only the models but also the fabrics, our variety is tremendous,” Forseth said. “We offer the full stock line of Sunbrella fabrics in both the furniture grade for our residential customers and the marine grade for commercial customers. We have almost a limitless selection of fabrics that work with any decorative scheme.”

But in the end, the resiliency of the company and its prospects for future growth tie directly to the product’s quality and durability. In addition to poles that can withstand anything Mother Nature can throw at them, FiberBuilt offers a certified wind rating, Knapp said. Based on tests conducted by the University of Miami, FiberBuilt umbrellas can withstand sustained winds of 53 mph for five minutes.

“I was just at one of our locations in Arizona, and the retailer was telling me our product costs a little more than the other lines they sell,” Knapp said. “But when his customers see the rib and the way it’s constructed, with the heavy winds in Arizona, it’s an easy sell. Our line costs a little bit more, but they can see the value.”

Forseth said the company’s warranty is another factor that appeals to both dealers and end consumers.

Both she and Knapp believe all these factors put FiberBuilt on track to grow again. Until then, Knapp will either be in his fiberglass shop testing new fiberglass pole shapes or traveling to accounts to help train the sales force. The economy is a lot like fiberglass, Knapp said. Eventually, it gets itself back in shape.