In a way, Bew White turned an act of hoarding into a $100-million business.
Back in the 1980s, White began filling a warehouse in Pelham with, as he calls it, “stuff.” Mirrors and wicker and patio items. The inventory occasionally spilled over to his home, such as the time when he temporarily filled his children’s playroom with chaise lounges.
“I was selling anything I could find,” White says. “I started 10 different businesses in that building, just selling stuff.”
It soon became apparent that the most popular business was the wooden outdoor furniture he was selling under the name Summer Classics. “So I closed down everything else and concentrated on that,” White says.
Three decades later, White has accumulated more stuff — and success — than ever. Summer Classics has grown into a leader in the design, marketing and retailing of high-end outdoor furniture. The company has nearly 400 employees, with a 487,000-square-foot headquarters and showroom in Pelham that contains approximately $28 million in inventory, and a 330,000-square-foot warehouse in Montevallo. During the spring and summer, Summer Classics also manufactures an average of 2,000 cushions per day.
Fabrics and textiles are sewn into White’s family history. His great-grandfather was Braxton Bragg “B.B.” Comer, founder near the turn of the 20th century of the Avondale Mills textile company — and later governor of Alabama. Bew White graduated from Auburn University with a degree in textile engineering.
But White wasn’t as interested in the manufacturing side of the business. He envisioned Summer Classics operating more like the Ralph Lauren Corp., with a concentration on design and marketing. So while most of the manufacturing, other than cushions, is handled overseas, Summer Classics designs its own fabrics and products, including the lighting, mirrors and upholstery for both outdoor and indoor products.
“I wanted to do it like that so I could be flexible,” White says. “What I found out working as a sales rep is you need to have multiple categories of lines to address the marketplace. So, with Summer Classics I had a wood line, a wrought-iron line, an aluminum line, a plastic line. If the market wants teak right now, I’ll sell teak. You need to make what the customer wants to buy. That’s the whole philosophy behind what we do.”
White discovered that what the Baby Boomer market wanted in the 1990s was anything other than the standard furniture suite where everything basically looks the same, just a different color. Instead, he says many customers were seeking pieces that better reflected their individual home or personality.
“Differentiation is the key,” White says. “We started designing our own fabrics right down to the texture, so it was something you couldn’t get anywhere else. We’d design the resin for our wicker and the finish on our metals. We weren’t just designing the product but also the raw materials that go on it, and that made it different.”
This approach worked so well that by 2008, Summer Classics had grown into a $40-million company, largely by selling its products to a dealer base of retail stores. The one problem was the seasonality of the outdoor-furniture market, with sales dipping dramatically during the cold winter months.
Seeking fresh ways to expand, White recruited his son, William White, to head up a new indoor furniture brand called Gabby (named after Bew’s grandmother, Gabrielle “Gabby” Comer). As a teenager, William White spent several summers working in the Summer Classics warehouse. He had been contemplating joining his father’s business ever since receiving his MBA from the University of Alabama in 2001, and he says Gabby seemed like the ideal opportunity.
“I liked the concept of being able to create something from scratch,” the younger White says. “And I wanted it to be something that honored my family history.”
The major economic recession that hit in 2008 put those plans on hold for nearly two years. As William White notes, “Luxury furniture is not something people absolutely have to have.” That period was the only time that Summer Classics failed to produce revenue growth, according to Bew White.
Gabby finally debuted in 2010, and its success is one of the reasons that Summer Classics has more than doubled its annual revenue since then. It also prompted the recent creation of a third product line, Wendy Jane, a collection of handcrafted indoor and outdoor pillows created by Bew White’s daughter, Wynne White Martin.
“While the family portion has its challenges, it’s also more rewarding,” Bew White says. “When I talk to an employee, they do what I tell them to do. When you talk to your child, they give you grief. The dynamic changes with your child and they’re willing to give a different opinion. But that can be a good thing.”
Along with the new product lines, the company also started a contract division that sells directly to hotels, condos and apartment complexes, restaurants, country clubs and assisted-living facilities. This is all part of an ambitious growth plan for Summer Classics to further double revenue in the next six to eight years. William White says the business is becoming more organized, with responsibilities and decision-making being spread out among an increasing number of people.
“We used to have a lot of people surrounding my dad, and he would just tell them to do this or do that. Now we have more defined roles and leadership,” William White says. “A few years ago we really didn’t have much management training or even an HR department. We’ve been professionalizing the business and going to a more structured environment.
“We’re taking all these brands and driving them through different channels. Retail, wholesale, contract, commercial. And we’re launching a new e-commerce site. We want to eventually become a national brand to compete with the likes of Ethan Allen. We don’t have the pocketbook to do that right now, but that’s the vision.”
It is a vision that would have been difficult to see through the clutter of that original warehouse. Every time Bew White purchased an item back then, he was taking a gamble that he eventually would find somebody to buy it from him at a profit. That basically is still the company’s bottom-line goal today.
“We’re betting that the people are going to buy what we have,” Bew White says. “So far it’s worked.”
And along the way, Summer Classics has become the “stuff” that dreams are made of.
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.