It had been a good year. In spring of 2020, Sunbrella, the performance fabric giant and its even gianter parent company Glen Raven, were coming off a fairly successful 2019. The brand was confident in its yearly numbers, and had just plunked down $25 million to expand its manufacturing capacity to meet future demand. Then came COVID. Even during the Great Recession, a 20 percent dropoff in sales was unthinkable. But between March and April of 2020, Glen Raven’s forward-looking sales dropped by a whopping 70 percent.
“As a privately held company, that gets your attention,” Glen Raven CEO Leib Oehmig tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast.
By now, BOH readers (and listeners) will be familiar with what happened next: a powerful rebound. As the home boom gathered steam and crescendoed into 2021, Sunbrella started suffering from the opposite problem of its early COVID challenges. Demand quickly began outstripping supply, and as supply chain issues emerged, the company raced to keep up with a growing backlog of orders. “We have produced more Sunbrella in 2021 than we ever have in our history,” says Oehmig. “It just doesn’t feel that way when the demand is so high.”
Sunbrella was born in the early 1960s. At the time, Glen Raven was already an established textile manufacturer with a history of technological innovation stretching back to the 18880s. In the 1950s, the company began experimenting with an outdoor canvas that evolved into the technique of solution-dyeing acrylic yarn—a process that led to a vibrant, waterproof textile. In other words: performance fabric.
Over the decades, Sunbrella’s fabrics have made their way from awnings and boats into the home, as families with kids, dogs and—let’s face it—a taste for red wine have embraced performance textiles for indoor use. That widespread adoption has expanded the market for Glen Raven’s products, but it also heightened the stakes of the moment. Sunbrella is currently grappling with which vendors it can deliver fabrics to on time in 2022, how to expand capacity without getting too far ahead of its skis, and ways to stay on top of rapid changes in technology.
Despite all the Sturm und Drang, Oehmig is confident that the pandemic home boom will have legs—for the right operators. “What we’re thinking about now is this step change we’re seeing in these markets,” he says. “How do we as an industry—whether you’re a manufacturer, marketer, retailer or designer—make this demand sticky? This is the greatest opportunity I’ve seen in my career for us to really elevate our industry sector, performance or not. If we do our jobs, this is going to be a pivotal moment in the market for all of us.”