Roughly two years ago, Tennessee real estate developer Brant Enderle purchased the Robert Allen Duralee Group for $19 million in a bankruptcy fire sale. Since then, the company has rebranded as Robert Allen Design and shed its network of showrooms—at first gradually, then all at once. Now, Business of Home has learned that as of late last year, the once-giant fabric company furloughed the vast majority of its remaining staff and is currently operating with a skeleton crew.
Rebecca Everhart, operating officer of people and culture at Black Swan Holdings, a parent company that controls many of Enderle’s projects, confirmed the news via text, citing the financial impact of COVID.
Robert Allen Design has been operating under precarious circumstances over the past year. In April, Fabrics & Furnishings International reported that the company had informed its clients it was canceling old orders and only selling fabrics it had in stock in its Gaffney, South Carolina, warehouse. A letter to customers indicated that orders of more than 50 yards (and in which the client was willing to pay a deposit) would be prioritized by the company’s customer service team.
A source with direct knowledge of the situation said the company’s relationship with mills had become frayed, and confirmed that it was largely focused on unloading existing inventory. The same source said that Robert Allen has employed no full-time fabric designers for some time and was not producing new patterns or sample books.
At some point last year, Robert Allen also discontinued its CFA program and began charging $12 for samples, which were sometimes cut haphazardly from the bolts of fabric on the warehouse floor. The F&FI report indicated that Robert Allen had outsourced customer service overseas.
Everhart did not respond to additional questions for comment, and a call to corporate headquarters was transferred to a customer service agent who had no knowledge of the situation.
The company’s decline from fabric industry institution to its present-day state was swift. In 2017, the merger of Robert Allen and Duralee was announced with much fanfare, but behind the scenes, the picture was less rosy. Robert Allen came into the partnership with significant issues, ranging from a struggling showroom business to sluggish lead times. Duralee was in better shape. However, when the companies joined, they struggled to marry their two inventory systems, and technological woes plagued daily operations.
Declining sales and the burden of having to maintain showroom leases for both companies—sometimes two in one one design center—took a financial toll. In February 2019, the company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced that it was looking for a buyer, a move that then-CEO Lee Silberman said was “the best way to solidify and enhance our financial position.”
The eventual buyer came as a surprise to many. Enderle was an unknown in the textile world, and came to the deal with a somewhat murky reputation. A longtime real estate developer in the Knoxville area, he has a pattern of purchasing distressed assets, talking revitalization, then letting them sit. Past investments include a struggling shopping mall; a brewery that ceased operations in 2017; and the dilapidated campus of a historically black college in Morristown, Tennessee, which was eventually repurchased by the city. “I, like most people in Knoxville, have way more questions than answers,” Jesse Fox Mayshark, a longtime local journalist who has covered Enderle’s business dealings, told BOH at the time of the merger. “Nobody can figure out what his deal is.”
Remarking on Enderle’s shepherding of the Robert Allen brand, an unnamed source expressed a sense of disappointment to F&FI: “At the end of the day, he has taken a distressed asset and do what he knows how to do—squeeze the profit out of it.”
Homepage photo: The Robert Allen Duralee Group’s former headquarters