Glen Raven Custom Fabrics

Leadership Team Alignment

Glen Raven Custom Fabrics

Glen Raven was founded in 1880 as a cotton mill. It doesn’t exactly evoke high-tech razzle-dazzle. Yet, the company has been remarkably successful in a tough, competitive segment.

What’s the key to success?

We moved from being a traditional textile company to where we are today because of our ability to adapt and adjust. For example, in the 1940s we made parachute fabrics; in the 1950s we entered the panty-hose-yarn business. The company originally began serving the awning business in the 1880s and changed that market significantly with the creation of our iconic Sunbrella brand. In the 1970s, we expanded into the marine market. In the early 1980s, we engineered our fabrics to penetrate the outdoor-furniture market, and in the 2000s we entered the indoor-upholstery and window markets with Sunbrella. Later in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Glen Raven shifted away from the production of commodity yarn and fabrics and began focusing on consumer brands. The key question we always ask ourselves is: How do we continuously transform ourselves and remain relevant, in the long term and generationally?

What are the strategic objectives for Custom Fabrics three years out?

The challenge is how to become more and more relevant to the markets that we currently serve and to new markets where we can add value. We want to strengthen our consumer brands, extend our business into new segments with innovative products and services, and improve our overall results by becoming a high performance organization. For example, we asked ourselves what, besides outdoor furniture, we could sell to homeowners? This led us to create textiles for the indoor-furniture market and for window treatments. For boats, we created a unique top-grade, engineered vinyl, Sunbrella Horizon, which can be used for tops on the outside and upholstery on the inside. Strategically, we want to focus on markets and customers where we have a significant presence and then look for “adjacencies,” or product extensions, to increase our impact. In addition, we will continue to make significant investments in our sales and marketing teams to drive our brands, and we will continue to invest in our people throughout the organization to drive quicker decision making and accountability.

What about your business keeps you up at night?

Buyer behavior is changing, especially given the pandemic, with e-commerce becoming a much bigger factor. We typically offer high-end products to affluent consumers. Traditionally, we have sold through more high-touch distribution channels, where we build trust and collaborative relationships and explain our value proposition to customers in person. So, learning to engage in the e-commerce space is critical. There is also a good deal of industry consolidation taking place in the trade and retail spaces. We are a consumer brand, but we remain an ingredient product that relies on our trade partners and retailers to make sure that the brand message, along with how we are displayed and presented, is correct. In addition, to remain relevant will require us to innovate faster and to better utilize research and data to understand the needs of our customers.

What was the “spark” that led you to take action to move toward a horizontal, high-performance culture and organization?

Our business grew rapidly over the past 20 years. During that time, we brought on significant new, younger talent and engaged them in an effort to improve how we do business. They pointed out many of our shortcomings: Decisions were difficult to make; roles and responsibilities were unclear; there was siloed thinking. We had become slow moving and lumbering, and, as a result, frustration had mounted.

What did you do with the feedback?

At first, I did a good deal of self-reflection: What had we, as the leadership team, done to hinder the group of younger talent two or three tiers below the top team? And why hadn’t the leaders of those tiers been more proactive about initiating the needed changes? Clearly, things had to be done differently, beginning with me and the senior leadership team.

What were the two or three biggest needs you saw on your leadership team?

Hierarchical decision making, top-down ways of working, and siloed thinking were at the top of the list. Craig Yokeley, our team’s executive vice president, approached me about a year-and-a half ago, saying that we couldn’t make the needed changes without external assistance. Craig researched consulting firms, leading us to GDS. I recall looking at the GDS website and reading about a small company in which a few executives had always made the critical decisions over lunch. Given their rapid growth, they could no longer do so. That was us!

What were your key business objectives?

We wanted to be nimbler, improve decision-making speed, break down silos, have those closest to the information be more decisive, and improve accountability – the way it had
been at the beginning.

How did you go about meeting those objectives?

One of the things that I liked about GDS was that it was very direct—there was little “B.S.” Howard [Guttman] cautioned that the top team had to first exemplify horizontal, high-performance behaviors before we could change the rest of the organization. Our top leadership team met with GDS in the summer of 2019 and went through its first alignment in October. Back then, we met in person! Since then, we’ve done extensive leadership coaching and leadership-skill building, along with quarterly alignment sessions that allow us to assess progress and ensure that everyone is adapting.

And what have you done to engage those below the top tier?

We’re about to take the change much broader within the organization. For our extended leadership team of about 50 people, we’ve had an alignment session and skills training in
the areas of conflict management and influencing, in order to introduce the core concepts and begin developing the skills needed for this new way of working. Our senior leadership team is communicating about our journey and experiences; we’re seeking to role-model and highlight the new behaviors in action; and we’re coaching the next levels to adopt the same behaviors. To reinforce accountability and other desired behaviors, we’re working with GDS to align our performance system with the high-performance way of working, tying in performance reviews and compensation. It’s an integrated approach.

What are the biggest challenges that you face on your horizontal, high-performance journey?

First is to have everyone understand the benefits of a high-performance team and organization. It’s a different way of working. We must let go of the hierarchical mentality and move to a more distributive approach. This entails being more direct and decisive, having clear objectives, holding one another accountable, and resolving issues rapidly. Ultimately, each person must become CEO of his or her area of responsibility. They must own it—and we need to provide them with the tools to make this happen.

What difference has the high-performance transformation made to you as a leader?

I’ve become clearer and more concise in communicating the vision and strategy of the organization, along with my goals, expectations, and the tactics needed to get there. I’m much more focused and results oriented. I reflect more on how I can improve myself and my team to hasten this HPT journey.

And what about your team?

The team has also become much more focused. We’re pushing ourselves. We’re asking questions such as: What are the goals of our meetings? Are we being productive? Are we putting off decisions? If we need to adjust, what do we need to do, now?

What’s the ROI from your investment in high performance?

We’ve made quicker, better decisions about which products to introduce, which products or businesses to exit or de-emphasize, and how best to manage inventory. We’re asking more incisive questions to identify and then address issues related to the bottom line. We’ve been able to set clear priorities, allowing us to introduce several new products in record time, even during the pandemic. We are breaking down the silo mentality, are more focused, and communicate better across functions.

What have you learned about leading in a virtual environment?

Virtual meetings are more agenda driven, which is a positive, and are in several other ways more challenging than in-person meetings. It’s more difficult to read body language, and you might not grasp voice tone quite as readily. That said, over all I’m very pleased with the outcome. Howard and his team have done an incredible job with our HPT virtual meetings. We’ve learned to make virtual meetings more agenda driven and specific, allowing us to capture several “gems” from the discussions. However, going “off the rails” and off agenda can lead to creative thinking, which happens more easily in face-to-face meetings. Virtual brainstorming needs to be built into virtual team meetings!

Have you changed your leadership behavior in a virtual setting?

I’ve become more communicative with my team during both virtual group sessions and individual, one-hour virtual meetings. And my direct reports are meeting virtually with their entire team once or twice a week, using the high-performance skills that we’ve acquired. I’m also holding regular virtual town halls with the worldwide organization.

What’s been your biggest “aha!” during your high-performance journey?

I wish I had taken the journey much earlier in my career. Learning how to develop a team to deal with tough issues and even breakdowns, without getting personal or sweeping them under the rug, and resolving issues and learning from them, especially in a team setting, are essential leadership skills, now more than ever, given the volatile times in which we live.

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