Solutions in motion

“Make your customers remember you. Make them laugh—but don’t be a salesman,” says Andy Moon, CEO of Baraboo Tent & Awning, Baraboo, Wis. “It’s your presence that makes an impression. Be a problem solver and help your customers out.” Moon grew up in and around the custom awning, canopy and marine business, in a company that now also manufactures umbrellas and digital signage, and has a tent and party rental division. In 1982 his parents became sole owners, and Moon began full time in ’97, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater with a teaching degree. “Although I had worked at Baraboo Tent & Awning since I was 12 (I started out cutting webbing straps for boat covers), I didn’t decide to join the business full time until after graduation,” Moon says. “So I’ve got this degree [I don’t use] … but it’s not so much what you study; it’s how you learn to deal with people.”

A significant sales call

The “kill ‘em with kindness” approach to customer service, as Moon calls it, is a hallmark of the business, one that Moon watched his father employ as he worked with clients throughout the years. One client has not only ended up providing a significant amount of ongoing business for the company, but has also acted as a catalyst and launching pad for what has become a growing niche for Baraboo Tent & Awning—its Durabrellas, durable umbrellas for outdoor seating.

In 1984 when Moon’s father made that first sales call to the client in Sauk City, Wis., his expectations were low. The client was just starting out in business and was planning to open a fast food restaurant in an old A & W drive-in, though he had decided against paying the franchise fee and wanted to create his own brand. “My dad didn’t think it was going to be very profitable but he got back to the client right away and went out of his way to give the customer what he needed,” Moon says. “That was the first Culver’s restaurant, and now there are more than 500, for which we provided awnings, and now umbrellas.”

Awning on a stick

Although the continuing awning business Culver’s has provided has been important for Baraboo Tent & Awning, it was the opportunity to expand its umbrella product line that has really enhanced the business. “When the recession hit we were relying on business from two main clients—and one of them in particular was really hit hard,” Moon says. “They went from being our biggest customer to providing no sales at all. We had to find a way to replace that revenue, so we worked on expanding the umbrella product line.”

Moon and the Baraboo Tent & Awning team first developed the Durabrella umbrella in the late ’90s when Culver’s asked them to make a fabric umbrella to fit in the restaurant’s outdoor tables that could stay up all the time. Manufactured with a sturdy steel pole, aluminum frame and covered in Sunbrella® fabric, the Durabrella has gained popularity with multiple clients due to its durability. “I compare it to an awning on a stick,” Moon says. “The umbrella is up all the time. You don’t have to take it down during wind storms.”

A mighty wind

The Durabrellas for Culver’s are attached to 1,000-pound concrete tables and have withstood tornadoes without sustaining damage. “We’ve had tornadoes lift up the table and set it back down and it didn’t faze the umbrella,” Moon says. Interested in discovering exactly how much wind the combination could withstand, Baraboo Tent & Awning conducted wind testing on them last summer, using a car testing facility. Again, the umbrella wasn’t damaged. “At this point I don’t want to say exactly what the wind speeds were that it withstood, but we were very pleased with the results,” he says. “We’re in the process of finding another wind tunnel with greater wind capacity so we can fully test it.”

Moon met the table manufacturer—Wausau Tile, Wausau, Wis.—several years ago at a Culver’s conference where Baraboo Tent & Awning and Wausau Tile teamed up to provide the table/umbrella pairing to other clients. For several years now the Durabrella has been featured in Wausau Tile’s catalog. “We’ve also had other franchises contact us for work after seeing our label on the umbrella,” Moon says. “Though we haven’t made umbrellas for all of them, we’ve done work for McDonalds, Dairy Queen, Jack-in-the-Box and several other franchises that can have high-wind issues. The Durabrella has become a niche product line that is one of our best sellers right now.

Technology updgrades

Part of Moon’s and Baraboo Tent & Awning’s strategy to solve problems for customers and exceed their expectations is to keep up with the latest technology, equipment and software. “We’re always looking to add equipment and technology that help us do things faster,” Moon says. “That’s one of the ways we’ve been differentiating ourselves from the competition.” Included in the technology the company uses are a graphics system, 3-D measuring tool, design and flattening software and a cutting machine, among others. Most recently the company added 3-D autoCAD software for frame drawings. “We’ve been using autoCAD for almost 15 years, and we keep upgrading as things get better,” he says.

Currently, Moon is looking to update the company’s business management software that could provide key indicators in real time—to track data such as inventory, production, job costing, time and attendance. “I don’t know of any software out there right now that commercially markets to awning companies, though I expect it will be available eventually,” Moon says. “But for now we’re looking at some systems other awning manufacturers have adapted for use.”

Making use of technological advances and manufacturing quality products comes back to focusing on the customer. “How you work with the customer can ultimately be the deciding factor of whether or not you get the job,” Moon says. “You’ve got to be a problem solver for them.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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