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Hendee finds new market opportunities

Awnings & Canopies, Features, Management, Perspective | March 1, 2009 | By:

Demand and supply: Chuck Hendee creates products to meet customer needs.

“In general, I don’t think we’ve ever developed a product—or spent any money to develop one—where there wasn’t an existing demand,” says Chuck Hendee, IFM, MFC, president of Hendee Enterprises Inc. “We respond to needs or inquiries that become obvious in the marketplace and then we work on developing a solution.” This demand-supply philosophy is a cornerstone of Hendee Enterprises, which provides fabric solutions for sun, wind and rain protection for commercial and residential clients in Houston, Texas.

Imagining a solution

In 1965, Hendee’s father began the company as a factory representative firm selling secondary packaging to the chemical industry. Chuck Hendee joined the business in 1969 after returning from a tour in the Navy as a communications technician. Now the company’s “bread and butter” is specialty fabrics, a transition brought about by chance in 1970. The company was selling sheets of film to a rail car customer concerned about losing the film sheets in the wind.

Hendee’s company developed a fabric product that attached to the rim of the opening—a solution that also opened the door to a new industry and new challenges. Not only did this innovation catapult the company into the specialty fabrics industry, but it also necessitated a move from brokering existing products to imagining new ones and then fabricating them.

For Hendee, the ideas for solutions come rather naturally—he perceives needs and automatically starts thinking about ways to meet those needs. From the start, the realization of those solutions has meant incorporating help from outside sources.

Making it happen

That first foray into the specialty fabrics industry brought the most obvious needs to the forefront. “We didn’t have any sewing knowledge or any background whatsoever,” Hendee says. “So we went to a local sewing factory that was making a women’s clothing line. Ultimately, we contracted to women who were in production sewing shops during the day who would do work [at home] nights and weekends.” When the company reached a sustainable volume of business, Hendee purchased sewing machines and hired full-time employees.

Creating reality from imagination now demands a more complex association of peers. The company, which holds several patents for its innovations, often enlists existing entities to bring products to fruition—as it did two years ago with the development of a product called Easy Slide. When Hendee envisioned producing the tensioning device to fit inside of a rafter for the purpose of easily tensioning and removing the fabric from the structure, he assembled a team of in-house experts as well as an outside vendor and fabrication shop. “We had some concept of what we wanted to do and we came up with some ideas but we didn’t have all the pieces, so we used an outside fabrication shop that does machine work,” he says. “It was a small group that really developed the design, but a bigger team had to look at it and refine it to where it was actually a viable product to meet the market needs.”

The result of their efforts was a patented device that enables customers to easily tension and remove the fabric from a shade structure at times when snow load or wind load is going to exceed design limits—an especially useful element in cold climates and hurricane-prone areas. “There is a building code in Florida that allows for that type of structure to be designed to meet 90-mile-an-hour winds if the cover can be removed easily and 150-mile-an-hour winds if it can’t,” Hendee says. “This product helps the structure meet the code requirements without needing a really heavy, expensive structure.”

And though the device was designed with a particular client in mind, it has the kind of broad marketing applications that Hendee looks for when envisioning a new product. “The demand is ongoing and increasing,” he says. “Especially as more code officials either allow for fabric to be removed in their engineering requirements or just the customers’ desire to be able to protect their fabric tops.”

Sharing information

Enlisting help from outside the company isn’t limited to specific product development, however. Hendee is grateful to industry associations and mentors who have helped him along the way. “I have learned a tremendous amount from old-timers and peers in this industry,” he says. “We always learn from our peers.”

The first and most influential mentor for Hendee was his father, who believed that we can all achieve success if we follow simple truths. “One of my dad’s philosophies—find a need and fill it—led to development of niche products to meet customer needs that could be sold to others with similar needs,” Hendee says. His father used to take the then 10-year-old Hendee with him to call on customers during summers. In a time when there weren’t so many safety restrictions, Hendee was exposed to the inner workings of manufacturing companies from bakeries to breweries, to canning plants and refineries.

One thing that stuck with him about those visits was seeing production happen—and, in particular, automation. “I’m no engineer, but I learned some things about seeing and understanding how things operate,” he says. “There’s a synergy within the universe that somehow the things that are needed are somehow provided. That means there are lots of opportunities to provide something that someone needs, and that someone will provide what you need.”

Imagine that.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

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