Jerry Grimaud risks changing products and policies based on market trends.
By Sigrid Tornquist
Today’s business challenges are different than they were four years ago,” says Jerry Grimaud, president of Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc. in St. Louis, Mo. “The market is tight, with smaller margins, and as business picks up we have to be ready for whatever lies ahead.” For Grimaud, being ready for “whatever lies ahead” includes tracking market trends, evaluating internal practices and restructuring the company accordingly.
Grimaud’s company currently manufactures awnings and canopies, exhibit components and industrial fabrication, but that has not always been the case. In 1979 when he first joined the company that was then Lawrence Canvas Products, the business was owned by Bob Helmsing, MFC, and manufactured over-the-road truck tarps, upholstery, boat covers and utility tote bags. Helmsing acted as a mentor to Grimaud, and throughout the years the two have guided the company into new market segments.
The first product shift happened as a result of customer demand—and a mistaken expectation. “People would call the company asking for awnings since the name was Lawrence Canvas Products and in the 1980s, awnings were mostly canvas,” Grimaud says. “Bob told me he’d turned down so many phone calls from people asking for awnings, he said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can make them?’” The sewer started to figure out how to make the fabric portion of the awnings and Grimaud figured out how to make the frames, thanks in part to advice from IFAI member companies, who guided them as they learned.
With the addition of awnings to the company’s product line, the operation had room to examine the profit margin of its other products as opposed to awnings. They measured the tent rental, marine and truck tarp product margins against awnings. “At that time awnings for retail shops and restaurants were becoming popular,” Grimaud says. “Competition for the truck tarp market was increasing, we were missing awning deadlines because of tent rental commitments, and we were at a point with marine where we either had to increase production or stop making covers altogether. The bottom line was that we found the profit margin for awnings was better for us at that time so we phased out some of the other products.”
Equipped for growth
The company sold its tent rental portion and used the money to buy an automated cutting table in 2001. “That purchase has impacted the way we manufacture more than any other,” he says. “Although it took almost two years to put it into our daily use, we now rely on the cutting table every day to give us accurate and efficiently cut fabrics. I’ve always felt that updated equipment would pay for itself.”
There is a learning curve, Grimaud admits, and not all employees are initially supportive of changes in production practices. One issue was that it took the sewers some time to trust the accuracy of patterns cut on a machine. Another was the employees’ concerns that the purchase would result in eliminating one of their jobs. “It did eliminate a job function, but not a job,” Grimaud says. “It also took time to figure out which fabrics needed what allowance—what we call cheating—on the machine. It took us a while to learn the intricacies of which way the stretch and warp needed to be reduced for the process to be efficient.” Now, the machine is largely responsible for reduced production times, Grimaud notes, especially when manufacturing recovers or more than three of the same awning.
Central to the company’s past and current success, according to Grimaud, is its involvement with Vistage, a chief executive organization Lawrence has belonged to since 1992. The group of business owners meets monthly to hear a speaker and have a board meeting. “We act as our own board of directors, discussing different issues that are relative to running our companies,” Grimaud says. The group members are able to offer each other business advice based on universal business principles and the group’s collective knowledge gained from experience.
“Vistage helped us arrive at the decisions to phase out some of the products and focus on others,” he says. “And it was one of the speakers that brought my attention to a management style that could stymie a company’s growth—and I recognized it was a part of my management style.” The speaker called the style Grimaud is referring to “the signature attitude,” in which every project has to have the boss’s stamp of approval, or tweaked in some way before it goes out the door. “I realized I did this. I was slowing the process down and in most cases my changes didn’t affect the outcome, quality-wise,” he says. “But time-wise? It was a big problem.” Grimaud says it took a long time to change this about himself, and he’s still working on it at times. “Of course, when you’re first training people it’s necessary to have that level of involvement,” he says. “But after a while it becomes an anchor.”
Risk and growth
Grimaud markets the company’s capabilities to other awning companies and specializes in taking on the risk of manufacturing the larger projects. As someone whose hobbies include off-trail downhill skiing accessed by a helicopter, barefoot water skiing and playing soccer with a team that participates in a national over-55 tournament, it seems taking risks is a matter of course for Grimaud.
Smaller companies often prefer to bid with Lawrence, or through them, rather than pass on the opportunity for work. Lawrence has done more than a dozen $100,000 projects in other cities as a result of this type of partnership. They give the option of having the partner company help on any phase of the project or just pay a finder’s fee if Lawrence is awarded the project directly.
“I like to run a company that manufactures products that not too many companies do,” Grimaud says. “And the great thing? My employees feel the same way.”