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Features, Management, Perspective | February 1, 2015 | By:

Vern Schaefer is what is known as an “early adopter,” trying new equipment as soon as it’s available. As he transitions company leadership to his daughter, he’s still setting trends.

“I don’t believe in being locked into one way of doing things,” says Vernon Schaefer, MFC, CEO of Glawe Awnings & Tents, Fairborn, Ohio. “If we find a better way to do something, I’m all for it. Sometimes that means embracing a new technology, and sometimes it means making a simple change in how we organize things. There’s always something new to consider.”

Vern, who served as president of IFAI in 1980-81 (then known as the Canvas Products Association International), has been working in the awning and tent industry since 1945, and continues to look for new ways to improve the industry and his company. Although over the past several years he’s been phasing himself out of the everyday operations of Glawe Awnings & Tents, and has turned that responsibility over to his daughter, Kathy Schaefer, he has approached the process with the same thoughtful and forward-thinking manner he used when he was at the helm.

From Commodores
to clearspans

Embracing the latest technologies is something Vern has always been eager to do. Take, for example, the Commodore PET computer released in 1977. Vern was among the first to buy one for his company. And when RF welding first became available to the tent and awning industry Vern began checking into buying one. “I really wanted one of those—bad,” Vern says. “I talked to the sales guy from Kabar for a couple of years before I made the decision to buy. Then, one day—I don’t know how they found out about it—a couple of guys in uniform from nearby Wright Patterson Air Force Base walked into the office and told me I could only buy an RF welder if I built a wire room to house it. I guess the radio waves would have interfered with the base. The room would have cost more to build than buying the welder so we didn’t do it at that time.” Two years later the RF welding technology improved and Vern was able to buy one without having to build a protective environment for it.

Glawe was also the first company in the U.S. to own a clearspan tent as a part of its rental inventory. In 1983, IFAI’s Tent Rental Division had its Tent Expo in Clearwater, Fla., and the Germany-based Hoecker® tent manufacturer brought a clearspan tent to the event. The attendees, including Vern, installed it as a part of a demonstration. “They brought in AC and we held all our meetings in the tent,” Vern says. “Hoecker didn’t want to ship it back so it went up for sale to the attendees, and I jumped on the opportunity and bought it. It became a real money-maker for us.”

Value judgments

Vern asks himself three questions before he makes a major investment in new equipment: Can we afford it? Will the employees use the new equipment if we get it? Can we work it into the system without too many bumps and bruises?

“Before you make a significant purchase you have to start laying the groundwork with the employees,” Vern says. “They’re the ones who are going to be using it, and if they’re not comfortable with it, it’s not going to work.”

The way you do that, Vern says, is by including employees in the decision-making process from the start. He advises talking about the equipment you’re interested in as soon as you decide it’s worth considering; making sure the employees understand exactly what the equipment looks like and how it functions; showing them companies who have tried it, what the problems were with it and how they think those problems might be overcome. Then he asks their opinion on which model they think would be best for Glawe. “We usually just have ongoing, general conversations about these kinds of things,” he says. “Including the whole company in the process goes along with my philosophy of transparency. I think the employees should be involved in decisions that are going to affect them.”

Vern expects that all new equipment will come with some problems that will need to be worked out and doesn’t let that hold him back from purchasing new technologies. “We don’t wait for something to be perfected to start using it,” he says. “If it will help us, we’ll use it.”

Passing the torch

That mindset of looking for and being open to purchasing new equipment has—not surprisingly—become a part of the company culture. As Vern transitions leadership to Kathy, she too is willing to take calculated risks to benefit the company. Two recent investments include purchasing a tent washer and a GPS system for the trucks. Kathy says the tent washer prolongs tent life and saves labor, which translates into a quick ROI. “My parents loaned the company money to purchase the tent washer so we could take advantage of off-season pricing,” Kathy says. “My dad saw the value immediately when I approached him.”

The GPS for the company’s work trucks allows Kathy and Vern to see in real time exactly where the trucks are and access historical information, as well as driving data on how the truck is being operated. “It’s relatively new, yet inexpensive, technology that I’m sure will save us in gas, labor and service response time,” Kathy says. “I think this is the best investment we’ve made in years.” Vern also points out that having GPS in the trucks improves the company’s potential response time in case of bad weather or some other type of emergency.

Approximately six months ago, Vern turned the total operation over to Kathy, and he goes into the office about once a week—unless there’s a particular project or problem Kathy wants his help with. The transition, however, began a few years ago and was a gradual process. “After I was sure Kathy really wanted to run the business I had her work—and I mean w-o-r-k—in every section so she understood how everything operated,” Vern says. “Then I slowly put her in a leadership position, giving her more and more responsibility.”

The real test, Vern says, came with providing tenting for the Dayton Air Show, which Glawe has done for several years. The company installs between 100 and 150 tents for the show, and it is Glawe’s largest ongoing tent client. Kathy started by taking over portions of the project and eventually worked her way into managing the whole enterprise, including negotiating, placing orders and writing contracts. “It was the one thing I was most worried about because it’s a sizeable operation and a sizeable piece
of our sales,” Vern says. “It’s also a challenge because, of course, the show is a business and some of the reps aren’t easy to work with—but Kathy handled it like a champ. And now that the company is hers, I don’t want to be looking over
her shoulder.”

Although he’s not looking over Kathy’s shoulder, Vern is still available to help out when needed and is still invested in the business and the specialty fabrics industry. He (and his wife, Freddy, and Kathy) attended IFAI Expo this past October—as he has almost every year since he joined in 1965. “Glawe was started in 1877, and in that 130+ years there have only been four owners of the company,” he says. “You get so deeply involved that the business becomes a
part of you and you don’t want to see
it end. It’s a heritage that you want to
see continued.”

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