“A lot of what I’ve accomplished in this industry was about survival—being able to have what I need to get the job done,” says Mike Reilly, owner and CEO of Miami Awning Co. in Miami, Fla. “Now, my aim is to convey what knowledge I can to my sons to make it easier for them as they take over.”
Miami Awning was launched in the 1920s by Mike’s great-grandmother under the name Miami Beach Awning Co.—a time before air conditioning cooled buildings, and home and business owners relied on awnings to provide respite from the extreme Florida heat. Housed in the iconic original post office of Miami Beach, the company focused on manufacturing residential and commercial awnings for the area. Over the years the company has relocated twice to larger and more convenient locations within Miami, and has earned a reputation for leadership in awning production in the Southeastern United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Bring on the family
Mike’s full-time involvement in the family business began in 1979, after graduating from college with a degree in economics, followed by eight years in the Florida Keys. The last two years in the Keys he captained a fishing boat and specialized in pursuing the elusive permit fish that inhabits the South Florida flats—a practice in tenacity and finesse that he later used pursuing the also-elusive building permit. “My father by that time was a little fed up with the work ethic of some of his employees, so he brought on more family members,” Mike says. “And I was ready to do something with more purpose.”
Changes Mike helped his father make when he came on board included investing in better installation equipment, heat-sealing machines and trucks. The company also transferred from using fitted frames to welding their own frames in-house. “Fitted frames are still being used today and there’s nothing wrong with them, but there’s a strength factor that comes with welding our own frames,” Mike says. “And that differentiated us from other companies.”
Prepared for the worst
Although full-blown hurricanes don’t hit Miami on a regular basis, they are a constant threat—and have an impact on the awning industry whether they happen or not. Hurricane David coincided with Mike’s return to Miami in ’79, and although it didn’t hit Miami directly, “It screwed up a lot of businesses,” he says.
When Hurricane Andrew landed in Miami in ’92, it was devastating to structures—and also to businesses affected by building codes. “That was a category 5 storm and after it hit, the building officials went berserk. They put a lot of industries out of business—and rightly so,” Mike says. “Many common building practices were exposed as phony, either because building codes were being easily ignored or because the codes were not comprehensive or adequate.”
Local awning companies, including Miami Awning, were already organized and involved in updating building codes to take fabric awnings into account. The timing of Andrew’s destruction galvanized them further to push for codes that were both safe for the public and reasonable for their industry. “Because the fabric is removable, awnings don’t have to take the full wind load,” Mike says. “As a group we were eventually able to change the South Florida Building Code and later the Florida Building Code to include some leeway for fabric awnings.”
Merging entities, preserving identity
In 2003, Miami Awning purchased Thomas Awnings, another Miami-based awning company that had been in business since the 1920s. Thomas Awnings was a major competitor, but Mike and his team respected the company and the quality of its products. Many of the employees transitioned to Miami Awning, as did the owners, who stayed for seven years. “It can be difficult to bring your biggest competitor into your company—but it doesn’t have to be negative,” Mike says. “It was a great group of people and we worked well together. But both Miami Awning and Thomas Awnings wanted to retain their identities, so we kept their name under ours for 15 years.”
Mike’s sons Joe and Dan have also become leaders in the company. Both worked summers in the business growing up. Joe joined the team full-time in 2009 after earning a business degree and spending several months in a study abroad program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He worked for a while at Miami Awning before returning to school to earn an International MBA. “Having been a part of a family business, I had exposure to and a passionate interest in every facet of running a business without having been formally involved in all of it,” Joe says. “It seemed to offer me a noticeable advantage over my MBA peers in finding the curriculum relatable and interesting.”
Dan came on board in 2010 after graduating with a degree in molecular biology, a field he was passionate about at the time—but the lure of working in the family business, designing and building structures, ultimately won out. “Joe and I spent a lot of time when we were kids doing 3-D puzzles and making structures and contraptions out of whatever we could find,” he says. “I’ve always had a sense of pride in making things, and as I got older I realized how valuable it was to have access to a career where I could be involved in designing and erecting structures.”
Mike, Joe and Dan all bring different strengths to the table, but they share a devotion to the industry and to manufacturing innovative high-quality structures. “I have the experience of having been at this for a long time,” Mike says. “And my whole thing is trying to avoid mistakes—because in the custom-made awning industry there are hundreds of ways to make a mistake. I try to set up systems and methods of how to approach a job, and no matter what happens, not to panic. I keep moving forward, no matter what.”
Dan has the ability to see possible pitfalls of a project right from the beginning. “Yeah, my ability to panic is my strength,” he jokes. “But seriously, I have a knack for seeing what might be difficult, and if I don’t anticipate solutions I can at least sound the alarm and get the team on it.”
Joe identifies his strength as looking at new ways of doing things and how to use new products. “I like being creative, and maybe that’s not always a good thing, but because of the strengths of my brother and father I feel more confident being creative,” he says. “I might have 50 creative solutions for something and I know Dan can discern what the potential problems might be with each of them. And our father’s commitment to uncompromising quality and integrity as an organization set the bar. Together we arrive at novel solutions.”
As Joe and Dan gain more experience, they take on more leadership, and Mike continues to guide the process. “For Joe and Dan to be involved and taking on more of the load is a good thing,” Mike says. “They have the right state of mind, aren’t afraid to take on the work—and they do a good job.”
Up on the roof
The Reilly family doesn’t shy away from a challenge—so when a client wanted a rooftop structure for a penthouse condo on Miami’s South Beach, they turned to Miami Awning to make it happen. On the ninth floor, adjacent to the client’s pool, Miami Awning designed and constructed a structure with a retracting fabric canopy and an adjustable louver system over the outdoor kitchen and seating area. Thanks to limited access because of the beach, association and permitting challenges, and coordination with the interests of the neighbors in the condominium, the project took a year and a half to complete.
After the project was initially finished, members of the condo association decided they didn’t like the latest iteration and made Miami Awning take the structure down to change all of the beams. “We spent a year going back and forth addressing The City of Miami Beach’s interests in the structure’s profile view from out on the beach, but in the end it was the condo association that called for an even smaller profile structure,” Dan says. “It was an incredible amount of work, but at a certain point in the process I adopted it as my baby because I wanted to see what it looked like at the end of the day. That just goes along with the way we do things here.”
What is your approach to taking on leadership in the family business?
It’s a lot easier to get things done when you are all like-minded and committed to the projects. Projects that you’re not only willing to stand behind, but you’re proud of. That’s how we operate—we’re going to be proud of what we do, and therefore the customer will appreciate the result. My goal is to continue taking this company into the future, to further streamline these custom flexible solutions we’re continuing to provide for people. I want to continue to do what we’ve been doing—to do more of it, and to do it even better.
What have you learned about this industry as you’ve taken on more responsibility?
What I’ve noticed as a millennial is that sometimes we can be impatient. We want to know why things are done a certain way and we want to know it now. We want to be able to “Google” how everything works in the awning business. But I’ve come to respect that sometimes the answers don’t come right away and I’ll have to pay my dues first to download that wisdom. Learning to be patient while learning why we do things a certain way has allowed me to help others in my generation navigate in this industry.