For Patrick Howe and Wholesale Shade, high-quality custom shade sails are the product of a happy and efficient workplace.
by Jill C. Lafferty
My day consists of making sure my employees are happy. That’s my number one job,” says Patrick Howe, owner of Wholesale Shade™, a private label shade sail manufacturer based in San Marcos, Calif. “Years ago I read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, where he talks about how he started Zappos. It reminded me of the owner of a tent company that I was fired from who ran his company in a completely opposite way. The owner told me once, ‘When you own your own company, you can do things however you want. Until then, do what I tell you.’ That stuck with me, and after I read the book I thought, ‘This is how I want to run my company.’ Happy people like coming to work, like the people they work with, and do a great job for the customer.”
At Wholesale Shade, cultivating happiness takes on many forms, from traditional activities, such as celebrating birthdays, to “Funday Fridays,” when a team bonding activity idea is pulled out of a jar. The activities, suggested by the company’s 11 employees, may take up five minutes to an hour and are posted on Instagram.
Crazy sock day aside, the most important step Howe takes in nurturing a happy workplace is to include employees in the successes and failures of the business.
“They know when we have a record month as well as when we drop the ball on a job,” he says. “I believe that the highest level of employee happiness comes from knowing that the job you do is important, that your opinion counts and you are included in the decision-making of the company.”
‘Those triangle things’
Howe was introduced to commercial sewing, RF welding, government contracts and the day-to-day challenges of running a specialty fabrics business while working for a tent company in Phoenix, Ariz., in the late 1990s. Until, that is, he was fired—“One of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. After the shock wore off, he decided that he could run a business himself, so he got a contractor’s license and established a traditional awning company.
“Then more and more people asked for shade sails,” he says. “‘Those triangle things.’ That’s exactly what they would ask for. They’d point to a mall or somewhere they’d seen them and say, ‘I want those.’ So I transitioned from traditional awnings into shade sails, and I taught myself how to do it.”
Howe used a family move to California as an opportunity to reinvent his business, renting a small shop with just himself and a sewing machine. “There was a void in the market for making shade sails,” he says. “There were plenty of contractors installing them, but not a factory making private label shade sails for contractors.”
As the business grew and Howe added employees, an early turning point in developing the company culture he desired came when two sewers weren’t getting along. One employee was highly skilled but difficult to work with, while the other was new to sewing but had a great attitude. With only four employees at the time, the company was struggling with a toxic atmosphere. When an attempt to work out their differences failed, the skilled sewer offered a “him or me” ultimatum.
“I knew if I let him walk out that I would be on a sewing machine myself for 10 to 12 hours a day plus everything else required to keep a business running for at least three months until I could replace him,” Howe says. “If I let the guy with the great attitude walk out, I wouldn’t have to work as hard, but I’d be stuck with a company culture that I didn’t want. Ultimately, I chose company culture, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. The guy with the great attitude is still with me and runs the production side of the business.”
More recently, everyone the company has hired has come on board with sewing experience—often via employee referrals. Skilled people want to work at Wholesale Shade, which is one of the biggest benefits of a happy culture, he says.
“All of our sewers are better than I ever was, my sales manager is a better salesman than I’ll ever be, and our office staff is both creative and detail oriented, also better than I’ll ever be,” Howe says. “I’m just the happiness glue that holds these high performers together.”
A recent addition of a cutting machine has helped Wholesale Shade get its average lead time down to about three days, Howe says. To ensure that the equipment was fully adopted, Howe offered his production manager a bonus for getting the machine into the production process within six months, with the manager and two operators fully trained on it.
“He was incentivized to really dig in, because any new piece of equipment takes time,” Howe says. “You have to have some repetition, make some mistakes, learn from them and move on. Nothing ever works right out of the gate. By getting him 100 percent invested through this bonus, he brought it online, on time, with the extra operators.”
With a strong team and production process in place, the company’s biggest challenge today is increasing sales. One of the best pieces of sales advice Howe has received came from another business owner in a peer group he attended in the business’s early days. One of her sales strategies was that if she was turned down for a sale, she would make a note to call that company in six months.
“She often found that there was a new person in the position that was more receptive and would make the sale,” he says. “This strategy helps me when I run into a dead end with a potentially high-value client. I realize that I may have better luck at a later date and set a reminder for six months.”
Compared to traditional shade options such as awnings and pergolas, the market for shade sails in the U.S. is newer and wide open, Howe says, with plenty of opportunities for new fabricators interested in getting into the business. He’s not afraid of inexpensive, imported shade sails that can be had at big box stores—they are a different product, he says, and they get people to try out shade sails and help the industry grow.
“There seems to be a new or improved shade cloth out every year, which keeps things fresh, and the technological support in the way of visualization software has never been better,” Howe says. “One of the first obstacles to selling a shade sail is getting your customer to understand what it will look like. You no longer need to be a CAD expert—there are several easy-to-use software programs that will make you look like a pro as well as services popping up that will do it for you.”
In 2018, Howe and his team launched their own major contribution to the industry in Shade Sail University—a free book and website two years in the making.
“Our goal with Shade Sail University is to make the best practices of the shade sail business available to everyone, which will in turn get more people into the business,” he says. “They will have a baseline of knowledge, giving them a better chance of success, which will contribute to building the reputation of the shade sail trade.”
While the book is handy to have in a truck or on a salesperson’s desk, he expects the online video content to be what users find most beneficial. Two chapters have been featured in campfire sessions at IFAI Expo.
“Ten years from now I’d like to be taking a random shop tour and see a well-used, dog-eared copy sitting around,” he says. “That’s when I’ll know for sure we’ve created something of lasting value.”
Jill C. Lafferty is associate editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and senior editor of InTents.
SIDEBAR: How has IFAI helped you in your business?
IFAI helped give my new sales manager, Gregg Burrows, a crash course in the fabric industry. Gregg had only been on the job two weeks before IFAI Expo 2015. He was an experienced salesman but was brand new to shade sails and the fabric industry. After three days of meeting with folks at our booth, asking and answering questions and never losing his smile, he came away with more industry knowledge and contacts than I could have taught him in an entire year. I don’t know how you put a price on that.
Shade for shelter dogs
The fabricators at Wholesale Shade™ take pride in every project, but some jobs stand out as professional highlights. One such project happened when the company was asked to be part of an episode of The Fixers, a reality TV show that features a team of contractors who use their skills to benefit people and communities in need. In this episode, The Fixers team remodeled the headquarters of Shelter to Soldier™, a nonprofit organization that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to be service animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “They asked us to cover a dog training yard within a very short time frame,” says Patrick Howe, owner of Wholesale Shade. “It was like a perfect storm of positivity.” With a dedicated team that worked through the night, Wholesale Shade manufactured and installed a shade canopy, using a new cutting machine to put the “Shelter to Soldier” logo on a shade sail. For this same project, Sattler Shade donated 118 yards of Marine Blue 745 Evolution awning fabric, enough to cover six outdoor areas. “We delivered in time for the graduation ceremony of a veteran and his dog to be held under the canopy,” Howe says. “This is one of the proudest moments of my life.”