Andrea Lillo//Executive Editor//September 13, 2019
Bob Gaylord: Advocating Alfresco
“When I came into the business [in the 1970s], only the top one percent of consumers could truly afford quality outdoor furniture.”
Andrea Lillo//Executive Editor//September 13, 2019
When it comes to furniture, the outdoors is where Bob Gaylord, president, Agio USA, has spent his career, which began in the early 1970s manufacturing and selling picnic tables and related products.
In 1977, Gaylord met his future associate, Oliver Wang. In 1989, Wang founded Agio, which manufactured cast aluminum and extruded aluminum outdoor casual furniture in China, and Gaylord started Agio USA to handle the company’s United States, Canada and Mexico business.
Gaylord talked to HFN about the evolution of the outdoor furniture category and why he’s so passionate about it—and the outdoors. A condensed version of this interview appears in HFN’s September 2019 issue.
Q: Agio is a leader in outdoor furniture. What’s your perfect outdoor day or activity?
A: My favorite outdoor activity is golf. In fact I shot my age a few months ago—a surprising 72 on my home course! But, there is a business benefit to playing golf and that is passing by the backyards of hundreds of homes on courses across the country to observe how homeowners are developing their own outdoor spaces. My greatest joy is seeing homes where 30 to 50 percent of the homes have Agio or Apricity furniture in these spaces. That is better than shooting your age.
Q: Many companies fear growing competition, but you welcome it. Why?
A: First, competition is a good thing. It makes everyone in your company continue to strive for better and helps your team stay on top of their game. Secondly, I’ve felt for years that the outdoor furniture category was in its infancy stages and still do. The more players there are in the game, the more the category grows, and the larger the pie becomes.
Q: How has the outdoor furniture category evolved since you first got into the business? Do you see a movement away from outdoor dining sets to conversational seating?
A: When I came into the business, only the top one percent of consumers could truly afford quality outdoor furniture. I had a vision that if we could produce quality furniture at a value, our company could break through that top segment and target an audience that otherwise couldn’t afford a $5,000 set of patio furniture.
Even as late as 15 years ago, the dominant product being sold in 90 percent of the showrooms across America was outdoor dining collections and glass-top dining in particular. Alternative table tops became more of a staple in showrooms because of their durability and the longevity in the consumer’s backyard.
When the recession came along in 2008 it truly transformed the industry. The advent of the ‘staycation’ came into vogue and we saw consumers staying at home rather than traveling. They wanted more than outdoor dining; they craved outdoor entertaining. This extension of the home began to transform the industry. Deep seating collections, outdoor fire, all-weather wicker, comfortable seating and quality fabrics became much more important to consumers. Today, virtually no manufacturer has glass dining in their showroom. Instead, the majority showrooms are primarily deep seating collections and fire pit chat groups.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish you had done differently?
A: I wish I would have recognized the dot-com reality for furniture earlier. I sat in meetings of our sales team and said homeowners would never buy seating furniture without sitting in it first. Boy, was I wrong.
Q: You manufacture most of your product in China – how have you been addressing the tariffs? Will you begin to diversify?
A: If, by diversify, you mean seeking out other countries in which to manufacture, the answer is not at this time. Like most people, I am somewhat surprised that there has not been a meeting of the minds between the U.S. and China to find a way to come to an amicable agreement. I completely understand the president’s reasons for following this path. China still expects to be treated like a third-world country and the trade benefits that go with it.
At the same time China is now the world’ second largest economy and will be the largest in another decade or so. Other U.S. presidents should have addressed this issue with China long ago. However, history has shown that trade wars are a lose-lose proposition. Protectionism was one of the main causes of the Great Depression in the late 1920s with the Smoot-Hartley Act. Hard to say who is going to blink first here. I know the Chinese a lot better than most people including their long-term agenda, which is not to depend on exports to guide their economy. The negative outcomes of the tariffs may serve their long-term goals more than we could have anticipated.
Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment at Agio?
A: First, we helped introduce the concept of portable outdoor gas fire pits, and subsequently the fire pit chat group back in the early 2000s. For the first five years or so, we were one of only a few manufacturers to speak of in this segment. Undoubtedly, Agio USA put the category on the map with our huge customer base. And you asked earlier about competition—we needed competition to help give outdoor gas fire pits legitimacy. We were inventing a category and we needed competition to help create a market. Fifteen years later, outdoor fire pits are a large portion of our business and outdoor fire is the #2 item on consumers’ wish lists for their backyards.
The second is bringing the traditional indoor furniture retailers back to outdoors. I recall sitting at an International Casual Furnishings Association Awards dinner in the late 2000s and reading the [ICFA’s] past Apollo awards winners from 1960 through the early 80s and they were primarily indoor furniture retailers! I couldn’t figure out why our industry wasn’t servicing the furniture retailer. It was a natural fit and a new business segment for the retailers. Over the next few years, we made it our mission to reintroduce the category and put them back in the business of selling the extension of the home. And everyone has benefitted from it—consumers, manufacturers and furniture retailers.
Q: Why did you decide to debut the specialty retailer brand Apricity? What does it bring to the market?
A: You have to remember when we developed the Agio brand back in 1999, we were looking to establish a reputation of delivering quality product at a value. That reputation helped us become what we are today, the largest supplier of outdoor furniture in the world. Fast-forward to today: We felt that we could create a new brand entirely devoted to our specialty retailers and one that appeals to changing demographics—with designs, craftsmanship and new materials. Our product development staff has been working with our design teams to push the bar higher. The Apricity brand will allow our retailers to provide unique designs from other products in the marketplace.
Q: You recently launched your Resysta sustainable material, made from 60 percent rice husks. What was the impetus behind this initiative?
A: This has been a few years in the making. The product itself is not new. In fact, in Europe, it’s used in decking and building siding. We felt that the application to outdoor furniture was both innovative and ideal. The product is sustainable and it opens an entirely new business segment for us. Agio has invested in the infrastructure and manufacturing facilities to produce Resysta products and materials. We debuted collections for the 2020 season in January and we are already manufacturing Resysta-made collections that will be on retailers’ floors this coming season.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t in the home furnishings business?
A: I have been in the seasonal hardliners business since 1970. So long in fact I can’t even imagine another career path. I was recruited into the automotive industry out of college, as were most of my friends in Michigan at that time. That just wasn’t for me, and I could foresee that the path the Detroit automakers were on in the late 60s and early 70s that would see their market share reduced from over 90 percent to less than 60 percent during the next few decades.
Q: What’s your favorite airport? And what’s the best airport for amenities?
A: Airports in the U.S. are one of the biggest infrastructure problems we have in the U.S., along with bridges and roads. There are pockets of improvement in various airports, but we have a long way to go. I spend most of my time in airports and in airline private lounges, which use to be a privilege, but today anyone with an airline credit card can get in the lounges and they are overwhelmed. Delta at JFK and USAir in Charlotte, N.C., have stepped up their game a long way. I think all of us would like to see the outcome of improvements to both Chicago airports since we all use them so much. I guess my favorite would have to be the quaint, homey atmosphere of the Norfolk/Virginia Beach airport because it means I am home.
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