Bradenton entrepreneur David Peace's life was in tatters in the early 1990s.
His business, an outdoor furniture firm, had collapsed. He was in debt. He was so physically sick over the stress he was briefly hospitalized. Then, just when things hit bottom, a friend offered him a $2,000 loan to start over.
The loan was a lifesaver.
It was the early seeds of what's now Manatee County-based Windward Design Group, a $10 million outdoor furniture manufacturer that's an anomaly in the industry in at least two ways: Its revenues are growing, 15% to 25% a year since 2008, and nearly every part, bolt and wedge on its products are made in America. Most competitors, meanwhile, have struggled to survive the recession or outsource production overseas, or both.
Windward, though, will likely surpass $12 million in sales in 2013, executives say. The firm also nearly doubled its physical space recently, when it leased a 41,000-square-foot facility just off U.S. 301 in Manatee County, a few miles from its other complex.
A former medical parts plant, the second facility will be the central production area for Windward's new lines of marine-grade polymer and high-end wicker furniture. Peace says he's spent well into the six figures on equipment and materials to outfit the new factory. One automated polymer-cutting machine, for instance, cost $60,000.
“Our business has remained steady,” says Peace. “The (new lines) are pretty pricey, but they are selling really well.”
Windward has about 110 employees, including 25 hired over the past few months to prepare for busy season, which, in outdoor furniture, goes from January to May. The company manufactures and sells 34 furniture lines, which include everything from chaise lounge chairs to sandstone tables to aluminum pole umbrellas. It also has a replacement cushion division, with hundreds of fabrics.
The firm's clients, spread nationwide, are mainly specialty retailers and independent furniture stores and chains. It also sells furniture directly to hospitality and commercial clients. Peace says one of Windward's biggest clients in Florida is Leader's Casual Furniture, with 19 locations statewide.
Success and growth like this is a long way from the desperation Peace faced 20 years ago. Yet Peace, 58, says he refused to give up hope. “I never even graduated high school,” Peace says, “but I have never been afraid of hard work.”
Peace has been in the outdoor furniture industry since he was 18, when he worked for Tropitone in Bradenton. Windward was born in his backyard, when he re-strapped furniture for condo complexes and hotels on the Gulf Coast.
Peace was the only employee for a few years. When more work came in, he moved the business to a 12-by-24-foot storage unit. He bought more tools, including a drill press, a welder and a chop saw. He eventually hired a few employees.
The employees today include Peace's daughter Carrie Morales, an executive vice president who runs anything at the company that doesn't have to do with production. Peace's son, Danny Peace, is the assistant plant manager, and his son-in-law, Marc Morales, runs sales.
The company's success, says Carrie Morales, stems from two main factors: The nimble ability to fulfill custom orders for a variety of clients, and the fact that at least 98% of the materials and products it uses are American-made. Some wicker is bought overseas, mostly because the specific kind the company seeks isn't made domestically. The patriotic theme resonates with clients, says Morales, which tend to also be family businesses. Says Morales: “You can't beat the made in the U.S. story.”
Still, Morales and Peace say the U.S. story in terms of the uncertainties in looming taxes and health care costs is Windward's biggest worry — by far. Those fears, certainly, are on the minds of many fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners. “Every day,” says Peace, “we are dealing with not knowing what's going to happen.”