http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2012/06/15/a-lasting-investment


Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 15, 2012

A lasting investment

Designed in Palo Alto, made in Indonesia

by Carol Blitzer

Design in Palo Alto. Draw up detailed plans and make prototype in Indonesia. Ship to Palo Alto. Tweak design. Redraw plans. Remake prototype. Reship.

Sometimes it takes four times to get that teak outdoor chair j-u-s-t right, said Bob Grossman, owner of BlueSky Outdoor. After eight years of designing teak furniture, which is manufactured in Indonesia under his eagle eye, he's got a pretty good idea of what sells.

But Grossman, who worked in advertising for 18 years and sold his high-tech company after another four, practically fell into the furniture business.

After building a large house, he needed to furnish it. So, he and a friend ordered a container of furniture online from Indonesia — far more than either needed, but the least expensive way to fill a new house with goods. They figured they'd sell the extras, he said.

And so they did — in three weeks.

Maybe he could do this as a side business, he said.

This time he ordered two containers of furniture and rented an empty warehouse near Fry's in Palo Alto for three months.

"It sold really fast," he added.

But the furniture he was importing wasn't quite up to the standard he'd like. "I got real serious and went back to Indonesia, hired a CAD (computer-assisted drawing) draftsman and a quality-control person," he said.

Grossman wanted to have them manufactured by a top-tier fabricator, who would use only kiln-dried wood from older trees (like pre-shrunk jeans, he said) and precise machine cuts. He soon learned that he couldn't order a container with a mix of styles, but was required to order huge quantities — say 100 chairs or dozens of tables — of the same items.

Oddly, to have a table made by hand is less expensive in Indonesia, but the wood is not as consistent and the quality is spotty, he said. Some of the smaller fabricators actually stole the wood, he added.

At first, he'd find pictures of furniture that he liked and he'd modify them; he compared it to fashion design where one takes a sleeve from one designer coupled with the hemline of another.

A typical chair design has 28 pages of specifications, with a list of components and exact dimensions. "It's 100 percent machine-made. It's exactly right," Grossman said.

Today he sells the teak furniture through www.RegencyTeak.com and www.BlueSky-Outdoor.com, as well as his warehouse-like retail space in Palo Alto. Still, the bulk of his customers are in the Bay Area, including commercial clients such as Stanford University, Mountain Winery, local law firms and the Los Altos Hills Country Club. Recently, he designed a chair for the country club and liked it so much he added it to his line of products.

Because outdoor furniture is a seasonal business, Grossman decided to expand to include ski and snowboard apparel in winter, changing the name of The Teak Patio to BlueSky Outdoor. Last season he cleared the front of the store for winter clothing, while keeping the outdoor furniture in the back. In April, he retired the clothing for the summer season.

Grossman also sells items he doesn't manufacture, mainly things that complement what he does, now along with Jessica Tillson, who joined the firm as a designer and assistant manager two years ago. BlueSky carries umbrellas by Treasure Garden as well as the higher-end Tuuci line, which at $1,400 is meant more for restaurants and resorts.

He also carries cushions, which are manufactured to fit his chairs, and he distributes Semco, a sealer that he recommends for the teak furniture.

Grossman sees his main competitors as Restoration Hardware, which manufactures its own line, and Pool, Patios and Things, which carries national brands. He can keep his quality high and prices affordable by cutting out the middleman, he said. "We're the Smith and Hawken business model without the real estate (which ultimately did them in)," he added.

A typical dining table can run $599 to $1,999, and chairs begin at about $375.

As for the product itself, Grossman says that teak furniture can last 50 to 100 years. "They make sailboats out of teak," he laughed. The high oil content of the wood pushes out the moisture and repels insects, he added. "If made properly, it'll last forever."

Not every design is a raging success, he admitted, but a good 85 percent of the line is "stable." That means he and Tillson design about 15 percent new items each year. He points to his "easy-open system," a large table with a butterfly-leaf insert; he's in the process of applying for a patent for that.

When asked how his little "side business" compares to working in advertising or high-tech, Grossman said the processes aren't so very different. "When I worked in high-tech, my job was to manage the development process of engineers, who were very creative" and quite "similar to managing creative people in an ad agency," he said.

But the biggest contrast is, "We're a small business and we do it all. Between the two of us we wear many hats," he said, noting that he really likes the design process. "Before I was more developing strategy. Here we do that plus design."

And he gets to go to Indonesia twice a year.

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Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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