“Every time the phone rings we have a new opportunity to see how we can help somebody,” says Jerry Margrave, MFC, owner of Specialty Trim & Awning Inc., Bakersfield, Calif. “That’s the way we look at it—we’re helping people solve a problem, whether it be sun coming in a window, the need for covered patio seating for a restaurant, or how to wash industrial equipment without blowing out the electronics.”
Margrave’s introduction to the specialty fabrics industry came in 1968 when he was in high school and swept floors at the shop after school. When he got the opportunity to sit behind a sewing machine, he knew he’d found his career path. He worked his way up through the company and purchased it, with his wife Debbie, in 1979. Jerry was in charge of production, design and sewing while Debbie managed reception, billing and scheduling. “I loved sewing,” he says. “And although I don’t get to do much of it anymore, I still love it. When I come home at the end of the day after I’ve had a chance to sit behind a sewing machine, Debbie can always tell. I have a different aura about me on those days.”
After years of honing his awning skills, Margrave recognized the potential for growth of his awning business and turned more of his focus to advertising and selling. “As I gained knowledge and experience I became very confident in the quality of the products I sold, and because of that sales became easier,” he says. “Whenever you go out with confidence it’s much easier to sell.”
Margrave soon secured commercial awning contracts that expanded the business from a staff of two employees to as many as 20 in the mid-1980s. “We were doing a lot of work for a chain restaurant at the time and running two shifts in our little shop—and it was tough,” he says. “I was working 16-hour days and it seemed like all I did was hustle after guys to make sure they were doing the job properly, and that got really old.”
Room for growth
He ratcheted back the number of staff to five or six and ran the business with that number until 2001 when Specialty Trim & Awning underwent a major expansion. The Margraves doubled its square footage to 10,000 by purchasing the property next door, and doubled the number of staff as well. Now, with a staff of 11 people who run only one shift, Margrave says the business is more in line with the size he wants it to be. “It gives us enough people in every department to run it efficiently, but not so many that supervision is a problem,” he says. “All my staff is cross-trained, which is a very important part of a small business.”
The expansion accomplished several other things for the company as well:
It provided space to create a showroom to show off the company’s accomplishments and awards, as well as offices for both Jerry and Debbie. It also allowed them to purchase more modern equipment, redesign the shop floor layout and give the storefront a major facelift.
The redesigned storefront included putting a 130-foot quarter barrel awning out front that Margrave says is one of the best awnings he’s ever built. The awning transformed the once-dismal storefront into a thing of beauty, which incidentally won a Beautiful Bakersfield Award for the Most Improved Business Front of the Year. More than that, the improvements highlighted what the company does so well—make awnings and fabric solutions. And that brought in more business. “After we finished the expansion with the modernized storefront, it was like somebody put a blue light out in front of the store,” Margrave says. “Now all of a sudden people realized we were a reputable company even though we were the same company. It probably increased business 25 percent.”
Having the space to purchase more and better equipment was also a key component to the company’s growth. Over time, after the expansion, Margrave purchased wedge welders, electronic sewing machines, slitters and hot air welders—but it’s the wedge welders that he purchased in 2002 that he says most changed the way his team does things. “Wedge welders allowed us to put all our flat sheets together without sewing and we would have waterproof seams,” he says. “That, along with improved adhesives, allows us to have virtually no seam failures anymore.”
The year 2002 was also when Margrave earned his MFC (Master Fabric Craftsman) certification from IFAI (Industrial Fabrics Association International), which he says was one of his proudest moments. “It proved to me and my peers that I knew what I was doing in the specialty fabrics industry,” he says. “Having my MFC has opened the door for me to explain my expertise to potential clients many times over.”
Margrave credits having his MFC with helping him break into the industrial sewing realm, which brings in a significant portion of the company’s business. When he first walked into a baby-carrot processing plant to see if he could help them design covers to keep the electronics from getting wet when workers washed the equipment, it was the three letters behind his name that helped him win the project. “The first thing they asked me was what MFC stood for,” he says. “It let me explain my expertise.”
Since then Specialty Trim & Awning has gained multiple industrial clients, including potato chip plants, grape harvesting houses, vegetable harvesting companies and several other Fortune 500 companies. No matter who the client is, Margrave brings listening and problem-solving skills to the table when designing products. “It’s so important to really listen to what they want and take into consideration all the factors that might affect the product’s performance,” he says.
A network of support
Because the company does such a variety of work, managing inventory can be a challenge, and consequently Margrave has backup suppliers for all of the company’s inventory needs. “Inventory is very difficult to manage because we don’t do the same thing day after day. If all we did was build widgets, we would know how much material we’d need in advance,” he says.
“I rely heavily on one fabric supplier, but we have backups to be sure we can get what we need when we need it.”
The most recent addition to the company’s project portfolio is shade sails, and Margrave points out that it’s the relationships he’s built through organizations such as IFAI and WCPA (Western Canvas Products Association) that have helped him hone his abilities to tackle new ways to use fabric. “When we took on our first shade sail project I needed a little help to get me through it,” he says. “I was at IFAI Expo and was at dinner with another member who specializes in shade sails. We sat there and drew different things on napkins to help me get through the project. That kind of networking is so valuable.
“When we finished the project, it was dynamite,” he continues. “That’s what I love about this work. There’s always something new to learn.”
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is a frequent contributor to IFAI publications.