by Jill C. Lafferty
The mission of Al’s Awning Shop is to be the leading provider of quality fabric solutions and to be dedicated to providing professional customer service and exceptional products,” says owner Michele Quadri-Butterfield. “Fabric solutions is key for me. It’s about taking a fabric and helping the customer find the solution to what they want. They don’t always even realize that there’s a question that we are answering. Some people just say, ‘I have this deck and I need it covered.’ But what do you want to do there? And why do you want to do it with fabric?”
Quadri-Butterfield grew up in Al’s Awning Shop in Erie, Pa., but when it came to establishing herself as the third-generation owner, she turned to the small business development program at Gannon University in Erie and Athena International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and supporting women leaders. Athena International pushed her to write the mission statement. Today, it’s posted all over the shop.
“We’re reminded of it every day,” she says. “Every day, I say, ‘What fabric solution are you providing today? What exceptional product are you going to put out today? How are you providing customer service today?’”
Taking the helm
Quadri-Butterfield describes herself as sincere, driven and strong—traits that she says are a combination of her father, David, and mother, Cyndy. She also refers to herself as the “mother force” of Al’s Awning Shop. Sometimes being a mother means making hard decisions. Take, for example, the process of introducing fabric welding into a shop of long-time sewers.
“Keep in mind, I grew up with the oldest double-needle machine, and everything was 30 inches wide. I was constantly sewing fabric together and sewing fabric together and sewing fabric together to make awnings that were 30 feet wide. You just felt like you were sitting at the double-needle forever.”
So when the company purchased its first fabric welder in 2010, she immediately moved the double-needle machines to the basement, forcing employees to use the new equipment.
“They hated it,” she says. “Now we have an Extreme™ welder, an $80,000 investment, and we love it, we showcase it; everyone wants to learn how to use it.”
When one summer installer first saw the Extreme welder, he approached Quadri-Butterfield about training on the machine. That employee has now been with the company for 12 years and is responsible for all new fabrication—a boon for a business that struggles to find skilled workers.
A family affair
Al’s Awning Shop was founded by Quadri-Butterfield’s grandparents, Al and Lillian, who made tarps in a space in their garage. Later, they purchased a building a few blocks from their home and set up the shop, complete with a kitchen in the basement, “so that they could literally live and eat and stay here all day long,” Quadri-Butterfield says. Other family members came on board, and her father, David, became the heart of the business when it passed to the second generation.
“Every Saturday morning, I just got up and I went to work with my Dad,” she says. “It was my passion; I couldn’t wait to do it.”
As a senior in high school, she was set to attend college, with plans to come home with a business degree to contribute to the company. Then, just after he had fully acquired the business, David Quadri died.
“It rattled everything that we had and that we knew,” she says. “My grandfather Al died the day we buried my father. So the heart and soul of Al’s Awning Shop was taken within five days.”
Quadri-Butterfield’s first instinct was to give up college and work in the shop. But her mother insisted that she stick to the plan that David Quadri had wanted for her. A school psychologist, Cyndy Quadri didn’t have any awning experience. But she stepped up to run the company until Quadri-Butterfield was ready to take over. Guidance from Athena International helped mother and daughter transition ownership when the time was right.
“My mother became the force that drives me. I wouldn’t be here without her,” Quadri-Butterfield says. “She’s very proud of what we’re doing with the business and how the business is changing and evolving.”
The shop was also kept afloat through the assistance of Jamie DiNicola, who had been training under David Quadri at the time of his death, and whose father, Ed, was another longtime employee. Today, Jamie is a part owner and Quadri-Butterfield’s business partner. She is also proud of the fact that she brought her husband into the business after injuries from a car accident forced him to dissolve his contracting company.
“It’s my family business,” she says.“It’s who I am.”
A commitment to customers
A typical day at Al’s Awning Shop begins with Quadri-Butterfield greeting each employee (the company has eight employees, plus additional summer installation staff). “Every day is a business meeting. And every day is about production, and every day is about accomplishment.”
After check-in, she moves on to following up with customers, balancing the books and marketing tasks. For example, earlier this year, the company released an advertising jingle that David Quadri had always wanted.
“And then, I make sure that we’re still growing, and ask, what did we miss? I like to read something new. Whether it’s in the government, the industry or just local, I try to see what’s happening in and around my community all the time. Knowing what’s going on and staying focused. And literally repeat that every day.”
Having grown up attending Canvas Products Association Zone 7 conventions that felt more like family reunions, Quadri-Butterfield appreciates the industry connections through IFAI that allow her to reach out to mentors. Thanks to advice from other awning professionals, she has made recent and significant changes to Al’s Awning showroom. For years, the showroom was, in her words, “stuck.”
“We had the same carpet in the showroom for 25 years. So we tore the carpet out,” she says. “We put up awnings, we put up things that go on people’s houses. Previously, we didn’t actually have awnings on display because our showroom was our office space. You came in and picked out a book and we showed you photos, and that was it. Now we have a 50-inch TV. It shows a slideshow, it shows testimonials, we can go to our YouTube channel. That sounds so bizarre to me, but I do have a YouTube channel. We have a Sunbrella® showcase front and center. All the products we have available are now displayed in our showroom. We actually showcase our product.”
The equipment and technology have changed, the showroom has changed, and the generations have changed. But the core lessons Quadri-Butterfield gleaned from her father haven’t changed.
“The number one thing that my father did was make sure his customers were taken care of,” she says. “That’s the same thing that we want to do. We want to make sure our customers are taken care of.”
Jill C. Lafferty is associate editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and senior editor of InTents magazine.