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New board chair Kathy Schaefer: meeting industry challenges

Features | December 1, 2019 | By:

New IFAI board chair Kathy Schaefer shares her vision for an organization that helps its members navigate a changing industry landscape.

by Jill C. Lafferty

I walk into IFAI Expo every year and say, ‘Wow. What’s new?’ There’s always something really ingenious,” says Kathy Schaefer, IFM, chief operating officer of Glawe Awnings and Tents, Fairborn, Ohio. “Sometimes it is something that makes you wonder, ‘Why didn’t anyone think of that before?’ You know what the new thing is going to be in 2020 by going to the 2019 show.”

The fourth-generation leader of one of the oldest tent companies in the United States, and new IFAI board chair, Schaefer says she can’t remember a year when she didn’t attend an industry expo or conference. Her father, Vernon, and brother-in-law, Tom Fridley, are past IFAI board chairs.

“I have been immersed in the business my entire life,” Schaefer says. “As a child I went to work with my dad in the summer, running the lift gate and patching tents. When I was 12, my dad started letting me drive a truck around deserted job sites, which I do to this day.”

Companies like Glawe stay in business generation after generation by keeping up with their customers’ changing needs and looking ahead—and that’s where IFAI membership and Expo attendance are critical, she says. For example, IFAI Expo was the first place Schaefer ever saw a cutting machine. Now one sits on one end of Glawe’s shop. In contrast, an old grommet press with a big pedal that she played on as a child still sits on the other end—but at one point in time, that was the “new thing.” 

From manufacturing horse blankets during the Depression, to repairing dirigible balloons in WWII, to being one of the first U.S. tent companies to adopt clearspan technology, Glawe has remained relevant by being open to new revenue streams and ways of doing business, she says. Glawe purchased a Commodore 64 computer in the early 1980s; today, Schaefer laughs about the skeptical looks she received when she gave a presentation at a meeting of the Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA) about how computers were the future. 

“When the first grommet machine came out, a lot of people said, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know about that,’” she says. “My dad saw how fast it worked and said, ‘Got to have that.’ When you see something that replaces what you are having a heck of a time doing, you’ve got to snap it up. It’s all about production levels and efficiency.”

Despite her upbringing, Schaefer didn’t plan to become an industry leader or even work in the family business. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and was set to take a university position when, in the early 1980s, the economy faltered and her job offer fell through. 

“I started working at Glawe in March of 1982 to help out and have never left,” she says. Initially, she answered phones, but when her father experienced a sudden illness, she took on more responsibility. Schaefer discovered that she liked working on jobsites with the installation crew. “I never went back to the desk job. At that time, being a woman in the tent world was unheard of.” 

Schaefer networked with industry professionals through IFAI’s Tent Rental Division (TRD) and eventually served on TRD’s Steering Committee, becoming the first woman to chair the division in 2008−2009. 

“I love the friends I have made in the industry,” Schaefer says. “Many of us have grown up together, and we are all there for each other. Other end product users and many suppliers are family friends. Their support transcends the workplace.”

Q&A with IFAI Board Chair Kathy Schaefer

What is your priority as IFAI’s new board chair?

My priority is that IFAI provide membership value by continuously developing new member benefits, as well as improving and enhancing the benefits IFAI currently offers. With IFAI, members have access to benefits that they wouldn’t have as individual companies without big-time buying power. And for me, the biggest benefits are the networking and the way IFAI connects you to what is going on in the industry. 

How is IFAI working toward remaining relevant
to a changing industry?

IFAI President Steve Schiffman is continuously working with his staff to explore the future of the organization and the specialty fabrics industry. The Association provides a “best practices” approach and support for innovation. IFAI listens to member feedback and ideas with determination to meet the challenges we as members face. The organization’s programming and educational opportunities provide relevant content to help members stay ahead of the changing landscape and alert them to disruptions, innovations and other forces that will affect how we do business. As a member, I look to IFAI to keep me in the loop. When you are busy running your own company, it is easy to miss important trends, policy changes, regulations and other issues that affect small businesses and the specialty fabrics industry. IFAI continually adds content that provides invaluable assistance to small business owners. You can find it within IFAI magazines and websites, and you can search for the topics that are important to you on

How do you anticipate supporting a membership that is diverse in terms of market segments, size and trends?

I plan to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening. While our divisions are diverse, the members of IFAI’s 16 market segments share common issues. Trends in the fabrics industry affect all of us. As a member of PAMA and TRD, my company has benefitted from IFAI’s help on industry-wide issues such as the market share of fabric awnings in the shade industry and the constantly changing building and fire codes. Most individual companies do not have the resources to ascertain the perplexity of these issues and develop a strategy to overcome them. All IFAI divisions face challenges, and the organization is positioned to work with members to meet those challenges. 

Finding and retaining skilled workers is a challenge across IFAI divisions. What IFAI or industry-wide efforts are helping to address that challenge?

We have been working to address the challenge of skilled workers for some time through the activities of the Makers Division, video education, the Textile Career Center and grants from the Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF). In addition, member companies are hiring interns and students, and nurturing those relationships until they’re in a position to be hired full time.

What about this industry makes you optimistic? What developments are you most excited about?

Technology is affecting communication and the way we do business in unprecedented ways. Even so, we all need to connect with individuals and companies with similar goals. IFAI provides that connection. Events such as IFAI Expo, regional workshops, division-specific conferences and summits will always be relevant venues for learning about new products and networking with professionals on every point of the specialty fabrics supply chain.

With regard to specific developments, smart fabrics are here now, but the future will hold things we can’t even imagine. Also, members of IFAI’s Geosynthetics division are involved with projects such as textiles with sensors to detect underground leakage. Our industry will evolve, and I am excited and optimistic about this. 

5 Top Tips from Kathy Schaefer for getting the most out of your IFAI membership

1. Take advantage of the many benefits that IFAI has to offer.

2. Network with peers and industry leaders by attending IFAI events.

3. Learn how you can make your business more profitable through education provided at IFAI Expo and through division events and programming, including webinars and videos.

4. Stay informed with IFAI media, including the magazines, websites, social media and e-newsletters.

5. Most importantly, be engaged. If you have questions, ask an IFAI staff member, or I will be glad to talk with you!

Kathy Schaefer, IFM, Chief Operating Officer
Glawe Awnings and Tents
Fairborn, Ohio
MOST VALUED BENEFIT: Networking with peers

Jill C. Lafferty is associate editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and senior editor of InTents.

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