Umbra: 30 Years Young

Les Mandelbaum and Paul Rowan are marking the 30th anniversary of Umbra, the company they founded with a simple window shade.

Les Mandelbaum and Paul Rowan are marking the 30th anniversary of Umbra, the company they founded with a simple window shade.

By Warren Shoulberg

Like many young people just starting out in their careers, Les Mandelbaum and Paul Rowan had lots of ideas and dreams about what they wanted to do.
But unlike most of those people, these two turned those ideas and dreams into a real company that, 30 years later, is recognized as one of the most creative forces in the home furnishings business.

How fitting that Umbra in Latin means shade—the company’s first product. In a way, this is a business that is made by a shade.

Umbra is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and as Mandelbaum—president and the majority owner—puts it in Umbra’s new catalog, it’s “cause for a short pause and celebration.

“It’s a been a long time, but it doesn’t feel that way. Why?” he writes. “Because it’s been interesting and rewarding. Keep it fresh and growing without becoming overly serious. Have a little fun.”

The two childhood friends—they met when they were 14 sharing a love for music that is still reflected in their lives—do indeed keep having fun, offering up both the whimsical and the wonderful, all the time building a $100 million business that sells to more than 25,000 retail customers in 75 countries.

Their trademark modern products—which run the gamut from window fashions to furniture and from tabletop to housewares—have earned the company a signature look and a brand name with both retailers and consumers.

By focusing on the next hot item, Umbra has broken many of the rules about product assortments, distribution and category specialization.

That is unlikely to change as it enters its fourth decade, but a certain amount of discipline is slowly but surely entering the Umbra lexicon, reflected in assortments that are getting more rounded out with holes in the line being filled in.

It’s all part of a process to get Umbra ready for the next generation.

“We’ve always taken a different approach from the beginning, “ said Mandelbaum, like his partner born and raised in Canada, where the company is based. Both he and Rowan have different hairlines than a classic picture taken early on shows, but their enthusiasm for the business seems to have not receded a bit.

“We’re all sliding into our 60s, so the plan is simple:  I could not die—or I have to plan on slowing down and not being as involved.” Mandelbaum’s reputation for saying it straight is clearly well founded.

To meet those coming changes, Umbra has brought in its first senior manager from the outside, breaking a very insular structure that has been in place almost since the beginning that also includes Howard Rosenberg, who heads up operations.

Another long-time member of the Umbra team is Paula Burtt, vice president of sales, who joined the company 27 years ago. “She has built probably the best international sales team and inside customer service in the industry,” said Mandelbaum. “Paula has earned the respect of both her staff and the industry. Yet, she rarely gets the glory.”

Burtt’s entry into the company is classic Umbra.  “A young woman worked briefly for us and recommended her school friend who was ‘very, very smart’ and worked part time at her family’s local store across the street,” he remembers.

“I called and confirmed she was interested and ‘smart.’ Paula had no experience, but neither had we. But she was and is steady and solid. Paul was easily distracted and disorganized. Paula was focused and disciplined. I was driven to rages and impulse. Paula was calm and collaborative.

“Paula still has all this but after 27 years, she has as much experience and wisdom as anyone in our industry. We dedicate our 30th anniversary to Paula.”

A newcomer to Umbra is Kaela Forker, who came on board last fall to head up new business development. A veteran of American Pacific, the now-defunct textiles company known for its brand name segmentation strategy, she has been focused on taking Umbra to the next level.

“We always said with all this experience, we could barely figure it out, so we needed to take a fresh approach. We’re trying to be less shoot-from-the-hip,” Mandelbaum said, “and Kaela brings us that discipline. It had always been just Paul and me.”

An example of the new strategy is in picture frames, he said. “We had basically abdicated the basic frame business, but Kaela said we couldn’t do that, so now we are filling in the line with basics.

“Our mentality was always to come up with great ideas and fresh products and when things got ‘commoditized’ we got out of it. But when you get to a certain size, you can’t run a business like that anymore. That’s the kind of discipline we didn’t have.

“We had to make sure we had a more grown-up approach.”

Balancing that discipline with maintaining an environment of creativity is Rowan’s job. He has always been the product guy, the one who created the items that Umbra is best known for. “Clever products that are original, functional, look good and affordable,” is how the 30th anniversary catalog puts it.

Design remains the heart of Umbra. “We actually have the design studio at the center of everything,” said Rowan. “Not just physically,” he says as he conducts a tour of the studio where 20 designers work that is literally at the center of the company’s Toronto headquarters, “but of the entire operation.”

That first window shade—sporting a classic Japanese graphic printed on rice paper—was Rowan’s creation, and it has led to a string of products that represent some of the industry’s greatest hits … not to mention some of the most imitated products around.

Maybe Umbra’s best known product is the Garbino trash can, a simple enough design that not only proved to be one of the company’s best sellers ever, but also single-handedly invented a brand new product category—the trash can as fashion.

As he described the can’s simple yet distinctive design, Rowan sketched it out on a nearby whiteboard on the wall. Its curved silhouette, cutout handles and sloped opening—all often in an eye-catching color—are so unique that they earned designer Karim Rashid a patent.

Trash cans became design items and Umbra had another core product category, adding to its already established businesses in clocks, window hardware and picture frames.

“We never like to disappoint our customers with our products,” said Rowan. “Our consumer loves our products and she understands our value equation.”

To him, it’s more than just about fashion. “We want our designers to have a 360-degree view of the product and the marketplace: how saleable it is, what the packaging will be, the manufacturing process, sustainability. We ask them if they will take the product home and use it.”

And there are lots and lots of products. Rowan says the studio works on coming out with one new product a day and each year, 20 to 30 percent of Umbra’s line is new. He guesses Umbra has introduced more than 5,000 products over its 30 years.

Some fall into the company’s U+ line, which was created 10 years ago as a more upscale line intended more for specialty stores than some of the mass retailers that Umbra sells to. The line continues today but is being relaunched later this year to reflect the changing nature of a more price-sensitive marketplace.

On all of Umbra’s products, being true to the brand—Rowan said, “No one had ever branded product out of China in housewares before us, we changed that”—is key.

While Umbra first manufactured all its products in Canada, that quickly changed as the company grew and China became a key production site for much of the line. Sourcing from Asia became so important that several years ago Umbra purchased its own factory in southern China, and it now produces about half of its Asian-made products. Some plastic products continue to be made in Canada, but everything else is from outside North America.

The international marketplace has been important to Umbra on the other side of the business equation as well and its non-North American sales to more than 70 countries represents about a quarter of its business.

That need to export can be traced back to nearly the start of the company and is a uniquely Canadian thing, both men agreed. Canadian companies can outgrow their domestic market quickly and so they must look at export markets if they want to grow. For Umbra it was an easy decision to first expand south into the U.S. and then eventually overseas.

In North America, Umbra’s distribution is very wide spread, from the smallest specialty store to some of the biggest mass merchants.

“Market segmentation has become crucial for us because retailers want so much private label now,” said Mandelbaum. “So we try to make the product different and sub-brand it.” Retailer-specific products account for about 25 percent of the company’s sales.

The breadth of the line has helped Umbra sell into multiple channels. “Our brand is sprinkled in so many places that it’s not so much in your face.”

It only works because of the product. “If the product is strong, you can get away with it. Someone once told me, ‘If you want to grow, you have to learn how to sell everyone.’”

Mandelbaum said the past two years have been tough for the company as it tried to ride out the recession like everyone else. But having no debt and being fast on its feet to cut overhead costs helped it maneuver better than most and a “Pump It Up” internal campaign is driving the company’s improved business through the first quarter of 2010.

Mandelbaum says he is a classic left brain-right brain kind of guy and in many ways Umbra reflects that personality.

“We’re not just a pretty face,” he said. “We can back it up too.”