By Eric Peterson | Jul 11, 2019
Los Angeles, California
Employees: 150 (50 in California; 100 in China)
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
A sculptor and inventor, Lillian Greneker was ahead of her time.
Her husband, Claude Greneker, was in show business in New York and wanted mannequins for a publicity stunt in a theater lobby. Lillian discovered there was no such thing as a posable mannequin, so she invented her own.
She also invented thimble-mounted fingertip tools (screwdrivers, paintbrushes, and the like) but they "did not catch on," according to her obituary in the New York Times.
During World War II, she invented self-sealing gas tanks for Navy aircraft, then returned to her roots in sculpture after moving her mannequin company to California. In Los Angeles, Greneker cemented its reputation as a pacesetter for mannequin manufacturing in the U.S.
In 2003, Beckman teamed with VP of Creative David Naranjo and CEO Erik Johnson to buy the company. All three had worked for Greneker since the 1990s. "It's changed massively," says Beckman.
At the time, the company had close to 300 employees in Los Angeles and manufactured mannequins domestically. Manufacturing moved to China in 2005 as the L.A. facility downsized from 154,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet. "That's the first big transition," says Beckman.
It was followed by another "huge change" in 2012: going digital. The Greneker Rapid Development Approach (RDA) is the result of five years of R&D.
From Lillian's days, mannequin molds were made by way of sculpture. "Our clients have become fairly international," says Beckman, noting that sculpting "required a lot of onsite participation from our clients."
As brick-and-mortar retail's marketing budgets waned, he adds, "We needed a way to expedite it. Doing it through clay was very slow and time-consuming."
With clay, production rarely commenced until six months of back and forth. Digital modeling has cut that pre-production phase considerably. "We have the ability to get to the start of production in about six weeks," says Beckman.
The RDA has four phases: concept, refine, validate, and produce. After the digital sculpt takes place, the refine phase involves printing quarter-scale models for review by Greneker's creative team. "Once David and the team are satisfied with them, those models are overnighted to the client for their review," says Beckman.
After the scale model is approved, a full-scale figure with "final paint, final finish, final everything" is shipped to the client to sign off on to move to production in China, where the digital files are sent electronically for a molded process utilizing proprietary poly-composites. The production process requires about six weeks. While Greneker still has a sculptor on the payroll, the company hasn't delivered a clay-based mannequin in five years.
For custom mannequins, the minimum is 150 units. Greneker also offers a full catalog of stock figures. "Custom is about 70 percent of our business," says Beckman. "When I started here, we were doing two to three lines a year. It was basically best guess."
But he's quick to point out that best guess is no longer a good fit for Greneker's increasingly fastidious customer base: "Brand personification over the last decade has become very important."
Another pivot came with an increased focus on athletic and athleisure brands like Under Armour, Adidas, and Foot Locker. That required increased attention to the mannequin's pose, says Beckman. "If we weren't authentic, the customer would pick apart what we did very quickly."
Production volume peaked from 2012 to 2015, as the per-mannequin price has since dropped along with volume. Exports have "grown substantially" in recent years, but U.S.-based customers account for about 80 percent of sales.
"The number of mannequins we manufacture every year has more to do with overall economic conditions than anything else," says Beckman. "We're kind of in the mode of 'flat is the new up' as retail grapples with the online component."
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge right now is navigating the new world of retail," says Beckman. While shuttered shops make headlines, that's only part of the story. "We look at [store] closings, but we also look at openings," he notes. "It appears to be positive this year."
Opportunities: "Athleisure is definitely where the growth is right now," says Beckman.
But the parallel play is diversification. "We just went through a whole thing looking at alternatives and what other markets we can penetrate with the technologies we employ," says Beckman.
Greneker's in-house 3D printing and CNC milling capabilities in L.A. are a good match for one-off work. Greneker has worked on a wide range of special projects and "themed environments" for retail and entertainment, including statues of Minions for the Hollywood Citywalk and a San Diego Comic-Con booth for the SyFy Channel. "Over the last couple of years, it's become a more important part of our business," says Beckman. "Universal Studios has been quite a large client."
He also wants to continue innovating with mannequins. "One of the other things we're looking at is the idea of technology in the mannequins," says Beckman, highlighting the potential use of RFID to track sales of products on display on a mannequin. "There's all sorts of data that can be collected."
Needs: "Always more sales," says Beckman.
Digital artists who understand the human form are always in demand. "They've been here a long time," he notes "That is always a challenge to replace those skill sets."