By Eric Peterson | Jun 07, 2021
Fort Collins, Colorado
Pedestals and displays for art, retail, and trade shows
Glebe knew what he wanted to do by the time he was a teenager. "I named [the company] when I was in eighth grade," he says.
And that name, Xylem Design -- a reference to the plant tissue that's a conduit for water and nutrients -- reflects a lifelong passion for woodworking. "I was a woodworker, a one-man show for a number of years, then I somehow got into the display-easel business," says Glebe.
The company at first manufactured a single easel model, putting Xylem Design in "a vulnerable position," so it expanded into more and more varieties over the years.
But Glebe saw a need to further diversify about the same time COO Seth Braverman first joined the company in 2008, when annual sales were about $1 million. "When I came on board, I was the first guy building pedestals," says Braverman. Pedestals "are now 100 percent of what we do. We do no easels now."
The move -- and the company's online presence as Pedestal Source -- catalyzed a jump to $4.3 million in sales in 2019. Customers include Sony, Bose, UGG, and NASA, as the company has shipped more than 100,000 pedestals to date.
A key market -- trade shows -- went into free fall with the pandemic, leading to contraction in 2020. "We were kind of a canary in a coal mine," says Braverman. "Starting last February, we were getting orders canceled."
After a company-wide furlough in the spring, sales and workforce were both down by about a third of their 209 levels at the end of 2020.
Beyond trade shows, Xylem Design also sells into the residential and retail/office markets, which remained steady. The market for pedestals for cannabis retail has grown nationally as more states legalize.
"We're pretty much back to our pre-COVID numbers in terms of monthly revenues even without trade shows," says Braverman. "When it does come back online, we'll be able to be a little more selective in terms of how we present our services."
An ongoing pivot from custom to stock pedestals was accelerated by COVID-19. "When we came back online in May of last year, we decided we need our standards side of what we do," says Braverman. "We're still happy to modify and customize, but we're really trying to avoid and draw a hard line around that work and say no to stuff that takes us off in the weeds."
He adds, "It's fun sometimes, but it's not scalable and it's not fun for very long."
Most of the work takes place at Xylem Design's 8,000-square-foot shop, but it outsources metal fabrication and waterjet work. Equipment includes CNC tables, a spray booth, and a large-scale vinyl printer.
Glebe touts the company's acrylic capabilities. "We do the best damn acrylics in the country -- gorgeous, gorgeous work," he says. "Our joints are crystal clear without any bubbles whatsoever in the joint. It just has such a nice, professional feel. We've worked and worked and worked on the systems and processes."
"We really do as much as we can in-house, and we model our production on the Toyota Production System," says Braverman. "We've been studying "We've been studying and applying Lean for about 10 years now."
Glebe says Lean techniques have proven critical to scaling production while maintaining and improving quality. "That is where my passion lies," he says. "It's two things: organizational health and operational excellence."
Paul Akers of FastCap, a Bellingham, Washington-based manufacturer of woodworking tools, introduced Glebe to Lean manufacturing in the early 2000s.
"He simplified it to the point where he could implement some of these concepts with his team without bringing in pointy-headed consultants and complicating stuff," says Glebe. "Lean starts with a philosophy that's really human-centric, and it's not bullshit. Then you're trying to improve lives and the lives of those who you touch. If what we're doing sucks, we can't affect our customers positively, because some of that energy sticks to how you interact with them."
The tenets of Lean -- fostering workplace culture, optimizing flow, and eliminating waste -- can be self-perpetuating once firmly entrenched, says Braverman. "Once you get going, it's kind of like a flywheel and has its own momentum. It becomes self-led. . . . There's really no other way to do it, once you do it."
Challenges: "Supply chain is definitely a challenge at the moment," says Braverman. "That impacts cash flow and the entire operation. Hopefully, that doesn't last too long."
Glebe says it's difficult to source all petroleum-based materials, noting that acrylic supplies seem to have "stabilized" in 2021. Foams and veneers have also been scarce.
Braverman highlights a more subtle one related to moving away from custom jobs: "One of the biggest challenges is learning what to say no to, so we protect that vision instead of living in a scarcity mindset and starting to say yes to everything again."
"When a company gets big enough and profitable enough, they can choose what customers to fire," says Glebe. "We're coming in from a different viewpoint. We are building back up again and have the opportunity to be more discerning about what jobs we take on."
Opportunities: Braverman highlights demand from cannabis retailers nationwide, as well as positioning to capitalize on the event business as it comes back online in 2021 and beyond. "In some ways, we've refined what the most profitable, scalable version of our business model should be, and that's we brought back online and have been scaling up," he says.
In Glebe's mind, the pandemic shakeup helped optimize some processes by way of kaizen, roughly translated as "change for the better" from Japanese. "About 80 percent of the people have been with us long enough to have pretty decent exposure to these concepts," he says.
Needs: The right talent. "We really want to bring on people who will sync with our culture, starting with character and ethos," says Glebe. "That takes the already scarce labor situation and exacerbates it."
Adds Braverman: "We need the event industry to open back up, and inflation to not turn into hyper-inflation."