Modern. Durable and maintenance-free. Outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic milk jugs made by Loll Designs of Duluth has been popular in big urban markets in New York, Florida, Texas and California.
But in its Northland home? Not so much.
Lately, however, Loll’s colorful furniture has been catching on in the Duluth area as well.
You’ll find their tables and chairs on Canal Park Brewing Co.’s outdoor patio and their furniture in the lobby of the downtown YMCA. Barr Engineering Co. has them on their employee patio. And some of Loll’s 200 offerings, including birdhouses, planters and other accessories, are showing up in Northland backyards as well.
With an expected $8 million in sales this year, Loll is not only having its best year, it’s on the move.
This weekend, the rapidly growing company will move its production operations from a factory it has leased for three years at South 37th Avenue West near Hallett Dock to a building it has purchased at 59th Avenue West and Waseca Street in West Duluth.
With its $3 million investment comes a new era for Loll. The facility sets the company up for future growth. It also allows room for a building expansion to house sister company Epicurean, which makes cutting boards and kitchen tools out of a wood fiber composite. Both companies are owned by founders Greg Benson, his brother Dave, and Tony Ciardelli. They also own Intectural, a distributor of sustainable architectural materials.
Loll has seen growth each of its eight years. What began as a lark in 2003, making an Adirondack chair out of recycled plastic, morphed into full-fledged business a few years later.
According to the company, sales have grown from $100,000 in 2006, its first year, to close to $2 million in 2009 and $6 million in 2013, with a 30 percent increase expected this year. Sixty percent of its sales are to businesses, colleges and cities, while 40 percent comes from consumers. Fifteen percent comes from online orders.
Its products are offered at 110 stores in the United States plus 20 in Canada and four in Mexico. The closest stores to Duluth, however, are in Minneapolis, including Room & Board. As business has grown, so has its staff, from 15 in 2010 to 33 today.
Road to success
So how did Loll do it?
CEO Greg Benson attributes the company’s success to its green approach using high-grade recycled plastic, a unique modern design and a thin, yet durable product that’s made in the United States.
“On the whole, it must have been things people were looking for,” he said. “But part of it is being able to make it in quantity.”
With that ability to handle large orders, including custom work, Loll was, for example, able to fill an order for 300 pieces for the Seattle Public Library.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he couldn’t be happier for their success.
“This is a story of the good guys winning, because they’ve grown their business based on their values,” he said. “And clearly, Duluth benefits from their success. Not only are they making huge investments in Duluth and creating new jobs, but they give back to this city by volunteering and generous donations. They promote Duluth as a great place to do business and more importantly, they promote Duluth as a great place for entrepreneurs to live and thrive.”
Ness said Greg Benson has figured out how to translate his passion for life and community into the product he’s selling.
“That’s the secret sauce,” Ness said. “That’s the difference between an average widget maker and the success that Loll is enjoying. Again, that’s what makes their success so exciting.”
Loll’s community involvement includes a day of planting trees in the city every year, creek cleanups and donating furniture for fundraisers. In this year alone, Loll has donated $30,000 to Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (known as COGGS), $10,000 to Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, $8,000 to the Will Steger Foundation and $6,000 to Sustainable Twin Ports. It’s part of Loll’s commitment to donate 1 percent of its gross sales to organizations that promote sustainability and work to protect the planet.
“We don’t have to do that at all,” Benson said. “It’s a commitment to give back. We’re just trying to make our community a better place.”
Loll’s growth has been helped by industry trends.
“The outdoor furniture industry is growing as a whole,” Benson said. “The trend is in not to buy cheap, the trend is making outdoor areas nicer.”
And Loll furniture, which comes in a variety of colors, isn’t cheap. An Adirondack - its biggest seller - costs $543 for the basic style, $569 for a rocker version and $200 for a kids-size one. A 72-inch-long Alfresco table costs $982. Dining chairs range from $332 to $373 each. A chaise lounge costs $705, while a 14-gallon planter costs $169, according to Loll’s website, lolldesigns.com. The current prices reflect a 15 percent discount with free shipping during the company’s annual September sale.
The furniture comes in easy-to-assemble parts. Loll cuts the pieces from sheets of recycled plastic, then flat packs them for shipping. The grade of plastic - high-density polyethylene made from recycled plastic milk jugs - is tough and maintenance-free.
That’s why Canal Park Brewing Co. spent tens of thousands of dollars on Loll tables and chairs for its large outdoor patio overlooking Lake Superior.
Owner Rockie Kavajecz liked that Loll is a local company and that it makes outdoor furniture out of recycled plastic. He saw that as a natural fit for his brewpub because its Canal Park site had been recycled as well. It underwent a $1 million dollar cleanup before construction of the new bar and restaurant could begin.
“Besides, it’s good furniture, and it doesn’t blow around,” Kavajecz said. “So it’s practical. Now that I have it, I’d go out and find it even if it wasn’t from Duluth, because it’s the right stuff to have on Lake Superior. I think they’re doing a great job. It will last as long as milk jugs will in a landfill - forever.”
Search for a site
The need for Loll’s own facility had been increasing for years. Loll went from taking up a corner of the shop space at corporate headquarters to one-third of the shop, encroaching on space needed by Epicurean.
A few years ago, they planned to build a new Loll plant on a SuperFund site on the St. Louis River. But those plans were abandoned, despite receiving a $1.5 million state cleanup grant and $229,000 promised from the Duluth Economic Development Authority for the project.
“It wasn’t the contamination,” Benson explained. “The soil was very soft. We would have had to do pilings 100 feet deep that added to the cost. It was not cost effective.”
In 2011, Loll - foregoing the grant and DEDA money - instead moved into a 22,000-square-foot former factory at South 37th Avenue West, east of Interstate 35.
“We grew in that building, using more and more space,” Benson said. “The intention was to have our own space. It was either build a building or buy one.”
They wanted a site close to their corporate headquarters at the top of 59th Avenue West. They looked at every suitable size building available in the area.
“We had to find the right building,” Benson said.
Late last year they found a good fit in the building formerly used by Duluth Paper & Specialties at the bottom of 59th Avenue West, down the hillside from their headquarters.
It was in the right area. It was well built. And at 30,000 square feet, it was the right size with room for expansion. But little had been done to it since it was built in 1973, so it needed work.
In January, through their Hawks Boots LLC, Benson and his partners bought the expansive building near Stryker Bay for nearly $1 million. They spent another $1 million on improvements and remodeling. Costs of new machinery added another $1 million to the price tag with Republic Bank providing the financing.
Work led by Donald Holm Construction of Duluth included new heating and lighting systems, new and expanded windows to maximize natural light and fresh paint throughout. The office area was gutted and rebuilt, with an added glass wall overlooking the production area. The shop area is now equipped with a system to collect dust. And an innovative heating system will draw heat generated by the computer numerical control machines in the mechanical room and send it into the shop area to heat it.
Beginning next month, the new facility also will have a showroom - Loll’s first - with its most popular pieces on display. Some will be available for immediate purchase, while others can be ordered. Local online buyers also will be able to pick up orders there, saving on delivery charges.
“Finally we have a permanent home we can grow in,” Benson said. “We finally have our own identity.”
And as they grow, more jobs will be created, he said.
With plenty of room to expand, Benson and his partners are already talking about adding 30,000 square feet to house Epicurean’s production. That would double the size of the building.
“If we did that, it would be in the next few years,” Benson said. “Epicurean doesn’t have enough space.”
The company, which has products in 5,000 stores and is on track to better 2013’s $12 million in sales, has had to outsource some of its work because of its space constrictions, he said.