Sunday, May 12, 2002

Gary and Jeri Barnes share a toast outside of their Tropical J's warehouse off Sand Island Access Road. The couple manufactures specialty umbrellas, upholstery and awnings.

Starting a business
under cover

Gary and Jeri Barnes came in
from the cold with a company
to stay out of the heat

By Lyn Danninger

Gary and Jeri Barnes are still not entirely sure why they started their umbrella manufacturing business, Tropical J's.

The couple acknowledge they had no particular expertise with manufacturing or umbrellas, much less running a business, when they first started out in their garage at home in Mililani.

But what they did have was an ability to work together as a team.

They had returned to Hawaii not long before with their three young sons from a two-year stay in Moscow where Gary had been a military attache at the U.S. embassy.

The time in the-then Soviet Union was an eye-opening experience for the family.

Gary's job as a Navy intelligence officer meant a lot of traveling. Because of the nature of his position and security concerns, Jeri found herself not only learning Russian, but frequently accompanying her husband.

"In Moscow we traveled three days a week. For security reasons they didn't want an attache traveling alone," Jeri said.

It was the first time the couple had really worked together. From that experience, they determined a working partnership would be one of their goals.

"I think life in the Soviet Union changed us. Prior to that we were just another Navy couple. I think most people who served in the Soviet Union in the Cold War days had life-changing experiences," said Gary.

There were an assortment of international diplomatic crises during their stay. But it was finally the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that ensured the couple would never look at life the same way.

On their return to the United States, everything was so different. Suddenly a normal Navy career had lost a bit of its significance for Gary. He was ready to take early retirement and do something different.

But once home, even something as simple as a trip to the supermarket was at first an overwhelming experience.

"We had never seen so much food in one place," Jeri said.

In Hawaii there were also bright colors to get used to again -- a big change from Moscow.

"The Soviet Union was a country that looked better in black and white, so when we came back in 1987, we were really color deprived so I guess we really focused on that," Gary said.

While they can't swear to it, the couple believe it was Jeri who first noticed that hand-held umbrellas in Hawaii looked dull compared to the people who carried them, dressed in the bright colors of the islands in muumuus and aloha shirts.

Jeri was sure there was a business opportunity so the couple set about researching how they could transform a utilitarian accessory into a Hawaiian work of art.

Their idea proved to be a hit and soon tropical umbrellas began turning up in Hawaii boutiques and department stores. But most people who saw the umbrellas assumed the couple could easily make larger patio umbrellas in similar tropical designs.

"People liked the small ones from day one so they started asking for something like that for the patio," said Gary.

Their first large frame umbrella order came from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Waikiki. The couple had attended the QVC Shopping channel road show to see if there was any interest in their hand-held umbrellas. It was there that they met the general manager of the Hyatt, who wanted 19 large umbrellas.

From there it wasn't long until the orders of all kinds started rolling in.

"Aloha Tower asked us about awnings and here I am barely doing umbrellas," said Gary.

In 1991 when the Barnes first began experimenting with their hand-held umbrellas, they found there was very little written down about the ancient art of umbrella making, much less about how to adapt it using colorful Hawaiian prints.

Moreover, large-scale mainland commercial umbrella manufacturers who viewed Hawaii's hotel and resorts as a lucrative market were cool to the couple's inquiries and were not anxious to share their expertise.

"The idea was there, but we just didn't know how to make it," said Jeri.

Finally the couple got their first break with help from mainland umbrella designer Gilbert Center, who worked at Uncle Sam's Umbrellas, the oldest umbrella factory in the United States.

Center, who saw umbrella making as a dying art, encouraged the Barnes to try on their own to learn to make the umbrellas. He also sent his patterns along to help them and offered plenty of advice.

What started out as a series of experiments had plenty of false starts along the way, the couple say.

For example, an early lesson the Barnes had to learn was the difference between waterproof and water-resistant.

Their prototype Hawaiian print umbrella kept leaking as rain seeped between the fibers of the material.

But with the help of a researcher at DuPont, the couple got access to chemicals needed to eventually master the problem of making their Hawaiian print materials waterproof.

Equipment was also a challenge.

"What we couldn't buy we had to adapt," said Gary. "The cheapest machine to coat the fabric was $30,000. We couldn't afford that."

After a trip to Kilgos and $300, Gary found a way to apply the Teflon coating. What started out as temporary solution ended up being used on thousands of umbrellas, he said.

Still, there were plenty of times the couple were ready to give up.

"It's so hard to get off a moving train, but there were times we would have got off," he said.

Today, those early Mililani garage experiments have turned into a profitable business generating millions in sales with products including patio umbrellas, awnings, cushions, tents and soon a line of teak patio furniture.

Tropical J's umbrellas and awnings are seen in Hawaii's major hotels, restaurants and other businesses all over Hawaii. The custom-made high-quality material umbrellas sell from $360 to more than $3,000.

Along the way Gary designed an eco-camp resort project in Bermuda and also redesigned the guest tents at Molokai Ranch.

After re-locating their growing business to Kapalama Military Reservation warehouse off Sand Island Road where they now employ 11 people, business took off as the couple were able to take on large-scale orders.

But the couple say their biggest challenge by far was a lack of business knowledge when they first started out.

"Our biggest challenge was our ignorance about basic business. For us a big challenge had been balancing the checkbook," said Gary.

Happily, having mastered yet another challenge, the Barnes are now ready to try something new.

They are now talking to a manufacturer in South East Asia about designing a line of teak umbrellas and matching furniture.

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