Crafting an experience
By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
What does lingerie have in common with Amish handiwork?
The answer may be as close as your nearest mall. The next time you’re shopping at Victoria’s Secret (or Bass Pro Shops or Yankee Candle), check out the store fixtures used to display the merchandise. Chances are they were made by Amish workers here in northeast Indiana.
While the Harlan-base manufacturer Our Country Home and its largely Amish workforce does in fact build bra displays, the company’s president and CEO Thomas Blake would want you to know that they do so much more than that.
Blake grew up about 40 miles away in Defiance, Ohio. He started Our Country Home in 1985. At that time, he was working as a high school teacher. He had planned a field trip for his junior sociology class to several spots in Fort Wayne, but they never made it to any of those places.
“What we ended up doing was coming here to Grabill and going to the H. Souder & Sons General Store and my kids loved it,” he said.
Blake liked the area so much, he rented an adjacent building a week later. If that sounds like a leap, consider his entrepreneurial streak: He helped open a health spa while he was still in college, he also had an antiques business and an auction service to name just a few of his business ventures. Even during his years as a teacher, he worked different jobs during his summers off.
He was always looking for opportunities, and he saw one when he walked through that big empty building on Main Street more than 30 years ago.
Our Country Home has since expanded and today it makes store fixtures for retailers including Victoria Secret, Bass Pro Shops, Yankee Candle, Lane Bryant and Vera Bradley. But Blake didn’t get into the fixture market intentionally.
“In 1990, a company by the name of the Limited started a store called Bath & Body Works, and we supplied all the antiques for their displays,” Blake said.
Later, Our Country Home was asked to build a wagon and then carts and crates. Eventually, the designers from Bath & Body Works would move to other companies “and then they started calling us,” Blake said.
The company’s current business model involves the coordination of several facilities across northeast Indiana. Here’s how it works: Our Country Home receives an order and does the design work. Its workers precut the wood at two facilities in Harlan and a Fort Wayne company, High Tech Fabricators, supplies the metal parts. The kits are then shipped to Amish farms, mostly in Grabill, where they are assembled. Our Country Home also provides training and supplies.
“They are excellent workers, and they like to work at home with their family,” Blake said.
There are about 350 people working for Our Country Home on any given day, he said.
The company is in the process of an expansion in Grabill, which will add 16.5 acres to the operation. It’s building a shipping facility that will help increase output and streamline shipping, he said.
Blake said the property also includes a two-acre pond that will be used for aquaculture. He started a solar/aquaponics/hydroponics division in Hamilton in 2002.
“We do commercial solar fields, we do commercial heating with solar, we sell systems to raise aquaponics and hydroponic plants,” he said.
Keeping up with the industry
Our Country Home makes everything from simple shelving units to entire Christmas villages (this year it’s making 80 for Bass Pro Shops). The set up includes a cabin, ticket booth and fencing to creating an experience for children to take their picture with Santa.
At a time when brick and mortar retailers are competing with online retailers, stores are selling more than clothes, Blake said; they’re selling an experience. That’s why businesses in the store fixtures industry have to be prepared to adapt to market changes.
“We have to be fluid,” he said. “We’re a multimillion dollar company working with multibillion dollar companies competing against everyone in the world.”
In order to remain competitive, Our Country Home offers its customers “value-added incentives.” Blake said he knows this is a buzzword, but it’s also serious business. Nobody knew where to custom order a wagon for their stores 25 years ago. Now, all you have to do is a Google search, he said.
Retailers go with the company that can offer the most. Blake credits Our Country Home manager Elmer Lengacher for coming up with ways to add value to the product – free prototypes, free designs, figuring out how to make a finish better or finding a way to save on building a cabinet.
Last week, Blake met with a procurement sourcing specialist from Abercrombie & Fitch. The teen clothing retailer is in the process of “reinventing” its brand, which means a new look for its stores. Our Country Home is helping to furnish the new floor plan for a look that is “customer-centric, brighter, more open and inclusive.”
“You have this whole culture behind the scenes developing this store, and it has to be just so to create a brand image,” Blake said.