Sharp Focus, Broad Impact

By Sigrid Tornquist, Specialty Fabrics Review | April 2014

Hal Lapping tightens his company’s focus to make quality products affordable.

We remain focused on our core products, and because we stay focused we offer the best quality products at the most competitive prices,” says Hal Lapping, president of Economy Tent Intl. (an Anchor company), Miami. Fla. “And part of that mind set is that we are constantly looking for ways to improve every aspect of the business.”

Economy Tent Intl. was incorporated in 1948 as Economy Awning Co.—a fabricator of vinyl products for residential and commercial customers. In 1990, Lapping and his wife Linda purchased an interest in the company, and in 1997 became sole owners. At that time Lapping retired from his 20-year career at Sears and took over as president of Economy. “During my years with Sears I worked in a variety of management positions throughout the southeastern U.S., which included working with people with distinct personalities and management styles,” Lapping says. “The assignments—in HR, purchasing, operations, distribution and training—were at both a store and regional level, and were the perfect experience to prepare me to lead Economy.” Eventually Hal’s daughters, Sarah and Shelly, became an integral part of the Economy team and have significantly contributed to the success of the company.

The focus: tents

At the time Lapping and his wife took over the company, it had a number of product lines not related to the tent industry, including banners for the sign industry, commercial truck tarpaulins and residential awnings and carports—which Lapping points out were related mostly to local and walk-in customers. “As we transitioned and built the tent business over the years we de-emphasized the other product lines,” Lapping says. “We saw a much broader national and international market for tents, as well as an opportunity to be more efficient in our manufacturing processes.” Now the company’s focus is providing 10-foot- to 40-foot-wide frame tents to a customer base in the northeast and southeast U.S., the Caribbean and Latin America.

The process of de-emphasizing and eventually phasing out peripheral product lines happened over a period of time. “We supported our existing customers but we stopped advertising, marketing and including those products on our website, and eventually the business transitioned somewhat on its own,” Lapping says.

The right equipment: ROI

Among the critical components to improving efficiency is making sure equipment meets the company’s needs, now and in the future, according to Lapping. “Improving profitability while keeping pricing low is a balancing act,” he says. “In order to do this we are always looking for more efficiency in the manufacturing process and for ways to reduce costs, and one way to do that is to upgrade equipment. In the last six or seven years we’ve replaced and upgraded almost all of our equipment.”

As an example, a recent equipment purchase for Economy Tent was an automatic fabric slitter. “This machine will go through a roll of material in about 15 minutes so it’s really improved efficiency,” Lapping says. “Usually any piece of equipment that has a two- to three-year return on investment (ROI) is a good deal. The ROI on the slitting machine was about 12 months.”

Every year Lapping also sets a personal goal to develop a new product or make improvements in existing products to keep the company on the cutting edge. The latest innovation Lapping developed is the Slidewall® Trac System, which was introduced in 2013. The system gives tent sidewalls the ability to slide from side to side.

The personal touch

Like many successful managers, Lapping practices a form of “management by walking around,” making it a point even on the busiest days to make the rounds. “Being accessible and engaging frequently with employees is extremely important to me,” he says. “You can’t accomplish this by sitting in an office. This [practice] also becomes a coaching exercise to instill the importance of sharing goals and standards with everyone. It still amazes me to see how much can be achieved by this daily interaction.”

As Lapping makes the rounds, he’s likely to encounter a few babies and dogs along the way—his policy at Economy Tent is that employees are allowed to bring newborns and dogs to work. “I’ve always felt that our employees are our most important asset,” Lapping says. “Creating this kind of environment helps them out and makes things a bit more personal. There have been six babies in the building over the last 10 years, which enables employees to return to work sooner and gives them a level of comfort to have their newborns with them for longer.” Lapping says the practice doesn’t adversely affect productivity at all, and that the other employees participate in helping the mom care for the baby.

Currently the company has up to four dogs that accompany employees to work—three yellow Labradors and one Yorkipoo. The dogs can be inside with employees or they can spend time in the dog pen outside, complete with cover for shade.

The acquisition

Economy Tent’s steady growth and its reputation for quality, value and innovation led to the company’s acquisition by Anchor Industries Inc., Evansville, Ind., in 2011. “We weren’t looking to be acquired, but the opportunity to be part of the most well-respected tent manufacturer in our industry was the perfect scenario,” Lapping says. “This has greatly helped to accelerate our growth, and I feel Economy’s performance has met everyone’s expectations.” Lapping points out that both companies benefit from being able to offer customers direct referrals for products that one company may not offer but the other does.

From two decades of working in retail to almost 25 years leading a respected tent manufacturing company, the business strengths that have contributed to Lapping’s success are the same—his ability to foresee problems, resolve business issues in a timely manner and stay focused on the matters at hand.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.  Photography by Betsy Hansen.

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