Portrait: Clell Smith, Kenian Imports
Susan Dickenson -- Home Accents Today, July 18, 2013
Rattan furniture producer Kenian Imports, based in Virginia, is the industry leader in the production of tortoise-style rattan and bamboo furniture. Founded in the year 2000, Kenian is based in Virginia Beach where company founder and owner Clell Smith has lived since the age of 3. Kenian's warehouse and distribution center is about 15 miles away in Chesapeake.
"Many of our designs are based on antiques, but much of the line is our interpretation of everyday usable pieces," Smith said of the company's products, which are also offered in a variety of colors. "I was inspired by 18th century British and Asian bamboo furniture, but wanted to use a stronger medium that would last and give more years of use."
The company recently began expanding into more refined and sophisticated looks, pairing rattan with mixed media and experimenting with new processes to put a fresh twist on traditional rattan construction. The New Classics collection debuted in High Point and is being exhibited this month in Atlanta, with more to come this fall.
"I have wanted to move into this direction for some time, but it took a while to find the right designer and to work out the manufacturing resources," Smith said. "This category will account for much of our future growth and will expand our customer base into the higher-end designer and retail furniture stores. We are also moving into outdoor all-weather rattan, which we call our Alfresco Collection."
How did you get into the rattan/imports business? It was a series of events and opportunities. I was a key account manager for Import Specialists, a leader in the natural fiber doormat business. While visiting China, the company's president found and brought back a rattan folding chair that we placed in several national accounts, including the Expo Design stores owned by Home Depot. After Import Specialists was sold, the buyer at Expo gave me the chance to start my own company and supply the chair. For the first 18 months, all we did was serve Expo. Then I designed a few additional items, sold them through the Atlanta showroom of rep group About the Home, and continued to develop new designs and expand our offerings. The folding rattan chair, now offered in colors, is still a core part of line. Since the formation of our company, we have sold more of this folding rattan chair than anyone in the world.
Where does the name "Kenian" come from? It's an acronym for Kendall and Ian, my daughter and son. A good friend of mine came up with it when we started the company. It felt and sounded right, and it reminds me why I unlock the door every day.
What is your role in the company? My passion is in design and sales. We recently started a collaboration with a wonderful designer, Lynne Yurosko, who will take a major role in our future product design and visual merchandising. Lynne has a lot of history in rattan design and development from factory to showroom; she understands retail, gets my vision and we have fun working together. Key people also include Dianne Hurst, our purchasing manager; Robin Cullen, our customer service manager; and my son Ian who is our customer advocate. Ian has Down syndrome and is one of the greatest guys you will ever meet. He comes into the office one day a week or more as needed. He also helps with pre-High Point set up and comes with me to Atlanta for the first few days of the show.
Who is Kenian's customer? Interior designers, specialty stores, independent retailers, online retailers.
Does rattan furniture sell better in particular areas? Coastal - East Coast to Southeast - are our strongest markets, followed by the West Coast, then the interior and mid-North. We do well in lakefront and second home communities, and with the addition of our more refined New Classics Collection, we have a much broader geographical customer base.
What's hot? Accent tables, our large wall bookcases, desk sets, night stands, side cabinets, and of course our folding rattan chairs. From our New Classics launch, top sellers were our Chippendale chairs and Addison wing chair in woven rattan peel.
How involved are you at the factory? Very. As anyone who goes to Asia can tell you, it is a long trip, but once there, I love working with the factory and spending time with the many friends we have developed over the years. And I absolutely love the food from the countryside.
I know you're a surfer - does your work provide you an opportunity to ride the waves in exotic locales in Asia? Now that we are producing in Indonesia I'm like a kid again. I surfed Bali last year and will return this year. Indonesia is one of the best surfing destinations in the world. It's crazy to travel so far, work so hard and not take time to get in the water.
Highlight of your career thus far: My wife and children come first, because without their support none of this would be possible. Career-wise, it is a very accomplished feeling to have established a company from scratch, and survive the last few years in our industry. I do not consider this work, it's just part of my life that I enjoy, think about and do almost every day.