Love of craftsmanship, family values stokes Firetainment founder | Crain's Orlando

Love of craftsmanship, family values stokes Firetainment founder

  • Firetainment's Shawn Clark is one of the patio/casual furniture industry's youngest CEOs. | Firetainment courtesy photo

  • Firetainment's granite-top fire tables offer a patent-pending grill-type functionality. | Courtesy photo

  • FIretainment's stainless steel cook mount can be used with available accessories. | Courtesy photo

  • Firetainment's goal is to bring hibachi-style restaurant dining to patios and backyards. | Courtesy photo

  • The fire-pit tables are USA-manufactured. | Courtesy photo

  • Founded in 2011, Central Florida-based Firetainment has sales reps in all 50 states. | Courtesy photo

Inspiration for Firetainment’s line of custom fire-pit tables came while CEO Shawn Clark was dining out at a hibachi-style restaurant just days after spotting some beautiful marble table-tops.

“Everyone around me was just having fun at their tables – without having their cell phones out,” he recalled. “And I wanted to bring that experience home, and fill a need out there for versatile furniture that promotes family and friends getting together.”

With a combination of blue-collar work ethic, child-like enthusiasm and Silicon Valley ingenuity, Clark immediately pursued the goal of creating fire tables with cooking capability. He came up with the name Firetainment that night. Since launching in 2011, the company has seen 40 percent growth year over year. And Clark’s mid-meal brainstorm has blossomed into a $2.5 million business with 22 sales reps who oversee placement in 260 patio-lifestyle retail locations nationwide.

Along the way, 33-year-old Clark has established a creative business model that emphasizes American craftsmanship, employee engagement, and top-shelf customer service.

A spark is born

After graduating from high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, Clark worked in restaurants and sold insurance, where he learned to translate his affability into sales. At age 21, he began working for a Central Florida mechanical contracting company that built large industrial steam systems for citrus plants. There, he went from hands-on boilermaker work and welding to project management and sales.

“At that point, I went to managing million-dollar projects and being the youngest guy in the room,” Clark said.

At the same time, he and four partners launched, managed, and sold a company that processed used restaurant oil into biofuel. Using equipment discovered at salvage yards, Clark built the operation’s quarter-million dollar plant for around $20,000. “That’s where I learned business savvy and dealing with people,” he said. He worked at his day job, then did oil-truck pickups throughout the night. Clark calls the venture, which turned over 25,000 gallons per month, his “college.” The partners sold the company three years ago.

Forging connections

In the early days, Clark sold the handmade tables at popular Orlando events like wine festivals in local neighborhoods. After an early investor advised focusing on B2B, Firetainment entered the big league by exhibiting at the casual furniture industry’s largest trade event in 2012. It was immediately obvious that the company was out of place, he recalls. “These are $100 million companies [that were] unveiling their new products, and we didn’t even have our paperwork figured out.”

The event proved to be a turning point, nonetheless. Clark met two individuals who would prove crucial to Firetainment’s early growth. One was the sister of a host of HGTV shows “Decked Out” and “Disaster Deck,” who ordered some tables for the show. Through that connection, Clark was introduced to the prize manager at the long-running, daytime TV game show “The Price is Right," where Firetainment tables are now offered as featured prizes at least once a month.

The second key contact was Kevin Prefontaine, the president and owner of one of the nation’s largest outdoor lifestyle/furniture retail chains, based in Indianapolis.

“He sat me down and gave me the industry rundown,” Clark said. “Ever since, he’s been helping me tailor my program and product as we grow.” Prefontaine also introduced him to key players in the business, who say they love the fact that "there’s a young guy coming into the industry.”

Today Firetainment’s product line features custom tables in 12 sizes, three shapes and two heights, with tops fashioned from polished granite or pre-cast concrete, and marine-grade aluminum alloy base enclosures. Each has a patented 12-inch stainless steel burner and a patent-pending, universal cook mount that can be used with a host of accessories, such as a cast-iron griddle.

Building community

As sales took off, Clark focused on ensuring that fabrication was handled by American tradespeople in Orlando, Florida, and at a nearby Sanford studio. The 10,000-square-foot Orlando operation includes both granite and concrete fabrication facilities and houses 10-12 employees. “We build all of our own burners, all of our own base enclosures, and all the metal components are made right there.”

Customer service has been a crucial part of Firetainment’s success, Clark said. “Our customers are the stores,” he explained, so he ensures their 100 percent satisfaction by employing a thorough, if informal, guarantee.

“I don’t even hand out warranties. If there’s a problem with the product, you pick up the phone and you call me and I will send you a replacement. I want that piece back so that I can analyze it and make sure that this doesn’t happen again. If we tell you we’re going to ship something on a certain date, we're going to ship on that date. If it doesn’t, I’ll call you up and I’ll give you a discount because we didn’t make it happen.”

Firetainment’s lean manufacturing model also fosters a tight group of skilled fabricators. “These guys are almost artists,” he noted, adding that 60 percent came to the company from Bridges of America, a private provider of re-entry programming for offenders, ex-felons and probation populations.

“We bring them in and teach them trade skills and get them outside,” Clark said. “They’re guys that not only worked with us while they were at [Bridges], but they’ve stayed once they’ve gotten out and are [now] operating as awesome humans.”

Steve Lewis, production manager for Firetainment, who came to the company from the program, argues that it’s Clark who’s the standout – particularly when it comes to valuing employees and defying convention.

“He treats us all as family. When someone calls him ‘boss,’ he’ll say, 'Don’t call me that. You don’t have to call me that,’" Lewis said. “The thing about Shawn is he doesn’t have any set rules.”

Then again, Lewis explains, nothing is set in their business. “The main challenge is the change, the growth. You constantly have to adapt. You can’t get too comfortable," Lewis said. "Once I got comfortable on the saw, it was, “Now you’re going to be learning this.’ [Clark will] get everybody to work in every area, in case you need to fill in, but he also wants to know what you’re best at.”

Stoking growth

That type of flexibility among the artisans is essential, Clark said. “We hit these growth points every six to nine months where we have to regroup, redesign the shop, redesign the workflow and make sure that I’m adding the right amount of hands so that our customer service does not falter.”

This spring, Firetainment is experiencing yet another period of growth – at the same time Clark has been consumed with traveling, training and seeing customers. But the production line is never far from his thoughts.

“With my background in being a welder-fabricator, I can take and merge five ideas into one piece of equipment and allow one guy to do five persons’ jobs." Last month Clark recycled an old shipping container, insulating it and installing an exhaust system to create a sealing and curing room. “I love to build things that no one’s ever built.”

With a sales goal of $7 million for 2017 and a new focus on retailers west of the Mississippi River, Clark is counting on his growing family of loyal employees to meet the challenges ahead. To elicit new ideas, he created an incentive that pays $500 to anyone who comes up with a new process that gets implemented. It’s a win-win arrangement, he explains.

“It makes your job easier and gets everybody focused on [how] we can get to where we’re doing $20 million, $30 million, $40 million with the same number of hands.”

April 7, 2017 - 8:53am