Summer Classics founder William Bew White III is this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the International Casual Furnishings Association. Founded in 2002, the annual award recognizes outstanding accomplishments and achievements over many years in the outdoor furniture industry. Honorees are identified by their innovative leadership and ideas that advance the growth of the category.
When White graduated from Auburn University in 1972 with a degree in textile engineering, the phrase “outdoor living” meant camping, and outdoor furniture consisted of a table and chairs on the patio. After six years working at the family business, Avondale Mills, the enterprising young man started a sale representative company called Vista Corporation to sell outdoor furniture.
By 1987, White had started multiple companies in an effort to move from selling on the road to building a national brand. Summer Classics, an enterprise he developed around his vision of designing and manufacturing products he would want for his own backyard, was founded in March 1979. This consumer-centric model generated a mix of wood, wrought iron and aluminum products manufactured in plants in the United States, Chile and Mexico, and attracted high profile customers, like Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Smith & Hawken, Frontgate and Nieman Marcus.
By 2000, White had moved much of his manufacturing to Asia and began focusing on cast aluminum and wicker. Cushions, however, were designed and manufactured at facilities in Birmingham, Ala., which produced up to 2,000 custom-made cushions per day. By 2004, Summer Classics had designed its own performance fabrics and trademarked them as Colores.
Ever the innovator, White was also developing a new UV-resistant wicker during this time. Called N-dura, he used technology that ensured no color fading for five years, an industry first. By 2011, Summer Classics perfected the overall comfort level of its outdoor furniture by developing a new cushion formula resulting in another trademarked component, the Dream cushion. White was among the first in the industry to establish an in-house lab to test all new materials before introduction.
Today, White’s son, William, and daughter, Wynne White Martin, are both in the family business. William founded Gabby in 2010, and now serves as president of Gabriella White LLC named after White’s mother. Wynne founded Wendy Jane, a specialty pillow division, in 2016 and is Summer Classics’ national account manager. A second daughter, Walker, is in the ministry.
Summer Classics is Alabama’s largest importer and supports over 400 local jobs. Its products are sold in 50 states and Canada. In addition, there are 19 Summer Classics Home retail stores. To drive the company’s consumer-focused product development, consumer surveys generate regular product feedback.
White has been a tireless advocate for his industry, providing guidance to dealers in the wake of the economic crash of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic. He developed a “next generation” plan for hiring emerging talent and bringing them into the casual industry, and he leads by example with a staff of diverse ages, races, sexual orientations and religions. He hosts a world-class symposium of industry experts in Birmingham each year to educate dealers on the latest in banking, merchandising, sales and marketing trends.
He implemented the largest solar power system held by a privately-owned business in Alabama and set up teams to create recycling programs throughout the company.
White’s philanthropic endeavors are broad and passionate. He has been a key donor to Lifeline adoption, cancer research, children’s hospice, church rebuilding, Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Way and various Christian ministries. The Summer Classics Halo collection donates a portion of all sales to cancer research in honor of long-time sales rep Susan Lambeth, who lost her battle to ovarian cancer.
“He is an incredible man with a big heart for his employees,” said Rob Robinson, a Summer Classics sales representative who was among those submitting nominations for White. “A tireless and savvy businessman. A mentor to countless.”
White’s wife of 50 years, Wendy, styled all of the company’s photo shoots for the first 15 years of the business. An accomplished gardener, she helps accessorize the company’s photo shoots with fresh flowers. White will be honored during the 2021 ICFA Awards Gala on September 22 at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park.