Right in your own backyard

“This is the best spring we’ve had for 20 years,” Ray Sweet says. “It’s a fantastic change of events, as far as the economy is concerned,” he adds. And it’s great news to be able to share. The Sweets run a wholesale-only business fabricating Fiberlite umbrellas, a product his father developed and patented.

Sweet, however, had never planned to step into the family business after working in his dad’s outdoor furniture refinishing shop as a teenager. “He would stick me in the worst job,” he says. “Eventually in every job, so I was forced to learn the industry.” That proved invaluable in the end, but in the meantime, Sweet went to college, where a class project to write a business proposal caught the attention of the instructor. “I decided to use the umbrella,” he says, “and the teacher said ‘this is a great concept. You need to pursue this thing.’”

But Sweet had other ideas. Intrigued by Florida’s customs fraud division, he applied to work there. “But I transposed the number on the application and ended up in food stamps,” he says. He was so good at his new job that he was told he’d never be transferred out of that department—and he was absolutely miserable.

When his father later had to fire a key employee, Sweet still balked at returning to the shop, but this time he was willing to reconsider. “I was looking at what was the right thing to do,” he says, “and that was to help my father and my family.”

Making it work

He saw an open window and made a deal with his father. “I was not going to do just menial things,” he says. “I was going to try to sell the umbrellas.” Ironically, the customs office offered him the job he’d always wanted at the same time, but Sweet hasn’t looked back. Since his customers were enthusiastic about the umbrellas, and he had the help of his step-grandfather, who was experienced in manufacturing, Sweet soon realized that “we had something, and I had the ability to make a difference.”

Eventually, he enlisted his wife, Joann’s, help—“She’s a fantastic salesperson,” he says—who had some great connections in South Florida where they lived at the time. They moved to Jacksonville, Fla., in 2007 and moved the business—literally—to their own backyard.

When their children get home from school, “we’re right there,” he says, but he admits it’s a struggle to stop working. “I try to make a point that after six o’clock I let the phone go to voicemail and spend time with the kids,” he says. They also try to take a week-long family cruise every year, and since they’ve grown up by the water, the whole family loves to go to the beach on weekends. Sweet still gets in a little offshore fishing for dolphin and marlin, and they’re big football fans and used to hold season tickets for another “big fish”—the Miami Dolphins.

Day to day, they’ve set up a routine that includes “family night” Tuesday for the kids’ soccer games and dinner out. “The kids really get into that,” he says. “We’re a very close-knit family,” he says, “and we’ve become stronger because we’re together all the time.”

by Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review