CEO | Legaré Furniture | Fort Worth, Texas
by Kristin Todd Stires
Need to know how to beat jet lag? With more than three million airline miles logged, Mike Markwardt is a true international businessman and can give you the inside scoop on travel.
“I’ve been to China 85 times in the last 32 years; I should win some type of award for that alone,” he laughed. “Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the Internet, you had to travel to overseas factories. It was the only way to properly communicate and to get your product in front of the big buyers.”
Before he began racking up frequent flier miles, Markwardt attended Baylor on a partial track scholarship as a pole-vaulter. After graduating with a degree in Management and Marketing, he joined the family business, Encon Industries, a ceiling fan supply company that his father started in the late ‘70s.
“It was one of those product categories that comes along once in your lifetime,” Markwardt said. “My dad was the first American to import a container of ceiling fans into the United States in 1977, and the business just took off.”
In 1991, Markwardt started the company’s European division with warehouses in Germany and England. Five years later, the division was generating close to $20 million a year. Markwardt also spent time in Asia developing relationships with Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s buyers, and learned how to speak Mandarin.
“It was exciting to see the dramatic growth of the business,” he said. “We had close to $100 million in revenues when we sold the company in 2000.”
The Mandarin lessons and international supplier relationships proved extremely beneficial to Markwardt as he embarked on his current venture, Legaré Furniture, in 2004. The company designs and imports office, media, occasional and youth bedroom furniture made from Moso bamboo or eco-friendly MDF. No tools are needed for the furniture assembly; in fact, Legaré’s major selling point is a three-minute product assembly time.
“In Italian, ‘legaré’ means ‘to connect’ or ‘join together,’” Markwardt said. “Since our furniture is designed for tool-free assembly with interlocking pieces, we thought the name was a great fit for the company. I describe the furniture as ‘IKEA on steroids.’ We have a similar style, but our pieces are made with better quality materials, and tools aren’t needed for assembly.”
Legaré furniture, manufactured in China and imported to the U.S., has won numerous industry design awards, and Markwardt emphasized the importance of patents for protecting an innovative product.
“We have several U.S., Canadian, European, Taiwanese and Chinese utility and design patents in place,” he said. “That’s the name of the game in the import business. If you don’t have intellectual property rights, it’s really hard to maintain gross profit margins because your product can get knocked off easily.”
Markwardt handles global sourcing, distribution and all international sales for Legaré.
“About 60 percent of our business is outside the U.S.,” Markwardt said. “This is strange for a company as small as ours, but with all my years in the ceiling fan business, I had a lot of experience selling internationally.”
Each year Markwardt attends international import/export trade fairs in Cologne, Germany; Shanghai, China; and the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, China. Although with technological advances, he doesn’t have to catch quite as many flights these days.
“My factory inspectors in China can do a walk-through and show me what’s going on in real-time with Skype video on an iPhone,” he said. “The technology is really helpful and convenient. It’s important from a quality assurance standpoint to stay on top of every shipment.”
Markwardt maintains ties to Baylor through his daughter Haley, who is a junior Entrepreneurship major, and by serving as a board member for Baylor’s Technology Entrepreneurship Initiative, which offers the Immersion Into International Interdisciplinary Innovation (i5) program. Through the program, Baylor students travel to Shanghai and partner with Chinese students to work on projects for sponsor firms. Legaré served as a sponsor firm last year, and Markwardt supports the program’s focus on cultural immersion.
“I think it’s important to immerse yourself in the culture when traveling to other countries,” he said. “Appreciating that culture helps you get closer to the people. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”