Damon Fogel (left) and Eric Brenner have built AuthenTEAK into a national, high-end business in West Midtown.

By Logan C. Ritchie | lritchie@atljewishtimes.com

AuthenTEAK owners Eric Brenner and Damon Fogel met in the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi as pledge brothers at the University of Georgia. Post-college careers led them into different realms of sales, from hospitality to paper products, while they remained friends.

“We were getting an on-the-job M.B.A.,” Brenner said. “You get an education from school, but that doesn’t mean you have the best work experience. We both knew that sales was the best foundation for understanding business.”

Now in business together for 17 years, Brenner and Fogel are in a sweet spot: West Midtown is developing and expanding; AuthenTEAK’s career-oriented staff has low turnover; and the guys have a foothold on the outdoor furniture business.

In the 15,000-square-foot AuthenTEAK showroom, a former warehouse in the booming West Midtown design district, we discussed work ethic, ambition and business practices.

AJT: How did you become friends?

Brenner: Common interests in hobbies, music and leisure time. We went to the Bahamas and to Colorado on a ski trip. We were roommates for about a year. (After college) we were getting work experience and honing our work ethic, learning the ropes. We both went to Kinko’s corporate in 1997, so our paths crossed again.

 

AJT: So you left Kinko’s corporate and started your own company. Tell me more.

Brenner: We started a growing but small, hardworking printing company in downtown. Before the aquarium was down there. Before anything was down there.

Fogel: It was a grind. Printing is a tough business.

Brenner: Some of this is hindsight, but deadline-driven, time-sensitive and attention-to-detail (business) is complex. We were married to the business. When you’re young, you are going to work a lot if you want to do it well. That became the norm.

 

AJT: You’re working hard, running a successful printing business. How did you make the switch to selling outdoor furniture?

Brenner: Business was good. Lots of work, lots of effort. Pure owner-operator, married-to-the-business-type situation. It wasn’t until we started this as a business that we could analyze. People say business is business, and all business is the same. This was quite different.

Fogel: Furniture was possibly a good opportunity. We didn’t do one to get rid of the other. We worked longer hours. If you want to do business well, you work a lot. It became the norm. We were comfortable with long hours.

Brenner: We had five straight years of revenue growth in the printing business when we started the furniture business. We were working seven days a week.

Fogel: Printing was clearly Monday to Friday. Furniture was for consumers on the weekend, so we had two different audiences. We saw that (AuthenTEAK) could grow, and we were enjoying it, so we started looking for a possible exit strategy for the printing business.

 

AJT: But this was downtown on the weekends. Wasn’t it a ghost town?

Brenner: We opened as a weekend-only business in the ground floor of our printing company. We ran the same phone lines and the same computers. It was a space that had no heat, no air conditioning, no bathroom, no kitchen.

Fogel: We would take deliveries on the street and build furniture at night. We would deliver it ourselves until my great-uncle’s hand-me-down truck got stolen. It was an old Chevy pickup long bed with wood side panels. I wish I still had that truck.

Brenner: We were in this terrible location. No one knew who we were, and yet we continued to make sales.

Fogel: Eric and I would post signs on telephone poles everywhere from here to Alpharetta. We would drive around when we had time on the weekend and after work to put signs up, just to have people yell at us to take them down, and put them back up again.

 

AJT: What shifted?

Brenner: As we approached off-season, we needed to analyze the business. You can’t just work in the business; you have to work on the business. In the second year of furniture we matched revenues of seven years in printing. We put the printing business up for sale, signed a lease here, and the printing business sold in two weeks.

We have rolled the dice three times. We had good jobs and left that to be unemployed/self-employed. Then we had a company that was 5 years old, with growing revenue, and we sold it to start this business. The third roll of the dice was when we moved in here before we sold the printing business. Those were three big decisions.

 

AJT: Did you turn a profit?

Fogel: Yes. We used that money to renovate this space.

 

AJT: When you moved into West Midtown, what was it like?

Fogel: You knew people were talking about doing things, but it was still industrial.

Brenner: We knew this was a home-furnishing, steals-and-deals type of district. The Huff Road corridor was growing and had a vibe.

 

AJT: Who is less risk-adverse?

Brenner: I am.

Fogel: I agree. We are both pretty conservative. Coming here from a small space was pretty risky, but we don’t run our business by taking huge risks. We take calculated risks. We’re not playing Russian roulette.

 

AJT: When you expanded the space, did you expand product lines?

Brenner: The name AuthenTEAK started because we carried teak products. By the time we were here in 2006, we had already expanded to aluminum, wicker, natural and synthetic materials, and stone. With more showroom space, we broadened the product mix — outdoor kitchens, grills and smokers.

 

AJT: What’s your strategic planning like?

Fogel: We are constantly looking at the numbers and talking about it.

Brenner: This is a seasonal business. It’s geared toward what it will look like come March 1.

 

AJT: But isn’t Atlanta a three-season town?

Brenner: We are outdoor living specialists all year round. Our market is national. We focus on Florida, Arizona, California and other Southern states in the winter.

Fogel: We see business in Canada, Caribbean islands and Hawaii, and all those places have a need for our product and buy from the mainland on a regular basis. We deal in different markets: consumers, design trade, and commercial or hospitality. All those markets are why we can do this all year long. We are not a high-traffic place. We’re a destination place that services the upper end of a spectrum.

Brenner: Most people who walk in the door come in having done research already. People that come in and say, “I’ve been driving by forever” is a different client than one who has been online doing research.

 

AJT: That’s me. I’ve been driving by for years.

Brenner: We’re a destination location in an up-and-coming destination location. (Laughs.)

Fogel: The stuff that’s selling around West Midtown is not for our target customers. We have something for everybody, for sure, but in a city this big there are only a few places to buy this product. (The consumer) is going to seek out the few places that sell it.

Brenner: There is plenty of competition in the city.

Fogel: The Internet is a huge component of our business. It’s the fastest-growing component of our business.

 

AJT: What else should people know about your business?

Fogel: Even though our name is AuthenTEAK and our heritage is teak, we are outdoor specialists, and we do everything associated with the outdoor lifestyle: heat, fire, shade, furniture, kitchens, planters, TVs. We do everything.

Brenner: We travel the globe where we source unique items and products that were not previously available in the U.S.

Family Ties

Damon Fogel’s family in the 1950s owned a fat-rendering and grease business directly across the street from the site of AuthenTEAK. “My grandfather got a kick out of the fact that we opened a business across the street from his old building,” Fogel said. “Back then, this was called Shanty Town, and it was full of little shanty houses.”