Furniture & flip-flops: outdoor brand Extremis conquers America – Business

In 2015, designer Thomas Wynants spotted a market opportunity in the US for Extremis, the Belgian outdoor furniture brand founded by his parents. He seizes this opportunity in a unique way, you know trip across the United States with his wife Ashlee Anvik and maintains a headquarters in Rockford, Michigan.

Spring always blooms late in Michigan, but as early as May begins, the rush into summer finally begins. “In a few weeks nature will be lush green,” says Ashlee Anvik as we look out over the nearby golf course from their backyard. Since mid-2018, this house, a midcentury gem from 1957, has been home to Ashlee and Thomas Wynants, both in their early thirties. From here in Belmont, Michigan, it’s just a short drive to Extremis USA headquarters in Rockford. “When the weather is good, we can even go to work in a kayak,” says Thomas.

Spring always blooms late in Michigan, but with the start of May, the spurt into summer finally begins. “In a few weeks nature will be lush green,” says Ashlee Anvik as we look out over the nearby golf course from their backyard. Since mid-2018, this house, a midcentury gem from 1957, has been home to Ashlee and Thomas Wynants, both in their early thirties. From here in Belmont, Michigan, it’s just a short drive to Extremis USA headquarters in Rockford. “When the weather is good, we can even go to work in a kayak,” says Thomas. Both Ashlee and Thomas are keen outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for winter sports. They could also be the country in Colorado, where the mountains and the city are close at hand, or elsewhere in the United States. Still, Rockford wasn’t chosen entirely at random. This small town of about 6,000 people seems straight out of a guidebook to 1950s America, with its picturesque main street, quaint single-family homes and scenery reminiscent of the Ardennes. But above all, Rockford is 15 kilometers north of the American furniture capital, Grand Rapids. This historic Furniture City, the second largest city in Michigan after Detroit, is still home to (office) furniture giants such as Steelcase, with whom Extremis USA works closely, and Herman Miller, as well as many suppliers. “Grand Rapids has 200 furniture makers, but we’re the only ones in Rockford that allow us to invest in the local community. All while keeping Grand Rapids expertise and suppliers close at hand,” says Thomas. Chicago is where Thomas and Ashlee met in 2015. Thomas was interning at Minimal, the interdisciplinary design studio founded by Scott Wilson. Originally from Montana, Ashlee had moved to Chicago to work in advertising, first at The Onion, the satirical news site, then at the Chicago offices of the New York Times. The internship was a revelation for Thomas. He has heard of Neocon, the furniture trade fair which, in short, is the American equivalent of the Salone del Mobile in Milan. With the flame of youth and his premature enthusiasm, he convinced his parents to join Neocon with Extremis. After his internship, Thomas returned to Belgium and resumed his position at Extremis in Poperinge. He and Ashlee stayed in touch and they started a long distance relationship between Poperinge and Chicago. But USA and Ashlee didn’t let go of Thomas. “I saw great potential in the US market for Extremis and felt that my father’s design deserved exposure outside of the European market, so I convinced Ashlee to start Extremis USA Inc. with me. And then we presented this project to my parents.” Dirk and Hilde Wynants reacted cautiously. They had been married for years before Hilde got involved in the business. A little concerned, they asked Ashlee if she was really up for it, because giving up a good job at the New York Times is a big deal. Ashlee admits it was a bit like jumping into the void. “I felt like I had finally found my dream job and I was going to give it up for this young Fleming” (laughs). Thomas threw a farewell party for Ashlee’s employees, which he called the “apology party”. “It was a way of apologizing for poaching her from her job. I asked her boss if she could come back if I messed up. He immediately said yes.” Starting a business in a new market niche with a brand new love interest is one thing, but the way Thomas and Ashlee have done it and continue to do it is a challenge and a telling test of their relationship. Before settling in Belmont, they spent several years on the road with Extremis catalogs and a suitcase of clothes in the trunk of their SUV. From one Airbnb to another, and for the last year in their retro RV, they stayed in each region of the United States for one to three months to get a good understanding of the American market. “I handed over the keys to my apartment, sold my furniture and got in the car,” Ashlee recalled. Their long-distance relationship therefore transformed from one day to a day to a 24-hour relationship, split between travel, work and everyday life. “Deep down, I knew there was no in-between: it would be utter failure or an amazing achievement,” says Thomas. “We had to make decisions. There are limits to commuting and seeing each other once every three months. You can’t do this forever.” These years on the road have taught them a lot. “My major is design, and Ashlee’s is marketing and communications, but neither of them knew the American furniture market. We quickly filled that gap.” Ashlee and Thomas have traveled the country from trade shows to architectural firms to outdoor furniture retailers. When they searched, got their foot in the door, they threw themselves into the water to get Americans excited about Extremis. “We’d just knock on doors and this handsome, lanky boy in flip flops with his hat, flowered shirt and nice accent would grab attention and often clear the first hurdle at reception,” jokes Ashlee. “Of course, we used attractive catalogs with a lifestyle impact that directly attracted attention. At least we got tons of deals and weaved our network.” Extremis USA already accounts for 25% of Extremis’ revenue, and despite their home base and offices, they still travel a lot. When I interview them at Belmont in May, they have just returned from a series of road shows in the Midwest and have covered about 4,000 miles in three weeks. You can follow their itinerary on their Instagram account @tours4togetherness. With a trailer loaded with more than half a ton of brilliantly stacked furniture, they pull into a dealer’s parking lot, roll out grass mats, put on some music and start their outdoor party with the iconic models of Extremis such as Hopper, Picnik and Pantagruel. The collection comes to life and the links are woven around a Tremist beer brewed in Poperinge. “It’s quite tiring to put everything together and take it apart, especially after the party, but it’s really a great way to show the Extremis lifestyle. Customers experience the robustness of our products, experience the quality and comfort. No need to fill their heads . with sales pitches. Just make yourself comfortable and have a drink with them.” Compared to the town square in Poperinge and a remote farm in Montana where Ashlee grew up, Rockford’s Main Street wasn’t much of a change of scenery. “The cultural differences between a New Yorker and a Montana resident are greater than those between an American from Michigan and a Flemish from West Flanders, even though the former is more religious and the latter swears more,” Ashlee estimates. Extremis USA warehouses and offices are housed in a former road worker depot where the city stored road salt for Michigan’s harsh winters. Today they are filled with pallets of Extremis furniture, shipped by sea from Belgium. The aim is to gradually launch local production to reduce the ecological footprint of transport. “Sustainability is in our brand’s DNA. We are now looking at how to manufacture large parts on site and how to limit the need for transport by doing final assembly here,” explains Thomas. “In addition to the ecological aspect, it is also important to our American customers that the company they do business with is committed to producing and employing staff locally. They show some patriotism, but from a commercial point of view it is also more efficient to work with the dollar, for example, and to protect against price fluctuations.” Meanwhile, Ashlee and Thomas are well established in Rockford. In a deeply divided America, they have friends on both sides of the political spectrum. “Views are quite mixed in this region, but it remains civilized. With some people, we never talk about politics. We know we wouldn’t be able to agree, but that doesn’t stop us from having a nice evening together.” says Thomas. “Besides, we have no friends among the extremists who stormed the Capitol,” Ashlee adds. As COVID shut down the world, Ashlee and Thomas worked with the local Chamber of Commerce to decorate Rockford’s pedestrianized Main Street with Extremis furniture to keep locals congregating outdoors and from a distance. The Extremis slogan, “Tools for unity”, took on its full meaning here. “I remember a snowy December night, all the Christmas decorations and people so excited to go out…It was magical,” says Ashlee. They also gather people at their house in Belmont. Their house is perfect for entertaining and hosting, as the Americans say, and Ashlee and Thomas often invite clients there. There is of course the furniture from the Extremis collection, but vintage finds and the house’s 1950s structure create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, far from the cold of a showroom. In addition, Ashlee and Thomas are a very inspiring hosting duo. Warm, open and fun. They introduced Extremis to the US market in their own unique way. If the American team is completely independent in Rockford, it sees itself living partly in Belgium and partly in Michigan. “We’ll see. This way of living and working suits us,” says Ashlee. “We are both quite independent. We don’t cling to places or material things. Of course we like to live in a nice house, but material things can be replaced and we don’t want to be stuck. This kind of nomadic life pleases us, and we have learned to live in the present, wherever we are.”

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