A Profile of Special-T
Over the last five years or so, few companies in the industry have grown and evolved like Special-T. And even fewer have a story to share as compelling as the Atlanta-based table specialist.
The company’s mission is to help those in the throes of addiction to find help and a meaningful career and support system. Special-T literally changes the lives of those who work for the company. That guiding principle remains the same, even as Special-T has become a significant competitor in one of the most competitive categories in the industry.
It is important to note: Yes, Special-T does incredible good in its community by giving a second chance to those who need one, but it also makes some incredibly good furniture as well.
And it is serious about building market share and expanding its portfolio, evident in its naming of Ian Hicks as its new chief executive officer. Hicks, a long-time Special-T employee, recognizes the potential of the company, which is based in Atlanta, but has significant manufacturing capabilities at the Special-T owned factory in Eastern Europe.
“We’re a $50 million company stuck in a $25 million body right now,” he said.
Chairman Steve Rozeboom helped build the company along with his father, Loren, who founded it, said Special-T has the structure in place for the company to “get to the next level.” He added: “And Ian is the guy that I want to have do it. I mean, he’s like a son to me. He’s perfect for this position. (He’s bringing in) entrepreneurial ideas. It’s a new day for us.”
A growth capital company recently made an investment in Special-T, but did not buy the company. The capital gives Special-T the opportunity to grow, work on building a stronger sales team, speed product development, purchase new machinery and update and grow its plant in Bulgaria. Steve Rozeboom previously owned 60% of the factory with his parter there, Peter Tashev. Special-T now owns 100% of the factory and Tashev is a full-time employee of the company.
And now that we own (the Bulgarian plant) and operate it, we can control a lot of things that come out of there.” said Hicks. “We can control supply chain, we can manage our costs and make that more efficient. We have 40 people in Bulgaria and we have 42 people here. So overnight, we just became a global company.”
Taken together, all these changes make Special-T a formidable competitor in the table segment. Loren Rozeboom founded Special-T and Steve Rozeboom was a visionary and took it to the next level. Hicks said Special-T is now evolving to become more strategic and structurally sound. Special-T President Brandon Rayburn’s responsibilities include leading operations and product development teams as well as managing the Bulgarian factory operations.
Hicks and the rest of the management team — including Rayburn and Chief Financial Officer Dmitri Denissiouk — are going to hit the ground running. “We’ve been very lucky over the last five years since I’ve been here where we’ve seen double digit growth every year. We are happy with where we finished in 2023, but expectations are incredibly high for this team in 2024. I think the initiatives we have and will have next year with new products — we are starting to capture more market share from our competitors,” he said.
Special-T isn’t exclusively a table manufacturer anymore. The company is adding credenzas and whiteboards to its offering. And while Hicks said he understands those accessory products won’t fuel all the growth the company is looking for, it will add more line items to every project. He said the company is also looking to create some strategic partnerships to offer seating and soft seating products, but “that’s down the line.” Hicks also said that as a strong manufacturer, there are opportunities for Special-T to add OEM work as well. And as a European manufacturer, the company doesn’t have to deal with China’s supply chain issues and tariffs.
A Brief History of Special-T
It’s the late ‘80s, the height of the Reagan recession, and Loren Rozeboom was trying to sell new Haworth furniture. It was a tough sell. At that same time, Loren Rozeboom was involved with several ministry organizations that came together when the Soviet Union broke up to create the CoMission.
They came together with the sole purpose of going to former Soviet countries and educating business owners there on how to get their products out of these countries. A bit of history: When the Soviet Union broke up, it was a pure economic issue, not so much freedom and democracy. Russia let the former Soviet counties go because they believed they would fail and return to the fold, their economies in tatters. CoMission was designed to help the newly free countries prevent that. The CoMission teams went to places like Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Georgia and helped connect entrepreneurs there to opportunities in the U.S.
Loren Rozeboom met someone in Eastern Europe who made tubular steel products. He worked with the company owner (and eventually invested in the factory) to make T-legs, H-legs, post legs and a number of other simple, tubular steel table bases. The business became such a success, the dealership was sold and Special-T was founded.
Special-T was at the right place at the right time. The company had a solid source for table bases just as China was coming on the scene as a furniture supplier. Special-T became the China alternative with high quality products at a price point similar to what was being made in Asia. A T-leg from China might have sold for $20 at the time. Special-T was coming in at about $30, but the quality was much better. Domestic manufacturers were at about $50.
That middle-of-the-road pricing with good quality became the bedrock of the business. Special-T was in the table business, selling Eastern European products out of Atlanta.
About 2008, Steve Rozeboom was finishing a 10 year career in investment banking where he’d been selling companies. It was the beginning of the recession and investment banking was slow. His father invited him to join the company. Sales were a fraction of what they are today. So he built a rep network and sourced tops for the bases. That gave Special-T a grade-A quality product at a C-grade price. Special-T customers buy bases factory direct (and the base is 70% of the cost of the table). That means they are often 25% to 30% less than some competitors.
Steve Rozeboom brought something else to the company as well — an understanding of the recovery process and need for dignity through work. He said he got sober about two years before his dad asked him to come back to the company. And when he returned, he found that his father had hired many workers who were also in recovery — a fact Steve Rozeboom said helped keep him sober as well. So he formalized the program his father started and began to expand it.
Here’s how the program works:
Special-T works with local recovery programs and hires workers with nine to 12 months of sobriety, giving them an opportunity to put their lives back together and restore dignity.
The workers have sponsors and there are recovery meetings at Special-T once a week. It is a formal program the workers have to adhere to, just as Rozeboom did when he started working with his father.
Success stories are plentiful, including many in the company’s management. And Hicks said the spirit of giving back and helping others remains core to the company’s DNA — something that he said will never change. In fact, the Bulgaria factory also has a mission of hiring people with barriers to employment.
Rowing in the Same Direction
Hicks said the company has one mission that everyone in the company has bought into and understands their individual roles.
“Everyone in this building is going to be leaning on each other to help grow this company,” he said. “We all have our initiatives. We all understand what it will take to grow and do different things while keeping our same values in place with our recovery program, our great customer service, our product quality, and not skipping a beat from that while we continue to grow.”
That will include new sales staff, quicker product development and better marketing (including a redesigned website). Special-T isn’t waiting for anyone — it’s either get on board or get out of the way.
“Everything’s changing very rapidly in this industry,” Hicks said. “I’m looking for individuals that are going to be hungry and want to grow with us. We have some very high expectations for how we want this to happen.”