Published October 07. 2012 4:00AM
With little fanfare, E.W. Hannas of Old Lyme dominates in wood products
Old Lyme - From tongue depressors to popsicle sticks and yo-yos to salad bowls, the nearly century-old E.W. Hannas Inc. and the wood products it sells and distributes nationwide are seemingly everywhere even as the fourth-generation family company manages to keep a low profile.
"We don't really sell much locally," acknowledges Warren Hannas, president of E.W. Hannas.
"We don't have branded products," adds son Mark, vice president.
The company, whose headquarters behind the Lieutenant River Center off Halls Road and adjacent to the Florence Griswold Museum property is as unobtrusive as the E.W. Hannas name itself, principally acts as a brokerage, connecting companies looking for wood products with manufacturers who can make them.
In 1918, when the elder Hannas' great-grandfather Elwood started the company in New York City, that meant traveling to dozens of wood mills throughout New England to develop relationships with the owners. But today, with domestic mills on the wane, the company's reach stretches around the world and includes a joint partnership in China that has given E.W. Hannas part ownership in a 300,000-square-foot factory with more than 100 employees.
Products in which E.W. Hannas has a hand include the distinctive wooden tops of English Leather brand cologne, the painted oval-shaped wood products used during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and the elegant drink stirrers found at the Belaggio and Paris casinos in Las Vegas.
Hannas has been working to bring Mohegan Sun into the fold by creating a branded stirrer for the Uncasville casino, and it has a variety of other wooden cocktail conversation pieces that it has created for venues looking to make a quality statement.
"It's great for marketing," says Rachel Hannas-Metz, Warren's daughter, who works part-time for the company in a variety of roles.
The quantity and variety of products that E.W. Hannas deals with boggles the mind. Just one product, sticks used to hold rock candy together, accounts for 1 million units a week, the company says, and candy-apple holders run about 12 million units annually.
For many years, the small souvenir bats that can be found at major league baseball parks were branded as E.W. Hannas products. The company was one of only three licensed souvenir bat suppliers for major league baseball, and Hannas estimates that it moved about 750,000 of the items annually over a two-decade period before selling the coveted license a few years ago.
E.W. Hannas-produced items can be found at big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's. And if you've bought an American flag lately, it wouldn't be surprising if the company had a part in it - a wooden part, naturally - since it sells to all of the five largest flag manufacturers in the country.
But E.W. Hannas has been careful not to become too intertwined with one major product line. It has a stake in a wide variety of wood necessities and novelties, including sporting goods, food items, gifts, advertising specialties, cabinetry, farming implements, medical supplies, stationery, pet supplies and textiles - a diversification that many other wood-products companies cannot boast. "They're all worlds unto themselves," Warren Hannas says. "But it's really been part of the survival of this business."
Hannas recalls a time during the 1970s in the midst of a recession when other aspects of his business were way down, but he stayed afloat largely by catering to the crafts industry, a niche that today hardly moves the sales needle.
Hannas notes that he has never forgotten the domestic suppliers who helped launch the company, though the number of dowel-manufacturing plants in New England that numbered in the teens when he started is now down to three. About 30 percent of the company's business is still done with U.S. manufacturers, and the percentage is growing.
Domestic suppliers usually are more expensive than those outside the United States, Hannas says, but some companies prefer to pay the extra cost out of patriotism or a need for products to be delivered quickly.
The company has sped up its own delivery of products by setting up warehouses in West Haven, Los Angeles and Dallas. It is expecting to open a fourth warehouse in Florida in the next few months.
The company's ability to deliver products quickly because of its strategically located warehouses has been a big boost, say Hannas officials, who ship out special-order items and stockpile high-volume offerings to be trucked from the sites.
"We can drop-ship anywhere in the world," Warren Hannas says.
And E.W. Hannas' ability to keep prices competitive and manufacture high-quality products made to Western specications - thanks to controls set up at the company's factory in Qingdao - also has given it an edge as less-agile competitors have dropped by the wayside.
"The component-parts industry is pretty resilient," says the elder Hannas. "Our business has been growing the last two years by double digits."
Yet the company has remained lean, with only eight employees working out of E.W. Hannas' scenic riverside offices, surprising in an organization that must keep track of millions of items every year. Employees wear multiple hats, the elder Hannas says, but all are focused on one goal: to keep customers happy.
"Everybody deals with sales," he says. "We're a sales organization."
E.W. Hannas also is a company bracing for a big change, as Warren readies a handoff of the reins to son Mark after more than 40 years at the helm. Mark has taken more and more of a role in the company as the years have worn on, and has spent a large amount of his time traveling to factories as far-flung as Brazil, Mongolia and Venezuela, helping to set up strategic alliances for specialized products.
Mark has had much longer to make the transition to company president than his father, a self-described free spirit and one-time Woodstock venturer who took over E.W. Hannas in his early 20s after the sudden death of his father, Elwood W. Hannas Jr. Warren Hannas spent what he termed his "missionary stint" for a few years in Maine as he learned about mill factories from the ground up, then relocated to Old Lyme more than 30 years ago because it reminded him of Stony Brook, N.Y., the town in which he grew up.
For Mark, the traveling is farther afield, but no less of an adventure as he continues to propel the E.W. Hannas name onto the international stage.
"E.W. Hannas has always tended to stay ahead of the curve," Mark Hannas says. "We travel light. We can change direction very quickly."