Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

One advantage of growth is the ability to afford your own wind machine.

Dougan Clarke, founder and CEO of The Ultimate Umbrella Company Inc. (TUUCI), has one out behind his company's Miami headquarters, 15 minutes from the pellucid, azure waters of Biscayne Bay. The machine--which blasts gale-force winds exceeding 50 mph--is a major improvement on Clarke's original method for testing products. That involved racing down deserted back roads in a pickup until the umbrella he'd set up in back flew off and crashed. Tom Parker, Clarke's business partner and now TUUCI's president, would sit beside the shady projectile, recording events with a video camera. "It was guerrilla marketing," says Clarke, who would show the videos at trade shows. "But it was also guerrilla product testing: trying to break the product so we could see where the weaknesses were."

TUUCI is a 250-employee business whose fabric canopies mimic everything from flowers to sea creatures. The umbrellas are Miami tough, built to withstand the daily assault of sun, sand, seawater, torrential downpours, and palm-frond-whipping winds. But if the environment is a challenge, it is also Clarke's inspiration. Even in desert settings like Las Vegas, "when you touch our product I want you to feel this sense of the seaside lifestyle in your hand," says Clarke, a former boat rigger. "That product can transport you straight to the Miami lifestyle."

TUUCI's sleek, sometimes playful, shades can be found poolside at luxury hotels in Singapore, built into the patios of Hampton estates, planted on the decks of mega-yachts, or arrayed on sidewalks outside restaurants around the world. They are standard across all 22 properties of Sandals and Beaches brand resorts, also based in Miami. "My job is to make sure our hotels look perfect at all times, and TUUCI helps with that," says Sarah Hartman, the resort chain's director of interior design. "They are high-fashion, as umbrellas go. It's a clean, beautiful design, which is what we're always after."

It's what Clarke is always after, too. In fact TUUCI, which sells around 30,000 umbrellas a year, has more in common with businesses in Miami's nearby Design District than with those in the industrial area immediately surrounding it. Clarke has even tried to back off from the word "umbrella," which he associates with a disposable, purely utilitarian product. "They are shade platforms. Shade sculpture," says Clarke. "But at the end of the day people go on the internet and search 'umbrella.'" The word has stuck.

A marine life

Clarke has saltwater in his blood. The son of a former Miami Herald travel editor, he grew up in the suburb of Coral Gables, mowing lawns and selling mangoes from his front yard. As a young child, he rode on his mother's bike to the ocean, where they would fish for snapper and set out little pots to catch crabs. "From the 10th grade on, if it was a nice day my friends and I were on the water or under it," he says.

One of Clarke's best friends had a father, Fred Herman, who owned a custom boat shop called Small Craft Inc. "It was a wonderland for a child," says Clarke. "You could cut things, drill things, play with the air-hose compressor." At age 14, Clarke asked Herman for a summer job. "He looked at me intently and said, 'I am going to teach you a trade and you are going to have these skills forever,'" says Clarke. His first job was washing boats, but he soon advanced to grinding fiberglass, welding, working with canvas, creating jigs, and tooling.

That same summer Clarke joined his friends in a commercial fishing business. Several times a week they would go out for five hours to dive and spear fish, then clean and fillet their catch for sale to friends, neighbors, and the occasional market. In the boat shop, Clarke began crafting Hawaiian slings, a kind of underwater bow and arrow used for spearfishing. He discovered a self-lubricating plastic from DuPont, called Delrin, which allowed the spear to fly swiftly out of the sling. Later, Delrin would be a key component of TUUCI umbrellas.

Clarke worked in the boat shop intermittently for 10 years while he attended college, also intermittently. (He never graduated.) In 1992, at the age of 23, Clarke ran into a friend who had started an outdoor furniture store called Porch and Patio. He joined as a salesman and worked his way into management. But retail ate up his weekends. "I had to turn down every invitation to go boating," says Clarke. "I felt like I was in jail."

So Clarke launched his own business: Casual Furnishings International, a dealer connecting outdoor furniture manufacturers with business and residential customers. He worked from a desk at his friend's prenatal yoga studio, vacating whenever the pregnant clients arrived for class. But he didn't like his new position in the supply chain much better. If he introduced a customer to a furniture maker, the customer could sidestep him and approach that maker directly or through another dealer to buy. "I thought the position to be in was to be the manufacturer," says Clarke.

But what to manufacture? Outdoor furniture is typically made of teak, which suffers from warping and shrinkage and can be tough to source. Umbrellas, which accounted for about 10 percent of sales at both Casual Furnishings and Porch and Patio, are fabricated from aluminum, a less vexing material. Umbrellas were also "similar to what I had done in the boating world with the canvases and the metals and the polymers," says Clarke. "So that's the path I chose."

Building a better umbrella

In 1997, Clarke cashed in his $10,000 401(k), drained his bank account, and hit up some local angels. Always happy to help, Herman provided 300 square feet of workspace at Small Craft, along with a saw, drill press, and sewing machine.

In a corner of the boat shop, Clarke crafted a prototype umbrella: a skeletal creature with pole, runner, and struts, but no canopy. He recalled from experience with spearfishing equipment that Delrin moved easily without scratching and was invulnerable to sun and water. So he used it to create the ring that slides up and down the pole, opening and closing the canopy. Clarke designed the prototype to be more durable than existing umbrellas, which broke early and often when subjected to Miami's dramatic weather.

His major innovation, though, was a modular bracket system that allowed a user to remove and replace a broken strut without taking apart the whole umbrella. Clarke received a patent on that, the first of 15 patents on everything from fabrics to operating components to designs. The modular system "means the umbrellas are not disposable," says Sandals' Hartman. It saves customers money because "any component that goes bad can be replaced at any time."

Clarke made his first sale--100 umbrellas--to Swept Away Resorts in Jamaica, a customer of Casual Furnishings, which at that point he still ran. Then he started cold-calling local restaurants whose umbrellas showed visible wear and tear. His first hit was Green Street Café, in Coconut Grove, which bought a dozen. The owner "was also an entrepreneur who had someone help him get his business going," says Clarke.

Clarke began attending trade shows, where he played videos of his guerilla product tests and lined up independent reps. One rep got him a meeting with Universal Studios, which began buying umbrellas in batches of 20 or so at a time. Each umbrella included a small "Made in Miami" label with TUUCI's name and phone number. "They became a billboard for the company," Clarke says.

As business picked up Clarke hired a seamstress who had formerly sewn jockey outfits. He also took on Parker, a college friend who was practicing law, as his business partner.

Clarke was doing fine selling well-made, easy-to-service umbrellas. But he wanted something that would leave competitors in the dust. So on Christmas Day in 1998 he sat down and cut a cardboard box into the shape of a manta ray: the sleek, winged creatures he'd witnessed slicing through the water while spearfishing. The resulting product, says Clarke, "added the company's cornerstone: design."

Innovation in many shades

The Manta umbrella--also evocative of the Flying Nun's headgear--was a hit, notably with upscale resorts and Las Vegas hotels. More distinctive shapes flowed forth from Clarke's imagination. The Zero Horizon is a minimalist construction with a flat canopy that virtually disappears into the skyline. The Razor has a flat, asymmetrical canopy that tilts on its pole and can rotate 360 degrees. A trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia inspired the Pagoda. "On the temples there were carvings of people on elephants with these very ornate umbrellas," says Clarke. "I thought, can we put a new spin on something 2,000 years old?"

As the company developed a reputation for design, prestigious clients flocked to it. The Ritz-Carlton has been a customer. Restaurants hoisting the company's shades include Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Smashburger, and California Pizza Kitchen. Anyone who has sipped a Frappuccino outside Starbucks on a hot day likely escaped sunstroke thanks to TUUCI, which has created several products for the chain, including a self-opening umbrella called The Siren.

About half of TUUCI's sales are domestic. The rest are international, with a concentration in Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Mega-yacht owners buy the umbrellas, as do residential customers. "Say you had a big house in the Hamptons with a large pool and you wanted to put a modern cabana at the edge with lounge seating," says Clarke. "We build sofas and daybeds into the structures. It becomes a permanent part of the landscape architecture of the home."

Prices for the umbrellas, which are all custom-made, range dramatically, from a few hundred dollars to more than $25,000 for a large pavilion structure.

Increasingly, TUUCI is experimenting with ways to incorporate technology, transforming umbrellas from outdoor furnishings into multi-function tools. For example, the company collaborates with mills on projects like weaving solar cells and fiber optics into fabric to harvest UV energy or transmit light. "How can we extend your day?" asks Clarke. "How can we extend your night? How can we extend the season? There is so much runway here.

"I wish I could redefine the category," says Clarke of his enduring quest to elevate the umbrella. "But that is like someone who sells an automobile saying now it is called something different. It still has four wheels and takes you places."

Published on: Jan 23, 2017