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Growing Up Fast

From flooring to furnishings to T-shirts, bamboo products are catching on.
February 1, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/173282

When skateboard-maker Sector 9 in San Diego decided to add a couple of bamboo skateboards to its product lineup, company managers thought they might appeal to a few environmentally conscious customers. But in less than two years, customer demand led the company to expand the line to four models, Sector 9 vice president and co-founder Dennis Telfer, 37, reports.

At press time, sales for the bamboo boards were projected to top $1 million in 2006. The bamboo skateboards are popular not only because they save trees, but also because "the boards are really durable and they've got a different look," says Telfer, who co-founded the business with Steve Lake, 38, and Dave Klimkiewicz, 36.

As Telfer discovered, bamboo has more going for it than just being a fast-growing, easily renewable relative of grass. Bamboo is strong and has a tropical, exotic appearance that appeals to customers who are interested in the tiki-Hawaiian look or just seeking out something new.

Bamboo products--from kitchen cabinets to T-shirts--are finding an enthusiastic audience, entrepreneurs report. Just a decade or so after bamboo products, such as flooring, first began finding acceptance in the U.S. market, business owners say interest in bamboo has shot up fast.

Doug Lewis, 37, remembers how every flooring distributor in the Northwest turned away his bamboo flooring in the mid-1990s. Now they all have bamboo floors. Lewis, who co-founded Bamboo Hardwoods with David Keegan, 37, projects about $5 million in 2007 sales, more than half of it in bamboo flooring.

The Seattle company added custom bamboo kitchen cabinets to its offerings early last year. Bamboo Hardwoods also added three new retail stores to the Seattle area in 2006 to help educate customers about its products.

One of the company's new showrooms is located inside Costco Home in Kirkland, Washington, one of two test-format stores for the warehouse-club giant. Lewis is hopeful that if Costco expands the home-furnishings concept, Bamboo Hardwoods might be able to add more showrooms inside Costco stores. Eventually, he envisions a national chain of bamboo flooring and cabinetry stores.

As environmentalists continue to popularize the idea of choosing nonwood building materials, Lewis expects bamboo flooring's share of the hardwood-flooring market to grow. That market is expanding overall, too--the National Wood Flooring Association estimates 2005 wood-floor sales were just under $2.6 billion, and that's projected to grow to $3.7 billion by 2010. Says Lewis, "I think the existing market for bamboo [can't compare to] the size it will be."

Another entrepreneur who's high on bamboo is Mark Elwell, 48, of Bamboo Flooring Hawaii LLC in Honolulu. A longtime importer from Asia, Elwell switched to bamboo floors in 1997 and never looked back. Sales in 2006 were $2 million, but he expects sales closer to $3 million this year, as newly formed relationships with distributors begin to pay off.

Bamboo flooring has become so popular that Elwell says he's expanded into new styles to offer something unique. One of his products is Tigerboo, a bamboo floor made of tiny bamboo strips in contrasting dark and light shades.

Elwell is experimenting with new bamboo products, hoping to take advantage of growing public interest. He plans to introduce a line of bamboo picture frames this year and has made custom frames, tables and guitars for customers including singer Jimmy Buffett.

One bamboo product that's already caught on big is clothing, says Rich Delano, 38, owner of Bamboo Textiles in Brea, California. Delano began selling bamboo yarn and fibers imported from China in 2004 and found the super-comfy bamboo fabric won customers over fast. "They [like it] because it's so soft, it's natural and it's something new," he says.

From a $125,000 initial investment, sales at Bamboo Textiles are expected to range between $2 million and $3 million this year. Delano says his revenue is split in thirds--one-third comes from sales of yarn and fabric, one-third from churning out apparel for other designers and silk-screeners, and one-third from sales of his own apparel brands, Spun Bamboo and Bamboo Apparel.

He sells his own lines on www.spunbamboo.com in partnership with fellow bamboo entrepreneur Daniel Keesey, 42, of Ecodesignz in Gardena, California. Environmentally focused stores are snapping up the lines, which include menswear, womens-wear and baby items.

As a sideline, Delano bought up some 50 website names that involve bamboo. As the product continues to grow in popularity, he hopes to sell some of the undeveloped sites off at a profit.

Carol Tice is Entrepreneur's "Tax Talk" columnist.