By DENNIS SEID / Daily Journal

TUPELO • For three decades, Gum Tree Fabrics has kept a relatively low profile in the city where it was founded.

And that’s the way company officials want, preferring to let its business speak for itself.

Located in a nondescript 200,000-square-foot warehouse in the heart of Tupelo’s industrial center, Gum Tree is a wholesale upholstery textile stocking distributor. It distributes across the U.S. and internationally to multiple industries including furniture manufacturers, hospitality, bedding, RV, textile jobbers and retail.

The company got is start when Don Coleman bought the closeout division of textiles and fabrics giant Culp in 1989.

“At that time, we were a closeout company,” said Gum Tree President Donna Marecle. “We took second and overruns from Culp and sold them in the market. Thirty years ago there were many manufacturers here in Tupelo, so it was a good business for us for five years. Then we started making regular running goods and shipping them to manufacturers inside the territory and outside the territory. We were weaving with six textile mills – five U.S. and one in Canada – and we weren’t importing anything.”

But in the early 2000s, as textile manufacturing and other related manufacturing began shifting to overseas – mainly to China – Gum Tree had little choice but to follow along with the rest of the industry Domestic mills shut down, challenged by cheaper labor and regulatory costs abroad. Customers went there, and Gum Tree, like others, had to meet their customers there.

However, that hasn’t deterred the company from growing at home.

“Over the years, we’ve expanded to selling across the country,” Marecle said. “We’ve also established a China trading company in 2011 because we had to sell in China and trade in Chinese currency, the renminbi. We’re selling to major manufacturers here and on the East Coast and the West Coast, and we’ve pushed into Canada and Mexico.”

Greg Morgan came on board last year as director of sales and product development. The company has two designers in North Carolina, which is ideal since it works with a mill there as well as in China developing domestic products.

“We’ll buy the artwork and they’ll put it in CAD (computer-aided design) and send the design to the mill in China, which will weave a sample,” he said. “Then the designers will color it, bring it back and we develop a line which we do twice a year.”

The lines are then sold primarily to residential furniture manufacturers.

Gum Tree’s sales staff is lean, with two each in North Carolina, Mississippi and California covering the U.S. and Canada. But the company keeps a high profile at markets and trade shows where hundreds, if not thousands of potential customers attend.

Tapping into a competitive market isn’t always easy, but Gum Tree has been able to do that, and much of the credit goes not to the executives, but to the long-time employees of the company.

Coleman declined to be interviewed, wanting the spotlight placed on them.

It is their long-time work and support that has helped the company carve out a successful niche, he said.

Said Marecle, “One of the things Don has stressed is the longevity of our employees. One of our customer service representatives, Alisa Brewer, has been here 30 years, from the beginning. I’ve been here 28 years. The three customer service representatives have a combined 70 years of experience. You really don’t find that everywhere, and we think that’s our strength. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”

The highs and lows of the market as the industry and economy have changed over the years have had some impact on Gum Tree, but the company is as strong today as it ever has been.

“We’ve survived, we’re still here, and we’re growing,” Morgan said. “We’ve opened a lot of new accounts this year, from Ethan Allen to Norwalk to major retailers on the West Coast.”

Marecle said the company’s low profile over the years has served a good purpose, although she has people thinking she works at a store that sells bolts of fabric.

“We’re under the radar, and we don’t advertise locally because it’s not effective since we don’t sell to consumers,” she said.

She and Morgan travel nationwide to track trends in the industry, and also keep an eye on other industries.

“Fashion also plays a part, whether it’s an animal skin collection, you’ll see that translate into apparel maybe footwear, handbags, things of that nature and it translates down,” Morgan said. “But the home market is little more steady versus fashion. Where trends go in and out faster in fashion, people want products in homes they’re going to be comfortable with for a longer time.”

Feedback from customers also helps guide their decisions.

The biggest challenge today are tariffs, particularly the tariff battle being waged between China and the U.S. While some breakthroughs have occurred, the uncertainty weighs heavy on companies like Gum Tree that must rely on China.

“We’ve looked in other areas to purchase product, but we have to stay competitive,” Marecle said. “Unfortunately China has had a 100-year plan. They knew where they were going and we taught them how to do it.”

Gum Tree is going to Frankfurt, Germany to consider business with a mill there, and another from India is paying the company a visit.

“You never know what’s going to happen next. We used to buy from a mill in Turkey, but now there are battles there,” Marecle said. “You just don’t know where the next tariffs are going to be long run. Where do you go to avoid tariffs? It’s almost impossible and you have to build it into your product price and do your best you can to manage it.”