When you talk to Phil and Chris Vorwerk, you can feel the passion. Yes, they are a married couple, but one of their passions comes from a place different than a person might think. It’s a passion that burns bright for their business, United Commercial Upholstery, Inc. When this husband and wife team’s business began in 2000, it looked very different than their New Ulm, Minnesota facility of today that spans 42,500 square feet and employs 45 employees.
Before they had a business of their own, Chris worked several years for a local marine company doing upholstery. Through her experience there, she discovered she has a knack for designing things that are easy to produce and look great. That talent and passion for innovation eventually brought the couple to decide they could go out on their own.
“There were some lean years. Chris worked out of an old organ factory that didn’t have any insulation,” Phil shared. “We eventually moved into some space that became available in Nicollet and slowly began to grow from there.” Phil worked evenings and weekends handling various roles until he sold his printing business and joined UCU full time in 2007. His experience elevated their abilities to embroider their products in-house, which helped add to their growth.
That growth is evident when you consider the clients they now have through their network of about 900 golf cart dealers, and professional and collegiate sports teams, like the New Orleans Saints. United Commercial Upholstery is much more than what the name may suggest. This bustling company designs and manufactures custom seating for golf carts, marine products and locker rooms. But that’s not all, they are truly innovators, offering custom aftermarket solutions to manufacturers. “We manufacture a product for aftermarket console parts for Tesla,” added Chris, referring to the innovative auto manufacturer. They also have an extensive product line of athletic training equipment.
Passion, innovation, and a sheer willingness to take on any challenge is what has brought them to the level they are today. Phil shared that their signature product line, called Suite Seats, was born from that drive. “A guy I knew in town was selling golf carts. I was at his place of business and one of his carts was sitting out with adapted boat seats in it. I gave him some grief that the seats looked like junk. He said to me, ‘Well, build me a better one.’ I said I can’t, but Chris can.”
They knew they were onto something special with the development of this line of products. Phil and Chris decided to take an aggressive approach in this market and hired a full-time marketing person to start calling all the golf cart dealers from nationwide list. Then, the company’s big break really hit when a tax credit for electric powered vehicles was discovered by a client in the second half of 2009. “We were maxed out, working 100 hour weeks from sun up to sun down. This big push injected a lot of capital into our business, and we learned a lot. We got a lot more Suite Seats into dealers’ hands at that time,” Phil added.
Innovation has come by accident in many cases, according to Phil. They would get a call resulting from an online search for seating or cushions, and many times those trial products evolved into permanent product lines and ongoing relationships. The couple recalled one purchasing agent, after seeing their product told them, “We’re going to be doing a lot of stuff with you guys.” Although several products arose from random contacts from curious buyers, it is no accident that their business is a success.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that Phil and Chris were going to be successful knowing them like I do. They are active with their business,” said United Prairie Bank Market President, Mark Petersen.
Phil and Chris agreed, “We don’t just walk away and think well that project isn’t going to get done today. That’s why we’re different. We stand on our heads to get the job done for our customers.”
The Vorwerks shared the same sentiment in working with United Prairie, “They’re proactive in helping us look ahead to what we may need in the future. When we work with United Prairie, it’s like they are our partners. It’s a business relationship that is beneficial for both parties, and I appreciate that trust.”
Sounds a lot like a successful marriage, doesn’t it?