Lexington business cools the environment, one awning at a time

Wally Gladney has been with the company since the 1960s and became owner in 1973. These days he largely confines himself to the paperwork as he eases into retirement.
Wally Gladney has been with the company since the 1960s and became owner in 1973. These days he largely confines himself to the paperwork as he eases into retirement.

A lot of hot air: Summer 2010 has been a scorcher. Air conditioners have been used around the clock, and many have performed heroically. But machinery has an uncanny ability to break down at the very moment it's needed most. And it takes just one repair bill that's five times the temperature of an August afternoon to set a mind to thinking about other ways to cool a house. What about awnings?

"Awnings can lower the temperature in parts of the home between 7 and 15 degrees," says B.J. Carroll, co-owner of Lexington Tent & Awning Co. Exploration in the yellow pages had uncovered several local awning companies, but his company advertised "Custom made in our factory."

Sew me 'round the showroom, er, show me 'round the sewroom: Lexington Tent & Awning's factory is a cavernous building in the vast yawning valley that is Bluegrass Industrial Park, on the site of the former drag strip off Nicholasville Road. May through August are peak months in the awning trade, so it took a stormy Monday to find Carroll cooling his heels, waiting for the clouds to clear before heading out on another job.

Here's to you, Mr. Robinson: The company dates to 1933, Carroll says, "when a man named O.T. Robinson was laid off from Southern Tent & Awning and went next door on Short Street and started his own business — he had a family to provide for." The business later moved to South Broadway, and finally to Nicholasville, where it has been since 1995.

"'Tent' is only in the name for heritage's sake," Carroll says. "We haven't done anything in tents since World War II, when the company was contracted by the Army. But we still have the same equipment they used."

A glance into the workroom confirms it. A row of sturdy black sewing machines command instant respect as part of the "greatest generation" of industrial equipment.

"You'd be surprised at all the different ways to make an awning. Everybody has their own technique," Carroll says. "Protecting you from the elements with fabric" is the company motto, and most of that protection is done with canvas. The workroom is filled with large bolts in the latest colors: basil, ginger, mahogany. On one wall hang patterns for various scalloped edges, which go by letters of the alphabet: the F, the B, the W, the modified J. Carroll is lucky to have a professional to negotiate the curves.

"There aren't the number of sewers there used to be. A man can use a staple gun or a pneumatic hammer, but most of the commercial sewers are women," he says. In this company, it's Wanda Russell.

She's gotten off the treadle mill: Before she started sewing awnings, Russell worked in a drapery factory and at a now-defunct jeans factory in Wilmore. "I'd buy denim there and could make my boys' jeans for 50 cents," says Russell, who started sewing on her mother's treadle machine at 8 or 9, making dolls' clothes. These old machines all have treadles, but does she still use them? "Lord no, I'd never get anything done," she says and flips a switch on a double-thread machine to demonstrate how electricity increases productivity.

Russell has worked at Lexington Tent & Awning almost 12 years. "Four to five of those years, it's been nobody but me." A second sewer recently left to go to college but might come back part-time. It can get a little lonely sometimes, Russell admits, but she doesn't mind it.

Welding a career: Carroll's own entrance into the company took a circuitous route, but it began with Shoney's restaurants: "My father-in-law was a maintenance man with Shoney's, subcontracting through Lexington Tent & Awning. When Shoney's went from galvanized pipe to all-welded frames, well, I was a welder." Carroll got on board as a subcontractor and eventually moved with his young family from Texas to Lexington in 1995.

On the road again and again: It was a time when Shoney's was booming, which was good for Lexington Tent & Awning. Carroll was on the road a lot, traveling 28 states as a subcontractor. But early dreams of one day owning his own restaurant began to fade as he dealt with the same issues, day in and day out. He began subcontracting for a Wisconsin awning company, servicing businesses including Pier 1 and Blockbuster video rental stores in a territory that stretched from Massachusetts to Texas. "I was hearing my kids grow up over the phone," he says.

That part was bad, but welding the frames and installing the awnings was a pleasure: "I fell in love with what I was doing," he says. Long story short: Carroll, 41, is now in the process of becoming majority owner of Lexington Tent & Awning as the other co-owner, Wally Gladney, eases into full retirement. "Wow, have I worked hard for it," Carroll says.

And Gladney, who has owned it since 1973 but now mostly sticks to the paperwork, is happy to turn it over to him: "I feel fortunate to have found a young fella who's interested and wants to continue the company," he says.

Stretching the canvas: Carroll hopes to turn the business into a one-stop shop for design, installation and maintenance. What does he love about the work? "First is the interaction with people. I love to talk. Second, every day is a different day. Third, I get to use my imagination."

Customers might call asking for a vertical shade, a traditional awning, a patio canopy, feedbags for the stable or even a glorified slingshot for launching pumpkins into a lake. (It's an up-and-coming sport, apparently.)

Carroll enjoys the challenge: "People walk in and say, 'This is what I want.' But will it give them protection they need? Will it give them the look they want? Am I going to give them an end result so they'll be satisfied?"