Wisconsin tent manufacturer revitalizes empty mall
By Connie Lannan

Wisconsin tent manufacturer revitalizes empty mall

When Tony Ehrbar, owner and CEO, American Tent, Green Bay, Wis., started the business, he had three employees manufacturing basic styles of tents. That was in 2014. Now, with nearly 60 employees and manufacturing everything from pole and frame to clear, cross-cable, pagoda and pop-up tents, he has just moved into his third location — one he never dreamt would fulfill his company’s needs.

When the company began, they were splitting the back of a warehouse about 5,000 sq. ft. in size with small offices up front. By 2017, they had outgrown that space and moved to an old cold-storage facility.

The cold-storage facility that American Tent outgrew

Well, they quickly outgrew that space too. “That building was 35,000 sq. ft., but it was three rooms, essentially. We had to bring things between rooms when we were doing production. We ended up making products on top of products. We weren’t able to always use all the functionality of the machines because they were back-to-back and side-to-side of each other,” he says.

In 2020, Ehrbar began conversations with his landlord, a friend and developer. “We talked about larger facilities that might be available in town. There was an old Georgia-Pacific facility, but that was too expensive. Then my friend mentioned an old mall on the east side of town that has been pretty much dead for 10 to 15 years. It had one store — a Bath & Body Works — and an old movie theater that was no longer open. He said he wanted to work on the mall, but he hadn’t been able to because he didn’t want it to look like a traditional mall. He wanted to have all the retail externally facing. The whole back of the mall, which backs up to an alley and field, could not be used for retail. He needed to find someone who was willing to hide themselves in the back of the building and take over all the internal part of the mall,” Ehrbar says.

When his friend told Ehrbar to visit and see whether he could picture the mall space working for American Tent, Ehrbar admits he was skeptical. “I can picture a lot of things, but even as the walls were coming down, I was questioning how big it was. When I went back after the walls were down, it was like, ‘Oh my God, you need a golf cart to get across this space.’”

It turns out the mall was perfect for Ehrbar’s operation.

“In January of this year, we moved our operations to the 110,000 sq. ft. of space we have at the mall,” Ehrbar says. “It’s wide open. You can see from one end to the other, giving us a lot of space to manufacture everything from our smallest 10-ft.-by-10-ft. tent up to our largest 40-ft.-by-200-ft. tent, quality-check our products and warehouse our products. We have been able to spread out and have our sidewalls made in one area and our tents made in a different area. It’s allowed us to add a couple of new pieces of equipment. And from a warehousing perspective, we can actually order — with the supply chains being a mess — a proper amount of inventory to be able to support the business, make sure we don’t run out of things and have finished products in stock. With the machines being spread out a little bit, that allows us to operate more efficiently. Now we have a single-piece flow through the facility so all the raw materials come in one dock and are inventoried on one side. We make everything in the middle and then all the packing is done with the finished goods being near the outbound loading docks. In manufacturing you always want to eliminate waste, including wasted movement. We have done that,” he says.

The new 110,000-sq.-ft.-location offered at the mall

The final touches on the move weren’t complete until early May 2022 when the 10,000-sq.-ft. office with three conference rooms was finished. “However, the biggest highlights for the team are the huge employee café and a converted movie theater where we can have all-hands meetings, trainings or, you know, watch a Packers game,” he says.   

While they have historically had a showroom, the mall has a fire suppression system. “Because of that, we’re not allowed to put up tents. We might have to find a creative way to avoid concerns by the fire marshal,” Ehrbar adds.

The move has given new life to a dying mall. Other businesses have taken notice. “A couple of places are using the out-facing area for retail. The Bath & Body Works moved into a new external space and Planet Fitness moved into the old OfficeMax. A couple of new stores are coming in, including Five Below, which is like a higher-end dollar store — like the Target of dollar stores — which has been nice. The developer is also putting in some outbuildings in the parking lot for more restaurants and a bank,” Ehrbar says.

This move is just the latest demonstration of his operation’s growth in the market. “Our company’s revenue has grown probably 25 times over since we started the business,” Ehrbar says, adding that his team also has expanded.

“We recently added Pete McVey to our team. Pete is well-known in the industry, having conducted a lot of tent safety trainings over the years. He is now doing all our safety as well as some of our sales and marketing work, but he is primarily focused on tent product development and product design,” Ehrbar says.

All those factors are allowing American Tent to strengthen its “primary focus on rental companies, providing them with a value-driven product that meets their quality specifications so they can do more events and do more with what they have,” he says.

Connie Lannan

Connie LannanConnie Lannan

Connie Lannan is special projects editor for Rental Management. She helps plan, coordinate, write and edit ARA’s quarterly regional newsletters, In Your Region. She also researches, writes and edits news and feature articles for Rental Management, Rental Pulse, supplements, special reports and other special projects. Outside of work, she loves to bake for others, go for walks with her husband and volunteer for her church and causes she believes in.

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