The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings
Merrillville Awning Co. uses innovation, ingenuity to fearlessly take on awning industry
Most people wouldn’t associate bravery with awning manufacturing and installation, but a willingness to delve into large commercial projects that no one else will touch is exactly the kind of thing that sets apart Merrillville Awning Co. (Merrillville Awning) in Merrillville, Indiana. “We’ve always been kind of fearless,” Mike Blessing, President of Merrillville Awning, says as he describes an enormous canopy they manufactured for United States Steel Corporation 15 years ago. The company needed a canopy to protect its tin line from condensation in the plant, so Mike and his Production Manager/Senior Estimator John Wickstrom put their heads together and designed a 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide canopy that slanted 50 feet in the air. “Our challenge was to design intersecting sections that could be hooked, lifted, removed, then replaced above by the crane without manual assistance when the line had to be maintained,” Mike says.
While explaining that, as a team, he and John had the courage to take on a project of this magnitude when no one else would, the company’s Vice President Nita Blessing, who is also Mike’s wife, chimes in, “They feed off of each other!” Mike laughs and agrees. “It was difficult, but successful, and we’ve done three more of them for the company over the last 10 years.”
Tackling Large Projects
Bolstered by the success of the tin line canopy, Mike and John have collaborated over the years on other large-scale aluminum structures that are unique to their industry, including a 90-foot aluminum trellis for the Fairfield Inn & Suites Indianapolis Fishers. Merrillville Awning worked with Good Hospitality Services on the project. “It was challenging because of the scale, but when you’re working with a good contractor, things go smoothly,” John says. The trellis had to be attached to the roof of the four-story hotel and both the structure and attachment had to be engineered. “You wouldn’t think an awning guy would do a project like that…when someone has something unique that involves an aluminum structure or framework, we can take care of that,” Mike says.
It was a slow and steady road that led Merrillville Awning to projects like these. At the time Mike and Nita bought the business in 1992, they were primarily focused on residential work. But Mike had grown up working with an entrepreneurial father who had two businesses in Hammond, Indiana—a valve repair company called Valrecon and Kennco Supply, selling pipe valves and fittings throughout Chicagoland. When the steel industry collapsed and his father lost his businesses, Mike said that one of the key lessons he learned was not to have all of his eggs in one basket. “I realized early on that, instead of trying to resell ourselves with every phone call to residential customers, we would have commercial customers for a very long time that would give us multiple projects with bigger contracts.” So, in the late 1990s, Merrillville Awning began carving out a successful niche in the commercial market. According to Mike, very few awning companies do large commercial projects. “We go after jobs that range anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000. We are small, but mighty,” he says of the 10-person company.
Changing with the Trends
Both Mike and Nita believe that a willingness to change with the times—or more accurately, the trends—has also been part of what keeps Merrillville Awning afloat. About seven years ago, the awning industry underwent a seismic shift away from canvas canopies as architects began designing flat metal and standing seam metal canopies on buildings. “We had a decision to make—were we going to change or hope that canvas came back? But I knew better because I had learned over the years that you have to change with change,” Mike says.
The transition to metal wasn’t a complete learning curve for Merrillville Awning. The company had cut its teeth on standing seam metal canopies with Walgreens in 2004. “It was a prototype store we did with a roofing company, and we didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be the trend,” Mike says.
Ten years after the Walgreens job, architectural canopies took off and the Merrillville Awning team designed its first flat metal awning for Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom in Merrillville. The success of that project brought on more metal awning work and now makes up approximately 35% of their business. “That’s another thing that distinguishes us; a lot of awning companies don’t touch metal,” he says. Some of Merrillville Awning’s most recognizable metal canopy projects include popular commercial retail stores like Starbucks, Jimmy John’s and Anytime Fitness.
The company has also married its capacity for large-scale projects with metal canopy work. Sparta Dome, a multisport facility the size of two baseball fields in Crown Point, Indiana, needed a big arch canopy installed in front of the dome to protect people from the weather while waiting in line to enter the building. Merrillville Awning also designed and installed seasonal walls and doors for the inflatable dome that can be removed in the summer.
These innovative design solutions have led Merrillville Awning to receive numerous awards from the Midwest Fabric Products Association, often in one of the most coveted categories, the Trivantage Craftsmanship Award for Commercial Awnings and Canopies Under 30 Feet. Sparta Dome won this award in 2017. In 2019, they won the same award for a canopy they designed for the entrance to Purdue Memorial Union at Purdue University (Purdue), a project that, as Purdue graduates, Mike and Nita have a real affinity for. “We met at Purdue and got married on campus at the church right across the street from the infamous big canopy,” Nita says.
The original canopy, installed in the early 1960s, had been run over by a truck and, upon hearing the news from one of their sons who was attending Purdue at the time, Mike got in touch with the university. “We offered to donate 25% of the work,” he says. Merrillville Awning was awarded the project. “It was a big deal for us, and it led to getting two other canopies on that building,” Mike says. The new Sunbrella canvas awning was designed to maintain some of the nostalgic qualities of the old canopy, while bringing in a more modern look. “We actually incorporated the old decorative support posts to keep some of the architectural details in,” Nita says.
At the time Mike and Nita purchased Merrillville Awning, Mike had been with the company for four years, starting out in sales and becoming the manager in 1990. But his interest in the business started long before that, while working with his father, selling tubing (used to frame awnings) to awning manufacturers. “I fell in love with the industry because it was such a colorful, creative business versus the grind and grit of steel,” Mike says.
A Solid Team
In the beginning, Nita’s role in Merrillville Awning was strictly bookkeeping. While Mike was busy with awning design and construction, she had her own business as a tin broker. In fact, she was the only female in the United States who was trading this metal at the time. In 1998, after running her business for 20 years, Nita decided to make a change. “We had two babies 15 months apart, I was doing the books at the awning company and running my business; something had to give,” she says.
So, Nita became a full-time mother and partner with Mike. “We work side by side in the same office every day and people always ask us if we still like each other, and I always tell them, most of the time,” she jokes. “We really get along well, of course—we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.” Nita’s role continues to be managing the money but she is also involved in all major business decisions. “The staff goes through Mike and then Mike has to go through me,” she says. “And that’s harder!” Mike quips.
Mike functions as the General Manager and handles sales with existing clients. “We’ve got customers I’ve known for 20 or 30 years and they are primarily the people I work with,” he says. Mike has continuous interaction with John and his head salesman, Galen Smith, who started with the company after graduating from high school and has worked his way up the ladder. “I’ve done every job here, and that’s what has helped me with sales,” he says. “I can go up to a building and tell the owner exactly what will and won’t work, what looks best and what’s within our capabilities.”
John and Galen, along with John’s sister DeAnne Hobson, the Fabric Shop Superintendent & Graphics Specialist, have all been with the company for 20 years or more, and Mike credits that group with much of the company’s success. That kind of staff longevity, along with the dedication and work ethic of all of the Merrillville Awning staff, have helped Mike and Nita grow a strong, resilient business. “That’s the cool thing about our employees,” Nita says. “Everybody shares each other’s job and it’s all hands on deck when it needs to be. Nobody ever says, ‘That’s not my job.’ We’re all in this together.”
Merrillville Awning takes its projects from design through manufacturing in two buildings totaling 15,000 square feet of space. Although the recession “took the company to its knees,” by 2015, it had made a full recovery. “We had a record year last year and were on our way to one this year before COVID-19—our first quarter was going to be a record quarter,” Mike says. To mitigate a potential slowdown in work, the company started taking on some residential clients again. “I made the decision to take every phone call,” Mike says. “But it hasn’t been as bad as we thought it would be because new construction hasn’t stopped.” This includes some new work for several Indiana hospitals where the company has created sneeze guards. “We made a prototype of a clear, vinyl wall frame and took a photo of it protecting our entrance and foyer and I sent it to all of my hospital connections,” Mike said. “I got a call from a contractor asking if we could make some clear sliding doors for five emergency room openings.” Those doors were installed at Franciscan Health Emergency Department Hammond (Franciscan) along with sneeze guards for counters and reception areas in three Franciscan facilities in Northwest Indiana.
Relentless Pursuit of Excellence
Mike and Nita credit the life lessons Mike learned while working with his father for much of how they run the company today. “Some of our core values are really obvious,” Mike says. “Honesty is one of them, of course. But also, a relentless pursuit of excellence.” He goes on to explain how early in his career he read, “In Search of Excellence,” the 1982 bestseller by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. From that book, he began to see the business world with a different lens. “I knew as a salesman that I was marketing my business at all times and needed to do that with excellence. I’ve carried that with me throughout the course of time.”
Mike also believes that the key to success in any organization is teamwork. He learned this as captain of the hockey team at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago in 1975. “Another key core value is emphasis on team. When we have issues, we move on instead of pointing fingers. We’re friendly and customers tell me how nice our staff is; we all get along.”
Finally, there’s the creative component, using innovation to tackle complex projects, from design to installation. “Sometimes getting a project to fit on a building is like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We’re good at that. We can show customers solutions that they aren’t able to see and save them from spending crazy amounts of money,” Mike says. “We get to see our work and how it helps our clients draw business in. It’s just a fun profession to be in!”