Parkersburg native talks about evolving crafts business

Fritz Renner started in Parkersburg, moved to California

Jul 21, 2017

Paul LaPann

Fritz Renner holds a Tree of Life from Beyond Borders, 55-gallon steel drum art from Fair Trade Haiti, and Scrappy Dog from Yardbirds in Kentucky. Artist Rich Kolb made this dog figure from scrap metal. (Photo Provided)

Fritz Renner holds a Tree of Life from Beyond Borders, 55-gallon steel drum art from Fair Trade Haiti, and Scrappy Dog from Yardbirds in Kentucky. Artist Rich Kolb made this dog figure from scrap metal. (Photo Provided)

MONTEREY, Calif. — Fritz Renner and his father, Fred, started F.T. Renner Company in 1981 with 13 product lines created by West Virginia artisans.

This grew to as many as 42 product lines and 2,000 designs at one time.

Today, 36 years later, Parkersburg native Fritz Renner is representing fewer product lines — none in West Virginia — but his company’s products can be found in hundreds of retail locations, including gift shops, nurseries, garden centers, museums, galleries, hospitals and religious stores connected to churches, to name a few.

The F.T. Renner Company, founded in Parkersburg, is a wholesale sales representative in the gift industry, specializing in home and garden decor.

The company is based in historic downtown Monterey, Calif.

Renner, a 1967 graduate of Parkersburg High School, is director of sales and marketing for F.T. Renner Company. He is an artists representative or sales representative.

All his product lines are recycled and handmade, Renner said.

“We have real products made by real people,” Renner likes to say.

For the first half of his career, Renner was a sales representative for Appalachian arts and crafts, working with artist groups and organizations such as the Rural Arts and Crafts Cooperative in Parkersburg. He met with artisans at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair in Jackson County.

Renner traveled the eastern United States looking for artisans and members of artists guilds to promote their products into western markets, he said.

“Back in the 1980s, I was interested in traditional craftspeople — tinsmiths, coppersmiths, quilters, people who made traditional pitchforks,” Renner said on a recent visit to Parkersburg.

Renner said he encouraged these talented craftsmen to make and sell their products. “They were good, good people,” he added.

Renner, an art major at West Virginia University, worked as a graphic designer after graduation. He designed brochures for the West Virginia Department of Commerce for five years and worked for an advertising agency in Columbus before starting his business.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, Renner was a sales representative for traditional country crafts in the home decor and furniture lines.

For the first 15 years of the business, Fred Renner operated the company’s warehouse on Emerson Avenue in Parkersburg. Fritz moved to California in 1978.

But the consumers’ interest in U.S. country crafts, Americana folk art and home decor crafts faded in the mid-1990s, Renner said.

Looking for a new line of products to sell, Renner met Rich Kolb of Yardbirds, a Kentucky company that created garden sculptures out of scrap materials, at a seminar.

Renner calls this meeting with Kolb “a game changer. It saved my business.”

He started to carry these recycled items produced by Yardbirds.

A second “game changer” for Renner also occurred in the mid-1990s when he was introduced to steel drum art created by Haitian craftsmen. This has become Renner’s most popular artwork.

The Haitian metal art was started by one man and has grown to include 102 Haitian craftsmen, who are able to support their families with their handiwork, Renner said. This became the first Fair Trade line that F.T. Renner Company carried from a foreign country.

Renner said he would like to add West Virginia product lines again if he can find the right craftsmen who can supply enough products to satisfy retail store demands.

“I keep looking for new product lines,” he said.

Renner now carries six product lines from companies in Georgia (metal art sculptures), Kentucky, Haiti, India, Nepal and Colombia. The items are made from recycled or sustainable materials.

Renner travels about 25,000 miles a year visiting locations, mainly in California, that carry these product lines. He attends trade shows, including the inaugural LA Mart Showroom in Los Angeles this week, the Las Vegas Market July 30-Aug. 3 at the World Market Center, a show in Reno, Nev., in October, and he recently set up a booth at the Wild Birds Unlimited Vendor Mart in Indianapolis.

The F.T. Renner Company works with stores in 12 Western states and in western Canada.

Although his products have changed over the past 36 years, Renner said he has maintained the same mission: to support artists and craftsmen and get their products into wider market areas.

Renner said he still wants to foster an appreciation of handcrafted items made by people in the United States and Fair Trade countries abroad.


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