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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner Mike Holland at Chattanooga Tent Co. on Oak Street. Holland is the third generation of his family to own the business.

It may turn out that Mike Holland was just off by a year in his forecast for Chattanooga Tent Co., the business his grandfather launched in 1934.

Holland says he once thought 2020 would be the company's best year ever. But by the end of the year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chattanooga Tent's business was off by 22 percent compared to 2019.

"I felt very blessed," says Holland, CEO of his family's business for the past seven of his 43 years there. "Many businesses were down by 50% to 70%."

Now, he says, his optimism has "rolled right over into 2021." He says business for the first four months of this year was up by 20 percent compared to 2019, thanks to a couple of big jobs early in the year, the need for tents at vaccination facilities and the prospect of an imminent return to something like normalcy.

"People are getting more comfortable with getting back into public," Holland says.

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Chattanooga Tent Co. owner foresees opportunity

Weathering the pandemic is just the latest chapter in the long story of Chattanooga Tent Co., which began when Holland's grandfather, Joe Nolan, turned his Depression-era side hustle cleaning windows and awnings into a full-fledged business. Nolan launched Chattanooga Awning & Shade Co., with his brother, Garvin, in 1934.

"Respected man," Holland, 60, said of his grandfather. "He loved what he did. He was one of the founding members of the tent division of the Industrial Fabrics Association International."

As did many American companies, Nolan's business shifted focus and ramped up dramatically after the United States entered World War II.

"He'd started in Venetian blinds, but moved into tents, tarpaulins and carbine cases," he says. "By 1941, the company was big enough to make small wall tents for the Army."

With the war over, Holland says, Nolan's company shifted to making pants for men and boys. When an economic downturn caused those products to be discontinued in 1947-48, Holland says, the company went back to making awnings.

Holland says the business ramped up again for the Korean War, and landed its first tent rental in 1953.

"That's when the business started to take off," he says.

Holland says 1960 was a pivotal year for his family's business – it survived a fire, and the two brothers who'd launched the company went their separate ways. Garvin Nolan opened Lookout Mountain Tarpaulin, while Joe renamed his business Chattanooga Tent and Awning.

Holland recalls that by the time he started working summers in the mid-1970s, his grandfather "wasn't around much." Holland says Nolan sold the business to his son, Andy, in 1982.

"Andy was young and aggressive," Holland says. "He really started pushing the growth of the company."

Chattanooga Tent Co.

* Address: 1110 Oak St.

* Online: chattanoogatent.com

* Employees: 44

Holland says he joined his family's business in 1978 and worked as an installer until 1987. He says that when he bought the company from his uncle in 2014, he did so having filed away nearly 30 years' worth of observations. But 2020 was a new kind of challenge.

Holland recalls that a mid-March wedding cancellation was the first sign that 2020 might not be the "bang-up" year he'd anticipated.

"They were going to fly 100 guests in from Israel," he recalls. "The next day, we had a cancellation from Columbus, Ohio. Then, a few hours later, a third cancellation. Then it just avalanched.

"My fear at the time was, 'When will we run out of money?' I didn't want to lay anybody off, so I decided not to," he says.

Holland says Chattanooga Tent had about 45 employees at that point. They split into two teams and worked a two-week-on, two-week-off system, but that only lasted for a month or so.

"The workload became so big, we needed everyone here," he says, adding that the company instituted a mask mandate on March 27, 2020.

Oddly enough, Holland says, that workload grew because of the same pandemic that took his event business "down to almost zero."

"What helped was the need for testing sites and social-distancing rooms for companies to be able to keep employees on," he says, adding that CHI Memorial and Erlanger hired Chattanooga Tent to put up tents at satellite locations. Holland adds that his company also put up tents at 30 Chattanooga-area urgent-care centers.

"We also got involved with the hospital built at the New Orleans Convention Center," he says, "and we did outdoor classrooms at Sewanee [University of the South] and for Covenant College."

Holland says that testing sites started coming down as 2020 drew to a close, but demand ramped up again when vaccinations started to roll out in January of this year.

"That was another shot in the arm for us," he says. "From January to March, we put vaccination sites up in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina."

Holland says that while vaccination sites have been coming down of late, his event business is rebounding.

"Starting in January of this year, I've had no [2021] cancellations," he says. "More people are having parties. More people are getting married. We're getting to where we might have to turn people away.

"As a business owner, you hate to tell anybody 'no,' but I preached this all last year – I told our customers 'Don't wait – if you don't plan, you're not going to get what you want,'" he says.

Chattanooga Tent hasn't been immune to the labor shortage plaguing businesses nationwide, says Holland, who adds that he increased his payroll by 8% in March – not so much for new hires as to simply stay competitive.

"We knew last September that things were going to open up in 2021, and that we needed to get ahead of things and hire," he says. "We tried to hire in September of last year, but it was tough. We found one or two who stayed with us, but getting into this year, we still needed people."

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