Furniture Refinishing as a Real Business
By Rod Keyser
I could never count the times I have told someone that I own a furniture Restoration business and heard them enthusiastically respond "Oh my, that must be so interesting, It must be so much fun working on all those antiques."
Well, it is fun - or at least it has that potential. But when you try to make a living at a craft, some of the fun goes out of it - especially when you're relying on the craft to feed your children and put a roof over their head.
When you throw in overhead, demanding customers, those occasional challenging pieces that just won't go as you want or expected, keeping the shop clean, organized and stocked with supplies, too little work and (almost as bad) too much work, "fun" is not the first description that comes to mind. It almost looks like work when you stop and think about it. It's almost as if running a refinishing shop is a real business.
And there is the rub. A furniture restoration or refinishing business is a real business, but too many of us treat it as a glorified hobby because we lack the natural inclination or training to be a business person.
Some of us may have gotten into furniture refinishing by working for someone else with a restoration shop. Some get into it by working within a furniture store, or at an antique shop. Others simply start by buying, fixing up, and re-selling or just tinkering around on friends or relatives furniture. I got into it by working in a furniture factory, and then several refinishing and restoration shops before starting my own business around 1990.
Whatever the means, it's usually a case of "it just happens". In fact, many of the proprietors in this industry are craftspeople first, and business people second.
I am however, one of those refinishers who also has a love for entrepreneurship as well. I enjoy business as well as wood. I have been able to survive where many failed, and I attribute this in part to my background and unyielding determination to get a job done right, but also to the business side of my personality. I have faced almost every obstacle and challenge imaginable.
I often times wonder how I made it this far without ending up in the funny farm. I think my wife believes I probably belong there, but somehow have thus far eluded capture. I succeed, or at worse survive, because I always look at how to apply the concepts and ideas of "business" into my restoration trade, thus treating it as a real business.
I've always felt that you need to think of your operation as a real business if you have any chance of making a profit and succeed long term.
WHERE YOU FIT IN
Success to me might mean something totally different to you. For instance, I have a friend in the business that I met in 1997 shortly after my shop and house burned in a fire. I took up a temporary job at a restoration company to supplement income while the business was closed and we rebuilt. This is where we met, as he was the "restorer" I was to replace. We worked together for two weeks, and realized we were like two peas in a pod and our friendship grew over the next few years. I left that company after 6 months to reopen my shop, and eventually shared a 10,000 sq. ft. shop with my friend as we ran our separate restoration and refinishing businesses out of the same location...helping each other along the way as friends do.
So why didn't we join forces and run a business together? We both had different visions of what we deemed to be "success", and had very different goals. Where he would say "lets fill this place with work", I would say "how are we going to get it all done and keep the customers happy?" We would have been great team...as he is the most talented refinisher I've ever known...not including myself of course 🙂 We had different talents, which is what made us so good together. But ultimately, it comes down to business and I didn't want to live life and run our business amidst constant chaos, so I moved back to my little 2000 sq. ft. home shop, where I have been ever since. My friend and I had lost touch, but we spoke a few weeks ago for the first time in several years and I was sad the hear the recession has devastated his business and marriage. With big reward, comes big risk. He had a large flourishing shop, but big animals need a lot of food, and when food gets scarce trouble is usually only one missed meal away.
I feel for my friend, and hope I can find a way to reach out and help him, as I seem to be one of the few that understands what he is dealing with. Even though I wasn't satisfied growing my business to the degree my friend was, I still have a very high demand mom and pop shop that has forced many all nighters through the years. The next person may not be interested in running a high demand shop as I do, but rather a smaller side business to supplement income. I'm convinced that the principals for running a small business are universal. Whether you aspire to run a bustling refinishing empire with scores of employees blasting out furniture like a well oiled machine or you're comfortable enjoying the fine art of restoring furniture or antiques in your solitary, but cozy studio, you need to think of your operation as a real business if you want to make a profit.
I wrote this article quite a few years ago now, and thought I should update it and perhaps even continue on with a part two.
But first, I should update you on the refinisher friend I spoke of that had fallen on hard times. We did reconnect a couple years ago, and I still hear from him every so often, mostly when he needs something from me. As it turns out, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and to make a short story of it, lost his business and home. He's now divorced and not working much, but he's getting by. I subbed a bit of work out to him for awhile, but when he lost his home, he lost his place to do the work.
As far as our business, we are still rolling along and going into year number 28 !!! The refinishing business is in constant change, as I guess all industries are. But if you find your niche, opportunities are still there and the American Dream is still alive and well !