December 04, 2019
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Military experience helped this Maine veteran expand a handcrafted stool company

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
Air Force veteran Brian Warren on one of the handcrafted hardwood stools he makes at his company, The Village Woodworker, in Oxford.

OXFORD, Maine — When Brian Warren wanted to take over his father-in-law’s upscale stool business here, he used his Air Force training to assemble the needed resources.

Fellow veterans who had started businesses in Maine referred him to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Center in Bangor for help to create a business plan and get funding to buy the 65-year-old business.

And now that he’s owned it for a year and is planning to expand, he plans to link up with veteran-owned FreightCenter in Florida to save 40 percent off the cost of shipping the 20-pound hardwood kitchen stools made by his company, The Village Woodworker.

“In the military you build up a brotherhood and sisterhood, a family, around you. You share your life, and you network. You use the resources around you,” Warren, 55, said. “The military teaches you that.”

The Village Woodworker is one of the 15,689 veteran-owned small businesses in Maine in 2012, the most recent year for which data were available from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

Veteran-owned firms account for 11.2 percent of all businesses in Maine, the seventh highest rate in all 50 states.

Their total sales were $4.7 billion.

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
Brian Warren, owner of The Village Woodworker in Oxford, hammers a leg into a handcrafted stool. The legs are turned and sanded and tenons cut into them for joining into the seat portion of the stool.

Of the total number of businesses, 3,046 have employees, while the majority are sole proprietorships like The Village Woodworker. The average number of employees at Maine veteran-owned businesses is nine, according to the Small Business Administration.

Last week was the administration’s National Veterans Small Business Week, which celebrated the nation’s 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses that contribute nearly $1 trillion to the U.S. economy each year, according to Chris Pilkerton, the acting administrator of the Small Business Administration.

The administration in May awarded The Village Woodworker the 2019 Veteran Owned Business of the Year Award.

“He did his homework and had a great vision,” said Ashleigh Briggs, who was Warren’s adviser at the Small Business Development Center in Bangor. “Transferring this pride from generation to generation is a great example of Maine entrepreneurship. It’s good to have mechanisms to help veterans in their second career.”

Growing methodically

Warren, a 35-year Air Force veteran, retired this July 1 while assigned to the Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor, where he was an aerospace ground equipment mechanic.

He went about buying the company slowly and tactically.

Warren had been helping his father-in-law, Robert Roakes, for about 15 years, taking the stools to craft fairs for sale and building them. Roakes, who will turn 88 this week, had a heart attack and could no longer do the heavy lifting or building, so Warren began thinking about taking on a bigger role in the business.

“I talked to him about carrying on making the product,” Warren said. “He said he didn’t want to burden me. The company is his legacy. We talked about whether the fit was good for him and me for five years.”

Warren said he was planning to retire from the Air Force anyway. He bought the company in October 2018, eight months before he retired from the military. Roakes still consults for the business.

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
Brian Warren cutting a stool seat at The Village Woodworker in Oxford. The seats are cut and then scalloped out like tractor seats for comfort.

The 1,120-square-foot woodworking shop is in the garage next to Roakes’ home in Oxford. Warren lives in Newburgh, outside of Bangor, and commutes to work.

Woodworking and building is in the blood of both Roakes and Warren. Roakes’ father started the family woodworking business in Falmouth in 1954. Roakes moved to Oxford and started initially making wood cutouts of trees and other small items that craftspeople could paint before he moved on to making furniture.

Roakes’ first stool was three legged, but when he realized people would use it to step up to get items from their kitchen cabinets and potentially fall, he designed a sturdier four-legged stool.

The current stool has a tractor-style seat with recessed areas designed for comfortable sitting. It also has a supportive small back and a foot rest.

The stools range from $215 to $270 for a 24-inch high model with a back. The price differs by wood type. Warren makes the stools in cherry, black walnut, mahogany, red oak, white ash and maple.

A similar stool style from Thomas Moser, based in Auburn, costs about $1,000. Warren said that’s because Thomas Moser has branched out beyond Maine and is well known.

For his part, Warren likes to tinker and fix things, and he likes woodworking and building.

“It’s peaceful. I can see the different grains as I work with wood,” he said. “I can see the happiness of the people who buy the stools.”

Branching out

Warren plans to begin selling beyond fairs in Maine, which are his primary sales vehicle now. He’ll do that by setting up a website for sales and hiring one person to help make the stools, both of which are planned in the next six months.

“I plan to hire someone, but I’m looking at long-range sustainability,” he said, adding that he wants to make sure sales can carry the salary of an employee.

The company currently has $38,000 in sales a year and has a profit margin of just over 40 percent. It makes 220 stools a year.

Warren said his son, who studied financial planning at Husson University, did an internship at the company last year and figured out all the financials before he even bought the business.

Warren bought the business from Roakes for $32,000, including the woodworking equipment.

But he relied on other friends in the military to tell him how to go about getting a loan. They referred him to the local Small Business Development Center. He worked with the center from July until October 2018, when he bought the business.

There are 10 such centers in Maine providing free advice and services for preparing business plans, helping to get funding, preparing three-year business projections and keeping small businesses on a growth path. They are funded by the Small Business Administration, the state of Maine and the University of Southern Maine.

“I didn’t know how to go about getting a loan,” Warren said.

The center has a boilerplate business plan that he and an adviser customized for his business. The adviser said he could try to get a business loan from a bank or a “Wicked Fast” loan through CEI, a nonprofit based in Brunswick.

Warren opted for a “Wicked Fast” microloan of $15,000, which was ready in October when he bought the business.

He paid the rest of the money to Roakes from ongoing business operations. He had already started paying for the equipment two years before he formally purchased the business, so he already has paid it off in his first year of ownership.

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
A before and after image of a handcrafted stool from The Village Woodworker in Oxford. The stool backs are in the container on the floor to the left.

And while the seven fairs in Maine he sells at each year are his only sales vehicle now, he would like to venture outside of Maine via the internet.

“My biggest selling point is getting people to sit in the stools at the fairs,” he said. “But I need to create a website where people can order from.” He also wants to start marketing on Facebook and Instagram. He is looking into selling on craft websites, such as Shopify and Amazon Homemade, as well as to a restaurant supply company.

He already is getting sales from outside the state because tourists from Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere attend fairs in Maine. At a fair in Boothbay, 90 percent of his business was from out of state, he said.

“My next challenge as a business is to find shipping that is affordable,” he said. The 20-pound stools are costly to ship, because the charge is by volume and only the backs come off the stools.

“I’ve been talking to a veteran-owned shipper in Florida called FreightCenter that can cut the shipping costs by 40 percent because it ships high volumes,” he said.

Warren, who is vice president of the 210-member United Maine Craftsmen organization in South Portland, said Maine craft sales are still strong. The organization conducts surveys after each fair, and he said members are reporting they made a profit after fairs.

“We sold 14 of the 40 stools we had at the Cross Insurance Arena crafts fair,” he said. That fair ran from Nov. 2-3.

Warren will have the stools at upcoming Maine craft shows in Brewer from Nov. 29-30 and the University of Southern Maine in Portland from Dec. 7-8.

 



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