Westward expansion

For many years, Mike O’Connell possessed a desire to live in the American West. He grew up near Cooperstown, N.Y., the small-town home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. After graduating from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., he did stints in the welding industry and with an electrical component company in upstate New York before resuming his westward journey.

O’Connell and his wife, Dee, lived in St. Louis in the late 1990s, but had a yearning to move farther west, as well as a desire to become more involved in the business world. O’Connell found an intriguing business opportunity in Laramie, Wyo., with a wholesale furniture manufacturing company that was for sale.

“There was an ad in one of the papers that this rustic furniture company was for sale,” O’Connell recalls. “We’d already moved to Fort Collins, Colo., and there is a store that sells the furniture in Fort Collins. I went and took a look at the furniture and I really fell in love with it. I thought it was very unique and had a lot of personality to it.”

With his wife on board as his business partner, the two purchased Mountain Woods Furniture in 2001.

“I bought the company from the founder, a gentleman who started it in 1990, and grew it and grew it. I was in the corporate world, looking to get out of the corporate world, and to be in a more entrepreneurial business.”

About 25 miles southwest of Laramie, on Highway 230, in a barren and windy area of southern Wyoming, the O’Connells became the new owners of a 20-person shop that manufactures residential pieces for the dining room, living room, bedroom, and home office, as well as specialty items. The product isn’t typical rustic furniture. The pieces feature dovetailed drawers, mortise and tenon joinery, European hinges and slides, and every piece is supported by the company’s lifetime guarantee.

Taking over
It’s one thing to start your own business and grow it as you see fit. But when you purchase a successful business, changing operating procedures, product line or key personnel isn’t recommended. O’Connell knew to let existing operations continue “as is” while he learned about the business, the market and areas of potential growth.

Owner: Mike O’Connell
Location: Laramie, Wyo.
Maker of: Rustic furniture
Shop size: 22,000 sq. ft.
Employees: 20
Noted client: Cabela’s
New offering: The Wyoming
Collection
About the collection: “Log furniture is a fairly
narrow niche, and we wanted something still in
the rustic arena that our current dealers would be able  to sell, something that would be a little more transitional. It’s much more versatile than the log-type product that we have traditionally offered.”

“I don’t do much woodworking,” he acknowledges. “I have a manufacturing manager. I did have manufacturing experience with processes and material management and things like that. When I came into the business, there were a few rather experienced people working the material and building the furniture. I spend a fair bit of time with material coming in and products going out because that is a big part of our business. We ship all over the country and I spend an awful lot of time with getting product to stores around the country that we sell to.”

When the O’Connells bought Mountain Woods Furniture, the business was growing rapidly, thanks to an economy that was booming. Although sales haven’t grown at the same rate during the present decade as they did in the 1990s, furniture sales to second homes, resort areas and other upper-end clients have been quite successful. During the last year, that clientele has been hit hard because of issues such as affordability, mortgages and discretionary income, but O’Connell remains optimistic.

“I am thinking that we have hit the bottom and we’re starting to trend up,” he says. “The winter months were pretty soft, but we have seen some turnaround in the order backlog situation, which I think is a positive indicator, but there are a lot of very mixed emotions about where the economy is and where it is going to go from here. So I think everybody is still taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

Shot in the arm
Since its founding, Mountain Woods Furniture has primarily built log furniture — rustic pieces built with pine and aspen. About a year ago, the company introduced its Wyoming Collection, a rustic, yet refined, line of furniture contrasting light-colored aspen with darker-colored reclaimed wood.

The log supply originates from dead-standing aspen poles and the darker reclaimed wood comes from old barns and snow fences from a local supplier. The aspen usually contains beetle marks that provide each piece with one-of-a-kind character.

“The Wyoming Collection has been going quite well and has been well-received. It’s added a completely different look for us. It’s really broadened our offering to the marketplace and we’ve been quite pleased with how that line has done. It’s a much more transitional look than just the log furniture for us, so we’re glad to have that additional piece of ammunition in our belt here.

“We started by taking the weathered-wood look and fusing it with some aspen and pine that we stained in order to get what we thought was a pretty unique look as far as the overall construction of the pieces and the design.”

The Wyoming Collection idea primarily came from some of the company’s employees. The design combination of naturally weathered woods, lighter aspen and the employees’ knowledge about rustic products has proven to be a successful formula. The Wyoming Collection is targeted at the middle- to higher-end market. The company also produces a rustic arts line that is a scaled-down version with a much more attractive price point.

“When we bought the company, there was just the traditional Mountain Woods product and that would be classified as higher-end. We came out and tried to add product offerings to hit a bit more of the market than just the high-end log furniture part,” adds O’Connell.

Employees count
The building processes involved in Mountain Woods Furniture’s custom pieces aren’t exactly conducted by the book. The employees build each piece from start to finish, beginning with selecting the wood from the company’s log yard to eventually having a completed piece ready for the finish room. That places a lot of responsibility on the individual builder.

“Most of our people have been here three or four years; many have been here longer — six, seven years. We look for people who have experience with hand tools and have worked in either a construction or industrial-type setting. If they’ve got carpentry experience, so much the better, but normally that’s not the case. We train them starting with how the wood gets prepped, then how we put it together in the lids and sides, and then as you get a little more experience, then you’re moving on to actually building some pieces.”

Mountain Woods offers about 200 pieces with standard dimensions. Custom orders are also accepted.

“The pay is primarily piecework and each piece has a set pay to it. When someone finishes a piece, that’s when they get paid. We have some people that are a little more productive and they make pretty good money, and others that may be a little slower. They may not make as much money, but they are pretty well-paid out here for the area versus the average. We have a manufacturing foreman; he is responsible for what is going on for labor and lumber within the four walls of the building and reports to me.”

Refreshingly, much of the design input emanates from the employees. O’Connell says he might come up with the general direction, but it’s the employees’ collective input that grabs his idea and helps determine the final product.

“We knew we wanted to supplement our log furniture with an additional product line. When we were working on the Wyoming Collection, our weathered-wood collection, for example, we said we wanted to do some pieces for the bedroom and living room areas. We had two or three people doing initial prototypes and we took the parts we liked the best from the prototype process that went on for 30, 60 days and then we turned that into a finished production product.”

Getting the word out
Mountain Woods Furniture is marketed through several large wholesalers and a group of authorized furniture retailers in about two dozen states. One of the company’s largest clients is Cabela’s, which is currently showcasing the Wyoming Collection.

“Cabela’s is a customer of ours and we also sell to many rustic furniture stores around the country. We also have had success with traditional furniture stores that wanted to broaden their offering. They may have received requests for rustic furniture and they’ve added rustic sections into their stores, so those are customers we sell to as well.”

Mountain Woods Furniture was a first-time exhibitor in January at the Dallas Total Home and Gift Market, and then a returning exhibitor in February at the Las Vegas World Market.

“Vegas was positive,” O’Connell says. “We didn’t have real high expectations going there for the February market because of where the economy was, but the attendance was good; we had some good contacts, and we left there generally pleased with that market.

“Looking at the rest of this year, we’d really like to see consumer confidence come back. We’d like to see the credit markets become a little more flexible and we’d also like to see some stronger job indicators, job growth and job security for people. And just the stabilization and return of the housing market would help as well. The summer season is generally a little more active for us, so we’re looking forward to that particular market and going from there.”

The company has a Web site, but in most cases, sales are not made directly to customers. However, the Web site does provide potential customers product-specific information, including the ability to click on a PDF that shows bedroom pieces, living room pieces, and other items in an effort to increase visibility.

“We’re a manufacturer selling to stores. We do look to our dealers to have inventory on the floor and that’s an important part of what they bring to the party, having furniture immediately ready for the people.”

Materials and machines
O’Connell has managed to put together a “green” operating shop in Wyoming. His wood materials are from reclaimed and salvaged sources, air-dried and placed in a kiln, powered by burning wood scraps, for several weeks.

Mountain Woods Furniture is a member of the Sustainable Furniture Council, a non-profit coalition of suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and designers formed to promote sustainable practices with the best networking and education in the industry. Although the word “green” has many definitions in the building and manufacturing world, O’Connell’s company employs many “green” practices. However, the owner is well aware it is a tricky subject.

“The other part of our business that ties into the weathered wood product is the green aspects of what we do. We deal with dead-standing trees — it’s all obtained regionally — we use all waterbase finishes, and it’s environmentally friendly. We burn our own wood scraps to dry our own wood. We used to have two more propane tanks out there and we’ve taken them out because we’re achieving that heating with our wood scraps. We’ve had a pretty good foot in the green arena before that became a popular buzzword.”

The shop at Mountain Woods Furniture is well-equipped with hand and machine tools, but not over the top. CNC machines are non-existent, and individual handwork is very instrumental in the making of most pieces.

“We have a couple of Timesavers, three different table saws, one with an automatic feeder that we do our drawer pieces on. You’ll see a fair bit of specialized mortise-and-tenon type machinery, a Dodd’s dovetail drawer machine. I have one person that does all the finishing. That’s an area where we’re specialized in. She’s doing two processes; on the lids she is spraying on our top polyurethane finish, usually two or three coats, and then she is hand rubbing on the beeswax and linseed oil, which goes on to the log fronts and the log corners and all the sides.”

Tough life on the prairie
There’s no doubt running a furniture business, whether it be a one-person custom shop or a wholesale manufacturer with 20 employees, has become a considerable challenge these days. Every decision is critical to business survival, and O’Connell is keenly aware of the current economic situation.

“You have a lot of dealers that are cutting back on their inventories in response to general economics. Between the housing market and the stock market shrinkage, which was the discretionary income for a lot of people, furniture is a category that has taken a pretty big hit and we’re in the furniture business.

We’ve had some pretty loyal customers and that has certainly helped us maintain our position in the market. The overall economic scene is difficult right now. The products are pretty interesting; we’d like to get back on our growth path with a little help from the economy and some new products. We’re fairly optimistic.”

Mountain Woods Furniture, 1512 Highway 230, Laramie, WY 82070. Tel: 866-689-6637, or 970-221-1041. www.mountainwoodsfurniture.com

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.