Craft Business      Direct Marketing    Computers & Us    Custom Cabinetry


Tomorrows Heirlooms was born in 1982 as the vehicle for me to grow in several areas important to me.  First, it allowed me to exercise my  entrepreneurial gene  more than was possible within the large corporate culture of P&G.  Next, it was a great way to develop my woodworking craft which started for me as a young boy working in my dad's millwork business under the watchful eye of Pennsylvania Dutch cabinetmakers.  There is no greater challenge or reward than having other people value your work by paying for it.  It was also a way to learn every functional aspect of business from marketing (demand creation), customer development and creative design, production and quality control, purchasing, and finance.  Finally, it was a great excuse to add new equipment to my shop by designing each subsequent project around increased capability. 

The key enabling factors that allowed Tomorrows Heirlooms to operate successfully for 10 years were most certainly Blake and Joyce.  I started working with Blake when he was 15 as I was going through my divorce and Blake-rubbing.JPG (89189 bytes)was living in his dad's house with my shop equipment in his basement.  Blake was very interested in woodworking and uninterested in the collegiate route to a professional career.  When Joyce and I were married, Blake came to work for me and was sort of my "apprentice".  At first, I would have to work late into the evenings to prepare work for Blake to finish during the next day.  With time, he became fully independent and was able to build an entire kitchen from a computer generated cut list.  He is the most dedicated, loyal and professional person I have ever worked with (including at P&G) and he became more like a son than an employee.  Even though the business was shut down in 1992, Blake continues in the trade and still uses my shop for projects of his own. 

Joyce was a terrific partner through the entire endeavor.  Our first shop Blake-basement.JPG (43772 bytes)was in the basement of our Hyde Park house and work would often spill over into the garage.  Dust was a constant upstairs invader.  We would often forgo furniture purchases in favor of the next piece of shop equipment.  While traveling on P&G business, Joyce met the head of Sales for a National distributor and set up ashow.jpg (33601 bytes) meeting for me to show him our Jewelry Boxes.  As a result of her initiative, we went from local trade shows to National distribution.  Joyce is the one who found our current house by searching for properties with outbuildings suitable for the shop.  Only setting up the laundry room took precedence over building the new shop.  I'm glad I was able to build two kitchens and various pieces of furniture for Joyce to repay some of her tolerance and partnership.

Kids-dust.JPG (33955 bytes)The kids also got into the act.  As soon as they were able to spend time safely in the shop, I used to teach them to drive nails into cardboard and to mimic the sounds of the variousTHI-Scott.jpg (36372 bytes) power tools.   Our first project together was a kid sized workbench made from an extra shelf from a bookcase project.  At first, their help was minimal but important.  Later, Scott in particular became a frequent helper in installations of new kitchens especially when it came to putting on the hardware. 


The business evolved in an interesting way without benefit of any great strategy or business plan.  We started with mass production of a couple of models of cherry Jewelry Boxes that I had designed and made asJoyce-Vail.JPG (41209 bytes) Christmas presents.  The logic was simple:  they were small, easy to take to shows,  and simple enough for Blake to make with minimal experience.  At first, we used a printed flyer as our "advertising" and would sell boxes directly to stores wherever we could.  Our first sale was to a specialty retailer in Vail.  The flyer and our own selling  was subsequently replaced by a catalogue page and the sales force from our National distributor.

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The artwork and printing cost of the catalogue along with the 100% markup of the distributor and high labor cost for the boxes encouraged me to try direct marketing of a simpler product with an innovative twist.  Ceramic rod knife sharpeners were new on the market and pretty popular and expensive.  I combined the rods with a sleek design cherry knife block into an integrated system called "the best knife sharpener on the block".  I had read a lot of books on direct marketing so I proceeded to hire an advertising agency to help me develop my first direct mailBonApetit.gif (203265 bytes) vehicle which was a classified add in Bon Appetit.  To everyone who ordered a knife block, I would enclose the catalogue page for a Jewelry Box with the shipment.  We needed a credit card account and lots of packaging and trips to UPS.    This venture was moderately successful, but the high cost of ad placement made it very difficult to get a satisfactory return.  


This is where I learned about the power of free media via PR.  The food editor for USA Today was a personal friend.  She agreed to feature my block in the paper and to send press kits to food editors across the usatoday.gif (232303 bytes)country who look for things like this as "fillers".  Over many months I received many times the orders as the expensive ad with a new flurry with each placement in regional newspapers.  I have been a fan of free media and the value of personal relationships in business ever since.


The business was started at the dawn of the PC age.  In the first year I used to lug home from P&G the earliest of the "portable" computers...acomputer.jpg (33490 bytes) Compaq with built in monochrome display and 51/4 floppy drive (no hard drive).  I wrote a program using visicalc to do all the accounting and mailing label creation.  Our first purchased computer was a IBM PS2 with a 20meg hard drive....I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  I used Lotus123 to write a program for generating cut lists for custom cabinetry.  This capability enabled me to do essentially all the design work in a single weekend that would keep Blake busy for 6 weeks.  Cabinet design software (evolved to a higher level than my early version) is now common place in the industry.  

A terrific collateral benefit flowed from my dependence on, and appreciation for computers.  Scott showed great interest and demonstrated exceptional talent by writing his first program in basic language when he was just 8.  He was encouraged and mentored by my brother-in-law Tom, who provides IT support for Champion Paper.  With the addition of an 800 baud modem to our PC, Scott never looked back.  He started a computer bulletin board called "The Imperial Chapter" where he and his friends could play games on line.  Later, he started his own business selling a hi-tech modem along with assorted peripherals.  Today, Scott is a program manager at Microsoft in Seattle, and I continue to push the boundaries of my own computer capabilities and look for new ways to employ the technology both at home and at P&G.  Who knows if any of this would have happened without the need to generate cut lists for Tomorrows Heirlooms.


Even though the mail order business was progressing, I decided to shift emphasis to custom designed cabinetry.  The business was turning into a production operation with my role becoming more like a manager than an innovator.  I wanted to work directly with customers and design one of a kind pieces that stretched my capability as a craftsman while increasing the value of each sale.  I started with a classified ad in the localHydeParkLiving.gif (64048 bytes) magazine.  Our first few jobs were simple bookcases or entertainment centers and mantles.  Our first kitchen was my own in Hyde Park.  Then my boss at P&G asked me to do all the cabinetry for a large new house he was building.  This got me connected with a quality builder who asked me to participate in Homerama with him the next year.  The following year, we did the cabinetry for another Homerama house built by my tennis partner.  From then on, we always had several months of backlog orders just through word of mouth.  Many of these jobs were for P&G people.

I was pretty successful at evolving the work to a higher level of custom design with each new customer.  This enabled increased pricing and profitability as well as an excuse to add new equipment along the way.  I took pictures of many of these jobs which I used to help new customers with design ideas.  I have some of the pictures in a  photopoint  album accessible by this link WEB ALBUM OF CUSTOM CABINETRY EXAMPLES


The success of the business actually led to my decision to cease operations in 1992.  We reached a point where I was either going to have to hire additional help for Blake; or stop altogether.  Since gearing up would need to be supported by even greater demand, I would have had to commit even more of my free time to customer development and design and I didn't have any left.  At the same time, my role at P&G was becoming even more demanding and from an "earning a living" standpoint, was the clear choice.  My only real concern was for Blake.  Luckily, he was able to continue working with the contractor we had often used to help with kitchen installations.  Blake still works with him remodeling basements and kitchens and as I write this, Blake is out back in my shop building cabinets for one of his relatives. 

All is well that ends well.  I must admit that I had no idea that people had so much free time as I discovered after the last job was completed.  I now have a shop that makes Norm's "New Yankee Workshop" look like amateur land and I can switch on the lights and build pieces for my own family whenever I choose.  And who knows, what special cowboy designs I might dream up when Joyce and I move to Colorado.