Furniture with a purpose - Finding the right mix

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Finding the right mix
About a year after Wilkerson opened his New Orleans store in December 1998, he hired his first employee.

"Ever since the early '90s I've maintained three or four employees, sometimes more. Right now I'm quite lucky, I'm quite blessed; I have a good [group] of employees that are giving me no grief at all. The grief that comes from the employees is from my not watching them close and giving them something to do, and then not following up. And then if it's not done right, it's not their fault; it's my fault."

He gives the greatest responsibility to his highest-paid employees.

"When I say a great deal of responsibility, I still do all the spec work. I draw everything out and spec out every piece to every piece of furniture. I don't just say, 'Build me a cabinet.' I'll spec out the sides, the facing, what it is to be made of, what router bits to use and so forth. Once I get into a repetitious situation with them, then I have to say less, I have to spec less. What I found is I have one or two high-paid employees and then one or two low-paid employees that are just workers. Employees are always the biggest obstacle."

Competition in the Magazine St. area of New Orleans was once quite intense. There were a number of folks making furniture; a number of them were making furniture similar to Wilkerson's.

"I stuck to my integrity because most of them were not woodworkers. They were either lawyers who went into the woodworking business or antique dealers who went into the woodworking business. One by one, they all went out of business and I think, personally, the main reason they went out of business was because they weren't woodworkers. A woodworker is going to do woodworking and he is going to continue it. So it was rather competitive and got under my skin for a little while but I stuck with it and now I don't consider many people to be my competitors. Whenever I hear that someone is going into the woodworking business I say, 'Great. I hope you make a million dollars. Call me when you do.' "

Down the road
Wilkerson recently began teaching a creative woodworking class at a middle school in Austin, Texas. The purpose of the class is to explore different ways to build things using reclaimed wood. The first homework assignment was to bring in a piece of wood.

"What we're going to do is take trash — because that's what I do for a living; I literally take stuff that would be in a landfill otherwise — and turn it into art. They're very excited about it and it's cool. It's something that I have wanted to do for quite some time and now I'm happy to be in it."

Wilkerson's primary vocation during the next few years will continue to be working with reclaimed materials.

"I'm hoping that designing and making furniture out of reclaimed wood, thus calling it 'green furniture,' is going to bring me a decent notoriety because frankly very few people are doing it — or they're not doing it to the level or degree that I am. I want to be known for designing furniture with a purpose. That's what I hope will happen."