A class act - One job leads to another

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When Leigh started to get homesick for her family, the couple moved back to the L.A. area. Cliff Spencer Furniture Maker was launched on the most meager resources. “Our first location was just a bit of subleased bench space from another shop. I started out making pieces on spec to designs I created,” says Spencer. Anything he couldn’t sell — tables, rocking chairs, casework and more — he gave as gifts, just to build some word-of-mouth for the fledgling business, and to have something to put up on the Web site, www.cliffspencer.net.

By early 2005, there were some slight signs of progress. Cliff worked in the shop, and Leigh offered advice, helped with some of the designs, built the Web site, and served as chief marketing officer (while still holding down an outside design job — and she is now also the mother of a 2-year-old son named Scout). What the Spencers learned is they function well as a team.

“Our first big break,” Spencer recalls, “was when we connected with Living Green, a Culver City home furnishings store that started showing some of our designs. Slowly, custom projects began to come our way. One of the early ones was a music stand for a violinist, a well-known studio musician in Southern California.”

One job leads to another
The next big milestone for the young firm started with an ad in Los Angeles Magazine, announcing the creation of a green home, and inviting suppliers to participate in the project. The Spencers made an initial call, left a voice mail message, but received no reply. As Cliff remembers it, he figured it was a lost cause. At Leigh’s urging, however, he called again, reached a live person who warmed to his suggestions and introduced him to the homeowners. “We wound up building bamboo casework in the laundry room and several individual pieces throughout the home,” says Spencer.

The green-home effort led to a meeting with architect David Hertz, whom Spencer identifies as “a pioneer in sustainable building.” Through him, the shop secured a commission to do all the cabinets and some staircase work at a home he had designed in Venice Beach, Calif. This led to more publicity.

Another strong contact was Russell Orrell, a contractor who features traditional designs. “This enabled us to build a portfolio in a variety of styles,” says Spencer. The shop was on its way.

With volume and interest increasing, Cliff and Leigh recognized there was a lot they needed to learn about running a business. They called in a business counselor, who urged them to hire more people, and to pay all his people enough to ensure they would be experienced, have good skills and a high level of intelligence.

In 2005, with two employees already on board, Spencer hired three more, including shop foreman Danny Molina and installation specialist Roque Nauta, both of whom are still with him. Until January, there simply wasn’t any room for more people, since the company was sharing space in a 2,500-sq.-ft. shop.