|Slow and Steady wins The Race|
|Local ties help|
|The weirder the better|
|The 'big' job|
Bennett’s association with nearby Ohio University has been critical to his business almost from the start. Much of the private work he has done has been for university employees, in many cases young professors just starting out. They are, according to Bennett, people who come into town “hired into a tenure-track position. They’re pregnant, or they need a kitchen, or they need their house finished up. They’ve been living like students for many moons. They want something nice, and they can appreciate the kind of wacky, funky woodwork that we make out of local hardwoods.”
He contrasts the success he has had serving the Athens community with the struggles experienced by his woodworking peers in his hometown of Alliance, a town sitting on the fringe of the state’s rust belt. There, in local markets lacking a thriving institutional customer base like Ohio University, Bennett knows cabinetmakers who have struggled for years to make ends meet.
But even a woodworker in Bennett’s fortuitous circumstances is subject to the vagaries of a struggling economy. His business has experienced several slow periods and is experiencing one now. Bennett explains it this way: “A couple of years ago, this hypothetical professor would have said, ‘I’m going to call Tom Bennett and have him build a wall unit for me.’ What he’s saying now is, ‘Someday, I’m going to call Tom Bennett and have him build a wall unit, but right now I’m just going to wait and see.’ ”
To generate new business, Bennett recently advertised in the local paper for the first time. He has also shown at The Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center in Athens. In addition, he has had several one- and two-man shows in area galleries. However, his past experiences in consignment galleries have not been good. This is because most of Bennett’s spec pieces are large tables that gallery owners often use as store furniture to display ceramics made by other artisans. This not only makes Bennett’s tables difficult for customers to notice, it also results in scratches and dents on the surfaces.
Bennett believes flexibility is the key to riding out slow periods. On a recent Tuesday, for example, Bennett and his assistant started the day by running flooring on a Logosol PH260 planer molder for an area contractor. When the flooring had been run, the two men moved to a large curly maple spec table on which they rubbed out the finish with 2000 grit paper. They then finished out the day by preparing for a poplar kitchen they were about to build for a local customer.
The weirder the better
The second floor of Bennett’s shop is packed seven and eight feet deep with poplar, maple, cherry and walnut — all locally grown and dried in Bennett’s small (8' x 8' x 12') Nyle dehumidification kiln. Plus, he has another 30' x 60' building on his property that is also filled with kiln-dried material. Some of this lumber came from trees he felled himself, and some came from blow-downs offered to him by friends and neighbors.
This enormous supply of locally grown hardwood allows Bennett to bid lower materials costs than he could manage if he were buying material from a commercial supplier, a method he once relied upon. Even more important, this reserve makes it possible for Bennett to assure every customer that all the material in the cabinets, tables and cupboards they buy from Bennett is grown locally.