Aspen, Colo., has been good to native New Zealander Stephen Anderson, a.k.a. ‘Stevie the Kiwi.’ Located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the small city with a population of about 8,000 offers an abundance of powdery snow perfect for every ski season, drawing the extremely rich and sometimes famous that patronize his business, Aspen Custom Woodworking.
Anderson’s clients, many of whom are repeat customers, are mostly millionaires and billionaires living deluxe lifestyles with multiple vacation homes, fancy cars, private jets and the like. They want lavish décor and will happily replace their existing, already gorgeous, interior woodwork with their latest tastes at the drop of a dime, according to Anderson.
The work just keeps pouring in, says Anderson.
“I’m just a ‘yes’ man. That’s how everyone knows me. We’ll do anything for anyone. We’re here to help and we try to enjoy ourselves. The jobs are amazing,” he says. “Nothing is the same thing twice. They’re always one-off custom pieces, whether it’s handmade furniture, entertainment centers, theaters, vanities or walk-in closets.”
Work and play
Anderson grew up in his South Pacific homeland with a yearning for adventure. Fortunately, he was guided by sound parenting which led to him to be a productive member of the workforce while fulfilling his other dreams.
“I left school at 15 years old and started an apprenticeship in woodworking. It was four years, 8,000 hours, which is pretty standard for that type of training. My mother said I couldn’t leave school unless I found a job that would last me the rest of my life, so I found that apprenticeship and started it straight away.”
Knowing that woodworking would be his most logical ticket to adulthood, and out of town, he worked under the guidance of several master craftsmen and completed his training in 1990.
“I finished my apprenticeship and decided to move to Aspen to be a ski bum. I thought it was a good time to do some traveling,” says Anderson. “I think a lot of New Zealanders get out after they finish their apprenticeship or finish college. They travel the world and go explore.”
He got a job as a lift operator for six months, and then went to England for a year and a half to work at a London cabinetry and joinery shop. By now it was apparent woodworking was a dependable fallback and that piqued his interest to build his contacts in the field. But he still had a zest for the ski life and returned to Aspen, working as a snowboard instructor and at a local cabinet shop for the next several years.
“I couldn’t get enough of Aspen. It’s just a great place. I think it’s just because it reminds me of growing up in New Zealand. Everyone’s very outgoing here and it’s got that small-town feeling.”
Eight years later
After several years in Europe, and another stint at the London shop, Anderson and his wife Colleen moved back to Aspen in the spring of 1998. He needed a more permanent employment situation.
“The ski season is only six months out of the year. I had to get professional if I was ever going to grow up and buy a place here,” he says.
His first shop was three miles out of town. In 2007, he bought a 2,400-sq.-ft. shop in the downtown area.
“This space is zoned for light commercial and I qualified,” says Anderson. “It’s an amazing location. My clients love it. They fly in on their private jets and don’t have to leave Aspen. They can stop here before skiing, hiking or rafting to have a look at their project.”
Anderson says his clients are often bankers, investors and owners of big companies. Some have old money or have made their fortunes.
“We have all sorts. Some own sporting teams, some are celebrities. There’s a super nice NASCAR driver in town. Mostly all of them are friendly and down to earth.”
One particular client has been very good for business. “We’ve done custom beds, vanities, an in-house theater, walk-in closet … it’s sort of never ending,” says Anderson. The rational is hard for most of us to understand, but he explains “just because you come to Aspen and buy a $20 or $30 million house, you may like the bones of the house or the view, but that doesn’t mean you like the fit and finish inside. Even though it’s beautiful, it’s not what they want to live with, so they’ll just tear it out and they’ll call us up and we’ll redo it.”
Taking all requests
There’s not much Anderson and his crew won’t take on. He often works with architects, interior designers and contractors to produce a range of designs.
“Everything changes here every few years. One year it’s rift cut white oak or quartersawn African mahogany. Next it will be reclaimed barn wood. This year, walnut is super hot. We work with a lot of exotics. We just did a house that was all zebrawood and butternut.”
All finishing is subbed out, a result of Aspen’s distaste for lingering fumes and Anderson’s preference.
“There are a couple of different finishers we work with. The main one is Avalanche Custom Painting. Those guys are great. They’re very professional and have a really nice facility in Carbondale. To be honest, I don’t want to do the finishing. I don’t like the chemicals or the fumes.”
Anderson has two employees and isn’t looking to expand. He gets a lot of applicants, but hardly any with the requisite skills.
“I get a lot of people asking if I’ll take them on,” he says. “I’ve had a handful of apprentices before but not many of them want to sit the whole thing out and do it for four years. That’s what an apprenticeship is to me, the 8,000 hours.
“Everyone that holds a hammer and does trim carpentry thinks they can walk right into a shop and do what we’re doing and it’s just not that way. It’s a totally different environment.”
Luke Newlin has been on board for eight years. He found an ad online for Anderson’s shop while training at a trade school in Denver.
“I consider him to be a fully qualified tradesman. And he’s an amazing woodworker; he can build anything. You can show him a picture of a chair or anything and he can just go and do it,” says Anderson.
Matt Gerzina joined the shop two years ago. “Matt’s great, too. He’s done a bunch of jobs, worked at a glass place and at another cabinet shop. He’s dedicated.
“Both of these guys love to get out in the mountains, go hiking, fly fishing, rafting, camping, biking,” says Anderson. “Whether it’s winter or summer, I try to give us long weekends and make time available to do those things.”
The shop’s two mascots, two very large Bernese mountain dogs, complete the team. They have Māori names, the native language of New Zealand. There is Manu, which means ‘pride’, and Nui, which means ‘big’.
A niche of his own
Anderson doesn’t need to advertise. His reputation for quality brings in the work. Plus, he doesn’t have much competition.
“No one else can afford to be up here and there’s no more commercial space where you can do this. There are lots of guys down valley and they’re my competition.”
And there’s hardly ever a lull in business. The parade of Range Rovers in the winter and Ferraris in the summer is an accurate sign of a very healthy local economy.
“The average single-family home in Aspen is around $5.6 million now,” says Anderson. “The [Great Recession] didn’t affect us. We did see homes go up for sale, but my clients didn’t own them. Corporations owned them. I’ve discovered that just because someone lives in a big house, they don’t always own it. It may belong to the company they work for.”
Anderson’s only lament is not spending enough hands-on time in the shop.
“I seem to be more of the ‘office girl’ these days, doing estimates, invoices, meeting with clients, measuring, and having a lot of meetings with designers and architects.
“But in between jobs, I try to enjoy the outdoors as often as possible. Aspen is a special place.”
Aspen Custom Woodworking, 601 Rio Grande Pl., Suite 110, Aspen, CO 81611. Tel: 970-925-5030. www.aspencustomwoodworking.com
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue.