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Peak performance

Having left a steady job in the lumber industry to start a custom woodworking business in his late 20s, Dustin Sanders is glad he stuck with his gut instinct. Now 31, Sanders made the decision in 2012 to leave a large lumber distributor he had worked at for almost a decade. He took his networking and woodworking skills to the next level and started Growth Ring Innovations in Golden, Colo., which has already grown significantly in the last four years.

Dustin Sanders (above, left) has set up shop to produce “anything out of wood.”

And yes, Dustin Sanders is his birth-given name, despite jokes and misunderstandings that it’s only promotional word play.

Growth Ring Innovations has seven employees and operates from a 2,500-sq.-ft. shop at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, not far from the original Coors brewery.

A teenage entrepreneur

Sanders hails from Arvada, Colo., and went to work for Paxton Lumber at its headquarters in Denver just after his high school graduation. The truth is he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living, but was happy to have a job associated with woodworking.

“My dad was very handy and he was the reason I always played with scrap wood. I got a scroll saw at age 10 and did woodworking as a hobby. I did bigger jobs in high school like mantles, cabinets and furniture. It was always my passion, my hobby. I always spent time doing it,” Sanders says.

In high school, Sanders started a part-time woodworking business, hiring other students in the shop program to help him build furniture. He bought his lumber from Paxton and a relationship was formed.

“I went to Paxton just a couple weeks after graduation. I finally gave in because Jack Egan, the store manager there, knew me since I was 13 or 14 and kept calling me my senior year. I was already having success in my side business, but I started working in the Paxton retail store helping retail customers find woods they were looking for.”

After just a few months, he was promoted to a regional sales manager.

“The whole time I was there, I never quit my side work. Nights and weekends, I was building this business. Every job was word of mouth, including work through some of the industry contacts I made at Paxton.

Dustin Sanders (above, left) has set up shop to produce “anything out of wood.”

“Paxton was an awesome job. It helped me get a house and get my shop running. But I had to make a decision. I couldn’t do that job and be with my family and have the business. I was spreading myself way too thin. I went to the vice president of the company, told him what I was doing and that I wanted to be his biggest customer.”

He also changed the name of the business from The Dusty Sander to Growth Ring Innovations. “I wanted something unique that used wood terms to promote innovation,” he says. “This is an old industry and we are trying to implement modern technology.”

A mindful balance

Growth Ring serves three primary markets. Commercial work (restaurants, bars, hospitality industry) accounts for about 40 percent of its yearly revenue. Residential contributes 25 to 30 percent. The balance comes from manufacturing parts and products for other companies.

“The idea is to be prepared for any future recession or market downturn for security,” Sanders says. “We did memorial plaques for a customer years ago and we are still trying to take any job we can, even small things from people off the street. It’s about diversity.

“We have a national contract producing boat parts for Sea Ray making transom boards for the backs of yachts. I want my employees to know that we’ll always have work.”

The shop completes 10 to 15 high-end residential projects per year, including millwork, custom cabinets, countertops and more.

“We do a lot of homes in the mountains. There is some work here in town and in Denver, but mainly we work along the Front Range, which is the mountain frontal area that ranges from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins.

“I would say 95 percent of our work comes from repeat customers and others seeing work and people passing the word.”

Something for everyone

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But Sanders is too savvy to rest on his good reputation alone. In the spring, he hired a business developer to focus on sales and marketing.

“We’re doing a lot of creative things like producing small tokens and memorabilia out of different woods on our laser engraver for our target customers with their logos on them. We can say we do anything out of wood, but people don’t really seem to grasp that. So we are tying it into our marketing efforts.

“In the 10 years that I was at Paxton, I was really blown away by how many shops were just doing a certain niche. They just called themselves a cabinet or furniture shop and that’s all they did. But they had a 10,000-sq.-ft. shop, however-many employees and millions of dollars in equipment. And if a customer walked in off the street and wanted boards cut or planed, they’d turn them away. I could never understand that. So the fact that we’re trying to take on all different aspects of work really makes us a very unique shop.”

It has to be, given the wide range of style preferences in the shop’s market. Sanders explains that customers in Denver want something far different from those who live in the mountains, for example.

“A lot of what we’re seeing in the highlands are contemporary cabinets with modern straight lines and European cabinets. The people in the city want a lot of laminates and high gloss. In the mountains, there is a lot more traditional construction and we see use of a lot more hardwoods. Someone with a mountain home next to a stream doesn’t want a white kitchen. It’s like two different worlds.”

A man with a plan

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Sanders is always trying to stay a step ahead. He recently added a retirement savings program, mostly as a signal to his employees that he’s making a long-term investment in them. And if and when he needs more workers, he knows where to find them. His last three hires were fresh out of the woodworking program at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood and Arvada, Colo.

“I really want the people just out of school because they still have a taste of art in their mouth and a little more enthusiasm for the industry. I’d probably like workers who are a little more seasoned, but sometimes it’s just a job for them. So I just want people here that are passionate about it. These guys step up. For example, we don’t have the best lathe here and one of our guys took the piece home and turned it.

“It’s really an art to be successful with business relationships and networking,” Sanders adds. “You have to do everything to keep good contacts with other shops, vendors and lumber and hardware suppliers. And you’re also a teacher. I didn’t realize that when I started this, but being a teacher to my customers and to the crew is one of my primary jobs.”

Contact: Growth Ring Innovations, 13900 W. 44th Ave., Golden, CO 80403. Tel: 720-495-1133.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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