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Reaping the rewards

A strong believer of reaping what you sow, Gary Keener is proud of the business he has worked so hard for through the years. On a daily basis, the owner of G. Keener & Co., a custom furniture shop in New Carlisle, Ohio, lives his dream of running his own business on his property in the serene countryside of western Ohio.

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Keener and his four employees build custom furniture pieces for clients across the nation based on their requests. The company also offers four furniture lines featuring functional pieces for living rooms, bedrooms and other rooms of the home. These can be found in the ever-expanding product catalog he refreshes annually.

“There’ve been times when we’ve been slow and I’ll think I have to get a job, but I don’t know what to do — I don’t have any desire to do anything else,” Keener says.

Keener & Co. offers the Zacappa collection, designed with simplistic formation and a slight Asian flair with bold joinery; Carlisle Collection inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and Asian design; Tremont Collection emphasizing smooth surfaces and wood grains and Lullwater Collection featuring the classic aesthetic of Shaker design.

Always building stuff

Keener grew up in Wooster, Ohio, several hours away from his current location. As a child, he quickly learned he was a hands-on kind of person.

“I had a really good industrial arts teacher in high school. My dad was a mechanic and always working on engines and I never took to that; I was always building stuff out of wood. So in high school, the sky was the limit to what you wanted to build, from a birdhouse to a giant hutch to bedroom stuff. I built my first bedroom set when I was in high school and through that process I wanted to become a teacher, so I went to college at Bowling Green State University and took up education.”

After college, he taught industrial arts from 1996-1999 at Perkins High School in Sandusky, Ohio, near Lake Erie, focusing on programs such as hand- and CAD drafting and construction.

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“During that time I was there, the school was gracious enough to let me build after hours so I was building furniture all of the time. In that time my wife Andrea said I was much happier doing that then teaching so I needed to make a career out of it. We were young, had just gotten married and didn’t have any kids, so from that point I started looking for a way to start a business, but I didn’t feel comfortable just hanging a sign outside my garage.”

He stumbled across an advertisement in a magazine for an apprenticeship at M.T. Maxwell Furniture Co. in Bedford, Va., and instead of going back to teaching in ’99, the Keeners made a big move.

“We drove down there and it was in the middle of nowhere in the hills of Virginia. We drove to this shop and it was like this little compound and they said it was free housing for the year. There were primitive shacks up on a hill, these small block buildings with a bathroom and woodstove and a kitchen and a loft to sleep in. I interviewed, got the position and did that from 1999 to 2000.”

Through the process, he learned every aspect of building furniture, but wanted to learn the business end of things when he completed the program. Having family back home, he and his wife moved back to Ohio. Andrea took a teaching position, while he started his own business at age 26. With each and every move, he knew he had to think of the best choices for the big picture if he wanted to make a living at furniture making.

While his wife started her new job teaching economics and consumer science, Keener got to work with his designs, working out of a garage for the first six months. He started building his current shop in 2001, adding to it every couple of years. It’s about 5,000 sq. ft., including office and showroom space.

On his toes

Keener sought a little bit of business coaching when he first got started. He knew he’d have to take his work to furniture shows and sought out venues all over the country. Some of his regular shows include the Fine Furnishings Shows in Rhode Island and Wisconsin, the American Craft Council shows in Baltimore and Atlanta and the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show.

Recently, Keener has started to exhibit closer to home. “I’m getting older and need to be with my kids more now. My time is very valuable to me and the whole idea of having a shop at the house was so I could be available and have that flexibility. I keep traveling these long distances and it doesn’t make sense. I work 75 yards from the house and I put 40,000 miles on my truck every year. We do all of our own deliveries, all of the shows and we’re on the road a lot. I feel like a carnival guy with a traveling booth.”

Keener & Co. assembling dining chairs from the Zacappa Collection.

He’d like to have a bigger showroom and have more customers come to him, but that project always seems to be on hold.

“This past year was really hard,” he says. “We had a great year sales-wise, but I lost one of my good, well-trained employees who’d been here almost five years. I had started working on new designs when he upped and left. I scrambled all year trying to find help. We maintained this year because I spent a lot of hours in the shop. Ideally, my goal is to reach the point where I can keep production going with the guys I have in the shop and spend time in my office working on the business, selling and designing new designs and prototypes.”

Running the shop

Keener currently has three full-time employees and one part-timer. He does what he can to keep them happy.

“I’ve tried to make the work environment more of like a family than a factory and be flexible with time. One of my guys was a stay-at-home dad. He now comes in after he takes his kids to school and leaves when they get out of school. I try to be flexible where it’s like an employee benefit. I allow them to be in the shop whenever they want to build projects for themselves or other people. I try to put these benefits above the pay to where it’s an attractive place to be and a positive place to be.”

He admits that in the past he got jaded with the employee situation. There were instances where newly hired individuals would work for several day and then leave. In all of his frustration, Keener considered running and operating the entire business as a solo shop, but he hung in there.

“It’s so hard when you get somebody in here and you don’t want to spend time training them if they’re not going to stick around.”

Bar-height versions of the Zacappa Collection chairs.

The journey will continue

Keener still marvels at the risk he and his wife took to get started in this business.

“We quit two good teaching jobs, moved to Virginia and paid $4,000 to work for a year for free. It seems insane,” he says.

Keener, 40, believes his dream has been fulfilled with hard work, dedication and faith. He’s making a living doing what he loves and now has much more time with his wife and four children.

“It’s been a journey and it’s been a blessing. There’ve been ups and downs both in my professional and personal life. I could have had huge setbacks, but by the grace of God we’re still here and still in business.”

Contact: G. Keener & Co., 2936 Liberty Road, New Carlisle, OH 45344. Tel: 937-308-2303.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.

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