October 2005

Perseverance Achieves a Goal

Matt and Adam Steckley make their dream of creating an eco-sensitive furniture line come true.

By Ann Gurley Rogers
The Sharma Bed features wild tamarind, another local Florida tree, with an ash platform for contrast. The headboard is made from two slabs of a log that are sequenced and bookmatched. The footboard is the top part of the same slab, flipped over. The piece has a slightly Asian influence.

Matthew Steckley's gorgeous furniture speaks for itself. The interesting story is how he has developed his business, Steckley Contemporary Organics, Miami, FL, and taken steps to create a broader market for his work - always a challenge for a high-end custom furnituremaker.

In 1997, Steckley and his brother Adam set out to establish a business to sell beautiful furniture they designed and built, without having a detrimental impact on the environment. They planed to use local eco-sensitive sources of lumber, such as recovered lumber from urban trees that were removed and heading for landfills, and reclaimed timbers from buildings being torn down.

"Once recovered, lumber needs to be cleaned, milled, dried and stored. An established business might struggle with such tasks. It was definitely a tall order for a young startup company," Steckley says.

Although their goal was to develop a furniture line, as the company got underway, the brothers had to depend on commissions for cash flow. From the start, they had plenty of business, which Steckley attributes to the fact that they provided good service and produced a product at "too good" a price.

They slowly increased their prices, but still did not have a financial cushion to be able to create and promote their own line of furniture. And while they usually attracted commissions for pieces in the general style they were developing, they also found themselves agreeing to take on custom jobs that did not fit the look they were trying to maintain. They wanted to gain enough of a financial cushion to focus on their line of furniture and stick to commissions that fit with their style.

A Big Step Pays Off

In August 2001, Matt and Adam Steckley decided to take a break from the company in order to rethink their mission, focus on the original plan and seek out a viable method for achieving the business model they wanted. During the hiatus, Matt Steckley taught woodworking at a Miami high school, watching his students win county and state awards. He also spent time developing prototypes for the furniture line and working on a business plan.

The plan included a need to obtain financial backing. So Steckley approached a friend and patron about becoming an investor. This gentleman, who owns eight Steckley pieces and several accessories, agreed, joking that he would rather have Steckley back at work full-time so he could collect more.

The Arches Writing Desk is made from Cuban mahogany, which Steckley salvages mostly from local trees that are felled due to weather or disease, or knocked down for new construction. The desk, which has become Steckley's "signature piece," also shows his love for the curve. The arches are continuous all the way through the piece.

It was the help they needed. By the fall of 2004, Steckley Contemporary Organics was open for business again.

"Having him as an investor made the endeavor much less stressful and freed me up to be creative," Steckley says.

Although he might not have realized it at the time, while Steckley was teaching school, he also was training some of his future employees. Danei Bortone, a 2004 graduate, is working in the shop with Steckley while deciding upon a direction for college. Steckley speculates that Bortone will study architecture or design and hopes that he will remain in the area and continue to work for him. Shantel Ysambert, a 2005 graduate who Steckley calls "a very talented woodworker" is expected to start soon as a part-time office manager.

Covering the Other Coast

While his brother stayed in Florida, Adam Steckley moved to Santa Cruz, CA, during the break and has stayed there, now laying the ground-work to market Matt's furniture on the West coast. Adam still collaborates with Matt on the design of the furniture, as does Matt's wife, Suzanna. Matt says that she is particularly good with proportions and aesthetics associated with furniture.

Usually, the design process begins with Matt, who creates a concept and bounces the idea off his wife and brother. With their feedback, he puts the design on paper, e-mails it to Adam and discusses proportions and function with Suzanna. He produces a quarter-scale model in clay and wood or a full-scale prototype in pine. After photos are made, Steckley builds a full-scale model in a fine wood and has the piece professionally photographed for use on the company's Web site and printed literature.

Currently, Steckley Contemporary Organics has about 20 pieces in its line. Steckley would like to establish a relationship with a major high-end furniture manufacturer like Holly Hunt. In the meantime, requests for commissions are coming in and this time, Steckley says, they are in-tune with the pieces in the line, so they are easier to make and price.

Strong Marketing Part of the Plan

Another part of the company's marketing plan is to develop relationships with architects and designers, and to establish gallery representation. To ensure that these efforts are done correctly and that he has sufficient time to focus on making furniture, Steckley hired PR professionals to handle marketing and sales-related tasks.

"We have an excellent Web design company taking care of that area, and I hired a freelance graphic artist to create our catalog," Steckley says. Additionally, he contracted a public relations specialist to publicize his work and generate coverage in local publications.

The efforts already are bearing fruit. An article about Steckley in the Miami Herald got the attention of Barbara O'Keefe, Director of the Coral Springs Museum of Art in Coral Springs, FL. She invited Steckley to join renowned photographer Clyde Butcher in an exhibition that opened in September.

The Crescent Moon table, above, is made from Cuban mahogany that was part of Matt Steckley's stockpile of lumber salvaged from the Miami area. It features cut-out crescents in the aprons.

The pairing of Steckley and Butcher's work is a natural. Butcher is exhibiting his most recent photographs, depicting the beauty of Cuba. Steckley's pieces showcase furniture made with locally salvaged Cuban mahogany, a tropical hardwood that is no longer commercially available in Cuba and other Caribbean nations due to over-harvesting.

On another front, Steckley is one of three founding members of the Splinter Gallery, which opened this fall. The gallery is located in the same building as Steckley's workshop, so the space works as a showroom for him. The gallery also is accepting applications from Furniture Society members to exhibit there.

The environmentally friendly aspect of his furniture also is garnering attention. Recently, Steckley partnered with the Kimpton Hotel Group, an international chain that has made a commitment to operate its hotels in an eco-sensitive manner. One of its initiatives is to collaborate with celebrities who are champions of environmental causes, creating hotel "eco suites" inspired by the celebrity and providing information about his or her favorite environmental charity. A percentage of the proceeds from the rooms goes to the charity.

Steckley built a table for the Kevin Richardson Suite in the Hotel Monaco in New Orleans. Richardson (of the Backstreet Boys musical group) supports the Natural Resources Defense Council. [Editor's Note: The hotel suffered minor damage following hurricane Katrina and expected to remain closed until Dec. 1, 2005, as of press time.]

With the new business plan in place, Steckley Contemporary Organics appears well-situated to thrive. Its concerted marketing efforts seem to be paying off, broadening awareness of Steckley's furniture to a national level and bringing the Steckley brothers' dreams closer to reality.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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