Corbin Clay is not your stereotypical retiree. For one thing, he’s only 38. But he’s also quite different from the typical woodworking business owner. Rather than just making stuff, Clay learned to focus on building a brand and a business so it would be a saleable commodity and a valuable asset for a new owner.
One thing Clay does have in common with most woodworkers who go into business is at his heart he is a maker. “I didn’t go to college. I was actually a mechanic when I first left high school,” he said. “I thought I’d never be able to afford anything too particularly nice, so if I wanted it, it would behoove me to learn how to make it myself.”
He fell in love with woodworking after taking a remodeling job in Florida. He toyed with college and getting a formal education, but he was anxious to get on with his life and didn’t want to wait another four years to start his career. After an informal apprenticeship to learn the basics of cabinetmaking, including installs and shop work, he wound up in the finishing department of a Florida shop, finishing doors eight hours a day.
His interest in finishing indirectly led him to what would be the driving force of the furniture company he created. He had moved to Boulder, Colorado, and was working on a kitchen installation.
“I remember looking up, and the ceiling was obviously pine tongue and groove, but it had all these blue and black streaks running through it,” he recalled. “I thought, well that’s interesting. So, I asked the GC what’s the scoop with that pine up there. Is that a finish or a faux finish you guys are doing? He was completely incredulous, oh yeah, that’s a treatment we have to apply to the wood so the beetles don’t eat it.”
To this day Clay doesn’t know if the guy was pulling his leg or was just ignorant, but that was Clay’s introduction to beetle-killed pine from insect infestations that have repeatedly decimated the Rocky Mountain West. Wood from the dead trees often takes on blue streaks and stains. There have been a number of attempts to market and brand the wood using clever terms like “denim pine.”
Clay didn’t immediately latch onto beetle-killed pine as his ticket to success, but it started him thinking. He put aside money from some high-dollar successful woodworking projects, and finally couldn’t resist the urge to build a business with blue-stained pine.
“If you can see a void in the market, you know where there’s an existing demand, you can offer some unique value proposition to satisfy that demand, you’ll probably do pretty well,” he said. “You’re already starting from the right point, so I thought well shoot, I think I’m starting a company here.”
His first attempts to market the wood got off to the wrong start. “Early on, we were trying to shoehorn it into aesthetics that it didn’t belong,” he said. Rustic furniture, rough-sawn reclaimed wood, and knotty alder were all part of popular trends at the time.
“I thought well those knots look very similar (to knotty alder),” he said. “So, I could do really dark stained finishes and painted finishes that will be less expensive than knotty alder, and we’ll have this charming story about reclaiming the dead pine trees.”
But something felt wrong to him about trying to pass off beetle-kill pine as a low-cost alternative to knotty alder, making the same kind of furniture everybody else was making. “Authenticity is often overlooked and equally as often underappreciated,” he said. “If you are going to do beetle kill, then damn it, double down and do beetle kill.”
The initial company was started as Corbin Woodworking, but in keeping with the blue stains of beetle-kill pine, they eventually changed to the Azure Furniture Company. “We decided if we’re going to call ourselves the beetle-kill company, then let’s put all the chips on blue,” Clay said.
The company set out to separate itself from its more rustic competitors. They abandoned all stains and paints to emphasize the natural, blue-stained color of the wood. But they also wanted a design esthetic that was different from typical rustic pine furniture.
“We looked for esthetics that already incorporated pine that weren’t rustic log furniture, cabin, and Scandinavian architecture and design, they use knotty woods all day long,” he said. “You know, very clean angles. Not a lot of curves. Much thicker.”
Clay said the company changed all its marketing to emphasize the company goal was to reclaim as many of the dead pine trees as possible, transforming them into heirloom-quality furniture. That capitalized on a regional public outcry urging somebody to do something about all the dead pine trees.
“If you can alleviate a tension point in culture, a frustration for somebody, with your product or service, you’re going to do pretty well,” said Clay. “That’s exactly what we were doing. We were saying, ‘Hey, we’re making tables out of it. We’re making chairs, beds, on and on.’”
Standardizing to scale
A key factor in Clay’s success at scaling the business was to abandon custom, one-off projects. Early on, he had taken the custom route and he’d heard the standard advice to custom woodworkers to partner with interior designers to continually feed him custom work.
“I adore interior designers because I’m terrible at interior design, so I very much respect them. But it was the exact opposite of what I was trying to do with the business,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the one-off anymore. I wanted to have a collection of ten, twenty pieces, all of which use the same several joinery techniques, all of which use the same glue-ups and panel thickness, all of which use the same finishing process so that we can start to standardize. I wanted to create systems.”
Clay realized this was also the way to slowly take himself as the owner out of the business. By systemizing everything, the value was being created by the business, not by the person running it. They pivoted from dealing with interior designers to doing more direct sales. The company received regional acclaim, and Clay was recognized in the Woodworking Network 40 Under 40 program.
“Trying to replace yourself with systems is a very sore subject in woodworking. We romanticize it very much,” he said. “Bringing in a CNC doesn’t mean you no longer love woodworking. It means you put your business owner hat on as opposed to your craftsman hat and realize that if there is a faster, more efficient, and thus more profitable way of doing it, then I’m just a fool if I don’t.”
Deciding to sell
When lots of woodworkers start their businesses, they do so without any kind of exit strategy. They just start making and selling and see where it takes them. Clay sees that way of working as more like creating a job rather than building a business that has its own saleable value. He recommends people starting a woodworking business really think hard about what they want to get out of it.
“Some people just want the autonomy of running their own company,” he said. “That’s fine. Great. They don’t want to scale. They don’t want a team. If they can make $80,000, $100,000 a year, that’s totally fine. If that’s your goal, then own it.”
But Clay had a different idea. “Personally, my goal for the business was that I got to choose what I did every day.” That could mean working in the shop or putting on a suit to meet clients and sell, or it could be taking off to go play hockey.
Complicating his ownership goals was the success of the company. The company had grown to two full-time production shifts. Sometimes machines didn’t even get shut off as shifts changed. Just new operators would move into position to take over.
He also realized that he was not the best manager, being impatient and micro-managing things. His management style was not helping them retain employees. So, he made the decision to bring in an outside chief operating officer. And he started to think about selling the business.
What’s the business worth?
Clay was also concerned that his success couldn’t last indefinitely. “We were making a ton of money, which was nice, but you know I never thought I would have any money to begin with,” he said. “Once you hit a certain bank balance, you just think, I’m on borrowed time here.”
He also thought he accomplished his original goal of reclaiming dead pine trees and turning them into jobs and products. He’d even launched a contract furniture program that had nothing to do with beetle-kill pine.
But when he first seriously thought of selling the business, his first attempt at putting a value on it opened his eyes. Although he was clearing $70,000 annually to the bottom line, he was only paying himself $12,000 plus occasional draws. A business broker asked him what it would cost to replace him, and then he realized his company really wasn’t worth anything.
“That was a rude awakening but a very important awakening,” he said.
When he finally got serious about selling and hired a business broker, he learned about what makes a business valuable. They took steps to not only build the company’s bottom line, which at the time was close to $2 million, but also to build up the level of discretionary income. They paid for an external audit and started structuring the business to be more profitable and as independent from Clay as possible.
That resulted in a business that was attractive to a new buyer.
“Retired” at 38
Clay might be retired from furniture manufacturing after the sale of The Azure Furniture Company, but he is not choosing the option of sitting on the beach, sipping Mai Tais. He’s currently building several houses in Colorado to use as vacation rentals. But he’s keeping his eyes open for other entrepreneurial opportunities. And, he is cautious.
“You should only ever start a business if you are able to fix a problem for somebody,” he says. “The bigger the problem, the more successful you’ll be. I have a hard time with people starting a busines simply because they want to be a business owner.”
And while Corbin Clay’s experience of building and successfully selling a business might seem simple from the outside, he knows the picture from inside operating the company is different.
“It’s so hard to run a business,” he said. “It’s complicated. There’s a lot of education that you need to do. There’s a lot of accepting hardship and disappointment throughout the process, so if there’s a problem you’re trying to tackle and solve on behalf of somebody else, it makes it a lot easier to stomach.”
Listen to our full interview with Corbin Clay using the player below, and check out the Woodworking Network Podcast at woodworkingnetwork.com/podcasts.
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