Sometimes taking a new direction makes all the difference, Nate and Sue Sabari have found.
When the Yakima Valley began feeling the impacts of the Great Recession in 2009, the couple watched business periodically run dry at their downtown furniture-making shop.
“Our workload dropped off,” recalled Sue, 38. “It was up and down, up and down. It just wasn’t stable — it was terrible.”
Without steady sales, they talked about closing the shop that Nate’s father, Ron Sabari, opened 26 years earlier.
“It was difficult,” said Nate, 37. “It was draining — not only physically, but mentally when you’re working hard and the business just wasn’t coming in.”
For years, Nate’s father had success building pine dressers, nightstands and shelves. “He just cranked it out,” Nate said.
But that was before big box stores and Internet sites such as eBay and craigslist began impacting small businesses. To survive, the couple decided to take a risk and tap a new market.
They added an artistic touch to the furniture by using old reclaimed wood and custom tailoring furniture.
Pointing to a buffet table on their showroom floor with a multi-colored finish, Sue explained how reclaimed wood with remnants of old paint in the grain was mixed with new pine to provide the piece with an artistic “patchy” look.
“We wanted to be cool,” she said. “We wanted to start using wood from the Valley — wood with stories behind it. We just got more creative.”
Sue helps in the woodshop, but mostly takes care of office work while Nate focuses on building furniture.
The front of the store is filled with recently built shelves, nightstands, beds, dining tables and chairs. Some are strictly built from pine, while others feature the artistic mix of old and new wood,
Through double doors at the rear of the 6.000-square-foot floor of the building is the woodshop, where several large saws, sanders and other equipment and various types of wood are located.
Moving into a more custom style has paid off, they said. Nate invites customers to help design what they want.
“That way it gives them some ownership in it instead of just picking something out on a showroom floor,” he said.
And the new business model is paying off. “We had a great year,” Sue said about 2012.
“It was way more consistent — month-to-month,” Nate added.
Before change could happen, the couple had to find out how they were viewed in the market. And they needed help, so they took an entrepreneur course through the Small Business Development Center at the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce. Through surveys, they learned that they were perceived as a low cost, low-quality manufacturer, said Linda Johnson, business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center housed in the Chamber.
Although the view wasn’t accurate, they had to do something to overcome that perception. And by adding more of a custom flare to their products, they tapped a new market with deeper pockets.
“I think they’ve done an outstanding job,” Johnson said. “They are lifelong learners and work very hard.”
An ailing economy, however, wasn’t the first challenge the couple faced.
After taking over the business from Nate’s father in April 2005, a fire gutted the red brick structure in February 2006.
Fire officials determined that the blaze started outside the rear of the building and worked its way inside, where it destroyed inventory, woodworking machines and saws and causes damage to the structure — roughly a half million dollar loss.
“It wiped out everything, basically,” Nate said. “I mean, this place was empty, completely empty.”
And the fire couldn’t have come at a more difficult time, his wife said. “It was tough,” she said. “We were expecting a new baby — It was crazy times.”
This was the first time they tapped Johnson for help.
Johnson was able to help them prove what sales would have been that year to secure a better claim on their insurance. Because they had not been in the business a year, they had no real sales history, Johnson said.
They managed to reopen roughly five months later. “We would not have been able to do that without her,” Sue said.
Now, the couple — parents of sons ages 3 and 6 — plans to continue scanning the market for ideas to stay innovative.
“Kind of the trick to this business is we’ve got to keep rethinking ourselves to stay excited about what we’re doing,” Sue said. “We’ve changed our direction and our mindset, and that changed everything.”
·Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or email@example.com.