Sometimes all it takes to form a great idea for a small business is someone noticing your talents. That’s how it happened for Lauren Russell, co-founder and creative director of the American-made furniture company Russell & Mackenna.
Russell's husband, Kevin, a skilled woodworker, was renovating their Maryland home while Russell was freelancing as a marketing consultant and design artist. During a meeting in her home office with a client, Russell showed off a bathroom vanity that she had designed and Kevin built. The client was impressed with their work and immediately asked to hire Kevin to build one for her.
That one vanity led to an $18,000 order of 30 additional pieces for the client’s home. And so, from a few sketches and home power tools in a tiny garage, Russell & Mackenna was born in 2003.
“We didn't set out to start a business, let alone a furniture company,” said Russell. “It sort of serendipitously found us.”
The money from their first client’s order would set the Russells well on their way to their new business. However, they couldn’t do it alone. Russell called her father, Larry Strassner, former CEO of a nuclear power plant maintenance company, to assist in putting together a business plan.
“He thought that we might be onto something and offered to step out of his retirement, which he had enjoyed for all of two weeks, to help us,” Russell said.
Starting a business with family members would be daunting to some, but Russell told BusinessNewsDaily she has had a wholly positive experience working with the people closest to her. In fact, she attributes part of her company’s success to the fact that it involves a parent/child team.
“Our skill sets are complementary without overlapping," she said. "We have the added benefit of always assessing situations from different generational standpoints. Synergy and chemistry are critical to any successful partnership, and for us it is made easier because of our genetic bond.
“Neither of us can imagine that we would have come so far so fast working beside anyone else.”
In the seven years since Russell, her husband and her father started Russell & Mackenna (the "Mackenna" comes from the middle name of one of the Russells' children), a lot has changed. In its first year, the company relocated from the Russells’ garage to a small warehouse where Kevin hand-made furniture kits for subcontractors to assemble. The “Made in the USA” operation quickly outgrew the warehouse and moved to a larger facility with manufacturing equipment.
In its fifth year, Russell & Mackenna established a partnership with another family-run furniture company to subcontract all of its pieces. The Russell & Mackenna flagship store opened in the Russells' hometown of Severna Park, Md., along the Chesapeake Bay north of Annapolis.
Currently, the company's sales are approaching $5 million.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that all its products are hand-crafted in the United States. While the company has difficulty competing in price and scalability with companies that manufacture their products overseas, Russell says, there's pride and satisfaction in creating a domestic product, and that through strict material cost management, fixed labor costs, and selling to a high-end market, Russell & Mackenna is making a sizable profit.
One key advantage Russell & Mackenna has by manufacturing in the United States is the ability to work closely with its customers. Made-to-order items sold directly to consumers make up 60 percent of the company’s sales (the other 40 percent is split equally between wholesale and trade).
The customizable features on its made-to-order products allow the company to charge more, which has significantly affected its bottom line.
For now, Russell & Mackenna isn’t looking to move to mass-market retailing. The company is content selling to a niche market of customers who own a primary or secondary home in coastal resort areas. Time and time again, the company has found repeat business.
“Twenty percent of our customers are returning,” Russell said. “Once a customer realizes that we can make a desk smaller to fit into the nook under their steps, they are hooked.”