Fireplace Mantels In The News
From the Richmond Times Dispatch - Metro Business Section
Hanover mantel builder has room to burn
Agee Woodworks moves into 7,500-square-foot headquarters warehouse
BY HEIDI MULIK
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Apr 14, 2003
Looking back seven years, it's easy to see how far Stuart Agee has come with his mantel-building business, Agee Woodworks.
Back then, the company was a one-man operation, with headquarters in the basement of the Agee home alongside the washer and dryer.
Carol Agee said she had to rush through the laundry so sawdust from her husband's business wouldn't accumulate on the clean clothes.
Seven years and three moves later, Stuart Agee doesn't have to share his space with the laundry any more.
Plenty of room to work
In the 7,500-square-foot warehouse Agee Woodworks moved into early this year, Stuart Agee and his seven employees have plenty of room to work without getting in each other's way.
"It feels good to be able to drive a forklift ten feet without having to turn it around," Agee said. The new place is a woodworker's dream, strewn with workstations generously equipped with miter saws, air guns, screw guns and standard woodworking tools.
Not surprisingly, sawdust covers everything, including a full-length mirror and a plastic canopy of stars left from the warehouse's previous incarnation as a cheerleading school.
Grinning as he indicated his crew, Agee said he decided to leave the stars up, because he "figured the stars were some of these guys' home planets."
And with his new warehouse, he's got room to add to that crew as he fulfills plans for new hires to help keep up with the growing demand for mantels.
Agee said the housing boom continues to buoy his company to new heights.
Agee Woodworks' sales increased 27 percent from 2001 to 2002, Agee said. This year, sales are already 12 percent to 15 percent higher than this time last year.
Agee said gross sales for 2002 were about $420,000.
His company ships out an average of 350 handcrafted fireplace mantels every month, and Agee is aiming to push that figure even higher.
Spearheaded Internet project
Carol Agee joined the payroll last year to take on customer service responsibilities so her husband could spend more time building mantels.
She recently spearheaded a project to get the business onto the Internet. Orders for mantels have begun to come in from across the United States.
"Believe it or not, we had a call from Hawaii the other day," Stuart Agee said. "Who needs a fire in Hawaii?"
Agee Woodworks is also making a move into the custom mantel market. Agee said he will try to replicate nearly any mantel his clients dream up or find in a magazine.
"It gives you a chance to be a little more creative," he said.
Agee said business generally slows in the winter, but sales during the rest of the year more than make up for the lull.
A large portion of the mantels go to Fredericksburg and the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where homebuilders are in a race to meet the demand.
Paul McPherson, installations manager for Ferguson Enterprises, Agee Woodworks' biggest client, said he favors them over some of the larger mantel manufacturers because of the superior customer service.
In a pinch, McPherson said he knows he can depend on Agee Woodworks to turn around a mantel in as little as one day.
That's important, McPherson said, because if a mantel is not installed on schedule, it can cause expensive delays in the completion of a new home.
"If there's a problem, those issues are quickly resolved - same day, next day," McPherson said. "Working with Stuart has been a good experience. He's very easy to get along with."
Built first mantel in 1996
Agee said he probably wouldn't be in business today if it hadn't been for his wife's encouragement when times got hard.
Stuart Agee built his first mantel in January 1996. At the time, he was working as a salesman for Dominion Hearth & Supply Inc., a gas fireplace dealer.
"The company that we were buying fireplace mantels from was not reliable," Agee said. The mantels kept arriving late, which made for unhappy customers.
Sick of getting the blame for something that was out of his control, Agee decided to try to build one himself.
Problem was, he'd never built a fireplace mantel before. He enjoyed working with wood, but high school wood shop was the sum of his formal training.
Agee selected an old mantel from the reject pile at work, lugged it into his basement, propped it against the wall and gave it a good, hard look. The rest was just trial-and-error.
"I messed it up enough times," Agee said. "It probably cost me twice as much to make it as I could sell it for."
Nobody complained when he set up his homemade mantel in a client's home. Taking that for approval, he put it on his expense report and made another.
Refused to indulge self-pity
Soon, he was spending the bulk of his spare time building mantels in his basement. A few months later, Agee was laid off from his job in sales due to budget cuts. He went home "crying the blues" to his wife.
Carol Agee refused to indulge her husband's self-pity. She saw his job loss as an opportunity for him to turn his part-time mantel building operation into a full-time business.
It was slow going at first. The banks wouldn't touch him because they considered him unemployed, so Agee financed the venture with credit cards. Each month, he purchased a new tool with the profits from the previous month.
All the while, Carol Agee encouraged her husband to persist.
"I probably would have chickened out if it wasn't for her," Stuart Agee said. "I just said, 'You can do,'" she recalled. "I knew he could do it."
Name: Stuart Agee
Born: May 6, 1957, in Richmond
Position: owner, Agee Woodworks
Education: graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration management from Radford University in 1982
Career path: salesman for Jeters Carpet Outlets, 1983 to 1986; salesman for Continental Cablevision, 1986 to 1991; salesman for New York Carpet World, 1991 to 1994; salesman for Dominion Hearth & Supply Inc., 1994 to 1996; owner Agee Woodworks, 1996 to present
Family: wife, Carol Santore Agee
Hobbies: boating, playing guitar
Trade Names is a regular feature about established businesses in the Richmond area