Restorer discovers value of a business niche
PORTLAND — There's a bite to the air in the unheated garage where Amy McAuley does her woodwork. She examines the 1850s window she is repairing, grabs an antique surfacing plane and starts thinning a new strip of cedar that will be used for the repair.
The plane, guided with sure, powerful strokes, produces curls of aromatic wood. The cedar strip will replace rotting wood that holds the window glass in place.
McAuley, 35, admits a fondness for old tools — she bought this one, a steel blade mounted in a rectangular beechwood box, for $20 at an antique show. But what she loves are windows.
"All parts of windows fascinate me greatly," she says. "If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would do this work for free."
McAuley, of course, doesn't work for free. The founder, owner and sole employee of Oculus Fine Carpentry charges $80 an hour to restore windows. With seven jobs under way, she has all the work she can handle.
She's found a niche, and she wants to ride it all the way to retirement. While many small-business owners try to build a company that can function without them — and give them something to sell at retirement — McAuley has built a company custom-made for her unique skills and interests.
Her strategy is to finance retirement not by creating something she can someday sell, but by accumulating enough wealth through well-paid work.
"You've got to build a niche that is narrow and deep so you can charge a premium amount of money for what you do because there is nobody else that does it as well," said Jackie Babicky-Peterson, an instructor at the Small Business Development Center at Portland Community College who helped McAuley develop her business plan.
McAuley didn't start out with the idea of developing a niche. After working five years as a carpenter for Full Circa, she left in 2001 to start Oculus Fine Carpentry. Initially she envisioned a conventional company.
"I had dreams and aspirations of building a nice big shop," she said. "Having employees was down the road."
She immediately ran into trouble. She couldn't raise the money she needed to launch the company she pictured and couldn't get enough clients. More important, though, she realized that she liked doing detailed carpentry work far more than administering a business.
"Building a business is pushing paper," she said. "I'm more interested in the act of actually restoring things."
After about three years of struggle, she gave her business card to Versatile Sash & Woodwork, a company in Portland that has, for 25 years, manufactured traditional design wood windows and doors. The company doesn't install its work; it recommends contractors to its customers.
Soon after, she enrolled in classes at Portland Community College and learned, from Babicky-Peterson, a different way to build a company.
"I didn't even know that you could build a business through building a niche," she said. "It wasn't until I took the class with Jackie that I really knew where my business was going."
Alan Hart-McArthur, co-owner of Versatile Sash, said he began recommending McAuley regularly because of his enormous respect for her skill and integrity.
"Amy really has the knowledge and skill to understand, on a very historic level, the importance of old windows."
McAuley, with a degree in fine arts, is more than a top carpenter, said Andy Curtis, the owner of Full Circa, where she worked before setting out on her own.
"There's other people who do sash work and fix cords, but the combination of skills she has is pretty rare," Curtis said. "She's an artist and can communicate through drawing."
He added: "She has a very strong work ethic, as good as it gets."
The next step for McAuley was developing a system — which she has copyrighted — for documenting the condition of windows she works on and her repairs.
That system is critical for historic renovation, said Dave Skilton, a former staff architect for the state Historic Preservation Office.
Skilton, an urban-development project coordinator for the city of Salem, hired McAuley to repair five double-hung windows on his 1890 house. When he has the money, he'll have her repair five more.
"She does a super job. That's the hallmark of her work — quality," Skilton said. "She is unique. There's nobody else that I know of that does what she does."
Babicky-Peterson, the Small Business Development Center instructor, said she advises small-company owners to decide early whether they want to build a business, which they can later sell, or a niche, which will allow them to charge high rates.
Mark Green, director of the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University, said building a niche is riskier.
"What she (McAuley) is doing is absolutely fine as long as she understands that she has to do things to fund her retirement," he said. "The problem is if the world changes, if you get sick, if you get hurt, you might lose it all. You're at risk."
McAuley said she understands and accepts the potential dangers of her approach. She has disability insurance as a cushion against the risk of injury, but she knows that insurance doesn't guarantee her business won't fail.
"I see his point, but I love what I do," she said. "Just looking at a building, it's the windows that really speak to me. When I became focused on windows, they became an obsession."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company