Register Guard Oct 2015 - Urban Woodwork
Urban Lumber Plans to Grow Outward From Springfield
By: Ilene Aleshire
SPRINGFIELD — When Seth San Filippo, 35, looks around his company’s new home in the Booth-Kelly Center, he smiles. He is exactly where he wants to be at this point in time, doing exactly what he wants to do: producing handcrafted products from locally salvaged wood.
These can be as small as a cutting board for a local kitchen or as big as the massive conference table that is on its way to the boardroom of a high-tech company in San Francisco.
When San Filippo started his first business, at age 19, with a $1,000 loan from his parents, he just wanted to make longboard skateboards.
He never expected to start a custom wood products company that would someday support a family.
At the very beginning, he said, “I didn’t even think I’d start up a skateboard business.”
From the beginning, his material of choice was salvaged wood. He had noticed trees being cut down around town, because of disease or because they posed a safety threat, and then thrown into a wood chipper or burned.
The waste bothered him, so he decided to salvage the wood. “I started milling my own wood for my boards,” San Filippo said.
But, soon, he said, there was salvaged wood everywhere, “stacks of it piled up on the back porch, more than a lifetime supply of skateboard wood.”
He needed to find a way to use it up; he settled on making items for the home.
San Filippo didn’t have any business training or, for that matter, any formal woodworking training. But his father had some rental houses and was handy at doing repairs and maintenance work on them, so San Filippo learned from him.
“And my mom is very artistic, so I got my artist’s eye from her,” San Filippo said. “I also read a lot if I’m interested in something like woodworking. And I learn from watching other people.”
He began to slowly build a business, renting space in Springfield and buying equipment, mostly used. By being frugal, he was able to avoid the debt that crushes some startups. Plus, San Filippo said, he was pretty sure there weren’t a lot banks that would be interested in loaning money to a guy who had just started a business, making things out of salvaged wood.
He also began building connections, people who would let him know if there was salvaged wood available and people who would tell others about the handcrafted items he was turning out.
San Filippo said his accidental business benefitted from being in the right place at the right time. Had he been in someplace like California or the Midwest, he wouldn’t have had the easy access to a wide variety of cheap wood, he said.
His business was founded literally on urban lumber, downed or cut city trees that often grew far bigger than their counterparts in the forest, where they had to compete for space.
“We’re used to big trees,” he said. “Some people don’t even know that walnut trees get that big.”
He also found ways to access material from old wooden buildings — and facilities like the University of Oregon’s old tennis courts — and even from the sea.
One stack of wood stored in his factory, waiting to be transformed, is from World War II cargo ships that had been deliberately sunk in Newport harbor after the war as part of a pier.
“Somebody knew this was something we might be interested in,” he said. “They were covered in sand and mud, I’ll go through tons of blades (sawing them).”
But it will be worth it, he said, marveling at the wood’s blue tinge caused by its long immersion. “It’s just incredible,” he said.
He recently bought some new equipment, but he said, “We still have a lot of tools from the World War II era.”
What customers wanted
In addition to being in the right place, San Filippo also started his business at the right time. Consumer were increasingly interested in sustainability, in uniqueness, in locally sourced products and in products that come with a story, he said.
Urban Lumber ticks all of those boxes, San Filippo said.
“I work with a lot of designers, architects, chefs, hotels...the mood they want to convey is quality, local. It’s a lot like the farm-to-table movement in food. People want local, handmade, made in America.”
A lot of people don’t like to see one of their trees come down, he said, particularly people in Eugene. But they feel better about it if the tree is transformed into something else that can be part of their lives, such as a table, he said.
San Filippo likes this cycle of life idea himself.
He is pretty sure, he said, that some trees that have provided wood for his business are old enough that they shaded Native Americans and provided them with nuts, long before this area saw white settlers.
When a tree that old comes down, he said, “it would be nice to know that a product can be built that would outlast the tree.”
Like the trees themselves, San Filippo’s business model has seen slow but steady growth — punctuated in his case by the occasional calculated leap.
The first leap was when he decided to open a showroom in downtown Eugene in 2013, “to test the waters.”
That showroom gave him a higher profile, and introduced him to a new crop of potential customers, including parents of University of Oregon students who came from outside Lane County.
About three years after he opened the Eugene showroom, he closed it when space in the former Booth Kelly Mill became open, the second leap he took.
He leased 32,000 square feet in the city-owned property, which now is almost completely full, city spokesman Niel Laudati said.
San Filippo liked the idea of having his showroom and manufacturing together in one building, with the finished product in front literally steps from raw logs in back.
He also liked the feeling of being part of the effort to revitalize downtown Springfield — the old mill is on the fringes of it — and of being in a former mill, with its own long history in wood products.
And, most of all, he liked the fact that it gave him room to continue growing.
In the past few years, San Filippo has expanded into California, partnering with a woman in Los Angeles — who now works at Urban Lumber — to sell his furniture there. He also opened an outlet in the Napa Valley after he began developing a client base in the San Francisco area, thanks in large part to people who wandered into his Eugene showroom.
A cousin now runs the outlet in Healdsburg, which benefits from being close to San Francisco — but at a lower cost — while also tapping into the stream of well-heeled people touring the wine country.
The Oregon and California markets are two distinctly different ones, San Filippo said.
In Oregon, people tend to ask “Can I get that smaller?” and tend to look at the price more, he said. In California, “They ask ‘Can I get it bigger’ and ‘How can I get it faster?’” he said.
Prices for his products range from $40 for a cutting board to $27,000 for a 25-foot-long conference table.
“The sweet spot for me is a dining room table, or a conference table that’s in the $5,000 to $10,000 range or a nice kitchen table for $2,000 to $3,000,” San Filippo said.
His plans to keep growing the company, which now has 10 employees, include possibly adding more hubs for further geographic expansion.
“I’ve tested the Eugene market,” he said, which is a little more urban than Springfield, “I would like to test a few more that can be served from a hub like Springfield. I can see Springfield serving San Francisco, L.A., Portland, Seattle.
“I’ve thought of other hubs, like Detroit,” he said.
Detroit has a couple of things going for it, he said. First, it’s a place he thinks values made in America craftsmanship. Second, it is conveniently located to serve the rest of the Midwest.
“I would like to branch out to the East Coast, as well,” he said. But that possibility is down the road a ways, even with the rate at which his company is growing.
Urban Lumber doesn’t disclose revenues, but San Filippo said, “they’ve been growing at 20 to 50 percent every year, even through the recession.”
One big plus for a small business like his has been the explosion of social media, he said, which gives him a much broader reach than he could have dreamed of when he was 19, making skateboards.
“It’s been a great tool,” he said, “In the past, it was so much harder to get your story out there.”
San Filippo still is settling into his new business home — “I’m trying to get everything streamlined in the new location” — and he recently secured his first-ever line of credit, from Citizens Bank.
“It’s pretty exciting to think about what the next five or 10 years might hold,” he said.
“I didn’t even think I’d start up a skateboard business.”
— Seth San Filippo, Urban Lumber owner