By CFI Co-founder Steve Mariotti (originally published in The Huffington Post)
When Jim Malone was laid off from his well-paying job in the animation industry in May 2007, he thought he’d take some time off from the pressure of life in New York’s entertainment scene and finish his upstate log cabin.
Little did he know then that a chance encounter with a fine slab of 90-year-old heart pine reclaimed from a demolished bowling lane would inspire a bench that became a business that grew into a brand.
Today, CounterEv Furniture operates two showrooms, one in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, the other in the trendy upstate New York hamlet of Catskill. There’s also an extensive online store, and a factory in Kingston, New York. Production was moved upstate from the Brooklyn Navy Yards area in 2015. There’s also a genuine scratch-and-dent factory outlet where $2000 tables can be purchased for as little as $350, but it’s cash and carry, and you can’t get the colors and dimensions customized as is standard with the regularly priced furniture, which is all made to order and delivered in four to six weeks.
“It was all trial and error, and many times I almost gave up, only to have something wonderful and unexpected happen,” said Malone, a singer-songwriter originally from New Jersey. “But a decade later, our company’s a recognized authority on sustainable furniture, and we’re in a ton of fast casual restaurants, including the Starbuck’s at the Empire State Building.”
Steve Mariotti: Do you have any advice for people over 50 who have lost their jobs? What are the effects of such job loss?
Jim Malone: Well, there’s no need to talk about the obvious disadvantages to losing your job late in life or how the 20th century model of corporate loyalty and career stability turned out not to be sustainable, so I will just mention what I think is a big positive.
Older adults tend to know what they want and, more importantly, don’t want to spend their time doing. I believe this gives one the ability to focus and throw themselves into something they actually care about. This can be exciting, especially if you were not that passionate about what you were doing before. Harness that excitement. It can be a second chance at a new or old dream. This is not to diminish the stress that might come with losing a job late in life or the difficulties inherent in finding work in a youth oriented workforce, but there is a new found freedom in finding yourself in that position that should be explored.
SM: Tell me how you discovered bowling lane wood as a source of finished lumber, and how that find grew into a viable business.
JM: I was looking for a slab of wood with what is called a live edge and I found this very dusty hunk of bowling lane wood at a place in upstate New York which was kind of ahead of its time and regrettably went out of business. The owner suggested I clean up the bowling lane wood and use it for my project because “it was really good wood and probably about 90 years old.” I’m mostly a self-taught carpenter. Although some of my first attempts weren’t so great, eventually I learned how to make the most of this material. I discovered nobody else was really making fine craft furniture at a production level out of it. Reclaimed bowling lane wood was known to hobbyist woodworkers, but not the general public. While there are several key attributes, one of the big ones is of course that no 100 year old trees were newly cut down. Lots of people really care about that. Not so much the bowling angle, but we’ll take that interest, too. We have a piece of furniture on exhibit at the International Bowling Hall of Fame in Texas.
SM: When did you realize you were going to grow your early table and bench designs into a business and a brand?
JM: When I worked in the animation business, I realized, after I was let go, that I’d contributed to the show’s success in ways which weren’t recognized, for example, writing the theme song. While I was learning how to make bowling lane wood into iconic contemporary furniture, I was also peddling several cartoon concepts to Nickelodeon and Disney and it just wasn’t going very well. I remember flying back to New York from Los Angeles on the red-eye after a particularly disappointing business meeting and thinking, what I really want to do is work for myself, and make this furniture enterprise happen.
SM: How did you land your first large commercial order?
JM: Actually, they found me, five pages into a Google search for custom furniture sustainably made in the U.S. The founder of SweetGreen, a healthy fast casual restaurant chain, messaged me in the middle of the night and then we talked on the phone the following morning. He placed an order for two Washington D.C. restaurants to be filled with our furniture. That led to a 70-restaurant contract with Shake Shack, and roughly at the same time, Starbucks decided they wanted us to make a number of community tables for high profile locations such as the Google office building and the Empire State Building. Up until then, I had mostly been selling off of Craig’s List and at the Brooklyn Flea Market.
SM: Is there still enough reclaimed bowling lane wood around for you to continue to expand your business?
JM: Actually, there is. Most of the vintage bowling alleys have too many lanes and are in the wrong towns given the current demographics of the sport. Today’s competitive bowlers mostly want new facilities. The old social league bowling alleys today are sometimes converted into event spaces with only a couple of bowling lanes — ancillary party entertainment. But lots of the big old ones are still being torn down. We have a supply of this wood, and we also know where we can get more.
SM: CounterEv Furniture is now a decade old. You’ve recently updated the New York showroom, you send out a weekly blog update, and you’re frequently approached about providing furniture for films and other purposes. What’s next?
JM: I’ve spent the summer preparing an investor deck, and lately been meeting with a number of interested parties. We’re looking for funding that will enable us to own and operate a flagship retail space in Manhattan, and find other ways to promote and expand our brand. There really aren’t a lot of good options in the made-to-order sustainable furniture category. Our core consumer business is dining tables. We’d like for more people to know they can buy investment grade furniture that’s completely non-toxic and ethically and environmentally produced, in a price range of about $350 on up, with a dining table that seats eight starting at about $1800.