When Pete and I were in Bozeman recently, we re-connected with a young friend. Happily, he’s found love in a place someone his age might never expect: his business. Renick Ferguson is literally the second person I met when I moved to Minnesota, 27 years ago last month. On a hot July day, he was a four month old baby cooing in the baby seat next to his mother, Tauron, who had invited me over to lounge around their swimming pool and get acquainted. Tauron and I went on to become close friends and business partners. I don’t think either Renick or his mother would mind my saying we all had our moments wondering what ever was he going to do with his life back in his high school and early college years.
Renick works with an outfit called Montana Reclaimed Lumber. We headed over to Gallatin Gateway, about fifteen miles outside Bozeman, to catch up with him and take him to dinner. When we headed into the lumberyard’s dusty driveway, this is what we saw: piles and piles of old wood, stacked up in the open, stored under corrugated buildings and lean-tos, along with all kinds of machinery used to cut into it, polish and smooth it, dry it and move it around. The boards come in all different sizes and configurations, as they have been taken from existing buildings in all kinds of shape from currently used to downright abandoned.
Anybody might take a look at all this and wonder how someone could even be interested in, let alone in love with, all this dirty old lumber. But, Renick’s tour of the place and his enthusiastic story of how he got to be where he is at this moment in his young life was packed with interesting information and insights. At the beginning of our tour, we couldn’t help but notice an enormous log right in front of the office. “See that?” Renick asked. “That thing is over 2,000 years old. We tried counting the rings and gave up. Imagine!” And with that one remark, we were introduced to his love affair with his business.
Renick learned to love wood when he took a construction job in Big Sky, Montana over a summer hiatus from school. This job was working on a fancy log home for a person who had lots of money. Having owned and lived in one myself, although certainly not on the scale of the ones built on mega-ranches in Big Sky country, I know how romantic and seductive log homes can be. Renick got to know the wood that he was working with intimately on that job, what it could do, what it could become. In this notion are the seeds of an entrepreneurial mindset: what could happen.
Renick has always had an engaging and optimistic personality. It just makes sense that he would stake out a position with a couple of guys who were taking advantage of a building boom and an emerging design esthetic by hustling reclaimed wood. You have to recognize possibilities when you go into business, but you also have to take command of the process of getting your product to the end user in an acceptable state. In the reclaimed wood industry, this means scouting down potential sources with relative secrecy, making a savvy purchase from the legal owner, carting it to the lumberyard, and then turning around and re-selling it to architects, interior designers, and builders. Not uncomplicated.
The rewards for all the hard work and risk-taking is acknowledged superiority in the industry. Montana Reclaimed Lumber has provided materials for the most discerning home builders and architects. There is no housing recession at this level – which is a good reminder of how wealthy individuals and companies continue to behave in what might be challenging circumstances to the rest of us. The design esthetic that has evolved has come a long, long way from the Lincoln Log look of a less-upscale log product.
As Renick took us around the lot, I began to get a new appreciation for the life that he sees in these dusty, forgotten remnants of the past. The renderings in formation, grain and scale that result when artisans use this product create marvelous spaces with character and texture.
“I don’t know, I can just see what a board can be,” Renick told us. “It’s the funniest thing. I get this vision in my head of how it’s going to look when we plane it. I can tell from the similarities in hand-hewn logs that they were done by the same person.” I mentioned that handling an adze is a skill that could be destined for oblivion. “Wow,” he responded, “I’m impressed you know that word.” As the word goes, so does the skill, no? We wandered through the yard, looking at walnut, cherry, and oak board, and began to sense the order that our untrained eyes had missed, and then, slowly, the potential in something that for so long had just been tossed aside, discarded, thrown away.
MRL provides handhewn lumber, reclaimed timbers, vintage siding and rafters, corral board, barnboard, floorboard and paneling. The gallery on their website is filled with handsome depictions of what Renick and others who work with the wood can see in it. The product begins to take on their vision, even though its provenance originated in the past. This is creation in the purest sense – breathing new life into what you see, innovating with your personal stamp. It’s a breathtaking opportunity, something that gets an entrepreneur’s pulse racing, infectious. But there’s more to it than possibility. It’s the notion of grounding the artisan’s craft by acknowledging the past, the intricacies of craftsmen long gone, who worked so hard to make things fit and did things the right way so they would last. I began to see how reverential and beautiful the concept of reclaiming is.
When I returned to Minnesota, I took up my habit of scanning and taking in information on a variety of things, all in an effort to process what I had learned on this latest trip. Just yesterday I encountered a beautiful post written by Brad Feld, called Be in Love with Your Business. In it, he states his admiration for Howard Lindzon, whose blog on investing is one that I rarely miss, even though we’re nowhere near the level they both are as investors. Brad writes that he always gets to the heart of a venture opportunity: “When an entrepreneur is trying to decide between a couple of different ideas, I often ask the question “which one are you in love with?” If there’s a quick response, then the answer is easy. If the answer is none of them, that’s the answer to which one he should pursue.”
It seems as though everyone always points to “do what you love and the money will follow.” Pete and I’ve modified that somewhat into “do what you love because you’re going to need to keep doing it forever.” The wisdom in this cliche is that your work won’t seem like work if you love what you’re doing. What would life had been like if I’d had an outright love affair with my work at Renick’s age? I thought. I’m sure feeling fortunate that I love my work the way I do now, thirty years his senior.
We had a terrific dinner after our tour of MRL, at a saloon-y little steakhouse that really knew what to do with beef and bison. Renick is in a good place, happy with the life he has chosen. “The next thing I want to do,” he said to us at the table, “is find me a missus.” We’ve no doubt that’s going to be a winning proposition for some very lucky lady. It’s wonderful to be given the chance to see your children and your friends’ children making their way in the world using and finding their unique talents. We’ll be back to Bozeman, one way or another, because we can’t wait to find out what’s next.
Are you or do you know someone who is having a love affair with their business? What elements have to be in place for someone to absolutely love their work? Did any other thoughts come to mind as you read this piece?
- Salvaged Wood Headboard DIYs (casasugar.com)
- All I want is a piece of wood with character!!! (ask.metafilter.com)
- Special Millwork Projects Need Beautiful Reclaimed Lumber Like This (homeiq.wordpress.com)
- Rena & Gary’s Handcrafted & Reclaimed Apartment House Call (apartmenttherapy.com)