IN FOCUS: Small Business – 'We can build anything'

Posted on Jan 1, 2015 :: Small Business Spotlight
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Justin Kuehl and Nate Lenz, owners of Factotum, repurpose scrap wood into furniture and décor for business and residential clients. Photo by Nikki Kallio

Justin Kuehl and Nate Lenz, owners of Factotum, repurpose scrap wood into furniture and décor for business and residential clients. Photo by Nikki Kallio

When Justin Kuehl’s wife wanted a high-end look for her salon with reclaimed wood flooring and furnishings, he balked at the price.

“I was the cheapskate,” he says. Instead, he and his friend Nate Lenz found materials and did the installation themselves at Abigail’s downtown Appleton business, Bold Salon. “This was an option that allowed her to get the look she wanted without the crazy high cost,” Kuehl says.

It was the beginning of something great.

That DIY project led to the creation of Appleton-based Factotum, builders of custom furnishings, flooring and accent walls for business and residential customers. Kuehl and Lenz, both in their 20s, got started with another partner, Jordan Banda, who owns a number of businesses, including the recycling company that is housed in the same building as Factotum.

“It was natural for us to just go into something like this,” says Kuehl, who Conger ToyotaLifthad owned a construction company. Lenz had been flipping houses. In September 2013, their new company started taking on clients. Another partner, Trevor Nackers, helped start Factotum but has since taken a job in the Milwaukee area.

Banda’s industrial recycling company, W International, receives large plastic rolls on wooden pallets made from hardwoods like walnut and maple, and Factotum uses wood from those pallets to build its products. Factotum also purchases barn wood for use in some of their products.

Badger State BrewingThe sustainability aspect goes beyond using reclaimed wood: Their shop is heated with scrap wood from their projects. Kuehl and Lenz also screen print T-shirts and refurbish old motorcycles. They have a steel shop to build wood-and-steel furniture.

“It’s a place for us to take our hobbies and try and make money at them,” Kuehl says. “We took all the stuff that we had been doing normally and just put them into one building.”

Hence, the name: Factotum, Latin for “make or do anything.”

Bold SalonThey’re making it work. The company started with about $2,000 to $2,500 in sales; summer 2014 sales reached $40,000 to $60,000. Fall is a slower time and Kuehl and Lenz are working on building products that will help sustain them with a more steady income.

“The business side is doing crazy well,” Kuehl says. “It shouldn’t be doing as well as it is, as young as it is.”

As with any startup, it’s a lot of hard work, Lenz adds. “Last year, we made next to nothing, but it paid off this year.”

The business partners believe strongly in American-made products.

“We go out of our way for tools, our boots, for anything that we wear or use to find American-made products just because they typically last longer,” Kuehl says. Factotum’s business cards (which they order from a company in Milwaukee that uses an old letterpress) and some of their T-shirts read: “The future belongs to the few of us still willing to get our hands dirty.”

That’s not to say there aren’t perks to working for themselves, such as taking a break when things are slow.

“My wife just called me — she said, ‘How’s work going?’” Lenz says. “I was like, ‘I gotta be honest. We’re fishing.’”

Factotum’s clients include Conger ToyotaLift in Green Bay and The Bar locations, the RiverHeath Development, Seth’s Coffee and Bake Shop, Badger State Brewing Co. and residential clients. Much of the business seems to be coming via word of mouth.

“This summer — it went by so fast it was crazy,” Kuehl says. “They just kind of found us.”

In the case of Conger ToyotaLift (this month’s Insight cover story) someone Lenz knew worked there and mentioned Factotum to Co-owner Anika Conger-Capelle. “We haven’t done a ton in really getting (our name) out there, but it’s more than busy enough,” Lenz says. “It’s one of those things you can tell, that’s what people want.”

Kuehl and Lenz love the challenge of filling custom orders, such as for a residential client who ordered a 10-foot table that expanded to 16 feet.

“It’s fun because you wrack your brain to figure out how to build it, and as soon as you get done you go, ‘Yeah. We just did that,’” Lenz says.

Andrew Fabry, president and founder of Badger State Brewing Co. in Green Bay, hired Factotum to build about 16 tables with chairs, bar stools and a bar topper last summer after a friend recommended the new company.

Fabry says Factotum is filling a niche market in the region. “There are people who are looking for this sort of thing in smaller population areas, and I think that, coupled with their attention to details, they’re very sharp guys. They’re very passionate about their work.”

Factotum’s price range varies because of the custom nature of its products.

“I think middle America would be able to afford our stuff, and that’s really who we’re targeting,” Kuehl says. “The high-end people really like it because it is a look and they can get anything custom they want. We can build anything.”