Editor's note: This is the second article in a series about companies in Cleveland that are salvaging and upcycling materials that would otherwise be thrown away. Read the first story here.
When Deej Lincoln moved from San Francisco back to Northeast Ohio, he was looking not only for a place to raise his family, but a new career. He had worked as a television producer for NBC, ESPN, Fox and MSNBC.
“A lot of what we were doing from a business standpoint was tied to dot coms, and I was looking forward to getting into something more tangible,” says Lincoln, president of Rustbelt Reclamation
. “I originally went to school for architecture … but I moved away from it and got my creative outlet from television production.”
He’s come full circle with his business, which produces customized furniture made of reclaimed materials in an old elevator factory on East 36th
Street. Not only is he finding new uses for goods that would have been thrown away, but he’s revitalizing Cleveland’s manufacturing past.
All Rustbelt Reclamation furniture is made by a crew of about 20 people right in Cleveland. And many of the pieces are created with floorboards harvested from now-closed factories where people who helped build the city, the region and the country once stood and worked.
The now 30-person company got its start in 2011 after Lincoln bought Interior Products Co., which produces tailored furniture for primarily libraries and schools in the region. After deciding that a big part of the business would be upcycling, he started a sister company, Reclaimed Cleveland. But the division built on sustainability didn’t have a sustainable business model -- at least at first.
“We were falling into what I’ll label as a traditional hazard of a lot of reclaimed businesses; it’s a really artisan model where one day you’re out [salvaging materials], the next day you’re building a table and then you’re trying to sell it,” he says. “It’s a really closed loop, and there are scalability issues with it.”
They decided to launch a few hundred small, standard products made with reclaimed lumber like bottle openers, cutting boards and paper towel dispensers to gauge interest. The total unit number was less than 300, Lincoln said. They set up their first flash sale online in November 2011, and completely sold out of the items within 24 hours.
“That really blew me away,” Lincoln said. “What was more significant about it is when we did it, the phone started ringing, and people said, ‘Can you make me a bench?’ People who own restaurants asked, ‘Can you build me a bar?’ People on the West Coast said, ‘I grew up in Cleveland. Can you build me a table?’”
Building up an artisan trade
Sentimentalism and pride for Cleveland seems to be stronger than ever, and it’s helping fuel the growth of businesses like Lincoln’s. He launched yet another division that has become the primary company, Rustbelt Reclamation, to reflect the decision to harvest materials across the region and sell nationally.
“In 2012, 25 percent of revenue from the collective companies was reclaimed, and by 2013 it was 75 percent,” he says. “So we can really stand on that reclaimed leg.”
After Rustbelt Reclamation determined that there was a demand for upcycled furniture with the online flash sales, they started scaling up the business. Instead of making accessories like cutting boards and bottle openers, they moved to larger pieces like coffee tables and countertops.
“What we decided to do was start with the manufacturing, and if we were able to build up the market, it would justify harvesting efforts,” Lincoln said. “Usually you either have the material folks or you have the manufacturers. Doing both is very risky from an efficiency standpoint … you’re grabbing material, you’re sitting on it – that whole thing causes so much inefficiency.”
Streamlining the process also meant hiring more people to focus on various aspects of the business. All 30 or so employees at Rustbelt are full-time.
“People are expensive, so it was an upfront investment, but the idea being we could let the craftsman focus on building, and we could let the sales folks focus on selling and then the material folks focus on acquiring material,” he says. “Being able to have people be a little more focused has allowed us to grow quicker than most.”
Efficiency is key on the salvaging side of the business as well. Lincoln has 110,000 square feet of space in Midtown, and much of it is filled with materials the company has gathered from a handful of salvaging projects. Their largest stock came from closed GM and Chrysler stamping plants in Indianapolis and Cleveland respectively, where they removed floor boards, some made from pecan trees.
“By far my favorite salvage was the stamping plants,” Lincoln said as he stared at the vast, 20,000-square-foot room with wood stacked in 4-foot-tall piles. “You can actually see that wow, all of that was going to be in the landfill, and now it’s not. That’s an illustrator of what we value. We have more interesting salvage stories about getting specific wood, but this is an example of the power of recycling and reclaiming.
One of the most complicated but rewarding projects was the salvage of sandcasting forms from the Taylor & Boggis (T & B) Foundry Co. on East 71st
Street, pieces from which resulted in the new tables at Progressive Field’s The Corner bar.
“We were going over there to take lumber, and the floor was covered with sandcasting forms. All of this stuff was going to get thrown away -- 40 dumpsters full,” he says. “These forms can be cleaned up and turned into pretty cool stuff: bases for coffee tables, mirrors. We recovered 4,000 of those foundry pieces, which was a full-time job for eight people for almost five months.”
Streamlining the process
Now the warehouse is stocked with raw materials, and while a few employees investigate more harvesting projects and work on special requests from clients, the craftsmen can focus on building furniture with the existing material. It’s allowed the company to take on big projects for companies like The Indians, Winking Lizard and First Watch, the national breakfast and brunch restaurant chain.
“If you’re processing 30 tables at a time versus one or five, you can become much more efficient at what you’re doing. We have been able to have successful accounts and good business on more specialty items,” he said. “We focus on working with architects, interior designers and owners of restaurants and hotels.”
They experimented with standard product lines targeting consumers – Harvest, Haymarket and Mather, all still advertised on their website – but soon realized the furniture with hand-assembled tops and stainless steel bases was too expensive. Pieces are still available, and it helped create looks for people to be inspired by, but the focus is now larger projects.
Lincoln also realized they had to customize each piece somehow, because what people value most in Rustbelt’s furniture is the stories. That’s why they label every piece of lumber they recover with its address, and it’s printed on a maple coin embedded in every product. Customers can select from the materials available, something that will carry the most meaning for them. Or they can request a special harvest.
“What we do now is maintain that amount of inventory, or we acquire wood for jobs specifically,” he said. “So if you are building a restaurant in New York, we will get material from New York. It makes it sentimental for them, ties it together with that buy local idea. It has a story.”
The next step for Lincoln is to build relationships with land banks and municipalities and to convince property owners that allowing Rustbelt to access properties before tearing them down or renovating them would be beneficial for all.
“As our company continues to grow, we want to make the idea of using material that would be thrown away and repurposing it more appealing to those who are responsible for managing those structures,” he said. “When you look at the foundry or the stamping plant harvests, that’s a perfect example of someone who is responsible for getting rid of a bunch of material benefitting from our willingness to use that material because they don’t have to pay to throw it away. And we’re doing something great in that we’re not throwing material away, we’re using it, and we’re building a business on that."