Furniture industry veteran lives out dream manufacturing rustic furniture in rural Waseca
Photos by Kris Kathmann
Chris Wiener’s effortless, boyish smile never seems to fade, and neither does Lady and Champ’s enthusiasm for ear scratching, nor the autumn sunlight piercing the rear barn window to warm a deserted barn-wood chair. The idyllic setting could have been an inspiring Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.
The photograph on the left appears on the surface idyllic, perhaps even quaint. Yet Wiener himself has followed an interesting yet chaotic career path around the nation and globe—anything but idyllic—one filled with more knots and twists than the barn wood and logs his rural Waseca business custom handcrafts into rustic furniture. The end product of his chaos, the Vienna Woodworks Rustic Furniture Company, has the very real potential to settle his personal world and carry his lifelong dreams into reality. Presently, only a handful of his customers come from southern Minnesota. The balance comes from about half of America—they have learned of the company over the Internet. Not bad in terms of success for a perpetually smiling 35-year-old from a family of ten children, a young professional with far more moxie and industry experience than his boyish smile reveals.
Says Wiener, “My ancestors came from Vienna, Austria, in 1854, and settled in central Minnesota near Sauk Centre. That’s how I got the name.” In the German language, he explained, a “Wiener” is a person from Wien—Vienna. Way back then, the two sons of Jacob Wiener began working with wood to build Catholic churches with ornate altars in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Later on, Chris’ grandfather owned and operated a local sawmill, and his father a construction business that built steel structures and grain bins, primarily. Chris himself, at age 10, made his first piece of furniture: a bench.
To earn spending money in a large family that didn’t have much extra, Wiener decided to sell Christmas cards, and one year sold enough to buy a new BMX bicycle. “My mom would drop me off in some neighborhood and I’d go door to door,” he says of selling Christmas cards. “I’ve always enjoyed meeting people, to sit down and talk with them, and I can talk, talk and talk. I have hardly ever been afraid of (cold call) selling. Some people have butterflies doing it. In speech class in high school and college, especially, most of the students were sweating about having to make a speech. But I got excited about standing up in front of a crowd to speak.”
Eventually, Wiener worked as a foreman for his father doing construction work while learning restaurant and hotel management at Alexandria Technical College. He really enjoyed management, and being in charge. A year in, he switched to a sales and marketing major, and later graduated with an AAS degree—the grueling weekend and holiday hours of a hotel manager hadn’t seemed that appealing as a career, especially after meeting Beth. The two had met at the wedding of mutual friends, and later corresponded through letters and over the telephone. Beth had already graduated from Christendom College in Virginia and was working for Bell Atlantic in Fairlawn, New Jersey. Chris flew back and forth between Minnesota and New Jersey about once a month. They married in 1993, not long after Wiener had received his degree.
After college, at age 21, he began selling cars. What he really didn’t like selling cars was having to go through a sales manager to have a deal approved. “I felt like I was just a puppet,” he says. “I wanted to be in charge, to make those decisions right there for the customer. And I didn’t like the whole part of trying to push someone into buying a car they really couldn’t afford.”
Upon returning home from their honeymoon, the Wieners decided together that Chris needed more stable employment that wasn’t so dependent on commissions to make ends meet. They were traditional Catholics, and talked of having a family right away.
Here the experience-rich, yet chaotic career path began. In 1993, he started working at a St. Cloud printing company as a shipping clerk, and his work ethic and way with people led to a promotion to shift lead within just months. After working eight months, he took a production employee position on the floor assembling raised panel doors at nearby Woodcraft Industries, which was, “one of the best companies in that area in terms of how they treated their employees,” he says. “It was a bigger company and I was looking for the opportunity to grow in management. We had just started a family, and had a child on the way.”
Within a few months, Woodcraft asked Wiener to start a new night shift from ground up in the specialty department. The company had to increase capacity. Wiener trained in the specialty department on day shift, learning how to make high-end, special mitered and mullion doors for expensive cabinets. Soon, he was training and then supervising six employees.
He says, “I think they promoted me to supervisor because they felt I had a good sense of what to do and because I consistently showed leadership abilities. According to my past bosses, I seem to have a good way of training people. Even though I was new, I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘Hey, let’s try it this way or that.’”
Within six months, a management trainee position opened up in another Woodcraft plant, in Forreston, and Wiener latched on to the opportunity. The company had a special management trainee program that lasted a year. After only a few months, he graduated. “They said they didn’t think I needed the program because I had a sense of knowing what to do already. I had proven myself through work I did and reviews I received from superiors. So they promoted me to a night shift supervisory position over more than 25 employees in early 1995.”
Three years later, in 1998, he was in charge of the specialty department day shift back in St. Cloud, where he and his family lived. Then he was promoted to assistant production manager, managing two night shifts and ten supervisors. Then came the production manager position at another St. Cloud plant. Wiener’s star was rising fast and had “bright future” written all over it—not bad for a 25-year-old. He was a prodigy at an 800-employee company.
Just as his rising star was reaching an apex, he received a telephone call from a former Woodcraft production manager now working for a competitor. This company was slightly smaller, yet seemed financially strong, and had been showing signs of competing with Woodcraft at certain accounts. It had plants in Wisconsin, Iowa, and northern Minnesota. The owners eventually asked Wiener to be their division manager at their plant in Iowa that made raised-panel and kitchen cabinet doors.
He took the job. “We were selling doors to the big cabinet manufacturers, such as Starmark, Merillat, and Medallion,” he says. “Most people don’t realize these cabinets you buy at Menards, for instance, are only assembled at these big plants. Companies like this one, and Woodcraft Industries, supplied most of the parts.”
Down in Iowa only a few months in 2001, he was making improvements, speedily winning back customers, and trying to clean up a financial mess. But apparently, his Herculean efforts were too little too late. When taking the position, Chris had been unaware the company was going through a financial crisis. He had put his faith and trust in the former Woodcraft production manager who had lured him into a situation already well into a downward spiral. The company suddenly closed the Iowa plant and moved the Wieners to Superior, Wisconsin, where he would work three years as the plant production manager. Then the entire company began wobbling, teetering, and tottering. It was a union shop. While the company was going bankrupt, the owners hastily formed a new company that bought the old company’s assets. Vendors were hung out to dry. It was very messy, said Wiener, and unethical. Wiener could no longer buy quality wood at competitive prices. His company became an industry pariah.
“At the end, we were importing wood from China,” he says, “so I had gone over there for three weeks. I had an interpreter the whole time teaching these Chinese men and women how to chop the wood and determine a defect, for example. It was quite an experience. I learned there isn’t any worker safety over there. Some of the women were using a big old chop saw, and there weren’t any guards on it. I asked the interpreter, ‘What happens if someone is hurt here?’ He said they get sent home and they hire someone else. The employees were careful because they could lose their job and apartment if they had an accident. Most of them lived in apartment buildings owned by the factory. The factory basically owned the employees—they gave them room and board.”
Wiener could see the writing on the wall. While preparing for the inevitable, after interviewing with a log furniture company in Brainerd, he realized he could make log furniture himself at his home in Superior. So he bought logs, purchased equipment, and began making the furniture part-time in his garage after work and on weekends. To start, he built a couple of rustic beds, benches, and a couch. One Duluth retailer purchased futons and beds. His wife put together an inexpensive website through Yahoo!, and Internet orders began trickling in.
His day employer literally was going out of business, and his log furniture company wasn’t nearly grossing enough to justify going full-time with it. He felt caught in a bind—that is until receiving yet another telephone call, this time from an employment headhunter.
“He told me about a job in Connecticut with a Russian-owned company that had a lot of natural resources over in Russia,” he says. “They had Russian birch, and could sell it cheaper than the Chinese. They wanted to set up a U.S. plant to process it into what the cabinet companies wanted, providing them with drawer box material, for instance. They wanted to do what the Chinese were doing but at less cost.”
Connecticut was closer to wife Beth’s home. So they up and moved to be near his job in Danbury and lived across the border in New York. Wiener was tasked with planning a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art wood processing facility to pound thousands of board-feet per day. The Russian owner kept pushing back the date funding was to arrive, until one day in late 2004 he said it would never. Everyone was laid off. He was disillusioned.
The next Monday, the Russian owner asked Wiener to consider another job—as a foreman supervising four Ukrainian carpenters fixing up old homes for the owner. He would do it for about five months until being offered a position at Foldcraft in Kenyon, Minnesota, helping manufacture restaurant furniture. Eventually, after working full-time at a Chaska plastic injection molding company, and moving to Waseca, Wiener fired up his old log furniture-making equipment to fulfill a lifetime dream of owning his own business.
Wiener had started his rustic furniture business part-time in 2002 before going full-time with it in 2007. What exactly is rustic furniture?
“By rustic, I mean the furniture has more of the rustic characteristics. In other words, we don’t take out what God put in, such as knots, wormholes, cracks, sometimes the bark. As for our barn wood furniture, we buy the wood from the people taking down the barns. It is great wood, and looks beautiful, and we are able to refurbish it into something that has a history behind it. Some of the wood has square nails, and was cut by hand a hundred years ago. Sometimes you can see hatchet marks. It’s recycling.”
The company has blossomed to include four employees, not counting Chris and Beth, who handles the website (viennawoodworks.com), paying bills, and telephone inquiries. More than half their business customers come from the Internet and the rest are retailers from all over the nation, including Florida, Texas, Washington, Illinois, New York, and in North Carolina. Walk-in customers must make an appointment first. Out of their hundred or so clients the last year, only a few have been from the Connect Business Magazine reading area.
Products range from a $40 lamp to a $5,000 pool table, and can include just about any wood, including cedar, cherry, hickory, hackberry, juniper or pine. The product line includes beds, dressers, nightstands, couches, futons, chairs, tables, end tables, vanities, mirrors, medicine cabinets, toilet cabinets, pool tables, and cribs.
Recently, the company built quite a few vanities from barn wood. He already has had repeat customers, such as the Minneapolis man that owned a second home in Colorado: Wiener furnished both homes at different times.
“I don’t know where this will all lead,” says Wiener of the future. “I’ve bid on a number of very big jobs and if we land even a couple we will have to find a larger building. This last spring we furnished the cabins at three resorts in the Bemidji area. We’ll find out in November about a 145-room hotel we’ve bid on. There is a 15-room lodge in Michigan, also. It’s weird, but we bid on a whole chair and dining room area set on a restaurant that will be put in a Marine base in Japan. The Marine Corps has asked for a bid on a hickory chair they want to put in the restaurant on the Marine Base.”
More than anything now, he enjoys hiring new employees: not for the ego trip, but for the feeling of personal satisfaction of providing employment for good people. He enjoys treating people with respect and paying them what they are worth, such as one hard-working employee who he has bumped up $3 an hour since January. He says, “As owner, I don’t have any rules saying I have to wait so many months before rewarding good work. It’s up to me now. So I reward the people putting in extra effort. With these other companies I worked for there were always employees working a little harder and yet they were getting paid the same as someone else who wasn’t working hard.”
After such a twisting, turning, chaotic career path involving fistfuls of companies, and still only age 35, Wiener seems highly content now living and working in rural Waseca and doing things his way. He says of a typical workday, “I’m out there working most of the time with the employees. I don’t spend a lot of time in the office. Back in some of the other companies I worked for, they wasted a lot of manpower and time having meetings, for example.”
He says he’ll never work for someone else again—unless it’s absolutely necessary. In fact, what he has now is practically “idyllic.”
In 1991, Wiener was an usher at his best friend’s wedding, and a woman he helped usher down the aisle would become his wife. They met that day for the first time, danced at the reception, and later traded telephone calls and letters.
At the time of the wedding, Beth had just graduated from Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, a 700-student Catholic school, majoring in political science, philosophy, and economics.
“A year later, she moved out here, we got engaged, and six months after that we married in 1993,” says Wiener. “I was raised a traditional, conservative Catholic, and she was the same. What excited me most about her was her maturity. I was only 19 when we met and she was 23.”
Says Wiener about wood: “Along the way, I learned a lot about its properties, including expansion and contraction, and how to make a good glue joint. Wood will take on moisture in humid conditions and also will contract.”
He points with his finger to a nearby cabinet door, saying, “This one here is solid wood. If I were to take this door and send it to Florida or the Bahamas where it’s humid, and if you had the panel in too tight, the joints would blow apart. There is more strength in the wood than in the glue joint.”
Initially, the company likes receiving wood dried to six to eight percent moisture content in order to stabilize it to minimize expanding and contracting.
“If you put a piece of dry wood out in humid conditions, it could expand within days or weeks,” he says. “And if you buy green wood with a higher moisture content and subject it to too much heat and dry conditions, within hours it could crack. Every species of wood is a little different. If it dries too quickly, you get stress in the wood fibers.”
Vienna Woodworks Rustic Furniture Company began full-time operations in September 2007 after Wiener had worked at it for five years off and on part-time. The last year part-time, he was getting up at 5:00 a.m. to work in Chaska by 6:30, and returning home at 7:00 p.m. to begin a new shift with his rustic furniture company.
“I’d come home from Chaska,” he says, “and change clothes, get a bite to eat, work until eleven each night, and do it all over again the next day. On Saturdays I’d work, and on Sunday I would try to rest, but even then I’d spend half the day out there building rustic furniture. It got to the point where I had to choose between the two careers.”
What persuaded him to start his own business full-time were several “good-sized” orders throughout the summer, and differences of opinion with his full-time employer over the way business should have been conducted.
With that effortless, boyish smile, he says: “I can be a strongly opinionated person. I especially don’t like it when I see things at a business that don’t make sense, such as when there is too much politics and red tape. Sometimes I think you have too many people in management with a personal agenda. They are looking out for their own best interest instead of what is best for the company. Personally, I have always had a hard time when people do that.”