Growth a balancing act for Scátháin

Made in Milwaukee

Scátháin’s mirror production setup allows for multiple pieces to be in the works at once.

422 S. Fourth St., Milwaukee
Industry: Custom furnishings/design
Employees: 20

It can be hard to find a balance between what has made a company successful and what can help it grow moving forward.

It is a dilemma Scátháin founder John McWilliam knows all too well. It took him months to create the mirror samples that landed him work with Kohler’s Ann Sacks line. He has other potential customers, but instead of spending the 60 hours he could each week creating new samples, he’s working on the day-to-day challenges of running a business.

Chris Leslie works on a piece in the Scátháin metal shop.
Chris Leslie works on a piece in the Scátháin metal shop.

“Right now, what is keeping us busy is we’re giving the world total customer service,” McWilliam said.

Scátháin describes itself as “artisans proving that the world once again needs well-crafted objects.” The company’s 20 employees work out of a 40,000-square-foot shop in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, creating custom furnishings with metal, wood and mirrors. Some of the pieces are closer to art than something you’d use in a bathroom.

The list of clients is impressive and includes Lambeau Field’s 1919 Kitchen and Tap, Harley-Davidson, Milwaukee Electric Tool and more, including custom pieces for individuals.

McWilliam said he learned the value of pleasing customers while working as a high-end painting contractor. There aren’t a lot of people in that line of work and word travels quickly.

Being a painter also taught McWilliam attention to detail, but it was as a musician that he learned more about opportunism, leadership and teamwork.

As the Great Recession hit, McWilliam found himself with a young family and in search of opportunities. He found one through some last minute finishing work for the Iron Horse Hotel. That work led to more, and a truck bay to do it in.

Scátháin’s mirror production setup allows for multiple pieces to be in the works at once.
Scátháin’s mirror production setup allows for multiple pieces to be in the works at once.

He got another opportunity trying to match a mirror for a high-profile condo in New York. It took months and hundreds of samples, but he found a match.

“That one opportunity really built this whole mirror collection that I then offered to Ann Sacks,” he said.

The chance to work with Ann Sacks itself was the result of a chance encounter and an overheard conversation by McWilliam’s cousin, a photographer doing work for Kohler.

Fast forward to the present and McWilliam’s company has evolved.

There are custom corporate and hospitality projects that last longer than work for individuals and offer a more consistent revenue stream.

Individual clients offer a chance for the company to build its portfolio and potentially create pieces for the retail store, although in some cases the client purchases the intellectual property behind the piece, making it truly one-of-a-kind.

The retail store is the latest addition and has been slowly building. The items aren’t cheap – a set of three forged steel dishes goes for $165, a tasting table is listed at $3,795 – but McWilliam says there is potential based on what he sees people doing similar work selling it for.

“We know there’s a market out there for retail,” he said, adding that the possibility of the retail side taking over the company would be nice since it would allow McWilliam and his employees to focus on producing their own designs.

The work with Ann Sacks represents another segment of the business and McWilliam believes there are more lines to pursue. He said producing those items offers consistent revenue.

“It gives the company a solid base and everybody gets confidence from that,” he said.

He said many employees come from being subcontractors where they were focused on themselves as a business. Bringing everyone together into a team presents a challenge, but McWilliam said that when everyone rallies together to finish a project, it leads to future success.

McWilliam plans to outsource or train others on some of the tasks of running the business so he can focus on getting samples to the companies interested in his work.

“It comes down to me spending that one night here producing those six different recipes that I want that company to have,” he said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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