4720 N. 27th St., Milwaukee
Industry: Custom furniture
From bars and restaurants to corporate conference rooms to home offices, Milwaukee-based custom furniture manufacturer Gear Grove has been building a portfolio of projects since 2012, with a focus on unique furniture that also keeps materials out of landfills.
The company started out as a passion for co-owner Lyle Stoflet Jr. He found himself building projects a few weekends each month and then, eventually, every weekend. When Stoflet met Tom Daugherty, the latter suggested Stoflet get out of the garage and join him at his shop near West Hampton Avenue and North Teutonia Avenue.
What started as a woodworking space in the corner grew within six months to occupy 5,000 square feet. Today, Gear Grove has an 8,000-square-foot space and is eyeing an expansion to another facility sometime in 2019.
The companies that Stoflet and Daugherty own together – Gear Grove, contract manufacturer Stratus Industries and upcycler Containers Up – occupy a total of 30,000 square feet at 4720 N. 27th St., plus some additional outdoor yard space and another 50,000 square feet across the street for Stratus’ fulfillment work.
“It kind of broadens the horizons of all the companies,” Daugherty said of having several businesses with different capabilities.
Gear Grove specifically was formed with an eye toward furniture and design that would repurpose materials while also incorporating a customer’s desires. It is an approach that capitalizes on design trends that emphasize the use of reclaimed wood, which Stoflet only expects to continue.
“I think it’s going to keep accelerating, partly because everybody wants to be unique, they want it to be personalized for what their space is or what their vibe is,” he said. “We don’t have a certain vibe that we go with, we figure out what the client’s vibe is.”
The company’s projects range from single pieces of furniture to full corporate office buildouts. Gear Grove also gets creative; the company’s own conference room table is made from a shipping container and a motorcycle stand, which allows it to be adjustable.
“What’s nice is we have the ability to have that breadth with the team that we have,” Stoflet said.
Some projects take only a few hours for one employee, while others take several weeks in the shop and another few days on-site.
The team Gear Grove has put together also comes from a wide variety of backgrounds. One-third of the current workforce has either a mental or a physical disability, and the company was recently recognized by the state Department of Workforce Development for its commitment to hiring those with disabilities.
Daugherty said Gear Grove has used the DWD’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and temporary work experience programs to help find employees that match its needs. In some cases, the programs offer the business money to help with training, and in other cases they provide potential hires a chance to try out a possible career.
“It’s been interesting. Some people have needed every moment of that training and other people have jumped right in and can handle what we’re trying,” he said.
Stoflet said it has been important for the company to maintain a culture that emphasizes open communication and flexibility for employees. Daugherty added that working with employees to find their niche benefits Gear Grove and the employee.
In one case, Gear Grove found out an employee’s favorite previous job was wrapping Christmas presents at department stores. It turns out one of the company’s customers requires that level of attention to detail in packaging.
“It’s literally something that she absolutely loves doing and the rest of our staff absolutely hated doing,” Daugherty said.
Maintaining a culture in which the business feels like a family or a team is a point of emphasis for Gear Grove. While Stoflet and Daugherty are always looking to add talented people, they also do not advertise open positions much, opting to rely on existing partnerships or the referrals of current employees to draw in new hires.
As the company grows, Stoflet said he plans to emphasize working with developers and architects to expand the portion of the business focused on the full buildout of offices into unique spaces.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gear Grove also has a presence on Etsy. Daugherty said the e-commerce site has changed over the years from a lot of small stores and individuals to a more corporate feel.
“It’s much closer to an eBay or an Amazon (website) than it is the small boutique store it started as, but a lot of custom work comes out of it and it’s just another good avenue to be able to have your presence sitting on,” he said. ν