Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. grows a lifestyle brand

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Articles - September 2013
Monday, August 19, 2013
0913 TheMaker 06
Lighting still accounts for a majority of Schoolhouse Electric sales. "It's our bread and butter," Faherty says.
// Photos by Eric Näslund

Eighteen months ago, Schoolhouse Electric employed 26 workers; today the staff count is 56, and by the end of the year it will be 65. The company recently hired two marketing associates and a warehouse manager and is searching for a human resources director. About 100 orders come in daily, up from 50 just two years ago. “It’s crazy!” Faherty says. He declines to reveal revenues, noting only that the Schoolhouse website accounts for about 60% of gross revenue and that 30% of sales comes from the trade market, including stores and hotels.

The company’s rapid growth trajectory means the business side is getting more complicated, and Faherty is quick to say he’s much better at making money than keeping track of or managing it. (He doesn’t own a checkbook, and an accountant pays most of the household bills.)

Friends and colleagues say the Schoolhouse founder is too modest about his business acumen. “Brian has a knack for evaluating both the home and lifestyle market and identifying where the holes are, then trying to fill that need,” says longtime friend Lance Marrs, a realtor who worked with Faherty on several revitalization projects the two men co-own, including the Commodore Hotel in Astoria and the bSIDE6, a Portland office building.

It was during the recession, Marrs adds, that Faherty had the foresight to reposition the company as a lifestyle brand.

Faherty is a visionary thinker, agrees Sarah Culbertson, Schoolhouse managing director. She cites as an example a recent decision to redo the New York showroom. The team didn’t hire an architect and designer to build a new store, Culbertson says. Instead, Faherty decided to remodel the showroom entirely from pieces culled from the Schoolhouse Electric building and Faherty’s old house, using everything from old flooring to parts from metal bookcases.

“He’s a risk taker,” Culbertson says. “He comes up with an idea that seems way out there but turns out to be a pretty ingenious way to make sure the brand vision is present throughout.”

Today Faherty’s strategy for preserving the Schoolhouse brand revolves around “managing growth while maintaining our values: how we manufacture and how we innovate.” With the help of a consultant, Schoolhouse is reorganizing factory production to be more efficient, moving away from what Faherty describes as an individual craftsman approach to a clustered or “cell” structure resembling an assembly line. He wants to bring more manufacturing in-house — he recently brought in a sewer for textiles — and open additional retail stores, perhaps starting with San Francisco.

Here’s where Faherty’s critique of local business policy enters the picture. Grappling with growth, he would like assistance from the city — with workforce training, with taxes, even help developing vendors, many of whom are struggling to accommodate Schoolhouse Electric’s growing demand.

On the one hand, the timing seems right. In the past few years, small-scale local manufacturing has been making a comeback; witness the launch of Portland Made last year, a collective of local designers, goods retailers and builders. And several Oregon-based manufacturers recently moved their operations from China back to the United States, including Handful, a sports bra manufacturer, and Trellis Earth Products, a maker of disposable bioplastic plates and garbage bags. On the other hand, despite the forward movement, public policies still tend to ignore smaller, local manufacturers and assemblers such as Schoolhouse in favor of larger firms such as Vestas “that then fail,” Faherty says. “It’s a real blind spot,” he laments. “We’re small so they look at us like, ‘You’re on your own.’ I’d like to see some fresh thinking: what can the city learn from successful manufacturers, and how can they help ones like us sustain our business?”

Faherty is in his office, not the digital-free room but his primary workspace, which contains an original grid map of North Portland’s Holy Redeemer Parish before the I-5 freeway was built in 1964. That stretch was called the Minnesota freeway because it ran through a street by that name, he remarks. “Isn’t that funny? I love looking for old stuff.”

A designer and renovator interested in the provenance of things, Faherty isn’t a politician; he isn’t the CEO of a big company. But he is part of a new generation of businesses that are quietly becoming a cultural and economic force in Portland and Oregon. Whether he’s retooling lighting, clocks or local manufacturing, this creative director and small-business owner is helping lead a decidedly modern movement: making everything old new.



 

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