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Presque Isle contractor turns to crafts

Connections, accounting expertise, equipment...which came first, the chicken or the egg, in making this new business fly? John and Mary Underwood like to think they had the mechanics in place when they launched Sweeney Ridge.

For the Potato Blossom Festival, the couple introduced their newest design: a tractor decoration in honor of the farm-highlighted event. For the Greenville area, their metal wall hangers and holders with moose design are tops. At the Caribou arts and crafts fair last month, wall decorations, napkin holders and candleholders with moose and fir tree design were big hits.

While other crafts persons might be struggling with turning out enough quality metal pieces to grow their income, the Underwoods have used the high-tech equipment from a now sidelined sheet metal business to their best advantage.

Sparks fly as the robot metal cutter, driven by a computer program John has painstakingly adapted over several years, turns out a perfect tractor silhouette for the Fort Fairfield festival. Sanding with a wire brush takes off any rough edges, while in the painting room, a burnished color finish is added.

Backing up a bit to the crafts business roots, John traces the new business development to a former oil business in Presque Isle.

"I had left Aroostook County to work in Connecticut. Then, in the early '70s my father asked me to come back and help in his oil business for the summer. I had watched work in a sheet metal division at the Connecticut company and been fascinated by it...so I decided not to go back and instead studied at Northern Maine Technical college for sheet metal work," says John.

John started up his business as a service to the trade, primarily. His customers were heating contractors. He manufactured systems and installed them. It was 1972 and the time of the oil embargo.

"Everyone went to wood heating," recalls John. He expanded the business, investing in equipment that cost him 22 percent interest. While this overhead was high, the market was also there and his business started to grow.

Well, business actually started a bit before that. His first piece of equipment was set up out in his father's field in Presque Isle. That expanded to a shop in the industrial park, then another building and finally the building on Mechanic Street that he bought about four years ago.

"The move closer to town was important. We continues to serve the heating contractor, but we needed to put ourselves into the visible market.

"Now, we started getting the individual customer and balanced the business with wholesale and retail."

Both Mary and John agree that the shop's location near the Mapleton line and across from Grossman's has helped in the transition to crafts with its need for consumer exposure.

"There's a surprising number of tourists that come this way year-round," she notes.

Mary became active in the family business nine years ago.

"It made sense for me to be involved to help with the bookkeeping and accounting," she says, though noting her field was in teaching English and history. She's also been director of volunteer services for Cary Medical Center.

Married for 17 years and with a ten-year old son, Patrick, the couple were concerned by a slowly dropping market for sheet metal work. The high overhead for the equipment and building meant a need for a certain amount of income. The overhead added to customer cost and was making it difficult to meet consumer needs for small repair work; employee costs made it difficult to maintain staff needed for when large jobs came in.

"The big reason for making our business smaller was the cost of doing business in Maine," says Mary. "The person off the street didn't realize what was driving our costs."

Mary has always had an 'itchy' creative side. John had developed real expertise with CAD drawing programs. He had bought a computerized cutting machine to do duct work, and there seemed to be no reason why the robot wouldn't recognize other patterns. Fortunately, John had spent several years being 'challenged' with the program, getting it to do what was needed, and adapting the cutting machine for crafts work wasn't that difficult. So, they collaborated on the crafts projects.

"You have to set it up so the Cypermation 700A, using the basic principles of a plotter, recognized the image," he explains. "If you have the tools, and know how to use them, you can sit down and do it."

This do-it-yourself level was the cornerstone of the new business: no need to ask designers for product development, or pay a modelmaker to recreate something one has an idea for.

"Some people have been shocked, though," relates Mary. "We've gone from a traditional business (that stopped making sense for us) to a new venture that's been growing fast.

"We realize that we can't rely on just the Aroostook County market. We have to market product well beyond county borders in order to survive, grow and prosper while remaining here.

"Family ties are a way of life for us. We had to find other ways to do business with what we knew," she adds.

With an overwhelming response from the last few crafts shows the couple attended, and orders coming in from all over the region, they took the outside signage down for the metal shop. 'Are you still in business?' were the questions as they cleaned things out.

"In changing our focus," notes Mary, "it caused a stir, an emotion, that reflected what we were not doing. Then we'd say that though the economy prompted it, we felt good about it."

John does regret not being able to provide the little services he once could, such as repairing bells, or fixing small pieces for homeowners.

"We'd love to see - and help - someone else start up in the business we're leaving. We made a name for ourselves in the business, concentrating on quality on everything that's gone out. We use the same basics for the metal crafts," he says.

Working closely on developing the new business has been good for the couple. They admit it wouldn't work for all, but they see it as a future for their son as well. In their package development area, Patrick is foreman for unique product that adds extra Maine flavor to what is shipped out of the state.

"Change?" quips John. "It's OK. It's good to be starting over."

Marketing is the business focus just now. John gears up for high-quality mass production with a new and greatly enlarged painting room. Mary sits windowside in the commercial street shop and sketches new products in her crafts showroom area.

"We'd like to work along with other makers of Maine products and do things for both of us," she explains.

For instance, working with Old MacDonald candles in Perham for packaging ideas, or looking at providing an accessory or metal artwork for Bradbury Barrels in Bridgewater.

The two take classes to expand their knowledge of promotion, and to grow a network. They see the network as right in their own backyard, helping other area business while growing their own.

"Change," repeats John, "isn't anything new for me. In fact, I like it."

Change is what's bringing a promising future to a family business.


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