Michael Sloan went from wood-making hobbyist to a niche home products business.
Michael Sloan started tooling around his garage in his suburban Kansas City, Kan., home 15 years ago with the idea to build a magazine rack for his bathroom wall.
“I did an exhaustive internet search and couldn’t find one,” he says. “So I built it myself. Later I put it on eBay, and it just went nuts.”
‘It’s a very unique business. There isn’t anyone else I know of in the country doing this.’ Michael Sloan
With sales rolling but at hobby level, Sloan initially used the money to make payments on his pickup truck. That was in 2002. A few years later, he was making and selling enough racks where Sloan, who worked in hospital administration at the University of Kansas Medical Center for more than a decade, quit his job to go into the wood magazine rack business full time.
Now based in Sarasota, that company is a multimillion-dollar manufacturer of a wide array of home accents, from wood bookcases and speaker shelves to recessed toilet tissue holders and jewelry cabinets. WG Wood Products makes one-off cabinets as well — an in-the-wall minibar is one example — and offers hundreds more for customization.
WG Wood’s most popular products are its multipurpose units, designed with small bathrooms in mind. These units are part magazine rack, part toilet paper holder and part tissue dispenser. Save for a sliding cabinet door made in Arkansas, nearly everything else WG Wood sells is manufactured and assembled in its Sarasota facility off Fruitville Road, just east of Interstate 75.
“It’s a very unique business,” Sloan says. “There isn’t anyone else I know of in the country doing this.”
Although the products are unique, Sloan has taken some steps and learned some lessons that would be helpful to any entrepreneur — not just niche manufacturers. Most notably, he has shifted the method of reaching customers several times and adapting to marketplace changes. For example, in Kansas City, he invested heavily in a showroom, only to realize shortly after it opened his products did better on the web, not in-person.
Looking for a warmer climate, he moved the business to Sarasota from Kansas in 2010. The business grew steadily the first few years, using a direct-to-consumer model from the company’s website, with one hiccup: the rising costs of customer acquisition. Most of that was for search engine optimization. “If you’re not playing the Google game,” he says, “you won’t get anywhere.”
But after several years of paying $3,000 to $4,000 a month to get up top on Google searches, Sloan, in 2015, decided that was crazy. "We had to find a different way.”
The company didn’t give up direct-to-consumer, but it added a wholesale division where it sells and drop ships directly to customers via a host of e-retailers, including Amazon, Overstock, Wayfair and Houzz. Although those entities pay a little less per unit and charge a fee, Sloan says the business more than makes up for it in increased sales volume
Sales have also begun to come in from unexpected sources. For example, several recent customers are contractors building assisted-living facilities who seek wooden medicine cabinets with a sliding door, not a mirror. One in Michigan ordered 200 units. Most of the customers the company ships to are in the United States while a few have been in Canada and even as far as Japan.
To support the growth, Sloan, with 11 employees art WG Wood Products, has expanded several times within his space. He first leased about 3,000 square feet. He expanded to other parts of the building three times and now occupies the entire 15,000-square-foot complex. He bought the building in late 2014 for $812,500, according to Sarasota County property records.
Within the space, Sloan has taken steps to pare down costs and cites watching cash flow as his biggest challenge. For one, he recently bought a box machine, so the company can make its own boxes for Amazon, Wayfair and other e-retailer shipments. He also recently started buying wood in bulk from a source in Tampa that gets it from a mill in Oregon. Sloan says “that will save us a lot of money.”
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