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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 3 months ago

Well built: Furniture maker overcomes, learns from adversity

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Having dealt with a devastating flood and mishandled growth spurt, Built founder and lead designer Andrew Watson sees a much clearer path for his custom furniture company.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

College dropout Andrew Watson started Built in 2012 with “nothing — just credit cards and a table saw.”

The Alaska native, now 32, moved to Tampa when he was in elementary school and envisioned for himself a career in architecture.

Andrew Watson. Courtesy photo.

Watson did custom woodwork, trim work, paneling and cabinetry at companies like Mesh, an architecture and fabrication company in St. Petersburg, before he launched Built, a custom furniture company based in Tampa. At first, he worked alone in an old warehouse with a dirt floor, where he churned out handcrafted tables, chairs, benches and other furnishings, made primarily of steel and thick slabs of natural wood.

In 2014, everything changed for Watson when Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, approached Built with the task of furnishing Ulele, the group’s new restaurant on the Tampa riverfront. At the time, Watson had managed to sell a few of his custom tables, which can cost $5,000 or more, around town, and talk of his talent spread via word of mouth and social media.  

“We figured it out. Now we know what to do.” Andrew Watson, Built's founder and lead designer.

“It was a luck thing,” Watson says. “I was in the right place at the right time, and Ulele was a big enough deal to grease the wheels.”

That breakthrough led to rapid growth for Built, which moved into a 5,000-square-foot space a few blocks from the company’s current west Tampa headquarters.

Then the company faced a major setback. 

“About six months after we got into that space, it flooded,” Watson says. “We had 30 inches of standing water in the shop … our machinery was underwater; we had finished jobs floating around … it was a huge shock. We had insurance but not flood insurance because it wasn’t in a flood zone. It was this freak thing that happened.”

Watson turned to mentors like Gonzmart for counsel. “I was freaked out at the time,” he says, “but they told me, ‘No matter what happens, it’s not the end of the world; it’s not as bad as it seems. Just take a step back and learn as much as you can from the experience — you’re not going to die from this.”

Watson says he earned his life-business degree from the flood and its aftermath, as well as when, after moving into the company’s current space, he hired too many employees too quickly. “We went from a couple people to 17 in nine months — our overhead skyrocketed,” he says.

Watson made the tough decision to scale back to 10 employees — and settle for less revenue but larger profit margins. “We figured it out,” he says. “Now we know what to do.”

By the end of the year, Watson aspires to have Built phase out of the custom millwork and cabinetry business to devote more resources to making its own branded line of residential and commercial furniture. The company will continue to make custom tables, chairs and other pieces it is known for, but producing a branded line will allow it to a play in a space where there’s much less competition and more opportunity to score commercial contracts.

“The beauty of commercial jobs now is that people want what's called ‘resimercial’ in the industry,” he says. “It's a residential look in a commercial environment — the open workspaces, the communal tables, the case pieces that look a lot like a dresser or an entertainment cabinet. We’ll have premium finishes for things that are residential, and premium versions for commercial as well, but we'll also have more readily available pieces for commercial use. It’s a strategic play, and we’re amped up for it.”

 

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