Although necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the mother of all frustrations which led to the creation of a small business in Lincoln, one that’s building a reputation nationwide as the go-to place to mix technology with historic preservation.
Tired of climbing up and down to swap out windows, so he designed his own
John Spencer was a historical renovation contractor by trade who bought a century-old home in Lincoln some 20 years ago. While the house was a dream, with classic moldings and quality workmanship, it came with a catch: every spring, he had to climb up and down ladders to remove each wooden storm window and replace it with wooden screens, and every fall had to do the reverse – and we’re not talking just a couple of windows, either.
After a few years he was frustrated with all that work every time the seasons changed. So he looked for a better way.
“I couldn’t find a wood frame with the storm window and screen combination,” Spencer said, “so I went to my workshop, designed one myself and came up with a prototype that worked.”
If the story ended there, it still would be a nice tale of ingenuity. And for about 13 years afterward, that’s where it stayed.
As Spencer continued to find jobs renovating historic homes in the area, and customers who demanded materials which preserved the appearance of days gone by, he reached back to his invention to offer it on a particular task. His customer was delighted with the results; the next job asked for building his custom windows for a 50-unit apartment building.
Owners of classic homes passionately sought to retain their home’s original windows, but they often leaked, and a single pane of glass did little to insulate against a winter’s chill. Spencer’s design kept the classic character adorning these houses yet offered solid insulation and ease to switch storm windows and screens. From the outside, the work looks just like a traditional storm window – all the mechanics are concealed.
“A few more people I did restoration work for told me they wanted those windows, too,” Spencer said. “So I said to myself, ‘there might be a future in this.’”
Riding the wave of historic renovations
The timing was perfect for SpencerWorks. As customers across the country were put off by lowered standards in modern housing construction, the value of older homes rose, especially “since they look that much more impressive. These homes and the way they were built are irreplaceable.”
So he found a niche market with his wooden storm windows. Time to find out if further fortune favored the bold.
Spencer was flipping through a magazine one day and discovered a trade show in Philadelphia where vendors offered the latest in archetypal designs. So he made plans to travel across the country – then picked up the phone to chat up the editor of the magazine.
“I met with them at the show,” Spencer added. “I showed them my design and asked them if they had seen anything like this before, and would their readers be interested in learning more?”
The answer: They hadn’t, and they would be. A month and a half later, Spencer opened the latest edition to find that the editor had put a picture of his wooden window design in their new products section along with a couple of paragraphs in explanation.
Just like that, the endorsement from the magazine propelled Spencer into a national market. He got a patent on his design and a stamp of approval from the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, and became a regular at traditional-builder trade shows, and built a network of architects and builders who would rely on his windows for their clients. One such project completed two years ago was with the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. Other jobs include a historical building in Kansas, and the company has done work from Oregon to Denver, across the Midwest and the eastern seaboard.
Time to turn to the SBA to help with a bigger shop
Eventually the business outgrew the shabby old metal building in Lincoln the company used as a shop; with the landlord only offering a month to month lease, he turned to Lee Anderbery, senior vice president at Heartland Community Bank in nearby Bennet. The lender financed Spencer’s purchase of a larger shop in Dec. 2010 which more than doubled his previous space.
“When he first started out,” Anderbery said of SpencerWorks, “he was trying to to keep the overhead as low as he possibly could, and consequently was working in very cramped quarters. You can only do that for so long before you need to give yourself some elbow room.”
The building needed a new sprinkler system, a three-phase electrical system and Spencer wanted to make energy efficient improvements such as thicker insulation to bring it up to code and save money in the long run, but that asked for a further amount Anderbery admitted his bank’s loan committee was uncomfortable approving without an SBA guarantee.
While the locally-owned bank had made 16 SBA-backed loans over the past 15 years, they had only made one in 2009 and another in 2010 before the deal for SpencerWorks.
Anderbery leaned on the advice from Suzanne Stearman, a lender relations specialist at the Nebraska District Office.
“It’s nice to have someone hold your hand and walk you through the process,” Anderbery said. “After we got the approval, I went back to her to answer a few questions when it came to closing. If I didn’t have her support, I’d be in a world of hurt.”
Stearman also led him through a potentially thorny eligibility issue: Spencer had set up a company — JMS Rentals, a passive-income company – which would own the property and lease it back to SpencerWorks. That was solved with Stearman’s quick suggestion: make the loan to both entities. The bank was approved Aug. 1 for an SBA Express loan for $73,200.
Stearman also made a face-to-face visit to Heartland for a lesson in E-Tran to set them up to submit future applications electronically.
“This deal helps stretch out some short-term debt into a longer amortization, frees up some working capital and the deal has a pretty good interest rate on it,” Anderbery said.
Opening for the window business to pick up
Just in time for the fall, which Spencer said is his busiest time of the year. Currently, SpencerWorks is working on a building at the Herbert Hoover National Park in West Branch, Ia., and has been named to work on another structure in the village, work which may begin this fall.
“It’s not just about building the windows,” Spencer said, “it’s about solving a problem. I kind of enjoy that.”
SpencerWorks, with two employees in addition to Spencer himself, has seen steady growth, with revenues of $250,000 last year and as much as $275,000 this year, “and that’s in spite of the downturn economically.”
Still, that’s not bad business. And a whole lot less frustrating than climbing up and down a ladder every few months to swap out windows.