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April 25, 2019

Form & Function

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west ninth form and function braintrust elliott davis|||||||
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Greg Donovan is in the workshop of West Ninth Vintage on the outskirts of Philadelphia hurriedly taping boxes before a UPS driver arrives to collect them. The boxes contain light fixtures. Not your everyday type of light fixture found hanging in the lighting departments of Home Depot or Lowe’s. These fixtures are all handmade, created out of lengths of steel pipe and heavy-duty steel fittings. Some feature gauges, spigots, and pulleys, and most are fitted with Edison bulbs wrapped in steel cages. The fixtures can be described as “industrial” or even “steampunk,” and most are Donovan’s own designs. As he tapes the boxes, he laughs and admits that what he’s doing now is “a massive jump” from his previous career. But it’s a change he’s embraced and one that’s brought him pure joy.

In the mid-1990s, Donovan was in the right place at the right time with the right certifications. The Information Technology (IT) business was starting to boom, and his experience as an independent IT consultant put him in high demand with Fortune 2,500 and larger companies across the country. After bouncing around the United States, Donovan landed a short-term contract in Raleigh, North Carolina, that turned into a five-year gig. Firmly planted in the Research Triangle, Donovan then started his own IT services business, which he sold nine years later. “I then went to work as a consultant for a global enterprise software company and did that for about four years in a global role,” he recounts. “But all along I knew that it was time for me to get out of the intangible and into the tangible.”

For Donovan, tangible meant something you could hold in your hand. Something you could see and feel. Something that was the antithesis of business-to-business software or IT services. “In the IT business, no one ever calls the help desk to tell you they love your product,” he says. “I wanted to be involved with a consumer product that people would enjoy.”

As he looked through potential business opportunities, a listing for West Ninth Vintage caught Donovan’s eye. It met his criteria, it was about an hour’s flight of Raleigh, the business manufactured and sold a tangible consumer product, and it looked like it might be a lot of fun. “I felt it was a fit,” he says. “I flew up the next week and met with the founder of the company. He took my offer, and I took over the thirty-first of May, 2017.”

When Donovan walked into West Ninth Vintage as the new owner, he knew he had a lot to learn. He’d never heard of the company before seeing the listing, and aside from installing a couple of light fixtures in his own home, he had no idea of the processes involved in manufacturing and selling such items. “I walked in wearing khakis and a golf shirt, and everyone else was in jeans and T-shirts,” he says. “That was the first lesson I learned—no more khakis. I told everyone that I’d purchased the company and that I wasn’t going to change anything and that no one was getting fired.”

But change is hard, even if it’s just perceived change. As Donovan slowly learned the ins and outs of the business, he implemented small, steady improvements to increase productivity and profit margins. Some employees embraced the changes; others did not. The number of staff members dropped from thirteen to seven, and today only two of the original employees remain. “I’ve halved the number of people, but the dollar amount of payroll is roughly the same,” Donovan says. “We’ve shifted away from a deadline mentality to a production mentality. I’m paying people more, but everyone is doing more.”

West Ninth Vintage products are all handmade in a small shop in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The designs are unique, industrial, and masculine. So masculine, in fact, that GQ magazine’s U.K. edition highlighted one of West Ninth Vintage’s fixtures along with the heading “Man Up Your Decor.” According to Donovan, the inspiration for the designs come from old magazines, social media sites such as Pinterest, and customers themselves. “Customers are a good source of our designs,” he says. “They send pictures or sketches. Some of our custom builds become part of our catalog.”

Once a new design is fabricated, it doesn’t take Donovan long to find out whether the fixture should be put into production. “Our barrier of entry for a new product is low,” he says. “In the IT services businesses, if I wanted to launch a new product, I had a substantial barrier of entry. Here I can build a light fixture in thirty minutes, put it up on Facebook, and find out almost immediately if anybody wants it or not.”

The company’s 91,000 followers aren’t shy about offering their opinions and sharing ideas for new designs. Neither are the company’s customers, who order the products from online retailers such as Amazon, Houzz, and Wayfair. “We get a hundred four- or five-star reviews a week,” Donovan says. “That gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I love that I’m involved with something that people can experience every day in a positive way.”

Donovan admits that he doesn’t have a crystal ball, but if pressed, he says he sees himself at West Ninth Vintage for the foreseeable future. He and his family recently relocated from Raleigh, and he’s enjoying working nine-hour days followed by a fifteen-minute commute home. That’s a big change from working twelve hours a day seven days a week and bouncing from hotel to hotel. “It’s a massive change,” he says. “I’m not chasing the technology loop anymore. Some of my old colleagues in the IT world say, ‘You’re doing what?!’ When I explain it to them, they say, ‘Man, that must be a lot of fun.’ It is. I really enjoy this. This is where I’m having a really good time.”

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