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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A furniture maker whose pieces tell a sustainable story

James Battaglia and Will Phillips are co-owners of Sandtown Furniture Co. in Baltimore, which makes custom furniture out of wood from old buildings. (Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post)
By Thomas Heath Washington Post

Will Phillips runs his tiny furniture business by the same “humble and hungry” creed that he lived by during his 13 years at Under Armour, the Baltimore athletic-wear giant.

“It means being hungry enough to set big goals that may be a little out of reach and humble enough (to do) any work that needs to be done,” the 37-year-old entrepreneur said.

My read on “humble” is that it describes employees who show up and quietly get things done without drawing attention to themselves. No drama. No self-promotion. Just closers.

Phillips checks the humble box. He had been a rising star at Under Armour when he opted to take a 90% pay cut to run Sandtown Furniture Co. full time.

Sandtown operates out of a 6,000-square-foot space – unheated except for the showroom – that looks like a garage. It’s on a dead-end street near some railroad tracks and Interstate 95.

Named for a Baltimore neighborhood, Sandtown takes beams and planks dating as far back as Colonial times and turns them into tables, chairs, desks, credenzas and other furnishings a homeowner or a business might want. It manufactures 400 to 500 pieces of furniture a year that, on average, retail for about $2,000 apiece and take two to three weeks to assemble.

Sandstone obtains most of its wood free from Baltimore rowhouses that are undergoing refurbishment. Churches, synagogues, orphanages and factories also are resources.

Phillips feels good taking old wood and making something useful – even beautiful – out of it. If you can do something productive that you love – and get paid doing it – I say go for it.

“I wanted to run my own business, and I wanted one that had some sustainability to it,” said Phillips, who was born and raised near Annapolis, Maryland.

Sandtown grossed just shy of $1 million in 2019 and is forecasting $1.2 million in 2020. Eight employees, including Phillips and co-owner James Battaglia, make the furniture and are the biggest expense. The company has two vehicles, a box truck to pick up discarded wood and a van to deliver furniture.

The company has three months of back orders, evenly divided between commercial and residential, mostly from suburban Washington and Baltimore.

Phillips and Battaglia have mapped out their next big move: relocating Sandtown to a 25,000-square-foot factory in a low-industrial area that is a short walk from M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, Baltimore’s National Football League team.

“We envision a business that’s four to five times our current size and a team of 30 to 40 operating out of a world-class building in Baltimore City,” Phillips said.

It’s a big step, but Phillips said the company has forged enough relationships with architects and designers to keep it busy and expand.

Battaglia is a self-taught designer with a streak of curiosity and a knack for building things. He is the wood guy – designing and building furniture and working with the other artisans.

Phillips is the front office, overseeing sales and customer relations. Both are constantly scavenging for sources of wood, trolling the Internet for buildings that are coming down. Each makes a five-figure salary.

I recently visited Sandtown’s factory, where the team was assiduously going about its business: cutting, attaching, sanding in the chilly confines. The laconic Battaglia, 37, was filling cracks and nail holes in an old piece of wood from York, Pennsylvania. Beams of walnut, pine and oak rested against one wall.

Phillips and Battaglia said much of Sandtown’s success can be attributed to hiring employees who have an eye on the long-term health of the company, even if that means walking away from a piece of furniture in progress for a few hours to pitch in elsewhere.

“When a big building comes down and there are 200 beautiful beams, everybody drops everything, and we all go out and all of us are loading trucks up and unloading, “ Phillips said. “Ninety percent of management is hiring well.”

Sandtown doesn’t offer much in the way of employee benefits, but Phillips hopes to change that in the near future. The first order of business next year is to offer employer-subsidized health care.

Phillips said the company’s three biggest goals now are “health care, 401(k) and better physical workspace. It’s about keeping, challenging and rewarding the team we have now.”

Phillips, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, got his start at Under Armour in 2005. He traveled to sporting goods stores and helped assemble and tidy up merchandise displays.

Founder Kevin Plank had fostered a culture that made Under Armour the upstart David to Nike’s dominant Goliath. It reinforced Phillips’ desire to someday create a business of his own that might blossom into something big.

Phillips eventually was promoted to chief of staff to company co-founder Kip Fulks, who shared a love of sustainable products and mentored Phillips on how to make such things as shirts, shorts and athletic shoes.

“Kip had a knack for products,” Phillips said.

Around this time, Phillips fell in love with the antique wood of the beams in a Baltimore rowhouse he was helping refurbish for Habitat for Humanity. He began squirreling away the wood in a corner of a loading dock at Under Armour’s Baltimore headquarters. He would go there in off-hours to pull nails from the beams and think of ways to use the wood.

“I started thinking about furniture,” he said. “If we could design a collection of tables and build a brand around it and tell … where it came from, that would be the wood’s highest and best use.”

He and Battaglia teamed up, and Sandtown closed its first sale, to a fellow Under Armour employee, for $1,200 in 2010. Customers rolled in through word of mouth, and Phillips worked nights and weekends on the furniture business while working full time for Under Armour during the day.

Phillips and Battaglia managed to keep the company going after Phillips, with a wife and a “screaming 1-year-old,” was sent to Australia to create an Under Armour beachhead there.

Every Saturday morning, the two would hold a company meeting on Skype to discuss the business. Phillips returned to the United States in late 2016. Phillips and Battaglia bought out a couple of owners who held a piece of Sandtown.

This past spring, Phillips walked away from his 13-year career at Under Armour, and a comfortable salary, to go full blast on his furniture start-up.

Their long-term strategic plan? Under promise and over deliver. Humble and hungry.