When Greg Moore was remodeling the basement of his Coon Rapids home in 2002, he decided that a conventional drop ceiling with its metal grids and fiberboard panels was nowhere near the look he was seeking.
"I love wood and the way wood looks," Moore said. And so, with the help of his father, Mahlon, he installed an all-wood drop ceiling that -- like the conventional version -- is accessible to the heating, plumbing and electrical infrastructure above it.
The result had a "distinctive, master craftsman look and feel," Moore said. "But it was a real pain to do" because of the difficulty of keeping each section uniform in a room with irregular dimensions.
That's why he resisted at first when friends and neighbors who stopped by to admire the work began asking if Moore would do it for them. But it soon became apparent that he had a potentially thriving business opportunity knocking on his basement door.
In mid-2004, with the assistance of his father, Moore started 5th Wall Designs, a Blaine-based company that manufactures and finishes the grid elements and panels for customized wood drop ceilings ordered by residential, commercial and government clients across the United States and Canada.
The growth has been steady: Sales reached $150,000 in 2005, grew to $415,000 by the end of 2007 and jumped nearly 33 percent to $550,000 in 2008 despite the deteriorating economy.
And even with no economic relief in sight for 2009, Moore is looking for continued growth this year. "I've never had so many inquiries from [potential] clients as I had in November and December," he said.
There are several reasons for the recession-resistant element: Given the collapse of the real estate market, more folks are opting to redecorate rather than try to sell their homes, Moore said.
And it helps that his is largely an upscale clientele more interested in the look of wood ceilings than daunted by a price tag of $9 to $20 a square foot, depending on the wood selected. The selection is extensive, including an inventory of more than 80 woods imported from around the world to match a client's tastes and decor.
We're talking Australian lacewood and African mahogany, English sycamore and Brazilian rosewood. Not to mention a passel of woods you've never heard of: amazakue from Africa, jatoba from South America and tamo ash from Asia.
For a tizzy of technical reasons, getting the business started wasn't easy. First Moore had to figure out a system to mass produce the panels and crosspieces efficiently. More important, he needed to engineer a simple, basic design that's easy to install despite the complicating curves and angles of most rooms.
The result: Armed with the dimensions of a client's room, Moore uses a computer to create a blueprint of the layout, which accompanies the ceiling elements along with two pages of instructions and an instructional DVD.
The shipments contain 2-by-2-foot panels, 12-foot grid elements and 2-foot cross-pieces in a variety of looks: crown moldings and box beams on the grids, for example, and perforated panels if sound absorption is desired. It all comes with a package of hardware designed to simplify installation.
Moore kept his job as sales rep for a telecommunications company for the first year in business, which started in his father's garage and focused at first on residential clients who mainly were friends and neighbors.
But word of mouth and an increasingly important Internet presence soon attracted the attention of commercial and governmental clients, which today account for 60 percent of the business and led the sharp growth Moore experienced last year. Government, in particular, was a key to the growth with library, courthouse and city hall projects.
But a handful of projects at casinos didn't hurt, and the year's biggest client was the Roseville-based API Group, a holding company with a long list of subsidiaries in the construction, manufacturing and fire-protection arenas.
While Moore works with 20 wholesalers and makes periodic appearances at trade shows to hawk his wares, 80 percent of his sales come from the Internet. That presence led to a growing list of Canadian clients and even a few in Europe.
He added another element to the marketing strategy last year, when he cut a deal with the Do It Best hardware chain to market his product as a "special order" item.
He has made similar deals with smaller chains and is looking to add more this year.
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org