Moving On - Time To Work At Another Shop?

After eight years at the same shop, a woodworker's ready for a new situation with more potential for growth. But he has a strong personal relation with his employer. Here, he gets advice from seasoned pros on how to make the transition to owning his own shop. November 10, 2005

I’ve been working with wood for 8 years now all with the same employer. Before this I had some construction experience (rough), but I was green as grass. I work in a small shop - 3 people including me and the owner (sometimes a part time or temp floor sweeper) but mostly it's just been the 3 of us. The boss and my coworker have taught me more than I could ever begin to explain.

We make high end furniture, cabinets, millwork, built-ins, doors, refinish, and etc. We do it all. Here’s the deal - I've become pretty good at what I do. My salary is decent but could definitely be better. About 2 years ago the boss was out for 3 or 4 months. I ran the shop for the time he was gone (we had 5 employees then).

Pretty much since then he hasn't really demonstrated any desire to expand or grow or to try and put out better work. I’m constantly striving to do better work, better methods, etc. We can’t even get a tool replaced anymore. It's seems like he's not planning on doing this much longer. Like I said, we're a small shop with no benefits and it's a very "informal" business. I feel like I owe these guys a lot for "taking me under the wing", but I sort of feel held back at times.

The boss has been very good to me treating me like a son at times, putting up with me when I first started. Does anyone have any advice on what I should do? Should I stick it out, or go to work for myself? I can do everything from design to installation. Or should I find somewhere else to work? I have a wife and a 2 year old son, and am wondering if I am being disloyal to anyone?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor T:
You really sound like you have your head screwed on right and it seems that you like what you have learned and want to continue in the same field. Where it would not be disloyal to want to go out on your own and actually it would be quite normal. You definitely would not want to burn any bridges, but have you thought of maybe making an offer to the owner to buy him out? Maybe it would be something that could work for both of you.

From contributor E:
Contributor T's advice is excellent, because it also lets the boss know in a way that can't offend him and that you are thinking of your future and the future of his company, while letting him know that you are not happy with the way things are at the moment.

From contributor D:
I would suggest doing a little research, then offering to buy the shop from your boss. This is win/win. He gets to think about retiring, but knows the business will be in good, experienced, willing hands. The co-workers get not only more security, but also hope for improvement. You get to stake your future on your efforts and not only enjoy the rewards of good effort, but also share with the others. Getting him to accept you as an equal may be the biggest hurdle, but if he is like any owner, he has to have thought about retirement/selling and how it may work.

Don't be put off by my suggestion - thinking you can't do it. It is possible, and the fact that you bring it up may be just what is needed to take you to his level and accept you as more important to his future than he ever thought. I agree that you sound as if you have your head screwed on right, and someone is going to be the future - why not you?

From contributor N:
I have to agree with the other posters. This sounds like a very good opportunity to take over the business. You're comfortable there, have ideas of your own, and you have a customer base that sounds like a very positive situation.

Talk to your wife, and then talk to your bank. Get all your ducks in a row before approaching the boss. He may initially be offended, but I think he will see the value of your plan very quickly. Just make sure you impress upon him that you will be continuing a high quality shop and his 'legacy' will be maintained.

From contributor B:
Like Contributor N said, get your ducks in a row first. I agree with the bank and finances. Then I wouldn't just go in and say, "hey boss, I want to buy you out". I would suggest kind of slip sliding yourself into asking him about his plans for retiring or when does he plan to do so, or something like that. It could be just sitting around chewing the fat so to speak and see what he has to say. Then if the opportunity lends itself to it, offer to buy him out so he can retire - something along those lines.

From the original questioner:
Buying this business isn't really an option though. First the shop is located on the owner’s property, adjacent to his home, and his retirement plans include returning to making furniture one commissioned piece at a time. So buying the business and implementing changes probably wouldn't go over too well. As for my co-worker, he's ready to retire also. I won’t completely rule this out and definitely won't burn any bridges.

From contributor M:
I would suggest that you tell your boss exactly what you wrote. I think he would be glad to hear it from you.

From contributor J:
You sound to me like a guy who needs his own shop. These other folks have given you excellent advice about talking with bankers etc. It's also a good idea to sit down with an attorney and an accountant too. I'd also encourage you to look at the Small Business Administration web site. They have a host of free on-line workshops that can help you learn about the business stuff. My guess is your boss would be extremely humbled by what you said in your initial post. I agree with Contributor M above; tell him what's on your mind. Who knows he might help you get things going in your own place. What a legacy that would be for him.