Doin’ it his way and lovin’ it

Most high school students think about sports or dating or whether or not they’ll be working Saturday night at the local burger joint.

When Josh Sweinhart was in high school, he was running his own business.

“I always enjoyed woodworking, and I didn’t enjoy sports,” he says. “I grew up on a farm, and I was brought up to work.”

Sweinhart, born in December 1974, says he began building custom furniture and cabinetry in 1990.
“It’s why my company is named Wood Originals,” he explains. Wood Originals, located in Bethel, Pa., is on the Internet at www.woodoriginalsinc.com.

In addition to the handcrafted furniture, Sweinhart also picked up a few construction projects during those high school years. But when he graduated, he decided to focus on construction, instead.

“Building furniture, I was always indoors,” he says. “And I didn’t enjoy working inside. I wanted to be outside when the weather was nice.”

Sweinhart works with almost all post-frame construction now.  Nearly 70 percent of his jobs are residential, 20 percent commercial, and the other 10 percent mixed with other types of jobs.

Currently, he employs seven people, including his fiancée, Teresa, who works in the office. That employee number is down from 20.

However, unlike other companies downsizing because of the economy, Sweinhart decided to cut back to purposely keep the business small and manageable.

“I made this decision because I like to be hands on and out on the job,” he says. “When I had more employees, I was spending all of my time in the office.  Now I spend half my time out on the jobs.”

After graduating from high school, Sweinhart lived with his parents. That gave him some advantages while he was getting his construction company up and running. He didn’t worry about issues like a mortgage or household bills.

In those early days, in order to get Wood Originals’ name out there and build up a client list, he was able to come in as the low bid on projects.  It was a “luxury” he could afford at the time because he could focus on regenerating that income right back into the business.

“It’s hard for someone with a family to start a business,” he says. “It didn’t take much for me to get up and running.”

He admits that his age also factored into his lower bids. He believes that, because he was so young, many potential customers would have looked to the older, more experienced contractor if all else was equal. Coming in with lower bid helped him get noticed and hired.

Sweinhart worked up from small residential buildings to larger buildings. Much of his work involves additions or remodeling projects rather than brand new building projects.

The majority of Wood Originals’ jobs are located near his Bethel office. He and his employees basically build the structure and do much of the site work, but Sweinhart does subcontract for jobs like HVAC. However, when he was in his early 20s, he didn’t subcontract his work as frequently.

“They were basic buildings and didn’t need to be subbed out,” he explains, “so I didn’t have any problems with subcontractors not respecting me because of my age.”

His clients, on the other hand, thought he was older than his actual years.

“And I never brought up the topic of how young I was,” he says, laughing.

In his area, he adds, pricing is the most important thing. And if you come in with a good price but the customer doesn’t know you, he’ll ask around. Sweinhart admits that he was checked out by plenty of potential customers, but that was OK with him.

“They found out that my other customers were happy with the work I did,” he says.

Eventually, Sweinhart did have to start charging more and he was no longer the lowest bid on a job, but by then his reputation was set.  Customers were choosing him because of the quality of his work.

To keep ahead of the competition, Sweinhart says, he tries to provide a unique product for his customers. He uses Perma Columns and does projects that are higher end or custom projects. A number of his buildings have won awards, such as a residential garage in 2004 and a retrofit in 2005.

“The garage was wood-clad, with gables and custom-made barn doors. It was a combination garage and pool house,” he explains. “With the retrofit remodel, we had just built a steel pole building for the guy. It was pretty plain. Four years later, he added a 32- by 40-foot addition. We put a standing seam roof on, cupolas, high-end fiberglass windows, stonework. We dressed it up and it looked like a totally different structure.”

That he can use post-frame building in a variety of ways is one of the things Sweinhart likes best about the industry.

“It can be used in different styles,” he says. “I like to design the buildings I’m asked to do,” he observes.

What frustrates him, however, are the everyday things he has to deal with in owning his own business. He has spent his entire adult life being self-employed.

“You have more leeway in what you can do, but in some ways, it runs your life, too.”

As someone who is content with the size of Wood Originals, Sweinhart believes the overall future for the post-frame industry is bright.

“With steel prices so high, this industry will see a lot of growth. When more people learn what post-frame is all about, there will be more opportunities,” he says.

Sweinhart still gets some phone calls from people who ask if he still makes furniture. But that’s all in the past, he says. Any woodworking he does now will be for his own pleasure.

“This is my way of life now,” Sweinhart says. “If I ever do decide to get out of the business, I would buy a farm. But that would be many years down the road. This is what I do, and I don’t have any plans to stop.”

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