Recession Profile: Redesigning a Business

Music fills the studio as Ingela Noren, 49, turns on the radio at Grant+Noren Designs. The overhead light hums as she flicks the switch.

“I never used to listen to the radio,” Noren says. “But now since I’m here alone most of the time it gets kind of lonely.”

Grant+Noren Designs is a small furniture company started in 1994 by the husband and wife design team of Daniel Grant, 60, and Noren. The spacious studio, converted from a barn shed, sits on the bank of a pond located about 100 yards from their 200-year-old farmhouse.

At the height of their business, three years ago, they had two full time and two part-time employees. Now Grant+Noren is just Noren and Grant.

According to a Business Employment Dynamics report published by the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, small firms, like Grant+Noren, contributed to an average of 61 percent of job losses since the recession started in 2007.

“Two years ago we bottomed out during the recession,” said Grant. “The only way we could survive was to let go of our employees.”

This week, Grant is away from home attending two important craft shows. The Buyer’s Market of American Craft in Philadelphia is the largest wholesale trade show where retailers place orders directly with artisans. The American Craft Council Show in Baltimore, the largest juried indoor craft show in America, brings buyers throughout the country to purchase unique handmade works.

These two shows account for 20 percent of Grant+Noren’s sales for the year. “Before the recession started these shows were great,” Noren says. “We’d come away making $8,000 to $10,000 just on the weekends alone when they open to the public. The last two years we were lucky if we were coming away with $2,000.”

The winter shows kept Grant+Noren with enough work to take them through the summer. Summer retail shows provide them with enough work to take them through the fall and winter.  Now the retail shows they used to do are not worth the cost of attendance, gas or hotel rooms.

“The last show we did in Florida,” Noren said. “Daniel had to sleep in the van because we couldn’t afford to pay for five nights in a hotel.”

Noren shared the studio with two part-time employees, Susan and Lee.  Lee worked for five years. Susan was with them from the beginning.  For Lee it was easier, Noren says pointing to the dark blue apron hanging on the wall. “She’d been planning to start up something of her own. Then when she found out she was pregnant. She kind of cut back and then left. So we didn’t have to kick her out,” Ingela said with a sad smile.  Susan hung on to the end.

“It was very painful,” Noren said.

Grant+Noren drastically cut Susan’s hours until it became obvious they could not afford to keep her. “She knew we were in trouble,” Noren said quietly. “I think she understood. I hope she understood the situation.”

With two sons, Adam, 11 and Julian, 5, survival was necessary. Like a listing ship they had to toss overboard anything or anyone that was not essential. “The worse case scenario was that we lose the business,” Noren said. “If we lose the business we lose the house. We have a really high mortgage and we carry an enormous amount of credit card debt. We have a lot of overhead. The basic bills alone are scary.”

Noren has 80 frames to ship out by herself by the end of the week.

“This is where I miss having the girls,” Noren said wearily. “With Daniel gone, it’s hard doing all this myself. My body can’t handle stooping over and painting for hours on end anymore. I’m getting such pain in my right arm, my shoulders, and neck.”

It takes approximately five hours of labor per picture frame to go from cutting the wood into shape, sanding, priming, painting, glazing, adding the glass, anchors, and packing. The most time is spent in creating Noren’s signature faux-wood technique.

“It’s difficult,” Noren said of the work load. “But it’s been good in a way because Daniel and I realize we can manage without employees. Because we’re such a small business, I actually think that’s why we’re surviving. I mean we can do this.”

Grant calls from Philadelphia. It looks like business is up from last year.

“Maybe we’ll be able to bring someone in by summer,” Noren said smiling. “Or we’ll keep on like we are.”

“Who knows,” she shrugs. Right now there is work to do.

A look at Eric Hill, one of many Americans struggling against the current economic recession. Andrew Limbong reports.

Sandra Hamlett

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