Rick Skidmore – Founder & CEO, Timberlane, Inc.

Rick Skidmore started Timberlane based on a personal need and recognizing a discernible gap in the building products industry. With an initial focus on designing and building high quality exterior window shutters that fit with the traditional and historic preservation requirements, he began combining the detailed artisan craftsmanship with modern day technology, enabling custom shutters to be manufactured according to exacting specifications without sacrificing craftsmanship and quality. In an industry sector that had largely vanished over 50 years ago with the decline in exterior shutters as functional window alternatives, Timberlane has been instrumental in giving a new life to an all but forgotten product.

Today, Rick continues to lead Timberlane as the founder and CEO to industry success and recognition. As the leading exterior window shutter manufacturer in the United States and abroad, the Timberlane Brand has tremendous equity in the market and has attracted the attention of hundreds of high profile projects such as the White House, set designers for major Hollywood motion pictures, television, and even under the lights on the Broadway stage. Rick and Timberlane have also been featured in numerous on-air programs including PBS, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Curb Appeal, P. Allen Smith, Katie Brown Workshop, This Old House, as well as cited by CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other industry and mainstream media outlets.

Prior to starting Timberlane, Rick was successful in the insurance and investment industry, building teams, brands and portfolios. Rick is an active member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), has been recognized for three consecutive years by Inc. Magazine’s top 500 list and the Philadelphia 100, recognizing the fastest-growing companies in the US. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice from Temple University.

Tell me about your early career.
I originally wanted to be a lawyer. I have a BS in Psychology and Criminal justice, but by my junior year of college, I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore and felt a bit lost. I started my career in the financial services industry and realized almost instantly I hated working for a large company, almost as much as I hated financial services. However, I was good at it and began achieving a fair amount of success, so it was hard to leave, but I knew my calling was to eventually be an entrepreneur.

How did the concept for Timberlane come about?
I was restoring an old home in Bucks County, PA and I needed replacement window shutters. I was a hobbyist woodworker and had a small wood shop in my house. I would routinely make my own millwork and furniture and fully intended to make my own reproduction shutters. Like most hobbyist woodworkers, I set out looking for a company that sold the type of shutters I needed so I could receive some design inspiration and reverse engineer how they were constructed. This was 1994 and Google didn’t exist yet, so my research consisted of physically visiting lumberyards and home centers. When I would visit these businesses and inquired about custom window shutters, I was met with either a dazed look, or I was told they could special order them, but they were expensive and it would take a while. That’s when the light bulb went off. I thought to myself, I own an old home in a historic town and there had to be hundreds of similar towns across the US and there were likely tens of thousands of old homes that had shutters (or needed shutters). Although I was going to make them myself, most people would buy them. In that moment, I made the decision to start a shutter company and three months later, I officially opened my doors.

How was the first year in business?
It was crazy and like lightning in a bottle. I wouldn’t trade all the hard work and sacrifice for anything. I knew nothing about industrial woodworking, much less how to run a business, but I learned quickly. I drained my 401K and launched my business. I rented an industrial warehouse, purchased equipment, designed marketing collateral, placed advertising, and went at it hard. I worked virtually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and loved every minute of it. I officially opened the doors on 12/1/1995 and I remember clearly that at about 7:00 PM on 2/18/1996, my fax machine went off and a few seconds later, I saw my first signed order start to slowly appear. Although I had no intention of running a small business and being the one doing the manufacturing, I actually did all of that in the beginning to make sure I truly understood every aspect of the business.

What was your marketing strategy?
We sell a “nice to have,” not a “have to have,” so our challenge was (is) to make our product highly evocative. We are selling a look and our shutters are simply a vehicle to improve the aesthetic of our customer’s homes. It was a passionate conversation and one we knew we wanted to have ourselves. I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to build a direct business model. Having previously managed teams of outside sales reps, I knew first-hand how hard and inefficient that was. It was like herding cats and I knew it would be hard to control my own destiny if I went to market using independent sales agents. I quickly learned that selling special order products through retailers was equally as hard and would result in lower margins. I was intrigued by companies like Gateway Computer and Dell computer who sold direct. If they were able to sell a highly-configured product through a catalog and call center, why couldn’t I sell shutters that way? So that is the model I set out to build. We took out advertising in dozens of different trade journals and magazines that specialized in home design and décor. We started exhibiting at home shows. We purchased lists of people who owned old homes or managed historic structures and sent them mailers. I set up a small inside sales team and we would follow up on every single lead. To this day, twenty-three years later, not much has changed about our route to market and we still operate in a direct sales model.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We doubled revenue every year for the first five years, and then for the next six years, we averaged annual revenue growth of 20%. We qualified for various growth lists like the Inc. 500 (three years in a row), The Philadelphia 100, and countless others.

How do you define success?
It’s not about money. It’s about loving what you do and approaching everything you do with passion. If you focus on that, you’ll never work a day in your life and the money will come.

What is the key to success?
Build a high-performance team, get them aligned around your vision, and then tirelessly support them.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To keep learning and to surround yourself with like-minded people that will push you, both personally and professionally. I devote about 25% of my time to education, peer learning, and various other personal and professional development programs.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I love quotes and tend to use them regularly. Some of my favorites are, “Perception is reality”, “Revenue is vanity. Profit is Sanity. Cash is Reality”, “When the horse is dead, dismount”, and “Passion + Perseverance = Possibility”.

What are some of your favorite books?
As for books, I am an avid reader and some of my top picks are The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, Man’s Search of Meaning by Victor Frankel, Good to Great by Jim Collins, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
It was more than one day; it was really over the course of a year. By late summer of 2008, the financial crisis was starting to pick up steam and the impending impact to my business was becoming obvious. None of our previously successful tactics were working and it was like someone turned off the sales faucet. I had over a hundred employees and barely had enough work to keep half of them busy. We laid off fifty people that fall and I felt like a failure. Then, if that weren’t enough, the situation worsened, and we had to lay off another twenty employees, nine months later. As an entrepreneur, this was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. We went from 110 employees to thirty-five, inside of nine months. Once we hit bottom, we only looked forward and began to re-tool and rebuild.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I can usually deal with any reality, if I know what that reality is, so the first thing I do when faced with adversity is to take a deep breath and assess the situation before doing anything. Then I develop a thoughtful plan, I stay mentally and physically healthy, and try to keep things in perspective. Lastly, I’m a fighter and hate to lose, so I trench in and work the plan until I’m on the other side of the problem.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t wait. If you have a solid idea, jump on it. Line up as many mentors as you can. Hire a coach. Read and learn constantly. Build a tribe of other like-minded individuals that you can lean on, learn from, and be called out from. Adopt a strategic planning and management system from day one. Be deliberate and design your culture from the beginning, because if you don’t, one will be designed for you that you might not like very much. Passion – if you don’t have it, don’t do it.

Jason Navallo

Jason Navallo is the author of five books: American Dream, Thrive, Never Give Up, Success, and Driven to Succeed. He has an M.B.A. in Human Resource Management from Louisiana State University and lives in NYC.