Article By Brian D’Ambrosio
To diversify is to bet on, rather than against, your own ingenuity.
A.L Swanson’s business model is rich in diversification.
He is sharp with developing his assets. Whether those assets are his products, his branding, or his relationships, he is adaptable and ready to rethink everything if things aren’t working.
To enter the A.L. Swanson Gallery and Craftsman Studio is to navigate a sleek intermingling of talent, trade, and toil. Walls are adorned with a luxurious collection of paintings – that’s the gallery side of it. A large sweeping window reveals the building blocks and sawdust sights of the furniture building component.
At a center table, A.L. Swanson runs his fingers across a handsome walnut fly box, replete with abalone, mother of pearl and various metals. Fly boxes are the most recent section added to his business portfolio.
Diversify or die is an adage warning businesses about the perils of staying in the same place for too long. It can be risky to stand still, but branching out comes with risks, too. Especially when you go about it the way Swanson did.
He started the gallery business in 2004 in search of a physical place for people to experience artwork in a homey atmosphere. A native of Maine, Swanson was familiar with the East Coast gallery vibe: stoic, clean, sterile; all slate floors and austerity.
“I wanted to create more of a home atmosphere,” said Swanson. “I wanted to do it in a way that would marriage the handmade furniture to different types of art, be it painting, or glass, or ceramics. I wanted to let them interact together: hardwood; different colored walls; fresh flowers; candles.”
In 2007, with the economy slipping, galleries closing, and furniture makers suffering, Swanson decided to, well, expand.
“It is ironic, but with the recession bearing down on us, and in a horrible economy, we made a conscience decision to grow. We took the opposite flip. If we could weather the storm, our ship would sail. We knew we could position ourselves to be in a different situation. So we risked life and limb and economics and everything else.”
Once again, Swanson re-emphasized the original mantra of bringing the person to the process.
“It was going to be about the merging of furniture and art and woodworking, and truly bringing people to the process.”
Last year, Swanson focused on a new venture. Instead of trying to control everything or worry about spreading himself and his resources too thin and losing everything, he rolled the dice.
Orvis – the largest fly angling retailer in the world – recently released four catalogs for its “Sporting Gifts Collection,” incorporating “unique products with good stories behind them.” Although Swanson and employee Jacob Franklin competed with more than a few established manufacturers and products, when the Orvis catalogs arrived in mailboxes in November 2014, Swanson’s fly boxes appeared on three of the four covers, and the profile ran on the back of one issue.
“We went to the biggest guerilla in the room, and it worked,” said Swanson.
Taking time to look over the resourceful panache of the fly boxes, you see precision in every step, every inch the result of a decision – what slab of wood to choose, what screws to twist.
Sudden shifts and changes are not bad preparation for business life. Swanson is still, however, balancing the chasm between starting something great and scaling it. There is always the temptation to go larger, the recommendations of friends to set up relations with L.L. Bean or Cabella’s. He has purposefully shied away from instigating more than he can handle.
“I won’t do that – go place to place and try to get the fly boxes everywhere. I believe in the exclusivity of our relationship with Orvis. And I believe they respect that. I won’t just be a cheap suit.”
Woodworking is a technical feat and an artistic one. Many woodworkers are blessed with talent, but some lack the motivation or staying power necessary to promote, maintain and brand what it is that they have. Heavily influenced by the New England Shaker aesthetic, Swanson consciously imparts his own flavor. It could be a line, or it could be a slight curve or some other detail that makes it his.
Swanson’s plan to spread the knowledge is so elegantly simple that it takes a moment to fully appreciate it. He offers the hands-on opportunity to make a table. At his workshop, you don’t have to know how to use a sander or a grinder ― the workshops are designed for true beginners. At the end of the class, you will be the crafter of, say, a Shaker-style cherry end table. From end table to inlays, dovetails to rocking chairs, “we have the tools and the experience you need to further develop your inner artist,” said Swanson.
“We are teaching people woodworking rather than just provided them with a table, a chair and a desk. The mission at many woodworking schools or classes is to make woodworkers better woodworkers. Here, we want to make people better people, all while exposing them to something they have never been exposed to.”
The finished product transcends the inanimate, often stirring up a geyser of emotion.
“The beauty of it is that you can walk away with something that you’ve created,” said Swanson. “They can do some of it, or they can do all of it. But the minute that you make it or I help you make it, and you sign it, and you write a little note to your granddaughter, you’ve made a legacy. I can’t do that – you can.”
Swanson said that he is proud to have had an impact bringing tourists to the state of Montana for the past 15 years, and to be a piece of the Great Northern Town Center’s synergism (since 2007).
“We took a loud, dusty woodworking facility and figured out a way, with engineering and architecture, to put it underneath an accounting firm in the middle of the city,” said Swanson. “It’s unlike anything in Helena or anywhere else, really.”
A.L. Swanson’s business is brimming with potential as well as laden with responsibility.
“We have the responsibility to the artists we represent, as well as to the person who wants to learn how to build their own furniture. And now with our fly boxes, I look at it this way: the wood took 200 years to grow, so the box had better last that long. That’s another responsibility we have.”
Swanson is still preparing for the world he is moving into. And that world – the gallery, the woodworking studio, the fly boxes – may be seen at 863 Great Northern Boulevard, Tuesday to Friday, noon to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information about A.L. Swanson’s woodworking classes or other gallery information, visit www.alswanson.com