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STRATEGY

Coming Home

CEO Mark E. Woodsum returned from a life as an Army Ranger with plans to run a small family business, but when he saw an opportunity to grow his company, he jumped on it.
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Origins

Having risked his life for so many years, Mark Woodsum wanted 'a little home-based business.'

All but shell-shocked, Mark E. Woodsum returned home to Maine seven years ago. He had not exactly fought in a war. But he had come close. He had risked his life as an Army Ranger commando and the head of a U.S. team to combat nuclear terrorism during the 1980s, watching several buddies die in the line of duty. Then for two years he had served as an American diplomat in Bombay, an experience he describes as safer but more frustrating because of futile bureaucratic infighting.

By 1990 he wanted out. Woodsum, then 32, and his wife, Claire, settled in a cliff-side cottage near the coastal resort of Bar Harbor and started a modest business importing antique home furnishings. They resolved to have "this little home-based business and work a few months a year and travel the rest of the year, and life will be great," as he puts it now.

Eight months later the Woodsums changed their minds--and work styles-- drastically. In a newfound facet of their product line, reproductions of items like old English-style pencil boxes, they spotted an opportunity. "We said, 'Boy, that's the future of our business," he recalls.

Woodsum and his wife quickly recast the business as the Foreside Co. (#48), deriving the word from the name for certain exclusive oceanfront districts in Maine. In the next few years Foreside would roar into the home-furnishings market as a designer, importer, and distributor of handcrafted items ranging from coffee tables to hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments.

Woodsum's born-again aspirations are actually very much in line with his longstanding drive to achieve. During summers in college he worked as a lifeguard by day and painted houses at night. He entered the army as an enlisted man, volunteered for the elite Rangers, qualified as an officer, and departed five years later as a first lieutenant on the verge of captain. "He's not your average entrepreneur," says David B. Jenkins, a Foreside director.

From the day he changed the direction of the company, Woodsum says he intended it to be "world class." Right away, he allotted some of his scarce capital for designers. Having trademarked designs elevated Foreside's cachet to a level that only the largest companies in the industry enjoyed. Woodsum also emulated the big players by publishing an annual report with detailed commentary on the company's progress, an income statement, a balance sheet, and an independent auditor's statement. One line from last year's 40-page report, which is printed in color on high-tone paper: "Our goal is nothing short of becoming the premier company in our industry." For fans of science fiction, Foreside also offers financial projections stretching out to 2001.

And Woodsum enlisted seasoned businessfolk like Jenkins to serve on Foreside's board, unusual for a family-owned entity. Even more unusual, he pays attention to them. "If we disagree, he goes back and thinks about it," Jenkins reports. "Very often he takes our advice."

Relocated to a suburb of Portland, Maine's largest city, the company now orders its custom-designed goods from 15 countries. Woodsum's workweek averages 80 hours. So much for the simple life.

Last updated: Oct 15, 1997




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