Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In a converted seaplane hangar on the southern cove of Lake Wesserunsett, eight people render products of elegant simplicity from the red birch, cherry, and sugar maple trees that are the fruit of Maine's forests.
They are making hot tubs. And they are making rulers. Stephen Meisner, 69, owns both Maine Cedar Hot Tubs, which he founded, and Skowhegan Wooden Rule Company--the remnants of a venerable manufacturer that he acquired. For Meisner, a Maine native ("I have not lived here all my life--yet"), the companies are the culmination of a lifetime making things, from mousetraps to hydraulic systems.
Each year Meisner sells about 100 of the hot tubs, which range in price from $7,000 for a single-wall cedar model installed in a deck to $40,000 for an art deco-influenced double-wall tub hand-built from hardwoods like curly maple and flame red birch. The tubs are deep: Sit down and the water rises to your neck. The company ships the tubs, fully assembled, all over the United States and as far away as Australia.
Meisner won't reveal the celebrities among his clientele. A manufacturer in his bones, he would much rather talk about materials, extracted from the state's abundant forests, and production methods, which reflect the region's maritime character. The inner walls of the company's premium tubs, for example, are produced via a boat-building process called cold-molding. ("Imagine a wooden bowl dipped in molten glass," Meisner says.) Other parts incorporate lamination techniques used for the interior of yachts.
It is aesthetics, though, that drive the purchase. Customers "want something that is beautiful. They want to make a statement," Meisner says. "When it is all done, some people don't even want to put water in them."
Phil Alexandre says his builder "cringed at the idea of sinking some blue plastic tub" into the deck of his second home in the forest on Peaks Island, Maine. When Alexandre, a New York City art dealer, saw Maine Cedar's tubs, "I was stunned by how beautiful, simple, and natural they are," he says. He is equally impressed with the company's customer service. Meisner took the ferry over to personally replace the plumbing after Alexandre forgot to empty the water in winter and accidentally froze the pipes.
Proud as Meisner is of Maine Cedar's luxurious tubs, his grand passion at the moment is an $89 ruler. Standing 6'6" with engraved numerals and brass trim, the ruler is designed to track and memorialize a child's growth. Meisner sells about 1,500 a year but thinks the real market is 50,000. He makes the wooden timelines--as well as more traditional consumer and industrial rulers--on rebuilt Civil War-era machinery, using techniques more than 150 years old.
"The hot tubs are continuously evolving," Meisner says. "We make rulers the way rulers have always been made."
Can we build it? Yes, we can!
Meisner, the son of a cook and a homemaker, was the oldest of eight children in a family "where a big deal was someone who worked in the paper mill." After bailing on college, he says, he "weaseled my way" into a job as assistant to the advertising manager at Forster Manufacturing Company, which made products like toothpicks and clothespins. Soon he had his boss's job and also ran market research and product development.
That product development role ignited Meisner's love for experimentation. He and his team came up with modifications for croquet sets and invented new games that could be played with wooden components. He also learned the merchandising ropes.
In 1976 he moved to Bath, Maine and bought a small business called Down East Machine Engineering, which made winches for dragger boats. He expanded into larger products for fishing vessels--big winches and reels and hydraulic systems--using a welding process he developed for building very big machines with very small machine tools. That process, and relocation to a larger facility, in Mechanic Falls, allowed Down East to manufacture large industrial products for customers like the U.S. Navy.
"I still had that building in the waterfront on Bath, and I was casting about for something to fill it with," Meisner says. He began producing low-end, high-volume unfinished furniture under the name Down East Woodcrafters. Soon, the business was making all kinds of precision-machined wooden parts, including bases for mouse- and rat-traps and handles and slats for meat smokers. Meisner automated production so there was very little labor. On the other hand, there was quite a bit of waste, since Down East cut its products from standard dimension lumber.
Wood for pleasure. Wood to measure.
Meisner saw a solution to his waste problem in someone else's troubles. In 1999, the Lufkin Company, which had been making rulers for well over a century, was driven out of Maine by a lack of demand. Lufkin's facility included a sawmill. "I wanted their sawmill, so I bought the plant," Meisner says. "In the process, I ended up with the lath business."
Laths are the flat pieces of wood joined to make folding rulers. The machinery Meisner inherited dated to the Civil War. Meisner tore out the equipment and sent it to his machine shop in Mechanic Falls with instructions to make it "like new." He then resumed making rulers for some of Lufkin's old customers--glass-cutters and textile companies--as well as for homes and schools. He called that business Skowhegan Wooden Rule Company.
Meanwhile, customers of Down East Woodcrafters started moving their work offshore. "We could see the writing on the wall, so we were looking for niches that were not subject to a lot of foreign competition," Meisner says. In 1999, "we started messing around with hot tubs."
From the 1950s through the 1970s, most hot tubs were made of wood, Meisner explains. But wood, which requires a lot of maintenance, isn't the greatest material for a hot tub, so companies switched to acrylic, which is practical but not pretty. Meisner used a process he learned while making doors and tabletops for the interior of yachts to create vessels that showed off the beauty of wood while simplifying ease of care.
Down East was the only company on the East Coast making wooden hot tubs. But the tubs were a small piece of the business, which remained under assault from foreign competition. In 2005, Meisner--who three years earlier had sold the machine shop to some longtime employees--decided to close Down East Woodcrafters and retire.
He auctioned off most of the assets from the business. But not everything. Anticipating that retirement might not agree with him, he hung on to the machinery, inventory, and trademarks needed to make rulers and hot tubs. Six months later, he was back in business.
"There are still people who believe that hot tubs, like boats, should be made out of wood the way God intended," Meisner says. Maine Cedar Hot Tubs would cater to those people.
How do your children grow?
Maine Cedar Hot Tubs and Skowhegan Wooden Rule Company are family businesses. Meisner's wife, Marcia, a retired schoolteacher, works at them. Their son, Nahum, constructs hot tubs alongside his father. All the woodwork, metalwork, and plumbing are done in-house. Hot tubs are made-to-order and take about 14 weeks to build.
Meisner says the hot tubs will continue to evolve upscale. He also plans to introduce very high-end bathtubs made of exotic woods with cold-molded interiors. "The bathtubs are a much bigger market," he says. "And they will be spectacular."
But what consumes him these days is how to sell those timeline rulers. He is determined to get the word out. So now this champion of old-world craftsmanship and master of antiquated techniques is trying to master social media. "We have resurrected an ancient process to make these really interesting products," Meisner says. "If I can ever figure out the right marketing, that will be a real winner."