The Faces of Entrepreneurship: Wallace Metal Works is a True Family Affair
Issue:Winter 2015 : Articles
Matt and Tessie Wallace, the owners of Wallace Metal Works, aren’t afraid to embrace new technologies as they look for ways to expand their Kanawha Valley business.
A trained blacksmith, Matt established Wallace Metal Works in 2000, and Tessie joined him in the business in 2006. She handles much of the business side of the company, while he crafts the custom wrought iron pieces in their Tyler Mountain shop. Their business has grown steadily as they have developed new products and sought opportunities for financing.
In the early years, the Wallaces focused on larger installation items such as gates, railings and fences, but their customers asked for more affordable pieces, as well.
“They said, ‘We love your work, but I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars. Do you have anything for $20 or $100?’” Tessie said. “I love ornaments, so we decided to do ornaments.”
The first year they crafted ornaments in the shape of grape leaves and dogwood leaves, expanding in subsequent years to ginkgo, holly, oak, maple and – for 2014 — redbud leaves. They developed other gift items, including candlesticks and bowls shaped likes leaves and the state of West Virginia. These smaller items proved so popular that they struggled to keep up with the demand.
Matt’s father encouraged them to consider working with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI). They visited RCBI Charleston, which offers a computer-controlled Abrasive Water-jet Cutting System that proved to be just what they needed to speed production. In 2012, the Wallaces received a StartUp WV Manufacturing grant that allowed them to take advantage of RCBI’s experienced staff and lease production time on the Water-jet Cutter to produce a large number of items at once. They continue to lease time on the machine to cut the metal pieces; the pieces then are returned to their shop where Matt hand-finishes them. The ornaments and gifts are available on their website (www.wallacemetalworks.com) and through a handful of retail outlets, including Tamarack and the West Virginia Marketplace at the Capitol Market in Charleston. They also have an online shop on Etsy.
In 2013, the Tamarack Foundation selected Wallace Metal Works fora three-year Artisan Entrepreneur Program, which provides financial assistance and business mentoring. The Wallaces also received a grant from the National Association of the Self-Employed (NASE) that paid for a new drill press. To their surprise, winning the first grant from NASEput them in the running for the organization’s Achievement Grant, which they also won. The couple used that money to further improve their business, including making updates to their website on which their business depends.
The ornaments and gifts are currently a sideline, but the Wallaces continue to look for ways to grow this aspect of their business. Meanwhile the large-scale installations continue. For the last year, Matt has been crafting numerous items for one house at the Greenbrier Sporting Club in White Sulphur Springs. He has produced fire-screens, railings, and fire tool sets — all handhammered and quite detailed.
Tessie said remaining flexible about their business model and learning from others has been critical to their growing business.
“With RCBI, we’re embracing the modern side of what we do, but we’re also traveling and meeting artisans to learn the lost aspects of the craft,” Tessie said. “We’re trying to be the best we can in the industry.”