Bridgeport boss pens saga of small-business ups, downs, challenges [photos]

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The owner of a small business outside of Philadelphia has written a book about the difficulties of running a small business.

Paul Downs has been making custom furniture, through good times and bad, for 29 years. He currently employs 16 people in a 30,000-square-foot woodworking shop in Bridgeport.

It’s not wildly successful, and it’s not a failure. Like most small businesses in America, it’s somewhere in between.

“The taboo subject in business journalism is failure. It’s always some rich guy who tells you how smart he is. I’ve read that story — quite a few times,” said Downs, author of “Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business. “I’m not that good at a lot of aspects of business, and I’m really good at others. I have to batch together resolutions and move on to the next challenge. Talking to my peers of companies of this size — 10 to 30 employees — that’s the life we live.”

Downs has exactly one line on his resume. He started Paul Downs Cabinetmakers immediately after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with an engineering degree in 1986. He had no business experience and little woodworking experience, but he had a knack for design and liked working with his hands. So he gave it a shot.

“Few people looked at this skinny, hippie kid and wanted to write big checks,” said Downs. “The reason I got through that was because I can be persuasive when I need to be.”

An early adopter of the Internet, Downs established a niche in conference tables for far-flung companies. He can make anything from small desks that cost a few hundred dollars to high-end corporate board tables with price tags of up to $100,000.

His day buzzes with breakdowns — large and small — for which he has no ready solution: from rearranging the production flow to accommodate a worker with a strained back, to killing a $90,000 deal with a historic hotel in Quebec because a narrow, centuries-old passageway would have made delivery impossible.

In 2010, Downs started writing short posts for the New York Times’ “You’re The Boss” blog, describing day-to-day challenges he faced to keep his business afloat. He would write 174 posts before the blog folded in December.

“Boss Life,” published by Blue Rider Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House), is an offshoot of those blog posts. It describes a year in the life of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers. That year, 2012, was not a good one. Each chapter represents one month, beginning with the numbers: how much cash in the in bank, how much cash year-to-date (relative gain or loss), and new-contract value (how much money he has contracted for, paid or not).

“Businesses are measured by the numbers, the money. I think it’s incredible someone will write a book and say, ‘You should do this and that,’ but no one wants to be accountable,” said Downs. “I’m accountable for every penny. No way around thinking about money. I think about money all the time. If we ran out of money, I’m out of business. Just yesterday, I wrote a check to the company for $50,000 to make payroll.”

That was a check from his personal account. He expects to pay himself back, but so far the company owes its boss about $450,000. While 2013 and 2104 were lucrative years, this summer Downs has not yet paid himself a salary. To anyone who runs a small business with a dozen or more employees, his story will likely sound familiar.

“An incoming payment was delayed. It was not my fault, but if I didn’t put money in, guess what? We don’t make payroll,” said Downs. “It doesn’t feel good. If things had been going better earlier in the year, we would have a cash cushion. But for a long series of boring reasons, they just weren’t.”

Downs offers neither advice (“Nobody should model their business on my business.”) nor inspiration (“In the recession, I had to lay half my workforce off. It was one of the most horrible things I had to do”.) His book is a memoir of a business that keeps plugging along.

“What am I doing this for?” pondered Downs. “When I go to the shop floor, and I have good, hardworking people doing phenomenal work — that’s worth it to me. Manufacturing is important. If there’s no manufacturing in this country, we’re not going to be a better country. It’s important for me to keep this going.”

“Boss Life” hits the book stands Tuesday when Downs will appear at Main Point Books in Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

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