Stone County Ironworks’ Corky and Andy Baker work to forge an industry, spur a local economy

by Casey Penn (casey@pennwords.com) 317 views 

The mission of Mountain View-based Stone County Ironworks is to create heirloom treasures. CEO Corky Baker and full business partner son Andy Baker design heirloom-quality products and, by extension, hand down business knowledge to their local community.

Founded in 1979 and purchased by the Bakers in 2009, Stone County Ironworks produces hand-forged iron products for home, hearth and hospitality. Serving customers inside and far beyond its Stone County base, the prominent, multimillion-dollar company sells to customers in all 50 states. For nearly four decades, Stone County Ironworks (SCI) has employed age-old forging methods, tools and philosophies that preserve the art of blacksmithing.

“Our oldest piece of equipment dates to 1844,” said a proud Corky.

How does a company using traditional methods remain economically viable in today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy marketplace? The answer, according to the Bakers, comes from understanding how old meets new.

“We use traditional tools and techniques that are effective and represent this lifestyle that we love,” Corky said. “but we also employ sound business principles and proven cutting-edge marketing tools.”

Corky said they recently used Facebook to livestream the making of a high-end designer lamp.

“As part of our first Great Artisan Giveaway, people watched us live and registered for a drawing. Viewers earn points by liking and sharing or by signing up for our newsletter. This incredible marketing tool provides a direct avenue to customers, who can appreciate the value of our work after seeing what goes into it.”

Much about Stone County Ironworks reflects this dichotomy – of innovation and tradition, invention and sustainability. A sweet union of old meets young, the company is about “respecting our heritage, but widening our tent,” according to Corky.

Lang Zimmerman, an executive with Stone County’s telephone company Yelcot Communications, met the Bakers in 2014. While planning for his 2015 term as chairman of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Zimmerman decided to bring the commission to visit SCI.

“I knew that I wanted to bring my fellow members to Mountain View and had been introduced to Corky and Andy,” said Zimmerman. “I was amazed at the variety and quality of the pieces they were producing. They had a custom front door with an iron eagle’s head and talons emerging in 3D that was being shipped to a home in Florida. They had custom-designed and built patio furniture for a home in Nevada. That’s not even mentioning the hand-powered water-well pump they have developed and are selling at a fraction of the cost of some of the others on the market. The Baker boys are full of ideas and luckily have the knowhow and old-fashioned gumption to pull them off. They and their employees are artisans of the first degree.”

COMPANY AND PRODUCTS
The company’s catalog features around 1,200 items, including furniture, lighting, outdoor and decorative pieces. Products, priced from $15 to $7,500, vary widely in purpose and style, from heavy and rustic to streamlined and functional, from modern contemporary to industrial. Sold direct–to-consumer, online and in retail stores, products are positioned at the high-end and marketed to architects, designers, private-label companies, hospitality companies, boutique retailers and large, upscale clients that include Neiman Marcus, Montage, Four Seasons and Anthropologie.

Catalog offerings utilize certain design elements; the company’s signature leaf, for example, is part of many products and represents the company’s practice of bringing organic elements into its designs. However, each product – pattern or no – is bench-made to order, by hand, and therefore, is unique. In addition to catalog items, about 35% to 40% of SCI’s sales are commissioned.

“It’s sort of the strategic tip of our spear – the fact that one custom job leads to another,” said Corky, who described a recent assignment from Neiman Marcus to integrate lighting into an SCI-designed canopy bed. “The prototype – just a small piece of the whole – resembled a coordinating lamp, which we then decided to produce and add to our catalog. … There’s really no one that does the kind of work that we do.”

Stone County Ironworks has long embraced “sustainability,” according to Corky, who believes “green” should be a business lifestyle philosophy, not a marketing ploy.

“It costs more for us to make things the way we do – we hand-fire, and we bake non-VOC coatings on our products using natural gas from ground 20 miles from here. Most of the energy we consume is human energy, and we like to reuse things. It’s interesting to see the culture catch up with where we’ve been. People have had the future crammed down them hard and fast, and that has caused many folks to recoil, particularly with millennials. They’re interested in authenticity – in the company, its processes, and its people.”

FORGING A LIVING
A co-designer with his dad, and vice president, Andy oversees operations at SCI’s 100,000 square-foot industrial park facility (known as “the Forge”), which houses iron forging and design, zinc and copper fabrication, finishing and testing. Andy relies on 40 employees that include artisan blacksmiths, coppersmiths, wood carvers, seamstresses, finish artists and others, even skilled contract makers from the community.

Andy’s right hand man at the Forge is Darrell Massey. A Mountain View native, Massey supervises the shipping and finishing area of the operation.

“I enjoy the daily challenges of meeting customers’ needs. When I sit down at the end of the day, I try to remember how I treated people, and I think on things I could have said or done better.”

SCI’s artisan team includes 12 master blacksmiths – a trade for which there is really no school. “Blacksmiths are a unique breed – they have strength, creativity and sort of a hardscrabble mentality,” says Baker, of third- and fourth-generation SCI blacksmiths like Daniel Wade, Jerry Richardson and his son, Chris.

The newest blacksmith on the team, Kimberly Youngblood, brings less brute force and more sheer finesse and artisanship to the job.

“She worked for one of our other companies and told me she’d like to be a blacksmith,” Corky said. “We gave her a role as a blacksmith apprentice, and within five months, she was producing smaller, more delicate work so beautifully.”

“I find it fascinating to be involved in the preservation of an ancient trade like blacksmithing,” says Youngblood.

A WELCOMING PLACE
Two miles away from the Forge, SCI’s showroom store (“The Galleria”) and restaurant (“The Portico”) are housed in a 1928 stone building listed on the state’s historical registry. The Portico, open since 2013, provides another place for people to eat in this small town. General Manager Bryan Fiveash spends his days there, introducing people to the products and cultivating new customer relationships.

“For seven of 10 customers that come in, our product line is brand new,” he said. “They’re pleasantly surprised at what we do, how we do it and our level of craftsmanship. People tell me they would expect to see a store like this in D.C. or New York. They like to find us here, with fine products made right here in town.”

A Florida native, Fiveash loves Mountain View. He and his wife, a southern Arkansas native, relocated from nearby Heber Springs.

“Life is relaxed, and this is a wonderful place to raise our kids, enjoy nature, the music and all the wonderful nuances of small town life.”

As beloved as it is, Mountain View is no metropolis, and while that’s kind of the point, it means there is not a large, local customer base. Yet Stone County Ironworks survives, even thrives, in a small town that qualifies as a Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone).

“It’s an active choice to be here. We’ve had opportunities to move, but there are things that keep us here. For one thing, it would be difficult to find the craftsmanship, the artisan community that is here,” Andy said.

The Bakers work with the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce to advance the effort to recruit crafters and makers.

“Rather than trying to get massive industry to move in here, the chamber is focused on growing businesses from the grassroots up – from the dreams that people here have. We’d rather try to get them to step out into entrepreneurism – take the risk, take the plunge,” said Corky , the chamber’s current president while Andy is its vice president.

The Bakers want to use the lessons from their ancestry – both inherited and created – to help people discover their own passions and apply them to a product or business that can sustain an income for themselves and others.

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