Remanufacturing the American Dream

By Bobby Grajewski, Wharton MBA 2013; Director of Business Strategy, Heritage Handcrafted

Heritage Handcrafted, a North Carolina based start-up is transforming whiskey, scotch, and wine barrels into unique, timeless furniture while also creating jobs and reenergizing the industry.

Whiskey Barrel Chair 

After five years in private equity investing and operations, I came to Wharton eager to further hone my business skillset and supplement the knowledge I gained “on the job” with a rigorous academic course load. By studying courses ranging from finance and investing to marketing and entrepreneurship, I gained the confidence needed to successfully develop a business idea and see it through to implementation.

In Professor David Hsu’s Entrepreneurship course, I learned that 99 percent of good business ideas fail because of this latter point. Through case studies and outside speakers, this course taught me that many great “idea people” lack the experience, structure, and wherewithal to build the strategy, business plan, and team needed to get a venture off the ground. For this reason, “great” ideas may eventually stall, lose their momentum, and are surpassed by others whose owners know how to get to the metaphorical “first base.”

In the final semester of my MBA program, I was eager to put classroom knowledge into practice by working on an entrepreneurial venture, instead of searching for the typical finance and consulting opportunities. In this search, I reconnected with my childhood best friend, James Broyhill. As the great-grandson of the founder of Broyhill Furniture, James truly has “saw dust in his veins” and has been tinkering with woodworking his entire life.  Like his great-grandfather who in 1926, in the small town of Lenoir, North Carolina, founded a small chair manufacturing company that grew into the Broyhill furniture empire, James forged Heritage Handcrafted in his own small workshop out of a personal challenge to create something aesthetically pleasing from something of true character.  Using aged whiskey, wine, and scotch barrels as his medium, James initially designed furniture and mementos that were timeless and unique to be shared with friends and family.

Whiskey Barrel Lamp

Immediately impressed by James’ design skills and diverse product line, I saw how the character of Heritage Handcrafted pieces reflect the depth of this medium. Whiskey barrels are traditionally constructed of American white oak and the interiors are charred to create the distinct, rich taste of the liquid aged within its staves. In my eyes, the uniqueness of these products and James’ familial history poised a great opportunity to grow Heritage Handcrafted from a weekend project meant for personal consumption to a national powerhouse much like his great-grandfather had done nearly a century before.

To accomplish this lofty goal, it was clear that Heritage Handcrafted needed to increase its mass production capabilities, enlarge its furniture line, and engage in national marketing and advertising. Improving these verticals would be no small task, but combining James’ design expertise with my business acumen gained at Wharton, we felt it was possible.

Serving as Director of Business Strategy, I have used the skills gained in classes such as Competitive Strategy, Marketing & Strategy, and Entrepreneurship to shape the brand and operations of Heritage Handcrafted. To increase production, James and I incorporated a patented wood stave straightening process and increased our manufacturing team which reduced our production times by over 90 percent. This has allowed us to create handcrafted products with efficiency in order to serve a national scale. Using the knowledge I learned in my Competitive Strategy course, I mapped out the entire competitive landscape of the handcrafted furniture industry and determined the brand aspects that most differentiated Heritage Handcrafted from competitors. With this knowledge, I increased our product line to tap into these competitive advantages and devised an advertising strategy to highlight these key differentiators.  Finally combining the skills I gained in my aforementioned Entrepreneurship and Marketing classes, I laid out an appropriate six and twelve month production and marketing road map outlining the steps we needed to take in each category to achieve our goals. 

Whiskey Barrel Box

These efforts have not gone unrewarded. Heritage Handcrafted has seen a month-to-month order increase of 400 percent in its first six months of operation and the company projects to attain a six-figure revenue mark by the end of its first fiscal year. On the marketing and advertising front, Heritage Handcrafted has been recently featured in both regional and national publications including QC Exclusive, Thrillist, UrbanDaddy, Winston-Salem Journal, and Town & Country Magazine. These efforts have enabled Heritage Handcrafted, despite its young age, to grow in to a brand leader in the handcrafted segment.

For James and I, the most rewarding aspect of being involved in Heritage Handcrafted has been the ability to create jobs in our home state of North Carolina. Growing up in the American furniture capital, we saw how numerous competitors outsourced their manufacturing efforts and sent jobs overseas leaving many of our family friends struggling to make ends. Now as adults, James and I can proudly state that all of Heritage Handcrafted products are made in the USA and we are employing numerous people throughout the Tar Heel state.

At the end of the day, Heritage Handcrafted is about heritage. It is the heritage of James honoring his family tradition,  the heritage of furniture making in North Carolina, and the heritage of owning a piece of history. For our customer, Heritage Handcrafted is furniture that one can pass down from generation to generation. Heritage Handcrafted is truly American nostalgia. Without Wharton, I would have never had the skills, knowledge, and confidence to get this venture off the ground.


R Grajewski and J BroyhillBio: Bobby Grajewski is a Wharton MBA 2013 graduate who is concurrently pursuing an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to graduate school, Bobby spent five years in venture capital and private equity both in the middle market (J.H. Whitney Capital Partners & Kamylon Capital) and at larger LBO firms (Permira Advisers) investing in companies across numerous industries. In addition to co-founding Heritage Handcrafted, Bobby has held operation and consulting roles turning around companies acquired out of bankruptcy and at technology start-ups (Wellman Plastics Recycling, Bain & Co., & AppAssure Software).