Blacksmith Al Stephens of Pequea Valley Forge talks about building his successful craft business.
For the past twenty years, Al Stephens has created hand-forged, finely crafted contemporary iron work. He sells his line wholesale to a long list of retailers around the country.
Introduced to the art of blacksmithing when visiting an historic site in Illinois, Al learned from other craftsmen who encouraged him and helped him develop his skills.
He explains that he started working with his current line of handmade products in 2000, after assisting a friend in the business who decided to become semi-retired. His experience attending trade shows as an assistant put him in a perfect position to take over his friend’s business and the wholesale accounts that purchased the line.
Today, Al and his wife Sylvia run a very busy enterprise, creating a variety of products and shipping orders out to store customers. In fact, he has many orders already pre-booked before his trade shows even start. He explains, “The last several years have been exceptionally busy, much bigger than the previous years. A long-time customer once called to place an order and they were told that they would have to wait. Their response was that they wished they had known ahead of time how busy my schedule would be.”
To accommodate existing accounts, Al now contacts his top customers before each show to let them know that his schedule will be very booked. He encourages them to place orders before the show to alleviate that problem, get their order on his schedule, and receive prompt delivery.
“Years ago, I read an article about some buyers who said they never went to a booth at a trade show that they hadn’t been invited to visit,” he says. He decided then and there to do extensive pre-show marketing to make sure prospective buyers came to visit his booth.
This year, over 750 direct mail pieces were sent out to prospects ahead of the Buyers Market of American Craft. He reports brisk sales at the show, and has a very full production schedule.
Al Stephens has used smart strategies by contacting regular accounts to assure them of receiving their orders on time, and reaching out to personally invite new retailers, and thus has built a business that thrives on strong business relationships and trust.