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RapidChat: Ted Velie

This week’s RapidChat is coming to you from Austin, Texas. A group of Grand Rapidians (hosted by Dana Friis-Hansen and Mark Holzbach) headed to Austin for an early-June long weekend, myself included, so it was only natural to do this week’s RapidChat-ing in the land of food trucks, art, and music. Ted Velie was part of the contingency, enjoying a chance to visit Austin and seek out opportunities for growing his industrial furniture company that marries reclaimed Detroit wood and a century-old family business: Globe, Vise and Truck.
 
Ted Velie

For this week's RapidChat, Molly Crist sits down with Ted Velie, furniture entrepreneur, on location in Austin, Texas. A group of Grand Rapidians (hosted by Dana Friis-Hansen and Mark Holzbach) headed to Austin for an early-June long weekend to form connections between the cities and enjoy the land of food trucks, art, and music. Read on as Ted chats about story-telling, tacos, and the mobile showroom he's driving around the midwest.
Rapid Growth: Here we are in Austin, Texas. Tell me about why you came to Austin?

Ted Velie: Well, it starts with the fact that this summer we’re having a GVT Truck Show. It’s a mobile showroom, a take on the trunk show they do in fashion, when a designer actually comes to a store to show all their pieces. It’s a way to personalize the process. I can go to a furniture store and I can be right there, the customers can meet the designer and I can tell our story.

We have already done a Grand Rapids kickoff party on North Monroe and we were at the Downtown Market for the Vintage Street Market. We were in Chicago at the Randolph Street Market. We were in Traverse City at The Little Fleet. We are going to be in Saugatuck. We are going back to Chicago. I’m trying to plan something in Milwaukee or Indianapolis. We’ll be back up in Traverse City a couple times. I’d like to do a Petoskey show and then a couple shows on the other side of the state.

I decided to come to Austin because we are hoping to take the truck to Texas in the fall. I started talking to Mark and Dana about Texas a couple months ago, since they lived in Austin for years. I had read about some markets down here and I thought it might work. They came to the truck kickoff party and we started talking about ideas. They told me they were doing this trip to Austin to make connections between Grand Rapids and Austin. I definitely wanted to go and do some scouting.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve met some really cool people and done some great stuff and I think we are going to make this happen in the fall.

RG: With the truck show, you’re hoping to expand the business and reach other markets?

TV: That is exactly the goal. Basically, I feel we do our best when we tell the story versus being in a store, just being another piece of furniture. The way I think about it, the truck show is basically an analog website. You go to it and you can see everything, the whole product line. One of the problems with shopping for furniture online is people like to touch it, to see it. Shipping has always been an issue. If we can go to a new place and sell ten of something, now we can ship there in a month and it makes sense.

RG: So what have you seen in Austin?

TV: What have I seen? What haven’t I seen?

Last night I saw a zombie marching band. I’ve seen some incredible art. I’ve seen some incredible architecture. We’ve been to the top of the tallest building in Austin. We’ve been in the $120 million renovation of Austin’s power plant. I’ve eaten wonderful food truck tacos. Best tacos of my life. And I’ve learned to dance the two-step.

RG: Do you have an Austin highlight?

TV: I have many, many highlights but I think the hipster honkey-tonk joint last night might be it.

RG: Do you see parallels between Austin and Grand Rapids?

TV: Grand Rapids might be what Austin was twenty years ago. Both places are really excited about where they are from and really excited about making it a better place. I think that’s actually really rare.

RG: Does Austin give you a vision of what Grand Rapids could become?

TV: I think Austin is a great model for a direction Grand Rapids can head. I don’t think it will ever be the same thing; there are a lot of differences. There is a lot we can learn from Austin.

RG: So you grew up in Grand Rapids, “furniture city." Was furniture something that always interested you growing up?

TV: Not particularly. I always knew about the furniture history but I am as surprised as anybody that I’m doing what I’m doing. I have a master’s degree in English. Before I moved back to town, I was teaching English and writing in New York City.

RG: So your career went intellect-focused to very hands-on. Have you always been building things and tinkering?

TV: When I was living in New York, I wasn’t doing that. I really like having a product. I like having a thing to show for how I spent my time.

A lot of what I think we’re doing with the company is we’re telling stories. It doesn’t feel as far away from my English background as some people think it is. Whether I’m telling stories about the lumber we’re getting from Detroit, or houses that are coming down, or telling stories about the original design, the factory design we based a piece of off, there’s a merit in everything.

RG: Tell me a bit about the story.

TV: Globe, Vice and Truck was founded in 1904 by two immigrant brothers from Holland. They were known for Globe carts, which are those old lumber carts that people have started to use as coffee tables. My family owned the company for a while, so I feel a connection to the company’s history. I have records from the early twentieth century of the company buying nails and things; it’s really cool.

My company started with me refurbing a couple of the Globe carts for friends and family. When I got done with those, I figured there would be some other old designs that would work as furniture. Within six months I had a line of furniture, and it went from there.

My family’s company was called Globe Michigan. The owner of the company, his friends would make fun of him when the name was Globe, Vice and Truck. They’re like, “you’re selling women and gambling!” So they changed the name. When I started my company and looked back at the history of the company, I went back to the original name to honor that history.

RG: What kind of writing do you do?

TV:  Fiction. Short stories and then I wrote about half a novel. It was my master’s thesis.

RG: What’s the novel about?

TV: It was about a family from East Grand Rapids on vacation.

RG: And all hell breaks loose?

TV: Pretty much, yeah.

RG: You say the novel was. Why past tense?

TV: Well, I actually pulled it out a month ago for the first time in three years. We’ll see. I’d never say I was totally done with it. I don’t have a ton of time to work on it right now.

RG: How do you like being an entrepreneur in Grand Rapids?

TV: I left Michigan after college with the intention I wouldn’t come back. I lived in Massachusetts, New York, Boulder, Denver, Argentina…

I remember, I was home during a summer break while teaching English in New York. I was working with my dad for the summer. It was a beautiful Michigan summer day, I was at a friend’s house relaxing on the lake, and I didn’t want to go back to New York. So I stayed.

I tell people all the time… I tell my friends in New York, Chicago… that I couldn’t do what I do somewhere else. Grand Rapids is very supportive of entrepreneurial endeavors. I find a lot of people in Grand Rapids, if they see you are passionate about something, they get excited too and try to find ways to help you.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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