I’d heard Steve Cone’s name long before I met him. His skills as a top-notch craftsman, businessman, author and educator were common knowledge when I made upholstery my profession in 2001 – co-workers spoke of him with respect that bordered on awe. So I was fairly intimidated by this fictional figure, assuming he’d have an ego to match the reputation which preceded him.
We recently sat down over coffee to discuss his many industry accomplishments, including 18 1/2 years teaching upholstery at Century College, 14 years writing for the Upholstery Journal, and 30 years as the owner/manager of Cone Upholstery in St. Paul. He’s also a nationally respected presenter, fluent in ASL, and is the author of Singer’s “Upholstery Basics” and “Upholstery Basics Plus.”
In 2004, following a triple bi-pass surgery, Steve stepped down from Cone Upholstery on the advice of his doctors and now works as a sales rep for Charlotte Fabrics, Minneapolis.
Steve talks about upholstery with a level of pride that never fails to inspire me. I hope it will inspire you as well . . .
“When I was 16, I started working for an upholsterer, that’s how I got the exposure to it. Then when I graduated, I went to Mankato and worked part time weekends and summers at the upholstery shop.
I went and overloaded every quarter, 12 or 13 was considered a full load back then and I took 18 credits every quarter – they were both in English and business because I figured at some point that’s what I’d be doing.
The upholstery was always going to be part time. By doing the numbers and knowing about business from high school and college, I knew that there was money to be made in upholstery if you charge for it. I could see that that was possible.
I got an offer to work for Scott’s Upholstery in Excelsior. Mr. Scott was a student while I was there, but he was a lot older. He knew how to sell and he knew how to work with colors. He had the business skills. My sales techniques are almost a mirror image of what he did, but he was very good at it. . . I learned a tremendous amount from Walter Scott.
One of the big things that I learned early was that you deal with people on a personal level. Customer comes in, you take care of their needs, you make eye contact, start the relationship right then and there when you help them make a decision on fabric that’s appropriate for what they want to have done . . . that doesn’t occur when they go buy their own fabric. You’ve got some power in driving and moving the sale in a way that they’re going to be happy when it’s done.
You gotta be able to relate to the customer, that’s huge. . . It’s a hard thing to learn if you’re kind of bitter against the world.
I like to go out to the customer and make the sale. Because I’m in their surroundings, they’re comfortable. And I’m comfortable. I know what I can do, what can be changed and I listen to the customer a lot so they’re part of it… It’s not just, I come in and show them some fabrics and walk out. If you want a long term business you want to build those working relationships.
You can’t sell something with confidence unless you have that confidence in yourself.
I think fairness is something that most upholsterers have but they’re always more concerned about being fair to the customer. And if you don’t charge enough, then you struggle against doing quality work . . . you feel like you have to turn it quicker instead of taking the time you need.
Treat your business like a separate entity… If I’m sole proprietor and I’m the only one doing the work, it’s not Steve Cone doing the work, it’s Cone Upholstery. And I am obligated to Cone Upholstery to produce the money and put it in Cone Upholstery so Cone Upholstery can continue to grow.
It’s amazing to me that upholsterers still try to compete with the $250, $300 chair at these box stores . . . that’s not the competition.
Then the 916 vo-tech thing came up, they were opening a brand new school. They wanted all the curriculum done up in writing first with videos and whatever to back it up. I had the English writing skills so I went ahead and applied for it and got it.
I made more money doing the upholstery than I would have done teaching English. And when I went to work for Century College I took a cut to teach . . . but you know, teaching doesn’t come up that often.
. . We had it 18 months, 6 hours a day and even then when students got out, they had the physical skills, the mechanics of doing upholstery. . . They had exposure to the sales parts, the different fabrics, how they wear . . . but they didn’t have the speed at all. I always told ‘em, you’re looking at at least 2 years after.
I know a few of my students who were money conscious, they’d come in and say, well I’m not spending 18 months and I’d say you know right now on that particular chair the industry gets X number of dollars to do that chair so why don’t we just for the heck of it track how long it takes you to do it and the industry says you can do that chair in 10 hours. So they’d take 40 to do it and they’d look at it and say well, I can’t make a living doing this and I’d say you CAN but you have to practice that skill to shorten that 40 hours down closer to 10
I had a student Dan who graduated from school and came back after a couple years and he asked if he could do a wing chair in class just to show that you can do this, you can do a wing chair in 12 hours and he did, came in and worked on it. During breaks he would answer questions and that but his working needed to be just like it is in a shop, where you’re not interrupted.
A lot of upholsters are so independent, they don’t work 8 hours. People come by they have coffee, they go to coffee . . . you have to be disciplined.
In today’s upholstery industry, you gotta be a business person and understand that you have to be in charge of your business. Plan your work and work your plan… if you do that, it’s amazing how well it works. If you don’t, you’ll just be busy.
Bob Mead from the Upholstery Journal heard about the curriculum and offered me the opportunity to write for the magazine. The Journal at that point was international – six different countries plus the United States, five languages. . . That was fun.
Bob had gotten a lot of input from the articles I wrote, so he said let’s take this on the road. We spent a year and a half traveling all over the U.S. I was the upholstery expert and we brought up a marine specialist out of Florida and one of the instructors out of Wyoming Tech for the automotive. It was a lot of fun and the exposure was great . . . it gave me a good chance to talk in front of people.
Back in high school we had a core english teacher. Everyone called her affectionately Ma Temple because she was like a second mom to all of us. In 10th grade she said I should take speech class and I thought, ‘I don’t talk good or what?’ But I took it and it’s really opened a lot of doors. It would have been a hard bridge to cross without taking that class.
I think in upholstery, you are only limited by the limits you put on yourself.
A lot of my accounts in the outer area and other states, people come from miles and miles to have the work done. . . Because they know they’re going to get a good job. And THAT’S what builds your business – people come back.
You have to be motivated with fairness and you have to be motivated with integrity and it’s always about connecting with that customer. . .
My shop on Snelling was always 3,4 months out. But then you still wonder about that 5th month. You want to have work, especially if you’re responsible for other people’s income.
You always wanna keep the door open, even if a customer goes, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so darn expensive, you’re wasting your time, you’re wasting my time’ . . . you know, ‘Sorry you feel that way, if you change your mind feel free to give me a call’ and you leave. . . Because they will go and check the other things out and if you do your presentation well, they’ll come back to you. That’s not only good for you, it’s good for the industry. . .But if you react to them like they react to you, you’ve closed the door.
When your goal is to establish those long term relationships with customers you can tend to let some of the difficult customers roll off your back a bit because there’s not that many. . . most of them are very appreciative of what you do.
One big change in the industry is the availability of the fabric . . . It’s so easy for customers to get, even though it may be inappropriate. And it’s risky to tell the customer that if I don’t sell the fabric I don’t do the work, but I hear that more and more from upholsterers because they’re so tired of getting inappropriate fabric, or it’s flawed, all kinds of problems . . .
It’s not an easy trade. There’s a lot of people who put fabric over frames, but they’re not upholsterers.
I used to tell the students that it’s 5% rules and 95% judgement. You have to know how to make cuts, what angles to put on the fabric, and after that, each time you come up with a new situation or a leg style that’s a little different, then the problem solving comes in. Some of that you learn by trial and error. . .
But as far as dissolving the program, it was not because of lack of students. We had plenty of students. . .I went down to one of their advising committees and they had one of the deans of students saying, ‘I wouldn’t have anybody upholster something for me, I would go buy new.’ And I was there as Cone Upholstery and I said ‘Really, because I was just out to Eden Prairie and sold a $3,500 job and the fabric was $80/yard and with the confidence level and the skill level that I have, they didn’t bat an eye.’ And I said ‘I THINK they make more money than you do.’ She almost got to tears because she was stuck. Her thing was that votech, they don’t do as well as college. And that’s not true.
A lot of people out there doing upholstery don’t do the level that they could if they could actually go to a school… Which is not anything on their part, it’s just not available. . .A lot of my customers are self taught and that’s fine, that is a way to learn and if they’re conscientious their skills will keep growing. . . But that’s why I did the workshops. It made a lot of sense to me to give them in a one day setting some of those keys to opening the things that they struggled with. In 6, 7 hours you can give a lot of information out to people who’ve been doing it. They don’t need training from square one but they do need those things that make it easier.
If you have the skills and that desire to learn and to be professional at a trade, you don’t get tired of it, it’s always exciting . . .it’s always growth.”
Steve Cone continues to write, present and mentor within the industry. He also spends time with his two sons, four grandkids and countless friends. He wanted me to share one last photo, a small reminder he liked to keep around when work became too crazy: Don’t forget to stop and have a cone 🙂