How One Knifemaker Forged A Multi-Million Dollar Business
When New West KnifeWorks opened in Park City, Utah, I assumed it was an eccentric hobby. Instead, I found a $4 million business, with a 30 percent annual growth rate, and a knifemaker turned business owner who is taking on mainstream German and Japanese brands to offer innovation in a field that for long has seen none.
One look around the shop and you’ll see a spattering of cooking knives, beautiful in their design. With colored handles that make them look like something of a collectible and powder metal that make them durable and sharp to cook with.
The other side of the store is a bit of a man cave. Tomahawks―and a place to throw them―pocket knives, swords, and $2000 beaver fur vests perfect for an aspirational clientele that covet the unique and inventive.
Custom carbon steel blades make art pieces out of kitchen knives. Something you’d have to work to keep rust-free, but might be worth it so long as you’re willing to hang it on your wall between meals. They don’t come cheap. One custom-crafted masterpiece goes for upwards of $1,200. Even the smallest starter blade starts around $200.
But therein lies the success of an indifferent businessman. One who chalks the secret of his success up to a one-hour meeting with indifference himself: Yvon Chouinard, barely interested in being a businessman and author of Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.
At the time, New West KnifeWorks founder Corey Milligan’s wife was working at Patagonia in Ventura, California, and the founder of the company stopped by for a visit. Chouinard himself got his start in the metal business, forging pitons for Yosemite climbers out of a tin shed before reluctantly venturing into retail. When he met with Milligan and took a look at his knife collection, he gave him two pieces of advice:
The first: if you want to surf, you can’t schedule it for 2pm on a Thursday. The wisdom being to craft a business around your life, not the other way around. Life is short, he said, and if you don’t want to be stuck in a meeting when the surf is good, you need to build your business in such a way that you can abandon it when it’s time to play.
The second: Hire good people and let them do their jobs. “So many people like to make themselves feel important,” says Milligan. “They have to lord over everybody, and always be there, and everything has to go through them. That’s just not the way. Not just for my piddly small business, but for all businesses.”
This, Milligan takes to heart, allowing his staff to take on the lion’s share of the work, so he can turn his focus on the lion’s share of the ideas. And as any creative can attest: you must live first, and create from that life. So does Milligan, spending at least two hours every day up in the mountains.
“It’s like a meditational thing, where a big idea just pops into my head, and I can turn it over and over again in my mind as I march up the hill.”
Graduating with a history degree from Miami University of Ohio, Milligan really just wanted to be a mountain man. So he moved to Jackson, Wyoming where between stints as a ski bum and white water rafting guide, he worked as a line cook for a local restaurant. It was there that he developed an amateur obsession for the fine art of cooking.
Eventually, his obsession sparked an idea. And so, in 1997, in the third bedroom of his affordable housing condo, with plastic sheeting on the walls and plywood covering the carpets, he started tinkering with making kitchen knives. Ones that were as beautiful as the meals he’d been preparing.
Following Choiunard’s wisdom, he sold his first knives at art shows. Spending 20 weekends a year at the shows, and the rest of the time artfully creating blades on his own schedule. “My wife carried the weight of the opportunity financially,” he said of that time, admitting that though the business was financially successful and profitable, “I couldn’t have supported a family of five.”
After moving back to Jackson with three kids in tow, Milligan decided to give up travel and open up a retail store. In 2008, New West KnifeWorks opened in Jackson, Wyoming, followed quickly by the addition of MTN MAN Toy Shop. He also moved production of his knives from the barn in his backyard to Lamson, the oldest cutlery manufacturer in the United States.
The brick-and-mortar shop was a smashing success, but outsourcing proved challenging. There were a couple of Christmasses that almost didn’t come as a result. So, after four years with Lamson, they moved production to a small custom forger in Idaho Falls―who still makes their custom knives to this day.
“Other people don’t have as much attention on your stuff,” Milligan says. “Those other companies were making things for themselves, for other people. We were not the biggest deal in the world, so we weren’t always in the front of the line or getting the absolute attention we deserved.”
This year, he took it back in-house, opening a factory in Victor, Idaho where “we could be in control of our own destiny.” The model was successful, and he eventually opened two more stores. St. Helena in Napa Valley came in June of 2017, and Park City came not too long after, in January of 2019.
Now things are a bit more relaxed. “At this point, I really only need to do one or two things smart a day,” he says. “I’m 22 years in, I don’t need to invent the world every day.”
There are other people who do that. Anthony Campolattaro, his COO, has thousands of things coming at him a day. “He doesn’t really have time to stew on an idea,” Milligan says. “But we’re at a point where I can do that. Which is awesome.”
Erin Hemmings is responsible for production. Following the Silicon Valley model of the hippie and the nerd, Milligan is the visionary to Hemmings’ executability, making his own machines to bring some of those grander visions to life. “I think the next big thing in the making of consumer products, will be making them sustainable,” Milligan says. “And in my world, that means reclaimed steel, and used wind turbine blades.”
The technology is still a ways off, he says, these merely the whiling dreams of an idealist. But he’s working on it. “I’m fortunate to know so little about so much, so I’m not limited by the reasons we can’t do something. And then Erin can actually figure out how to do it. That’s why we’re a great team. I can come up with some crazy idea. And he can actually do it.”
As for Milligan, he primarily works from home these days. He goes in for meetings, or over to the factory when needed, but for the most part, he’s ready to return to knifemaking again. To really hone his craft, while growing a business empire from something that is less mass-produced, more local, and more artful than his competitors.
“I’m just not the kind of guy who is super into how much money I can make,” he says. “I have my family, my kids, we can afford to send them to college. We’re good.”
Milligan anticipates a time when growth won’t be able to continue vertically, only laterally, focusing on innovation and art, not growth and scale. And that suits him just fine. Despite his hesitancy to build an empire, he has, and it’s not just some mom-and-pop shop on the edge of town. It’s a soon-to-be $7 million business.