EAST WENATCHEE — Steven Bechard thought his world had dropped out from under him when he was laid off from his longtime job in 2008.
“I had never been unemployed in my life,” said Bechard, a tall, fit 62-year-old who lives in East Wenatchee. “I thought I was going to lose everything.”
Bechard is an energetic man who loves to talk. But he had little energy or much to say three years ago. At least nothing good to say. He was depressed. He was angry. It was his wife, Michelle Jeffers, who encouraged him after a couple weeks of moping to get out of bed and finish a wine cellar project he had started before the layoff. The project led to a new, self-realized career and a business that has become more successful than he ever dreamed. In three short years, the company he started, Reasonable Racks, is on the verge of becoming an integral part of the booming Washington wine industry.
“When you’re down and out, you just have to dig deep,” he said. “I would have never dreamed I could do any of this. I thought I lost who I was. But I really found out what I was and how creative I could be.”
A Wenatchee native and 1968 graduate of Wenatchee High School, Bechard was drafted in 1969. He lucked out and was stationed in Alaska rather than Asia at the height of the Vietnam War. When he returned, he earned a degree in forestry but found work as a maintenance and facilities manager for several companies in Seattle, so continued taking classes in electronics, hydraulics and all things mechanical. After 15 years with Genie Industries, a worldwide manufacturer of hydraulic lifts, he transferred from Seattle to Moses Lake with a boost in his already ample pay and only a few years from retirement. He was excited about the opportunity to move back to Central Washington and be closer to family. He bought a new home in East Wenatchee. A few months later, he was laid off.
Suddenly, he had no income.
Bechard had no real plan to build a business when he finally got back to work on his wine cellar. It was just a way to get back to doing something. A high school friend, Dick Whitely, invited him to come over and use his woodworking shop to build wood wine racks to hold Bechard and Jeffers’ large collection of wines. Whitely showed him how to build jigs to help systematize the tedious work.
Bechard recalled asking his friend why would he need to build a jig for a rather small project. “‘You’re not thinking clearly,’” Whitely replied. Whitely suggested Bechard develop a system to make many racks that he could sell to others.
It was like a lightning bolt of brilliance, Bechard said. Developing and managing efficient systems of work was what Bechard had done for living in his previous jobs. He didn’t have any business or marketing experience, but he did know how to build things efficiently. He already had a design for his own wine racks, but he wanted to learn what others were doing. He visited a business in the Seattle area to see how it operated.
“I learned what I didn’t want to do. That business no longer exists,” he said. He found an inexpensive source of clear cedar from a local lumber yard that gave him plenty of wood to develop his prototypes. He did a cost analysis and documented procedure for every step of his process to determine costs for his products that would be reasonable but also profitable.
Doug and Debé Brazil of Chateau Faire Le Pont let him display some of his samples and business cards at their Wenatchee winery. Alicia Strutzel let him put a display up at Tastebuds cafe.
“They helped me get a start,” Bechard said. But it was the Brazils who got him to think on a larger scale when they asked him to build a wine rack for an entire wall at their winery. “They made me realize I was thinking way too small.” Instead of 20 bottles and 200 bottles, he started thinking about how to build 2,000-bottle wine racks for wineries and wealthy wine collectors. The first year in business, 2009, he grossed about $6,000. Last year, business jumped to $33,000. This year, he estimates it will be over $60,000. Not huge money yet, but growing rapidly. And most of it profit because he has no employees, no bills and virtually no overhead. He designs every job on graph paper and prepares an estimate himself. All the work is done in his garage. He delivers the finished products in his van and customizes installation on site.
He and his wife prepared the company’s brochures and developed its website. He uses social media like Facebook to connect with new customers who stretch from Seattle and Portland to Walla Walla and Spokane. His racks are in several North Central Washington, Yakima Valley and Walla Walla area wineries.
“I didn’t do this all myself. It was a lot of people who helped along the way,” he said. “We don’t owe anybody anything, except a lot of love.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151