Mike Whiteside on Salvage: Reclaiming our Heritage

After talking with George and learning more about architectural salvage and upcycle I paid a visit to Black Dog Salvage here in Roanoke, VA. I was able to secure a meeting with one of the owners, Mike Whiteside, and talk strategy for getting a business like this off the ground.

We sat in his wife’s interior design studio tucked away off the marketplace floor near the soda machine. One of his black dogs sauntered in and while I sipped on a complimentary coffee we had a conversation about salvage and upcycle. Mike made sure to note that he started Black Dog back in 1999 as “something to do” after retiring from a 15 year career as a Yacht Captain and moving to Roanoke. “I wasn’t really trying to start a business.” He met up with Robert, a building contractor, expressed his idea for starting this project, and then shortly acquired the salvage rights for a home in Orchard Hill that was scheduled to be demolished. It was the seed from which Black Dog Salvage grew. However, it’s not all roses and cookies from there.

TREAT IT LIKE A BUSINESS

Finding salvage is the easy part, but that doesn’t always mean you’re making money. While he and Robert didn’t have a business plan for BDS when they started back in 1999, Mike highly recommends that anyone considering this as a way to make a living start there.

“As soon as you touch something it’s costing you money,” he says. He turns things away every day. “You’ve got to make payroll. You’ve got to pay utility bills, building insurance, mortgages on warehouses” and all the other expenses associated with owning a real business. He couldn’t stress this aspect enough. Some level of seed money, whether that’s personal money or a loan, is essential for success in this business as is a plan for how it’ll be used.

IT’S HARD WORK

Sometimes you’re covered in filth, blood, and sweat. You’ll be on your feet for hours upon hours. There are no guarantees.

It takes a certain level of mental energy, ingenuity and ware-with-all to construct some of the custom pieces featured at Black Dog. Mike has been doing this for years and has a “pile of papers for old spec drawings” he’s done for people. He takes an old door and makes a cabinet, shelf, or a table. He crafts custom couches. He reviews all the pre-screened leads, which thanks to their show on DIY channel come very easily nowadays. He and Robert make the decision about whether they want the salvage job or not. Sometimes it’s a tough decision.

DISCOVER WHAT SELLS

The most challenging aspect of the architectural salvage business is understanding what will sell so you can pay the bills and hopefully yourself. Mike has always had an artistic and creative side and he’s grateful that Black Dog has contributed to the salvage and upcycle trend in general.

“That’s the mystery. If I always knew what sold I’d have no problems in this business,” he reveals.

FIND CREATIVE WAYS TO MAKE MONEY

The Black Dog Salvage building is home to more than upcycled furniture and old building materials. There are several booths and sections in the marketplace where artists sell their upcycled art and other reclaimed materials, like door knobs and gnomes. Mike’s wife also has her interior design studio there and helps customers incorporate a piece or design a room.

It’s important to find other ways to make money through the business especially when first starting out.

It goes back to the business plan. You need to do your due diligence and really know your market. Who will buy this stuff? Where do they live? How will they hear about it? These days Mike is selling stuff to individuals working on upcycle projects or he incorporates the pieces into custom products that tell a story. These are often high end pieces that would be a lot easier to sell in a large city with larger amounts of wealthy patrons.

CREATE AWARENESS

For a long time Black Dog had to fight the misconception about the word salvage. People would associate it with a junk yard, but clearly these items represent much more than something pulled from the trash or a dilapidated house. Each piece has a story. Mike defines salvage as “reclaiming our architectural heritage.”

“People’s perception about it has changed now. It’s kind of chic,” he says, following up with his opinion that the shift in perception is due to a greater awareness about recycling and the need to increase the longevity of things.

“I like to say I’m extending the story,” he says, referring to his custom crafts. Sometimes the wood is no longer available or the craftsmanship to re-create it would cost too much. Mike believes people like the story behind where the table or chair was picked up out of the waste stream. “Sometimes a piece is crafted from four different items from four different houses."

SHAPE THE STORY

Mike thinks salvage should be a part of any building demolition or deconstruction. If local municipalities and governments were to work with demolition companies to ensure that salvageable items are disposed of constructively, this industry would be a lot more profitable, he believes. Operating as a non-profit, like Habitat for Humanity or Second Chance is another route for potential success because the tax codes are more favorable.

It goes beyond business and goes back to sustainability. Crafting furniture and other useful items out of already created materials has a much lower carbon output than what would be required to create it new. It’s not just selling used stuff. It’s creating a culture around reuse and changing the story about where and how our things were produced.

“I need people to participate...there is good stuff out there being destroyed every day,” says Mike.

Part of Mike’s hope is that through his business he will spread awareness about how much is being lost and help people see value in what can be reclaimed. He wants its story and our heritage to continue, and that is a Small Act that counts.

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