The pros and cons of operating in our region 

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton is leading the way in design and manufacture of electron sources.

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton is leading the way in design and manufacture of electron sources.

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton is leading the way in design and manufacture of electron sources.

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton is leading the way in design and manufacture of electron sources.

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region. taff photo by Priscilla Morrill

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region.

  • Tod Von Mertens talks about what it’s like doing business in the Monadnock region from his commercial workshop at the Vose Farm Business Center. Staff Photo by Priscilla Morrill

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region.

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region.

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region.

  • What it's like doing business in the Monadnock region.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/11/2016 7:00:26 PM

It was quality of life Tod Von Mertens and his wife were seeking when they decided eight years ago to uproot their young family from Seattle and return to Von Mertens’ roots in the Peterborough area. Von Mertens was leaving behind a lucrative business as a subcontractor doing metal fabrication installations in residential construction. But he had a dream, one he thought he could make work in the Monadnock region: Designing and producing high-end furniture.

The gamble would pay off in a few short years. Having started Tod Von Mertens Furniture Design and Production out of his barn in Hancock, with limited part-time help, Von Mertens has expanded into a commercial space at the Vose Farm Business Center, where his team has expanded to three full-time workers and 7,200 square feet and growing. He’s anticipating adding three part-timers in the next month and more square footage later this year. What’s more, his original, handmade furniture for the high-end market is selling for top dollar; his dining tables start at $8,000 and his dressers go for $6,000 to $7,000.

But the transition from subcontractor to owner of a furniture production company was a massive learning curve.

“I had this incredibly successful business, we had two little kids, and we were stuck in traffic - we needed to get out of the city and this was sort of the logical place to come,” Von Mertens said, recalling they arrived here just before the 2008 recession hit.

 With paychecks still coming in from construction jobs on the West Coast, Von Mertens was able to take some time off, work on his new house in Hancock, and play with some furniture designs.

“My best designs are always things I design for myself,” Von Mertens said.

An artist at heart, Von Mertens had the good fortune of working with Japanese architect George Suyama while on the West Coast. “That’s where I learned the simplicity of form - steel, wood, stone - I try to incorporate that into my design today,” Von Mertens said. “Most of the pieces I send out have some metal component.”

Upon returning to his early stomping grounds, Von Mertens soon met Peter Sandback, an established furniture maker, who asked Von Mertens how he planned to market his product. Sandback pointed him to tradeshows as the way to go. So in 2009, Von Mertens traveled to New York City for a furniture tradeshow at Javits Center. By 2010, Von Mertens had a booth of his own for the hefty price of $10,000. This May he’ll return for his 6th show.

“It’s a huge investment. It was definitely a leap of faith, but it’s paid off in spades. ... This was the next leap of faith, coming here,” said Von Mertens, looking around at his industrial-sized workshop.

Von Mertens is able to sell his furniture in the high-end market for less than his competitors, even though the quality is very high. “That’s because I’m here and my overhead is a fraction of what it would be in the city, and there’s no sales tax in New Hampshire - people love that,” he said.

Plus, when it comes to buying furniture, people have to pay to have it shipped no matter if it’s coming from across the city or down from New Hampshire, so it’s virtually a level playing field.

One of the biggest challenges for Von Mertens business has been establishing his own network of suppliers and craftsmen. “Even with the age of internet, it’s still word of mouth around here.”

Von Mertens has hopes of growing his workforce to 15, which would leave him more free to design and create.

“It’s a great place to grow up, and that’s the main reason we moved back,” he said, noting he graduated from ConVal High School.

Commercial space

The success of Von Mertens’ start-up is part of a trend that’s shrinking the available commercial space in the area down to a healthier place.

“From a market perspective, a healthy market is less than 15 percent. We’re not there by any stretch of the imagination as a community as a whole, said Charles Whitten, of Juniper Advisory Services, LLC, which owns the Vose Farm Business Center, but there are some positive signs. Whitten conducted a survey in September 2015, which showed that of the 830,000 square feet of commercial space in the Peterborough market, roughly 316,000 was available for sale or lease in September 2015. That’s down to 236,000 or less now.

“Our trend line is going down toward a healthier market,” said Whitten.

The challenge to his real estate development company, and to the region, is getting businesspeople to consider the area. While space is inexpensive and Peterborough is welcoming to new enterprises, “you have to get people over the mountain,” Whitten said, referring to Temple Mountain.

“We came to Peterborough because of price,” said Whitten, noting that was in 2006. “What we didn’t expect was thet strength of the community. It was a great benefit.”

International commerce

The relationship Kimball Physics has with the town of Wilton as well as local schools has been key to the company’s success when it comes to expansion over the years and finding the right employees, said Chuck Crawford.

“We took over an old family farm on my mother’s side. The farm was up for grabs and nobody really wanted it when we came here; we rotated the crop,” Crawford said, noting it most recently had been an apple farm.

Now, it’s the place where electron sources are designed and manufactured for markets in Japan and Europe. If you’ve got a cell phone, Crawford said, there’s a very good chance “it’s got circuitry in it made using electron sources built by Kimball Physics.”

A positive relationship with the town over the years has included a rezoning of the area where the company operates from residential/agricultural to research park, office park, light industry overlay district. “That made it practical for Kimball Physics to stay here,” Crawford said.

More recently, Kimball Physics was in a position to secure some municipal parking, which goes with the deed to a mill building downtown. The company allows the Wilton Main Street Association to hold its offices there rent free.

“It’s been a real good symbiosis between us,” said Alison Meltzer, of the association.

That good relationship extends to local schools and has helped to provide the company with a steady stream of interns, some of whom return to work there after completing their higher education.

“If you support the schools in significant ways - money, equipment, help - they tend to reciprocate. That’s happening with the local high schools, that’s happening with the local community colleges,” Crawford said. “We’ve had well over 200 student interns...”

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