Local Toy Maker Goes Global Ahead of \'Fiscal Cliff\'

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COLUMBIA - As federal lawmakers spar with President Obama on how to avert what has been dubbed the looming "fiscal cliff," a Columbia toy manufacturer is experiencing its seasonal influx of wooden toy orders.

And, though Traditions in Woodworking's and Timberworks Toys's Chris Heston said he is aware of and nervous for the fate of small businesses in 2013, he affirmed he believes his company will continue to survive in potentially hard times to come, thanks to strong American business principles that sustained the wood shop during the recession.

"Made in the U.S.A. is my core," he said.  "People really latch on to the quality, they latch on to the uniqueness of the toy and they latch on to the fact that it's American-made.  I have three great things people really like."

In 1995 and as an aspiring entrepreneur, Heston utilized his self-described "go-getter" personality to launch his custom-made cabinet shop--Traditions in Woodworking.  But as a father, he eventually dabbled into a slightly more imaginative realm of carpentry--a toy business he named Timberworks Toys. 

"My son was taking the Lincoln Logs, and [he] wanted to do some things that you can't do with the old Lincoln Log style, so that's when I came up with, designed and patented the little widgets and stuff that allow you to build the bridges and the cars," Heston explained.

Though Heston said the cabinet shop "dwarfs" the toy shop, which comprises only 15 percent of the two-in-one company, Timberworks Toys is the more marketable project--one that has allowed the company to go from local to national.  A dozen brick and mortar stores and 17 online retailers now sell the toys (ranging from $79 to $399), which Heston said are made from all-natural materials and do not have a chemical finish.

"I have a product people are not going to ever throw away," Heston said.  "It's a little bit more of an expensive product.  I wish it wasn't, but to make a quality product, it's important to me to set my standards at where they are."

Heston's toys recently have received even greater exposure, since radio talkshow host Glenn Beck added Timberworks Toys products to the online marketplace on his website "The Blaze."  Though Beck's site, itself, has been dubbed highly controversial, the online retail section--with its motto "put your money where your heart is"--claims to promote and feature the accomplishments of a select-few small businesses, nationwide.

"[Beck] supports American entrepreneurs.  You don't always have to be a "Made in America" business.  You have to be a business that supports America, and he's been doing really well.  We're honored to be part of his site. He's selected people that have his ideals...in how businesses should be responsible toward their community and toward their country," Heston said.

Timberworks Toys has generated significantly more exposure with the company's free new iPad app., which Heston said gets an average of 300 downloads per day.  The app., which provides both beginner and advanced virtual building games and also links to the company's retail website, has allowed the company essentially to expand globally.

"I'm trying to bridge the gap between old-fashioned and electronic.  You have to have hands-on.  That's how we learn," Heston said.

Heston's "hands-on" small business approach earned the recognition of of Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon, who gave Heston's business a $24,000 loan in 2010 as part of a $2 million dollar state small loan program.

In an interview with KOMU 8 earlier this year, Gov. Nixon stressed the value of expanding small businesses like Heston's.  It's "one of the things I feel very strongly about," he said.  "We've moved from 49th to sixth in the entrepreneurial index.  That's a significant jump, way more jump than obviously any other state in the country, and getting those small businesses is part of that economy."

But, Heston said he is apprehensive about the state of Mo. small businesses, once new workers' compensation laws go into effect Jan. 1.

"[Missouri legislators] signed a deal with insurance companies to make a minimum salary--everybody has to have workmen's comp.  Whether you make $36,000 or not, [business owners will] have to pay workmen's comp. on that.  That's thousands of dollars, so that money is being taken out of the company, going to the federal government, to the state, to the insurance company...so that means we can't buy tools," Heston said.

But, despite his frustration, he affirmed he has not lobbied lawmakers.  "I need to, but I feel like my voice gets lost, like most Americans' when they vote."

Heston said he isn't confident pending federal legislation will be business-friendly, either.  "You will see a lot slower growth if they dont' resolve the 'fiscal cliff.'  You're also probably going to see slower growth because of the Affordable Health Care Act. If we could afford full coverage, we would have already been doing it."

Currently, Heston's company has four employees, who include him, two full-time carpenters and a part-time assistant--an MU business student, whom Heston said has helped design the toys, website and iPad app. 

Despite his admitted pessimism about the future of small businesses with pending legislation, Heston vowed to accept any subsequent challenges.

"I just worry about myself and trying to make sure I provide for my family and employees and grow my business the best I can with the set of circumstances I've been dealt, because personally, I can't change those things," he said.  "I think America is resilient.  While I think our growth is going to be slow, I think that we'll get through it.  The entrepreneurial spirit is never lost."