David G. Ackerman ’84 was recently featured in Business People Vermont. He is the owner of Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Burlington, Vt., which he founded in 1991.
According to the article, “While he never set out to own an architectural antiques business, each of the short-lived jobs he worked after graduating from Hobart College with a degree in economics taught him something that he has incorporated into his current vocation.”
“I’m not a carpenter, an electrician, or an accountant, but I know a little bit about each. If I do have a skill, it’s taking a little piece of everything I’ve learned from everybody I’ve worked with and using it in my business,” Ackerman said
Ackerman earned his B.A. in economics from Hobart College.
The full article follows.
Business People Vermont
Everything Old is New Again
Portland Helmich • July 2013
Dave Ackerman might not always know how he’s going to get there, but he’s determined to arrive. The unpretentious owner of Architectural Salvage Warehouse in downtown Burlington does not attribute his accomplishments to meticulous business plans. In the nine years he has rented space behind KSV Communicators at 212 Battery St., he has never written one. “I have a vision of what I think will happen,” he says, “but I don’t always have a clear idea of how I’m going to get from A to B. Wherever I fall short, I make up for it with hard work.”
Working hard is a given in Ackerman’s business, as he is not only constantly searching for new inventory, but is also frequently hauling large structures like doorways and mantles back to his warehouse to display and sell. With out-of-state customers making up at least half of his business, the 38-year-old entrepreneur explains that one of his biggest challenges is maintaining a wide variety of high-quality inventory. “People don’t drive great distances for average stuff. I’ve got a couple that comes here every summer from Texas, for instance. They hitch a trailer onto their car because they know they’ll be taking stuff home,” he says.
The “stuff” that Ackerman is speaking of runs the gamut from stained glass windows to pedestal sinks to wooden columns to smaller items like towel bars and art deco door knobs. Ackerman and Jonathan Farrell, his lone employee of seven years, find some of their inventory at flea markets and antique shops, but one of their best sources is old homes being torn down due to fire or age. Ackerman buys their salvage rights from property owners or demolition contractors and goes inside to search for and later remove unique items like banisters or antique lighting fixtures.
While he never set out to own an architectural antiques business, each of the short-lived jobs he worked after graduating from Hobart College with a degree in economics taught him something that he has incorporated into his current vocation. Unboastful and candid, Ackerman admits that he often feels that he does not possess any tangible skills. “I’m not a carpenter, an electrician, or an accountant, but I know a little bit about each. If I do have a skill,” he speculates, “it’s taking a little piece of everything I’ve learned from everybody I’ve worked with and using it in my business.”
After graduating college in 1984, the New Vernon, N.J., native moved to Burlington simply because he liked it. “I had visions of a great-paying job, but I didn’t know doing what,” he admits. Steve Conant, a second cousin whom he had never met, hired him to do a little bit of everything at Conant Custom Brass. “I used to make dust corners for stairs, those triangular pieces of brass that make sweeping stairs easier,” he remembers, “and I churned out zillions of stove parts for Vermont Castings, too.” In less than a year, he had tired of the repetitive nature of his work and wanted something different. Then came a year of selling skis, bike parts, and clothing at Ski Rack. While he liked his co-workers, he felt he was not moving up fast enough.
In 1986, he decided to open Sports Reaction, a second-hand sporting goods store. For $400 a month, he rented space on North Winooski Avenue and bought and sold used skis, bikes, and baseball equipment. “Nobody else was doing it,” he notes. That enterprise lasted three years, but Ackerman “got sick of it. I had 150 consignees driving me insane. They were calling me all the time to see if their merchandise had sold,” he recalls with exasperation.
A carpenter he had met at Sports Reaction was starting a business, and Ackerman next went to work with him, laying scores of hardwood floors all over Chittenden County. He learned that he liked the building trade, but was not fond of the back-breaking labor. When that work slowed down and Ackerman needed money again, he decided to put his education to use.
“I thought I should be a bank person with my degree in economics. So I got out my suit, which I only wore to weddings and funerals, and I went to a bank to fill out an application,” he says. “I was sitting in the waiting room in my suit looking at the fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling, and I thought about my life in this place. I knew I didn’t care how much money I might make someday. I told the receptionist I had changed my mind and I left.”
About that time, a friend of his had bought a farmhouse in Starksboro, and Ackerman worked on renovating it with him for a year. During that time, he made trips to Montpelier to get a toilet, a sink, and other decorative items from Great American Salvage, which later closed. He liked the items and noticed they could command hefty prices.
In the fall of 1991, Ackerman got the idea to create a consignment shop of architectural antiques. While he had no inventory, he began looking for a space to start his new business. He found it at 212 Battery St., but the rent was $1,000 a month for half of the space. Ackerman offered the owner $500 and told him he would shovel the snow and water the plants. He called all the builders and carpenters in the phone book, gathering items like leftover porch posts and windows to sell on consignment. As his business grew, the need for consignment decreased; as the years passed, rent increased, and he negotiated for more and more space.
While Ackerman occasionally cites “dumb luck” as the reason for his longevity, others see it differently. Farrell believes his boss is a shrewd businessperson. “Dave has a good eye for the aesthetics of the business. Not only does he have an eye for identifying a good-quality window, but he can also negotiate a deal so that that beautiful object will be profitable,” he says.
Conant recognized Ackerman’s potential when the young graduate was his employee. “He shares all of my characteristics: He’s smart, ambitious, and willing to take risks,” he injects with a laugh.
Ackerman believes he would not have been as successful if Steve Tillotson, one of the founders of Great American Salvage, had not mentored him. “He taught me where the market is — which items command what sort of cash,” he says. Ackerman acknowledges that he has the ability to buy pieces not only with his heart but with his head. His wife, Jessica, who manages the company’s website while caring for their 3-year-old twin sons, admires her husband’s ability to avoid impulse-buying. “If he really loves something but doesn’t think it will sell, he doesn’t buy it. He’s got self-control,” she notes.
The website (www.architecturalsalvagevt.com) was developed a year and a half ago. Jessica updates it regularly, taking photos of the best pieces and listing their prices and item numbers.
“It’s great national advertising for cheap,” she adds. Farrell agrees the site helps generate business, but does not think it will out-pace the retail end of the business because most people want to see one-of-a-kind items in person.
Farrell occasionally purchases inventory for Architectural Salvage Warehouse with his own funds. When he sells it at the warehouse, he earns the profit and Ackerman receives a commission. Farrell believes locating quality items is becoming tougher. “Thirty years ago, the urban renewal ethic was strong. The idea was to tear down the old and replace it with the new,” he explains, “so salvage and antique pieces were a dime a dozen. People in our business could grab just about anything for free. Today, that’s not happening as frequently; these pieces are more sought after.” Farrell believes this is because Americans have tired of living in a throw-away society, illustrated by the fact that more and more city governments are trying to save the characters of their downtowns. “There’s more of a preservation ethic sneaking into the culture; more customers are demanding interesting, old pieces,” he says.
Conant knows this. He is involved in a mutually supportive working relationship with Ackerman, as they often refer customers back and forth. “We have the same customer base but different products,” he explains. Whereas Ackerman tends to deal with large-scale items, Conant sells smaller ones. While Ackerman sells his merchandise in the rough, Conant’s has been restored. “We both help support local excitement and appreciation for old things,” he continues, “and the fact that Dave is saving these things from the landfill is really important work.”
Nancy Heaslip would agree. An interior designer in Charlotte, she has done business at Architectural Salvage Warehouse since it opened. Heaslip searches for pieces that suit her customers’ tastes and needs. “Most of the work I do is on newly constructed homes,” she explains, “and salvage pieces are a great way to introduce charm, warmth, and character into these new constructions.” She finds Ackerman flexible and accommodating. “If you’re looking for something specific, he’ll keep his eye open and call you if he spots it,” she adds.
One enormous “architectural antique” Ackerman keenly spotted years ago has finally become his. When searching for a location in which to open his business in 1991, Ackerman wanted to move into the old Flea Market building at 53 Main St. At the time, however, he could not afford the $4,000 a month rent. Recently, upon realizing that the price of the building had dropped and that KSV Communicators (the current owners of 212 Battery St.) might soon be needing his space, he revisited the idea of buying the Main Street building, which had stood empty for a full decade. With the help of low-interest loans facilitated by the Community Economic Development Office, Ackerman was able to purchase the building for $239,000 in September. In March or April, Architectural Salvage Warehouse plans to move into its “new” 14,000-square-foot, three-story home.
The city government of Burlington was overjoyed that Ackerman wanted to purchase the building. “The mayor’s offices want the city to look vital. The police often had to kick vagrants out of the building because the fire marshal was afraid it would burn to the ground. The place had sat empty on Main Street for such a long time that there was a lot of pressure from the top to make sure the deal would happen,” Ackerman says.
He has invested time and money in extensive renovations, rebuilding walls and adding insulation. He also stripped the white asbestos siding that covered the facade of the building and replaced it with wood. While negotiating the sale and completing the renovations under budget have demanded an enormous amount of work, Ackerman is excited about his new location for a variety of reasons.
One of them is warmth. For almost nine years, he has braved the cold winters inside his Battery Street location because the building is made of uninsulated concrete. Another is visibility. Many customers were not able to find him because his entrance was on Maple Street, hidden behind KSV Communicators. Parking and lighting will be noticeably improved as a result of the move, and he will have at least 2,300 additional square feet of space. Finally, he is looking forward to the tax credits he will receive as a result of owning the building.
While he admits to working all the time, he is happy to be doing what he loves. “I guess I just love architectural details,” he says. “I like the treasure hunt aspect of the job — you never know what you’re going to find.”
Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer who produces programming about wellness and spirituality for Oxygen Media Inc., a new women’s cable television network in New York City.
First published in Business People-Vermont in March 2000.