Maybe it was by design that Robert McCown and Kevin Hollingshead became partners in a sideline business.
They went to rival high schools in the Mobile area, different colleges and they work in different fields. But when introduced by a mutual friend several years ago, McCown and Hollingshead struck an immediate friendship through a mutual interest in art and design.
In their spare time, the two began meeting in a warehouse that Hollingshead had bought in downtown Mobile, kicking around design ideas, having a beer or two and making metal furniture from their own designs. They later added wood and other materials to the mix.
“We would talk about art, ” Hollingshead says. “We might talk about making a table with a metal base using driftwood for the top because we’re right here on (Mobile Bay). We would talk about how to use salvaged pieces, things like that.”
It all eventually led to a side business, Seven Eleven Fabrication, which now builds furniture with metal, wood, concrete, glass and other materials. All of the materials are locally sourced, and reclaimed materials are used whenever possible.
“We’ve used local craftsmen and artisans to do what we can’t do and teach us the right way to assemble what we dream up, ” says McCown. “Our goal has been to create well-designed pieces that stand the test of time using age-old techniques.”
Design and building is in the DNA of 36-year-old McCown, who follows his father and grandfather in that line of work. “I have great respect for both of them and am doing my best to honor the shoes I’m filling, ” says McCown, an Auburn architecture graduate and owner of McCown Design in Mobile.
Hollingshead, 38, on the other hand, is a fulltime investor who isn’t sure where his interest in designing furniture came from. It might have been his senior year in high school, when he worked on an offshore oilrig and learned something about welding — a craft he incorporated into furniture design, along with wood working knowledge he acquired.
“Trading is dealing with numbers, ” says Hollingshead, a Birmingham-Southern graduate and Montrose resident. “Furniture-making works the other side of my brain. There’s no correlation between the two. Furniture making is a release of creative energy for me. I enjoy creating something and seeing the finished product. You work very hard at something, and I like seeing the result at the end of the day. I like seeing the process.”
Seven Eleven Fabrication makes furniture that blends the DNA of fine art with the sturdy bones of industrial craft.
McCown and Hollingshead revel in their early days at Seven Eleven Fabrication and still have a healthy yet serious perspective about their side business. Asked some time back about the secret to success in the furniture business, McCown said, “Relationships, hard work, beer and blue jeans — and not necessarily in that order.”
“We’re definitely all about being laid back, ” says Hollingshead.
Seven Eleven Fabrication “has sustained itself” to this point but “has struggled” to find its direction building custom-designed pieces, according to Hollingshead. That changed recently when it took on some new business, and Seven Eleven is looking at possible ways to reinvent itself in light of commercial possibilities.
As part of that, McCown and Hollingshead have taken on another partner — 29-year-old Taylor Atchison, an independent contractor and developer, whose family has been in the furniture business in Mobile for 30 years.
According to Atchison, who went to the University of Alabama and lives in Mobile, his role in the partnership is to look for new business opportunities. He says McCown is the “brainchild” in the group and Hollingshead “makes it all come to fruition.”
McCown begs to differ. “I am the brainchild of nothing, ” he says. “We design as a team. Kevin and Taylor have incredible design skills and insight, and they grasp how things are made and how to join them in such a way that is truly artisan. I just happen to facilitate drawing nice things for my day job and help to carry out our designs. We have a strong team.”
Through his role as an independent contractor on a multi-unit condominium development project, Atchison came across a situation that led to his collaboration with McCown and Hollingshead. The three came up with a mobile, waterfall-style kitchen island that led to a sizeable order from the developer.
The island they designed requires no electrical outlets, which alleviated the need to run wiring to it and represented a cost savings for the developer. “A kitchen has beaucoup electrical outlets, so you’re never very far from one, ” explains Atchison. “And most of the things you put on an island are battery-powered anyway: phones, pads, laptops. So it makes sense to have an island without outlets and, because it’s mobile, you can move it around based on different needs, like to fold clothes in a laundry room.”
Atchison says that Seven Eleven Fabrication “is trying to look at furniture in a different way, to let it provide different opportunities and different ways to live. We’re hoping to find opportunities with larger developers, but to do that it’s important to differentiate yourself in a cost-effective way.”
Regardless of where Seven Eleven Fabrication goes from here, it’s a safe bet that the three partners will maintain a sense of humor and optimism.
“Back when we first got started, ” says Hollingshead, “we would say, ‘Wing it. Just wing it until it flies.’ Back then, it was all about learning. It’s different now, but it’s still fun. We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t fun.”
Hollingshead says the biggest lesson he has learned along the way is “If you want something, go for it; do it; make it happen.” For McCown, it’s “You only live life once, but if you live it right, once is enough.”
Charlie Ingram and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Ingram is based in Birmingham and Douglas in Mobile.
text by charlie ingram • photos by todd douglas