'The Fixer' finds a niche with Shaker boxes

Second of two parts

MANCHESTER — A decade ago, Keith Griffith was perched pretty high on the corporate ladder, wearing $2,000 suits and sipping $50 cognacs in European clubs. But he wasn’t happy.

These days, you’ll find him in a light-drenched studio in the Manchester Millyard, tools in his hands, sawdust on his workboots — and a big smile on his face. His business card reads: “box maker.”

After 25 years as a financial analyst for some of the country’s top computer firms, Griffith has given it all up to become a craftsman.

He makes and sells Shaker-style wooden boxes under the name All Things Shaker. He isn’t making money at it yet, but figures by the Christmas season that will change.

Later this month, he’s off to showcase his work at the Philadelphia Gift Show; his handmade boxes are featured prominently in the prestigious show’s promotional materials.

For Griffith, his career has come full circle.

Growing up in Connecticut, Griffith was on the college track. But his real love was furniture-making; he took four years of shop in high school and used to spend free periods working on his projects.

Then he was off to St. Lawrence University, where he double-majored in economics and sociology. He went on to Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school and was hired as a financial analyst for MCI.

He went on to become a top “FPA” guy — financial planning and analysis — for Digital Equipment Corp., working in New York, Massachusetts, Merrimack and Houston.

After Digital was sold to Compaq, he moved with his wife and two small children in 2000 to Zurich, where he spent five years helping to restructure the company’s European operations.

“I worked my butt off, and my family had the time of their lives,” he recalled.

Compaq merged with Hewlett-Packard in 2002, and the Griffiths moved back to New Hampshire three years later, settling in Amherst. By that time, Griffith was having serious doubts about the work he was doing.

He had become a “fixer,” the guy called in to crunch the numbers, come up with a plan and break the news to employees that the company was downsizing and most of their jobs and divisions would be gone. He hated it.

By 2007, he recalled, “I was just tired of being the bad guy.”

So, at the age of 48, “I walked away.”

Then his wife gave him a Christmas present that would change his life: a class in Shaker box-making at Canterbury Shaker Village that he took with his then-11-year-old son, Willis.

The first oval box he made in class “is probably the nicest box I ever made,” he said.

The class reawakened Griffith’s boyhood love of woodworking. He made 50 Shaker boxes, giving them out to relatives and friends.

He made 100 more to sell at Amherst’s Art on the Green last July. He also landed an order through his brother, a hospital administrator, for 40 boxes to be given out to members of the executive team at a company retreat.

His business was born.

Griffith says his wife, Marcia, tells him, “I rue the day I sent you to that class.”

But in truth, she’s been supportive, finding him the studio space in the former Waumbec Mills building, with its views over the Merrimack River and massive windows that let in perfect light. He moved in last September and did his first show in Portland, Maine, in February.

He’s currently on pace to make 1,000 boxes a year; his business plan calls for him to get up to 5,000, with two people working with him in the shop.

He’s up early and usually in his studio by 6 a.m. He often works 12-hour days. But his new lifestyle gives him the flexibility to take Cara, his 15-year-old daughter, to soccer games and to teach her how to drive.

He has dinner with his family each evening, then does office work for the business. “You work the most hours when you’re happiest,” he said. “That’s a reality.”

Working in his shop, looking out at the river, Griffith has had time to think about how differently his life has turned out.

He believes corporate executives deserve the “huge” money they make. “Because you can’t believe the trade-offs they make in their personal lives,” he said. “And the trade-offs in the work they do that they have to live with.”

For him, that meant having to tell people they were being laid off.

“For real people, that causes pain,” he said. “You don’t sleep at night.”

Griffith is sleeping better these days. It’s like that old joke, he said: how a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.

He’s found that a bad day of woodworking — “the day I screwed up five out of 10 boxes” — is “still a better day” than his days as a corporate fixer.

It may have something to do with what he calls the “Zen” of woodworking.

“It’s very calming. It’s very relaxing. There are days I’ve sanded so much, my arms hurt. And I feel really good on those days.”

Something happens when he lays his hands on a piece of bird’s-eye maple or cherry wood before he begins each box. Each, he finds, “has its own flaws and personalities, just like I do.”

You can’t bully the wood into shape; if you try, it will likely split, ruining the box, he said. Instead, he coaxes the water-softened wood to mold around solid shapes, wrapping his arms around the bigger boxes like a hug.

It’s a lot like dealing with teenagers, he said. “They fight you. … They don’t want to bend.”

But it’s not because they really oppose you, he said. “It’s because they want to find themselves.”

Griffith said he knows how lucky he is to be living his boyhood dream. His advice to others: These days, he said, “I’m not really successful yet — but I’m happy.”

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Shawne Wickham may be reached at [email protected]

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