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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Robert Hendrick is a self-proclaimed "serial entrepreneur." He's launched and overseen a technology company, health-care company, and railroad contracting and maintenance company. But Hendrick's most unique business venture began two years ago, when he started making tables, seats and occasional pieces of furniture out of old ties and rail.
In 2001, Hendrick — who developed an appreciation for the rail industry while living in Europe for a few years — purchased Railroad Services L.L.C., which serves Tennessee (the firm is based in Nashville), as well as Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia.
As Hendrick's crews gathered old railroad materials from job sites to be trashed, he would examine some of the old rail and ties. Sometimes, while thinking about the long history behind it, he would begin to feel nostalgic.
"It would break my heart to throw away something that said 'Carnegie 1899', so a few years back, I started putting some of that rail aside," he says.
The old ties and steel rail sparked Hendrick's creative side. He has degrees in industrial design from Auburn University and The Ohio State University and his father, Jim — a carpenter by trade — passed his love for woodworking to his son.
When the recession began taking a toll on Railroad Services' business in 2009, Hendrick decided to use the old rail and ties — and his employees — to make furniture.
"It would give crews something to do in between jobs," he says. "I think [employees] thought I was out of my mind at first."
But the dozen workers who began helping Hendrick make the furniture quickly came around, Hendrick says, and they were eager to gather materials to create new pieces.
"We're using materials they have been using for years, but they're seeing those materials in a different way," he says. "They're looking at a piece of scrap rail differently now."
Hendrick and his team, including his father, have built desks, coffee and end tables, beds and night stands, wine and coat racks, benches, chairs and shelves. They began selling the pieces in March 2011. Hendrick has taken the pieces to art shows, and also gets the word out through social media, a blog and the business' web site, which features a portfolio of his work.
And while Rail Yard Studios is still "finding its niche," the company has sold pieces to rail fans, customers with an appreciation for industrial design and even some rail industry firms, Hendrick says. For example, contractor Stacy and Witbeck Inc. purchased a coffee table and conference table made of wood ties, rail and glass.
As for Railroad Services, the company is having "one of our best years in a long time" says Hendrick, who has been able to shift more of his employees back to work in the railroad contracting business. But those workers still help out with the furniture business by bringing in materials and helping to cut and sand ties, and clean off rail.
"It's blurred the lines between the two companies," says Hendrick.
In a good way, that is. Especially for an entrepreneur on a quest to maximize the success of not one, but two, businesses.