Carving Artists

A proprietary technique gives this company an edge

by Keith Morrill

carved0815Mike Lancaster is chief operating officer, and his wife, Dawn Lancaster, chief executive officer and owner of Carved Solutions in Williston, They’re pictured with Shadow, their “office mascot/mood-lifter/love-spreader/food-stealer.”

The concept for their business, Carved Solutions, came to Dawn and Mike Lancaster in 2005 while brainstorming over a bonfire one night with their neighbor Peter Asch, the owner of Twincraft Skincare. They had the idea of creating personalized bars of soap.

Mike ran with it: They crafted a few test gifts and handed them out to friends, whose immediate reaction “lit a fire,” says Mike. He was surprised by the strong response to a gift that cost only a couple of dollars. “It had nothing to do with the dollar value.”

“It was meant just for them,” explains Dawn. “It was a simple bar of soap. And it made us feel good and it made the recipient feel good.” That feeling of excitement is what inspired the Lancasters to finally attempt their first business venture, and, on Valentine’s Day 2006, Carved Solutions was incorporated.

Carved Solutions makes personalized soaps, candles, and other high-end household items. The Lancaster’s recently launched Pure | Energy Apothecary, a soap line intended for the mass market. It was a career move 20 years in the making.

The Lancasters had shared a dream of starting a business together. They began dating in 1986 while students at Burlington High School, attended Champlain College at the same time, and married in 1991.

That’s not to say the Lancasters immediately dropped their previous careers. Carved Solutions was strictly a moonlighting experience to start with. At the time, Mike was employed as an engineer at SUSS MicroTec in Waterbury, where he had worked — not counting a two-week stint on the third shift at IBM — since earning his associate’s degree in electrical engineering. He then studied mechanical engineering under MicroTec’s apprentice program.

After earning her associate’s degree with a double concentration in marketing management/retailing and business management from Champlain in ’89, Dawn had done freelancing in financial and business management. In 2000 she went to work at Yipes! Auto Accessories as operations manager.

Initially, the couple ran Carved Solutions part time from their Williston home. The business grew to the point that they were finding it increasingly difficult to meet demand.

Carved Solutions has been able to set itself apart from competitors by using the technique of carving to customize its products. The Lancasters explain that this makes a big difference in the quality of the image or writing being created. In comparison, competitors’ products, particularly soaps, are personalized using traditional engraving techniques. Mike’s background as an engineer proved invaluable in customizing the machinery that carves their products.

Eventually, Dawn had to choose between her established career and the budding business. “I couldn’t be the person that I needed to be at my job and manage Carved Solutions at the same time. I remember saying to Mike, ‘We’re reaching this point and we need to make a decision.’”

Peter urged her to move forward. He recalls giving Dawn a bit of advice. “I said, ‘You know, as long you keep sitting on that fence pole, rocking back and forth and back and forth, it’s only going to hurt more and more. You should go to one side or the other, and I think, based on your character and your intuition and your work ethic, go for it.’” 

With some trepidation, she left her job at Yipes! in 2008.

The boon of added time didn’t last long. Mike was looking at having to use vacation time during the holiday season to meet the demand. Instead, he came home one day late from work with news.

Dawn recalls the moment. “He said, ‘Well, Babe, I hope you really believe in this.’ And I said, ‘I do. Why?’ He said, ‘Because I just quit.’” 

By the winter of 2011, operations had bubbled over, consuming the entire Lancaster household, perhaps even the entire neighborhood. To meet the holiday demand, soap was being made round-the-clock, with family and friends pitching in. The Lancasters fell asleep to the sounds of machinery, and their daughter, Sarah, who was 11 at the time, moved into their room to make space in the house for personnel and production.

Their driveway and yard were filled with work trailers where inventory was stored, and a heated camper where second- and third-shift workers were staying to avoid driving in bad winter weather. Neighbors’ garages were stocked with inventory. On one particularly busy day, the Lancasters recall producing, wrapping, packing, and shipping 1,200 bars of soap.

“We knew somebody at UPS, and they had sent us an internal Post-It memo thing that they had given all their drivers,” recalls Mike. “It said, ‘Here are the heavy hitters for the season,’ and we were Number 2.” The news felt like a tangible sign of their growing success. While it was obvious they had to find a new space, they and their staff were determined to stick it out one last winter.

The Lancasters survived that final winter at home and, in the spring of 2012, relocated Carved Solutions, first subleasing on Hurricane Lane and then Omega Drive in Williston, before renting space from Casella Resource Solutions on Avenue C in Williston’s Industrial Park in April 2013.

“We realized we really needed our own space, our own personality,” says Dawn. “The space really allowed our Carved Solutions personality to come out, because even though we are not blood, we are family here. We can’t say enough good things about Casella. They used our products for their awards and spent more for their corporate gifts than we did for rent that first year!”

The Lancasters still live in Williston, and Sarah, now 15, attends Champlain Valley Union High School. Over the last decade, Carved Solutions has grown into an impressive business, delivering products across the United States to roughly 2,000 retailers, including the likes of Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, and Neiman Marcus. Their products have earned accolades and attention from the likes of O magazine and the talk show The View.

“That was the best move we ever made,” says Mike.

The honeycomb of showroom, offices, workshops, and warehouses carries colorful names like Laser Land & Discotheque and Candle Land, and contains proprietary machines for laser engraving, carving soup, and pouring and carving candles. Then there’s the miniature bike propped against somebody’s desk, the monolithic purple crate (dubbed the Barney Box) that accompanies Carved Solutions to trade shows, and the ever-present banter among colleagues. It gives the place an atmosphere that’s part CSI lab, part relative’s house.

When Dawn moves through the space, she has a positive word for every one of Carved Solutions’ 10 regular employees (the company adds up to a dozen or so during the holidays). Chris York of Monogram Art, an e-commerce store running out of Tallahassee, Fla., speaks highly of the staff the Lancasters have pulled together at Carved Solutions. York, who provides numerous Carved Solutions products to his customers, says, “They give me good support, and, in turn, if one of my customers happens to call them, they treat my customer as their customer. That kind of reflects our values, too.”

“When somebody realizes that they’re valued and that they’re loved, there’s a whole different level of loyalty and commitment and dedication,” says Dawn. “I’m proud of the fact that I’m the Carved Solutions mom.”

Being the matriarch is more than an honorary title. Earlier this year, Mike gifted her all of his stock, making her the sole owner of the company. The Lancasters insist this hasn’t changed their day-to-day operations in the slightest, but it provides them a distinct advantage in being able to say the company is solely woman-owned, says Dawn. “It gives us the opportunity to really push our company in a different way.” •