From lofty idea to lasting business
- By Tom Weaver
From lofty idea
to lasting business
by Mark Aiken
As anyone who has occupied the cozy confines of a college dorm room knows, it’s all about making efficient use of space. And few pieces of furniture do that better than the ubiquitous loft bed.
Frank DeVita ’85, a mechanical engineering grad, was not long out of college himself when he and his friend Paul Austen ’87 set to work on crafting a dorm loft, not so ubiquitous back then, for an acquaintance at UVM. While their fee for building that original bed was just a case of beer, it would eventually pay off in much more significant ways—inspiring a bright idea and eventually a business.
Seeing the dorm room transformation of that prototype bed, DeVita and Austen went to the hardware store and loaded up a pick-up truck and a station wagon’s worth of lumber. Then they worked all night building lofts. The following morning—“move-in” day at the UVM residence halls—they set up in the parking lot at Marsh-Austin-Tupper and sold everything they built.
Twenty-four years—and who knows how many move-in days—later, DeVita still builds and sells loft beds at college campuses as owner of TimberNest, Inc., headquartered in Williston, Vermont. The start of this academic year was a typically busy one for him, taking DeVita on a September swing through six colleges and universities in Virginia and South Carolina—selling and leasing loft beds to incoming students looking to maximize space in their rooms.
“Students are bringing more and more stuff to school. And dorm rooms aren’t getting any bigger,” says John Timmons, assistant director of residential life at Winthrop University in Rock Hill South Carolina, one of TimberNest’s customers.
The process, of course, has changed since the days when DeVita plastered “Lofts R Us” flyers around UVM’s campus. These days he partners with college bookstores and residential life organizations. “We allow TimberNest access to our lists,” says Winthrop’s Timmons. “We receive a commission for each sale which gives us a budget to fund student activities, programs, conferences, and seminars. We all win.”
For many years, TimberNest was a sideline for DeVita, who held fulltime engineering jobs. In the months leading up to late summer and fall, he would employ contractors, carpenters, and friends to help pre-fabricate the wooden loft beds before taking crews on “college tours” to Princeton, Union College, Plattsburgh State, and, of course, UVM. It remained a sideline until 2000—when he discovered the power of the Internet. “We built thousands of loft beds,” says DeVita, as he expanded southward, servicing the likes of Clemson, the University of South Carolina, and Virginia Tech.
Although he moved into the twenty-first century in terms of marketing and selling, TimberNest remains a Vermont company. Timmons notes that when Winthrop receives its commission check from TimberNest, it doesn’t just come in an envelope in the mail. “He sends us a Vermont ‘care package,’” he says. “It comes with coffees, cookies, cheeses, several kinds of maple syrup—everything we down here in the South associate with Vermont.”
These days, DeVita builds more than just lofts. He had a hand in constructing the building that now houses his business, and, more importantly, he built the outdoor wood furnace that heats it. He also designed it himself, down to the fifty-inch square door that enables him to dump his wood scraps and pallets in with a forklift. “The furnace is one reason it’s possible to operate in a 20,000-square-foot building,” DeVita says. “Otherwise, that stuff is just going to the landfill.”
Looking ahead to TimberNest’s future, DeVita is preparing to unveil a new hardwood loft product that he hopes will sell in residences. He also continues to explore wholesale options, although historically he has preferred to deal directly with users.
Sometimes what might at first seem a fleeting idea sticks. In Frank DeVita’s case, he looked around him during his years at UVM and saw a need. He continued selling lofts at his alma mater until 2005 when residence hall renovations brought in beds that were less compatible with TimberNest loft systems.
DeVita credits his UVM engineering classes with training and preparing him for a career in designing and manufacturing loft beds. “They helped me learn to problem-solve and plan,” he says. “I learned important lessons in product development and production.” A bit of UVM history goes with every student who buys or leases from DeVita, and with every dorm room that gets transformed by a TimberNest loft bed. After all, says DeVita, “The whole thing started right here.”