Carpenter builds a thriving business

Published in The Ithaca Journal, January 5th 2010

ITHACA –  When James Robertson graduated from Ithaca High 31 years ago, the last thing he wanted to be was a carpenter.

“My dad was a union carpenter, so I’d help him out on the weekends,” recalls the 49-year old Ithaca native.  Working side-by-side with his father in the basement of their West Hill home, young Jim was operating power tools before he hit his teens. “I was the oldest son, so I kinda got stuck with it,” he laughs wryly.

Today, James Robertson is the proud owner of Upstate Millwork, one of Ithaca’s foremost commercial carpentry shops. Housed in the basement of the South Hill Business plaza, Upstate Millwork manufactures melamine and wood products like cabinets, counter tops, wall paneling, custom trim and moldings for local contractors. “I do a lot of work at schools, hospitals, Cornell, Ithaca College – that’s why I put my shop across the street from Ithaca College.”  Already on his 19th project of the year, Robertson says he has more than enough work to keep himself and his crew of six busy through the week. As he bends over a blueprint in his paper-strewn office, wearing faded jeans, a baseball cap and brown boots caked in sawdust, it is difficult to imagine that this man was not always a carpenter; that he once plumbed the depths of the Gulf of Mexico as a commercial diver in Port Arthur, Texas.

“I went to college down in Florida, and got a degree in underwater technology,” he says with pride. “Then I worked in the oilfields in Texas, for Offshore Diving and Salvage Inc. I was basically an underwater construction worker.”  But when the federal government banned most offshore oil and gas drilling in the early 1980s, Robertson lost his job, came home to Ithaca, and spent a fruitless six months sending resumes to oil exploration companies around the world. “Finally, my father said, ‘When I get home today, you better have a job’. So I went and got a job as a carpenter.”

Now, perhaps the only object that recalls Robertson’s previous ambitions is the model bronze diving helmet that sits atop a filing cabinet in his office. “A Christmas gift from my brother,” he smiles. But Robertson has no regrets about carpentry. Upstate Millwork’s revenues have steadily increased since he set up the company in 2006, totaling $880,000 last year. He’s looking to hire a few more people next year, and moving into a bigger office, currently under construction next-door to his present space. “I’ll be happy doing $1 million a year,” he says assuredly. “If it gets bigger than that, I’ll have to move. And I don’t want to. I like it right here.”

And Robertson enjoys his work, too. “It’s very rewarding. I like seeing the finished product. For example, nobody leaves a friend’s house and says, ‘Hey, did you see that dry wall?’, or, ‘Boy, that roof was beautiful!’ They all say, ‘Did you see the kitchen cabinets?’ So that’s what I like. I like seeing the finished product.”

His 16-year old son would probably disagree with him. “I would like him to join me…but he really doesn’t want anything to do with carpentry right now!” Robertson laughs knowingly. “He’s thinking about becoming a chef. Still,” he says hopefully, “you never know.”

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