President & Co-Founder
Brant & Cochran
South Portland, Maine
JD & MA American University
BA The College of Wooster
The Axeman Cometh
On the genesis of his axe business
On how craftsmen greeted his idea to make axes
On the value of law school and legal training in business
Listen to interview:
Mark Ferguson quit practicing law and teamed up with his brother in Maine to start a manufacturing business. Their specialty? Traditional Maine wedge pattern axes. He recently spoke with ex judicata about his business and the ups and downs of bringing axe-making back to Maine.
ex judicata: Before you got into the axe business, you spent more than 25 years as a lawyer. Can you give us some background on your legal career?
Mark Ferguson: Well, my original plan was to try to work in international business, so I did a joint J.D./MA degree program at American University in Washington.
As an undergrad, I had taken a lot of classes on Chinese politics and history and studied and traveled in China before I started law school. My dream job back then was to be a lawyer working with companies who wanted to do business in China.
But I’m from Ohio, and my wife is from Ohio, and after law school, I decided to move back there, and I took a job with a big law firm–Taft Stettinius & Hollister—because I thought that would give me a better shot at doing international business work.
ex judicata: It sounds like that plan didn’t quite pan out.
Mark Ferguson: Right, I started out doing deal work, which is what I thought I’d keep doing, but the managing partner of my office in Columbus basically told me I sucked at it, and he was right. So, I started doing commercial litigation. I never saw myself as a trial lawyer. I never took any trial classes in law school, and the first time I was ever at a trial was when I second-chaired a trial, which was terrifying and crazy.
I ended up really liking doing research and writing briefs, and the intellectual challenge of it and the chance to learn about all these different kinds of businesses. As a young lawyer, I was the second chair on a libel case, did a gray-market goods case, where I got to go to Korea and take depositions, and worked on a First Amendment case involving judicial campaign contributions. I did commercial litigation for ten years and probably would have kept doing it.
But I had a friend from the College of Wooster who had started a software company, Bearware, Inc., which did freight tracking for specialty retailers, and he needed help growing it. I liked the idea of not having to wear a suit and white shirt and tie every single day, so I left Taft Stettinius to be Bearware’s General Counsel and VP.
ex judicata: How long did you stay and how did it work out?
Mark Ferguson: I started in 1998 so 17 years in all. My partner Jeff was the technology guy, and I handled the freight contracts for about 150 trucking and retailer clients, managed sales and ran the office. I also worked with our outside counsel on the legal work when we sold the company in 2015.
ex judicata: And your next move was starting Brant & Cochran? How did you come up with the idea for making axes in Maine?
Mark Ferguson: My brother is a school psychologist in South Portland who moved to Maine in 1985. He and I have always wanted to start a business together and had been kicking around some ideas. He wanted to buy an axe as a gift for his godson, who was going to forestry school in upstate New York.
He really wanted an American-made axe, but he looked around and couldn’t find one. And so, the two of us were sitting around drinking Scotch and talking about it and we both realized we had hit on something. It was like, ‘Man, that sounds like a pretty good idea. We could start a business and do something with that because there’s no one else making axes in the U.S. One of our friends joined us as a partner, and we pulled the trigger and started Brant & Cochran in 2015.
ex judicata: That’s a big departure from practicing law. What sparked your interest in doing something like that and gave you the confidence to try it?
Mark Ferguson: Right, My brother and I aren’t metalworkers or blacksmiths, and we don’t have backgrounds in anything like that. But we do have some family history in manufacturing and actually chose to call our company Brant & Cochran, because that was the name of the tool supply business my grandfather started in Detroit after World War II.
During high school and college, I spent summers working at the businesses of some of my grandfather’s cronies. I’d go to Detroit, and my grandfather would say, ‘Okay, this time you’re going to be working for John at the plastics extrusion plant’ or ‘This summer, you’re going to be working at this place that makes industrial magnets.’ And so, I spent a lot of time working in those kinds of shops and always liked the work and the people and the creativity of it.
The other thing is our family camped a lot when we were kids, and we did a lot of canoe trips up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota and spent a lot of time outdoors using axes, so making them was kind of a natural thing for us to get into.
ex judicata: What did it take for you to get your business up and running?
Mark Ferguson: Well, the first couple years we were restoring old axes and working out of what was basically an 8 by 8-foot cage in a shared maker space in an unheated, dilapidated old train car maintenance building in Portland.
We graduated from that to a small shop in South Portland and started looking into what it would take to make a classic Maine wedge pattern axe. Maine had a thriving axe and edge tool industry before WWII, which of course is all gone now. We wanted to honor that tradition by bringing back the Maine wedge pattern axe.
Kind of like preparing a motion, we did a lot of research on axe-making, sourcing steel and machines, and the premium axe market, and then decided to bounce the idea of forging axes off some of the blacksmiths and craftspeople from Portland and southern Maine.
ex judicata: How did that turn out?
Mark Ferguson: We wound up getting a group of seven or eight of them together with a bunch of pizza and beer and did this big presentation and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Isn’t this cool? We’re going to do this, and isn’t this exciting?’ And just about every single person said in not so many words, ‘You guys are idiots. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not going to be able to do this.
The machines are going to be either too big or too small, you aren’t going to buy steel in that quantity, blah, blah, blah.’ So, after the meeting we’re sitting there going, ‘God, we are idiots, what are we doing?’ and felt pretty much ready to smash scotch whiskey bottles over our heads. And then one of the blacksmiths who was there came up to us and said he thought he might be able to help us.
ex judicata: It sounds like he was kind of a godsend.
Mark Ferguson: Right, he was a blacksmith and a machinist, and just one of those M
acGyver- type guys that Maine is full of. He decided to work with us and spent about a year figuring out machine designs and creating a manufacturing process. We started making axes in 2017 and sold our first one in 2018 and have been going strong since. Especially after the review we got in Field & Stream magazine, which said our Allagash Cruiser Maine Wedge Pattern Camp Axe is one of the four best axes being made in the world right now.
ex judicata: That must have brought in a lot of new orders.
Mark Ferguson: It’s been hard to keep up. Demand also really took off during COVID and it’s just never stopped.
We’ve currently got about a six-month backlog on direct-to-consumer orders. On the wholesale side, we’re looking at delivery dates into 2024 right now. Covid created some personnel, supply chain and production issues. But we’ve doubled our shop space and we’re working with the University of Maine right now on a process to triple our production. So, I’ve unfortunately had to write a lot of big checks lately for new machines and all of that.
We’ve got three partners and five employees. Once we get the new machines installed, the idea is we’ll be able to ramp up production with about the same staff. And then the goal for the following year is to duplicate the new production line and add another two or three people and a general manager.
ex judicata: How have you managed the financing end?
Mark Ferguson: It’s been almost all self-financed. Though early on, we were able to raise around $17,000 doing a crowdfunding thing, which was fun. We also just got a big grant from the Maine Technology Institute to help pay for some of these new machines, and some of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money we’ve gotten has helped.
ex judicata: Has finding and keeping employees been a problem?
Mark Ferguson: Not really. We’ve been pretty blessed. I think it’s because it’s such a weird, unique business. Maybe once a month I’ll get an email out of the blue from somebody who wants to work here. The last guy we hired was a former Navy rescue diver who had done his training in Maine. He and his wife, who’s a nurse, were living in Austin, Texas when he got in touch with us. They ended up moving to Maine, and she took a job at Maine Medical Center in Portland, and he started with us here.
ex judicata: That’s a great story. What’s been the biggest challenge?
Mark Ferguson: Well, there’s no book to buy about how to make axes and how to do this, so the main challenge for us has been just figuring out the manufacturing and machine design end. So that everything we make is still handcrafted, but in a reproducible way.
ex judicata: Has your background as a lawyer come in handy?
Mark Ferguson: I think having a litigation background has helped for sure. Certainly on the sales end, it’s like you’re making an argument and building a case to try to persuade customers. The same goes with the grant applications I’ve worked on, which are a lot like putting a case together. You do the research and organize it and build an argument. I think law school and being a lawyer is fantastic training for that.
ex judicata: What have you enjoyed most about launching Brant & Cochran?
Mark Ferguson: I think what’s the most fun is that every day there’s a little something different going on, and there’s a new problem to solve. It’s not like working in a big corporation, where you’re typically working on a project team, and just focused on one area and one goal for a year or two.
Here, every day is a new thing. Right now, for instance, I’m dealing with Covid again. I just found out that one of our team members who puts the handles on the axes had a 102-degree temperature over the weekend and tested positive. I’ll be going to the drugstore shortly to buy Covid tests and will likely have to put Covid protocols back in place again. That actually won’t be that much fun but, you know, it’s always something different.
ex judicata: Well, thanks so much for your time. Before we wrap up, do you have any advice for other lawyers who might be thinking of starting a business?
Mark Ferguson: The main thing I tell people if they want to start a business is pick something you’re passionate about because it’s going to be way more work than you think, and you really have to be willing to put everything you have into it. You think you worked hard as a lawyer and put in a lot of hours there? You’re going to put in twice as many hours into your own business. And it’s a lot scarier because it’s just
you or you and a couple of partners. But it’s also a lot more rewarding. I’m super happy with what I did and don’t have any regrets.
And if you want to check us out, go to our website, www.bnctools.com.