A MIDLIFE CAREER CHANGE is a lot like woodworking.
There are materials to choose, dimensions to follow, varnish to apply, hardware to install, and, yes, trial and error, as Vaughan Scully ’83 can attest.
His small business, Heights Woodworking, a Brooklyn, New York-based custom carpentry shop that opened in 1946 with its original owner, fabricates the front doors adorning many historic brownstone townhouses, as well as cabinets, stairs, windows, and moldings.
Heights Woodworking was started by Amor Villar, a Spanish Civil War refugee who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a carpenter. His son, Amor Villar Jr., eventually took over the business.
Scully, 54, bought the shop from the founder’s son in 2017, becoming his own boss, inheriting about 13 employees, and shifting his livelihood from financial journalist to craftsman.
“When you’re out of a job at 50 in the corporate world, it’s awfully difficult to find another one,” Scully says. “What you have to do is reinvent yourself.”
Brownstone doors are complex and expensive, with some costing as much as $20,000 for a particularly large and ornate set of doors. In designated historic districts, approval is required by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to replace them.
There are only a few wood shops with the capability to replicate historic doors, and the shop’s long time in business has created a solid customer base.
“I don’t do any sales or marketing,” Scully says. “The phone just rings. We have trouble keeping up with requests for estimates.”
During the first part of his career, Scully was a financial writer for Bloomberg. He covered breaking news and wrote enterprise stories about mining, energy, agriculture, and transportation companies, first based in New York and then in Australia. He wrote and edited a newsletter for S&P Global, but then the “tap on the shoulder” came after nearly 12 years—he was being laid off. Scully’s next job lasted 11 months.
Scully had no illusions. He wasn’t senior management and younger, less experienced workers could do his job for less pay. Interviews and callbacks were few and far between.
Then, just as one door closed, another opened for the Portland, Maine, native, who went to Reed College in Oregon after Taft, graduating with an English degree.
“One day, a guy called me who had done some work on our house,” Scully says. “He said, ‘Well, if you want you can come scrape paint off doors for me for 20 bucks an hour.’” Scully thought, why not?
“I didn’t have people sending me snarky emails,” he remembers. “I didn’t have to worry about some process going wrong in the corporate world. I just made a decision—I’m not going back.”
Next, the owner of a door-refinishing business wanted to gauge Scully’s interest in buying his company, but the asking price was just too steep.
A few weeks later, Scully saw help wanted signs for a carpenter’s helper and driver right in his Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood. So he sent an email.
“The worst they could do was to ignore me, which is what everybody else had done,” Scully recalls. “They called me right back.
“After working there for two years, I bought the business and took over, learning how complicated this type of woodworking really is. For me to make a custom door, that could be 150 parts that need to be manufactured,” Scully says.
“There’s a lot of things to get right and a lot of opportunities to make a mistake. That’s not like making a new dinner at a restaurant because someone said the soup was cold. I had to learn that, and I had to make a lot of mistakes along the way.”
—Neil Vigdor ’95