When U.S. Army paratrooper Chris Cruise returned from his Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment in 2004, he discovered that reacclimating to his life as a civilian was not as easy as he had hoped. He didn’t know what to do with himself or how to adapt his heightened sense of awareness to his new life as a husband and father.
Thanks to a nudge from his wife, he discovered that woodworking was therapeutic for him. It was his “happy place,” where his mind “could both rest and work at the same time, in balanced concentration and clarity of purpose,” he said.
Cruise’s wife, Amber, nudged him again in 2017 when his job as an environmental, health and safety professional was eliminated a month before Christmas. She suggested that he turn his passion for woodworking into a full-time business.
Cultivating a small business during the pandemic certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. It required networking with partners, navigating an uncertain economy and a lot of grit.
“We bootstrapped the business from the start,” Cruise said. “We traded a flag for more barrel staves, created brand partnerships (with those) who believed in what we were doing. We did not invest any of our personal money to start the business.”
The company began in his garage with “a passion for the American flag and all that it symbolizes,” he said.
Today, Cruise, his wife and a team of six employees—all with military or first responder backgrounds—create custom wood flags using repurposed bourbon barrel staves. Cruise Customs creates products that are thoughtfully made to capture each customer’s personal story of patriotism and love for freedom, Cruise explains.
Using bourbon barrel staves sourced from Speyside Cooperage in Shepherdsville and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel in Louisville, the Cruise team hand builds traditional and full-color flags in several different sizes in addition to other items suitable for corporate gifts and décor. The woodworkers also make magnetic key holders of all 50 states that are sold online at thewoodenstates.com.
Cruise shared a bit more of his small business story for this month’s Small Business Snapshot.
What one thing do you wish you had known prior to starting your company?
Chris Cruise: I wish I would have known how important relationships are in business.
What has been your biggest challenge as a company, and how did you overcome it?
CC: The current economy is our biggest challenge. Also, a lot of consumers have a hard time understanding why made-in-America products cost more. We need to encourage made-in-America more than ever.
What has been the most effective way for you to market your product/service?
CC: Social media and public relations avenues so that we can share our story.
What advice would you give to others who are thinking of opening a business?
CC: Start a business while having a full-time job, and don’t let great get in the way of good. Just move forward and continually improve.
Is your company involved in the community? How so?
CC: Our mission to give back is part of everything we do. While serving the community may no longer require combat boots, we remain passionate about continuing to make our home a better place. In our own backyard of Louisville, Cruise Custom Flags partners with Norton Children’s Hospital Cancer Institute for their Young Adults & Adolescent art therapy class. We have raised over $17,000 for USA Cares. We also raised $70,000 for medical frontline heroes at Norton Healthcare and UofL Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, using profits from the “America—One Heartbeat” flag, as seen on Fox & Friends.
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