Russ Freed is never at a loss for words. His passion for carving out stories from his eclectic and successful life in business is as elegant and complex as the array of hand-crafted woodwork to which he has devoted this chapter of his life.
A New Jersey native who earned his B.S. from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Russ may not at first glance appear to be the sort of person who would so enthusiastically embrace Texas, or woodworking for that matter. However, if anything is true about Russ Freed it’s that in business as in life, one must cultivate opportunities, embrace change, and follow your passions wherever they may lead.
For over twenty years he had a successful career within the chemicals industry that found him traveling the country until 2001 found him at somewhat of a crossroads, both figuratively and literally. Leaving the company he co-founded and sold, as well as his career in the rearview mirror, Russ decided to hit the open road on a cross country motorcycle trip from Houston to Canada and back again. Perhaps weary from the long journey, he agreed to take a step into his next professional adventure, this time in the auto industry where he became one of the most successful sales representatives within the Audi dealer network.
Over 10 years and countless cars later however, Russ needed another challenge, another story to tell. This new journey however would mean going back to the beginning, to his childhood learning woodwork at his father’s side.
Russ fondly recalls his youth and initiation into the world of woodwork:
“When I was a kid, I enjoyed helping my Dad with his various projects around the house. If we needed a fire pit to barbeque hotdogs and burgers, my Dad made it. Need a fence around the house? Sure, let’s build it. So, at a very early age, I remember a picture of me at age 4 with a set of plastic ‘tools.’ Using saws and hammers, and other tools was second-nature for me.”
This DIY spirit planted by his father started Russ on a path that has seen him craft everything from custom cabinetry and fine furniture to one-of-a-kind jewelry boxes like the one he made as a birthday gift for his then girlfriend Amy, who is now his wife of 37 years.
Russ credits his father with not only inspiring his woodworking but also as being his biggest influence in life and business.
“He taught me the importance of honesty, integrity, and a solid work ethic, which have led me ably in my entire career. He taught me the importance of staying true to your values, regardless of outside forces to sway you away from center.”
Completely self-taught aside from the tutelage provided by his father, Russ has developed and refined the philosophy that guides his woodworking by pouring through every issue of the classic Fine Woodworking Magazine and imbibing everything from great woodworker and writer James Krenov. Russ enthusiastically describes his affinity for those old magazine articles and how he’s kept so many copies of articles:
“I was mesmerized by this magazine and bought all of the older issues I had not seen, and read them over and over again. I still have hundreds of articles I cut out through the years in a dozen binders as referral guides.”
Years of working in his garage finally ceded to a proper woodworking shop when Russ and his wife made the move to Montgomery County where they designed and built what the couple hopes will be their forever home after years of living inside the Houston Loop.
Russ, finally free to explore the depth and range of his inspiration and talents in a proper workspace made the decision to devote himself full-time to crafting wood. The result was establishing a new company (nearly 25 years after his first) Baxter Blue Woodworks, named for his chief assistant, a Wheaten Terrier.
Russ was always hesitant to sell his work but was finally prodded into doing so by friends and family. His work was inspired by his creative spirit and love of crafting wood, not by a desire for profit but reconnecting with an old friend would help bring a new mission and purpose to his life and work…one which was close to his heart.
Nancy Riviere, a dear friend he met during his tenure with Audi, created WIGOUT, a non-profit organization that provides cancer patients with wigs, scarves, and hats as they battle breast cancer and other diseases being treated with chemotherapy. Nancy herself is a two-time breast cancer survivor who selflessly started the organization during her second bout with the horrific disease.
After having lost his mother to breast cancer at an early age and his wife’s recent battle with the disease, Russ decided to donate all profits to this incredible organization and with that, Baxter Blue Woodworks found its role within the marketplace and community.
Baxter Blue Woodworks focuses on custom one-of-a-kind cheese boards, cutting boards, and fine lathe-turned bowls. Armed with his successful career in sales and marketing and development and implementation of business strategies Russ has set out on his newest and perhaps most important chapter in his life and business.
Though new to social media and ecommerce, Russ has the benefit of a lifetime spent in developing sales and marketing strategies, establishing brand awareness, and cultivating customer loyalty. By approaching his customers with the same individual care and attention to detail that he does each piece of wood in his workshop he is able to both educate and inspire his clients. Like his finely lathe-turned bowls, each customer is unique with their own expectations, tastes, and style. As Russ puts it, “I find that too many artists and craftsmen in the world have amazing talents and skills, but don’t successfully communicate their talent to the outside world. I have seen countless examples of amazing work at craft shows that doesn’t get sold because the artist doesn’t know how to relate to their buyer.” He continues, “Fortunately, my career experience of selling, managing others to sell, and teaching sales training, have all helped me in my new venture. Engaging customers when they are looking at my woodworks helps us to form a bond that makes them want to buy something.”
While Baxter Blue specializes in a variety of bowls and boards, Russ is also able to provide unique custom work such as a one-of-kind coffee table he is currently working on for one of his clients. These custom orders provide Russ to further showcase his skill while still keeping with his belief in avoiding mass-production of identical pieces. For Russ the creative component of wood working is as essential as the wood itself. His commitment to quality, originality, and honoring the uniqueness of each piece of word he uses shines in everything he creates from a simple cheese board made of maple to a gorgeous custom made coffee table made from a massive plank of walnut.
“It’s hard to explain, like a musician trying to explain how they write a song,” Russ states. “But, the grain pattern, color, and texture of the wood all seem to combine to send me signals as to what that piece of wood should become.”
Currently Baxter Blue can be found every first and third weekend at the Farmers Market in The Woodlands, TX where Russ enjoys engaging everyone that walks by to answer questions about his work, tell the stories behind each piece, and spin yarns about with the same care and joy he spins his gorgeous bowls. Though new to social media strategies, he is finding success in sharing his stories through Facebook and Instagram and is looking forward to establishing a new ecommerce site for Baxter Blue in order to further expand his presence in the marketplace.
While some may not see a connection between his extensive background in the chemicals industry or the automotive industry with his current life as a wood worker, Russ is enthusiastic about how much his background continues to form the foundation of Baxter Blue’s current and future success.
He has six key points that he credits for his success throughout his career:
- Working harder than anyone else because I was far from being the brightest among my coworkers
- Develop a reputation for being straightforward and consistent
- Honesty and Integrity
- Fast response to customers and coworkers, people know they can count on him
- Take your work seriously but not yourself
- Value “street smarts” as much as any formal education…it’s important to be able to quickly assess individuals and have common sense.
When all is said and done, while Russ may be humble about Baxter Blue’s future growth, his commitment to quality, devotion to his craft and to his customers, and the mission of assisting Wig Out all ensure that Baxter Blue Woodwork will be as successful a venture as everything else Russ has engaged in during his long career.
Visit Russ at the The Woodlands Farmer’s Market at Grogan’s Mill every first and third weekend of the month, reach out via Facebook, Instagram, or visit Baxter Blue online at www.baxterbluewoodworks.com.