Amish and other Plain people help grow businesses in Holmes County
Atlee Kaufman opened Bentwood Solutions four decades ago. The Millersburg business’s original product was bending buggy shafts, which connect the carriages of Amish people like Kaufman to their horses. A few years later, he expanded to table and chair parts at a local Amish furniture maker’s request. He was so successful he sold off the buggy shaft division.
“Now, I think we still have right close to 300 customers, but some of them are cabinet shops that make a special table once and a while,” Atlee Kaufman said.
Kaufman and many other Amish people have helped grow the Holmes County economy. About half of the population is Amish. The large majority of them are small business owners or work for a manufacturing company.
Creating their own niche business
Driving off the beaten path on a country road in Holmes County, sub-shops pop up out of nowhere. Usually, it’s denoted by nothing more than a small business sign above someone’s garage, with traditional Amish names like Troyer and Hershberger followed by the product they specialize in.
These shops that don’t look like more than a side hustle provide a steady income for these Amish families. They don’t just contribute to the local economy, they fuel a lot of growth to their community, especially the manufacturing sector. Many of those businesses started small, on the family farm, then increased in sales and invested in facility and workforce expansions.
There’s not a way to track how many shops are Amish-owned, but many of the 177 members of the guild are Amish, said Kendrick Mullett, the director of the Hardwood Furniture Guild of Holmes County. About 50 of the shops are like Kaufman’s – so-called sub shops - businesses that make a small component for a furniture piece.
These businesses are often homegrown and family-run. Employees take skills from larger businesses and start their own company.
“They’re often employees from either a large cabinet shop or from a large furniture manufacturing where they’ve worked there a number of years and now they’re having children that are becoming of age to work and then they’ll go and start their own little shop,” Mullett said.
Holding onto tradition
Before the 1960s, many Amish were farmers. The transition from the farm to the manufacturing industry raised concerns in the Amish community.
“At the heart of who we are is this kind of idea … what will it do to our church life? What will it do to our family structures? What will it do to our community,” said Marcus Yoder, the executive director of the Behalt-Amish Mennonite Heritage Center.
Starting small businesses has helped the Amish stay close knit and hold on to their values, Yoder added.
In the Amish community, retailers and suppliers don’t compete, said Mark Leininger, the executive director of the Holmes County economic development council. Instead, each contributes their own small part to make the finished product.
“So, you’ve got the retailer and there might be a kitchen table there,” Leininger continued. “And one company maybe did the metal base and another company built the drawer boxes and another company did the glue up panels and another company did the finish work. So, there’s a whole small business ecosystem.”
Helping to grow the economy
In Holmes County, Leininger doesn’t have to do the sort of business attraction, retention and expansion typical of rural counties. That’s because, with the Amish communities there, companies grow from within.
“Generally they start small,” Leininger said. “A lot of times it’s in a shed or a chicken coop behind the house, and they build it over time.”
Kaufman’s business is the perfect example of that: he started it in a small building beside his house, grew it to about 40 people and became one of the only sub shops bending wood.
He found a way to keep his family and community-centered values that have guided him and Amish makers for years: his sons and son-in-law are now running Bentwood Solutions.