It’s More Than A Living, It’s a Life
For over a quarter-century, Christopher Ward’s work has given him purpose and passion in life.
An upholsterer by trade, the 47-year-old Lansing man started out working in factories before opening his small commercial upholstery business in Lansing, A & S Upholstery Services. Since its launch a few years back, it’s grown into a steady company with a solid client list.
To Ward, it’s more than a living; it’s a life — one he hopes will outlive his own flesh and blood.
Ward is looking for an apprentice to train and to eventually give the business to for free, with no strings attached. The unusual offer comes as Ward wrestles with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
“I would love, love, love to give it to someone who just never got that break in life. Someone who is willing to work hard. Someone like me, who wasn’t willing to go to college, who wanted to learn a skilled trade,” Ward said recently. “Someone who enjoys doing it as much as I love to. I come to work thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get started on this project.’ It would just be nice to have someone do it the way I do it and the way I was taught to do it … the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Ward’s search for a worthy successor started a few months ago, after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. While weekly chemotherapy sessions have helped heal his prostate, the cancer has already spread to his bones.
“I was given six months [to live] about a year ago, so I’m six months ahead of the game,” said Ward, adding that he no longer asks for such estimates. “It’s just a matter of time.”
At first he wanted to pass the business on to his children. “I have a son who was not interested in taking the business. I don’t blame him,” Ward said, given the callus-inducing, time-intensive nature of the craft.
“I can’t really sell the business. It would be hard to figure out what it’s worth,” said Ward, who then thought, “I’m gonna try to find someone young and trainable to take over the business … anybody who was a hard worker.”
The terms of the deal are simple.
“If someone was to come into the business and I’d be able to take a solid two years of showing someone the aspects of it,” Ward said he would be happy to hand over his keys. “Give me a call. Come out to my shop. Watch what I do for a minute. See if it’s something that would interest you.”
His initial efforts in finding an owner-in-waiting fell short. “They were either drug addicts or alcoholics that just didn’t want to work,” Ward said. So his financial adviser suggested he look towards refugees.
In mid-Michigan, St. Vincent Catholic Charities of Lansing helps place refugees from around the world into jobs, homes and new lives in mid-Michigan. According to charity officials, around 500 refugees were placed into local jobs last year.
“We’ve been told by some employers that a lot of the people who are trying to apply for jobs can’t even pass the drug test, but refugees always do,” said Judi Harris, the refugee services director at St. Vincent. “They’re always able to just jump in and start right away. A lot of the folks here, they call us up and they say, ‘I own a business; but I don’t just want to hire somebody. I want to hire somebody who I can help, as well.’”
So, around the start of the year, Ward came to St. Vincent “looking for somebody to help work for him, and he was very interested in helping out refugees,” Harris said. “He called our office; he said he was looking for someone who may take over his business at some point … he needs somebody that will be able to continue on with his life’s work.”
Though St. Vincent works with more than 200 greater Lansing businesses, St. Vincent officials never before came across an offer such as Ward’s.
“We’ve never known anybody to be that generous and compassionate before,” said Harris. “We were shocked by the offer and by his intent; we think it’s incredible and very generous of him.”
“We were really heartened by the offer, but also concerned for Ward’s health,” Harris said. “We sought to find somebody who we thought would be good to work with him, somebody who had experience, somebody who can work with him and help him carry on with what he’s doing.”
That worker, a refugee from the African nation of the Sudan, who Harris said came to Lansing late last year with his wife and several children, is currently Ward’s sole full-time employee and, if interested and found to be able, is under consideration for ownership.
“I don’t think he even knew about the opportunity when he was hired,” Harris said of the refugee. “He was just going in for a job, and had some experience in the upholstery business.”
As Ward works with his new apprentice to get a feel for whether he can or wants to take over the company, he’s continuing to look for possible successors. He’s looking at area high schools and considering some forms of online solicitation.
“I’d be more than happy to give more than one person a shot,“ Ward said. “I do want to give the business to someone who is deserving of it, refugee or not … I really just want to give it to somebody who would take it over and keep the reputation that it has.”
The business is doing well, Ward said. He has a client list of around 70 businesses — mostly area restaurants in need of dining booth upholstery fixes — and about two months of work lined up at any given time.
“We’re busy seven days a week. We work 10 to 15 hours a day. I’ll never get rich, but I’ll never not be able to eat … It’s a living. It’s definitely a craft,” Ward said. “Over the past three to four years, the competition has pretty much disappeared … I haven’t looked for work in two years. The work basically comes to me.”
Now, he hopes for an heir to arrive.
“I told my wife ‘I only have so much time left’,” Ward said. “But I always wanted to see how big I can take my business.”
Those interested can contact Ward via email at email@example.com.