For Corey Milligan one of the best things about being named Business Person of the Year by the Teton Board of Realtors was seeing the Bar J Wranglers perform at the awards event.
“The boys sang one last time — I forgot how awesome they are,” said the founder of New West KnifeWorks, a maker of chef-worthy knives that are so beautiful that they’ve been described in reviews as “kitchen jewelry” and “knife art.”
But the award is also a nice acknowledgement of the business Milligan has built. New West KnifeWorks turns 25 next year. It has a small factory in Victor, Idaho, a thriving internet business and stores in Napa Valley, California, Park City, Utah, and Jackson, with more stores planned in Denver, Chicago and Sonoma County, California.
That’s a long way from when Milligan was, in his words, a “temperamental artist” selling his knives at art fairs in Miller Park.
“I think of myself as a reluctant businessman,” Milligan said. “After all this time it feels good,” he said of the award.
Des Jennings, an associate broker at Jackson Hole Sotheby’s International Realty who’s president of the Teton Board of Realtors, said Milligan came onto the board’s radar when, early in the pandemic, he had New West KnifeWorks mass produce hand sanitizer and give it away.
“He took matters into his own hands and made a difference,” Jennings said.
And Milligan also stood out for how he operates his business.
“From everything I’ve seen and heard he’s able to really retain a happy group of employees working for him,” Jennings said. “It’s a testament to his character and to his management and leadership style. That was enough to make him the choice for this year.”
For his part Milligan gives credit to New West KnifeWorks’ employees for the business’ success. Twenty or so years ago he received some sage advice on that score from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. At the time Milligan and his wife were living in Ventura, California, so she could work for the outdoor apparel company.
One of Chouinard’s tips was, “If you want to learn to surf you can’t schedule it for 2 o’clock on Thursday.”
The message there, Milligan said, was you can’t micromanage every aspect of your business and be there all the time. You have to structure it so you can step back and be looking forward, not just focused on the now.
“And you can go skiing on a powder day,” Milligan said.
Lesson No. 2 from Chouinard was, “Hire smart people and let them do their job.” Loose translation: Don’t try to make yourself feel important by bossing people around.
Milligan took all that to heart and today has 50 employees who wow him.
“I’ve been able to hire incredibly talented people, and I let them do their job, and they are just awesome,” Milligan said. “I feel surrounded by incredible talent.”
Milligan also feels fortunate that the pandemic hasn’t stopped his company from going full steam ahead.
“Fortunately for us there was two weeks of uncertainty and [then] it kept trucking all the way through,” he said. “I feel blessed.
“The internet went crazy when everyone was stuck at home cooking for the first time,” he said. The Jackson store “went crazy all through the year. Our stores in Napa and Park City were slower, but the internet and Jackson made up for it.”
Now, he said, New West KnifeWorks is “just firing on all cylinders” and growing at a 30% to 40% rate.
Through all the growth the creative side of him is working to sustain the vision of New West KnifeWorks’ product being art. But the reluctant businessman is pretty happy with the business side of things too.
“There’s something awesome about owning your own business,” Milligan said. “You can do your own thing.”