By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
Up until the spring of 2009, Jill Herro said she had never touched a gun in her life.
“On a lark, I took a concealed carry class with two of my girlfriends,” said Herro. “I really enjoyed it. … I found it to be empowering and kind of fun.”
Shortly afterward, the Summit County resident unexpectedly embarked on a new career.
That’s because within months of getting her concealed carry permit, Herro lost her job of 12 years in pharmaceutical sales when her entire division was laid off as part of a corporate merger.
At the same time, Herro was looking to buy quality furniture that had a secret compartment. She wanted to hide a handgun that would be readily available if needed — but also wanted something that looked nice.
She didn’t find anything that she wanted in her and her husband’s home in Silver Lake. A lot of furniture “looked like some guy’s garage project. It didn’t look very nice,” she said.
Herro, now 56, speculated then that there were other people like her thinking the same thing.
So, instead of applying for another job in pharmaceutical sales, Herro chose a different path. Out of that, Secret Compartment Furniture was born on the last day of 2009.
“More and more women were getting into the shooting sports. And more and more women were purchasing firearms for self-protection,” Herro said. “More and more women are living alone. And so I thought there would probably be a need or desire for it. And why not take the leap?”
Herro seeded Secret Compartment Furniture with $10,000 of her own money. Her vision was designing and creating stylish, Amish-made hardwood furniture — with the requisite secret compartments — that would last generations.
“I didn’t take out any loans,” Herro said. “I didn’t get any investors. I wanted full control so I didn’t have to answer to anybody.”
The timing could have been better. The country then was still reeling from the Great Recession.
“I started at the very worst time to start a business,” Herro said. “People loved it, but there weren’t too many people buying at the time.”
Herro persevered. Sales slowly started increasing.
One problem. She soon learned that buyers loved their custom furniture but typically didn’t tell anyone that they had it, she said.
“I got no word of mouth because nobody tells anybody what’s in the furniture,” she said. “It makes it really hard to grow the business.”
But the business has grown. Herro typically markets her furniture at major gun shows around the nation.
Herro said 2017 is the first year she started drawing a paycheck. Secret Compartment Furniture was profitable from the beginning, with all profits reinvested into the business to grow it, she said.
While she comes up with the concepts and designs, it’s up to Andy Troyer, owner of Peach Tree Woodworking in Holmes County, and his staff to make the furniture. The wood shop is about an hour’s drive south of Herro’s home.
Troyer and Herro have been working together about seven years; Troyer said he will not build furniture with secret compartments for anyone else.
“It’s been a really nice working relationship,” Herro said. “He makes it all come together.”
Holmes County, which is home to numerous Amish woodworking businesses, is an “unbelievable resource,” Herro said. “I thought, why not leverage that and see what we can do.”
Troyer, 53, who is also a bishop in the Amish church, recalled the first time he and Herro met.
“Right away, I sensed the lady knew what she was doing,” he said. “The relationship just kind of built up from there. ... We have a good business relationship.”
Secret Compartment Furniture has grown to be his second-largest customer, Troyer said. “We are totally a custom shop.”
Herro’s and Troyer’s business relationship has also grown into friendship.
Some of Herro’s customers have also become friends of hers.
Kay Connor, who lives with her husband in the Cincinnati area, remembered seeing Herro’s furniture for the first time.
“My husband met her at one of the Ohio gun shows, and was totally enthralled with the concept and the quality,” Connor said.
She bought pieces, including custom designs, and keeps buying Herro’s furniture to give as gifts. “We want to support her business,” Connor said.
Her son-in-low, Carl Schneider, 34, a retired Marine, is also an owner.
“It’s really, really well-made hardwood furniture,” he said. No one who has visited him and his family can tell that the piece has a secret built-in hiding place, Schneider said.
Barb Dowd, a retired nurse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is friends with Connor and her husband, ended up buying some of Herro’s furniture. The two women also developed a friendship; Dowd says she sometimes will work for Herro at her vendor booth at gun shows.
“I loved her stuff,” said Dowd, who first became a gun owner about 10 years ago for personal protection. “I said, ‘Wow, what a concept.’ ”
Gun-related publications have done stories on Secret Compartment Furniture and Herro, which has helped generate sales and led customers to the business website, secretcompartmentfurniture.com. Herro says she has customers all over the nation and has even sold a piece to a buyer in Australia.
While she markets largely to gun owners, the furniture, which can be equipped with optional locks, can be used for more than concealing weaponry.
People also buy her pieces to hide jewelry, money and other valuables, she said.
She likes to say her furniture allows people to hide things in plain sight.
The point is not to live a life of panic but to be prudent, Herro said.
“First and foremost, it has to be a beautiful piece of furniture,” Herro said. “It has to look like a normal, beautiful piece of furniture.”
Everything is solid wood, typically maple or oak, in whatever style and finish a customer wants. Other hardwoods are available as well, Herro said.
“There’s no pressboard, there’s no fiberboard,” Herro said. “All my stuff will last forever.”
Prices range from $169 to a few thousand dollars. Herro even designs $30,000 hardwood kitchens that have secret compartments built into them. The first piece she designed is a bedside table — the smaller tables remain her best-sellers.
“I do all kinds of custom stuff,” Herro said. “I just try to put out the best product I can.”
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