There’s Merit in Metaling

It’s possible that Willene Van Blair Jaqua ’81 runs her business with an iron fist.

After all, Nimba Forge, the company she now operates with husband Russell, makes all sorts of artistic and functional items from heavy metals.

For many years, Russell Jaqua (no relation to Scripps’ first president, Ernest J. Jaqua) has been an artist of note, rather unique in his preferred medium of ironwork. Eschewing the more delicate tools of the painter or ceramist, he opts for the bold and brash (and loud) combination of hammer, heat, and anvil. And though he’s been invited to exhibit his works worldwide at such prestigious galleries as the Louvre and the American Craft Museum, he and Willa soon realized there is little profit among honors.

In 1996, they found a way to turn his art into a commercially viable venture, and Nimba Forge was born in Port Townsend, WA. Building on a growing consumer taste for unique architectural décor, the scope of Russell’s repertoire expanded to include everything from intricate balconies railings to delicate wall sconces, from bed frames to weathervanes, from andirons to funky drawer pulls. Designs, too, offered the range from art deco to modern to futuristic, Americana, even medieval.

With the products in place, it was up to Willene to handle the operational side, which includes the management, marketing, and financial responsibilities. She came into it with no small business experience, but what she lacked in practiced skill, she made up for in sheer diligence.

She admits now that accounting was the most difficult to learn, specifically bookkeeping and payroll. Wisely, she determined that professional assistance might be needed at the start.

“I hired a seasoned consultant,” she recalls, “who became a marvelous mentor. From him, I learned how to grow a business—to effectively interact with the larger community and tap into referral networks. He pushed me to make cold calls, giving me sales advice and follow-up tips. It became daily homework; I had to complete an assignment, then report back to him for review.”

Willene found her niche, however, in sales and marketing. Drawing on her years working in Pomona College’s Admission Office, she knew firsthand the potential outcome of the equation “good product + comprehensive service.”

“Much of our success has been through effective marketing, not only determining what our targeted customers need, but how best to serve them. The chief mistake many companies make is not prioritizing or providing superior service.”

She cites one specific example: “In terms of global reach for our products, having a high-quality website has been crucial. We need to clearly communicate with architects and design professionals worldwide, which means providing the online tools to do so.”

Since Russell and Willa moved into architectural forging for a commercial market, business continues to expand and the future looks bright.

“We are lucky being able to do something we love in a beautiful place that we love,” she says. “We’re making it—and it just keeps getting better.”