By Michael Fitzpatrick
We live in a time where bottom lines rule the day in the world of business.
Lawrence Nolan, an admittedly disorganized, but creative and kind soul, stands in stark contrast to that profile.
Nolan owns and operates Versa-Flex, which makes bags used by photographers, videographers and grips (guys who carry sound equipment), as well as multi-use airline checkable cases, bags to carry your laptop, and on and on the list goes. His customers range from NFL Films to a pizza store owner who delivers his product in warmer bags made by Nolan 19 years ago and are still in use today.
He admits his business is swimming in debt, but he’s able to make payroll every week and his handful of employees like him.
And who wouldn’t? In a time when many employers won’t even provide workers the smallest of perks, such as free coffee on the job, Nolan bought a French press and grinder and provides the beans so his staff can have a nice cup of joe to get their day rolling.
“We just make sure we have some ready when he comes into work,” said Nancy Key, a seamstress employed by Nolan for 18 months.
She knows firsthand of the largess of Nolan’s heart. Not long ago she had a sick family member. He told her to take off time when she needed and do whatever she had to do to get through her familial crisis; her job would still be there.
“I don’t know what I would have done otherwise,” Key said.
Nolan appears to be about 6-3. His gray hair swoops around a bald pate. His goatee has gone mostly white and he wears glasses. At first glance he slightly resembles a more well-coiffed Jerry Garcia.
He doesn’t so much speak to you as deliver words in short bursts. And he’s full of stories of a man who has done much in his life, giving him rich experiences but not flush in his retirement account or cash reserves for his business.
“All of my competitors have gone out of the business and the ones still in business buy from China. I will never go to China. I’m strictly American-made,” Nolan said.
Among the jobs he’s worked through the years was a part-time gig as a loader for NFL Films, where he’d load the cameras for the guys who shoot those memorable highlight films.
He worked as a waiter and bartender at TGIFriday’s where the assistant manager fired him nine times. (“I was older and she wanted a staff younger than her,” he said.) He was brought back each and every time by the restaurant’s GM. He’s also been a wedding photographer and a videographer. He lived in New York for a while when dabbling with the idea of being an actor and it was there a roommate taught him how to sew, which helped him get into the business he now owns.
Nolan could certainly improve his business’s financial ledgers if he bought from China, but he prides himself in quality and craftsmanship of his products.
He originally went to college to become a nurse, but changed his major to cinema after he realized his lack of an attention span could end up killing someone. He admits to having severe ADHD.
“I have terminal CRS. I can’t remember stuff. If a person is going to need some drugs, I’m not going to remember that and they would die,” Nolan recalled while explaining his reasoning about leaving nursing.
His strength is his creativity, which he apparently picked up from his biological father who was an inventor. Among those inventions were the first typewriter that could erase itself as well as a self-loading pen used by architects. Another idea was for a pen that could write upside down, but, Nolan said, a major pen manufacturer stole the idea.
It’s his creativity and unusual life story that have led him to his place in life now.
Born in Rocky River, he was raised by his mother and stepfather. His biological father was Jewish, a man Nolan wouldn’t meet until he was 14.
There is even some humor in that story.
“They were all from New York and my cousins were all … ‘Oy, what’s going on,’ the whole shtick,” Nolan said.
Nolan would grow up in an Irish Catholic home.
“I wasn’t a very good Catholic. I got kicked out of Catholic school. I’ve always been one to kind of buck everything,” he said.
“The only thing Irish about me is my last name and I’m the only one that likes Irish music in my family.”
He graduated from Rocky River in 1975 and enlisted in the Navy to become a jet mechanic.
He found himself stationed on an aircraft carrier, not getting to work on planes, and became disgruntled and went AWOL.
When he returned, he apologized to his commanding officer and took full responsibility for his transgression.
The CO seemed to take pity on him, assigning Nolan to a taste of kitchen patrol, where he and another sailor were tasked with making 1,000 box lunches a night for two weeks.
From there, he was sent to what’s known as the corrosion control, a ragtag bunch of troublemakers, pot smokers and drunks, Nolan said.
But Nolan thrived. He took on a leadership role, telling his fellow sailors he didn’t care what they did on their own time, or if their uniforms were pressed or their boots spit-shined, but insisted they all do their jobs well.
Nolan eventually came to head the shop, and he even earned the respect of the ship’s admiral.
It seemed some higher-up wanted the ceiling in the bridge painted. Problem was, the ceilings of these vessels are covered with wires. It would take years using a brush to get through the wires and apply a coat of paint.
Nolan overheard two men he knew to be brothers arguing about how best to do the job as they had been assigned.
Nolan came up with an idea. He would give them aerosol cans that they could then fill with paint used for the jets to paint their ceiling.
“The whole thing took them 45 minutes and the admiral loved it,” Nolan said.
In exchange for the supplies and idea, the ship’s captain allowed Nolan to steer the ship for a brief second, which involved him moving the wheel 15 degrees in one direction and then 15 degrees back to the original position.
“And then the captain told me to get the hell off his deck,” Nolan said.
After the Navy, Nolan went to The Ohio State University to study nursing, which he did for two days before realizing his inability to focus for long periods would eventually lead to someone’s death.
He switched his major to cinematography, but left for New York six months prior to graduating when he caught the acting bug.
In New York, he learned to sew and worked a series of odd jobs, returning to Northeast Ohio in 1988 to help out with a family crisis.
From there came the restaurant jobs and the job with NFL Films. One day while Nolan was working a Browns game, one of the oldtime cameramen was complaining about his gear bag being ripped. Nolan said he could fix it for the guy and did so.
From there, he began to fix more and more bags and word spread about his fine craftsmanship.
At the same time, his then-girlfriend and now wife, Susan, gave him an ultimatum. He could either become a restaurant manager or open a business.
Nolan opted to go into business. He found space to set up shop at space owned by St. Rocco’s Church on Cleveland’s near Westside. He’d planned to share space with a woman who was going to produce curtains, but when the day came to sign the lease the lady was a no-show. Nolan took a deep breath and signed the lease himself.
He took on a partner at one point.
“The gentleman didn’t want to do any labor and it just wasn’t working out. I let him go the day after 9/11 and I found out I was $150,000 in debt,” said Nolan.
Not one to carry a grudge, Nolan takes the high road when discussing the debt.
“I would never go there,” he said. “It was bad management between the both of us.”
Nolan moved the business to North Ridgeville after his original space at the church was condemned.
He found a sales rep who was bringing him business, but the rep ended up getting sued. A drop in camera sales, sparked by the emergence of the iPhone, has been a crusher.
He continues to make due, doing embroidery work and continuing to make camera bags and such.
Currently, he’s contemplating doing bags for a famous portrait photographer but is hesitant because said photographer, whose work appears in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, sometimes doesn’t pay.
Another problem is the quality of his work is so good it eliminates the need for a buyer to replace it. For example, he made bags the North Ridgeville Fire Department uses to store its turnout gear and the department is still using those same bags to this day.
“That’s the problem with my business. I don’t get repeat customers because my stuff lasts too long,” Nolan said.
His next great idea is to make bags for high school athletic programs. He’s offered to make hockey bags for North Olmsted.
To further illustrate the dilemma, he cites lunch bags he manufactures. He would sell the bags for $20 but customers balked saying they could get a bag for $3.
The problem, according to Nolan, is those bags only last a year or so. His lunch bag cost between $10 to $12.
So Nolan finds himself in a tough place. Does he skimp on quality and make disposable bags that last a year or quality products he can take pride in? He’d prefer if he could just create, it would seem, and leave the running of the business to someone else.
“I’m an idea guy. I suck at business,” he says.
But he’s one heck of a boss and he makes one hell of a bag. In this day and age, that, and $2.45, will get you a venti-sized coffee at Starbucks.
Tags: North Ridgeville
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