About 30% of the business at Wells Upholstery is automotive, including the work on this 1957 Chevy Bel Air. Photos contributed
Written by Breanna Hardy
A Fresno-based upholstery business has represented the Central Valley among the world’s largest tech companies. The company that started in a 400-square-foot garage two and a half years ago has only grown during the pandemic.
Kodey Wells, 28, president of Wells Upholstery, has become acquainted with Silicon Valley. His resume boasts upholstery work for Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Michigan-based electric adventure vehicle maker Rivian.
Some of the projects in the Bay Area include custom booths for cafeterias, window treatments and acoustical panels for soundproof walls.
“We’re bringing all that Bay Area money back to Fresno,” Wells said.
He added that his industry “is all about relationships.”
Their work is about 70% commercial and 30% automotive, working on trucks, boats and cars.
The design plans are drawn using engineering software, and then sewn in house and completed by a 10-person team at their facility near the Fresno airport.
“With all that success, it’s really been just because of the great team behind us,” Wells said. “I really would not be able to do this if I didn’t have a great team.”
His team has carried on a legacy that came long before signing onto big-name projects.
Wells grew up in the upholstery industry alongside his father, David. David Wells started in the business when he was 16, working for Hatcher’s Upholstery. At 18, he moved to Oakhurst, opened David Wells Upholstery and met Kodey’s mother, Keri. They moved to Clovis and purchased the Hatcher’s Upholstery name in 1983. Kodey came along in 1992.
“My father taught me how to sew when I was barely 12 years old,” Wells said.
When Wells’ parents died in a car accident, it reinforced his passion for entrepreneurship in the upholstery business.
“At 15 years old, I had to learn what it means to be responsible — how to be independent,” he said.
Wells earned a scholarship from the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship while pursuing his degree in entrepreneurship from Fresno State. He put his scholarship toward opening his new business out of his garage. That was two and a half years ago.
“I transformed the garage into a full-blown shop in my house,” he said.
Things have since come full circle for his family legacy when Wells made his first hire, who had worked with Wells’ father in the early ‘90s. Wells says Tony Sustaita, foreman at Wells Upholstery, is like family.
Sustaita started in the 1970s in the upholstery industry, but in 1992 he started working with Wells’ father.
“Something I’ve always told my kids, and everybody knows, that if you enjoy doing something, it’s not work,” Sustaita said. “It’s always a challenge and I do enjoy it. I still enjoy it and that’s why I’m still doing it.”
Sustaita was there when Wells’ father crafted the booths at Sal’s Mexican Restaurant in Fresno.
“It was a big project. We were doing all the booths over there at Sal’s, and we had to cut out brand new wood — everything,” Sustaita said.
Wells got to reinstall the very booths that his father had installed 25 years ago with his own upholstery business.
Other local projects have included customizing leather chairs for The Lime Lite restaurant in Fresno and reupholstering pews in the relocated chapel at Peoples Church.
The Lime Lite had Wells Upholstery customize 30 chairs just before the pandemic spread.
“We literally built them from nothing into something,” he said.
Wells Upholstery also does library work for schools, and has the opportunity to work on Fresno State’s new student union.
Opportunity for expansion has fueled the young company. Wells Upholstery received a Small Business Administration loan for $754,000 that allowed them to purchase a new building for $570,000 and cover construction costs. Construction includes knocking out the wall of the current building and expanding their entire shop so that commercial and automotive workspaces are separate.
Their industrial space is home to five connecting units.
“We purchased two units from our landlord, which will more than double our square footage,” Wells said.
Wells drew up the plans on engineering software himself, and he believes the amount of detail in the drawing plans is why the SBA loan was approved quickly.
“It’s a sewing joke, but we’re busting at the seams,” said Wells.
The upholstery business occupies a 3,300 square foot space in their current industrial building — the expansion will bring it to a total of 9,000 square feet.
Wells Upholstery will have a new CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine in their expanded facility as well.
Showroom customers and designers will be able to select their materials in the new warehouse space.
From car seats and restaurant booths to curtains and soundproof walls, “We interact with upholstery everywhere we go,” Wells said.
Though Covid has slowed remodeling in multiple industries, they’ve managed to grow during the pandemic, and Wells says it’s all about scaling the business.
Because of this mindset, they’ve managed to have a record year despite Covid-19. And he says it’s due to scaling his business and making production more efficient.
“It’s one thing to do $100,000, but then what does it look like to do $1 million? What does it look like to do $10 million? So that’s the idea of scaling your business,” Wells said.