Metal finishing business 'doesn't seem like work' to owner

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is advice that has been given in one form or another by everyone from Confucius to Oprah.

In this graduation season, many commencement speakers are urging their listeners to follow their passion to a fulfilling career, not dwelling on the fact that it can take people years to know exactly what that passion is, if they ever find it at all.

About 15 years after his high school graduation, Joe Mardirosian of Bluegrass Metal Finishing was lucky enough to stumble onto what would become his passion, when he was working at something entirely different.

Mardirosian had been employed for several years as a private investigator in Jacksonville, Fla., when he took some brass hinges and knockers to a shop to get polished.

On the outside, the shop was nothing special, just a plain steel building.

But inside were wonderful, shiny metal things: ornate fireplace screens with birds and leaves, old bank teller cages that had been repurposed as headboards.

"I thought, 'This is a cool shop.' And that's where I met the guy I learned this business from," he said.

It was a chance encounter that led him to where he is today: running his own shop, doing something every day that he enjoys and takes pride in.

His work can be seen in the Capitol and other state buildings in Frankfort, and seen in a more energy-efficient way because of work he did.

What worked and what didn't

Mardirosian grew up in Evansville, Ind. In vocational school, he gravitated to the print shop. He liked the attention to detail — the width of type, the spacing of fonts — as well as the artistic side. He hoped someday that could be his career. But there was something else he needed to do first.

All his TV heroes, guys with names like Mannix, Magnum and Columbo, had military backgrounds. So, as soon as he graduated, he enlisted in the Navy.

He tried to sign up as a printer, but there were no openings, so he became a parachute rigger. He served in the Arabian Gulf, where his "collateral duties" included aircraft maintenance, salvage and corrosion control. He was working with metal with no inkling how it would one day fit into his career path.

Mardirosian left the Navy in 1994 and set out on a job search.

"I put out all kinds of résumés, geared it to printing because that was something I truly enjoyed."

But the printing business was changing and companies weren't hiring. He took jobs in private security and as a bodyguard, which led to his becoming a private investigator, like Magnum, P.I. Mardirosian didn't drive a Ferrari 308, like Tom Selleck's character, but he did own a shiny bright-red American sports car.

"It ate money like there was no tomorrow. I burned through tires, paid through the nose for insurance on that thing." Those are the details that Hollywood leaves out of most scripts.

He learned that ferreting out fraud perpetrators and cheating mates wasn't as glamorous as it looked on TV, either. There were long days, and long reports to file at the end of those days. "It wasn't a good fit for me," he said.

A gutsy move

The day Mardirosian stopped in at Beaches Brass Polishing in Jacksonville, he got to talking with the owner, who complained of an employee with better things to do than show up for work. Mardirosian told him, "It sounds like you need to hire me." He apprenticed there for two years and grew comfortable with the compounds and tools used for finishing every kind of metal.

In 2004, he decided to take all the earnings from the sale of his house in Florida and move up here to start a business. "It was the gutsiest move I ever made," he said. It was also his "scariest."

In Lexington, he found a place to set up shop at Third Street and Newtown Pike and made the rounds of antiques businesses.

Antiques dealer Betty Hoopes was among those who encouraged him.

"I thought he was excellent," said Hoopes, who sold her shop several years ago.

"Joe was wonderful with the public, and his work was wonderful," Hoopes said. She urged him to join the Lexington Antiques Dealers Association. Through that group, Mardirosian made more contacts among decorators and craftsmen.

"He's very knowledgeable about metals," said Shelby Reynolds of Morningside Woodcrafters. "We recommend him all the time."

Polished presentation

Metal finishing involves both polishing and patination, or coloring, of metal.

"I can make it look old, give it a little bit new, whatever the customer wants," Mardirosian said. By cutting and coloring, he can change the finish from a polished brass to a dark Venetian bronze.

"There are so many shades," he says. Rather than try to match a "#6 brushed finish," over the phone, he likes to see a sample to make sure to get it right.

Mardirosian also does repairs.

"People asked me about fixing things ... cast iron furniture, urns. At first, I was turning them away, but then I told myself, I'm letting money go out the door. So now when they ask me, I can say yes."

His main focus is on restoring lighting fixtures, and that's what he did on many turn-of-the-century pieces at the state Capitol.

As part of his bid, he says, "I went in there and I asked them for a piece from one of the fixtures to show them what it would look like."

The people in charge liked what he showed them, and he and an employee, Ben Re, ended up doing work at the old governor's mansion and the executive mansion too.

Metallic finish

Mardirosian's customers come from all walks of life, "from schoolteachers to collectors to interior decorators." One recent job was for the renowned design firm Dorothy Draper, restoring two chandeliers for the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, one of the nation's most famous interiors.

"Every job is rewarding. Each job and each customer is different," he said.

It's the variety that keeps it interesting.

"Most schools teach you how to work for somebody. You get a job, you work for somebody. They don't teach you how to be an entrepreneur. Schools should inspire people to be entrepreneurs," he said.

There are occasional slowdowns, when there's not as much work as he'd like. A weekend job helps tide him over those times.

But when he's busy cutting, coloring or welding, and when he knows he's made a customer happy?

"It's almost as if it doesn't seem like work," he said.

Bluegrass Metal Finishing,

at 616 West Third Street, open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. M-F. Phone: (859) 421-0838.

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