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F.A.T.E. – From Addict To Entrepreneur with Phillip Cohen from Cohen Architectural Woodworking

The inspirational story of being born into chaos, overcoming addiction and manic depression and building a successful supportive $12 million woodworking company

In the latest F.A.T.E. profile, we spoke to Phil Cohen Founder and CEO of Cohen Architectural Woodworking. Phil has quite a story of addiction and manic depression. He grew up in Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta, left home and wandered the country. At the age of twenty-five, Phil’s father committed suicide. He then ended up in rural Tennessee, where he started doing woodworking “because it was therapeutic.” He became good at it. It was 1975 and people started buying from him, and they kept coming back for more. Over the years he slowly built a dynamic, supportive company, employing 80 people, many who are recovering addicts themselves. What I learned most speaking with Phil is the raw emotion and pain he still feels from the childhood he grew up in and how he finds healing by channeling that into supporting other addicts by building an amazing company and integrating supportive programs throughout.

Predetermined to be an addict?

It seemed that Phil was set up to be an addict from the get go. He grew up in an addicted, violent home. His father was in and out of mental hospitals. His dad was a womanizer who claimed he was allergic to pain. So, to deal with that he drank, gambled, popped painkillers – he was an addict in every sense of the word.

At an early age Phil’s father began abusing him, leaving gaping insecurities and wounds. He would beat him with a belt or a cane, spit in his face, tell him he was a monster and that he would die in a gutter. His mother attempted suicide several times. This led to rage and anger at such a young age. Phil only wanted to destroy himself to lessen that pain. At 17, living in Mexico, he turned to sex, drugs and whatever he could find to escape. He was strung out almost daily on L.S.D. for about three years and smoked pot every day for about seven. Phil went to drug stores, bought bottles of Robitussin with codeine and would drink the whole thing. He purchased amphetamines, Benzedrine, Dexedrine, taking mega doses that kept him awake for days on end until he was hallucinating to the point that the buildings next to him seemed like they were wobbling. It was Phil’s way of escaping from his reality.

By the time he was in his twenties, Phil had extreme anger and rage as he describes below, “…when I was in my twenty’s I had these extremely violent and sexual fantasies all over the board and just realizing how easy it would be to act them out tormented me even more. Several my friends had been murdered or committed suicide. I had this fiery ball of rage inside me.

“I went to a psychiatrist who gave me a personality assessment and told me I had so much rage that if I didn’t get into a hospital I would likely harm somebody. I didn’t want to listen to this little lady who wore heavy make up because I was looking for someone who was real. So, I went away. I think what spared me at that time was a roommate moved in with me who let me tell him my fantasies. He could empathize with me. He didn’t have the same fantasies but it’s like he normalized what I was going through.”

This state of always wanting to destroy himself persisted in Phil. He believes what saved him was that no matter how isolated and abandoned he felt, there always seemed to be one person who didn’t give up on him. Phil describes these individuals as “a candle in the night”. However, it was a very dark time as Phil explains his views on hitting “rock bottom”.

“I call them false bottoms. When you think you’ve hit rock bottom you start getting used to that bottom. But then you fall more and hit another bottom. At some point you realize there’s no bottom until you land in the grave. I got lower than I ever thought I would get. I’d look at myself in the mirror and saw “the face of a dead rat.” I had constant hatred and contempt for myself. It wasn’t so much the drugs, as much as the self-hatred and just all the harm that I was bringing to myself, like getting alone and writing myself into places of insanity, pushing heavy doses of drugs and alcohol into my body, forcing myself not to sleep and forcing myself to eat until I felt shame and wanting to live inside that cloud of shame.”

Phil’s introduction to woodworking

It was 1975 and just before Phil was to get married. He was living in a strict religious community that required its members to find occupations working with their hands. Working with his hands in a quiet environment became his escape, a way to get some therapeutic value worked into his day. Having taken a woodworking class in high school, Phil owned a bandsaw and drill press, borrowed some other tools and started building really nice porch swings from walnut, cherry, and cedar. He varnished them and included hardware, selling them for $20 each. It would take him all day to make one swing, and with materials costing about $10, he was able to earn $10 a day for his labor which at the time felt like a lot of money to him, after being broke for so many years.

The ultra-strict church community he joined told him if he didn’t marry the girlfriend he had lived with before they came to the community, he would need to remain single forever. They told his girlfriend if she didn’t marry Phil, she could go work in a nursing home in Canada. The church leaders kept driving this message home. Their messaging worked and Phil and his wife got married because they were so scared if they didn’t they would end up alone forever. Phil expresses in raw form, “I got married just for sex and a housekeeper and she got married because she didn’t want to work in a nursing home in some place with long, cold winters. Our wedding day felt like starting a life sentence in prison. We hated each other and bickered all the time, and ended up having 9 children.”

Now married, he and his wife moved into a tiny 24 x 24 house. It had been built out of rough lumber back in the 40’s. The house had no underpinning or insulation. Phil converted half the house into a wood shop, while he and his wife slept in the attic. He built porch swings, wooden trucks with roller skate wheels, baby cradles, and bird houses. His wife painted and decorated them. They sold the toy trucks for $10 and got up to $100 for the baby cradles, which were a big hit.

When woodworking was slow he supplemented his income by doing odd jobs – picking up hay, doing carpentry, building barns, etc. Hard labor was something Phil loved because it provided him a way to escape the pain. However, he knew that woodworking was his passion. It all came through to him one night while building cabinets in the house he was building his UPS driver.

He clearly recounts the night he discovered woodworking was how he wanted to spend his life. “The night I started building his (UPS driver) cabinets I started crying because I just knew this is what I wanted to do. Woodworking is my soul. I could express my soul in woodworking.” People kept coming back for more products and told their friends. This built Phil’s confidence. “To be able to project myself into that and into thinking like a craftsman and doing things that were beautiful for people and people came back for it and it just brought a lot of healing and tranquility and sanctuary into my soul. Within a few years we were making some pretty big money.”

Business Success with a Broken Soul

Fast forward to the mid 90’s; Phil’s woodworking business had become very successful and Phil was living the American dream. Despite this success however, it didn’t change the thoughts in his head – the feelings of inferiority, the self-hatred which also affected how he raised his children. He describes his constant agony, “I still had all that self-hatred. Nine children, no debt, living in the country, living the dream, making 150K a year and I had all that self-hatred. I raised my children and I was there but I kept my distance from them because I was afraid I’d hurt them and so they basically grew up without a dad. Later, apologized for the damage I did to them. I was a tyrant. I wounded them. I inflicted in them the same wounds I had received from my father and life, only I hid behind religion.” He continues, “We all go through those feelings during our addictions. The self-loathing, the self-hatred, the shame. Unable to share feelings with others, to seek out therapy or help. We isolate and self-punish. This leaves us in a very dark place.”

Confused and filled with all of this rage, anger and self-hatred Phil was looking for answers wherever he could find them. He had joined the strict religious community church that put a lot of emphasis on a lifestyle of hard work. They were instructed to isolate themselves from their families and friends who weren’t exactly like them. It was a very close cult like community. They were taught that your emotions were sinful, so when Phil’s father committed suicide he was taught not to grieve for his death. All this was building up inside which led him to write a book which ended up becoming a bestseller in their denomination. People were coming to Phil for help and he realized he couldn’t help them. He still had so many demons inside and was behaving out of control, fantasizing about other women, medicating with large portions of food, and on the edge of suicide.

The church community was toxic for Phil and his family. They preached that the church had more authority than the family and if you ever left the church you had to leave on your own and you couldn’t take your family with you. In 2000, Phil and his family left the church. The church leaders did everything they could to break his family apart. They spoke strongly against Phil to his family. Fortunately, a couple of men guided Phil through that storm. They told him to be careful not to say anything against the church leaders, regardless of what they said against him.

During this time Phil was also dealing with manic-depression. The church leaders knew it, so they preyed on him. They knew what buttons to push to put him in a full tailspin and tried to pit his children against him by telling them how crazy he was. But this was a time that Phil really started being transparent, which allowed him to start healing. The contrast between his transparency and the church leaders’ dishonesty revealed itself to his family. “They saw calm dishonesty in them and chaotic transparency coming from me. They could see through the church leaders’ dishonesty. Although it was very confusing for our children, they trusted me. I started embracing the value of transparency. Like they say in recovery you’re only as sick as your secrets”.

Despite leaving the church and experiencing some positive breakthroughs, Phil attributes his biggest turning point to a weeklong leadership retreat he attended in California in 2009. The retreat comprised of group meetings with eight or nine other leaders with therapists facilitating. Their job was to help people open what was inside, even if it caused conflict. While partaking in these group sessions, the group had a major meltdown and Phil believes he was the catalyst. The other leaders in the group were angry with him and whatever he said made it worse. At the end of the week he talked to the main psychologist who told him he had major emotional detachment issues. Once again, Phil felt hopeless and broken beyond repair. The psychologist gave him two pieces of advice that Phil believes changed his life.

“He said I need to take responsibility for my own growth and to get myself into some small groups where people confide in each other.

“I thought the first one was doable although I didn’t know that it would help because I saw myself was broken beyond repair. The small group thing looked impossible, because who would want to be in a group with screwed up me?

“By a string of small miracles, I was able to form some small groups, and join a couple others. the groups helped me move toward the roots of my pain and I slowly learned to connect emotionally with others.”

Searching for answers and finding what worked

As with most addicts, Phil shifted one addiction to another. Eating was an outlet for him and he ate and ate and ate. He consolidated all of his addictions into eating until he was up to 300 pounds.

“I was close to 300 pounds and I could do about five minutes on a treadmill. I went to overeaters anonymous and the ones I was in just didn’t work. I worked the program and I saw people who never lost weight, they never got well. I’m just like I have to swallow a lot of pride and to turn to God. The advice from what I learned is to swallow your pride and do whatever you’ve got to do.”

Everyone has their own path and there is not one way to do recovery. For Phil however, it was turning back to God. Phil recalls, “I did promise God that if he healed me I’d give my life to healing others and so in 2002 I was able to get off Lithium (for manic-depression) through the help of prayer, Counselor, the Bible and journaling. I journal heavily, it helps putting my thoughts and feelings on paper and I look at them. I currently journal about 60 to 80 pages every month. I spend about one to two hours journaling in solitude every morning. I’m in a small group of men who do the same thing. We’ve made that commitment and we share our journals with each other. That’s where much of my health comes from.”

These practices started with creating a simple formula of stopping what is not healthy and adopting practices that are healthy which sounds easy, but addict’s emotions are always in a state of turmoil which makes practices like these challenging. When coming out of our addictions we become completely obsessive about new things. For me it was work and entrepreneurship and Phil experienced the same thing with his work. When Phil started building cabinets for Wal-Mart he put a ton of pressure on himself and pushed himself really hard. He drove himself so hard that he would work 20 hours straight without sleep and work himself into insanity. A healthy outlet quickly turned unhealthy which is not surprising in the addiction world.

Turning the corner

In 2004 things started shifting for Phil, when he and his family moved with the business from rural southern Missouri to Saint James, Missouri. He wasn’t one of those addicts who all of the sudden saw huge fixes, rather he gradually saw small turnarounds that he never had before. He was on a path of growth, and immersed himself in learning about entrepreneurship and leadership two things he had very limited knowledge of. He consumed himself with reading leadership books from Jim Collins, John Maxwell and others. He would read 30+ books a year and be a sponge learning as much as he could.

Throughout his devotion to learn about leadership, his growth and through his experience Phil shares some of his perspective, “I’ve learned that we’re batteries, we’re not power sources and as batteries we need to be recharged and we need to find healthy sources to recharge us so things like carbs and alcohol will not recharge us but things like sunlight and exercise and doing life with balance, healthy tension, and proper rest will recharge us. So, from there I developed a written “growth and recovery” plan that I revise every year in January. I assign time and money to it. I spend about 50% to 60% of my waking hours in growth and recovery.”

“See those of us who have been wounded, we live in a state of hyper-vigilance and you can’t sustain that. You’re going to fry yourself and turn to medication to keep driving yourself. Many people believe we’re created to stay fully engaged and then rest when we’re exhausted. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe we’re created to live from a state of rest and engage when we need to engage. So, the more we can live from that place of inner rest, the less craving we have to medicate. We don’t need addictions pushing us into overdrive, so we look for healthy ways to find rest and restoration. Then we’ll have reserves of healthy energy when we need to engage.

“So, I think if you follow me around you would find me tranquil a lot of the time. Like just before I get up to speak to an audience. I’ll be quiet for several hours before, or maybe several days. I put myself into power saver mode, so I can get a slow, deep charge and be ready. Also, if I know I’m going to face an intense season, I’ll intentionally preschedule a recovery time for afterwards.”

Building a business from lessons learned while giving addicts a second chance

All of the lessons that Phil has learned, he puts into practice at his company. His employees call their workplace their sanctuary. He recognizes the triggers that affect people, such as undue mental and emotional stress from unfinished tasks or unresolved conflicts. Phil established some rules to better manage them. If a task is to be done and is not completed at that moment, then it gets scheduled so it isn’t carried around mentally all week causing people to constantly try and remember what they committed to. Whenever two people are in conflict, they have 24 hours to resolve it privately and respectfully because Phil believes, and I agree, when you’re carrying around all these unresolved conflicts that’s when you’re going to look for a way to medicate. Phil also provides the necessary training to help people confront each other in healthy ways. This allows employees to develop the necessary communication skills to work at their very best.

Phil also has his employees list of all the basic life skills they never were taught, and he has them go down the list; some examples are managing money, managing sexuality, relating to women, relating to children, managing emotions, etc. Seeing this list allows his employees to identify the areas of weakness and address them.

You see back in 2005 when Phil started hiring employees he didn’t believe good employees would come and work for him. Because of this belief he hired people who were like him. He hired people who had been involved in felonies, who had addiction issues and came in as broken people. They were screwed up people, just like Phil.

Phil talks about this strategy, “I’m not like the guy up here who’s helping the people down there. I’m still one of them just finding my way and so we kept raising our standards. When people come in we tell them we’re not looking for addicts and felons, we’re looking for people who will conquer whatever gets in their way. Many times, people who have gotten that low are ready to get up and fight for their life and for their family and for their future. So, if they come here I don’t care what their background is, we tell them to draw a hard line on their past bad choices and never cross it. Start becoming the person you’re supposed to be, and we will help you get there. But if you cross that line we let you go.

“Every culture needs its own language and we have ours. Like the 4D’s that will get you fired: Drama. Drugs. Dishonesty. Defects.

Drama: Bring the best version of you to work. This shows respect for your fellow workers and our customers. If you have a conflict with someone, please resolve it privately and respectfully within 24 hours. If you need help or coaching with this, please come to us.

Drugs: We do random drug testing. If you test positive, unfortunately we must let you go. You can reapply for a job in 30 days.

Dishonesty: We never knowingly misrepresent anything. We tell the truth, even when it hurts.

Defects: This is because the customer pays us to deliver it right, the first time.”

Along with the 4D’s Phil came up with the 5C’s as well. These 5C’s are core criteria the company drives which Phil summarizes below:

“Character – if you have bad character that’s a disqualifier whether everything else is in line or not.

Competency – you want to be the best in the world at what you’re doing, whether you’re an engineer or a craftsman or a leader whatever it is.

Culture fit – you respect our culture and create good chemistry with your fellow workers.

Correction – it is important that you can both take and give correction because if you think about it… to drive between here and the next city, if you take your hands off the steering wheel what’s going to happen? So how many times you need to correct your vehicle, going from here to there and we need course correction all the time so you need to have an acquired taste to be able to take correction and give it.

Commitment – when we see commitment then you start coming up in the company.”

By integrating the 4D’s and the 5C’s Phil has seen great success. For example, Phil hired a guy who used to be the biggest meth dealer in the region who is now one of their project managers. They trust him with millions of company dollars.

Another employee’s parents were both drug dealers, He wasn’t allowed to have any friends. When he was twelve someone murdered two of his cousins. One of them fell on him, leaving him with nightmares. He became an addict himself, and landed in prison. He got married and he and his wife had a rocky marriage. He started attending 12-step meetings a few years before he came to work for Cohen. They hired him as a laborer. He worked his way up from the bottom and is now an estimator also trusted with millions of dollars’ worth of decisions. His wife also works at Cohen, and she says it’s her dream job.

Their plant manager came in straight from drug rehab. It was his first job out of rehab and he was also hired as a laborer. He is now on the verge of becoming the COO of the company.

Phil says not everyone has survived and thrived in their environment. Some people aren’t ready to look inside themselves and face what is going on and the behaviors they need to change. However, these are the few versus the many and do not impact Phil’s focus of continuing to reach out and giving others a second chance.

In 2013 Phil’s management team decided to conduct an experiment to see if they could use the Bible and prayer to build their business. Phil describes what happened, “Some of the guys were not Christians, some of them had no Bible knowledge and we just started building it and we created a sanctuary work place where we don’t allow drama or dishonesty. We don’t allow adversarial relationships with our customers or anybody, and instead we’re here to serve and help other people succeed. I crafted a metaphor back in 2015 with a tree in power point and I said what if we spend the entire year making a healthy root system for the company.” His advice, “Do everything it takes to make the company and the people in it healthy and see what happens.” That year they almost doubled their sales.

Cohen Architectural Woodworking is now a $12 million company in Missouri. Phil’s company averages between 75-90 employees in a 54,000 square foot facility and uses a lot of high-tech equipment making custom millwork and cabinets for clients nationwide. He has won several awards for his efforts and was recently named the 2017 Small Business Administration Businessperson of the Year for the State of Missouri, and one of the most admired CEO’s in the St Louis region. I truly admire the road Phil has travelled to get to where he is today. The environment he has set up within his company is to support other addicts and give them a safe place to not only have a job but more importantly to grow as human beings, to feel valued again and to learn life experiences so they are better in all aspects of their life. On top of this, the woodworking that his company does is impeccable and I would encourage everyone to check them out at www.cohenwoodworking.com.

If anyone is interested about learning more about Phil’s company and programs he has instituted, please reach out to him at [email protected]

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