I used to live right next to the warehouse in NW Portland where Finex Cast Iron skillets are made. Unless I was taking "edgy" photos against abandoned railroad tracks, or picking up my towed car from the storage lot, it's not often that I would venture into the industrial area. Meeting Mike Whitehead proved my ignorance of the true creatives that inhabit all of those unmarked concrete structures. As a local Kickstarter success and founder of Finex, Mike has garnered a reputation as an entrepreneur and hero of contemporary cast iron cookware. Given his commercial success, I was curious to find out Mike's personal journey as a creative and what inspired him to take on such a bold industrial endeavor.
Mike Whitehead is the man behind FINEX, a cookware manufacturing company tucked in the industrial outskirts of Northwest Portland. From the outside, it’s a seemingly modest operation. Everything is designed and manufactured in the Beaver State by a nimble team of 6 full-time employees and 8 talented contractors.
Despite their humble origins, FINEX produces world-class products that just can’t stay on the shelves. “When someone picks up our cookware I’ve seen them hug it, rub their face against it,” says Mike. “Immediately, you see the wheels turn on how they are going to use it.”
With every feature story and food blog cameo, their gorgeous octagonal skillets continue to gain steam. FINEX products have been back ordered since the holidays, so if you’re eyeing some new age cast iron, you’ll have to get in line behind everyone from Midwestern moms to Williamsburg hipsters.
While it’s easy to admire the wire-spring handle or the flax-oil-shellacked surface, WeMake wanted to check out the maker behind FINEX’s mission to be “Delicious by Design.” With product development background, Mike’s path to founding FINEX wasn’t a far stretch, but it was a giant leap of faith. “It was one of my ideas, among others, and I chipped away at it,” he said. “If you do something for 30 minutes a day for a year, you’ll have something at the end. I chipped away at FINEX for 30 minutes a day in late 2012, carried it around as a folder, ran it by my friends, trying to get them to convince me I was crazy. A lot of them said to keep going.”
Mike stands about 6’4” with black-rimmed glasses and a Cheshire Cat like smile. His energetic personality gives off an infectious level of excitement that must contribute to his successful entrepreneurial career. “Trying to start something big favors extroverts. You have to be pathologically optimistic and willing to take a bullet for your idea,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s war, but it’s profoundly stressful with only the briefest periods of amazing intense fun.”
The profound stress of starting a manufacturing business from scratch could make anyone cave. There were times Mike thought about turning back to the safety of a cubicle and direct deposit. But FINEX was in motion once he launched on Kickstarter. “It’s easier to hold yourself accountable when you promise concrete results and over 2,000 people back you.I knew I couldn’t quit when we did Kickstarter,” he said. “You are naked to the world. What you are saying is ‘if you back me, I’ll jump, and my plan is to land’.”
With a history of distractibility and excitability, Mike has a short and intense attention span. Yet when he focuses, his fervor is unmatched. “An idea is a vision, and a vision without execution is a hallucination. I don’t want to screw around talking about an idea, I want to do something this month or this week. The rewards don’t go to the person with the best ideas, they go to the person that gets out of bed in the morning and tries harder. The number one indicator of success is how hard people work.”
Within minutes of meeting Mike, you understand he’s passionate, ambitious, and just the person to pull off a production like FINEX. His talent and drive led him to revolutionize an age-old product. His charisma and teamwork helped FINEX’s Kickstarter become 800% funded. But where did this wiry, complex character gain these invaluable qualities?
“I’m a cockroach,” said Mike. “I run well on adrenaline. It has a lot to do with how I grew up. I always land on my feet a little faster than the guy next to me.” Mike was raised in a rough home and endured an even harder time at school. He was picked on in the classroom and beat up at the bus stop. “[It was] none of the things you would wish on a kid but I haven’t lacked in character-building experiences.” Mike found fulfillment in tinkering, breaking, and fixing. Just like any engineer in the making, he would tear apart his dad’s tools and appliances just to put them back together. His mom encouraged him to take advanced classes and skip grade levels, setting him on a course to graduate from high school and enroll in college when he was just 15 years old. At secondary school, Mike bloomed. “I was the newspaper photographer and the yearbook photographer. I ran for student council; I was in the honors program. I was rush chairman and little sister liaison and a little brother to a sorority. And also took all upper level classes, but then failed them all,” Mike said. “My major was interdisciplinary studies. That’s what they give a guy who can’t make up his mind. I’m not an engineer. I’m a college graduate with a BA. I focus on things intensely for short periods of time.”
So in the years after college, Mike refined his focus in engineering and project management. Transplanting from Maine to Oregon in the early 1990s, he saw Portland mature into a rapidly growing yet consistently nurturing city. With a background in the manufacturing business, Mike fell in love with the long-standing trade industries of Portland—from shipbuilding to welding. With a continuous pull towards the creative side of engineering, Mike’s destiny to become a maker was triggered by a defining moment.
“Creating FINEX came on the tails of my wife and I trying to get pregnant for five years and failing again and again and again. The process is designed to just break our heart. I had a reaction among many to create something,” said Mike. “[FINEX] was where I channeled some of my grief and my interest and my pain and my passion. That’s what fueled this even though I didn’t realize it at first.”
Mike was able to turn a painful situation into creative momentum. With a deep admiration for cast iron, he began to develop his initial skillet invention. He wanted to create products that could be heirlooms—perhaps fulfilling a wish to leave a legacy behind. Within a year he had the full-blown idea, and in another year he had the funding. “I remember the morning when I was waiting for the skillet to come out of the foundry,” he said. “I imagine in a way it was like waiting for a child to be born. Let’s just say the process involved a lot of pacing.” (Don't worry, his first skillet turned out perfect.)
While the lines that outline our lives can become blurred by hardship or botched by heartbreak, we have the power to reshape ourselves. “I didn’t write my script or choose where I was born. But those things really made me who I am,” said Mike. “Life isn’t linear but at some point towards the end, we connect the dots and pretend we like we knew what we were doing. These are the dots I’ve connected."
Mike’s urge to make is distinctly and beautifully human, and he would argue that we all have an undeniable urge to create. “Even if it’s how you get to work or how you stir your coffee, we’re all makers. Some of us make things that get more attention, or weigh more, or are more obvious. We’re all makers and everyone is trying to make a solution to some problem that they have, and they are going to pick up anything around them within reach to solve it.”