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Making It
New closet systems promise to make owners doubly virtuous -- organized and green

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Noel Sweeney has taken two household fads -- getting organized and going green -- and combined them into a niche business that he hopes to turn into another trend: eco-friendly closet systems.

Noel, 32, grew up in County Donegal in Ireland and attended the University of Ulster in Belfast, where he received a degree in construction engineering and management. Because "opportunities always seem to be great in America," he crossed the Atlantic in 1997 for a job with C.J. Coakely, an interior construction firm based in Falls Church. He worked at Coakely for eight years, but also built a couple of Irish pubs with some partners, eventually leaving Coakely to focus on the pubs. He bought, fixed up, rented and later sold four houses in Arlington. He worked as a part-time bartender and even sang in bars. (In fact, that's how he met his wife of three years.) The schedule, he says, "was just insane."

Noel wanted to get back into construction and decided to "pick a specialty market, focus on one product and give good customer service for that particular market." By perusing the Yellow Pages in various cities, he noticed that the Washington region had a relative dearth of closet-organizing companies. He determined that the way to stand out would be to offer green products. "Why not do it from a socially responsible perspective and make money?" he says.

Noel trademarked Econize (a combination of ecology and organize), as well as several other names. Then he picked out an environmentally certified composite panel made of recycled wood and, to cut down on transport costs, an East Coast manufacturer. He invested about $200,000 in start-up costs, using profits from his other endeavors, and launched the company in January.

Noel says he can make eco-friendly closet spaces available for the same cost as other closet systems, in part because he's not paying huge franchising or warehouse fees and has low overhead; his business is on the historic farm he and his wife own in Clifton. (Alannah Boyle Sweeney co-owns and operates the Boyle School of Irish Dance.) His systems range from $600 to "whatever the heck you would like." He makes an effort to be eco-friendly beyond his product, printing brochures on recycled paper, using recycled shipping containers and installing energy-efficient lighting at his warehouse, a 100-year-old barn on the property.

Gary Nash, owner of Nash Construction, had Noel install a master closet system in his home, in Fauquier County. "He did great work," he says. "I really like Noel. He's got a strong Irish accent, and he's really personable. And he's a real mover and shaker and go-getter. If anyone will make it, it will be Noel Sweeney."

Econize has two designers and two two-person installation crews. It has done about 80 jobs and has brought in close to $400,000 in sales. Noel, who was making about $80,000 a year as an engineer, is able to pay himself almost double that.

Noel is quite pleased with how Eco-nize is doing, especially considering the economic downturn. The business was featured in a segment for a PBS show called "Building Green" that will air this fall. "We're so busy it's hard to keep up," he says. "The scary thing is, what the heck is going to happen when we have good times? It's just going to explode."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail changb@washpost.com.

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