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Originally published June 26, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified June 27, 2011 at 6:16 PM

In Person: Closing of Fremont's Lucca Statuary becomes new beginning for Miguel Hernandez

Miguel Hernandez could barely speak English when he moved from Denver to Seattle in 1999. Eleven years later, he's running his own business and reviving a local landmark in the garden-ornament trade.

Seattle Times business reporter

Miguel Hernandez

Newly minted entrepreneur

How he got there: Hernandez went from employee to owner when Lucca Statuary closed; he opened a new firm on the same well-known spot.

How it pays: "I made more money when I was an employee ... now I only give myself $10 an hour."

What he sells: Fleur de Lis, his new company, has items from $7 to $3,200 — fountains, benches, urns, gargoyles and birdbaths.

Miguel Hernandez could barely speak English when he moved from Denver to Seattle in 1999. Eleven years later, he's running his own business and reviving a local landmark in the garden-ornament trade.

He took over Lucca Statuary in Fremont two months after it closed on Jan. 31, 2010.

Lucca's closing was "the end of an era," said Robyn Cannon, a garden designer and former customer. The 19-year-old business had become the Northwest's largest supplier of European-style statuary, she said.

"There was a great love of the products for so many years," former Lucca owner Francine Katz said. "When people heard we were going out of business, they were like, 'Oh wow, where are we going to get this stuff?'"

Cue Hernandez, who had worked for Lucca Statuary for nine years. He rented the land, changed the name to Fleur de Lis Garden Ornaments, and reopened with an inventory of five fountains.

Hernandez, 39, now works seven days a week and has five employees, including his 18-year-old son.

"People tell me I'm crazy," Hernandez said, but that hasn't dissuaded him. "All good things are hard. If it's not going to be easy, it's good. And I can tell that, so far, I'm doing well."

He was born in Mexico near the border and began coming to the U.S. when he was 17. He lived in Texas, Las Vegas and Denver before moving permanently to Seattle in 1999.

After six months at a printing press, Hernandez went to work at Lucca. Four months later he was promoted to yard manager, supervising 12 employees, organizing the inventory and setting up deliveries.

Katz recalled Hernandez early on expressed interest in molding pieces to sell at Lucca Statuary.

"He went to library, got a mold-making book and a Spanish-English dictionary and taught himself to make molds," Katz said.

Before coming to Seattle, Hernandez said, there was no need to learn the language because of the large Spanish-speaking communities in the cities where he lived. Once he got here, Hernandez knew it was time to learn and took classes at North Seattle Community College. He said he's in the process of obtaining his U.S. citizenship as well.

Katz and her business partner Peter Riches started to struggle in 2009.

With the recession and a foreclosure epidemic squeezing many households, "buying a $1,500 fountain was conspicuous consumption," Katz said. "It was like, put the breaks on, and 80 percent of those customers went away."

They warned Hernandez two months before closing the store, giving him just enough time to start molding more of his own pieces and start selling his work at farmers markets. A few days after Lucca closed, Hernandez also had a booth at the Northwest Flower and Garden show at the Washington State Convention Center. The profit he made there, along with his savings, gave him enough money to rent the land on Leary Way. And because Katz says she considers him family, she and Riches left Hernandez some of their statuary molds, their desk cabinets and loaned him their computer.

A love of art

"Fountains, to me, are like music," Hernandez said.

"It's not work for me; it's fun. I work seven days and never get tired."

Sometimes it takes him six or seven months to mold a perfect piece. One of his favorites, and a best-seller, is a fleur-de-lis-shaped piece that almost reaches his chest and has a long rectangular base topped with the French symbol.

"I finished and saw it, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is the one," he said.

Hernandez specializes in coloring. He sells several pieces he does not make, but he orders plain pieces and custom colors them.

"He understands the nuances of authentic aged finishes and how to create them so that as they age in the garden, they will develop a beautiful patina over time," Cannon said.

Hernandez casts and hand finishes statuary pieces in a space in his warehouse about the size of an elevator. He hopes to move to a larger warehouse one day so he can craft enough pieces to sell across the country, not just the 30 Pacific Northwest nurseries and statuary businesses that now buy from him.

Hernandez developed all of his wholesale customers on his own, but he has found his connection to Lucca helpful in attracting retail customers.

Cannon said many long-standing customers don't even realize Lucca Statuary closed. They walk in expecting Lucca, then see Hernandez, recognize him from his years as yard manager, and trust his ability to provide the same quality products.

Tough year

Hernandez said 2010 was difficult. Garden ornaments are luxury purchases — the cheapest fountain at Fleur de Lis is $240. But prices used to be even higher.

Early on he started noticing most of his customers would leave without purchasing anything.

So he lowered prices by 25 percent, and now 60 percent of customers who walk in his doors leave with something, be it a small gargoyle or a big fountain, he said.

He said he now sells 10 to 15 fountains a week — many of which he creates himself. He has no loans or debt, and he puts his profits back into the business.

"I made more money when I was an employee," he said. "I made $18 an hour when I worked at Lucca; now I only give myself $10 an hour."

Though May and June are his busy season, he survives in the winter by doing fountain maintenance and selling winterized fountains and around 500 Christmas trees.

With all of the time he spends at Fleur de Lis, Hernandez still manages to see his four kids, ages 18, 11, 9 and 4, and his wife, Ana.

"They're very supportive," he said. "If I stay till 9 or 10 at night, my wife brings me dinner and the kids. I give time to my family."

But he still finds it hard to peel away.

"If I go two days away from working, I go crazy."

Melissa Powell: 206-464-8220 or mpowell@seattletimes.com

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