LISBON — Most of Peter McNaughton's days pass in a flurry of phone calls, invoices and emails. Now and then he lends a hand in his company's Lisbon Falls workshop, cutting and staining wood or hand assembling the sculpted pieces.
Then there are the rare days.
"Invariably, it's an older couple who come in and say, 'Our grandson has just been killed,'" McNaughton, the owner of Uni-Sim Corp., said. Here, in a plain industrial building with fewer than six employees, McNaughton makes wooden displays for collectible coins, sports memorabilia and medals.
The shop's specialty is a variety of triangular hardwood cases for U.S. flags.
Most are purchased by veterans to display mementos of their service. But for the grief-stricken folks who occasionally wander in, the flag is a reminder of an ultimate sacrifice.
"I just give them the case," McNaughton said. "I can't even come close to having a discussion about money in those sort of circumstances. It's not OK. And for me, in terms of the labor and everything else, it's the kind of thing we should be doing."
Of course, he makes no habit of giving away his products.
"We're not a philanthropic organization," said McNaughton, a South African expatriate who took over the company in 1994. "We're a for-profit company."
And, like so many small business owners, he's fighting to stay afloat in a still depressed economy.
His niche market — populated in large part by active duty U.S. military — is spread all over the world. McNaughton's products are in many stores on Air Force, Army and Navy bases.
The company started as a supplier to Boy Scouts, though.
Originally, it made boxes to display Scout badges. It still does. But in the early 1990s, just as McNaughton started with the company, it began shifting focus. It saw a market for the flag boxes and shadow boxes soldiers and ex-soldiers use.
"Really, it's a celebration of achievement, of a job well done," he said. Those boxes sit in thousands of offices and living rooms, dens and man caves.
In recent years, the company has continued to add products such as holders to display the collectible coins often given by military and public safety organizations.
Meanwhile, he's been fighting competition from Asia. Factories there can create cheaper products, but McNaughton figures he benefits from the fact that all of his materials — mostly oak and walnut — come from the United States and each of the thousands of objects he sells is made in Maine.
"I learned when I came to Maine about 'Whatever it takes' from just the regular people that I dealt with," said McNaughton, who came to the state as a sailboat captain.
The people he met here talked about their hardscrabble livelihoods and the need get by by having several jobs.
It has inspired him to work long hours while holding on tight to his workers and his customers, he said.
"My customers and the staff here are the reasons why I have a living," he said.