Around the time Dan Sullivan ’96 turned thirty, he realized he didn’t have to stop playing music, but he wasn’t going to make a living doing it, he says. At Macalester, the East Asian studies major and music minor had spent much of his time doing “extracurricular” music things, including singing in the Festival Chorale and playing in a campus heavy metal band. After graduation, he moved to Chicago, drawn to its active music scene.

Taking a job at the School of the Art Institute, he met his wife, the conceptual artist Edra Soto. He left that job to tour the US and Europe in a band. When he returned, he found work as a preparator for art galleries and other work in the trades. “I found I really enjoyed it,” he says. “People are judged on their reliability, on their skills and attitude.” Plus, he had “decent” wood-shop skills learned in high school shop class.

In 2005, he started his own general contracting business and was helping his wife build her installations and sculptures. Eventually, Sullivan steered his business out of remodeling and into custom fabrication. Today, Navillus Woodworks specializes in fine furniture, high-end millwork, and museum and artist fabrication. Sullivan’s original designed furniture is featured on the hit series The Bear (he’s pictured above on the set) and in restaurants around the country. He still plays in two bands, Arriver and Nad Navillus. Here, he shares career lessons learned from woodworking—and music.

Build Your Hive

As I was transitioning from remodeling into custom fabrication, I met five other guys about my age doing similar work and founded the Dock 6 Collective. We rented a large space and compiled the necessary machinery to make a full-service wood shop and metal shop. It takes years of practice to get good in this field, being in a supportive community of like-minded people interested in design and fabrication was transformative. Later, we bought an old building on Chicago’s west side and retrofit it for our needs. We’ve been there since 2016.

Find a Coach

About three years ago, I realized I needed to learn how to run a small business beyond just covering my overhead, so I started working with a business coach. We meet weekly and drill down on performance metrics. This relationship and the work we do together has been critical in ensuring the business is sustainable.


After graduation, I felt adrift. My dad told me, “Life’s long. Don’t feel like you need to be in such a rush to accomplish everything.” What I found was that I was very productive that year. I stayed busy, engaged in things that interested me. Perseverance is really important in learning your craft, getting good at what you’re doing, convincing other people that you know what you’re doing, and being able to back it up.

Check Again and Again

I built a beautiful bookshelf for a client in a Chicago high-rise. The designer convinced me it needed to be as big as possible, so I measured the size of the doorway openings and elevator to make sure I could get it up to the unit. It just barely fit into the elevator. When the doors opened on the right floor, we couldn’t get it out because they had installed new tile in the hallway, adding about a half-inch. There was the designer, there was the client, and they’re looking at me. “I’m taking it back to the shop,” I said. We had to start over. What I learned is to always advocate for what you need, and despite best efforts sometimes it’s impossible to foresee everything.

Trust Folks

Collaboration is intrinsic in both running my business and making music. Micromanaging people’s decisions is often counterproductive. Trust your team to apply their talents to the greater vision and set them up to succeed. I remind myself of this every day.

May 17 2024

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