Connections Create Opportunities for Cabinet Shop
August 14, 2011 | 9:37 pm CDT

By Mike Wilson

Los Angeles-area Maya Custom Woodwork often finds its high-end customers through networking, and then keeps them coming back with an emphasis on craftsmanship and on time delivery.

Maya Custom Woodwork finishes its projects on-site to prevent damage during installation. Photo by Kireilyn Barber.

Maya Custom Woodwork gets more than wood from its lumber supplier. The El Monte, CA-based company also gains new customers from referrals provided by its wood vendor, and those new clients are just one example of how the cabinet shop has grown through owner Jose Duarte's emphasis on networking.

"I have a very good relationship with my suppliers. I only buy lumber from one supplier," Duarte says. "The guy from the lumberyard gets me a lot of clients... I've noticed that a lot of general contractors will go to suppliers and ask 'Who is paying their bills on time? Who is doing good work? Who can I trust?'”

Maya Custom Woodwork, which employees two people at its 2,000-square-foot shop, specializes in high-end custom cabinetry for the Los Angeles market. Interior designers, architects and general contractors provide the company with most of its business, which primarily consists of residential projects, Duarte says.

Duarte grew up in Mexico around his grandfather's woodworking shop, but took a position in a different industry when he moved to the United States. He started the company about six years ago after realizing there was a market for top-of-the-line woodwork in the U.S.

Since it was founded, Maya Custom Woodwork has gained repeat business from clients by stressing craftsmanship and on-time delivery, Duarte says. He also used networking to improve his shop efficiency and business skills through advice gained from colleagues. Joining the Cabinet Makers Association and networking at its events has given him access to a helpful base of business knowledge, he adds.

"I've been picking things up from everybody - how to run my business, how to be more profitable, it's just a wealth of information," Duarte says. "I've learned how to weed out clients, so right now, 99 percent of the clients I get, I kind of pre-qualify them."

Currently, the company is doing about $300,000 in business per year. It is getting back up to speed after a sudden three-month slowdown in work, Duarte says.

The company primarily services the high-end Los Angeles market, and gets most of its jobs from interior designers, architects and general contractors. Photo by Kireilyn Barber.

"I really enjoy what I do, because most of my clients never do two things the same way," Duarte says. "They service a very high-end market in LA, and every job is completely different from the next."

Some designers provide plans specific enough to start building immediately, while others submit prototype drawings as a base for the shop to develop the details. The company uses eCabinet Systems to draw projects, create cutlists and make project bids. Duarte says he is interested in automating the process with CNC machinery, but can't upgrade until the company moves to a bigger shop.

The shop's equipment includes a Grizzly table saw, a Sandya widebelt sander from SCM Group USA, a Blum boring machine, an SCM edgebander, and Festool hand-held tools.

Most of the cabinetry is European frameless style. Clients usually specify the materials and hardware for each piece, which causes the company work with a wide variety of wood, veneer and hardware items. As a result, the company keeps little inventory of these supplies. Its close relationship with its lumber and hardware suppliers, however, allows it quick access to necessary materials.

"I don't worry about saving two cents on a piece of plywood, instead I have one supplier that will bend over backwards for me," Duarte says. "If I'm at a jobsite and have a problem, he will bring whatever I need to the site. He has done it many times."

The company's strict adherence to its client's concepts and deadlines have kept them coming back, Duarte says.

"Usually, all the designers know what they want," he says. “They always specify, and I just follow-through. Some designers have told me, ‘You're the only cabinetmaker that I know who is easy to work with, because everybody else doesn't want to change the way they do things.’"

Owner Jose Duarte says that business advice gained through his membership in the Cabinet Makers Association has been invaluable. Photo by Kireilyn Barber.

Since the plant is small, the company outsources as much work as possible when business is booming. If the shop is swamped, employees focus mostly on assembly and installation to stay on deadline, Duarte says. Installation is one of the few parts of the product that the company will not outsource, because it likes maintaining control over the final part of the project, he adds.

"We try to assemble everything in the shop," Duarte says. "So if a customer asks for an eight-foot section, I make an eight-foot cabinet, I don't make three individual three-foot cabinets. It saves on material, and it saves on installation time."

The company outsources all of its finishing, which is done on-site following the install.

"When we're done, we're done," Duarte says. "There are no touch ups and there are no nail holes. There are no scratches to fill - nothing. Everything is perfect. When you finish before installation, something is going to get scratched."

As for future expansion, the company is looking to ensure a more steady flow of business through its established networking strategy. If the business can get more steady sources of jobs, Duarte says that he will look at buying or leasing a larger shop.

"As soon as I get a chance, I'm going to become a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, and I'm going to try to be very active," Duarte says. "I'm also thinking about doing some home shows, you know, doing the networking thing.”

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