CWB June 2004
A successful Roanoke, VA, architectural woodworking firm traverses its "commercial" boundaries by offering custom closet interiors as well.
By Lisa Whitcomb
One never knows when or where a business opportunity will present itself. Such was the instance for Bruce Cody, owner and president of Architectural Wood in Roanoke, VA.
While working as a sculptor of wood and running an art gallery in the early 1980s, Cody was approached by a friend who was a woodworker looking to share a studio workspace. Since Cody was prospecting workspaces for himself at the time, the joint venture appealed to him, and the two men promptly rented a garage.
It was not long before "we collaborated on some woodworking projects," Cody recalls. At first the projects were "one-of" doors with stile-and-rail construction, and then the two men took on cut-to-size projects as well. "Eventually, the woodwork prevailed [over sculpting]," he adds. And so began the makings of Architectural Wood in 1985.
"Our first big project was a display for a store in the Greenbriar Hotel in Roanoke," Cody says. Work on this five-star resort's display led to fabricating architectural millwork for the facility, and the rest is history.
Today, Cody is the sole owner of the thriving commercial architectural millwork company. The "shop" has moved out of the garage and into a leased 10,500 square-foot-facility that looks upon the beautiful, tree-lined Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountain ranges.
In a 200-mile radius, the shop focuses high-end commercial applications that are "extremely custom architectural millwork projects," Cody says. "Projects with curved elements and odd shapes are our specialty. We do one-of-a-kind furniture pieces." The shop also fabricates short runs of specialized mouldings.
Much of the woodwork created is for the Washington, DC area. Business is generated through AWI referrals, word-of-mouth and some door knocking. Warren Blakeslee, operations manager, makes most of the sales calls. "He is originally from the Baltimore area and still has a lot of contacts there," Cody says. Blakeslee does most of the estimating, bidding and solicitation.
General contractors, other woodworking firms and architects make up the majority of the clientele base. In this mix, they have commissioned woodwork for resorts, a superior federal court, hotels, museums, law offices, courthouses and universities. Jobs range in price from $100,000 to $500,000, depending on what woods are specified and how big the project is.
"I have been seeing a lot of maple and beech specified in projects lately," Cody notes. "Occasionally there is a call for mahogany and other darker woods."
Specialties of Architectural Wood include historic matching of mouldings, paneling, media walls, curved casework, columns, pediments and other fine architectural details. Columns are purchased from either Sommerset Door & Column or Dixie Pacific.
The average turnaround time for a project in the shop is six weeks to three months. The shop does most of its own installations and ships the pieces to each site using its delivery truck.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Cody says at the time he was considering ways to diversify his business, and one way to do that was to get into the residential sector. Fabricating high-end custom closets was his entry into that market. "I was at an AIA meeting promoting architectural woodworking to architects through the AWI and there was another company there displaying a closet franchise. I looked at their brochure and thought, 'I would like a system like that for my own closets.'
"Then I got to thinking that I already had all the necessary machines and employees in my shop to fabricate closet components. And, the residential market is C.O.D. I knew it was a perfect fit, because it is an attractive product, and I knew I could make money at it, because I do not have to wait for money to come in like I do in the commercial market."
In addition, Cody says that the high-end custom closet need was not being met locally. So he contacted the company on the brochure and made a franchise agreement. Now both Architectural Wood and Closet & Storage Concepts are run out of the same shop/office spaces.
Closets are fabricated with melamine and wood components and accessorized with shoe cubbies, valet bars, hang areas, drawers, baskets, tie racks and such. Additionally, the company offers its clients the talent of an in-house designer to personalize each project. Most closet systems average $2,000 to $3,000, with $7,000 being the most expensive sold to date and $200 being the least.
"We are proud to be a part of a franchise," Cody says, though he notes that the closet market is different from architectural millwork in the fact that it requires a lot of advertising. Regardless, advertising to builders and in magazines and phone directories is worth the investment, because it leads to new projects and recommendations from homeowners to their family and friends. "Closets are a pretty graphic thing, and we are trying to educate consumers," he adds.
It has been a modest beginning for Closet & Storage Concepts, Cody says, but the future is looking bright. In the first half of May 2004, the company had 10 closet installations, and the number of orders was steadily increasing.
"I think that buying into a franchise is the way to go. I really do," he says. He credits this to the relationship that can be fostered with the parent company. It provides a new franchisee with market training and shares vital information. It knows what customers want and how to deliver it best to them, Cody adds.
Machinery Makes a Difference
New machinery includes a Brandt 3mm edgebanding machine and an SCMI tilting-arbor shaper. Other equipment the shop utilizes includes an Altendorf sliding tablesaw, a Holz-Her vertical panel saw, a Masterwood CNC point-to-point line boring machine and an SCMI planer and joiner, a Delta table saw and a Rockwell/ Delta bandsaw.
The shop lays up its own veneers using a bag system. Finishing is done in-house to AWI standards. Stains, catalyzed lacquers and conversion varnishes are purchased from Gemini. Laminates from Nevamar, Wilsonart, Laminart and Formica are also laid up in-house. In addition, the shop fabricates solid surface material and works with metal. Supplemental materials like stone, glass and leather are outsourced.
The Future Is Now
"It's nothing glamourous," he laughs about his role in the company. "I just try to put out the fires before they get too big, and I deal with the bankers and agencies like OSHA."
Kidding aside, in his valuable spare time, Cody goes out and meets with architects. He offers AWI Powerpoint presentations that utilize and share the association's and his knowledge of woodworking. These sessions help architects get their required certification credits from the AIA.
"We address certain issues that the architects are required to know about for certification. We give approximately 10 to 12 of these presentations every year," he says. "During them, I talk to architects about how they should specify woodwork, finishes and things of that nature."
Since Cody's plans for business expansion are already in motion, he says he isn't thinking too far ahead to the next level of growth. Instead, he is enjoying learning about a new niche market.
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