A Renaissance in South Florida
Bon Vivant emerges as a supplier of fine cabinetry to elite Miami residents.
By Sam Gazdziak
Miami, FL, has experienced a resurgence in recent years, becoming a stylish city teeming with millionaires and celebrities. Homes that were selling for $300,000 10 years ago now have multi-million dollar price tags. And most of those homes require entertainment centers and home theaters, creating a ready market for a custom cabinet shop.
"Our typical customer will be a South American who's bought a multi-million-dollar condo on the beach, and he's got a designer. The designers come in, furnish the place, and they're out of there," says Rick Rammos, president of Bon Vivant Corp., a custom furniture manufacturer that, in the last three years, has experienced a substantial turnaround of its own.
"Our units typically go in a multi-million dollar house, and Miami is a very affluent area. There are a lot of Brazilians, Colombians, Venezuelans who have second homes in Miami," he says. "We also do a lot of work for 'snowbirds', people who come down from Chicago, New York, from all over. We've been doing a lot of work in Boca Raton, del Ray, Pompano. People are coming in to buy second homes. This isn't their primary residence, yet the typical house might be a $600,000 or $700,000 home. They get a designer, and we work with the designer."
Rammos listed Gloria Estefan, Sylvester Stallone and Cristina Saralegui (the Oprah Winfrey of Spanish talk radio) as among his most high-profile clients. "We also just did a unit for the ex-president of Honduras," he says, "which was a real treat for the guys here, because many of them are Honduran. It's kind of like doing a job for Ronald Reagan for them."
Bon Vivant does wall units that normally fall in the $12,000 to $14,000 range, but it also takes smaller jobs of $1,500 or more. Apart from home entertainment units, it also does a fair share of built-in bars, buffets, tables and chairs and libraries. The company has started to get involved in commercial woodwork as well, including showrooms for clothing manufacturer Supreme International in Miami and New York.
Bon Vivant was founded in 1981 by Rammos' parents. The store originally imported and sold chairs from South America, and finishing and upholstery were outsourced. Rammos came on board in 1985 and brought in a full-time upholsterer. The company got into the woodworking aspect in 1987. "I would take the jobs and farm them out to some shops who were owned by friends, and then I would bring the job back and do finishing in-house, and we'd sell them like that," Rammos says. "After a while, there was enough demand for woodworking that we took on a full-time cabinetmaker. It just went up from there."
Upholstery is no longer an area of growth, but Rammos keeps it as a service to the designers who work with the company. "I don't want to get rid of it, because I feel that it sets us apart from other shops who only offer certain services," he says. "Designers like to think of us as a 'one-stop shop' kind of place, where they can come in and not only get their woodworking but also get a sofa or some chairs. But my growth is in the woodworking business."
Designers first began working with Bon Vivant when the store had a showroom in the Miami Design District to showcase its chairs. They still comprise 80 percent of Bon Vivant's clientele, Rammos says. In working with designers, the company is often asked to incorporate different materials and create unique looks.
"Some designers incorporate a lot of different materials, like metal, glass and stainless steel, with a lot of curves," explains Dario Rodriguez, the shop's production manager. "Some designers are more traditional and antique-oriented and like that warm look. Other designers are more 'out there.'"
The look of the furniture also depends the customer's perception of the "Florida Look." "In Miami, from the people who live here, things are going much more contemporary. A lot of curved doors, a lot of natural finishes," Rammos says. People who migrate to Florida during the winters have a different style, he says. "I think what happens is they look at magazines, and the magazines push a certain type of Florida look: overstuffed sofas, a lot of cream colors or light beiges. It's all very monochromatic," he explains. "They know what their houses in south Florida are supposed to look like, and they're not interested in anything else."
While the majority of work involves natural finishes, up to 20 percent of finishes are specialized. "Metal leafs, silver and gold, are very popular," he says. "People also love crackle -- peeled crackle, antique crackle -- in south Florida." Rammos adds that adding metal leaf to a project as an accent can add anywhere from $200 to $600. He once had a customer who wanted a 10-foot buffet built into a closet that was entirely covered in silver leaf, inside and out. That extra finish added $5,000 to the piece.
"We've gotten into all kinds of fancy finishes that take up so much time to do -- it can take a job that's a winner, profit-wise, and turn it into a loser," Rammos says. "We're pushing natural finishes. There's a lot of beauty in natural wood. If you use a cherry or mahogany with a natural finish or with a slight glaze over the top, it will look great, and it's an uncomplicated finish."
During the last three years, Bon Vivant's revival has rivaled that of Miami's.
Rammos says that for several years, he was trying to wear too many hats. "I was pulling my hair out," he says. "I did everything. I was designer, I was draftsman, I was salesman. I did the billing. I did everything but make the furniture. It was making us stagnant. We were delivering in maybe 12 to 14 weeks, and that was hurting us. We were losing work because of how long it took to deliver things. There was a time when I hadn't taken a vacation in five or six years. If you're the owner and you can't take a couple of days off, there's something wrong. You get into this mind-set that only you can do it, and it's not true. No matter how good you think you are at what you do, there are others who are just as good."
Making a couple of key hirings was what began to turn the business around.
"Get yourself competent help. Pay them what you need to pay them, because it will pay dividends in the long run," he says. "I got myself a top-notch shop manager, and he's made all the difference in this company the last few years. In addition, I got a designer in the office who takes the load off me, so that I can take care of the customers better and go out and find new work."
Rammos says the extra help has been able to cut turnaround time to about eight weeks, and he adds that he would like to see that cut further to six weeks.
Last year, the 25-employee shop had sales of $2 million. The majority of the woodworking is done with hand-tools from Porter-Cable and Makita. In addition, employees use three Delta tilting arbor saws, Duo-Fast nailers, a Lobo hand router, a Ritter belt sander and a Griggio jointer from Atlantic Machinery.
Rammos says that the company hasn't purchased more advanced machinery because of the nature of the custom work. However, he says he hopes to get involved in more commercial work, where automated machinery would be very useful.
He has already gotten some significant commercial jobs. One and a half years ago, Bon Vivant won a bid to work on the showrooms and office space for clothing manufacturer Supreme International in Miami. Supreme was happy enough with the work that it had Bon Vivant do its New York showroom as well. The company recently was contracted to build 26 kitchens for a condominium on South Beach, so purchasing an automatic edgebander may be in the offing.
Rammos' plans for the future also involve increasing the customer base. Bon Vivant will be placing wall units in several high-end audio stores in Miami. "It's a new marketing angle for us, which is to get the buyer at the point of the equipment sale rather than through the designer," Rammos says. "I'd like to be going more to builders and some of the larger design companies in South Florida and offer our services to them. I think right now we have the ability to fill our orders on time and in a competent manner, so what we really need to do is increase our sales volume."
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