CWB October 1997

A Shop Grows in Philly

Carmana Designs saw its share of early 'gales,' but proved 'seaworthy.'

By Anthony G. Noel

"It's an interesting neighborhood -- we've got a little bit of everything," Anna Maria Vona said as she was giving me directions to her shop.

As I hunted for a parking space along narrow Chadwick Street in the heart of Philadelphia, home to Carmana Designs, I could see she wasn't kidding. The big brick industrial building stood amidst a neat neighborhood of nicely maintained, hard-to-the-sidewalk rowhomes. Despite this incongruity, the structure did not seem out of place. Vona had landscaped the building's entrance with a variety of large potted evergreens. This worked nicely with trees planted in sidewalk voids along the rest of the street and proved to be a hint of many more adaptations which I would discover once inside.

Carmana Designs was founded 15 years ago by Anna Maria's husband Carmen. The building, the business' history and even the company's name are reflections of this husband-and-wife team's determination to build a profitable, respected business together. That determination has helped Carmana (the word is a blending of Carmen's and Anna Maria's names) weather some difficult circumstances and gain a reputation as one of the Philadelphia region's best small shops.

My knock on the door this Saturday was answered by the Vona's 7-year-old daughter Arianna, who led me up a flight of stairs. At the top, we arrived not in a shop or even offices, but in a beautiful apartment of contemporary decor. A huge, U-shaped sectional sofa, which followed the room's uniquely angled walls, was complemented by a tri-level lacquered cocktail table, a television wall unit and a wall-integrated stereo center.

Laminate cabinets in the adjacent kitchen were trimmed in oak, and a bar-height peninsula with seating on either side gave what could have been a cramped space, more of a "great room" feeling.

"Welcome to our home -- and showroom," said Anna Maria, shaking my hand.

The apartment gave testimony to what Carmen would later tell me about his company's ability to take almost any job from concept to completion. Etched glass in a wall near the kitchen permitted light from a huge master bedroom window to flood the living space. An oversized walk-in closet had served as the couple's nursery years before and, with optimal use of space, has continued to function as a bedroom for Arianna.

But where was the shop?

Anna Maria led the way -- back through the apartment (which also housed a small TV room), past the carefully shoe-horned office, to a high-ceilinged space with a Delta contractor's saw in the middle and a shrink-wrapped Gannomat Combi line boring machine from Tritec Associates off to one side, awaiting installation. A smiling Carmen stood in a corner, atop a flight of stairs.

Downstairs in the machining area, shop foreman Michael DiCiurcio was preparing several maple panels for edgebanding on the company's Holz-Her 1403. A Powermatic 10-hp table saw sat in the middle of the space's concrete floor. The bander, on wheels, stood at one end of the approximately 1,500-square-foot room, near an open overhead door.

At that door, we were a full block west of where I had entered the building. There was an SCMI Uno CS/DL widebelt sander at the other end of the room, along with extensive shelving and base cabinets where portable power tools and other supplies for the five-employee shop were stored.

Along the room's periphery were an SCMI S52 planer, a vintage Powermatic 16-inch by 8-foot direct-drive jointer and an SCMI TI10 shaper. Through a doorway on the room's far end was the finishing room, which was vented above the roof line, two stories away.

The 2,200 square feet of shop space downstairs, combined with the 1,500 feet upstairs, seemed ample space on this day when only Carmen and Michael were at work. Still, Carmen spoke excitedly about the additional 3,000 square feet of workspace to be gained by blasting through an upstairs wall into space he was renting next door.

Another sign of growth -- an SCMI sliding panel saw -- was expected to arrive soon.

"We're growing faster physically than we can get people right now," Carmen said, adding that he was hoping to add at least one, perhaps two, additional full-time employees (make that "qualified" employees.)

"The first thing I do now is ask (potential hires) when they call me, 'What's one-quarter plus a sixteenth?' They say, 'Uhh, Ok, wait a second. Five-eighths. Am I right?' And I say, 'Are you asking me or telling me?'" he said. "It's unbelievable. They will tell you that they ran a shop with 10 guys, but they can't read a rule."

The never-ending search for good help is just one of the many battles the Vonas have fought over the years. And while the tough times are never welcome while they are being experienced, Carmen spices his recollections with a healthy dash of philosophy. For example, he is careful to avoid, as he puts it, "putting all my eggs in one basket." That lesson was learned when a truck carrying work across country for a job in California blew up.

"We were doing everything on this job, it was huge, and this was the only client we were doing work for at that time," Carmen said. "The project, for Macy's in San Francisco, was being delivered just in time for the introduction of a new product at the West Coast location. But an apparent mechanical problem on the truck caused a fire which destroyed the entire job, forcing the store to set up a make-shift display area for the product introduction.

"After that truck blew up, (the retailer) decided it was not a good idea to have one contractor handle everything, and I learned the danger of putting all my eggs in one basket," Carmen said.

Another early learning experience was the "payroll taxes lesson."

"I didn't pay my fourth-quarter taxes because I needed the money to keep the guys going," Carmen recalled of an instance in the early years. It took him a year to pay off the taxes due in full. "To the penny, it was like $4,653.64 and then I still owed $5,000 in penalties and interest."

The money wasn't there, and the IRS' collection practices did not help. "I would call them on a Monday and say, 'Okay, guys. I'm getting a deposit on a job today and I'm putting it in the bank. I need it to buy materials, so please don't touch it. In two months, at the end of the job, I'll get you $2,000.' And they would go in and take it anyway."

Eventually, a line of credit allowed him to make the IRS happy and, again, Carmen chalks it up to experience.

With the big lessons now years in the past, Carmana Designs enjoys a loyal, diverse following. Customers include the owners of some of Philadelphia's landmark addresses and professionals seeking to convey just the right image to their clients. The company also does corporate projects for a well-known European manufacturer of high-end kitchen cabinets.

Carmana Designs also completely refurbished a 72-foot yacht, the Mima V. Carmen acted as general contractor on the job, which took a year to complete and resulted in perhaps the most captivating work in the company's portfolio.

A longtime friend, who happened to be the boat's owner, mentioned the project to Carmen. "I said, 'George, I can't believe it. A big job like that and I am not going to get any of the work on it.' So a couple of months goes by and he calls me up," Carmen said. "'C'mon,' he said. 'You're flying to Florida. Stop what you are doing. I'll take you. You have to come down and help me out.'"

After a tour of the dry-docked ship in Fort Lauderdale, Carmen was convinced the job wasn't for him.

"The boat was up in the air. It had holes. I looked up and could see the sky. They were re-plating parts of the aluminum hull, and wherever they had cut through on the outside, they had hacked away at the woodwork on the inside. The thing was a total wreck."

Carmen said that what new work had been done since the project's start was poor, at best.

"They were using luaun plywood (underlayment) for finished backs; shop-grade mahogany for fronts. And nails -- they were using nails on a boat!"

When the tour was complete, Carmen had just one thing on his mind, the flight home.

"I said to George, 'Take me to the airport.'" But his friend pleaded for help, and Vona finally agreed to provide detailed drawings and work, via telephone from Philadelphia, with the site foreman.

"(On) one wall, I had explained to the foreman about where a door was going to be. About four weeks later, George called me up and said, 'You have to fly to Florida, something's wrong, This bulkhead is too small; it doesn't line up the way it is supposed to.'"

What Vona found upon his return convinced him that he had to stay on site and oversee the job himself. He corrected the error (caused, he said, by the workers' unwillingness to follow his blueprints) and took the proverbial helm.

"When the job was finished and the appraiser came through, he said, 'I can't put a number on it. You have cruise ship quality on a boat this size. It's unheard of,'" Carmen said.

The nine months Carmen spent in Fort Lauderdale forced him to put the building of Carmana Designs' client base on hold. But since the yacht's completion in 1994, business has steadily increased, something which Carmen is quick to attribute in large part to the work of his wife, Anna Maria.

"She is one of the main reasons why the business is taking off. She has taken a huge part of the burden off me in the office," Carmen said, adding that Anna Maria takes care of billing, collection, payroll and much of the purchasing. Best of all, Carmen said, is that she likes to sell.

"She is much better at that than I am. I hate it," he said. "She is a lot more comfortable in those situations."

Where Carmen's forte is designing and executing work, Anna Maria's strength is her ability to increase the company's client base. She also holds an associate's degree in interior design from the Art Institute of Philadelphia and handles overall room planning.

"There are so many times when I will talk to a prospect about window treatments," Anna Maria said, "and when they find out my husband is a master cabinetmaker, we are suddenly doing an entire room or more."

The company's recent growth has not diminished Carmen's dedication to getting the details right. That dedication was evident in the attitude of shop foreman DiCiurcio who, until coming to work for Carmana, had worked mainly in production shops.

"It was almost like I had to start over again," DiCiurcio said. He tells a story about how he had built drawers previously and how he makes them today.

"Before, it was always, 'C'mon, I'm out of staples, production, give me another one, let's get it done, let's make money, let's get a raise!'" Shortly after he started working at Carmana Designs, Carmen did something he's never forgotten. "He stood inside one of his drawers. He was standing inside the drawer!" he said. It was then, DiCiurcio said, that he began to realize what makes custom work different.

"When customers come to us, they know it is going to take time, it is going to cost a little bit more money, but they know it is going to last forever. And it has taken awhile for that to sink in. I have been here about three years now and I am just starting to get it,"

Vona's attitude is now shared by DiCiurcio, and it is a good thing. The residential work which Carmana Designs is doing demands exactly the kind of patience and attention to detail that Carmen preaches to DiCiurcio and the rest of his employees.

"Angles," Carmen said, "Everything's angled."

As a case in point, Vona discussed a job in a Society Hill high-rise, where the owner sought something special for dining room cabinetry. The problem: Two concrete support columns, about 30 inches apart and 14 inches off the wall.

"What most cabinetmakers would do, they would build a nice little cabinet to fit right between them," Carmen said. But not Carmana Designs.

"We took the walls and angled them back. We prepared everything in the shop and assembled it on site, because it would not have fit into the elevator."

And the space between the now-concealed posts? Above the buffet base cabinet, Carmen said, "We took fiberboard and ran grooves in it, finished it and glued it to the walls we had built. Then we took angled glass shelving and slid it into the grooves. The client loves it; it is like it grew out of the wall. You can't tell that there are two concrete columns there."

DiCiurcio said the project exemplifies the shop's trademark ability. "That is what (Carmen) is known for -- maximizing space. Even in his apartment, you can see that," he said.

As it turned out, the job had another characteristic which Carmen was especially pleased with -- the additional work it produced.

"Now, we are doing a media unit for the living room that begins where the dining room unit left off," he said.

Back in the office, Carmen talked more about his own training and the 15 years he and Anna Maria have spent building their business. He left St. Joseph's University just one semester shy of his bachelor's degree to go to work for a small cabinet shop a few blocks away from his present location. He had studied mathematics and spent "a lot of time drawing. I wanted to work for Disney," he said. But the idea of long days trapped at a drawing board changed his mind.

"My father wanted to kill me, but I said, 'Dad, it's not for me. I always worked construction with you and I want to work with my hands. I don't want to get stuck behind a desk.'"

After a year of hard work at low wages at the little cabinet shop, Carmen decided it was time to strike out on his own. He rented space in the building he now owns and set up a shop comprised largely of Craftsman tools from Sears.

Lean times followed. Carmen recalls spending more than one night sleeping in his shop's lumber rack. "I was already paying $200 a month to rent my shop, and I couldn't afford to rent a place to live."

Little by little, however, Carmen began to build a clientele and sales grew. Jobs have ranged from $5,000 for small residential projects to $150,000 for the work on the yacht. Carmen recalled that in earlier times, he often "practically gave work away just to get the picture" for his portfolio. And though he is far more careful about it these days, he admits that he will occasionally do the same thing even now.

But the Carmana story doesn't end at woodworking and design. The couple has begun to diversify into real estate. They recently purchased and rehabilitated a seven-unit apartment building in the city's revitalized Bella Vista section. The upscale apartments feature contemporary decor. They have filled up quickly. The Vonas view the venture as another way to grow their potential client base.

"The people who are renting from us will remember how well these apartments served them when they move on," Carmen said. That means they will remember who designed the apartments and, the Vonas believe, that will translate into more work for their design/build business in the years to come.

And the Vonas have left nothing to chance. Just in case their tenants need help remembering, the couple came up with a name for their real estate company which neatly describes what they do at their growing shop: Carmana Designs for Living.

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