Time Tested and Still Growing Strong

For almost 30 years, this Brooklyn, NY, woodwork shop has proven time and again that cultivating customers with quality pieces and dedicated care leads to a blooming business in the “Big Apple.”

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
Celtic Cabinet Corp.

Brooklyn, NY

www.celticcabinet.com

(under construction)

Year Founded: 1975

Employees: 25 full-time

Shop Size: 12,000 square feet

FYI: •Catherine Condon, owner and CFO, is presently serving her second term as President of the New York State AWI chapter. She served on its board for several years before accepting the presidential position in 2001.

• Other shop affiliations include: the New York City District Council of Carpenters union, Building Trades Association, ASA (American Subcontractors Association), United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and PWC (Professional Women in Construction). Celtic is also an NYS and NYC certified M/WBE (Minority and Woman Owned Business Enterprise).

 
   
     

Neatly tucked away in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint district, not far from the banks of the East River, sits Celtic Cabinet Corp., a high-end architectural millwork company with a penchant for commercial projects.

In 1975 owners Owen Faughey and Catherine Condon, now married, founded the shop based on a strong friendship, an entrepreneurial idea and a dedicated heart. “We started the business with nothing much more than the idea that we wanted to work for ourselves,“ says Faughey. “We were young and foolish enough at the time to strike out on our own and give it a try.”

     
 
This corridor wall is veneered with figured makore that has been stained and lacquered. Doors leading into an insurance agency effectively mimic the panel pattern, leaving only the handles to distinguish their presence.  
     

Prior to the formation of Celtic Cabinet Corp., Faughey, a Queens, NY, native, worked for a small Japanese woodworking shop that specialized in all facets of restaurant and Japanese interiors, including drywall, installations and finishing. “It was really an interesting introduction into woodworking, and I learned a lot about interior finish-outs in that shop,” he says.

Today, Faughey oversees all operations; he deals with project managers, field supervisors and quality control. He keeps abreast of all project schedules and holds regular meetings with his staff to ensure every project’s success.

The shop’s name is derived from Condon’s rich “Celtic” heritage, as she was a teenage immigrant from Ireland. As co-owner, she assumes the responsibilities as president and CFO, including everything finance-related, like payroll and banking, as well as some marketing, administrative and union issues.

“In the early days, Owen would run the shop himself. But since then, we have amassed an extremely skilled production staff,” Condon says. “I have always been involved with the business side of things like doing paperwork and the books, even when I took time off to raise a family.”

Shop evolves into A New York Niche

The shop focuses on high-end commercial office interiors and is developing a strong market in the medical field with solid surface operating room finish-outs. “At some point over the years we have done a little bit of everything. We used to do whatever came in the front door,” recalls Faughey. “The business kind of grew with us. We did a lot more restaurant interiors back then. Now, the shop has evolved into corporate interiors.”

While the evolution of the shop was a slow process, Condon says that the steady rate of growth has been beneficial, because she and Faughey were dually exposed to many areas of woodworking, which helped to guide them into corporate office renovations, a relatively untapped market at the time. “It was about 20 years ago that we started to meet contractors who were looking for woodworkers to do high-end office interiors. One thing led to another and that opened our eyes to the market,” says Condon.

“We started to take on more high-end projects, and after a period of time that became the majority of our work,” she says, adding that the shop is very fortunate to have cultivated a nice core of contractors and architects that continually bring repeat business to the shop. When she does have a need to advertise, Condon uses marketing tools such as brochures and ads placed in key trade publications.

The shop’s specialty is veneer work, which relates to most every aspect of a high-end corporate office suite, including the reception desk and whatever associated paneling is needed. “Many corporations tend to want really nice reception areas with high-end media centers. These spaces involve a lot of veneer work with integrated technology,” Faughey says. “There is a lot of coordination required for these projects.”

Other areas also call for the same caliber of custom veneer work, such as conference rooms and executive offices. Celtic Cabinet Corp. is also a certified manufacturer of solid surface materials and can produce countertops and related pieces for bathrooms. The shop fabricates any associated mouldings or specialty pieces, like wood and glass partitions or doors, in addition to any laminate work required to complete a project as well. “We don’t do the artwork, though,” jokes Condon. “We leave that for the artists.”

Machinery that cultivates expansion

All veneering is done in-house, a goal that Faughey and Condon had been working toward for several years. “We purchased our own equipment for this and have gotten to the point where we are self-sufficient. We don’t sub out any jobs. This allows us to keep better control over quality and to produce each piece to our standards, also making it possible for us to control the overall cost of a project for the customer,” says Faughey.

Both Faughey and Condon believe that certified “green” friendly materials will drive the future of woodworking. ”I believe that these changes will take place in the next five to 10 years. More and more people will be using certified veneers and finishing materials that adhere to much more stringent environmentally friendly codes,” says Faughey. “In New York it is already becoming a pretty important direction for the industry.”

     
 
Faughey says that more clients today are asking for crisp, clean lines, like those shown on this maple curved desk with cherry accents.  
     

Included in the veneering equipment are a Mayer FSK veneer saw, a Joos USA Inc. hot press, a Haug FZZ-70 veneer stitcher and a Bütfering Classic 213 widebelt sander from Stiles Machinery. The shop also houses a Martin sliding table saw, a Powermatic shaper, an OTT Easymatic edgebander, an Adwood Model M2H line borer, an SCMI sliding table saw and a Dustek dust collector. Faughey uses Grass hinges and Accuride slides on all door and drawer applications.

In the office, computers have recently been networked, Condon says. “This was a big step for us. We are also in the process of developing a Web page for the shop,” she says, adding that she continually looks at new ways to market and improve the business.

While there are no in-house designers, Celtic Cabinet Corp. does provide all of its clients with detailed shop drawings from AutoCAD. “We take an architect’s intent and develop upon the details,” Faughey says, adding with a smile, “and there are a lot of details to be added.”

In addition to several large equipment purchases recently, Celtic Cabinet Corp. has developed its own drafting department to round out the shop’s internal workings. “It has increased our volume of output without needing to hire on more people,” says Faughey.

Waiting out the client drought

The market conditions for custom woodworking in New York City have gone up and down forever, Faughey says. For example, in the early ‘90s, the market was depressed, but from the mid ‘90s to the turn of the century it was very busy, he says. “But things started to slow last summer, even before what happened on Sept. 11.”

The terrorist attacks caused everything in New York City to come to a grinding halt, and after the beginning of the year most shops in the area were hit hard with 9-11 fallout. Many jobs were put on hold because companies were no longer sure what they wanted to do, Faughey adds. Did they want to renovate or did they want to move? “Gradually, though, things have started to pick back up. Right now we are working on four high-end corporate office projects, and we are involved with supplying a medical build-out with millwork,” he says. “We will be busy now until the end of the year.”

For others in the New York market, it has been a hit-or-miss game, says Faughey. “A couple of years ago everyone was busy. Now, some shop owners that I have spoken with say they are not. There is still a bit of uncertainty in the city’s air,” he adds.

As project loads vary from year to year, so do the shop’s gross annual sales, with an average between $3.5 and $5 million dollars in normal years. Condon says an individual office project can cost as little as $50,000 to more than $1 million, depending on its detail and complexity.

Right now the shop is working with pommele sapele and just finished other jobs that boasted African macassar ebony and figured anigre. “It’s pretty much a mixed bag when it comes to veneers,” she says. “We are seeing a lot of office designs promoting a clean line, professional look with flat veneers and not a lot of mouldings.”

     
 
The paneling and doors in the lobby and reception area in this office are made from white maple veneer that has been flat cut, quartered and figured. Reveals are solid maple inserts, and the finish throughout is a water clear lacquer.  
     

“In the dot.com days, we had some wild jobs in the shop,” recalls Faughey. “They would call for all kinds of interesting combinations with veneers, stainless steel and even concrete floors. We even installed a beer tap into a conference room once, so the company could have Friday afternoon ‘think sessions’ over a glass of beer. Since the dot.com collapse, we don’t see such extravagance. Styles are turning back to a more conservative type with straight, clean-looking lines.”

Planting seeds for tomorrow

“Even though it is not easy, we always hope to see some growth from year to year,” says Condon. But there is a fine line between growing and growing too fast, she says, admitting that they intentionally don’t want to get too big, ever.

“Owen and I look at where our finances are, what we need and where we want to grow. Then we make a mutual decision on what is needed, budget for current expenses as well as any future needs,” she adds.

The company’s biggest asset is its employees, Condon continues. “I really believe in giving them room to grow and the responsibility to make decisions. I let them know that they can come to me or Owen with any problem.”

Likewise, she and Faughey try to stay on top of everything that is happening in the shop, believing that employee and owner involvement are crucial to the success of any company. “I think that we are a great example of what it is like to run a business in New York City. We are a multi-cultural company with different languages, customs, traditions and beliefs. Given this, it is amazing how well we communicate together,” Condon says.

Most employees have been with the company from 10 to 20 years. Celtic Cabinet Corp. is a union shop and located in a community that is abundant with skilled craftspeople, Condon says. “We never have trouble finding good employees. We cultivate and keep the ones we like and weed out the bad ones.”

However, Faughey says that there are interesting changes going on with woodworking competition in New York City. More non-union shops and union shops with a lower pay scale are coming into the market from Canada and other nearby states, thus making it difficult for local shops to compete for bids in the city. They come in at a much lower pricing scale, one that shops like Celtic Cabinet Corp. cannot meet because of the high cost of living in the metropolitan area.

Even with the price wars, Celtic Cabinet Corp. stays ahead of its competition because it offers its clients more than just quality woodworking. “To do a high-end job requires a lot of coordination, which means working closely with the general contractor and architect. We are always available on a project and will ‘hand-hold’ contractors or architects that are working with a stringent deadline,” says Faughey. “We know the importance of deadlines and are very focused on meeting them because for the contractor and his client, we know they are important.”

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