South Dakota Cabinet Company Never Says 'No'

Providing outstanding service and a quality product

have helped Dakota Kitchen & Bath become a leading cabinet company

in its four-state market area.

By Helen Kuhl


When you ask the three owners of Dakota Kitchen & Bath for the "secret" to their having grown from a three-person shop in 1989 to a 55-person, $3.5 million company in 1997, they all reply, "service," adding with a laugh that they never say "no" to any customer's request or need.

The market for cabinetry in rooms outside the kitchen has grown since Dakota Kitchen & Bath opened its doors in 1989. Today, it is very common for its projects to include fireplace surrounds and entertainment centers, like this job done in oak for a doctor's residence.

The Sioux Falls, SD, company builds custom residential cabinetry, working primarily with general contractors. Its willingness to serve has sometimes meant supplying cabinets with a one-week lead-time (instead of the normal three) or doing other last-minute favors for a client. But that service, coupled with providing a good quality product, built repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals to help the company grow by leaps and bounds.

Founded by partners Karen Wegner, Steve Lenning and Don Miller, Dakota covers a four-state market including South Dakota, western Iowa, Nebraska and southern Minnesota. Serving a market with very traditional tastes, the company builds face-frame cabinets primarily in oak, maple, cherry and hickory.

Wegner, Lenning and Miller had worked together in another local cabinet shop for several years before they decided to start their own company, encouraged by some of the contractors with whom they dealt. Although the cabinets built by Dakota did not differ dramatically from those being offered by other local shops, they said it was the fledgling company's exceptional level of service that enabled it to build a strong customer base quickly.

"We have always had a big commitment to servicing our contractors, getting them product on time and doing things right the first time," Lenning said. "That really has paid off."

"Our service starts from the moment a client walks in the door through completing a design, returning a bid and working with customers, taking care of them all around," Wegner added.

Offering a three-week lead time or even less to help a contractor in a pinch is one of Dakota's main strengths, Miller said. "We don't know when to say 'no.' We never have. I can't remember a job where we said, 'No, we can't build it.'"

Dakota also provides job-site delivery, blanket wraps all its cabinets and puts shipping skids on them for added protection. Since about 90 percent are installed by the contractor, Dakota makes them as installer-friendly as possible. That includes providing removable stiles and doing prep work on adjoining flush cabinets.

"We build the boxes, clamp them and screw them together, and sand the joint so they fit perfectly. Then we pop the screws out and finish them all loose. All the installer has to do on-site is get them close and run the screws in and he's done, without having to sit there and line them up," Lenning said. "We also do the toe boards based on what would be easiest to run on the job site, without having a lot of seams. We do a lot of little things here and there."

Dakota also tries to make ordering its cabinets an easy process for the customer by providing most features as standard items. Every cabinet has the same construction. The company uses 3Ú4-inch MDF core for all tops, bottoms, shelves and sides, with all birch interiors. Drawers are 1Ú2-inch maple, dovetailed.

Dakota makes its own doors and drawers and will build anything the customer wants. However, most clients find what they want in the company's selection of 16 doors and 14 stain colors. When the company prices a job, the customer can pick any of the door styles, any of the stains and any of the decorative hardware on display without any difference in cost. The only price differential is in the choice of wood species or for the addition of special decorative elements, such as raised panel ends, fluted columns or clipped corners, mouldings or inset-style doors. A customer also can order a flat panel door style for a slightly lower cost.

"We build cabinets for very expensive homes, but we do a lot for $100,000 to $150,000 houses, too, and even a few in the $85,000 to $90,000 range. We build the same cabinet box for all of them, basically," Lenning said. "I have had a few builders ask me to make a cheaper cabinet, but we don't want to do that. We want our name on a good cabinet."

Dakota offers customers a selection of Amerock knobs and pulls. It uses a lot of Amerock hinges, as well as concealed hinges and drawer slides from Julius Blum Inc. Interior cabinet accessories from Feeny Manufacturing Co. and Rev-A-Shelf also are popular with customers.

The average job price is between $7,000 and $8,000, Miller said, although jobs up to $30,000 are not uncommon. For bigger homes, Dakota often supplies entertainment centers, fireplace surrounds and built-in cabinetry as well as cabinets for the kitchen and baths.

Having started in a leased 3,000-square-foot shop, the company today occupies its own 26,000-square-foot building, including a 1,200-square-foot showroom. Plans are underway to add another 11,000 square feet to production, showroom and office areas.

Wegner does sales and design work, and there are four other salespeople working out of the showroom. Miller also is involved in sales and does all the field measurements. They use CabinetVision software to create perspectives and floor plans. Once a job is sold, the shop foreman is given a copy of the job on a disk and he makes any necessary adjustments in order to generate the final cutlist.

Dakota field measures each job and all cabinets are built to order, with no fillers. Virtually all cabinets are produced in four days -- one day for the foreman to complete his check and get the parts cut, one day for assembly, one day for finishing and one to hang the doors and put in drawers and accessories. The company schedules its work flow according to cost, figuring that it can produce $16,000 worth of cabinets daily.

Lenning works in the shop, ordering materials, answering questions and checking quality. "When you do work this custom, it's more than just putting stuff together. There are always questions about what is meant on the plans and I interpret that."

Box construction is dado joints, glue and nails; face frames are glued and clamped on. Dakota has consistently upgraded its shop equipment since it started, Lenning said, particularly during the last year when it spent more than $400,000 on new machinery.

Most of the investment was in the door department. The shop has several Powermatic and Delta shapers each set up to do specific cuts, such as cope joints on the ends and coping rails. The recent additions include two machines from Unique Machine and Tool Co. -- a 250SC for making arched rails and curved cuts on panels, and a Model 320 Shape and Sand for doing all the straight cuts -- primarily to increase operator safety, Lenning said.

The company also added a Sandya 10 triple-head widebelt sander from SCMI Corp. and a DMC Finesand orbital sander from Tekna Advanced Technologies. Lenning said that previously it took four to five people working full-time with hand sanders to do the same work now accomplished by the DMC in a few hours.

The door department also has a Whirlwind cut-off saw equipped with a Tiger Stop cut-off stop and pusher from Precision Automation.

Face frames are built on a Ritter R200 pocket-screw face-frame machine, which is the first new machine the company ever purchased. Door panels are made with an SCMI M2 gang ripsaw and Doucet clamp carrier.

Dakota also recently purchased an SCMI Superset moulder for making door stiles, face-frame stiles and rails and all its S4S material. The moulder also expanded the company's ability to produce more extensive decorative mouldings. Dakota grinds its own knives and patterns.

About 150 doors are produced every day, Lenning said, adding that with the new equipment, only five people are needed to do the same work done by 11 before. Dakota decided to produce its own doors and drawers rather than buy them as part of its commitment to customer service.

"If there is a problem with a door, we can have a new one built and to the customer the next day," Wegner said.

Dakota has a Dodds SE-1 dovetailer for building its drawers. Shelves are either white or maple melamine on 3Ú4-inch particleboard with a wood front edge. Shelves are still built "the old-fashioned way," Lenning said. "We run the edging on the moulder and then glue them and nail them on with a brad nailer. We have one employee who cuts edges to length, nails them, sands the corners and wipes oil to color them to go with the cabinets."

Sheet stock is cut on an SCMI SI3200 sliding table saw and machined on an SCMI Tech 90 Super point-to-point boring machine, also both new.

The finishing room, equipped with an air make-up unit, is 4,000 square feet and has three spray booths. Dakota uses precatalyzed finishes and lacquer-based stains from Gemini Products, although it may switch to a two-step catalyzed finish to increase durability, Lenning said.

The finishing process is stain, two coats of sealer, sanding and two coats of precatalyzed lacquer. Finishes are applied with Graco standard sprayers. Dakota wants to add a conveyorized line to speed up the finishing process, Lenning said.

With its heavy investment in new equipment and increased productivity, Dakota has plans to continue its expansion. The company's goal for 1997 has been to concentrate on establishing a dealer network, Lenning said. Seven already are in place in eastern South Dakota, northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. There have been inquiries from dealers in Illinois and Indiana, Lenning said, but the company is moving slowly to ensure that expansion is manageable.

"We now have such a big share of the market here, for us to grow more we felt we had to expand into dealers," Miller said. Its initial dealers are varied -- some have other cabinet lines and others sell related products, such as plumbing fixtures. Some are tied in with lumberyards, so their volume is small, especially in the beginning.

"Small town lumberyards may do just three or four jobs a year. But that's three or four jobs that we wouldn't have had otherwise," Wegner said. "We expect most dealers to do more than that, though."

Miller is handling dealer setup. He said that dealer sales currently account for about 10 to 15 percent of total sales, with the biggest dealer accounting for about 7 percent. Contractors will still be an important customer base, he said, adding that the company is careful not to "put all its eggs in one basket" and count too heavily on any one customer or group.

Dakota also expects that sales through its own showroom, which currently contains seven displays, will grow as well. "We do a lot of walk-in business from people who are referred by a friend or relative, as well as from the contractors," Lenning said.

The company does a small amount of advertising locally and underwrites "This Old House" and "Home Time" on South Dakota public television. It participates and has won awards in a couple of local home shows and also has produced a short video for customers and dealers.

Besides Dakota's efforts to provide excellent products and service, its growth has been helped by a very healthy local economy, Lenning said. "The Sioux Falls economy is fantastic," he said. "The unemployment rate around here is usually under two percent."

While it's good for sales, the low unemployment rate has made finding good help more difficult, he added. A large number of employees have come to the company with no woodworking background and been trained by Dakota. He said that the company has a very good crew, however, including the shop foreman, who has been with them since the second month they started.

"Keeping good employees around here is the key to everything, and we have an excellent crew," he said. "We try to treat them well, pay them fairly and provide good benefits. That has been a big asset for us."

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