Florida-based cabinet shop strives to tailor its products to regional tastes and price points.

By Steve Baxter

Back in the early 1980’s when the Florida cabinet industry was dominated by small shops cranking out face-frame, mica-laminated casework strictly for local consumption, Jim Murfin became enamored by European cabinet design and manufacturing concepts.

He attended a seminar exploring the virtues of frameless cabinetry constructed with the 32mm System — the cabinet industry’s hottest buzz phrase at the time. Then he went out and bought a 32mm System machinery package consisting of an edgebander, case clamp, double-headed boring machine and a sliding table saw with a scoring blade.

Looking back, Murfin says, “It was a mistake.” He says the machinery manufacturer he worked with failed to provide him with adequate technical support and he encountered resistance to the frameless designs from his customer base. Worse still, he says, he tried to merge the new European production line with his ongoing face-frame operation. The two products proved as incompatible as oil and water.

     
 
American Renolit supplies all of the white and much of the woodgrain thermofoils used in Designer Choice Cabinetry’s one-piece MDF doors.  
     

After concluding that his first experience with frameless cabinets was a bad one, Murfin says, “I did what came natural. I had built the company on face-frame cabinetry and it was still the more accepted product in my area at the time. I sold the case clamp and the boring machine to a guy in Orlando. I went back to exclusively making face-frame cabinets.”

What Comes Around Goes Around

By the time Murfin sold his Rockledge-based cabinet business to one of his salesmen a decade later, he had decided to give European-style cabinetry a second chance, this time relying heavily on outsourced parts. When Murfin got the itch to set up his own shop again, the face frames were history.

Murfin’s new company, Designers Choice Cabinetry, also in Rockledge, sells Euro-style cabinets exclusively through kitchen dealers via a 40-state network of independent sales representatives. Over the years the company has gone from outsourcing most of its parts to manufacturing most of them in-house.

“The pressure of having to deal with other people’s problems led us to go out and buy machinery,” Murfin says. “It’s been about eight years now since we bought our first big saw and our first router.”

Today, Designers Choice has three saws and four CNC machining centers. More than 140 production employees, working two shifts, use these and other high-tech, high-volume machines to build between 400 and 500 cases each day.

Membrane Presses Expand Door Selection

Designers Choice’s self-sufficiency includes the ability to produce hundreds of one-piece MDF thermofoil doors, as well as five-piece wood doors featuring veneered center panels. The two Almex membrane presses from Shaw-Almex USA that are used to produce the thermofoil doors are at the company’s main 82,000-square-foot production facility. The company’s five-piece doors are made in a separate 25,000-square-foot building, which also houses most of Designers Choice’s office operations.

Murfin says the company added thermoforming capabilities about three years ago to accommodate a broader range of regional tastes and trends for door styles, finishes and colors. At any given time, he notes, what’s hot in Newport, RI, might be passe  Newport Beach, CA, or Newport News, VA.

Pleasing the majority of customers, however, might be easier than some think. “No matter what anybody tells you, white is still hot, it still dominates,” though slightly less than it once did, Murfin says. He adds that fully 50 percent of his company’s production ends up one shade of white or another.

     
 
Designers Choice Cabinetry ‘s distribution network includes independent reps and dealers in 40 states and the Caribbean.  
     

Some of this product is simply composed of white melamine doors and drawers used with white melamine cases “for the lower end, large projects like apartments and condos, and for doctors’ offices,” Murfin says. “People aren’t using it for homes like they used to.

“We are seeing more thermofoil go into homes because it’s so price-competitive now,” he adds. All of the company’s white cabinets, with the exception of its lower-end melamine products, have foil doors and drawer fronts — as does much of Designers Choice’s woodgrain laminate line.

One-Piece vs. Five-Piece Door Production

For one-piece doors, raised-panel designs are routed into melamine-backed MDF blanks, previously cut to size on one of the company’s Selco panel saws from Biesse Group America. Bar-code labels provide the company’s Biesse machining centers with the appropriate routing instructions programmed in a remote office.

The dimensioned parts are then moved into the company’s “clean room” where they are sprayed with adhesive. After the glue dries, the blanks are loosely covered with the foil material. Designers Choice buys all of its whites and some of its woodgrains from American Renolit.

Finally, the parts, positioned on boards that are smaller all the way around to allow the foil to drape over all four edges, are shuttled into the company’s Almex Thermolaminator membrane press. Heat reactivates the glue; the addition of pressure helps bond the vinyl to the panel. After the pressing cycle is complete, the parts exit the machine, the bond is inspected and the excess foil is trimmed by hand.

Doors and drawer fronts with veneered raised panels are built and finished a couple of miles away in the company’s original production facility.

There, particleboard panel parts are shaped, then veneered on both sides in an Almex press. The profiled center pieces are inserted into frames made of solid wood stiles and rails, assembled using either mitered or mortise-and-tenon construction.

The completed doors and fronts are then sanded, stained, sealed, resanded and top coated with lacquer. The finishing operation features four spray booths and a drying oven.

Cherry and maple are particularly popular right now, Murfin says, as are finishes which feature “glazing” — a contrasting accent color rubbed into the profiles of the stiles, rails and center panel of the doors.

     
Developing a National Market

Designers Choice Cabinetry ships its products fully assembled via its fleet of seven tractor trailers to dealers as far away as California.

”When someone asks me what my customer base is, I say, `Have you ever been to a strip shopping center where there’s a store with kitchen cabinets for sale?’ That’s who’s buying our product,” Murfin says.

“A lot of our dealers were originally small cabinet manufacturers but now have gotten out of it,” he says. “Many of the others have kept their shops, sometimes on a smaller scale, and still make their own countertops and build the occasional custom cabinet to accommodate special existing conditions.”

Murfin says Designers Choice benefits from having ex-cabinet companies as dealers and they in turn benefit from being able to sell product in a very competitive market with full knowledge of their costs.

“I know when I went into business I had no idea what my costs were,” Murfin says. “Even if I made money, I was lucky. And that’s really what happens to most people; they just don’t know.

“If you’re buying cabinets from a manufacturer like us, your costs are pretty obvious. You pretty much know if you’re going to make money, and how much,” he says. “It makes you more competitive.”

Independent Reps Play Vital Role

The dealers are serviced by independent sales representatives whose territories cover all of 40 states and the Caribbean.

”The reps not only have our line, but they carry other lines that don’t conflict with ours. Obviously, we want them to have other lines, because the more they have the more dealers they have access to.” Murfin adds the reverse is true as well.

The sales representatives’ local knowledge pays immediate dividends, Murfin says. “The rep knows his dealers. He knows who pays their bills and who doesn’t pay their bills.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of using independent reps, Murfin says, is that it facilitates rapid expansion “because it makes going into new a territory easy.”

For example, Murfin says, “When we went into the New England market, the rep we teamed up with was already established there. He already had 200 dealers selling the other lines he represented. So right off the bat, we were introduced to 200 dealers there. By no means have all of them bought from us. You still have to build a market up. It doesn’t happen overnight. But two years later, we have two stocking distributors in New England and we probably have 100 dealers, 50 of which I would call active, and 25 I would call real active,” he says. “As years go on, we’ll become stronger and stronger in that market.”

— Steve Baxter

 
   
     

For its very top of the line cabinets, Designers Choice buys doors and drawer fronts with solid wood panels from Imperial Woodcraft.

“We probably make three-quarters of the doors we sell, and then we buy the other 25 percent,” Murfin says. “As we get more and more into wood and more familiar with it, we’ll eventually make all our doors. That’s probably a year, to a year-and-a-half down the road.”

All of the solid wood and veneer species and finishes have matching laminate counterparts, used to finish the exposed sides of the melamine casework, as well as matching PVC edgebanding. Plywood is available as an optional construction material; it too is laminated. The plywood comes from Inland Plywood, which also supplies all of the cut-to-size veneers used for door and and drawer panels. All melamine and other laminated panel components are supplied by GVK America.

The cases feature dowel construction and are assembled with the aid of a Comil case clamp. Blum hardware is used for hanging doors and mounting drawers.

What’s Down the Road?

Murfin rattles off a to-do list for his company that includes further expanding its dealer network, beefing up technology to take on more business and implementing new Internet-based, order-entry software.

First of all, he says, there are still eight continental U.S. states that are not covered by Designers Choice’s dealer network. (See sidebar.)

He says he has no immediate plans to try to tap into the “bix box” home improvement centers. “We want to concentrate on what we’re doing now with our dealer program, to get that built up,” Murfin says. On the other hand, he says, “We already do a lot of the smaller home centers. Maybe we’ll make some inroads into the larger ones.”

In addition to striving to become a bigger company and adding more equipment, Murfin wants Designers Choice to become a more technologically advanced operation. Toward that end he is implementing a new manufacturing software package called Fourth Shift.

The new software, which was undergoing a pilot test at the time of Wood & Wood Products’ visit, is designed to seamlessly link the initial order-entry process to Pattern Systems software, the company’s cut-planning and optimization program. The new arrangement eliminates the need to reorganize and reenter the original data and precludes the opportunity for human error in the process.

“What used to take a whole day will take a matter of maybe an hour or less to do,” Murfin says. Further, he says the new manufacturing software is designed to take full advantage of all the possibilities the Internet has to offer.

“Within the next year or two, our dealers will go directly to our Web site, where they will use a password to enter our catalog, and then put their order in and transfer it to us electronically,” he says.

“Eventually, we’re going to say to people if you want to do business with Designers Choice, this is the way you have to order.” He says customers will ultimately find it more convenient and faster.

“Well, guess what? Once we do this, we no longer need an order-entry person here because now everything is electronically transferred, nobody’s touching anything. The customer’s order is his confirmation.” He notes that Fourth Shift relays each order into the Pattern Systems production software.

In addition, dealers will have the very latest information possible since the online catalog can be easily amended and updated. They will be able to select from a gallery of finished cabinets and door options that can be configured to a customer’s kitchen.

Murfin says he envisions sponsoring contests for the dealers who send in photos of their most impressive work. Posting those pictures on the Designers Choice Web site will not only provide recognition to the winners, but a place where other dealers can go to look for ideas.

“We’re real excited about the abilities that Fourth Shift is going to bring to us as a company,” Murfin says. That kind of technology represents “some of the neat things that are going to be happening as part of our growth, and the growth of the industry.”

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