Band of Brothers
John, Bill and Scott Bretz combined their strengths to make Full Scale Woodworking a million-dollar business.
By Sam Gazdziak
Quality woodwork was never Full Scale Woodworking’s problem. The Union, NJ, company, run by brothers John and Bill Bretz, could produce high-end cabinetry and millwork from any wood species or material. The problem was that the company just wasn’t making enough money. However, since the mid-’90s, Full Scale has turned around to become a million-dollar business, due to several factors. Bringing their brother, Scott, into the business let each man concentrate on what he does best. Production and timeliness increased, which helped sales increase. New computers and machinery sped up and modernized the company. And a new direction will help ensure a steady income even through slow periods.
Bill, 33, and John, 35, started Full Scale Woodworking in 1993. Scott, 29, came aboard in 1996 after getting a degree in marketing management. He started as a cabinetmaker. “After about a year, we decided that something wasn’t working,” says John. “We weren’t making any money, and we were struggling to get work out on time. That’s when we sat down and worked on a division of labor.”
Scott moved into the office and now oversees the financial side of the business. Bill serves as shop foreman and handles the installation schedule, and John meets with clients and assists with designing and working in the shop. “We’re lucky that we can say, ‘You’re in the shop, I’m in the office,’ and we know that things are getting done, and they’re getting done the right way,” John says.Full Scale’s work ranges from architectural millwork and bars to entertainment centers and home libraries. The work tends to fall into two categories: wall units and millwork in north New Jersey residences, and apartment renovations in Manhattan. The company does only a couple of Manhattan apartments a year, but they still represent a good percentage of its business. The apartments can fall in the $200,000 sales range, while the residential jobs can be from $20,000 to $30,000. From their contacts in the Jersey area, Full Scale has also done work from Greenwich, CT, to Naples, FL.A Professional Appearance
“If designers and architects see hand- written proposals, they’re going to start building opinions about you,” he explains. “It made us look a lot more professional.”
While Scott Bretz takes care of the bookkeeping, Bill and John are able to focus on the woodworking. From the beginning, they made a name for themselves for being able to work with any material, including veneers. A relationship with one long-time client started with a mahogany and pommele sapele entertainment center, and then moved to an anigre and mahogany bar, a Macasser ebony entertainment center, bedroom cabinetry and two mantles. Another home office had mahogany paneling and a plum-pudding mahogany desk.
Along with exotic woods, Full Scale has also gotten involved with exotic materials, like one cabinet with shagreen (stingray skin)-covered doors. “An architect that we had done a lot of work for called John and mentioned shagreen, asking if we knew what it was and how to work with it.” Bill says. “John said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ He got off the phone and said, ‘Not only do I not know what it is, I don’t even know how to work with it or how to get it.’”
Fortunately, they consulted with a former employer who gave them a crash course in working with shagreen. The lessons paid off, and they have used shagreen in other projects. Since then, Full Scale built a bar for a customer who loved tropical fish and inlaid some shagreen fish into the end panels.
“We have never really sacrificed by doing something unprofitable and cheap, because you get a reputation for that, and it sticks,” Scott says. “If you get a reputation for good work, you might starve a little early on, but in the long run it pays off.
“We still have clients and their designers who tried us nine years ago and still use us religiously, because we never compromised,” he adds.
Dovetails on the Side
In November of 1999, Full Scale Woodworking started selling dovetail drawers. Scott bought a Mereen-Johnson dovetailer, a Whirlwind upcut saw with a Tigerstop attachment and a Crouch 10-inch oscillating edge sander. The first orders came in early December.
“I saw that the outsourcing need was growing. Every magazine had an article about outsourcing, so it seemed like a good idea,” Scott says. Initially, he hoped that he would make enough money in dovetailed drawers to sustain the company’s overhead. That side of the business has started to turn a profit and accounted for about 15 percent of Full Scale’s business in 2001.
Word-of-mouth, along with some advertising, has been Full Scale’s method of getting the word out. The company ships drawers nationally, but they have many local customers who can pick the drawers up from Full Scale’s shop. Bill Bretz says that feedback has been very positive. “We’re cabinetmakers that use these drawers ourselves, so we keep a good eye on the quality control. It’s probably the strongest selling point.”
“We have a client base of other woodworkers, and sometimes they’re busy when we’re not,” Scott adds.
Scott initially built the drawers, but as demand slowly increased, he brought in another employee. He said that the slow build has been very important to the drawer business’ success. “I knew I wasn’t prepared for the floodgates to open. We knew we had to feel it out,” he says. The drawers have gone through several changes from their start to the present. They are now made with select-grade lumber, to make them stand out from the competition.
Finding the Best Employees
The racks of lumber are located near the SCMI sliding table saw. Parts then go right to a Brandt edgebander and an SCMI widebelt sander. Additional machining is done on a Williams & Hussey moulder and a 40-year-old 36-inch Doall bandsaw.
The finishing department uses Kremlin spray equipment and has a full-time finisher. There is also a draftsman who draws up the projects by hand and orders materials. The rest of the company’s employees (counting the three brothers, there are nine employees) are cabinetmakers who can take a project all the way through the shop.
Bill Bretz assigns the jobs to employees and goes over every part of the job before the first board is cut. “I like to make sure that they have a full idea of what they’re doing, so they’re not standing around waiting,” he says. “If the table saw is tied up, they can go do another task. I let them digest the job, and they can come to me with any questions that they have. But from there on, they’re pretty much on their own.”
The three owners have made an effort to find the best employees that they can. Several of them had worked with John or Bill at previous jobs. “The whole focus of every decision we make is hiring the best we can find and letting them do what they do best,” Scott says. “I don’t get in my draftsman’s way. We don’t even have to peek our heads in the finishing room.”
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