Green Leaf Cabinetry offers environmentally friendly cabinets, picking up business management lessons along the way


“It's not easy being green.” Just ask Kermit the Frog or the “Wicked” witch. Embracing the Green Movement from a “Cradle to Cradle” philosophy can be challenging, which may explain why only a small percentage of custom woodworkers are actively pursuing this approach. But there is one green cabinetmaker in Cleveland, OH, who, after learning from past challenges, now offers custom cabinets that embrace the concept wholeheartedly.

Green Leaf Cabinetry, owned by David Rupp, offers its clientele cabinets made of certified green material, fabricated in a green environmental by the Amish, and assembled and finished with zero- to low-emitting adhesives and finishes.

Rupp originally started out with a remodeling company called Cabinet King, which he opened in 1997. He did installs and worked with several different custom cabinet companies. However, five years ago, Rupp started doing research on how to go green. Impacted by all of the chemicals he had encountered since he started working in cabinet shops at the age of 14, Rupp says he told himself, “There has to be a healthier way of doing things.

“I just remember all of the chemicals that we used and we would get dizzy or uncomfortable with the smells or the fumes and then we had to clean the finishes off with solvent-based cleaners,” Rupp says. “I remember dipping my hand in a bucket of toluene without even thinking of wearing gloves. My skin would just dry out and get tingly. I was ignorant to what the chemicals could be doing to me.”

As Rupp educated himself on the alternatives, he developed Green Leaf Cabinetry for building custom green cabinets, spurred in part from phone calls he received from people who were interested in green and sustainable products. At that time, the City of Cleveland was buzzing over the concept of green building, largely due to the efforts of Sadhu Johnston, who was then the director of Cleveland's Green Building Coalition. Currently, Johnston is Commissioner of the City of Chicago's Department of Environment.

“They (the Green Building Coalition) were renovating an old bank building to become the Cleveland Environmental Center. That was our second job (as a green cabinetmaker),” Rupp notes.

Green Leaf Cabinetry's first job was the personal kitchen of Fred Snowden, former chief financial officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Trinity Commons, which houses the Diocese and Trinity Cathedral, was the first green building project in Cleveland, Rupp says.

One of the biggest hurdles Rupp had to overcome initially was “getting the green ingredients. There was almost nothing in the marketplace,” he says.

So, he tried using reclaimed wood. “We used a local company called Metro Hardwoods. They are a small operation — one or two guys who take municipal trees that were felled or had to be cut down, and they cut and kiln dried them.

“One of our pieces at the Cleveland Environmental Center was made out of that wood. We still use it sometimes for drawer boxes. It just depends on if there is enough of it to do the whole project.”

Lessons Learned

When Rupp came to market with his green products more than three years ago, he seemed to have found the right niche. From the active community of local environmentalists, the word spread that he offered the type of products for which many people were searching, especially those people with chemical sensitivities and allergies, including his own daughter.

The company was listed in several national publications like the “Green Spec Directory,” which is a third-party publication, Rupp says. “You can't pay to be in the magazine. They find you or you submit the materials in your products and they clarify that you are green.”

Rupp also recalls getting a phone call from someone who had received a copy of “Good Green Kitchens” for Christmas. He did not even realize Green Leaf Cabinetry was listed in that book.

With all of the interest and promotion, the company grew quickly due to market demand.

“I went from $30,000 a year, just myself, to more than $360,000 a year in two years,” Rupp says.

But that pace was too fast for the company. There were problems with organization, overhead and meeting deadlines.

“We didn't have the financial backing necessary to sustain the company. We did it on a whim, and it was not profitable,” Rupp says.

Everything was fabricated by hand, which made it difficult to meet some of the standard lead times.

“It was just my entrepreneurial spirit thinking that (a project) could be done in three weeks, and it would take six weeks, eight weeks,” Rupp says. “We were working like cavemen in an automated world, trying to compete.”

The cost of the products was also a factor. Rupp says that many clients “wanted a green cabinet for the same price as other national brand cabinetry.” They did not want to pay the premium.

So, Rupp would often fabricate products for below cost, thinking that the next job would be profitable. He also donated products, to increase the burgeoning awareness of green cabinetry. He did a few model homes for a green builder in Cleveland and participated in the International Interior Design Show.

But all of these efforts came at a heavy price. Rupp had increased his staff to 10 employees — two of his original three employees he actually found in the parking lot of Home Depot. Some were cabinetmakers and others were carpenters learning to be cabinetmakers. “The company wasn't organized enough. I was out selling jobs, getting business in, and they had questions and were unable to make the deadlines at certain points to get the products to market when promised. So, we ended up closing the shop,” he says.

A New Start

Manufacturing stopped last year. After that, Rupp says that he began to reorganize the shop by himself. He started doing service work for Starbucks, and when they found out that he was a sustainable and green contractor, “they were thrilled about that because that's part of their environmental story, too,” he says.

Now, Rupp is concentrating on finishing his business plan, which he says is 95 percent complete. He is working on creating a positive cash flow and getting the marketing plan together to completely relaunch the company. He has gotten involved with organizations like Entrepreneurs 4 Sustainability (E4S), which is an organization that teaches its members who have a “great idea” how to run a business.

“I never went to school for business, so understanding how to run a business profitably — just the elements that go into having a business: marketing, secretarial, customer service, retaining employees, screening employees and going through their qualifications — is new to me. We just grew too fast and I ended up having way too much overhead,” Rupp says.

Rupp also took business classes offered by the ShoreBank Enterprise foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on business development for the Cleveland area.

“I took business classes to understand how to do this,” Rupp says, “instead of going through the school of hard knocks that I went through. I don't want to do that again. I learned so many lessons [from previous experiences] on how to run a business. It was incredible, but it was expensive.”

Education is the key to everything, Rupp notes. His goal is to be a better steward and be more responsible. “When you say ‘Yes,' make your ‘Yes,' mean yes — that's what I strive for today,” he adds.

Green Leaf Cabinetry still provides custom green cabinetry, but for now, the manufacturing is outsourced. Only assembly and finishing are done on site. “That way we have control over what the product looks like when it leaves the facility, and we retain quality control,” Rupp says.

The Amish Way

The main company Rupp outsources to is Shawnee Wood Products Inc., located in Middlefield, OH. Set in the Amish community, the company epitomizes the concept of eco-friendly and sustainability. Shawnee follows the tenets of the Amish belief with its simplistic and back-to-nature practices.

“The whole persona of the Amish community is living naturally,” Rupp says.

The entire shop is run without electricity. According to the manager, who asked that his named not be printed, all of the machinery is converted to hydraulics and runs off diesel fuel. There is a 350-hp generator in the back of the shop that powers everything. The manager says that it is very expensive to convert the machinery, but it is not a difficult process for someone who knows what he is doing. The cost of this conversion process could be as much as 30 percent above the machine's original purchase price.

Cordless power tools are battery-powered and recharged off of a global battery hooked to an inverter, which converts the power to 110 volts.

Natural lighting is used. Several holes are cut into the roof, and solar tube lights are inserted with a big square dome on top. The interior is lined with mirror-like material, which magnifies the sunlight. When it gets dark, propane lights are used. Shawnee employees generally start work around 6:30 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m. or later if necessary.

Cellulose, with liquid adhesives sprayed on, is used on the walls and ceiling for soundproofing.

Another environmentally friendly aspect of the shop is its use of geothermal heating.

“Instead of heating outside air, if you take the air from the earth or take the temperature of the earth below the freezing level, you're taking something that's 50 degrees and turning it to 65 degrees, as opposed to taking the outside air, which (could be) zero degrees and heating it up to 60 degrees. You are using less energy,” Rupp says.

Under every foot of concrete of the shop's floor, there is red tubing that circulates water to create radiant floor heat. Copper water lines connect to a furnace to heat the water. In the summer, a reverse process occurs to cool the water.

Hidden Green Practices

When asked about his green practices, the Shawnee Wood Products manager says, “We are not green certified, and we aren't, for the most part, too worried about being green.”

The company does use all northern-grown hardwood species and a formaldehyde-free PureBond plywood by Columbia Forest Products. But “other than that, we're not pursuing green,” the manager says. “There are certain requirements that we would have to meet [for formal certification] and we are pretty busy the way we are, so we don't need to pursue it.”

Even though they are not certified, Shawnee still is a good example of eco-friendly practices, Rupp says.

“They are already doing it green, but they don't realize it,” he adds. “Like the day lighting, the way the building is insulated — all of these things are green elements that have not been put into a box and labeled as green. They are doing it already, but they just don't know it. I think that is happening all across the United States.”

Future Goals

Rupp has big plans for Green Leaf Cabinetry, including bringing the manufacturing back in-house later this year. He plans on purchasing a beam saw, CNC router and an edgebander to manufacture semi-custom and affordable cabinets. All custom cabinets will still be outsourced to Shawnee Wood Products.

He is working on a partnership with a vocational school to develop a training program where students would eventually come to work in his shop. He foresees reopening a larger shop in downtown Cleveland that would create hundreds of jobs.

“My goal is to take this on some level, make it successful and duplicate it in cities around the United States. We take this successful model and do it on a smaller scale in other cities in need. I feel like I'm being called to do this in the most impoverished neighborhoods to help create jobs,” he says.

“My hope is that we get the name recognition where they say ‘We are doing it just like Green Leaf Cabinetry,' and that we set the standard of what a green cabinet should be,” he adds.

This kitchen was fabricated by Green leaf Cabinetry. It features maple cabinets, knotty pine doors on the base cabinets and a wheatboard carcass. Zero-to-low-VOC finishes were used.
This cabinet is named “Ashlin Tree.” It was fabricated for the Cleveland Environmental Center and is constructed of primeboard and wheatboard, with maple, mahogany and oak veneer. This desk was fabricated out of wheatboard for the Cleveland Environmental Center.
Green Leaf Cabinetry outsources the majority of its manufacturing to Shawnee Wood Products Inc., which is located in Middlefield, OH, in Amish country. The shop has many environmentally friendly aspects, including the use of a 350-hp diesel generator (pictured left) that powers hydraulic tools and the use of geothermal heating for radiant heat (pictured right is the furnace that heats water running underneath the shop floor).

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.