Industry Contacts — The Essence of Cabinetmaking
A Boston-area cabinetmaker utilizes a wealth of woodworking contacts and industry associations to keep his business growing strong.
By Lisa Whitcomb
To Andy Marvelous, owner of Marvelous Creations Inc. in Newton, MA, there is nothing more pragmatic for a custom woodworker than networking among his peers.
Marvelous met most of his crucial contacts while working at Scott & Duncan, a large northeastern millworking plant, during the 1980s. “When the company went out of business there were at least 100 employees. Most of them either began their own shops or went to work for other shops,” recalls Marvelous. “I went off on my own and began by doing carpentry and working for others until I began a woodworking shop out of my basement in 1994.”
During his time at Scott & Duncan, Marvelous says, “People worked there for many years, so it was like a big family. The woodworking community was, and still is, tight-knit in the northeast. Everyone knows everybody else in the business.” Back then he hooked up with co-workers and has fostered and maintained those relationships for years, to the benefit of his current business. “One of my best contacts is Kenny Wright. We still work with each other on a regular basis.” Marvelous says.
Diversity means a wealth of work
He is especially able to make “everything” come together because he is a licensed general contractor, a benefit which he enjoys because “I can go in and do many things for a homeowner or architect,” Marvelous says. “When I take on the entire job, I do the millwork and cabinets and hire out subcontractors like electricians for the rest. Another benefit is that I can control the spending for the whole project. I work with the project’s architect and help him with specification decisions that I feel will give a client the best product for the best price.”
Marvelous notes that being both a woodworker and a contractor is not an adversarial situation. In fact, he says, “It is a lot more work, having all of the decisions filter through me. But I can save my client a lot of money and control the quality of the final product.” For example, Marvelous says that he knows how he has to build a cabinet or countertop because he is building the room in which they will be installed.
For home sites where he is not the general contractor, Marvelous makes templates for cabinets or built-ins. He says he constructs the piece “like a jigsaw puzzle,” so that it can be disassembled and reassembled with ease, and a good fit is guaranteed.
The shop on average for the past five years has generated sales between $350,000 and $500,000 annually. Marvelous credits these strong numbers to the manifold nature of his shop, repeat business, word-of-mouth sales, and the vast well of industry contacts that pass along job leads and share projects with him. “I’ll also take on a lot of projects that other shops won’t touch,” Marvelous adds. “Sometimes they are small jobs or labor-intensive, but people are willing to pay for good craftsmanship and high quality.”
In addition to custom kitchen cabinets, bath vanities and built-in entertainment units, Marvelous Creations can produce radius work. To give customers affordable options, Marvelous also works with ready-made stock boxes from companies like LesCare that it “customizes” in-house. “We give our clients custom elements to dress up their cabinets,” Marvelous says. “I might add to the box or cut it down, or add trim or overlays to it.” He says that a custom cabinet project can cost between $10,000 and $25,000 or more, and this stock box option costs far less.
In the shop
Marvelous subs out all finishing to Ed Oldham, a good friend from his Scott & Duncan days, who works out of a shared space with Kenny Wright. Light or natural finishes on light wood are popular in the northeast right now, says Marvelous. He lays up his own veneers from Dooge Veneers on MDF or flakeboard and also purchases pre-veneered panels from local dealers like Robert Bury Panels and Rugby Building Products.
Marvelous also fabricates countertops. For laminate tops he uses Nevamar, Pionite, Formica and Wilsonart and Abet Laminati materials, and for solid surface tops he uses Top Stone, Hi-Max, Staron and Corian.
Millwork and mouldings are fabricated on the shop’s 15-inch Hitachi chopsaw, 18-inch Jet bandsaw, 32-inch Northfield bandsaw; Delta line borer, planer, joiner and shaper; Williams and Hussey moulders; Powermatic table saw, edge sander, mortise machine; Delta/Rockwell radial arm saw and Safety Speed Cut panel saw. The shop uses Accuride slides, and Mepla Alfit’s hinges are installed using a Mepla 1500 hinge machine. Marvelous also uses Blum’s Inserta hinges and KV Hardware.Moving Forward with a Business Plan
Having a business plan has helped to keep his shop focused, Marvelous notes. “We are not spread out doing too many different things that are not related. We are diverse in what we do, but we are focused.” Furthermore, he says that it is more important to say “no” to a job than to overcommit yourself and your resources, so you can’t get the job done on time.
“We are in a changing global economy, and we have a lot of foreign competition. But our wealth lies within our people, it is how we stay competitive. It is the ingenuity of the cabinetmaker and his ability to create, solve problems and find viable solutions for his clients that make our country’s woodworkers great. This is a great business to be in, and they are what makes our business great,” he says.
It pains him, though, to see the serious decline of fresh woodworking talent coming into the industry. ”It is really hard to find skilled employees. The skills that we use, even with modern technology, date back to Old-World joinery skills and knowing how to work with materials and how wood shrinks and moves. These are the skills that people have to have, and they aren’t really being taught as readily as they once were,” he says. Marvelous adds that he would like to see more programs offered in school and more apprenticeships offered to people who are really interested in learning about the industry.
But even a good business plan and skilled work force cannot take the place of listening to clients’ needs and giving them what they want, Marvelous says. Being flexible about job size is also a key in keeping the shop working. “I learned a long time ago to live off of the scraps. You can get more equipment, grow bigger and hire more guys to work for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are making more money. It just means that you are working more. We decided we’d rather maximize our profit margin [than grow large unnecessarily], he says.”
A Family of Friends
During his time at Scott & Duncan, a now closed Boston area woodworking company, Andy Marvelous met dozens of talented woodworkers with whom he still works today. One especially close colleague is Kenny Wright, owner of Presidential Millwork in Quincy, MA. Marvelous and Wright enjoy a familial relationship and work together on projects instead of competing for the same job. According to Marvelous, it is a common practice for them to share equipment, job leads and industry contacts with each other.
“Even though we have two separate companies, Kenny and I can pretty much handle any job that comes across the table. Kenny’s shop is in the city and he has large pieces of equipment. My shop is in the suburbs and I have the capabilities of producing detailed custom jobs, like mouldings,” says Marvelous, who has built up a comprehensive library of profile knives over the years.
“While we both do commercial and residential work, Kenny specializes more in commercial, and I specialize in residential. He will do certain things for me, and I will do likewise for him. We combine our strengths to give clients the best possible job,” he says.
Wright has three full-time and two part-time employees, which combined with Marvelous’ employees increases either’s manpower two-fold. “We know enough people between us that if a job requires more people, we can call our former Scott & Duncan contacts and get help,” Marvelous says, adding, “Between the two of us, we are like a partnership.”
The cooperative relationship extends even further, since Wright shares space with another former co-worker Ed Oldham, who does most all of Marvelous’ and Wright’s finishing. According to Marvelous, “His finishes are top quality, and I always look to him first to do my finishing.”
Marvelous says that in today’s competitive global market it is important for domestic shops to band together, share knowledge and work with each other. ”Our assets are not our tools or materials, they are our skills, and our resource pool is shrinking. The biggest threat that we face is a lack of skilled labor and foreign competition.
“These are the biggest concerns that I hear discussed when I attend AWI meetings. We all seem to be complaining about the same things. So I don’t really see myself as being in competition with the shops around here. I see it more as working with them in harmony to help find a solution to these problems,” he adds.
— Lisa Whitcomb
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