Riebau’s Cabinets Ltd. — A Family Affair
Two generations of family members guide the 20-year-old company to success.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
From the moment you enter the front door of Riebau’s Cabinets Ltd. in Germantown, WI, you know you are in a custom woodworking shop. The unique reception desk sets the tone. It features some eight different woods, artfully showcasing the work the family-owned-and-operated company can do.
“It’s utilitarian, but also a conversation piece and a sales tool,” says Len Riebau, who owns the company with his wife, Marie. For the desk, Riebau used walnut, maple, birch, cherry, hickory and oak finished with a clear coat. “It definitely is a statement about the beauty of wood,” he says.
Past the desk is the hall leading to the formal showroom. Both areas are filled with beautiful examples of the work done by the craftsmen at Riebau’s, including kitchens, mantels, staircase mockups, entertainment centers, hutches, china cabinets and even a laundry room display.
At Riebau’s Cabinets Ltd., family plays a major part in the day-to-day running of the business. Len Riebau is president of the company. Marie is vice president and controller. Son Bill is the commercial design manager; he has a wood technology degree from Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Daughter Deanna is the residential design manager and, like Len, a Certified Kitchen Designer. Daughter Lisa is also a designer.
The family roots go back even further. Both Len and Marie grew up around woodworking. Len’s father had a basement wood shop and Marie’s father worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. “I got encouragement at an early age from my own parents, and after I married, Marie’s father lent his support and experience,” Len says. The Riebaus are thrilled that their children are continuing the legacy.
Riebau is a cabinetmaker by trade. He and Marie bought the business in 1983. It was originally located in another suburb of Milwaukee, but they had an opportunity to lease a building that would double their space. So they moved to the present location in 1989. Manufacturing, design and office space now are spread over 28,800 square feet. They currently employ 46 people, but the number increases as needed.
Riebau’s Cabinets’ clients are mostly from southeastern Wisconsin, although they ship some orders nationwide. The work is all custom, and sales comprise a mix of residential and commercial work, new construction and remodeling.
“Sales normally break down to 30 percent commercial, 60 percent builder, and 10 percent remodeling, but that will vary slightly from year to year,” says Len.
His business philosophy is outlined in the company’s mission statement: “To exceed the expectations of our customers, suppliers, employees and competitors as the best supplier of high-quality wood cabinets and related products.”
Keeping up with New Technology
Riebau believes strongly in keeping up with new manufacturing technology. Computers have long been used for office and design work, and six years ago he introduced CNC equipment on the shop floor. A Giben beam saw and Busellato point-to-point machining center are key pieces of equipment. Other equipment in the plant includes a TigerStop automated fence system, Voorwood shaper, Holz-Her boring machine and Holz-Her Primus 1436 SE edgebander. Riebau’s other equipment includes three triple-head Ritter shapers and two with single heads, plus two widebelt sanders and an oscillating belt sander, all from AEM. Finishing equipment includes two Binks spray booths.
As part of its marketing efforts, Riebau’s has a cleverly designed Web site, www.riebau.com, to introduce customers to the company’s work. It features a two-story brick house with a floor plan superimposed over the photo. Visitors to the site can click on various rooms and be linked with photos of cabinetry, woodwork and custom furniture for virtually every room in the house from the foyer to the utility room to a basement relaxation area.
Marie says it is common for the company to get a client who wants a new kitchen and then ends up with work done in other parts of the home. “The connection of great rooms and kitchens and the open floor plans of today’s homes makes people want to coordinate the woodwork and pieces,” she says. In addition to cabinets, Riebau’s custom work includes staircases, doors, mantels and other architectural millwork and furniture.
Riebau says clients like working with a custom manufacturer to design their home office pieces, entertainment centers and dining room furniture because that way they get exactly what they want. “Custom work gives the client a unique piece that suits his tastes and lifestyle as well as his needs,” he says. “Entertainment centers and home office furniture are a big growth area as people grapple with stylish ways to accommodate televisions and various electronics in our information age.
“A home office design gives clients the ability to customize a desk and add storage and shelving for their needs,” he adds. “China cabinets designed for the dining room can be made in custom sizes, shapes and materials to showcase the owner’s china, glassware and accent pieces. We stress that with custom, the client’s personal style is part of the design. A handcrafted corner china cabinet, for example, is more than just functional. It is a way to display family treasures in a one-of-a-kind piece that reflects the owner’s preferences in woods and finishes. We offer a wide array of lighted, mirrored, glass and closed-door shelves, and drawer designs to give customers what they want.”
For kitchens, clients can select from a wide array of accessories like lazy Susan trays, can racks, spice holders and recycling bins so that the room is tailored to their needs. Riebau says that by working with a kitchen designer, the client gets an attractive space that is functional, with a step-saving layout that combines efficiency with openness.
Riebau says styles come and go in popularity, but for his clients, Shaker, Mission and Arts-and-Crafts looks are hot now. He works mainly with woods, but does some laminate work, especially for European-style frameless cabinetry. Off-white has replaced the stark white look of years past, he says. Popular woods for his market include oak, maple and cherry, but some clients like walnut, red birch or a combination of species.
“With custom, it’s really up to the client,” he says. “Home offices have created a whole new market, as more people work at home or need functional space to house computers and related equipment. We get lots of people who come to us after they have shopped for a home entertainment center or other piece of furniture and find that they can’t get exactly what they want. Size seems to be the biggest factor in why they want a custom-made entertainment unit.”
Giving Back to the Industry
Riebau also is chairman of an advisory committee that reviews the wood tech program directed by Jerry Finch at Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh, WI. Riebau says he is very interested in supporting educational initiatives that help create worthwhile technology programs to better prepare students for careers in woodworking and related industries.
“In addition to reviewing the programs at Fox Valley the members of the advisory committee are working on a program to invite business owners to see what the school offers and give input about what the industry needs. FVTC believes in partnering with industry to customize training that is relevant,” he says. “The advisory committee also recently participated in sending e-mails to Congress about the need for funding for technical programs. In addition, FVTC is involved in WoodLINKS USA, which also stresses industry involvement so that technical schools know what skills to teach. It’s basically about getting the various groups to communicate.”
Len and Bill are also members of the Hartford (WI) High School Vision Project. “Students build a house and put the skills they learn to use,” Len says. “Our company furnishes the cabinetry. Projects like these offer valuable hands-on training.”
Father and son also were involved in getting the WoodLINKS USA program started at Hartford, in conjunction with FVTC and Jerry Finch.
The Riebaus are supportive of FVTC’s programs in other ways as well — Bill has taken classes at the school and Riebau hires graduates from the program.
“It’s very hard to get qualified employees, and we think FVTC is successful because of the feedback it gets from the industry,” Len says. “A company needs employees who possess technical ability and a good work ethic, and good training is one of the keys to success.”
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