A Philosophy of Service

Specialty Caseworks has one central goal — keeping the customer happy to create an ongoing relationship.

By Helen Kuhl

     
Specialty Caseworks Inc.

Dahlonega, GA

Year Founded: 1997

Employees: 28

Shop Size: 24,000 square feet

FYI: The company has earned “preferred vendor” status with several major hotel chains.

 
   
     

It is not uncommon for customers to find Russ Sutton, co-owner of Specialty Caseworks Inc. in Dahlonega, GA, on the job site as well as in the office. “I spend a lot of time with the installers, making sure that we give the customer top quality,” he says. “I get great joy out of seeing a happy customer.”

Such total attention to customer service is a strategy that seems to be paying off for the six-year-old company, which specializes in supplying millwork and casework to hotels and banks. It has grown significantly since Sutton started it in a barn next to his house in 1997. From $500,000 in sales the first year, Sutton expects sales to reach $3 million this year. There are 28 employees, working in the company’s 24,000-square-foot building.

Although there has been a lot of ground covered in a few short years, it was not always a smooth path. In fact, the company began as somewhat of a scramble. Sutton was working for another, large fixtures company as a salesperson, hired to bring in higher-end commercial work. He was almost too successful — he brought in a lot of new business, but the company had a hard time switching gears to do the custom work and, “We failed miserably,” Sutton says.

After a year of struggle, he proposed starting a separate division to concentrate on the high-end market. But business negotiations fell through and Sutton simply started Specialty Caseworks as his own firm. His first job was for a Holiday Inn in New Jersey, left over from a project started at the previous company. Sutton did the work himself in his barn, with one employee and his sons Adam and Eric helping with installations. Following the successful completion of that job, Sutton picked up a few more hotel projects and says, “When we got the sixth hotel, I out-and-out had some ‘bragging rights.’

     
 
Specialty Caseworks’ work on the Atlanta Falcons’ complex included laminate casework, such as in the “taping room” shown above. The locker room casework is solid wood.  
     

“I think in this business you have to latch on to something,” he adds. “It might be residential for some people. For me, it was the hotel market.”

As Sutton pursued more hotel work, he quickly outgrew the barn accommodations, but was fortunate to find a building to lease with an option to buy just a mile from his home. He purchased it a year later and has added on three times to bring it to its current size.

He worked actively to build a hotel client base, contacting contractors who specialize in that market. Early on he obtained work on a Marriott hotel in New Jersey, establishing a good relationship with the contractor involved. He continued to do projects for that chain, as well as for Hilton hotels and Wingate Inns, eventually earning “approved vendor” status with all three.

“That doesn’t mean that franchise owners have to use us,” Sutton says, “but we are in their book as one of just two or three recommended companies. With an approved vendor, the franchisee knows that the quality of work will be up to the hotel’s specs.”

Sutton says he is comfortable in the hotel market because it involves continuing relationships and repeat business. “I want customers that I can build a relationship with,” he says. “I’d rather work with someone who I know is going to have ongoing business. All I have to do is just do a good job, treat them right and give them a fair price; then they will become steady customers.”

As he developed his customer base, he adds that he has been selective about the general contractors he works with to make sure that they are reputable. He also branched out from hotel chains to include banks and car dealerships, both of which also offer repeat business. Today, about 90 percent of Specialty Caseworks’ jobs are negotiated projects with established customers. About half of the work is with general contractors on new construction projects and half is direct with owners, usually on remodels.

For hotel work, the owners are hotel franchisees, who are required by their chains to remodel or refurbish at designated times. In some instances, one person owns several franchises and brings repeat business to Specialty Caseworks in that manner. In other cases, franchisees contact Specialty Caseworks because of its status as a preferred vendor or through networking with other franchises that have used the company.

While the company has done work in various states, most of its jobs tend to be in the south, Sutton says. Hotel projects typically involve high-end millwork as well as plastic laminate casework. Most hotels will have nice woodwork for their lobbies and reception desks, as well as business centers and breakfast bars or restaurant areas. Hilton Garden Inns typically have fireplaces with wood mantels. Laminate casework is used in back offices, kitchen areas and employee break rooms.

     
 
The company’s work on the Target House at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis includes casework in solid wood and laminate, such as this colorful storage area featuring several laminate patterns. The wall decoration at left also was done by Specialty Caseworks. It is maple veneered plywood with cork inserts. The shelves are metallic laminates. The design was cut out on the company’s CNC router.  
     

Sutton says that many chains are adding kitchenettes or wet bars to their guest rooms as they remodel, and Specialty Caseworks does that work as well. For example, a current Hampton Inn job includes 97 kitchenettes. Banks and car dealerships involve a similar mixture of wood and plastic laminate work. Sutton estimates that about half the company’s work is in solid wood or veneers and half is plastic laminates. Specialty Caseworks also does some solid surfacing work in-house, but contracts out glass and metal.

September 11 Brings Challenges and a New Partner

While the hotel market overall has been successful for the company, it has also meant very difficult times as a result of the September 11 terrorist attack two years ago. Hotel new construction and remodeling virtually stopped for more than a year, and even projects that were on the books at that time were put on hold.

“When 9-11 hit, we had about $600,000 worth of work that was committed and set to go, and half or more of that got pulled out. Marriott allowed its franchisees to go the whole year of 2002 and not spend a penny on remodeling. The rug just got pulled out from under us,” Sutton says. “So we started scrambling, going after other work. We pulled in whatever we could find. We did that for a whole year.”

The loss of work was significant enough that Sutton considered selling the company. Working through a broker, he met Al Fenstemacher, who had manufacturing and sales experience in the textile industry, and wanted to purchase his own firm. As negotiations evolved, the two realized that their skills complemented each other and they got along well. So about one year ago, Sutton sold Fenstemacher 40 percent of the company stock and they became partners instead.

Although the sale was spurred by the aftereffects of 9-11 to bring in additional capital, it was a move that also made sense because of the company’s rapid growth. Sutton says that he was handling sales, running the shop and trying to groom his two sons, Eric and Adam, who had joined the company, and it was an overload. With Fenstemacher on board to handle production and related paperwork, Sutton says he can now concentrate on sales and customer relations, which is what he does best.

“I think that a lot of our sales growth during the past year is because of Al being here, because it allows me to dedicate all my time to business development and spend time on-site with the installers,” he says. “I can be out of the office for a week or two and I don’t worry. I know that Al’s here.”

In addition to the high praise he has for Fenstemacher and his positive influence on the business, Sutton also gives credit for success to his employees. “The guys here do excellent work; they don’t require a lot of supervision and they take pride in what they do,” he says.

Sutton also emphasizes the importance of his presence on-site during installation in helping him build strong relationships with his customers. As an example, he cites a recent job for a luxury car dealership in Memphis. “About three-quarters of the way through the install we started falling behind. So I literally packed my bags and said, ‘I’ll be back in a couple of weeks,’” he says. “The owner saw me there every single day. Some days I was sweeping floors, some days I was cleaning glass; whatever I had to do to keep the guys’ morale going, working long hours to get the job done.

     
 
Specialty Caseworks did the woodwork for an Embassy Suites in Nashville. The reception area features diamond-shaped pieces of granite as accents to match the flooring.  
     

“When we were finished, the compliment that came back from the customer was, ‘I appreciate your giving personal attention to the job. Most companies would have sent more people, but the owner wouldn’t have come.’ I’ll take care of the customers myself, and I think that’s what takes us the furthest.”

Teamwork on the Shop Floor

In the shop, Specialty Caseworks’ commitment to quality is achieved by “just preaching quality to all the guys all the time,” Sutton says, adding that they try to treat employees with respect and create a feeling of teamwork.

“As a shop, our employees perform a whole lot better when they all feel like we’re in this together. We have always promoted that,” Sutton says. “We don’t have any tolerance for an attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’re all the same.”

Teamwork also is fostered in the organization of the shop. There are four production areas – two cutters who produce parts and mouldings; six cabinetmakers; hardware and assembly, and the finishing department. Each group has a team leader who oversees assignments in his particular area. Twice a week, team leaders meet to discuss project status and requirements.

The company produces its own doors and millwork, including stair rails, chair rails, wainscoting and mouldings. Mouldings are produced on a DFFA-6 shaper from 2J Machinery. “It is 60 miles to the nearest lumberyard, so we do it all in-house,” Sutton says.

The company also lays up its own laminates and veneers. It handles its veneer layup a little differently than most other shops of its size, in that it cuts parts to size and then lays up the veneer. It does the layup by hand, without a press. “We have had good success and good quality, and we get nice crisp edges,” Sutton says. “We probably should have a press, but we haven’t had any failures. We are veneering small projects, though.”

The shop cuts its laminate sheets on a Delta Unisaw. It also has a Powermatic planer and table saw, a Timesavers widebelt sander and a Holz-Her Genesis 1435SE edgebander.

Until two years ago, the company did most of its cutting on a Holz-Her sliding table saw. However, after the purchase of a Komo VR508 Mach One CNC machining center, it uses the Holz-Her mostly for single panel cutting and does everything else on the Komo.

“The CNC machine took us to another level and opened up opportunities,” Sutton says. “You read all those success stories about adding CNC, and they are true. I couldn’t do without it now.”

Sutton’s son Eric does all the programming, using AutoCAD. He puts programs on a disc, which is taken to the machine. In addition to cutting straight parts, the machining center has been a boon in handling all the shop’s radius work, Sutton says.

His son Adam does estimating, project management and some sales. Since they joined the company a couple of years ago, both sons have learned a lot and become great assets, Sutton says.

Banks, Car Dealers and Other Customers

While hotels are a mainstay of Specialty Caseworks’ customer base, it also has built up other steady customers, including local banks and high-end car dealerships. It is not uncommon to have more than 20 jobs under contract at any one time, Sutton says, and the company averages an output of $250,000 per month. He adds that he likes to have about 6 months’ worth of work on the books consistently.

One of its largest jobs was a recent $350,000 project for a Lexus dealership, involving high-end laminate and woodwork. The company also has handled major jobs for Jaguar and Porsche dealers.

Another recent large job was the Target House at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. Sponsored by the Target store chain, it was built to house up to 150 families of terminally ill children as they undergo treatment at the hospital. The house includes reception and dining areas and facilities such as an exercise room, yoga room, beauty salon, as well as apartment-like living suites to make the families as comfortable as possible.

Another high-profile project and the company’s biggest single job to date was the Atlanta Falcons’ complex, built in 2001. That $425,000 project included the locker room, taping room, archives room, trophy room, conference room, lobby and offices for the owner and manager.

With a wealth of work to show off in its portfolio and a strong management team in place, Sutton feels poised to grow the company further, now that the economy seems to be picking up. However, he is cautious about doing it only “as we can afford to.

“We went through those first three or four years of a business when you are pouring your profits back in. Right before September 11, we were settling down and saying, ‘We have everything now. We’re set to go out and make a profit,’ and the bottom fell out,” Sutton says. “So now Al and I are saying, ‘We’ve gone through the ‘acquisition years’ and weathered the September 11 stuff. Let’s go make some money!’”

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