April 2005

Starting from Scratch

Whether it is a monster millwork project or a new segment of his business, James Stidham of Corbin, KY's Stidham Cabinet Inc. is no stranger to starting anew.

By Katie Coleman
Stidham Cabinet outfitted Drexel Heritage's 20,000-square-foot retail furniture store in Lexington, KY. This space features the store's 18th and 19th century furniture and has wall-to-ceiling mahogany wainscoting with dentil moulding.

Imagine you are a custom woodworker with a 19,000-square-foot shop that puts out jobs averaging between $100,000 and $140,000. Now imagine that an important client asks you to complete a job three times that size - outfitting a 40,000-square-foot furniture gallery and gift shop, complete with doors, casings and mouldings, in 15 distinct styles to complement the 15 separate furniture showrooms that range from mirror-crazy, black-and-red contemporary to chandelier-dangling, mahogany-walled colonial. How would you feel?

James Stidham, founder of Stidham Cabinet Inc. of Corbin, KY, was faced with such a question. "Ever watch the World Poker Tour?" he asks in response. "I feel like I'm one of those guys a lot of times. I'm sitting over there, and I've bet all my money, and I've got a three and a seven in my hand."

Whether or not accepting the job was a gamble, Stidham was confident when he did so. "Whenever I'm dealing with a customer, I try to exude that I have the ultimate confidence in myself and my people to accomplish what they want done," he says. "I like to give them what I call 'the warm fuzzy feeling' that we're going to take care of them, and they don't have to worry about it. 'You just pick out what color you want and give me some kind of idea of where you think we need to start, and we'll give you drawings until we get this thing right down to a "t." Then you won't have to worry about it, we'll take care of it, and we'll have it done on time.'"

Stidham's poker face extends beyond the cozy feeling he leaves clients to the assurance he instills in his employees. "We felt like we could get that [showroom job] done, and we were willing to put in a lot of long hours in order to do it. That's why we take on these deals; we like a challenge," he says. "I'd rather have more than I can do and try to figure out how to get it done than have to go over and look my guys in the face and say, 'Look, we haven't got anything for you to do. You're going to have to go home.' In 30 years, we've never laid off anybody."

Stidham celebrates 30 years

During CWB's visit with Stidham and his employees, the veteran woodworker stressed that he was "a simple kind of guy."

He says, "I'm not a big Joe with a suit and tie. I'm over there in the sawdust. I open my own mail, and I look at my own bills. I cut almost every piece of trim myself. I worked real hard all these years, and most of my days start a little after seven in the morning. I unlock the building. I turn on the heat, turn on all the lights and get everything ready for when everybody comes in. Work time is 8 to 5, and I do most of my administrative work after everybody goes home."

Stidham Cabinet Inc.
Corbin, KY

Year Founded: 1975
Employees: About 40
Shop Size: 19,000 sq. ft., plus a 6,000-sq.-ft. showroom/office and 15,000-sq.-ft. expansion underway
FYI: Husband-and-wife team James and Carolyn Stidham started the business in their garage with a Craftsman table saw.

Indeed, when CWB finished its interview just after 5 p.m., Stidham, his wife Carolyn and the janitorial staff were the only souls left in the building. Carolyn Stidham, who joined the company full time just a few years ago to handle, among other things, the bookkeeping, says it is not difficult to work all day with her husband and then go home with him, too. In fact, when the couple, whose son and son-in-law also work for the business, was asked whether working with the family was stressful, they looked as if they had never considered it.

"We have long days, starting around 7 a.m. and sometimes going until 7 or 7:30 p.m.," she says. "But once we leave, we have a normal life."

The Stidhams' 12-hour days led the way to the company netting $4.2 million this year, far surpassing Stidham's original dream of a million-dollar company. Despite that accomplishment, Stidham says that "it's the same as it always has been. I want to be the best that I can be, and I work with everybody in here."

Perhaps Stidham's "simple" mindset comes from his humble roots. These stretch over 30 years' time, from his mother's garage, where he began his business in 1975, to his soon-to-be 43,000-square-foot facilities planted a stone's throw from his childhood home.

A "borrowed-on-credit" Sears table saw, plus a few other hand tools, were all Stidham Cabinet's founder needed to start making custom residential cabinets in 1975. Over the years, major milestones included: raised panel doors in 1980; laminate cabinets for both residential and commercial sale in the early 1980s; outfitting its first bank project in 1987; adding a factory cabinet and countertop business in the early 1990s; and, most recently, completing entire millwork jobs with the 2002 addition of a Weinig moulder (Profimat 26 Super).

For a more complete company history,
see this month's Online Extra.

As Stidham Cabinet pushes forth in its 30th year in business - and its 30th year of growth - Stidham recalls his past milestones with a mixture of humility and humor.

"I kind of got thrown into it, if you will, and I was just fighting, like being dumped into the middle of the ocean and you either swim or drown. I guess all of a sudden, one day, way down the road, I finally got to where I could catch my breath," he says. "Mostly, I did things out of necessity, where you come to a crossroads and you have to make decisions.

"When it came between choosing to install a bathroom in the shop or [buying a new piece of machinery], I bought the piece of machinery," Stidham explains, also commenting that the addition of the company's first real bathroom was probably one of his more memorable expansions.

Being faced with the necessity of making decisions didn't stop Stidham from reasoning through each one. "Whenever we have opportunities to make a directional change in the business, basically how it works is, number one, I think of every scenario that I can - what if this happens? What if that happens? What are you going to do if the market changes? Is this equipment that you're going to buy adaptable? What if you lose part of your customer base? I try to analyze all that and then [discuss it with the management team]."

Half of this six-person team is made up of Stidham's family members. In addition to Carolyn, his son, Jimmy, is in charge of the CAD and solid surfacing departments and his son-in-law, Steve Davis, is in charge of residential cabinets. Rounding out the group are "head bean counter" Kim Vance, countertop supervisor Keith Baker and Stidham Cabinet's custom manufacturing supervisor, Larry Britton, who has been with the company for about 25 years.

Thirty banks in the books

In 1987, Stidham Cabinet completed its first bank job for First Corbin Financial Group. Since then, it has completed about 30 banks for the financial organization and several more for other institutions.

"It's kind of one of those deals that if you can get into one group, and they see your work, you can get in with another one," Stidham says.

The company started out manufacturing cabinets and casework for these banks, but in 2002, some customers wanted the company also to supply pre-finished trim and doors, "so that they had one less or two less subcontractors to have to try to rotate through the job," Stidham explains. That was all the motivation Stidham needed to buy a moulder and learn how to use it.

"By doing the whole thing from scratch, we could have control over our own destiny," Stidham adds. "Before, we'd have to wait five or six weeks [to get finished products from outside vendors]. If you run a little short on a job, then you're in trouble. And if you bought more than you needed, then that was money wasted."

The new Weinig moulder and Diehl SL20 ripsaw now allow the company to make 95-97% of its work in-house. Stidham Cabinet's other major equipment includes: a Striebig-Optisaw 3; Weima-ECO600; Unique 336-4 shape and sand; Gannomat 470 drill and dowel; Cehisa 203 edgebander; SCMI Tech 95 PTP; Edgetech CTS740 countertop saw; Edgetech CTR 960 countertop cutout router; JLT clamp carrier; Kremlin spray equipment; and Uhling HP3000 case clamp. The company also is in the process of purchasing a 5X12 CNC panel processing router.

A recently opened First National Bank in Lexington, KY, was a result of one such in-house project, for which Stidham Cabinet provided all of the doors, trim, teller counters and countertops.

All of the bank's woodwork was done in mahogany in a style similar to the rest of the national bank chain. Dentil mouldings surround the lobby, and 8-foot double-doors with matching windows, which feature lited glass squares from top to bottom, enclose the room. Stidham Cabinet also custom designed the teller counters, which feature a stone inlay on the top and mahogany wainscoting on the front.

"Each of these banks is kind of the same," Stidham says, as he absentmindedly bends down to straighten a cabinet knob that's gone askew. "But with each customer, it's like starting from scratch."

Fifteen showcases in five weeks

Each of 15 furniture showrooms has a unique woodworking design created by Stidham Cabinet. The showroom pictured on the far left features Stidham Cabinet's window casings, trim and crown moulding. Center, a bedroom features white-painted vertical wainscoting that covers about three-quarters of a wall and is topped off with a small moulding. Another showroom displays a black-and-white contemporary furniture scheme. The black-painted poplar mouldings surround a three-lite door designed by Stidham Cabinet especially for the project.

To walk through the Drexel Heritage furniture store in Lexington, KY - the mammoth project mentioned at the beginning of this article - is to travel from the 18th century to the 21st, from the European countryside to urban America.

"The design phase was probably the most challenging because we started from scratch," Stidham says. "We had to come up with this handful of different mouldings, if you will, and then after we came up with the 15 different mouldings, we had to decide if we were going to use this here or that there to create some kind of effect."

In one area, shoppers are confronted with a dark, mahogany-drenched room. The dentil-moulded trim and floor-to-ceiling wainscoting encase a showroom filled with traditional 18th- and 19th-century furniture pieces, on sale at the retail furniture store.

According to Stidham, that was the only showroom to use wainscoting and the only showroom to use mahogany.

A casual browser walking past Drexel Heritage's "traditional lifestyle" threshold might find himself in a room with blood-red walls and black-painted woodwork, surrounding a contemporary black-and-white furniture scheme. Such a room in the Lexington store features painted poplar trim by Stidham Cabinet, in addition to lited entryways and windows.

"We used two different style doors in the store. One was a conventional, 15-lite door, and then in the contemporary rooms, we used a door we actually kind of invented," Stidham says. "They wanted something with a real contemporary look, so we came up with a mess of drawings, and they picked one out. The door has the three lites of glass in it with basically a frame around the outside with all straight lines.

"The crown moulding and casings in the contemporary rooms just have a flat plank with no profile on it," Stidham says.

"But in the rest of the building, they used either a two-piece or three-piece moulding," he continues. These other showrooms have a softer look, with light-colored greens and blues surrounding furniture styles liked by a broader range of consumers.

"From one area to another, the [woodwork styles] tied together, but each area had its own little signature, if you will," Stidham says.

In addition to designing the trim, window casings, doors and sometimes wainscoting for the 15 distinct showrooms, Stidham Cabinet also had to determine the layout of each room within the larger space, as well as all the counters, service areas and cabinets sprinkled throughout the setting.

Adjoining the 20,000-square-foot Drexel Heritage furniture showrooms was a 17,500-square-foot gift shop called "My Favorite Things." Since both businesses are owned by First Corbin Financial, Stidham Cabinet was hired to create the woodwork for both spaces, filling the gift shop with three-piece, white-painted poplar trim to match a large front counter adorned with corbels. An additional 2,500 square feet serve as a warehouse space for the two businesses.

Stidham isn't sure just how many drawings and mock-up boards the company went through before all the final decisions were made. "We did all these designs for them, plus we had these mock-up boards that had the crown mouldings on them, so they could look at them and see what they were going to look like. We did the same thing with all the counters, service areas, cabinets and what have you," Stidham says. "We had to go through the design-build process each time.

"And we had to come up with the layout, what we wanted this to look like all together. Oh, and what corbels we want to use - there are hundreds of them, and we had to go through that whole selection process," he continues. "And then we finally had to put that whole package together, so I'd say design was definitely our biggest challenge."

Once that challenge was completed and the design process was said and done, Stidham discovered that Drexel Heritage/My Favorite Things was the largest moulding order the company had ever run and the costliest project it had ever billed, coming in at about $319,000.

At the end of the day

With dusk well under way outside, Stidham stands in his abandoned shop and says, "This is my whole life. It's on days like today that your emotions just catch up with you."

But back in his office, Stidham is not interested in expressing his own life or accomplishments.

"If it's appropriate, I'd like to dedicate this to my employees," he says. "My employees are really important to me, and we try everyday to make them feel they're part of the business. I'm a pretty simple kind of guy, and I don't like folks to think I've gotten above them."


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