A Window of Opportunities
Co-owners of Sto-Ker Millworks talk about the rewards of reproducing doors and windows and the satisfaction of becoming joint business owners.
By Lisa Whitcomb
When Sean O’Sullivan and Craig Lints met three years ago, they were were working as independent subcontractors for a local multi-million dollar home contractor in Stamford, CT. O’Sullivan owned STO Contracting, which specialized in traditional and unique carpentry. Likewise, Lints owned Kerf Furniture, specializing in cabinetry and other home furnishings.
For one-and-a-half years, the two men worked together at the contractor’s shop, which was established just to supply millwork for the homes that the contractor was building. During this time they became close friends and trusted colleagues, and they slowly amassed an array of machines and tools between them. Without knowing it, the two men were assembling the essential ingredients that would later form a successful partnership.
In 1999, the contractor whom they had been working for passed away, leaving behind a few tools, a rented space and two subcontractors who would quickly come to see the opportunity of a lifetime. It did not take the two friends very long to decide that a partnership was the way go. “A partnership is like a marriage,” says O’Sullivan. “Before you begin together, you should be very certain that it is someone that you want to be married to.”
The transition was not difficult, since the two men already owned most of the equipment in the shop and they had a reputation for good work because they each had more than ten years of experience behind them. “We already knew the architects and the clients. We were ‘doing the speed limit’ the day we opened our doors for business and we never missed a single day’s work in the transition,” notes Lints.
O’Sullivan and Lints decided to combine the names of their two original companies forming Sto-Ker Millworks. “The benefit we had was that we worked together first, without the stress of being business owners, and we had a very comfortable relationship as friends,” reflects Lints. “The day we started working together in our own business we knew each other’s ins and outs; we already knew that we were compatible.”
The company grossed $600,000 in 2000, its first full year. In light of the shop’s instant success, O’Sullivan and Lints have increased their shop space to 2,000 square-feet and rent the 500-square-foot space next to their shop (in the same building) for their office. One full-time employee has been hired to help out and another employee addition is slated for the near future to help meet the work demand.
Ninety percent of the shop’s millwork is produced for high-end residences, while the remaining 10 percent is produced for businesses and churches. The company produces stairs, cabinetry for kitchens, libraries, baths, bedrooms and closets, as well as railings, garage doors, gates, pediments, columns and more. All millwork is produced on the shop’s Casolin Top 530 planer, a Casolin PF530 joiner and a Casolin Top Digit panel saw, all from the Adwood Corp. The shop also uses an SCMI T130 NPS shaper, an SCMI SI12 panel saw, and an Omga V113P double miter saw. The shop just installed a Weinig Quattromat 23P moulder.
Lately, the company has been making a serious effort to steer away from stairs, O’Sullivan says “they eat up too much of our shop’s space, they are complicated designs (like spiral cases) and they just require too much knowledge on everybody’s part.”
Instead, the men are driving the shop’s focus more toward reproduction doors and windows. O’Sullivan says that they are focusing on this market because there is demand in their area and it is a market that has not been tapped into by other small custom shops.
When they began, Lints reflects, “We had been doing some custom doors, gothic arched door tops and elliptical doors (for a project). Someone else was providing the windows for that job, and when we saw the windows we said to the contractor, ‘Well, if you are going to have us make the doors, then why don’t you have us make the window package as well?’”
After that point, O’Sullivan and Lints really started to push the issue with other architects and contractors. They had been making quality doors long enough to know that the leap to windows would not be that difficult. “Doing both doors and windows is better because it assures the homeowner is getting products that match in quality and style,” says Lints. Their persistence has paid off because now they are one of only three companies in the area (the other two being large manufacturers) that produce custom double-hung, true divided light windows; casement windows; doors and French patio doors.
The windows the shop produces are balanced with iron weights, have brass sash chains and brass ball-bearing pulleys, state-of-the-art weather stripping and vintage hardware. “Our windows are fully weather stripped for silent and draft-free operation,” O’Sullivan says.
Most windows are constructed from mahogany because it weathers so well. “We use mahogany on the exterior,” says O’Sullivan, “and on the interior [the client] can order any species he wants. Some jobs use cherry or quarter-sawn white oak on the interior, but usually we use mahogany straight through.”
The shop does not put a finish on any of its products, but the men will put a water-repellent preservative on the exterior surfaces of doors and windows until the client can decide what type of finish he wants applied. “Believe it or not, 90 percent of the windows that we produce for people get painted on the outside, even though they are mahogany,” says O’Sullivan and adds that “the reason for the mahogany is the longevity of the wood, because it is very stable. It doesn’t have a tendency to swell up or bind and it is resistant to decay.”
Sto-Ker is faithful to its local glass supplier because it provides quality low-E glass and can make the window panes with very little site lines, based on the specs that O’Sullivan and Lints provide. Having these panes made-to-order allows the men to produce narrow muntin bars — a unique item in the window industry.
“We can do these very narrow muntin bars, about one inch wide, where other [window manufacturers] cannot, because in true divided light windows the muntin bars are generally wider [when they are mass produced],” says O’Sullivan.
All of the millwork that the shop produces, whether it be doors and windows or libraries and garden gates, is produced for homes that “are in the eight-, 10- and 12 thousand-square-foot range or bigger,” says Lints. The men try to reproduce the new windows as historically accurate as possible in order to match the existing units already on the home. They do detailed drawings and cross-sections of the jambs and sashes on site, then go back to the shop and produce a window based on those drawings.
“We try to match whatever is existing, within reason, as far as profiles, casing and jamb details because the new windows that we are providing are weather-stripped, and we have to make allowances for that so they still look similar, but function properly,” says O’Sullivan.
“Anytime a client wants custom casings, or different profiles around a window, we will special order custom tooling to match exactly what they want,” says Lints. “The cost for the new tooling is built into each job and we will utilize a tool to its fullest extent wherever we can. But sometimes we have to get all new tooling because of what the homeowner wants.”
Lints notes, “An average mahogany window [made by us] can cost $2,200, which is four times more than the cost of a store-bought window. The size of the window, the number of light divisions and the type of glass used can really affect the price.”
Part of the reason that these two men enjoy door and window projects is “that we are supplying people with a product that will still be around long after we are gone. Also, doors and windows are not site-intensive. There is very little labor involved for installation and we do not have to deal with scheduling the work around other trades. Most cabinet jobs are fully involved and require a lot of time on site,” says O’Sullivan.
The shop can be somewhat selective in the jobs it takes on because so many older, high-end homes in the area are being remodeled or added on to. For this reason, O’Sullivan and Lints tend to shy away from long-term jobs that tie up the shop’s floor space and time. “Jobs that look like they are going to have a really long duration don’t interest us because we want to have the sense of overturn and flow and we want to keep things moving. We are sort of tailoring ourselves toward mid-sized jobs with [a quicker turn-around time and a] higher margin of profit,” says Lints.
All of the shop’s business is procured through word of mouth and repeat clients. “The quality of work, which we have both been doing for so many years, is so high that it generates an incredible amount of faith with the clients that we have worked with. So our clients [never dispute about the cost of a project] because it is not the issue,” says Lints.
“We have a high level of quality control and we never cut corners, because in the end the money you might save by shaving those corners, you are going to lose somewhere down the line,” he adds. “You will lose repeat business, you will lose your reputation and you will lose your integrity.”
Another reason that they are drawn to door and window manufacturing is because after an initial drawing is provided, their employee can work on the project without needing in-depth knowledge of window systems. “As long as he follows the cutlist and cuts everything accurately, then in the end everything will fit together perfectly,” says O’Sullivan. But he also says that Sto-Ker Millworks is not solely a window and door manufacturer, nor do they care to be. They like the challenge and diversity that comes with each new project.
Finding good employees is always a challenge for any business owner, including O’Sullivan and Lints. “We are not looking for someone who wants this as a job,” says O’Sullivan. “We want someone who wants to make a career out of it. They can make a very good living; there is no question that there is plenty of money [and work] out there for someone who wants to make this their business.”
This year Sto-Ker plans to pull in around $750,000. Plans for the future include the possibility of buying the building the shop rents space in, which is a multi-unit complex. This would allow the shop to expand as it needs to without having to move. But O’Sullivan and Lints do not want to grow too big or too fast. A small business has many advantages, two of them being low overhead and quick turnaround time. By accepting smaller jobs and controlling the flow of output, the men can ensure a higher quality product for their clients, says Lints.
Projects are divided equally between the two partners and so are the office responsibilities. “Having a partnership has been a really great benefit. O’Sullivan and I have very different things that we take care of. He likes to take care of the bills as they come in and I’m really good at talking with the clients about paying us. The responsibilities are split that way and we help each other out. But as far as labor goes, there is only ever one person in charge of a project. We never try to control the same job,” says Lints. O’Sullivan agrees, “Redundancy is a waste of labor.”
As owners of a small business, both men agree that they cannot possibly do everything themselves, so they hired an accountant and bookkeeper, a payroll service (for their one employee) and installers to help ease their responsibilities. They recommend that other small shop owners do the same.
“Don’t try to do your own bookkeeping; don’t try to do your own taxes. Hire people to do what they are best at,” they say. “Don’t try to go too far outside of your realm of expertise because there is always someone you can pay. Sometimes it hurts to pay a guy $50 an hour to do something [that you can]. But you know what? If he can do it in half the time, then you are already ahead of the game. We make more money when we are in the shop.”
As the market for millwork goes up and down, the men are confident that with their diverse woodworking skills they will never want for work. Sto-Ker is leaving its options open for the future. O’Sullivan and Lints see this as the fundamental way to stay competitive and stay in business.
“This is another reason why we do not want to get too big, because it gives us tremendous flexibility on what we produce, [letting us] go on without ever missing a day’s work,” says Lints.
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