The Path to Profitability and Peace of Mind — Partnership

A Connecticut custom woodworker finds adding a partner is the best way to increase business and decrease stress, all at the same time.

By Lisa Whitcomb


He is the sole owner of his current shop, but the winds of change will soon bring in a new partner and a whole new way of doing business. This summer, Norwalk, CT, shop owner Andrew Tucciarone Jr. will merge Strawberry Hill Millwork, his face-frame cabinetry shop, with his long-time friend Timothy McEnary’s frameless cabinetry shop, T.W.M. Cabinet Making.

Ironically, business has almost been too good to Tucciarone. He says, “It is getting to the point where I have to turn away people that I have done work for in the past, and I hate that. I want to [grow and yet] keep my clientele. That is [one reason] why McEnary and I are partnering up, so we can keep the clientele that we already have [and continue to grow].”

     
 
This dark maple entertainment center was built for a media room in singer Michael Bolton’s home.  
     

Once the two shops are combined they will retain only the Strawberry Hill Millwork name, but they will continue to produce both face-frame and frameless cabinets in order to cover the gamut of the millwork industry. “This is going to be a great combination I think,” says Tucciarone in anticipation of the merger. But the decision to take on a partner, he says, was not as hard as some may think.

Tucciarone says, “A lot of factors have gone into making this drastic change in my business. This has been building for years. I need someone in the office, and I need a partner [who will always be here], because my last employee quit and left me with two kitchen jobs going on at the same time. This has steered me in the direction to merge with McEnary because it will lighten up both of our work loads, and we will still be able to manage people and have a full-time office person.”

Tucciarone has only one part-time employee left to help him out until the merger of the two shops is complete. That employee is none other than his father, Andrew Tucciarone Sr. “He has helped me more than I can ever repay,” Tucciarone Jr. proudly boasts.

Finding good employees who are dedicated to the success of the business has become an increasingly difficult task and is also another heavy factor in his decision to find a partner.

Tucciarone remembers how he got his start in the industry. “I began working in wood shop when I was still in high school,” he says. After high school Tucciarone moved on to work in the construction trade for many years with both his father and his brother-in-law, at separate times, doing a variety of tasks such as roofing and framing.

Then, about 10 years ago, he knew that it was time for him to move on. “I realized I needed more of the finer work than just nailing together 2x4s,” Tucciarone reflects. “I have always loved working with wood and I wish that I had gotten into [millwork] sooner.

     
 
Andy Tucciarone’s far reaching talent as a woodworker can be seen in this family room. Not only did he construct all of the built-ins, but he built the tables as well.  
     

“When I was a kid, I always made little knick-knack things to give away for Christmas, and that is really how it all started for me,” he adds. “I worked in my dad’s basement and I made some things that even I was amazed I could do out of that basement shop.” He remembers, “I was always the guy [in school] who was making pieces of furniture while everybody else was making a little box. I always got to do the good projects, and I guess I was always meant to do this [kind of detailed work].”

About the same time he decided that his true calling was in millwork, the commercial building that his father owned was vacated by its renter. It sat empty for many months before, jokes Tucciarone, he claimed the 1,600-square-foot building for his own purposes under squatter’s rights. “And I’ve been here ever since.”

Tucciarone will eventually leave this building, but he plans on turning it into a showroom for clients once the two shops are conjoined this summer. Both he and McEnary are anticipating the purchase of a new 7,200-square-foot location, which is currently under bid.

Annual sales for Strawberry Hill Millwork were more than $400,000 last year, but Tucciarone predicts that by combining the two shops, thus expanding their market base, the two men should triple their annual sales. “Owning a small shop has been hindering growth terribly. That is [another reason] why we want to combine our shops. We feel that this move will increase efficiency and profitability,” says Tucciarone.

High-end cabinetry and other millwork, including exterior pieces, make up about 90% of Strawberry Hill Millwork’s current business, which is further broken down into 95% residential work and 5% commercial work. The remaining 10% of the business is balanced between furniture (including pieces like patio furniture, dressers and specialty items like display cases) and Tucciarone’s budding high-end closet and home office furniture company – Home Office Works, which is a division of the Strawberry Hill Millwork company.

Tucciarone says he never needs to advertise Strawberry Hill Millwork, because its reputation is spread by word of mouth and maintained through repeat business.

“Business has gotten a lot busier now. Contractors are juggling two or three jobs at a time, and I have been having a hard time keeping up with [the work load], so I know that I need to expand,” he says. “Everything is high-end millwork right now. You just don’t see any $12,000 or $15,000 kitchens anymore.”

He says that the shop gets a lot of compliments from builders and contractors. They are the ones who notice the difference in quality, Tucciarone says, because they are the ones who install regular factory cabinet brands and most cannot believe the difference.

“The whole package of the construction, the construction method, the attention to sanding and how the finished product will look are definitely what is important to me,” he says, adding. “I won’t send anything out that I am not happy with. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I did.”

Sanding is one of the most important steps in finishing and Tucciarone spends a lot of his time doing so. “I take a lot of pride in what the finished product looks like and spend a great deal of time on the details,” he says. “I watch what I am doing and if someone else is doing it for me, I make sure that they are doing it properly.”

He instills this same pride from the inception of any project through to its completion. All of his cabinet boxes are made from 34-inch maple plywood with a 12-inch pre-finished maple backing. Paint-grade cabinets frames are made from soft maple and stain-grade frames are made from mainly maple and cherry woods.

Tucciarone biscuit joins any finished or exposed ends on the cabinets, and he says he now uses pocket screws (for holding cabinet frames together), because they tremendously increase his production time. All boxes, drawers and door fronts are made in the shop, and he orders the dovetail drawers from another company.

     
 
This closet from Home Office Works, a division of Strawberry Hill Millwork, features 3/4-in. thermally fused melamine from Panolam.  
     

A typical kitchen package from Strawberry Hill Millwork can run a client around $45,000, and a whole house package costs an average of $100,000. Tucciarone notes that beaded insets on cabinet doors and drawers, with a glazed or antique finish are the current trend on the East Coast. He says that typically a project can last anywhere from two to three months or more, depending on the size and intensity of detail requested by a client.

In addition to supplying contractors with millwork that, Tucciarone says, a carpenter on site may not be able to provide, the shop produces high-end kitchens and baths, as well as other built-ins like the media center that he produced for singer Michael Bolton’s home. The center is just one of many projects that Tucciarone has built in Bolton’s home over the last decade, and he continues to work on the singer’s home today.

“After I started working on his house, I really got geared to buy better tools,” says Tucciarone. Today, he uses Cabinet Vision software to create his cutlists, owns a large assortment of small tools and has many large pieces of machinery, including an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw, an SCMI Selecta 12E edgebander, an SCMI F410 joiner, an SCMI S630 24-inch planer, an SCMI T130 class shaper and an SCMI BS24 bandsaw.

Additionally, the small shop houses a Gannomat Proline 50 line borer and a Gannomat Mentor construction boring machine both from Tritec Associates; a Kaeser screw compressor, an Oneida dust collection system, and a TimeSavers widebelt sander.

But, even with owning all of this machinery, it soon became evident to Tucciarone that he could not take on as much additional work as he wanted, because of space constraints. “Space is the key to running a shop efficiently and efficiency plays a big part in profitability,” he says. “People always think that machines will make a small shop run better. But I got carried away and bought too many pieces of equipment [for this size shop]. So by taking on a partner, acquiring more shop space and using this equipment [in conjunction with McEnary’s], I believe that we will have a smooth running shop.”

Tucciarone says he knows that partnering up with McEnary will prove to be a sound business decision because they both will have the same vested interest in the business.

“I wear all of the hats right now, which is not good. I have known for awhile that this is not the right way [to run a business]. It is just too hard,” admits Tucciarone. “McEnary has strong points that I don’t have, and I have strong points that he doesn’t have. I don’t mind doing the office work, but not when it takes me away from getting the work in the shop done.” He adds that, “[Working primarily alone] is too stressful and I am trying to reduce the stress level, because I do enjoy what I do.”

Tucciarone recommends to people, “Don’t take on more than you can handle and don’t say ‘yes’ all of the time. I got myself in trouble that way by saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll try and squeeze it in,’ and then I was blind-sided by having my employee leave. Being in control of your own scheduling is very important. I have learned the hard way, because when you do good work everybody wants you, and it is hard to say ‘no.’”

Tucciarone and McEnary feel that they are realizing many of their dreams by partnering up and that they are planting the seed for future “growth” in their business, resulting in the happiness and peace of mind that they seek. Now all they have to do is nurture it.

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