CWB March 2004
Custom Cabinetmaking In America's Heartland>
With a shop situated in a small, quiet town on the serene Kansas plain, Olaf Gerhardt's custom cabinet business is a flurry of activity.>
By Lisa Whitcomb>
When Olaf Gerhardt assumed ownership of a semi-custom cabinet shop in Osborne, KS, in January of 1997, he had a distinctive business plan in mind - to focus only on high-end custom cabinetry.
Following this philosophy, Gerhardt has turned Tischlerei Inc. into a $2.75 million enterprise in just a few short years. The shop's growth has been so strong that it debuted last year at No. 89 in Wood & Wood Products' 14th annual WOOD 100 profile of the fastest growing woodworking companies in the United States.
Gerhardt possesses three university degrees in engineering fields, but says he has always been interested in woodworking. Prior to buying the shop, he worked as a trim carpenter in the Chicago North Shore area - an interest born out of previous experience in real estate and land developing. "Initially, I was involved in real estate and land development. But after I built a few houses, I got more involved in the trim carpentry," he says.
When the opportunity to purchase the 16,000-square-foot cabinet shop presented itself, Gerhardt moved into cabinetmaking with ease. The shop sits on nearly 3 acres of land with an additional 3,600 square feet of lumber storage and 1,800 square feet of office space. There were only nine employees when he took over, and now Gerhardt employs 26 full-time and one part-time employees.
Serving a Diversified Market
Locally, Gerhardt serves as his own dealer and is able to be very competitive, offering clients "a lot of product for their money. We want to make sure that they recognize our product and have the benefit of buying factory direct," he says. However, in other locations, he uses dealers to sell his cabinets.
There are no display requirements for the dealers, who can use their own discretion. "We concentrate on working through dealers, though, so we can focus on getting the job specs designed and into the shop. Right now there is only Ryan Holloway and me to handle the dealers' orders, and this is our biggest bottleneck. This is limiting our growth potential," Gerhardt says.
"We are looking into adding several software solutions to help move the jobs through the shop. Currently we are using Cabinet Works by Planit Solutions to create our cutlists and specs. We are using AutoCAD for detail drawings and blueprints. A few years ago we would receive packages with blueprints every week. Now, everything is done by e-mail because architects work with AutoCAD. I am looking to hire a third person in the future to do the AutoCAD work," he adds.
About 90 percent of the orders are for residential applications, including kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, offices, libraries, craft rooms, bars and theaters. The 10 percent of commercial jobs are primarily for conference rooms and reception areas, Gerhardt says. Most design requests come specified from the dealers, who use a comprehensive 480-page blueprint catalog created by Gerhardt. "Occasionally, I do assist builders and design cabinetry myself as well," he adds.
The shop builds face-frame cabinetry and some mouldings. It offers matching millwork packages that are fabricated by Shawnee Woodwork of Topeka, KS, and interior doors that are fabricated by high-end interior door manufacturers. "Everything is stained and finished to match the cabinetry or to customer specifications at our facility here and then shipped all together to the job site," Gerhardt notes. All of Tischlerei's boxes and cabinet door and drawer fronts are solid wood construction and made in-house, except for mitered cabinet doors, which Gerhardt purchases from WalzCraft and Conestoga.
"We use plywood for all sides, tops, bottoms, shelves and backs. We never use particleboard," Gerhardt notes. All drawers are constructed with dovetail joints and are solid maple. Blum hinges and full-extension, concealed undermount drawer slides are used as well.
Each week, Tischlerei delivers about $45,000 to $60,000 in cabinets and matching millwork. The company does not handle installations; rather, it provides detailed drawings outlining how the cabinets should be put together and mounted by qualified installers.
Different Woods and Looks for Different Markets
The average cost of a project ranges from $4,000 for a small cabinet job to $150,000 for a larger detailed project like the one Tischlerei provided in 2002 to a $1.8 million home in the Colorado Springs Parade of Homes. Gerhardt was awarded "Best Kitchen" (in the category $1 million+) for this project, which entailed finished millwork for the entire house. It included 6,000 feet of prefinished window and door casing and prefinished cabinets for the kitchen, office, library, laundry room and six bathrooms, as well as a mantel, entertainment center and beams for the ceiling.
"There is no limit on house packages, including cabinetry, interior doors and millwork. Some clients are more concerned with receiving the product that they desire than they are with the cost," Gerhardt says. "Exotic woods, curved products, extensive carvings and complicated assemblies will drive the cost up."
Popular cabinet features include hidden spice racks, pull-out towel racks, island canopies and multi-level islands, roll-out waste cans, pots-and-pans drawers, rope mouldings, multi-layered crown mouldings, plain stiles, reeded and fluted mouldings, radius corners and other turnings, legs and half spindles. In addition, Tischlerei serves as a dealer for Sub Zero and Wolf appliances, which are also popular in high-end kitchens.
All finishing is done in-house using Sherwin-WIlliams' stains, glazes and, occasionally, pigmented varnishes. Stains are hand-rubbed, and a catalyzed conversion varnish is sprayed on using Graco pumps in one of the shop's four Graco spray booths.
Being nestled deep in the Midwest, far away from major metropolitan areas, Gerhardt says, "We have a pretty good success rate with sales, but sometimes dealers will call us and request that customers come and tour the facility. It is not unusual for us to have people come and see the shop where their cabinets will be made. When they come in, we show them around so they can see how the material is handled."
On such a tour, potential clients see that the shop uses a multitude of equipment, including two Newman planers, 12 Powermatic shapers and four Powermatic table saws, an Omec dovetailer, a Ritter edge sander, two Timesavers widebelt sanders, three Omga radial arm saws, a Tigerstop Whirlwind cutoff saw, an Ema sliding table saw, and Unique Tool drawer and door machining centers.
They also will see that the shop is laid out in individual work stations, with a station for rough millwork and straightlining; an area for door and drawer box construction; an area for final assembly where carvings from Raymond Enkebol are applied; and a finishing area. At Tischlerei, all finishing is handled by female employees, and all assembly and cutting tasks are performed by male employees.
Gerhardt trains all of his employees and says that he has a low turnover rate. "We really have quite dedicated people here. Everybody here understands that in our line of work, we have to produce and maintain a high level of quality. They know that we are working for our customers. Like many shops, we are always a little behind, but we work overtime and Saturdays because we know we need to ship the product in a timely manner," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time we ship on time. Complete."
Future Expansion Anticipated
Tischlerei will add a CNC router this year, and possibly a CNC door machine and a planer/sander combination machine. "The final decision on those machines will be made at IWF in Atlanta. I hope to have the router incorporated into our production by the end of the summer," Gerhardt says. To house the new machinery, Gerhardt is also planning to add a major addition to his building. "We will add 45,000 to 50,000 square feet to the west side of the building, so we can do millwork and interior doors in-house," he adds.
"Over the years, we have really established a lot of references and a very good reputation. We charge a pretty good price for our product and want to meet or exceed our customers' expectations. We always are trying to find different ways or techniques that will add value and improve our products," Gerhardt says. Bringing more production in-house is one way to do this for his customers, he adds.
Gerhardt is also currently rehabbing his office space and turning it into an elaborate office/showroom area where he can show customers different cabinet styles, hardware styles and engineering features, as well as wood species and available finishes. Each office will be outfitted with a different style of cabinetry, and the central area will house a complete kitchen with Sub Zero appliances in place. Other displays will show a library section with fireplace mantel and a wet bar. In addition, Gerhardt is also installing high-end millwork, doors, carpet and floor tile into these newly painted areas.
Tischlerei Inc. has also partnered with a Chicago company in Northbrook, IL, to offer its products combined with installation and remodeling services. "We are working with individuals to establish the same concepts in Los Angeles, CA, and Jacksonville, FL, as well," Gerhardt says.
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