The Shop of the Future

With its equipment, unique business structure and quick turnaround, Unique Custom Creations is a textbook example of how technology is expanding the capabilities of small custom shops.

By Anthony Noel

A few years ago, Tony Perpetua was doing the same thing many small shop owners do: trying to strike a balance between selling work and finding the time to actually produce it.

In a 2,000-square-foot space just a few short blocks from his present 10,000-foot facility off Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, PA, Perpetua, his father Tony Sr. and longtime friend Fran Murray took the proverbial dive into the custom woodworking business – specifically, the world of custom closets.

In the years since, they have steadily built what would have doubtless been called — had woodworking been the subject of a “Tomorrowland” exhibit at Disneyland, circa 1965 — “The Shop of the Future.” One can almost hear the canned voice of the exhibit’s narrator, speaking through a broad smile:

“Here in The Shop of the Future, beautiful custom furnishings are created in huge quantities by just a handful of employees. In days, not weeks!

“Working with veneered woods and space-age plastics [remember folks, this is the 60s...], workers move almost effortlessly among computer-operated machines in a safe, dust-free environment, producing work of striking quality and precision.”

Well, the future is now at Unique Custom Creations. And there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about it.

“We started small, just like everyone,” says the 35-year-old Perpetua. “But when we bought the saw, that changed everything.”

“The saw” is a Holzma HPP81 Optimat purchased from Stiles Machinery. Before buying it, the company produced total sales of $300,000 in 1998. Perpetua moved into his present space in 1999, and gross sales topped $430,000 that year. The Optimat was added late in 1999 and fully integrated into the operation by 2000.

With that purchase, Unique found itself on the high-tech fast track, Perpetua says. A few months later the company bought a Weeke BP100 point-to-point machining center and by the end of 2000, a Brandt KD95 edgebander, also from Stiles. Year 2000 sales nearly doubled from those of ’99, jumping to $840,000.

     
 
This display shows one of the company’s basic closet systems.  
     

This year, Unique added a Gannomat Index 200-LS dowel drilling/inserting center from Tritec Associates, which Perpetua says eases the burden on the Weeke while allowing both machines to work in concert. He expects gross sales of $1.5 million for 2001, impressive numbers for a company which, throughout most of the year, had a total manufacturing payroll (including Perpetua and his father) of just six employees. (A seventh worker came on board in mid-September.)

“We’ve always kept up on the technology and always bought the best equipment we could afford without putting ourselves at risk,” Perpetua notes. “Every time we have added a machine, we have added an employee.”

Besides Tony and his dad, the manufacturing personnel roster includes sawyer Mike Pellicciotti, machine operators George Checkum and Joe Hackford, cabinetmaker Lou Schaibel, and Chris McHugh, the team’s latest addition.

Like the payroll, demand has grown as well. Though Unique Custom Creations has what some might consider a small client list of just under 10 independently owned closet companies, it is important to remember that these companies are buying ready-to-assemble cabinetry and shelving for a large percentage of the custom closets being installed in Unique’s market area, from Maryland to New York.

“Most are people that we went after and said, ‘This is what we want to do. We have the product — we make a great closet system. It is floor-mounted, it is just like furniture, it uses high-quality board and high-quality two- and three-mil edgebanding,’” Perpetua says.

“We make the components for them. They do the selling, designing and installing.”

Well, some do the installing. Others avail themselves of one of the more unusual aspects of Unique’s success: installation services provided through a sister company called Unique Custom Closets, run by Perpetua’s friend and longtime partner, Fran Murray.

“We wanted to get into [installation] and do it exclusively,” says Perpetua. “But since we do such a large volume of closets, I couldn’t give it the necessary time. So we took [Murray] on, kind of like a partner. It’s his company, so he can call the shots without us being involved.”

Sounds easy, and it is — thanks largely to some very clear lines that are drawn between the two organizations. Perpetua projects sales for the installation side to top out at around $450,000 for the year — that’s above and beyond the $1.5 million anticipated from the manufacturing side.

“He gets the best product. It is made and assembled here, prepped, then it leaves here and goes out to the job,” says Perpetua. “It gives us a little bit of leeway. He takes care of his stuff, and everybody knows where their line is.”

     
 
A walk-in closet installation in melamine, with thermofoil wood-grain doors and drawer fronts.  
     

It’s also a symbiotic relationship. In addition to employing a full-time installer and having the freedom to add installers when the workload calls for it, Murray has a part-time designer, which gives him the capability of bringing plans (a.k.a., sales) to Perpetua’s side of the operation.

“We know exactly what the shop produces, we know exactly what the installation crew produces,” Perpetua says, “and just by dividing their numbers up, I can see exactly what that crew purchased and how that works out.”

As for projects, 90 percent of the manufacturing side’s output is closets, with about half being high-end.

“The quality of the [melamine] papers, the clarity of the picture, the photographs, makes a big difference,” Perpetua says, noting that the vast majority of even the highest-end jobs are manufactured primarily from Panval melamine panels.

Unique regularly incorporates solid wood, raised-panel doors into high-end, wood-look melamine closet projects. Thanks to water-based finishes, Perpetua says, the ambering inherent in solvent-based products is no longer an issue. So the finish of real wood elements can be precisely matched to the faux-wood melamine and hold their color for years. In fact, just five or six percent of all the high-end, wood-grain projects the shop produces are comprised of “real” wood-veneered panels, which Unique buys on prefinished sheets.

Perpetua prides himself on the company’s quick turnaround time. He says orders received Monday morning are usually ready for installation on Friday, and many of those orders are received via e-mail. He imports that information into the company’s CutRite software.

“CutRite is very versatile,” he says. “It will import any type of an ASCII format and we can run with it.”

And run they do, under the watchful eye of Tony Sr., a retired, 27-plus-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department and himself a cabinetmaker since 1960.

The company’s just-across-the-Delaware location has enabled it to develop a warehousing arrangement with its board supplier, Fessenden Hall of New Jersey.

“We’ll get one truck every day, sometimes two,” says Tony Sr. “The space it saves on our floor is great.”

The shop’s convenience to I-95 is also a clear advantage for customers, providing ready access to the main artery serving the New York-to-Washington corridor and aiding the company, along with its investment in equipment, in making the promised five-day turnarounds a reality. That timeframe covers everything, from the moment an order is accepted through palletizing of the completed, RTA product.

“It’s hard work, and the deadlines are tight, but you leave every day and at the end of each week with a real feeling of accomplishment,” the younger Perpetua says.

And so it goes — in The Shop of the Future.

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