Zepsa Architectural Woodwork does its annual $7 million in business the hard way, specializing in exacting residential estate work, with a few yacht interiors thrown in.

"We are always looking for the most difficult niche we can find," says Eduard Zepsa, president. In 23 years, he has grown the business from a one-man operation to a company whose clientele includes famous entertainers and "your average Joe Billionaire kind of guy."

Zepsa projects range from $50,000 to $2 million-plus interiors for multi-million-dollar homes. The three yacht interiors undertaken so far were in the $1 to $1.5 million class. Residential clients have included singers Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey and Bruce Springsteen and cosmetics queen Estee Lauder, for whom Zepsa outfitted a family compound in Aspen.  Zepsa doesn't go into a house to build a particular feature, like a mantel. The company does entire interiors - doors, mantels, coffered ceilings, mouldings, paneling and stairs. It doesn't ordinarily do windows, though it has occasionally done some special window detail, like a radiused, pitched mahogany frame that surrounds an elliptical leaded-glass window in one home library. Fully 70 percent of the company's work is what Zepsa calls "estate residential;" the rest is high-end commercial, including country club and law-firm interiors.

Part of the appeal of such work is the challenge, Zepsa says, though he admits the first yacht presented "a very tough learning curve. It really stretches the limits of your skills." The complicated nature of the work helps the company attract employees, says Zepsa. "We attract some of the best people in the industry because of the kind of complex and interesting work they get to do." There are 50 production employees, 65 employees in all, working in the 70,000-square-foot building the company recently moved to on the edge of Charlotte, NC.

But there are other important reasons why Zepsa is willing to make the mental adjustments called for by estate residential, where plans are often fluid and schedules upended by clients' changing wishes. (Projects typically last an average of one year, for instance, but have taken up to four years, and a single project has involved as many as 200 design changes.) One reason is to carry on the tradition of fine woodworking, Zepsa says. As an example, the company's door construction is mortise-and-tenon and, "we dovetail, spline and dowel everywhere possible," he adds. "Staple guns don't get a lot of use in our shop."

More and more, the estate interiors they do include furniture. Zepsa has one carver and subcontracts with others to provide hand-carved detail for pieces like a sapele bed with a sapele pommele veneer inlay that the shop was recently making.

"We're finding that people at this level of interiors like the idea of having something handcrafted just for them," Zepsa says.

Throughout history, the most outstanding examples of woodworking have been in churches and in homes like those of "Mad King Ludvig of Bavaria" or the Biltmore Estate, he says. Fortunately, there are still plenty of people in the world who love and appreciate true craftsmanship and have the resources to buy it, he adds. "There needs to be someone who can do that kind of work."

Focusing his company on work that requires a high skill level also helps provide a barrier against competitors. "It keeps people out who are going after us with capital investment," he says. It should also keep Zepsa out of reach of Asian competition, he adds. "What we do is ultra custom, it's ultra-difficult, and the upside is it's ultra un-exportable to China."

Starting door to door

Zepsa went knocking door to door for residential work when he and his wife and two small sons arrived in Charlotte in 1981. A Yugoslav immigrant, he had grown up working in a family stair shop in Chicago.

Though an unusual March snowstorm was raging outside while he was being interviewed in his office for this article, Zepsa says the Southern lifestyle, first encountered on a Myrtle Beach vacation, brought him to Charlotte.

Zepsa, then in his 20s, and his wife Maripat, who now works in the company as vice president and office manager, "started in a shop the size of this conference room we're sitting in" using small, used Sears tools. "I would get a $500 job, ask for a $200 deposit, make the piece and bring home the groceries for that week," he says.

"You become what you do," he adds. So he continued in residential work. It has an entirely different rhythm from commercial, especially at the estate level, he says. "It's herky-jerky, an organically evolving sort of deal." He works with architects, who often start working with him before plans are finalized, and with owners, who often keep changing what they want.

"They will call me from Europe and say, 'Stop what you're doing and let me send you a picture of what I saw in Paris,'" he says. "You have to be adaptive. You have to understand the emotional process and the psychology behind your client. This is their dream house, and they have been working most of their lives for it."

Zepsa sets no limit on the number of changes he will accept, he says, "as long as they are paying for it."

The company organizes its large estate projects the same way it would for a big commercial project, with a project manager, a project engineer and 100 to 150 pages of detailed shop drawings. The company works throughout the United States, and project managers are geographically assigned. Zepsa uses both its own installers and sub-contracted installers.

A walk through the shop shows projects in progress, including an assembled set of tall walnut cabinets for a library. They will be taken apart, then trucked to the site. What they will undergo there is not really re-assembly, Zepsa says. "It's kind of walking it into the room."

Wood varieties used include both the traditional hardwoods and exotic species. One yacht interior used 15,000 board feet of plain sawn makore and more than 5,000 square feet of blueprint-matched veneers laid up on weight-saving light ply cores.

When some antique oak found in France by a client arrived, boards varied in moisture content from 6 to more than 25 percent, and some lengths were as short as 12 inches and as narrow as 2 inches. Using what he calls "creative joinery," Zepsa made a staircase from them, after letting the wood air-dry.

The shop has a Schelling CNC panel saw, and Zepsa says he is thinking of getting a CNC router. But because most of his work is one-of-a-kind, computerization has not been a big priority, he adds.

All the twisting, curved work is done on 12 Martin and SCMI shapers that are set up and dedicated to different purposes. The shop also uses a Weinig moulder, Cemco and Timesavers widebelt sanders, Wadkin tenoner, Ritter door clamp, Maka mortiser, Hoffmann router, Robland panel saw, Diehl ripsaw, Taylor glue clamp, and Brandt and IDM edgebanders. Finishing is done with Kremlin equipment, an AES line sprayer, using Sherwin-Williams conversion varnishes and Chemcraft polyurethane.

New Microvellum software to make 3-D drawings was recently added to the ARDIS and AutoCAD software already used. It will help with the yacht projects, Zepsa says, where "everything is curving, compound curves. Everything is on a radius. It is very difficult to measure and take templates."

Zepsa's sons Brian and Peter, recent college graduates, have joined the company and are working in various departments. "Baptism at Zepsa happens on the shop floor. They have to learn the trade skills before they can manage other people using the trade skills," their father says.

The company for the last 15 years has worked out of two separate smaller locations and purposely limited growth. But last year it bought the 70,000-square-foot building and 5 acres of land from a former store fixtures company, which it now occupies. Today, says Zepsa, "We are in a dynamic, but controlled, growth mode." Volume in 2005 is expected to be in the $10 million range, growing to $20 million over the next 10 to 12 years.

"We are earnings- and bottom-line driven. Revenue growth is fine but meaningless without profit. We grow our business on earnings and good cash flow and are financially very conservative," Zepsa says.

The company will continue to focus on estate residential work and yachts and is looking at other markets that can utilize employees' highly developed skills. This includes custom furniture, as more architectural woodwork customers are requesting it.

Zepsa considers his employees' skills as intellectual property, valuable both to the woodworkers who exercise them and the clients whose homes show the results. "We want to stay in the very high-end level of the craft," he says, a niche he hopes will be recession- and competition-resistant by its very nature.

Zepsa Architectural Woodwork
Charlotte, NC

Year Founded: 1981

Employees: 65

Shop Size: 70,000 square feet

FYI: The company is geared to meet the demands of its upper-echelon clients, who often make design changes midstream, requiring lots of flexibility in scheduling.




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