When Thomas Laville, owner and founder of Laville Cabinets in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, decided to add custom closets to his repertoire, he did so for a variety of reasons, beginning simply with supply-demand. Thomas has had an entrepreneurial open-mindedness since entering the woodworking business in 1992. Laville first founded a business that made gift and home accessories, picture frames and kid’s furniture, primarily from reclaimed wood.
When the market changed and as his knowledge in woodwork grew, so did the company. Laville switched into producing cabinets in 2009. Although the bulk of his business is working with builders, Laville says they also do one-on-one work with clients, usually friends and family. “Our breakdown is typically 80 percent builder to 20 percent private client. The homes we build for tend to be high end. An ‘entry level’ house for the builders we work for is generally about $400,000 to $500,000 with many of our clients buying $800,000 and up homes.”
In 2017, he began realizing a need in this market for high-end closets as well as needs within the company to expand. One of the reasons Laville is expanding his business is somewhat personal. “I have a big family and I hope someday one of my children would like to join the business,” says Thomas. The question became a matter of direction: “I knew I wanted to expand our offerings but wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to add to the mix.” He realized that he needed to appeal to a different market and found two areas where he saw demand: “After a lot of thought and exploration, I narrowed the potential choices to commercial woodworking or custom closets.”
Laville took several factors into the decision, weighing in-house labor demand, machinery, and software needs as well as external market trends, builder relationships and competitor offerings.
“For one thing,” says Laville, “it is important to know your area. In our area of Southern Louisiana, we are not driven by, nor have a woodworking infrastructure and presence that other parts of the country, like the Midwest and East Coast have. It is a good and bad thing. It means less competition for larger contractors, but it can be hard to find skilled people.”
The in-house demand for increased labor posed some potential challenges to successful production and timely delivery. “Although we do have a lot of talented people in small shops, you do not find the big, sophisticated operations in place here the way you do in other areas of the country,” says Laville. Considering closets, he realized “the cash flow tends to be quicker and the jobs are typically simpler, in that the scope is smaller. We do some very elaborate closets, but it still tends to be quicker than work for other rooms in the home, such as a kitchen.”
Relationships established also played a part in the final decision to produce closets. “We already had an established presence in the area to kick off sales for custom closets. We knew enough builders familiar with our abilities and the quality of our work.” Those relationships provided a sense of continuity.
Though confident in his sales market, Laville wanted to ensure the shop could meet software and machinery demand. He consulted with his software provider at Cabinet Vision. “He was a good person to talk with as he had started a very successful closet business in the Northwest when the (industry) was fairly new in the ‘80s.” In addition to purchasing new software, Laville, a fan of the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) in Atlanta, decided to attend the 2018 IWF Closets Symposium, presented by Closets & Organized Storage. “That was really helpful for us because although we had the software and had experimented with it some, we were very much at the novice point.”
Laville followed up with speakers and contacts from the symposium to learn more from their experiences and utilize the symposium resources. He invited Eric Marshall, owner Kitchens and Closets by DEA and one of the presenters, to Baton Rouge for four days of what Laville and his employees considered a crash course. “It helped that he was able to visit us, see our workspace and equipment, make suggestions, offer insight and answer our questions.”
Marshall’s consultation provided Laville with a perspective on the machinery required for closet production and he realized he had the tools to start. Per the demands of residential cabinetmaking, his shop was already well equipped. Laville’s equipment includes two Weeke routers, a 5-head moulder from Kentwood and a Pillar Machine MJ 45 for mitre doors. His most recent machinery purchase is a Homag Ambition edgebander to replace an old SCM edgebander that wasn’t capable of corner rounding needed for the closets.
In the spring of 2018, the closet business officially became part of the business. The company sold its first closet as a hybrid instead of a closet system closet, using rayfix fittings and systems components combined with cabinet-style construction to suit the high-end market. A year later, Laville is happy with the expansion. “In April 2019, closet revenue was great, amounting to one-third of our business. I expect the total for the year to probably be 10 percent. This month I’ve sold two closets and I have additional meetings set up. I am very confident it is going to grow and be a good segment for us,” he adds.
Laville plans to attend the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas and will present at the AWFS Closets Symposium on July 16. Marshall will also be a speaker at the event.
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