In 1992, after six years of running Paul Downs Cabinetmakers from the workbench, owner Paul Downs realized he needed to change his strategy. He decided the best use of his time would be to stop building woodworking projects himself - relying instead on his shop craftsmen. He shifted his own focus to designing, selling, marketing, and advertising his custom furniture-building company.
While his team kept the woodworking machines running, Downs put his attention on working from his office. The strategy has paid off. Since that time Paul Downs Cabinetmakers has outgrown four different woodshops. Currently, he and his 18 craftsmen operate out of a 33,000 square-foot wood production plant in Bridgeport, PA.
When Downs describes project workflow through his shop, he begins with the office. Everything starts there. It’s where he and his engineers meet with clients and develop designs that meet specific needs.
From that point, the engineering team creates a digital model using SketchUp and CAD. They create programs to cut individual components on their CNC router, and then they send the project to the floor.
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When the craftsmen begin a project, they work in teams. Each member takes on a specific role. While they contribute their own expertise to the construction of a project, the overall design is sacrosanct: it doesn’t change.
“The methods we have developed are very collaborative," Downs says. He also places a great value on keeping his employees motivated.
For many years in Downs' shop, an individual craftsman would see a single project through from start to finish. Although it brought the cost of labor up, it kept his employees motivated and fulfilled with their own work.
Now, however, as more of his customers shop online, Downs says the shop has had to strike a balance between maintaining craftsmanship, and increasing productivity. Most customers care only about what his custom woodshop makes. They don’t care about the woodworking craft that his team uses to make it, he says.
Downs, who is also the author of a regular blog series at The New York Times, “You’re the Boss," summarized some of his apporach in an entry, “Remembering Why I Got Into Business.” Returning to the bench after sitting at his computer for two decades, he recalled what initially drew him to woodworking back in 1986:
The nature of woodworking is pleasurable. It’s a nice mix of challenging thought and physical labor. The results of each minute of work are clearly visible as you transform raw materials into finished product, step by step. I think this explains why many of my workers have stayed with me for so long. Considering the alternatives, making furniture is a great way to spend your day. If a reasonable wage accompanies the job, there is little incentive to jump ship.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Downs majored in design and structural engineering. It was an architectural program, he says, with very little to do with woodworking. After graduating, he began working in construction and, occasionally, daydreamed with one of his co-workers on the idea of building furniture for a living.
“I never had a vision for the company,” Downs says. “It was more of a vision for myself - that I would be successful as somewhat of an artist.”
During his early years at the workbench, a vision for the company took shape. Downs took inspiration from furniture makers like George Nakashima, James Krenov, and Sam Maloof. With the information available at the time, Downs admits he wasn’t able to find much about the process or the business model of the other companies. He could only see the design and the final product.
So he sought out answers, and filled in the gaps with his own ingenuity.
In a conversation with the legendary Thomas Moser—who himself set out in 1972 to preserve the lost art of cabinetmaking—Downs was advised be could make a successful business with custom cabinetry.
“By good fortune, I was able to make it happen,” he says. One of his specialties as a business owner is doing whatever is needed to make things happen. “Some days I was lucky,” he adds.
Now, after nearly three decades of working at the bench and in the office, of researching other businesses and talking to experts, Downs has built a very significant custom furniture business in Bridgeport, PA.
The 33,000 square-foot facility is home to a Martin T-72 sliding table saw, a Timesaver 36-inch wide-belt sander, a radial-arm saw, several tablesaws and multi-routers, approximately 600 clamps, and a Thermwood Cabinetshop 45 CNC router.
The Thermwood is an "Excellent machine," Downs says. "We chose it because it was made in the USA, and the company offered a software package that we could get our hands around, and good support."
His tables are sought out by companies across the U.S., and he has also shipped abroad to Germany and Dubai.
With such a large workspace, the team has been able to specialize in both residential dining tables and corporate conference tables. Some of the boardroom tables reach up to 38 feet long and are crafted with solid woods including cherry, maple, walnut, oak, and ash. Downs also uses specialty cuts in veneers such as quilted maple, quartersawn oak, curly walnut, and macassar ebony.
The custom modifications he offers “respond to changes in technology,” Downs says. In the modern workplace, one of the things companies require most is a minimal presence of wires, cables, and tech components.
“What people are buying and what they want are changing,” Downs says. Visual aesthetics today amount to clutter-free workspaces rather than ornate decorative accents. Custom pieces are made to accommodate specific pieces of technology. “It’s more about what they need,” he adds.
“What they want is to have the thing they need in a reasonable amount of time.”
Since today’s customers want quality custom furniture produced in a relatively short period of time, Downs finds he must orchestrate that balance by having his team work quickly while also focusing on quality and staying motivated.
You can follow Downs’ regular blog series as he details the experience of running a successful business in a trying economy. And meet him in person April 9 at the 2014 Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo in Somerset, NJ.
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