Michael Fulmer was at a crossroads. "I would come home and tell my wife Rhonda I'm either going to expand the shop or I'm going to quit,'" he recalls.
It was 2003, and the owner of Renaissance Designs in Columbia, S.C., was frustrated. He wanted to design and build custom furniture in addition to his custom high-end cabinetry. But to do both in cramped quarters was nearly impossible. He was working in a 2,200-square-foot shop with two employees and was swamped with work. Expanding into custom furniture would require a bigger space.
The hurdles between him and his dream were significant he needed to buy a much larger space and more equipment. While his existing sales were keeping his small shop busy, he needed a marketing and sales person to keep work coming in, to show a bank that the venture was loan-worthy and to keep the shop going once it expanded.
The last hurdle turned out to be easier to get past than he thought. The perfect marketing person for the expansion was right at his side. And once he realized that, his dream started to become a reality.
Michael's wife, Rhonda, herself a small-business owner and former CFO, was looking for a new challenge when Michael began talking about expanding his shop.
When Rhonda saw Michael's furniture work, she knew she had found the best place for her talents. "His furniture pieces were simplystunning," she recalls. With that, Rhonda closed her faux finishing paint business and began working full-time with Michael. With Rhonda onboard and committed to the expansion, the business became Renaissance Designs SC, LLC, with Michael and Rhonda as co-owners.
While currently the workload at Renaissance Designs is 60 percent cabinets and 40 percent furniture, Michael would like to flip those numbers. "I like building cabinets and kitchens, but furniture is my love. I like having my own designs," he says. "I'd rather build conference tables than a set of cabinets." Illustrating his point, Michael gestures to an 18-foot-long trapezoidal conference table in the center of his assembly area. The table is a custom build for a corporate client. "I'm always intrigued by a cabinetry project that offers an artistic challenge," he adds.
Michael's work has a contemporary feel with a nod to a vintage art deco sense of geometry while being grounded in the present. Michael uses a wide range of veneers in his work. Recent pieces have included such species as lacewood, anigre, paduk, sapele and mahogany.
Teamed with Michael, Rhonda began building the shop's sales in preparation for the loan application.
"You can get selling down to a science," Rhonda explains. "If you know your closing average, then you can determine that it will take X number of calls to produce a certain number of sales. As long as every day you make X number of calls, you'll have your sales."
When Rhonda speaks of calls, she doesn't mean cold calls . She spends a lot of time working her existing contacts. "Many of our customers come as a reference from satisfied customers," she says. "Our clients are mostly CEOs, presidents, developers, architects, designers, doctors and lawyers."
Her efforts paid off. A year later, Renaissance Designs' sales were up 186 percent over the previous year. Armed with Michael's furniture samples, a business plan and a portfolio bursting with both cabinetry and furniture work, the Fulmers got their loan, and Michael's dream inched closer to reality.
The new facility
After extensive searching around Columbia, the Fulmers purchased their new 13,000-square-foot facility in October 2005. The building is located on the opposite side of Columbia from Michael's original shop. It took six months to get the new shop operational, and full production resumed in March 2006.
The new shop is divided roughly in half. One side is devoted primarily to cutting, sanding and rough fabrication of both cabinets and furniture. Material is offloaded and stored at one end. The equipment setup encourages a circular workflow and includes a Delta Unisaw, Jet widebelt sander, Grizzly edge sander, Jet band saw, Delta reciprocating saw, Laguna 32 bit line borer, Laguna edgebander, Delta shaper, Grizzly planer and a Delta jointer. Nearby is a Felder sliding table saw. Dust collection is handled by an Oneida Direct Drive system.
The other side is subdivided into three areas. Prep sanding is at one end in a dedicated sanding area with downdraft tables. Finishing is at the other end using a Carolina Virginia spray booth. Assembly takes place in the middle where Michael has his most recent purchase, a Vac-U-Clamp veneer press.
"I use the veneer press all the time," Michael says. "It's made my veneer work so much easier. I don't have to try to figure out how to clamp something together. It's allowed me to just do the things I like, simpler, better and quicker. It's one of the best purchases I've ever made."
Cabinets produced at Renaissance Designs are mostly mahogany plywood carcases with flat panel doors. "Most cabinets we do are frameless," Michael observes. "We very rarely do face frame."
However, there are no cookie-cutter cabinets here. Certain thematic elements curves, lines, boxes and irregular shapes are woven throughout Michael's cabinetry work with a close attention to detail and balance. While the end result may be a cabinet, it is clear that Michael's approach to cabinetry is not unlike his approach to custom furniture.
Although Rhonda once ran an artistic faux finishing business, these days she focuses on numbers. "I don't call myself an artist. Michael is truly, in my opinion, an artist."
However, balancing hard numbers and art can be difficult, Rhonda admits. "Math is sort of my thingmy degree is in accounting. I tend to want to reduce things to a science," she says. "Artists don't always think in those terms.
"When Michael is working on something, if it's not speaking to him, he will continue to work it and work it and work it until it says what he wants it to say," Rhonda says. She notes that it is this artistic drive for perfection that sometimes requires some discussion between the two when it comes down to schedules and deadlines.
The Fulmers expect to participate in several regional furniture shows in 2007 and are putting a special emphasis this year on marketing their furniture pieces. One day they hope to license Michael's furniture designs to large manufacturers.
While a great deal has happened in the last couple of years a new shop, new equipment and anticipated sales of $500,000 in 2007, Michael's dream has been realized almost. He would like to add a CNC router to the shop. "At this point, it's number one on my wish list," he grins.
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