Jose Duarte is the living embodiment of the concept that success is not a destination, but a journey. In his case, the journey has taken him from a family of woodworkers in Mexico to running a modern cabinet shop, Maya Custom Woodwork, in El Monte, Calif., that has grown as much as 30 to 40 percent per year.
Duarte says achieving the success he now enjoys is due in large part to his constant hunger to learn new and better ways to do things in his business.
Duarte devotes a lot of energy to networking with other shops to learn tips and tricks, but it wasn't always that way. It wasn't until he joined the Cabinet Makers Association that he really discovered the power of networking. Ironically, that wasn't what he was looking for when he first signed up.
Logo for business cards
Duarte had been advised by his accountant that joining a trade group would give him added credibility for his business. So, when he discovered the CMA booth at the California Industrial Woodworking Expo, he was ready to sign up. "I just wanted to join to be a member to put it on my business cards," he says. "I got the magazine, the welcome kit, the certificate, and then I saw a notice about the conference."
That was the CMA's first standalone convention, which was hosted by Holz-Her USA Inc. at their headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Duarte decided to attend and was amazed at the friendly, open reception he got, as well as the information that was available.
"The CMA has paid for itself twenty times over," he says. "I go to just about every event. There's always something new I learn. There's just so much knowledge, and they are so willing to share."
Advice that pays
Things Duarte has learned from networking with other shop owners have accounted for easily measurable gains in his shop. For one thing, he has been steadily raising his prices. That means the price may be too high for some customers, but that's fine by him.
"Before I joined the CMA I would win 10 out of 10 bids," he says. "Now it might be two out of 10, but the jobs are profitable and worry free."
Although he finds custom furniture projects are "the most fun," he has quickly learned that kitchens and cabinets are much more profitable, so that's what he now emphasizes.
He's also learned that attitude plays an important role in how the customer values a shop and its work. "I try to make the client understand that I am a professional," he explains. "And as a professional, I like to get paid as a professional."
The right tools
Another area where networking has paid off is the advice Duarte has gotten in tool selection. Encouraged to cut his panel products on a sliding table saw, rather than a conventional table saw, Duarte invested in a Grizzly sliding table saw. He says he was amazed at what an improvement it was. "It pays to have good tools," he says.
Similarly, he uses a number of Festool portable power tools, including the Rotex sander with dust extractor and the TS-55 plunge cut circular saw, which he says ensures accurate cuts when the table saw is not available, such as on a job site. That's important because the Maya crew does all of their own installations.
Another big tool that Duarte bought after recommendations from a CMA member is his forklift. Eric Lehmann, a CMA member with a shop on Long Island, N.Y., has given talks at trade shows in which he extols the virtues of forklifts in cabinet shops. Noting how much time they save and the back-breaking work they eliminate, Lehmann trumpets, "Forklifts are free." Duarte took that message to heart and bought a used forklift. Even with repairs to get it in good operational shape and even though the Maya shop is only 2,000 square feet, Duarte absolutely agrees with Lehmann.
Just as Duarte is always trying to learn new things, he makes sure that the rest of the Maya crew keeps learning, too. He cross-trains workers to do different tasks in the shop.
"Everybody works on everything," he says. He rotates workers between different machine and tool positions, so everyone is capable of doing every operation.
Even with a versatile crew, though, Duarte has learned that it often pays to outsource. He says he will outsource parts of a project depending on the level of work required or the amount of work going on in the shop at the time. However, he refuses to outsource installations, preferring to keep full control of the finished work.
Besides his involvement with the CMA, Duarte participates in other networking opportunities. He has joined the National Kitchen and Bath Association, and he has become a frequent poster on the CabinetMaker forum at www.cabinetmakeronline.com.
He also has used his networking skills to get jobs, cultivating good ongoing relationships with interior designers and contractors, although he downplays his role in marketing to those groups. "I feel I was very lucky," he says, noting how often existing clients refer new work to him. "I've never had to sell myself."
Duarte also participates in the eCabinet Systems cooperative operated by Thermwood, and he uses the free eCabinet Systems software for all of his design work.
As eager as he is to learn from other shops, Duarte is quick to return the favor. He freely offers helpful advice to other shop owners and shares what he has learned. He recently hosted a regional meeting of the CMA at his shop.
Duarte knows that as far as his shop has come, there will always be room for improvement. Currently, he sees a big challenge in how work flows through the shop. When he moved into his current location, he didn't really think about shop layout. But he'll likely network with other shop owners to come up with good advice to fix that, too.
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