Beating back adversity
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

On March 10 of this year, just when Rolando De Leon thought things were really coming together in his business, Trendy Interiors of Fairfield, N.J., one section of the roof fell in, wrecking his spray booth and causing about $100,000 in damage.

Then, a little more than a month later on April 14, New Jersey's Passaic River overflowed and De Leon received a call, informing him that more than 8 inches of water, muck and debris were covering his entire shop floor.

It took three days before he could gain proper access to the shop and assess the situation. Ten days' worth of finished furniture and cabinets were wiped out and had to be remade completely. The on-premises showroom had to be rebuilt. Dozens of hand tools and small power tools were either lost or beyond recovery. All the equipment that did survive needed serious cleanup and repairs.

In total, the damage this time exceeded $200,000, and De Leon was informed that insurance does not cover "an act of God."

All this happened before De Leon reached his 30th birthday.


Three months after the flood, the shop was humming, the showroom was once again presentable, and De Leon was able to smile. His resilience may be attributable to the fact that he had been tested a few years before teetering on the edge of bankruptcy brought on by tight cash flow.

Each time these trials faced him, De Leon, together with his wife Vanessa and a core group of longtime employees including Frank Rodriguez and Gary Flax, who have become partners have come through with flying colors.

He has had more than his share of success in his career as a shop owner, with appearances on HGTV programs and editorial placements of projects in prestigious print media. He has also done work for various celebrities.

Through it all, De Leon keeps in mind what his father, also a businessman says, "At your age, you're young enough to fall and get up again."

Early start

De Leon launched his woodworking career in 1995 at the age of 18 at Mica Factory Outlet owned by his father-in-law, Carlos Rojas and founded in 1991. Originally a retail store selling lower-end laminate furniture manufactured at a plant in Florida, it slowly metamorphosed into a manufacturing operation.

"So much of the furniture became damaged during the trip north," says De Leon, "that my father-in-law decided to set up his own repair shop in New Jersey." Mica began manufacturing its own line of furniture and selling it through its storefront.

By 1997, Rojas' daughter Vanessa joined the firm. Meanwhile, De Leon was, in his words, supplying "much of the energy and initiative in growing the business." Within a year, Rojas turned the company over to the younger generation. So, at age 20, De Leon was in charge and eager to take the shop to another level selling more aggressively and adding custom design and construction.

Inevitable changes

After a while De Leon began analyzing global conditions and trends that could impact his business.

"I realized that imports from China were picking up, and that no small U.S. factory like ours could ever price stock furniture as cheaply," he says. "Meanwhile, we had the services of a talented interior designer with formal trainingmy wife.

In 2000 we decided to emphasize custom and semi-custom work, and we changed the name of the firm to Trendy Interiors. The Outlet store, located on Route 46 in Fairfield, became our showroom."

Adapting to thrive

Both the De Leons began exhibiting at local-area home shows and placed ads in higher-end publications, as well as the regional "shoppers." Trendy Interiors also became a member of the American Society of Industrial Designers (ASID).

Unfortunately, there was only a short time for this model to start finding its legs before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "We were seriously affected," says De Leon.

With consumer spending down, De Leon found that the 6,000-square-foot offsite showroom started to become a financial drain on his business, with rent, insurance, utilities and salaries of three full-time employees. "Visitors were treating it more like a gallery or museum than a store, says De Leon.

By 2006 De Leon shut the store and brought the room vignettes and sample cards into a space of less than 1,000 square feet that he carved out of his 10,000-square-foot facility. One of the employees from the store, Frank Rodriguez, had already moved over to the office, handling a variety of chores, including sales, accounting, personnel record keeping, purchasing, deliveries, installation and more. In 2006, De Leon gave him the opportunity to become a 50-50 partner, and he quickly accepted.

Gary Flax, a former competitor of Mica Factory Outlet who had closed his business, became the third partner. Flax and De Leon initially set up an arrangement under which Flax would use Trendy's showroom space and, on an independent basis, sell custom furniture and cabinetry to his own customers, with the understanding that Trendy would build all the jobs he sold.

When money became tight for De Leon, Flax, a very effective salesperson, would, on many occasions, put the total amount of the sales he generated into the Trendy Interiors treasury; he took no personal compensation at these times. In gratitude, De Leon and Rodriguez named him as an equal partner in early 2007.

Back on pace

The new lineup, plus Vanessa De Leon, who has her own independent interior design studio in Ridgewood, N.J., has achieved formidable results. Despite the roof and flooding issues, De Leon says Trendy Interiors is on its way to setting a sales record in excess of $1.5 million in calendar 2007. The profit picture also is looking good, thanks to the closing of the offsite showroom.

When CabinetMaker visited the shop in July, however, De Leon and his partners were a dilemma: they had to decide whether to sink more money into fixing up the shop and creating a larger, more formal showroom, or whether to move the entire operation to another location.

"We moved into the Clinton Road site about five years ago without realizing that it is in the middle of a flood plain," says De Leon. "Up until this spring, we had had only one little scare that amounted to nothing. But now that we know the kind of devastation that can occur, we have to be concerned that there could be a repeat every year."

The new location, also in Fairfield, is outside of the flood plain, and, according to De Leon, is a fully equipped three-year-old shop.

Making it work

"Our goal is to make custom furniture affordable," says De Leon. Primarily, the shop builds cabinets for "other rooms" such as bedrooms, dining rooms, home offices, entertainment centers and fitted closets. Recently, thanks to a magazine feature on one of the company's kitchens, that side of the business has also picked up.

Most construction is either laminate or veneer. The shop's primary pieces of equipment are an SCM sliding table saw and SCM edgebander as well as an Ayen SK 850 boring machine.

To control costs, De Leon offers clients a choice of materials. "Oak can be stained to resemble wenge at a cost that is considerably lower than solid wenge. If our customer approves, we can save him or her a lot of money," he says.

Trendy Interiors uses wood components from firms specializing in that kind of work. Rarely does the company make doors, drawers or legs. De Leon also manages labor carefully. His staff of six shop workers includes one foreman, Julio Gallego, and three other veteran cabinetmakers Carlos Quinde, Adolfo Lopez and Jose Medrano as well as two helpers. All are cross-trained to handle any function in the shop,.

In the shop, production flow is designed for greatest efficiency. And installations are handled by De Leon and/or Rodriguez, plus as many of the shop staff as are required for a specific job.

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About the author
Alan Richman

Alan Richman, former editor of Wood Digest and Cabinet Manufacturing & Fabricating, is a New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in the woodworking industry. He has been a contributor to CabinetMaker and CabinetMakerFDM since 2007. Contact him at [email protected].