Building a reputation and a business
October 12, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Lots of shops dream of doing the kind of work Foley-Waite Associates does on a regular basis. When the typical job is residential cabinetry and architectural millwork for a multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartment, there's no argument that what this Bloomfield, N.J., shop does is high-end.

But just because the work is done in expensive residences in expensive neighborhoods doesn't guarantee that it will put the shop on Easy Street. That's among the hard lessons Foley-Waite's owners, Kit Schackner and her husband Kelly Conklin, have learned since they started the business in 1978.

"We've had some desperate times here, downturns, hanging on by our fingernails, wondering why we were doing it at all," says Kelly. "That taught us a lot of lessons."

Those lessons have helped build a shop that in its third decade of operation employs nine people and posts annual sales of $1.2 million. And what Kit and Kelly have learned has changed the shop dramatically from the path it started on.

Commercial roots

Kelly says that in the late '70s and through the '80s, the shop had a tendency to take whatever work came in the door. Kit is a graduate of the Philadelphia College of the Arts and Kelly attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, but Kelly said that education did little to prepare them to deal with the realities of running a business.

Commercial work eventually became their mainstay, but it was cutthroat and competitive. It also was closely tied to economic ups and downs. The shop's final commercial work was in a shopping mall all the way in Norfolk, Va. The shop was down to the owners and a single employee, and there was even talk of auctions and bankruptcy.

Networking in a tight market

But Kit and Kelly had started looking for opportunities to move into high-end residential work, cultivating the contractors in that market. That networking eventually paid off, and it's still an important part of the business.

Foley-Waite currently does work regularly for about six contractors, three of whom Kelly describes as "triple-A," but the shop is always going after new contractors. That remains a difficult process.

"These guys don't return calls," says Kelly, noting he spent five years working on just one contractor before the shop got its first job from him. Kelly says it takes a recommendation from an architect or a subcontractor just to get in the door. "It's networking, but it's networking in a crowded phone booth," he says.

All this requires perseverance and staying power. "Our core philosophy has always been this is going to be a business we were going to build one brick at a time, and that requires patience," he says.

Maintaining a reputation

Competing in a market where everyone knows everyone and the clients are extremely demanding, there is one crucial factor. "Your reputation is absolutely the most important thing you have," says Kelly. "If you don't take care of that in our market, you don't get a second chance."

To do that, the shop is committed to not cutting corners. "We do it the way we should do it," he says. Ironically, he says that's sometimes a hard lesson to get across to well-meaning employees. He cites the story of a project in which they were short one special black-finished hinge, and an employee thought painting a standard hinge would save the shop time and money. But Kelly knew that wouldn't be acceptable to the customer.

And despite tough competition, the shop has learned not to get caught up in competing on price. "What I do know is when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em," says Kelly. "If somebody has a price 30 percent lower, he either knows something I don't or he won't be around long. I don't have any fear of competition."

Kelly handles estimating and dealing with customers while Kit emphasizes design and shop drawings. Once that work is done, the project goes to the shop for construction.

Foley-Waite relies on a battery of conventional machines for its work. There is both a Griggio vertical panel saw and a Griggio sliding table saw. There are also Delta table saws dedicated to specific work. Dealing in lots of projects requiring solid wood, the shop keeps its jointer and planer busy, and there is a cabinet full of carefully organized shaper cutters, although most mouldings and doors are outsourced.

Quiet dust collection

The newest addition to the shop is a Paoloni Kalibra widebelt sander. That also prompted the installation of a new Coral dust collection system from Atlantic Machinery. To help keep noise down, the collector and bag house were located inside a cabinet with air baffles and sound-dampening padding. Kelly said the new dust collection system was a major investment, but it has made a dramatic improvement in the shop.

While the shop has considered going to CNC production, Kelly says he can't make the numbers work to justify the investment for his operation. Instead, he'd rather keep investing in and upgrading his conventional machinery.

In keeping with the philosophy of not cutting corners, Kit and Kelly are proud of the crew they've developed in their shop. Like many shops, they acknowledge that finding and keeping good employees is a huge challenge.

Dedicated employees

Kelly notes that the current crew, many of whom have been with the company for years, includes only one person born in the United States. The employees' native countries range from eastern Europe to Latin America. "We're a regular United Nations here," he says.

Kelly says it's sad he rarely gets U.S.-educated applicants despite offering competitive wages and full benefits. He makes a point that all foreign workers he hires are fully documented.

One part of the job the employees don't do is installation. That's for both business and employee reasons. "This business is like a cab, the meter is always running," says Kelly. "If two guys go out on an installation, the math just doesn't work. Besides, most guys work here because they like to work in a shop."

Projects are wrapped in foam, marked for the room they will go in, and a professional moving company handles the delivery.

Kelly Conklin says it's taken him decades to figure out the business basics that are crucial to success today. He thinks that's one of the challenges for most people starting out lack of business training. That, combined with the low barriers to entry, makes it easy for someone to consider opening a cabinet shop.

"That's great to start out but it's bad if you're established," he says. "It narrows the segment of the market we can serve to very small."

Competing today

But Kelly and his wife have learned to compete effectively in the narrow, elite and affluent market they have chosen. "We've learned we're not in this life to give business away to rich people," he says. "We'll give them anything they want as long as they pay for it."

That translates into a business and pricing philosophy that Kelly says has served Foley-Waite well. "You need to earn as much for your labor as you can while still keeping a sense of integrity that allows you to sleep at night."

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.