Thomas Moser, namesake and owner of Auburn, Maine-based Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, will tell you that if you consider his company successful, then it's because of two things: staying focused and realizing the need to change with the times.

And change has been a constant of Moser's career. Beginning with his move from college professor to furniture maker, Moser has grown his business from a one-man operation to an international business with 175 employees, an 81,000-square-foot workshop and more than 200 products in its line. In the intervening 35 years, Moser has constantly ridden a wave of change. So even while facing the challenges of 2007, it's no surprise that Moser is optimistic; he's a man with a plan.

Two career paths

Raised in Chicago, Moser dropped out of high school to join the Air Force during the Korean War. Upon his return, he married his high school sweetheart and ultimately embarked on a life of academia, getting a PhD in speech communications from the University of Michigan. He eventually became a tenured professor at Bates College in Maine.

However, Moser was walking two paths at the same time. In the early years of his marriage, he and his wife, Mary, supplemented their income by purchasing old pieces of furniture, refinishing them and selling them. This planted in Moser an appreciation for 19th century design and craftsmanship that would ultimately have an important impact on his life.

While Moser doesn't dismiss the importance of education, he tends to see the world of academia and that of the craftsman as being in opposition. "Academicians by their very nature tend not to be good with their hands," Moser observes. "It's been my experience that they pride themselves in their inability to be mechanical. They're very cerebral."

Switch to furniture building

In 1971, Moser left his tenured position at Bates College to turn his woodworking hobby into a career, and in 1972 he and his wife Mary officially launched Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers in an old grange hall in New Gloucester, Maine, with the Moser's dining room doubling as the company's showroom. The move, to say the least, was an unusual one.

"I've always made things. I've always worked with my hands, ever since I was a little kid," Moser reflects. "I guess you could argue I got sidetracked into academia. I left that to learn the craft and to do the craft, which was a dying art in the '70s. I did that probably because as a college professor you're really dealing with deferred reward. It takes 25 years or so to know whether you've made an impact, whereas if you pick up a board on Monday morning, by Friday you have a finished piece in the finishing room. I'm not going to say it's instant gratification, but it's a lot faster than college teaching."

A family business

From the outset, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers was a family business, and Moser is quick to point out the key role his wife, Mary, played in the shop's performance. "When we started the business, my wife did all the marketing, administrative work and selling, which freed me up to build furniture. As most cabinet shop owners probably have learned through brutal experience, it takes as many hours selling and administering a little company as it does making whatever the product is, so that means 80- to 90-hour weeks. I was fortunate in that I only worked 60-hour weeks because I had a partner, my wife," Moser says.

Work in the family business was a given, according to Moser, and his four boys all did their time working in the shop. After high school all four boys left home, but all four ultimately came back and worked in the company. Currently, three of Moser's sons work in the business, and the fourth has started his own architectural woodworking business. "So it has worked out splendidly well," Moser says.

The early days

"The first 10 years of our existence we were pretty much committed to the craft and to rediscovering and learning woodworking because it just wasn't being done in the early '70s," Moser recalls. He says it was a time when there was an intellectual search to replicate craft values of the 19th century which had been lost to mass production.

"You have to remember the context of the mid-70s," says Moser. "It was the time of return to nature. It was a time when young people wanted an alternative lifestyle, they didn't want to become stockbrokers and travel from New Jersey to Manhattan, so they came to Maine. There's a certain nobility in finding a craft and working it. So the motivation in that first decade was in the craft, and not so much in the organization or the business."

In 1975 the company showroom was relocated to a local church vestry, and the Mosers got their dining room back. By that time, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers had 12 employees and 29 pieces in its standard product line.

The transition

As the company moved into the 1980s, tension began to arise between two different mindsets at Thos. Moser. "For a short time it was almost like two companies," Moser says. "I had one which was committed to replication and efficiency, and the other one which enjoyed the absolute opposite take as much time as you need, because it satisfied the psychological needs of the people working there."

As the business grew, it became clear that a true business model would have to be followed, one which didn't allow for indulging a worker's psychological needs. "The important thing that people who do this work fail to realize is that there are those who are commercially-oriented and are looking for growth, dollar volume and cash flow, and there are those who are in it for the cathartic or psychological reasons. Both groups tend to forget that the most important factor besides the product is the people who buy it," Moser says. He goes on to say that customers aren't interested in a furniture builder's psychological needs. They simply want their furniture.

The company experienced several significant changes in the 1980s. In 1981, the shop was moved from New Gloucester to a 15,000-square-foot meat packing plant in Auburn, Maine. In 1984, the company's first major showrooms were opened in Portland, Maine, and Philadelphia, and in 1987, a new 49,000-square-foot workshop facility and corporate headquarters was built in Auburn near the old meat packing plant.

Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers was an early user of CNC equipment, and its first piece of CNC equipment was purchased in 1987. The machine was a five-axis Cartesian router, which was only the second of its kind in the country, the first having gone to the Baldwin Piano Company. "So from the very beginning I've been interested in utilizing and freeing up our people from anything tedious or dangerous," Moser says.

Even though Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers uses a good amount of CNC equipment, it is by no means a manufacturing operation. "I would say that the great preponderance of our work is hand work sanding, finishing, preparation for finishing and fittings. Sixty or 70 percent of our entire effort is entirely hand work. Making the parts is only a small part of what we do," Moser says.

Defining success

Moser balks at the idea of being labeled a "success," as he sees the term as extremely relative. However, when asked about what he points to at his company, he has a simple answer: focus. "Focus, focus, focus. You cannot get distracted, you stay at it. I've been up so many blind alleys, I have made so many huge mistakes over the years, but you keep plugging away. That's the nature of it. It's focus. Stay focused."

In a much larger sense, Moser points to a quote attributed to Charles Darwin. "It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but those most adaptive to change."

"I thought that was pretty profound, because the bodies are littered all about me of companies that have failed," Moser says. "Close to 80 percent of furniture in America today is being made in Southeast Asia. So it's just been carnage. And one of the reasons that so many good companies have failed is that they don't change, they're not capable of changing. Now by change, I'm not talking about core values. You don't cheat people suddenly. But beyond core values, you adapt. I do things that you can't do in Shanghai. And then when they start being able to do it in Shanghai, then I'll find something else that is uniquely ours."

Designing the future

As the company moves into 2007 and beyond, Moser says more efforts are being focused on customers and their needs. "We're concentrating on customers and what they need and how we can enrich their lives. Our energies are in design and delivery, so we're going to continue to hone in on that as opposed to wood processing or material handling.

"Whether we succeed or not going forward, I think our biggest challenge is in the area of design. My son David and I are pretty much doing most of the work, and we are constantly looking for help, for people to give us a hand with some design ideas. It's very difficult. Forty percent of what we sold in 2006 did not exist five years ago. We're not 3M; I don't mean to suggest that. It's new things and new directions and new markets and new customers," Moser says, adding "but holding to the same values."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.