Gail O'Rourke, owner of Hometown Woodworking, took an unconventional path to establishing her Plymouth, Mass., company. Instead of starting as a woodworker who learns how to run a business, she started with a business background and learned how to be a woodworker. O'Rourke has a degree in business and worked in retail, sales and project management for a number of years before venturing into woodworking.

"The challenge for me was not being a woman, but being a new business owner in the industry. A man or a woman is going to face those same challenges," she says. "The advice I'd give anyone at the beginning is not to give up and just be determined."

In 2004, O'Rourke launched Hometown Woodworking in her 600-square-foot garage, designed specifically for woodworking. "From the second I opened the doors, I've been backlogged three months," she says. "I've been very fortunate."

Working at home was ideal for O'Rourke, who has three young children and a husband whose job requires travel. "It provides me with a lot of flexibility," she says. "All my work is done in the workshop here." She works full-time for 10 months and scales back for two months during the summer to spend more time with her children.

O'Rourke's niche is the market between kitchen cabinet makers and contractors. Every project is custom. About 50 percent are built-ins; the rest is a mix of pieces such as wine cellars, dining tables, vanities and entertainment centers.

Marketing the business

O'Rourke listed her company in the Yellow Pages, sent press releases to local newspapers, created brochures and business cards, had the company name painted on her truck and designed logo shirts. One shirt style says "Stop Looking" on the front and "You've found your new cabinetmaker" on the back.

She designed her Web site,  www.hometownwoodworking.com, to market her shop. Including the Web site in the Yellow Pages ad drives traffic to the site, which in turn brings in business. On her Web site she includes project photographs and descriptions, biographical information, a multi-media presentation and the steps for each project design consultation, written estimate, place your order, the build, delivery and installation.

Contacting and getting to know suppliers was a priority when O'Rourke opened her doors. "The biggest thing I've done in the last few years is build all those relationships," she says. Key suppliers include Downes & Reader Hardwood Co., Factory Paint & Decorating, Mid-Cape Home Centers and Richelieu Hardware.

O'Rourke says she rarely gets special treatment because she's a woman. "Being a woman might get me in the door sometimes," she says. "After that, it's the product that keeps me there. "

She always dresses like a cabinetmaker when conducting business. "It's all in how you present yourself," she says. "I want people to take me seriously. If you want to be respected, respect others and be professional."

O'Rourke's interest in woodworking started with home projects. After her husband's job took them to brief stays in houses around the country, they returned to Plymouth six years ago. "We were excited to be able to make changes to our house," she says. They bought a used table saw and completed several projects, including installing hardwood floors.

Next she tried her hand at designing and building a wine cabinet. "It came out looking gorgeous," she says. "With that success on my first piece, I launched into woodworking full speed."

Her skill development accelerated when David Berry, owner of Timberwolf Woodworking, and master cabinetmaker Rob Middleton hired her as a shop assistant. "Middleton's philosophy was to bring in somebody who didn't know a lot because he could teach me his way," O'Rourke says. "He was great about teaching me everything, from selecting and prepping stock to finish work to casework to doors."

O'Rourke used her math skills to double-check Middleton's 's job calculations. She learned to use the shop's equipment; worked with high-end wood species, components and finishes; and acquired the expertise to build kitchens and other custom projects.

Serving customers

When it came time to set up her shop, O'Rourke included a range of woodworking equipment, including Black and Decker drills and jig saw; Delta planer, spindle sander, dust collector and bench-top grinder; Festool circular and jig saws; General jointer; Grizzly band saw and drill press; Hitachi table and miter saws; Jet table saw; Kreg pocket-hole machine; Makita belt sander; and Porter Cable routers, pneumatic nailers and compressor.

She primarily uses cherry, oak and walnut, with poplar and birch plywood as paint-grade materials and MDF for raised panel doors. Most work is residential, though she'll occasionally take on projects such as building cabinets for her health club.

Very few of her new clients have purchased custom products. "I'm turning them on to custom services," she says, "and almost every one of my customers comes back."

Clients are involved in the design process and often accompany O'Rourke to the lumber yard to select stock. When the project's completed, they're usually amazed at the difference between the rough stock and the finished piece. "That's exciting for them. I like having them involved in the process."

O'Rourke's ability to complete new and different projects is no accident. "I read a lot. I surf (the Internet) a lot. I take classes," she says. "I experiment on things for myself and then bring that to the next level for a client.

"I'm not afraid to sell a client something I've never done. That happens with almost every project because there's usually one element I've never done before," she says. "If it doesn't come out the way we want it, I'll remake it. We've all had projects that we've had to refinish or remake or re-do."

Moving forward

O'Rourke recently did some subcontract work. "I worked with a couple contractors, who brought me in on jobs," she says. "I love that market because I've got a support network right there."

She plans to grow her business by outsourcing the more time-consuming tasks such as door and drawer work.

O'Rourke has achieved a sense of balance in her business. "I feel like I've brought my woodworking to the level it needs to be to match my expertise in business," she says. "It's only experience that will get you there. It's very difficult to get that expertise without pounding the pavement and building it and making mistakes and trying again."

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