Business is good for  Bella Custom Cabinets Ltd. in Itasca, Ill. But co-owners Rick and Joe Schaudek want to ensure ongoing, steady income sources for years to come. Their answer is to look east to the lucrative Chicago lakeshore market and advertising in the Building and Construction Blue Book. The strategy is paying off with 60 percent of their business coming from relationships with Chicago-based designers and architects.

"I started the shop during a recession in 1992, and because of economic ups and downs we needed to find a customer base that remodels regardless of the economy," says co-owner Rick Schaudek.

Designing relationships

North Shore-based Cheri Lynn Designs is one of the designers the shop has worked with for the past few years. She sends the shop detailed drawings and from that information Rick provides a quote. He then goes to the location for a field measure. "We have a trusting relationship with her and she knows what we can do," says Rick. "We try to reproduce her designs as much as we can, but sometimes some of the elements are not mechanically possible.

"If I see a problem during the field measure, I identify it with her and we come up with ideas on how to make it work," he says. "I know it sounds cliché, but it's about the solution, not the problem."

For a recent Chicago job, the shop produced a high-end wall unit for a living room. The multimedia bookcase was made out of walnut and veneers, featuring a focal point of two antique  Lalique crystal sculptures mounted on panels that camouflage a plasma T.V.

"The designer sent us the concept and we figured out a way to make it work," says Rick. "The panels were built on a track system so they can be moved to the side when the T.V. is in use." The shop also worked on the same client's home library and built them a dining room table, as well.

Last year the Blue Book advertising introduced the shop to a Chicago architectural firm. The shop recently worked on a restoration project for a home in Lake Forest. The project entailed building and installing millwork and cabinetry, entertainment centers, bookcases and a custom closet.

"Closets are not a niche we're actively pursuing," says Rick. "I'd rather be really good at something than OK at everything. Our strengths are in creating entertainment centers, wall units, bars and custom cabinetry. We really enjoy taking on challenging projects that other shops won't do or say can't be done."

Evolving with the economy

As with many shops, Bella Custom Cabinets didn't find its niche right away. When the shop opened in the early 1990s all of its work was commercial, such as laminate cabinets and casework.

However, the events of Sept. 11 not only altered the course of the country, but they also changed the focus of the shop. According to Rick, "All of our commercial projects were cancelled or put on hold. It was a bad time for us."

After the commercial market dried up, the shop began taking on residential projects, such as kitchens and bathrooms. Rick estimates commercial work is now 10 percent of the shop's business. "Once we got a taste for residential work we liked the creativity and wanted to go after that market."

The move to residential also changed what the shop needed in personnel and equipment. "We were now doing more woodworking and some of our cabinetmakers didn't have the skill set," says Rick. "Everyone who works for us now has a background in cabinetmaking."

Streamlining production

As the shop transitioned from commercial to residential work, the production process also changed. The process now starts with the most important tool in the shop, a  Striebig panel saw.

"With a table saw you push the wood through, but with a panel saw the cutting head goes through the board and the cuts are more accurate and square," says Joe. "If we're cutting sheets for base cabinets that are the same size, we can cut two to three sheets at a time, which reduces cutting time in half. We've found that what takes two days of cutting on a table saw can be done in a few hours on the panel saw."

While many shops are increasing outsourcing, Bella Custom Cabinets is doing the opposite. In October, the owners decided to invest in a spray booth and finishing equipment. The shop built a finishing area next door to keep dust from collecting on pieces.

"We like having complete control over the finishing process," says Joe. "If a design needs to be modified, such as adding 10 more feet of crown moulding, that can add weeks of wait time if you outsource the finishing. Now we can make the modifications and keep the job on schedule."

To further streamline the sales and production process, the shop would like to update to a newer version of its drawing software,  Cabnetware. Currently, the shop provides customers with an elevation to give them a better idea of what they're getting and encourages shop visits during production to see the pieces.

Timing is everything

The shop normally works on two jobs at a time and has a six- to eight-week backlog. "We never want to quote anyone more than 10 weeks," says Rick. "After we do the field measure, clients want the work to start immediately."

With the current economy, scheduling jobs is increasingly important to make sure the shop is busy four months down the road. "After the holidays it slows down and that's when good scheduling comes in," says Joe.

During its slow time (January through February), the shop is working on a kitchen for a million-dollar home. "We were approached about the job in November and worked out a schedule to start in January," says Rick. "It's never gotten to the point where we had to send guys home, because we learned the hard way how to schedule properly."

Collecting money also has been a challenge. For all jobs, the shop receives a 50 percent deposit upfront and the balance once the job is completed. "Right now people's timetables are slower for final payment," says Rick. "We're a small shop and we can't finance everyone else's jobs."

While it's temping to expand, Rick and Joe are happy with their current niche. "Bigger isn't always better," says Rick. "Increasing volume doesn't always mean you're going to be more profitable. We make a good living and go to bed with a clear conscience."

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