When terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they nearly torpedoed a Portland, Maine, cabinet shop, too.
At the time, North Star Woodworking was doing work primarily for just one Connecticut contractor. Almost overnight the work and the majority of the shop's income stopped.
Co-owners Scott Reaves and Stephen Morrill had already decided earlier in the year that they needed to diversify their clientele. They had shifted their shop from a cramped 2,500-square-foot space to a 4,500-square-foot shop next door to allow room for additional clients' work.
But after September 11, 2001, clearly their plans for diversification needed to kick into high gear. What they didn't realize was having more clients would also require changing how they did business.
The immediate aftermath
"9/11 changed a lot of things in our market," Reaves says. "We suffered, and it took us a couple of years to get back on track. Back then, when we were starting out, a good job for us might take us eight or 10 months. So if you have eight or 10 months booked and then something happens and all of a sudden you lose that job, you really feel it."
According to Reaves, the time since 9/11 has been about rebuilding. "We went nearly two years without working for the one contractor we had, and at one time he was our entire sales."
Among other things, North Star renewed a prior relationship with an architect in Cambridge, Mass., so the shop now does work for him as well as other architects in the Boston area. North Star's work is now split between Connecticut, Cambridge and Boston.
Reaves notes that the shop is more diversified now, and work comes in on a steady basis so that on occasion they are able to turn work away. "However, if we see a lull coming, I can just pick up the phone and call six or eight people, and someone's going to have something for us to do," Reaves says.
"The beauty of it all if there was any is that it really made me go out and beat the streets to find new contacts," Reaves says. "We found some contacts that really didn't work out for us, but we also found some contacts that have been very good for us."
In mid-2005, North Star began to get work from its Connecticut contractor again.
Changes in space
Diversifying its clientele prompted North Star to realize there were some changes it needed to make in its use of space.
While working for the contractor in Connecticut, North Star rarely needed to apply any finish to its product. However, this was not necessarily the case with some of the company's new clients, who often asked for a primer coat on projects to enable smoother on-site brush finishing.
Although North Star had a respectable amount of shop space, attempts at installing a finishing booth met with mixed results. Consequently, when the 2,500-square-foot space that North Star moved out of in 2001 came available, the company decided to lease it back to use for finishing. According to Reaves, the additional space makes good fiscal sense.
"The thing we struggle with the most is handling," Reaves says. "Handling anything is costly. By not having a finishing facility, it means we have to assemble the entire elevation, make sure it all fits, then take it apart, pack it in our truck, take it to a finisher and unload it. Then the whole thing comes back to us, we put it all back together and then ship it. That's costly. So I think the investment will pay off."
In the time since 9/11 there have been other changes at North Star as well. Of the original six employees who started with the shop, two have moved on to other pursuits. Chris Wright now specializes in carpentry work and Tom Pitman has his own shop. Reaves stays in touch with them both, and knows that he can call on them for help if the shop hits a crunch and needs additional staff for a short time.
Although Stephen Morrill has been a long-time advocate of hand-drawing plans, he now does his drawings on AutoCAD. Morrill says he enjoys working in AutoCAD, though he doesn't necessarily like sitting all day, so he occasionally goes down to the floor and does some shop work, particularly when there's a crunch to get a job out the door.
Another change North Star made after 2001 is the move to having someone cut its box parts on a CNC router. "The guy with the CNC router is not that far away," Reaves says. "For the most part, he's processing sheet goods for us and that's not something you necessarily need a skilled craftsman for."
Reaves notes that he and Morrill looked into buying a CNC router themselves, but didn't feel they could sacrifice the time involved in the learning curve. When another shop owner announced that he would be purchasing a CNC router, both Reaves and Morrill felt fortunate to have someone else take on both the investment and the learning curve.
"We only handle smaller parts now," Reaves says. "We just have our sheet goods sent right to our CNC guy, so we don't have to get the sheet goods here, take them there and then pick them up afterward."
Still the same
North Star has prided itself from its beginning that 70 percent of its work is bench work. Yet, despite the many changes North Star has made in the last five years, Reaves says that percentage really hasn't changed. "I'd say the percentage is at least 70 percent, maybe even more, now that we don't have to handle box parts. Now we can spend more time working on the assembly the stuff that really counts."
As to Reaves' and Morrill's commitment to quality, that has definitely not changed since starting the shop. "You have to live, too," Reaves says. "Working is a big part of your life, because that's how you support yourself. But if you work your whole life and you don't enjoy life, then where's the quality in that?"
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