Diversifying your business
By Linda Ohm

In the recent CabinetMaker Small Shop Survey, results indicated that only nine percent of small-shop owners are younger than 35. John Noll, who recently turned 30, is one of those shop owners.

Like most young men, Noll wanted to make a good living. He just didn't see woodworking as a way to do it. After trying a number of other jobs that paid well enough but had little promise for future growth, Noll decided to go into cabinetry after all. "If I wasn't going to make much money, I might as well be doing something I like," he says.

It was 10 years ago that Noll made the decision to pursue woodworking as a career. In 2003 he began J&B Custom Interiors, located in Agoura Hills, Calif., which has since grown into a successful shop with four employees and more work than he can handle. J&B does high-end custom millwork.

"I love my jobs and I love my clients. I love what I get to build. Who wouldn't want to love doing what they do every day and make decent money doing it," Noll says, adding "but I want to make more money."

As a result, Noll is now in the process of setting up a second business, Noll Industries Inc., with a product line of gaming tables and gaming room products with a business model and production process that is different from J&B. "I don't want to be 50 years old, sweating bills. I'm trying to find a way to make money in the trade," says Noll.

Looking for more

Noll came up with the idea to build a second business while playing poker. "I was thinking that I could out-design a lot of designers, because I'm also a fabricator and I know what can and can't be done," says Noll. Having done a lot of work on casinos before starting his shop, Noll is looking at an industry he knows.

"I want to design anything you can imagine. One of my main goals is to get big enough to do casinos again, but under my own name," he says.

Currently, Noll is designing and building prototypes of gaming table and gaming-themed doors, panels and lighting. For the glasswork that will be an integral part of the business, Noll has teamed up with Bill Kutivan, owner of Ambrosia Glasswork, who owns a small percentage of Noll Industries. Noll has offered small percentages of the new company to investors to help fund it.

Noll Industries will be a separate entity from J&B, although J&B will be building the prototypes. And while Noll will create the designs for the gaming products for Noll Industries, the manufacturing of the tables will be handled outside of J&B. "We're actually going overseas and having prefabricated poker tables built for us and sent over here with my design work," says Noll.

Noll feels that Noll Industries could be the real money-maker in the future. But he has slowed the process a bit because of the workload of J&B. Although the company hasn't gone public yet, a lot of the leg work is done, with tables built, a Web site designed and suppliers and distributors established.

Besides offering the production-line tables, Noll also wants to offer more customized gaming table designs for his clients that would be built by J&B. The tables will be sold online and in a couple of stores Noll is planning to open. Doing Noll Industries as a production-oriented process resulted directly from the lessons he learned in his first business.

Beginning a shop

Noll started J&B Custom Interiors in 2003, after honing and learning his craft at a number of shops as well as working in a supervisory capacity on large union projects, including casinos. One of the biggest motivators in Noll's decision to start a business grew from one very big change in his life he got married. "I didn't want to travel anymore."

Of course there was more to starting a business then a desire for stability. "I was at the top of the trade as a lead supervisor and I didn't want to max out there. I hoped for a better future and I wanted to see where I could get with my abilities," says Noll.

Before he started the company, his skills as a manager were in demand and he had a number of contractors wanting him to do big projects.

In the past four years Noll purchased a lot of equipment, much of it from auctions, while he paid himself a smaller salary. Around the perimeter of two sides of one section of the shop there is a Northfield 24-inch planer, Greenleaf 30-inch planer, Matteson rip saw, Tannewitz bandsaw, Robinson resaw, Oliver double-sided sander and an Ekstrom-Carlston overhead panel router line. A Timesavers Sandingmaster widebelt sander, a Delta table saw, bandsaw and shaper, a Safety Speed Cut vertical panel saw, a DeWalt miter saw, a Ritter boring machine and a Blum hinge machine comprise the other section of the shop.

"I figured the more equipment I have, the fewer employees I'll need. And when I get the employees, I'll have the equipment."

The first year in business J&B did $300,000 in sales. This year Noll expects J&B sales to be at $600,000.

Making it work

Although Noll is relatively new to ownership, he knows the value of good workers firsthand from his experience as a supervisor. "If you have a good worker and a good supervisor, you can get anything done," he says. With that in mind, Noll says it's key to pay his workers well. "Why spend five years training somebody to be the best in the business when all of a sudden, they start their own company. You've got to take care of your people."

Noll has found success in doing custom by providing his clients with the best product he can build within the budget constraints they give him. Noll also works to make sure that everything going out the door would be the same quality as he'd expect in his own home.

For Noll, providing a quality product begins with quality materials. J&B deals with a number of celebrity and wealthy clients who expect the best. "I'm not going to use a cheaper material and then have to work harder to make it look good. I use all top of the line equipment, hardware and material on everything we do because it makes my product better," he says.

J&B does frameless or face-frame construction, depending on the client's specification. When he builds the boxes for face-frame cabinets he uses rabbets and dados to make the strongest box possible. He also glues the face frame to the box using clamps to attach them instead of nails to create a seamless joint.

One of Noll's biggest problems right now is the lack of space. "We're limited in space on that side and on this side and I've got a lot of guys working and they're in and out and it gets to be cluttered," he says. Everything is cleaned at least twice a day to keep the area as uncluttered as possible. To keep product moving through the shop, Noll no longer stocks a lot of material, but instead buys what he needs as he needs it, with the exception of large projects.

J&B is busy with new projects coming in all the time. It's a challenge for Noll to manage his time, do design work, deal with clients and get jobs ready for his employees. But bigger than that is the problem of money having enough to let his company expand the way it could. "I turn away jobs all the time," says Noll.

With all the work he has, time and money are delaying some big plans. "With Noll Industries I have product, but I don't have the money or time to push the development," he says. "Expanding too fast could bankrupt me."

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