When the economy soured, the James Cabinet Shop in Matthews, Ga., felt the pinch like everyone else. But owner Raymond James had already put in place three important business strategies that have helped him stay ahead of competitors. He has long-term dedication to improving efficiency that has led to automated production. He has been careful to keep the shop from growing too fast or too large to manage well. And he has fastidiously kept the shop's debt as low as possible.

James feels that a lot of times businesses grow real big, get a lot of people on board, end up getting into too much debt, and then have to bail out. In the long run too much debt can make it tough to survive.

"When you put your money back into your shop, then you have it for the tough times," he says. "I feel like that's the best formula for this economy." James has watched some of his younger competitors spend a lot of money buying new trucks. He drives old trucks and invests in new equipment that makes it possible to do more work, but with the same amount of employees.

March to automation
The James shop was already on the road to more efficiency before the economy tanked. They began buying new equipment, including a CNC router, when things were going well. Key equipment includes a Busellato Jet Optima C1 CNC machining center, an Omal HBD 1300 boring, gluing, and dowel machine, a Bonacin Closer N2500 FMC 30-inch case clamp and a Mayer PS9Z 105 3800 beam saw.

To learn how to use their CNC equipment they went to North Carolina for a week of training. When their beam saw was installed, trainers came and trained those at the shop for a week as well. "This equipment is easy to use once it's all programmed," says James son, Brandon, who has taken a lead role in the new technology. "Anyone can run a band saw; as far as writing programs for the CNC equipment, you do have to have a pretty good idea of what you're doing, though."

They bought all their equipment from  Delmac Machinery Group which has always given them good tech support. They were introduced to them by Marco Canducci, a consultant headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. James gives credit for his very efficiently organized shop to Canducci.

"He's never sold us any equipment we didn't need and has really helped our company to get where we are," says James. "His choices have always fit perfectly for what we need."

"I don't care how good a piece of equipment you might have, it is no better than the support and tech support or service you are receiving," adds James. "That's the thing with Marco Canducci and Delmac: their support is the critical link in completing the package."

Managing resources
Brandon recently graduated from Georgia Southern University in Statesville, Ga., with a degree in construction management. What he found most useful in his course work was learning how contractors deal with subcontractors. But one of the most valuable lessons he's learned from his dad, is that when you come into money it's important not to just blow it: you must be very careful and be ready. The recent economic downturn hit the construction industry especially hard - and fast.

"The old saying, 'make hay while the sun's shining and then save it for a rainy day' has turned out to be good advice in these tough times," says Brandon.

When the economy went down they were still able to hold their own. "We have some good contractors who know us, and we've done work for them in the past. We keep our quality consistent and keep our price down as much as we can," says James. "We're Christian people and don't cheat anybody out of anything and we'd rather give than take from anybody. I give people their money's worth and always do something extra for my customers, whatever that might be. It's a small way of saying 'thank you' and is something we've always tried to do. The Lord has blessed us; that's just the way we look at it."

Though the economy has hit them, just like it has everybody else, and they are in "survival" mode, they've also been able to avoid laying anyone off. They've cut back on the usual 40 hours per week, but that has been the biggest of the moves they've had to take so far.

Know your niche
Much of the James' shop's commercial cabinet work is office cabinetry for the medical industry. James works from a layout to design the cabinets. Their  Cabinet Vision software helps the professionals they deal with to visualize in 3-D what the finished product will look like.

They face the challenge of competing with larger cabinet manufacturers. One job they've just started involves 132 apartments. Despite the fact that mass-produced cabinets could just as easily be used on this project, those involved also want the "look" that James Cabinet Shop produces. The shop has been in business a long time; people know them and trust them.

"We make our cabinets fit your job," says James. "You may pay some more money for our product, but we still hand-finish all our cabinets, spraying them in our finishing area."

The shop also installs all their cabinets, something fewer companies are doing as this work is often contracted out, according to James. He feels that no matter how good your machinery and finished product is, if the cabinets are not installed right, the effort can end up wasted.

Most of their installation work takes place within drivable distances of their shop, including Augusta and Atlanta. Business comes chiefly through word of mouth. There are signs that building is picking up a bit in the region, as they are bidding on more jobs now.

Advice for other shops
The James shop takes up just 6,500 square feet, all of it clean and organized. When you walk into a successful shop like that, it's hard not to ask for advice for others in the industry. James is humble and helpful in his answers: "We keep things clean, we don't use a lot of space - our shop is very small - but we get the job done and clean means an organized, efficient and well-run business. We time our jobs so we do them, load them, install them and finish them in a well-organized manner."

Knowing your limits is also important to James. He knows what jobs he's got coming up and keeps a realistic view of what his shop can produce. "I'm not going to take a $400,000 job if I won't be able to complete it," says James. "I know what I can do. I don't overwork the guys."

James also is not about to bid low to just get work. "We do what we can do, but we don't give it away," he says. "We make a fair profit. Over the years I've seen that just because you make a lot of quantity doesn't mean you are going to make more money. My advice is, when you get paid for a big job, pay your bills: don't act like you're rolling in money. We have no one knocking on our doors to be paid something we owe them."

James does not go out and bid on everything he can. "It's important to know how many jobs you are able to handle at one time. You need to be under some amount of pressure, but there is a stress point where there is too much for you to handle, a point you do not need to reach. It's not good; the quality drops and the quality of your thought pattern suffers."

Miriam, James's wife, takes care of all the paperwork for the business. James admits to earlier days of being a workaholic. In those times he typically got only five or six hours of sleep a night. "Despite all the work, I still have to tell anyone who will listen, don't try to kill yourself in your work, and please, enjoy your life. Life is short - even at its longest."

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