Instead of being the largest cabinet manufacturer in California, Bardon Quality Cabinetry is determined to be the best, says Eddie Brown, executive vice president and CFO.

A few years back, Bardon Quality Cabinetry put on the brakes and shifted into a different gear. The company walked away from producing 5,000 kitchens per year for contractors and earning $20 to $25 million annually. It decided to become a smaller, custom cabinetmaker producing 700 kitchens per year for homeowners and earning $10 to $12 million annually.

Bardon became a smaller custom cabinet manufacturer, in part, so it could continue to produce cabinets in the United States, and, more specifically, so it could continue to do business in California.

The cost of liability insurance to work with contractors and the cost of workers' comp in California have escalated to the point where it's "just gotten really out of hand," says Brown. "Instead of moving out of state, we wanted to adjust for those economic conditions. We found that we wanted to change our business model to adapt to it."

Bardon's path to success as a custom cabinet manufacturer involved some deliberate steps on the company's part.

1Ceasing all work with large contractors was the first step in its shift toward custom cabinetry.The company moved toward an emphasis on retail and smaller custom contractors.

2The second was reducing headcount, says Brown. Bardon once operated with 356 employees; today, it employs 120. "We've downsized to offset a lot of the insurance and other California costs," says Brown.

3Consolidation of plants was Bardon's third step in its transformation to a custom cabinet shop. The company had three separate, scattered facilities, and it moved the company under one 60,000-square-foot roof in Santee.

4Adding new product was fourth on Bardon's list when it came to company transformation. The company added Pollmeier German beech to its line of cabinet construction materials. Even though the product has proved to be a boon for the company, "We were hesitant to use the beech in the beginning," says Brown.

The company had heard rumors that the weather in San Diego wasn't conducive to using beech for cabinetry. Brown says after they researched the Pollmeier beech product, they found that they were mistaken on whether or not it could handle the San Diego environment.

"We found that the product was great quality," says Brown. "As we moved to more of the custom side of things, (Bardon found that) the medium to dark stains really took to it well. In fact, it's hard to tell the difference between cherry and beech with the darker stain. That's been a great selling point for us, especially when price is an issue and a customer can't afford the cherry."

The fact that Pollmeier beech is raised in sustainably managed forests also had an impact on Bardon's decision to begin using the product. "That had a big bearing on why we use it," says Brown. We have seen other beech out there that is not something we would use as far as our program goes."

5The fifth step in Bardon's transformation was to add a second showroom. "We had only one showroom in Santee. We found that it was an inconvenience for a customer to drive all the way to Santee. It's quite a trip from North County. We put one in Miramar, which is a central location in San Diego County."

When a customer comes to the showroom, Bardon schedules free in-home estimates. "We go out and do a layout for them," says Brown. "We estimate the job complete and give them a call and ask them to come in and review the proposal, make changes if they want. Just keep proceeding down that line. We have designers who sit with people and go through the whole process."

6The sixth major step in Bardon's transformation involved the launch of a full-scale marketing program. This happened in tandem with the opening of the second showroom.

"We have been in San Diego Home and Garden since the beginning of this process about a year and a half," says Brown. The company takes advantage of all the print media it can, including announcing specials through the newspaper. It combined and split up its marketing program through radio, TV and print. "Our advertising budget is aggressive, but establishing and branding our name to be this kind of manufacturer is important."

7Making quick turnaround a priority was Bardon's seventh step in its goal toward becoming a custom cabinet shop. The company realized that its main advantage over both the local mom-and-pop shops and the big-box stores was its ability to get product out the door faster than both of its types of competition.

"With our ability to produce a great number of cabinets, we have a tremendous advantage on timing in California," says Brown. "Your big-box stores and your ma-and-pa shops are six, eight, 12 weeks or more. We're able to do it in two to three weeks. It's a big, big advantage because we're a big company in our market right here locally. You're not buying them from Canada, Mexico or Pennsylvania. You're getting the product made here. It's a great advantage."

8Focusing on the human element in cabinetmaking was Bardon's eighth step toward becoming custom. "Every door, every drawer, every face frame is still, at the end of the day, hand-sanded. We want to have those controls by putting our hands on the product," says Brown. The finishing process at Bardon involves a 14-step finishing process with hand-sanding in between each step.

Because the company produces 100 percent face frame cabinets, it hasn't seen the need to move toward CNC routers. "We can see some benefits to that in the future, especially in some of the custom designs that we do, but because we haven't been in (the Euro-style) business, we've haven't needed it yet."

There's no small amount of irony in Bardon's transformation story. It set out to be the best custom cabinet manufacturer in its area, not the biggest. But, because it is the best, it is also the biggest custom manufacturer of cabinetry in San Diego County. s

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