Jeff Gascho, owner of  Dovetail Designs, located in West Creek, N.J., counts himself lucky that he came along just as the home theater phenomenon was taking off. "The advent of larger, flat screen plasma and LCD televisions and projection-type home theater installations has revolutionized our business. Nobody's putting a 36-inch television behind pocket doors anymore," he says.

"Our goals include being recognized as one of the premier companies doing this type of work locally," he adds. "Customer satisfaction is paramount as we count on referrals heavily. I'm looking at a slow and steady rate of expansion, trying to resist the temptation to grow too quickly."

From the instant he went into business for himself in 1995, Gascho knew the direction he wanted to take. "I immediately decided to target high-end residential casework and architectural woodworking. Today, we focus heavily on home theater, office/library, coffered ceilings, paneled walls and similar projects."

Focused competition

"When we design and build home theaters," he explains, "we don't have to compete with home centers. These jobs are all true custom, and they generally use a better grade of materials solid hardwoods, fine veneers, never melamine or MDF."

Scott Bellone, owner of  Home Entertainment Systems in Marlboro, N.J., is one of Dovetail Designs' steadiest customers, although the word "collaborator" might be more descriptive of how they interact.

"I met Scott on a job a few years back," Gascho recalls, "and we just clicked. This is important when designing a projection-type home theater for a client, because on a job like this all parties including electricians, plumbers, HVAC specialists, and so on must communicate clearly from the start."

Designing elements

HES supplies all the audio and video equipment for a system, including the projector, speakers, screen and more. Gascho says.

When it comes to the actual theater design, many variables kick in, says the shop owner. "Obviously, we have to fulfill the customers' vision (or their designer's concept)." To this end, Dovetail Designs offers a complete design service. "Using sophisticated design software," says Gascho, "we're able to provide accurately scaled drawings as well as full-color 3-D renderings.

"Nevertheless, the customer's initial vision sometimes may differ greatly from the finished product. This is because the realities imposed by both physical limitations and budgetary guidelines place boundaries on how much can be accomplished."

When a schism appears between the client's dream and the actual construction, it is vital that there be "no surprises," says Gascho. "Good communication is important. Frequently, we will re-draw the same project multiple times to include minor changes to ensure that everybody's on the same page."

According to Gascho, "Scott Bellone will tell you that the acoustics are as important as the picture is. To this end we incorporate acoustic panels that use advanced fabrics and materials to absorb sound, eliminating echoes and other objectionable sound problems.

"Ultimately, it's our goal to make everybody else's work disappear," says Gascho. "When a project is completed, I'll often joke with Scott and tell him that beyond the screen on the far wall, nobody knows he's been there."

Volume reached about $500,000 in 2007, and, with an upgrade to CNC equipment, Gascho is projecting a 40 percent increase in the next two or three years, an annual rate of growth that would be between 13 percent and 20 percent.

When it comes to equipment, Dovetail Designs relies on a  Holz-Her 1403 edgebander and 1265S vertical panel saw; an SCMI Sandya widebelt sander;  Delta unisaw, band saw and radial drill press; as well as a  DeWalt 12-inch sliding miter saw with the  Maya positioning system.

Minimize turnover

To achieve this growth, Gascho realizes, he must conquer what he believes is the "number one obstacle" facing his company, as well as the rest of the industry an inadequate labor pool. "Hiring, training and retaining skilled employees is a constant challenge," he reports.

In order to minimize turnover, Gascho fosters an employee-friendly environment. "We offer a health care package, flexible hours, competitive pay and additional perks that may include a company vehicle or vehicle compensation package," he notes.

Moreover, he emphasizes balance between work and a personal life. "I believe that free time spent with family or friends is more valuable than time spent in the shop, and if this applies to me it must also apply to my employees. To this end, we try not to work weekends or overtime, and if we do, employees are welcome to apply overtime hours worked any way they like."

Gascho says he does what he can to keep the work environment calm and friendly. "There's no time-clock, and we avoid high-pressure deadlines. The shop is comfortably air-conditioned in the summer and well-heated in the winter," he says. Also, dust collection is state of the art. "We've installed a toggle switch and magnetic relay near each major piece of equipment. This enables every worker to activate dust collection the instant he turns his machine on."

He demands a lot from his people in terms of flexibility and attention to quality. "Employees are trained in, and expected to be knowledgeable about all phases of custom woodworking, from design through finish and installation. Everyone is expected to be able to run and maintain all of the equipment. And, while people ultimately gravitate to one department or another, I still have the luxury of being able to ask anyone to do anything. That not only makes my job easier, but makes for a less redundant workday."

Get the job done

Gascho believes that it is better to outsource some tasks, rather than to do everything in house. He explains, "I'm a big proponent of using specialists for the labor-intensive stuff."

Thus, even though the name of the company is Dovetail Designs, Gascho says, "Today, the best tool for creating a dovetail is a telephone."

Still, the owner is open to exploring new or alternative techniques or technology. "Mortise and tenon a face frame in the age of pocket screws?" asks Gascho. "Why?"

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