When an emergency came up for another cabinetmaker back in 1999, Jim McGrew of Columbia, South Carolina's McGrew Woodwork went and helped out. That relationship led to four other companies hiring him as chief cabinet installer. McGrew considers that a life-changing career moment because through that work he learned about the Architectural Woodwork Institute and how to read its AWI Spec Manual.

"I think the AWI Spec Manual an indispensable and underused tool," says McGrew. "It teaches architects and non-woodworkers how to communicate with a woodworker to achieve a good result."

An essential manual

McGrew feels all cabinetmakers should study the AWI Spec Manual, the language of woodwork. It's the standard used by architects and AutoCAD operators. It eliminates all the guesswork and helps to get everything in writing.

The AWI magazine also lists all AWI members in the back of the issue, an excellent way to locate area AWI installers and network with those throughout the country. McGrew cannot recommend enough the benefits of becoming a member of AWI and the National Kitchen and Bath Assn. He also is perplexed why he is the only small cabinetmaker in South Carolina who is a member of AWI.

The biggest source of things going wrong is when time frames or customer's expectations aren't met, says McGrew. "Membership in these organizations and the AWI Spec Manual can prevent such problems.

"Communication is key," adds McGrew. "A simple: 'I visited your house today and the walls are not as shown' or 'you are not where you're supposed to be according to the schedule' is vital in protecting a cabinetmaker's interests. I don't want painters climbing all over my cabinets -- especially if the schedule specifies all painting is to be done before their installation."

CabinetMaker's Pricing Survey

McGrew uses CabinetMaker's Pricing Survey as another source of helpful information. He keeps copies of past surveys stapled to his office wall. "The information is invaluable," says McGrew. Cabinetmaking is far too subjective for guesswork to dominate, he adds.

Some of what McGrew knows he learned through hard experience. He completed a huge project on a federal courthouse with $250,000 worth of plans featuring wainscot walls, columns and other features. McGrew kept a copy of the plans for all these features after it was complete. "I've used those plans as a reference for details, and I keep all my plans from every job we've ever done."

How big is too big?

In 1999, McGrew decided how big to grow his shop. He'd worked with plants that had grown to 40,000 square feet, only to find themselves out of business. He saw that a business that size required 12 to 15 employees, and all it took was a glitch in the economy and a few general contractors to go under or out of business.

Though he still considers his business expandable, McGrew is moving from his current 10,000-square-foot-shop to a 7,500-square-foot shop closer to home, outside of town. The business will be maintained at a level to support his employees and their families.

Changing focus

Because of the housing downturn, McGrew is focusing more on commercial work. In 2006, his shop completed about 40 residential kitchens; this year they'll do less than 10. Currently, their work involves doctors' offices, reception counters and corporate showrooms. Ready-to-assemble commercial cabinetry helps McGrew concentrate on finishes and installations instead of assembly. The extra 10 percent they give up in their profit margin leads them to a greater efficiency in the field.

"You can talk about being a specialist all you want; that's one way of running things," adds McGrew. "For a regional or citywide cabinet shop, such as we are, you don't have the luxury of being able to market in high and low ends of the economy like the big guys can."

In the past, McGrew traveled quite a bit for jobs, but about seven years ago decided he wanted to spend more time with his daughter, so he now covers South Carolina and does some work in North Carolina.

McGrew employs two cabinetmakers, two helpers, one finisher and himself, for a total of six workers. The business keeps a pile of projects ready to go.

Tool assessments

"We have all the equipment a big plant has, but we try to use it more effectively to be more profit-oriented and not get bogged down in fabrication," says McGrew. Even though he considers his shop better stocked than most, he keeps a backup of four sets of tools, from extra chop saws to dovetail machines.

When he attends AWI and other trade shows, McGrew always collects samples. He finds showing them to clients makes a big difference in getting them interested in available features. When a customer touches clear Plexiglas with embedded leaves or patterned stainless steel, they tend to be more agreeable to the extra details than if they'd seen them in a photo.

Another helpful tool is his small CarveRight CNC router. "A software package came with it and carving plans are readily available online, says McGrew. "One Web page called 'Carve Buddy' contains birds, bears, grape leaves, pears, fish, wolves and other symbols; I'm carving all my own details now. It took me about 30 minutes to get it up and running it is so instructionally perfect it's incredible." McGrew also has 20-20 Software and has had CabinetWare since 1997.

Keeping clients first

"I always tell potential clients that if they don't trust me, please don't hire me," says McGrew. He also tells them they need to have faith in their project and know what they want. "I have to feel confident a client knows exactly what they're getting."

McGrew says that you also have to know when to say no. He says that he got out of one job with a large corporation and an angry supervisor because he could see that the supervisor's personal problems were going to quickly overwhelm their professional relationship.

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