If you start asking Robert Scott about the challenges of building and installing cabinets in New York City, be prepared to listen long and hard. After just a few tales of building restrictions, limited work hours, parking hassles, wrestling with cabinets in elevators, and the like, most shop owners would count their lucky stars that their business is elsewhere.

But not only does Scott's company, Designs by Robert Scott Inc., face these obstacles daily, the shop also has learned to thrive in this highly challenging environment. Through careful and meticulous planning, cultivation of a skilled and loyal workforce and an emphasis on good communication at all levels, the company has earned the kind of reputation in the city that attracts top contractors and prestigious clients such as Dustin Hoffman, Rosie O'Donnell and Paul Simon.

"It's a tough market," says Scott. "You really have to excel."

The challenge

So, how bad is it? Scott thinks the costs to do this kind of work in Manhattan may be double what they are in less urban environments.

The battle begins before the shop even gets the job, with cutthroat competitors trying to underbid Scott. He insists on being a fully legitimate shop with all permits, inspections and insurance in force and all taxes paid. Still, Scott knows there will always be shops skirting those expenses and requirements to try to get a foothold in the market. He just shrugs that off, saying, "We have to be legit."

Getting the job is just the beginning. The city's business climate is frequently in upheaval ranging from the disaster of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to last winter's transit strike that threatened to bring the city to a standstill.

Even on a normal day, getting to a job site in a Manhattan high-rise presents a challenge. The shop has to budget for parking tickets. Shop vehicles have been towed from job sites. Some buldings have very short working hours in which all remodeling and construction must be done. Work has to be designed to fit in elevators or sometimes be hoisted on top of elevators. Some buildings allow construction and remodeling work only a couple of months out of the year, Scott says, adding, "You have to know the ropes."

Flexibility pays off

Scott agrees with his partner, Jason Kesselman, that the key is being flexible and versatile in the ways you manage the shop workload and staffing. "There are windows of opportunity," says Kesselman, explaining that the entire shop has to coordinate to meet deadlines and site restrictions.

"We need to be very efficient," says Scott.

To do that the shop is divided into teams. Shop manager Valdek Kumiega organizes the 14 production workers into a shop-based team of skilled cabinetmakers and a job-site-based team of installation specialists. "But if there is a tight deadline," says Scott. "We'll pull everyone out of the shop to work on the installation."

The on-time difference

Dedication to getting the job done on time at Robert Scott is not just a slogan to put on the wall. Scott maintains it's one of the primary differences that sets the shop apart.

"We are on time 99 percent of the time," he says. "When I started out, I saw that everybody was always late, and I thought I could be late, too." But his wife, Marcia, worked in advertising, where deadlines are crucial. Scott says she convinced him that "being late is suicide." Consequently, the shop worked very hard to meet deadlines. That paid off in boosting the shop's reputation.

"It's important for our clients to think of us as their best source or sub," says Scott.

Communication crucial

Scott, Kesselman and Kumiega all agree that the most important factor to meeting deadlines in their market is communication. "We strive for clearer communications with our customers," says Scott. "There are no secrets. If there is a problem, we solve it right away. We don't wait until it's too late."

They also work to anticipate problems through better communication. One way to do that, says Scott, is emphasizing better shop drawings. The shop has two full-time draftsmen on the payroll, and both Scott and Kesselman are proficient in AutoCAD. Everyone strives to make drawings as clear as possible to avoid any confusion or second-guessing.

Kumiega says it's important to understand the difference between architect's drawings and drawings intended for building a project in the shop. "The draftsman does the work for the architect," he says. "I do the information for the shop."

Besides investing in drafting skills, the company invests in drawing hardware, too. Scott says the computer workstations he set up for drafting are better than what many architects use, and he recently invested $15,000 on a new large format printer to produce clearer drawing output. To get vital information for designs, the company will spend a full day measuring a job site with laser levels.

Building relationships

Another part of the communication efforts involves making sure everyone from the shop to the general contractor and suppliers work in synchronization.

Kumiega works with the shop daily to make sure the cabinetmakers know what needs to be done that day. The dedicated installation team gets to know other trades and construction workers on job sites, so they keep on top of any changes or delays. If a contractor isn't ready for a kitchen installation on schedule, they can quickly switch gears and do the bathroom project. Or the shop can fit in work for individual clients with more flexible schedules.

"We build it, finish it and send it right out," says Scott, describing the kind of just-in-time workflow style the shop tries to maintain.

Good relationships with suppliers are important to make that work. Scott says he relies on next-day deliveries from important suppliers such as Roberts Plywood, F.W. Honerkamp, Dave Sanders Hardware, Kessler Hardware and Abbott Paint.

Reliable equipment

The importance of communication and relationships even extends to the equipment used in the shop. The emphasis is on traditional machines run by skilled cabinetmakers rather than investing in automated technology. The subject of CNC automation is one that is in regular discussion in the shop, but Scott says, "We're not convinced it will work for us."

Instead, recent machinery additions to the shop include a sliding table saw, shaper and planer, all from Felder.

Besides the reliability and precision of the equipment, Kesselman and Scott say the support they get from Erik Delaney, their Felder representative, also plays a big role in their decision to choose the machinery. "Felder takes good care of us," says Scott.

Other key equipment includes a Holz-Her 1435 SE edgebander and a 52-inch Timesavers widebelt sander with two heads. For finishing, the shop uses two air-assisted Kremlin systems, including one with a pre-heater to get better results spraying on colder days.

Investing in employees

While some shops invest in automation because they can't find skilled employees, the emphasis at Robert Scott is to invest in the employees.

"Most of our revenue goes to labor and associated costs," says Scott. "It's really a labor business. Material costs are only 10 to 15 percent of it. Labor is the number one thing."

In that context, Scott says, they work hard to keep good employees, offering a good compensation package with yearly reviews. But some of the intangibles are just as important.

"We listen to our employees," says Kesselman. "It's not our way or the highway." He notes that they involve employees in important decisions, for example, taking Kumiega to the IWF show in Atlanta to participate in machinery decisions.

And despite the high pressure of the work, the shop management resists the urge to apply too much pressure on the workers. "We have a good relationship with our employees," says Scott. "We don't crack the whip, but we depend on them to get the job done. We treat them with respect and help them with personal problems."

How successful those tactics are is seen in the fact that more than half the employees have been with the company more than five years and several more than 10 years. And that's in spite of efforts by other shops to lure away Robert Scott employees.

Pleasing customers

Happy and skilled employees encouraged to do quality work has also led to what Scott says has been the driving force to expand the business.

"What increased our business was satisfying customers," he says. "We build relationships."

Kesselman says those relationships extend past the general contractors who hire the shop and on to the individual owners of the finished work. "Down the road they give us more work," he says.

The company also launched a second operation called the Closet Systems Group to diversify the company's work into closet projects done directly for individual customers. Much of that work is done on a fill-in basis in between larger cabinet and millwork projects. Kesselman and Scott explain how some garment racks done as a fill-in project led to full closet jobs and then a series of whole apartment projects on 5th Avenue, all from pleasing basically one customer in the beginning.

Scott recognizes that the kind of work his shop does and where they do it offers special circumstances. But he suggests there is a fundamental lesson he's learned that transfers to any serious shop.

"You have to find a place where you fit," he says, "and then line up as many things going for you as possible."

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