Early in 2007, Erran Fichman, owner of Fichman Furniture in Toronto, Ont., realized that even though he was spending more time in his shop, less work was getting out the door. So he stepped back, looked at his work flow and realized that finishing was causing a bottleneck.
Fichman who is very particular about the quality of his pieces didn't want to hand over his work to someone else to finish. However, with work backing up at an alarming rate, he decided to outsource his finishing.
As a result, the shop's sales have nearly doubled, and Fichman has realized two things; you can let go of a project and still get great results. And perhaps more importantly, to truly get great results, you have to let go.
Armed with his circular saw and a few tools, Fichman opened up his shop at the close of 2001 in a 500-square-foot space that was within a larger shop that made hockey sticks. A few calls to individuals who had seen some of his very first pieces (see sidebar) provided an almost immediate stream of orders, and by 2003 he moved into his current shop space, a 1,000-square-foot area in a building he shares with artists and other businesses. Things continued to escalate from there.
"In 2005 work started to really explode for me," Fichman says. "I've never advertised. It just seemed like I was getting a lot of really good word of mouth. I began looking at hiring people and I started getting more tools. I was really fortunate that year."
It was during this time that Fichman hired his one current full-time employee, Max Parkinson, a product of Canada's youth referral service (see sidebar).
The workload at Fichman's comes out to be roughly 30 percent kitchens, 50 percent casegoods and about 20 percent furniture pieces. Materials are both solid woods and MDF with veneers.
As for tools, Fichman's shop currently includes a Rockwell 14-inch radial arm saw, an Oliver 20-inch jointer, a modified Freud edgebander, a Powermatic 10-inch table saw and drill presses by General and Rockwell, all of which were purchased either used or at auction.
Different skill levels
While things were getting better and work continued to pour in, it was during the hiring process that Fichman realized that not everyone operated at the same skill level. "I didn't realize how much skill I had until I started hiring people," Fichman says. "And I realized that they didn't see things as intuitively as I did, or care about it as much. All these things you take for granted, as an artist, artisan, craftsman whatever you want to call it. It really made me start to think about what kinds of responsibilities I should give people."
It was this observation that also colored Fichman's view on outsourcing, and helped set the stage for what would be a rough but eye-opening couple of years to follow.
By 2005, Fichman had already begun to book work that would ultimately take him well into 2006, and by February of 2006 he had work promised out that would ultimately not be complete until 2007.
What Fichman didn't immediately recognize was the difficulty of trying to finish and do work in the same space. And the more he worked, the worse things became, and he began to feel that he was sinking into a hole. "I didn't realize that finishing was holding me back, so I was working non-stop hours, and the more focused I got on getting work done, the less energy I had to focus on managing the business and making it more efficient," Fichman says. "2007 was absolutely terrible for me because I couldn't get work done, and I was having more and more trouble with my finishes. After a while I just became so defeated in my mind that I started procrastinating on jobs with finishing and pushing other jobs through."
Move to outsourcing
The specter of finishing became large enough that Fichman began to look outside for a finisher, and finally located one that he felt he could work with, though not without reservations. However, the process has taught him a lot.
"After I started working with a finisher, my turnaround time literally was cut to a quarter of what it was before, because normally I would complete a job and start finishing it in my shop, which is pretty limited in space. But now when it leaves the premises I have that room back for my woodshop," Fichman says.
Now the shop is running on time, and has sold twice as much work for 2008 than for 2007. However, Fichman notes an important lesson came from the experience. "As a cabinetmaker or craftsman or artist, the work is dear to you and you want people to be happy with it, but you have to separate that from the fact that you have to make a living," adding, "Not letting work get personal is very important to success."
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