All the woodwork for a photography studio in Provo, Utah needed to be done. The national company that had the contract to do the studio couldn't find an area shop to help with the work until Rubel J. Salaz, owner of West Jordan's Frontage Enterprises Inc., came to the rescue.

"The company was building a studio here in Provo, Utah and had the AWI list," says Leslie Salaz-Croyle, FEI administrative manager and Salaz's daughter. "But they could not get anyone to give them an estimate. Because we keep busy with multiple small jobs, we were able to kick them out an estimate and do the work for them. Our small size means there's not a whole lot of red tape. And they trusted us because of our Architectural Woodwork Institute membership."

FEI does all the work themselves, including finishing. The workmanship shows in the fine finishes and durability of their products, such as all the nurses stations, cabinets and wood ceilings in a new hospital on an American Indian reservation in Arizona or the elaborate sorting desks custom designed for use by IRS workers.

Rubel J. Salaz started his cabinet business in his garage in 1988, with the support of his wife, Teresa. He is now one of the first minority-owned businesses and cabinet shops in his area, West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City. At first Salaz concentrated on serving homeowners. Now 90 percent of his work is commercial, for schools, hospitals, the government and jobs on American Indian reservations. This work proved to be more lucrative and more satisfying because of the challenges it presented, challenges that Salaz finds especially rewarding.

Eye opener

On one hospital project Salaz worked with a general contractor with worldwide ties. Before that project, he had only worked for local contractors. Working with this new contractor required FEI to be a member of the AWI, which offered great training for it, from handling contracts, billing, scheduling and ordering tools to managing a business.

When FEI cabinetmakers attended the AWI project management training it was a real eye-opener, says Salaz-Croyle. "There were many other woodworking businesses there and it was great to talk with other project managers and companies to see how they run their businesses.

"Everybody seemed to do things differently, but we received a lot of good ideas such as better ways to organize our filing system especially avoiding a million manila folders, which all look the same when you're trying to find something. A project management class helped me to see the importance of color-coding, so when any of us are looking for certain cabinet files we'll find them quickly. That's just a small example of how AWI has helped us in our everyday lives. We've come back with a lot of great ideas to assist with our business," she says.

Another way AWI helped is that some architects are now requesting in their specs that the cabinetmaker is an AWI member. "It's good to know we are already a member. There also is a program in which you can have your project inspected and certified by the AWI. This is a great way to differentiate your cabinet company from all of the others. No test is required to qualify for membership in AWI, but the resources derived are many," says Salaz-Croyle.

Working with general contractors

Being a small company, Salaz-Croyle adds, it's especially easy to get taken advantage of by a large general contractor. AWI training has helped them realize that other woodworking contractors are in their same position; for example, they learned that the smaller woodworking subcontractors, like FEI, have a right to redline the contract to make changes instead of simply signing the big general contractor's contract and sending it back.

"We didn't realize we could mark it up and make changes to accommodate our company," says Salaz-Croyle. "We've run into GCs, too, who hold onto our pay requests. This is an important point: a GC can pay out as soon as they are paid by the owner, but some GCs will hold onto that money in their own bank accounts and let it accrue interest, stalling on the money they should have paid to the cabinetmaker for work done. We've run into that problem in the past, though recent GCs have been great."

SBA lends hand

Originally from Monte Vista, Colo., Salaz moved to Utah, getting a start in the cabinet business and working his way up to the point where he started his own business in 1988. In 1998 he applied for a Small Business Administration, Section 8(a) program in which he competed with other minority companies for government projects. People from the SBA approached Salaz and helped him turn his business from a sole proprietorship to a corporation. He was able to purchase his own building in a growing area of the community and grow his business taking it to a whole new level.

Through his positive energy, diligence in marketing, making good impressions on contacts and retaining satisfied customers, he has achieved a great deal of repeat business, especially from places like the local hospitals in his area. Also, word of mouth has brought in more work.

Salaz knows that there are cabinetmakers with better equipment. For FEI it is more of an art and they rely on the experience and skill of their employees.

Workers key to success

"What makes us truly unique and is the reason why we're still in business is because our employees are really good; they've been doing what they do for 30 years." Kevin Stewart and Jack Bruno used to work for a company that Salaz worked for before he started his shop.

FEI does have its share of equipment, including a Holz Her panel saw and sliding table saw, a Brandt edgebander, Ritter line borer, Powermatic jointer, SCM drum sander and Her-Saf panel router, as well as Cabinetware software. As far as key equipment goes, Salaz-Croyle says, "Our most valuable piece of equipment is Jack, who I like to call the Human CNC'. He has been cutting for so many years (more than 30 years) that he is very efficient and accurate!"

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