Thomas Moser, namesake and owner of Auburn, Maine-based Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, balks at the idea of being labeled a "success," as he sees the term as extremely relative. However, when asked what has enabled his company to reach its current size and revenues, he has a simple answer: "Focus, focus, focus," he says. "You cannot get distracted; you stay at it."
Yet, at the same time, Moser is quick to point to a quote attributed to Charles Darwin. "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those most adaptive to change."
"I thought that was pretty profound, because the bodies are littered all about me of companies that have failed," Moser says. "Close to 80 percent of furniture in America today is being made in Southeast Asia. So it's just been carnage. And one of the reasons that so many good companies have failed is that they don't change, they're not capable of changing. Now by change, I'm not talking about core values. You hold to core values. But beyond those core values, you adapt. I do things that you can't do in Shanghai. And then when they start being able to do it in Shanghai, then I'll find something else that is uniquely ours."
And there is little doubt that Moser will do just as he says. In the 35 years since he founded his company, he has ridden a constant wave of change. He has grown a one-man operation into an international business with 175 employees and an 81,000 square-foot facility that produces more than 200 products, and he doesn't flinch at the prospect of facing more changes in the years ahead.
Two career paths
Raised in Chicago, Moser dropped out of high school to join the Air Force during the Korean War. Upon his return, he married his high school sweetheart and ultimately embarked on a life of academia, getting a PhD in speech communications from the University of Michigan. He eventually became a tenured professor at Bates College in Maine.
In the early years of his marriage, he and his wife Mary supplemented their income by purchasing old pieces of furniture, refinishing them and selling them.
Then, in 1971, Moser left his tenured position at Bates College to turn his woodworking hobby into a career, and in 1972 he and Mary officially launched Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers.
A family business
From the outset, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers was a family business, and Moser doesn't hesitate to point out the key role Mary has played in the shop's performance. She did all the marketing, administrative work and selling, which freed up Moser to build furniture. In addition, all four of the Mosers' sons worked in the shop. Currently, three sons work in the business and the fourth has started his own architectural woodworking business.
"The first 10 years of our existence we were pretty much committed to the craft and to rediscovering and learning woodworking because it just wasn't being done in the early '70s," Moser says. "You have to remember the context of the mid-'70s. It was the time of return to nature. It was a time when young people wanted an alternative lifestyle. They didn't want to become stockbrokers and travel from New Jersey to Manhattan, so they came to Maine. There's a certain nobility in finding a craft and working it. So the motivation in that first decade was in the craft, and not so much in the organization or the business."
Efficiency vs. craft
As the company moved into the 1980s, tension began to arise between two different mindsets at Thos. Moser. "For a short time it was almost like two companies," Moser says. "I had one which was committed to replication and efficiency, and the other one which enjoyed the absolute opposite take as much time as you need, because it satisfied the psychological needs of the people working there."
As the business grew, it became clear that a true business model would have to be followed, one which didn't allow for indulging a worker's psychological needs. "The important thing that people who do this work fail to realize is that there are those who are commercially-oriented and are looking for growth, dollar volume and cash flow, and there are those who are in it for the cathartic or psychological reasons. Both groups tend to forget that the most important factor besides the product is the people who buy it," Moser says. He goes on to say that customers aren't interested in a furniture builder's psychological needs. They simply want their furniture.
Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers was an early user of CNC equipment, and its first piece of CNC equipment was purchased in 1987, a five-axis Cartesian router, which was only the second of its kind in the country.
Even though Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers uses a good amount of CNC equipment, it is by no means a manufacturing operation. "I would say that 60 or 70 percent of our work is hand work sanding, finishing, preparation for finishing and fittings," Moser says.
Designing the future
As the company moves into 2007 and on into the rest of the decade, Moser says more efforts are being focused on customers and their needs. "We're concentrating on customers and what they need and how we can enrich their lives. Our energies are in design and delivery, so we're going to continue to hone in on that as opposed to wood processing or material handling.
"Whether we succeed or not going forward, our biggest challenge I think is in the area of design. My son David and I are pretty much doing most of the work, and we are constantly looking for help, for people to give us a hand with some design ideas. It's very difficult. Forty percent of what we sold in 2006 did not exist five years ago. We're not 3M; I don't mean to suggest that. It's new things and new directions and new markets and new customers," Moser says, "but holding to the same values."
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