At a time when many small cabinet shops are cutting back, offering fewer options and maybe even trying to market factory cabinets to compete on price, Ipswich Cabinetry in Ipswich, Mass., is taking an entirely different route to success. The four-man operation is emphasizing custom features, customer service that exceeds expectations and diversification into millwork and finishing products.
“The most critical component in gaining new business is repeat business,” says Mark Welling, owner. Working mostly through contractors and architects, Welling says, “It’s all about the relationship.”
Welling is the first to admit that it’s not easy to develop the kinds of relationships that ensure repeat business and happy clients. He and his project manager Bob Grady will invest more time meeting with clients than a lot of shops their size would be willing to do. But Welling is convinced that such above-and-beyond service boosts sales.
He cites as an example a situation that many shops would have walked away from. It was a couple that, as Welling describes it, wanted custom cabinets on a “box store budget.” His initial estimate for the job was $30,000, but the couple wanted the work done for $20,000. In today’s economic climate, many shops would have either walked away or offered a low-ball bid just to get the work, even at a loss.
Welling’s approach was different. He and Grady took the time to go over everything in the project, explaining what Ipswich could do and why it was worth it. “A couple of months later, they called and said we’re going to use you,” recalls Welling.
Even when something goes wrong in a project, Welling sees it as an opportunity to solidify the relationship and show the client what’s different about Ipswich Cabinetry. “The way we deal with the rough patches is why people come back to us,” he says.
From boats to cabinets
Navigating rough waters to sail home safe may come naturally to Welling and his crew. Welling founded the company after a previous career in boat building. His lead craftsman also has a boat building background.
Welling says that gives them a versatility in handling custom work that other shops might not have, and it fits in with the colorful Atlantic Coast history of the Ipswich area. That versatility has also led Welling to explore new opportunities for the company. While the bulk of the company’s work has been in residential cabinetry, mostly remodeling, now nearly a third is devoted to commercial projects and architectural millwork.
“Last year was our largest gross ever, and it was due almost entirely to commercial work,” Welling says. That included a hospital project and an art gallery.
Still, not everything is smooth sailing. As much as Welling emphasizes relationships and repeat business, he acknowledge the extra financial pressures brought on by the recession.
“The current economic environment tests those relationships and loyalties,” he says, noting that competition, especially from bigger shops has become cutthroat. But he still manages to steer his own course.
One of things that allows Ipswich to compete effectively is the breadth of the company’s capabilities. The main 3,000-square-foot shop is divided into four basic areas. On the ground floor there is a cabinet production shop and an area devoted mostly to architectural millwork. Upstairs on one side is the office, and on the other is an area dedicated just to beaded face-frame work.
In the main cabinet shop, the centerpiece is a Flexicam CNC machine capable of handling 5x10 sheets. There is also an Altendorf F92T sliding table saw, a horizontal boring machine and an SCMI edgebander. Carcases use mostly Confirmat screw-and-dowel construction.
In the millwork and solid wood side of the shop, there is a Powermatic table saw and a Powermatic jointer with a shop-built outfeed extension. A Williams and Hussey moulder and a SAC shaper with tilting head handle custom mouldings, and a Timesavers Speed Sander widebelt sander tackles most of the sanding.
Upstairs in the dedicated beaded face-frame area are a Hoffman dovetail machine and a Hoffman miter cutter. There is also a custom assembly table, router with power feed and a Powermatic shaper, also with power feed.
Custom projects drive shop
All of that equipment and a good dose of Yankee ingenuity gets called in to tackle some of the unusual projects Ipswich does. For example, they recently tackled a 12x6-foot walnut kitchen island project that became the biggest glue-up the shop had ever done.
Another project brought the CNC machine into play. An extensive art gallery project in a private residence required a large number of hexagonal pedestals. The shop had Teragren lay up special bamboo panels on an MDF core, so the shop could V-groove the panels on the CNC. Then the pedestals were assembled with glue and hi-tensile tape by just rolling up the V-grooved parts.
On the finishing side, a kitchen project for a Porsche car enthusiast called for pain to match his 1952 Porsche’s metallic blue. Welling recently added a 1,500-square-foot finish area with complete spray booth and a talented custom finisher, so the shop was up to the task. Welling thinks he might be able to market their custom finishing as a separate service to other shops.
“A lot of what we do we have to invent for each project,” Welling says. He uses a team approach to develop solutions. “We get a better product that way than any one of us could envision by ourselves. And when we get the client and the architect engaged, it’s a win-win situation all around.”
Recently, Ipswich’s custom work was honored by the Cabinet Makers Association as a top winner in three categories in the association’s first design competition. “We are fortunate that the people we work with allowed us to step out of the box,” says Welling. “They’ve allowed us to be where we are today.”
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.