Katrina can't stop this shop
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Todd Spriggins doesn't give up. After his New Orleans shop was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and he was relocated to Houston, he could have just carried on there, working for somebody else.

But that's not Spriggins.

Maybe it's his long family heritage in New Orleans and a commitment to seeing the city rebuilt. Maybe it's perseverance and dedication he learned in the U.S. Marine Corps. Or maybe it has to do with a typical small shop stubborn streak, simply not wanting to lose the business he built from scratch.

Whatever it was, it's still hard to believe he has been able to overcome all the obstacles put in his path. The storm itself was just the beginning.

We've all seen the pictures from the news when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but living it is different. Spriggins and his family safely evacuated to Houston ahead of the storm in the traffic-clogged diaspora that turned the normally six-hour drive to Houston into an 18-hour ordeal.

Wiped out

After the storm, when flood waters finally receded, Spriggins found his home had miraculously been saved. But his shop was another story.

Flood waters inundated the building. The machines he had painstakingly acquired over the years were now mostly just a jumble of rusting cast iron and steel. And with no expensive flood insurance to fall back on, it looked like this might be the end of Crescent City Custom Cabinets. But not for Spriggins.

Battling bureaucrats

His first step was working with the Small Business Administration to get an emergency business loan. Rebuilding in New Orleans would mean lots of potential business for a cabinet shop, and such a shop could provide work for employees flooded out of their jobs. A shop with years of local history should be a good bet for quick disaster funding, one might think, but not so.

"First they wanted my lease papers, which of course were lost in the flood," recalls Spriggins, noting that the canceled rent checks he did have still weren't considered enough proof of the rent he paid. "I couldn't even find the landlord. People were putting notes on the building for him to call. I did, too."

Once he satisfied the SBA on the lease, he had to come up with tax forms, which were also lost in the deluge. Then there was the issue of collateral, and so it went.

After every hurdle he surmounted, the SBA put another in his path. He spent nine months trying to work with them, all the while seeing out-of-state contractors move in to take business he knew he could do. Finally, Spriggins had had enough with the SBA.

Private financing

Working with friends, family and business contacts, Spriggins started to lay the groundwork to put his shop back in order. He gathered together enough funds and backing that he thought he could buy what he needed to get going again.

Before the storm, Crescent City Custom Cabinets was a conventional shop with lots of equipment designed to work solid wood, such as shapers, moulder, jointer and planer. The shop did complex architectural millwork and high-end custom furniture. But what New Orleans needed now was something a little more practical.

Although Spriggins said the "fear factor" kept him from even getting computer software in his old shop, now he envisioned a new automated operation. It would be centered on a CNC router. He got involved with eCabinet System software, which is free to users under an innovative cooperative program developed by Thermwood. Spriggins was impressed with the helpful community of eCabinet Systems users. And he said that played a major role in his decision to buy a Thermwood router.

Once the decisions about equipment were made and financing arranged, Spriggins traveled to the New England Industrial Woodworking Expo in Hartford, Conn., to make the deals. He had located a new building not far from his old shop location. This new building also had been under water (there are still water stains on the walls), but it was empty and available, with none of the debris to deal with from his old shop. It also boasted 10,000 square feet of space compared to only 2,700 in the old shop.

When he first talked about getting his old shop back in business, Spriggins was hopeful he could hire his old crew, but the delays after the deluge worked against him, and he ended up with all new employees. New Orleans after the storm is a tough employment market, as larger corporations fight to grab what few qualified workers are to be had in the greatly reduced pool of potential employees.

"McDonald's was offering signing bonuses of $2,000 to $3,000," he said. "I can't compete with that. And once I train somebody, they can go out and work as a trim carpenter and make more than I can pay." But he is proud of his current team, which includes one employee who came from Texas to work for him. "This crew really stuck with me," he says.

As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast continue to rebuild, there is a huge amount of work to be done. But that also creates cutthroat competition. Spriggins says cheap Chinese-made cabinets are going into lots of rebuild projects. He said one builder seeking a bid from Spriggins told him he could get a kitchen sink base cabinet from China for as little as $18. Spriggins can't compete with prices like that, so he emphasizes quality and service.

Spriggins' not-so-secret to success in the rebirth of his shop is nested-based manufacturing. He uses frameless blind-dado construction, cutting and machining all parts on his Thermwood CNC router. He even cuts dovetailed drawer boxes on the CNC machine. Parts are banded on a Brandt edgebander. Most doors are outsourced to Decore-Ative Specialties, which he says has been very reliable.

Spriggins says he is amazed at how much more productive the shop is. Before the storm, he did maybe $150,000 in sales with himself and two other employees. Today, there are four in the shop producing three to five kitchens a week and generating $425,000 in annual sales.

The eCabinet Systems cooperative helped Spriggins begin business even before his new equipment was installed and working. He worked with David Hall of Hall's Edge in Stamford, Conn., (CabinetMaker, January 2006), outsourcing cabinet parts from Hall while Spriggins worked to get his own CNC up and running.

Spriggins can't say enough about all the help and support he's gotten from other shop owners in the eCabinet Systems cooperative and from Thermwood's own technical support. The cooperative has also helped him build a second stream of shared production work, cutting cabinet parts on his router for other shops.

Spriggins is excited about the future in his shop and in New Orleans. "It's a refreshing of a whole city, as I see it," he says. "It's been a blessing for me."

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.