Naples Custom Cabinets & Millwork grew more than 185 percent from 2004 to 2007, increasing sales from $725,000 to $2.1 million. That was a performance that landed the  Naples, Fla., company a rank of 2,001 on Inc. magazine's 2008 list of 5,000 fastest growing small businesses in America.

Owner Steve Weichelt is proud of that, but he also knows that pride in past accomplishments alone won't keep his company growing like that in the future, especially in an economic downturn. That's why he's taken proactive steps to diversify his business into new product areas while still solidifying both his client base and his production efficiency.

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Three legs for the future

The center of Naples Custom Cabinets and Millwork is the kind business you would expect from its name: mostly residential custom cabinetry with some custom furniture and architectural millwork thrown in. But Weichelt has added two other business directions. He has a general contracting business, so he can be a one-stop shop for clients, and he has developed a kitchen and bath specialty business that broadens his reach beyond his most affluent core customers, clients he describes as "ultra high end."

"We'll go into a $40 million house where the project budget is $20 million," he says. But he readily acknowledges that times have changed, and those kinds of projects are not so easy to find. "We have to have more options, from the high side to the low side," he says.

As a general contractor, the business can offer more services. With a reputation for quality service to the highest of high-end clients, Weichelt says he is confident he can compete and outperform what most contractors can do. "And I'm not bashful about what I charge for it," he adds.

But he knows there's money to be made with more mid-range customers, too. That gave birth to the kitchen and bath business, which includes sale and installation of some stock cabinets.

One of his tactics is to explore new specialty products. He's started marketing a hidden bed system called the  Zoom-Room. It uses European mattress technology to create a bed that can roll up into a cabinet in just 24 inches of depth. Weichelt says it is ideal for converting rooms like home offices into instant guest bedrooms, a popular option among Florida retirees.

He's also jumped onto the popular outdoor kitchen trend. He uses Aqua-Plas IV from Piedmont Plastics, which is a marine-grade material made from an expanded plastics wood composite with an integral hard skin surface.

Developing a team

At the same time that Weichelt is looking outside the business for new products and markets, he's also looking inward. He puts an emphasis on developing a good team and relies more on people than technology. "It comes down to the guys that are working for you," he says. "We have very low turnover. Everybody likes working here."

Some of the reasons for that spring from how Weichelt hires and maintains his staff. He says he goes more for compatibility than skills when reviewing a potential employee. He says he pays well and offers 50/50 health benefits. He avoids overtime, knowing that people burn out fast and are not really that much more productive when they work long hours. The shop is air-conditioned in the Florida heat.

Weichelt sees a lot of this as just his responsibility as a business owner. "With 18 employees, that means 18 mortgages, 18 cars to be paid for," he says. "My people are the most important thing to me."

Although Weichelt relies more on people than equipment, he keeps up with new technology. The shop uses 20-20 design software and AutoCAD drawing software. They have a ShopBot CNC router that has been customized with three router heads to be more productive. It is used more for specialty projects rather than everyday production, though.

Most cutting is done on the Altendorf F45 sliding table saw. Custom mouldings are machined on a Mikron Multi-Moulder, which can use the Williams & Hussey knives the shop collected from years of relying on that machine. An SCMI Sandya 3 widebelt sander handles sanding. "When the economy turns around, technology will help," says Weichelt. "Everything we have is 100 percent paid for."

He also doesn't hesitate to take advantage of outsourcing. He sees no need to make doors and drawers when he can get what he needs from sources such as Walzcraft. "There's no money in making drawers yourself," he says.

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