Survival, for Mike Bowers, president of Choptank Mills Associates, is first and foremost about adapting to a changing market. Bowers is primarily a general contractor who has built houses and done complete renovations from top to bottom as well as cabinetmaking and countertop fabrication.

"We started out from the beginning doing most everything," says Bowers. When a friend who had been building the cabinets stopped, Bowers picked up that job. He felt that when you're doing the whole package all of the parts should complement each other, so it made sense for him to build the cabinets. He also felt that it gave him control of the process and the lead times.

Bowers has never been satisfied to stand still and only do the same old thing. He says that you always have to be looking to the next thing you're going to do. This attitude has led him to fabricating concrete countertops.

"You need to be one step ahead of the competition, but you need to do it intuitively, too, not that you're contriving it," says Bowers. "I think that makes a big difference. Then your design is really driven by inspiration."

Know when to change

When the housing market was strong and booming, Bowers was building and renovating homes. But with land costs rising and older homes getting priced out of play, Bowers knew that he had to redirect his efforts. The amount of people looking to renovate their homes to get the most out of their property has led Bowers to return to high-end renovations.

"You always have to be looking for what the next niche is," says Bowers. "The cabinetmaking dovetails very nicely with where we're going now, which is going back to high-end renovation work."

Design to fit

For Bowers, it's about design that is site specific, a philosophy he has used for building as well as renovating. "A lot of time our design kind of evolves," says Bowers. "You try to match your ideas with their lifestyle, how they want to use the room."

Bowers does only rough drawings, because the design often changes so much. "You can spend more time making a drawing than you can building it," he says. He feels more complicated drawings are just for show.

When Bowers does a design, he pushes what he knows works best and what he likes. He credits the design ability of his wife, Mary Ann and the artistic sense and skills of his son, Luke as key to keeping his business strong.

"As it turns out, the fickle finger of design right now says that what we're building and what we design are what people like," he says. Bowers likes to build kitchens that don't look like kitchens and that fit into the normal flow of the house.

Rewarding work

"We don't want to waste our time on doing non-interesting stuff. We paid our dues earlier by doing stuff that we didn't particularly like but it paid the bills," says Bower. He says that after 20-plus years he's at the point where he can afford to be more selective and he prefers working on interesting projects for nice people.

"We know what we're doing. The reason we can get a job done in a timely fashion is because we do everything," says Bowers. "The people we shoot for are people who can appreciate our efforts."

Bowers says that bathrooms and kitchens are very labor intensive and employ every trade. He always starts a job by asking what the budget is. He bases prices for a job on time and material, not a bid. "Part of the problem is you don't know how long it'll take," says Bowers. "And if you sit there and guesstimate how long it's going to take and you're way off, then the next thing you know you're in trouble."

Simple tools

Choptank Mills builds face-frame cabinets using dadoes, glue and screws. The shop uses 3/4- or 1/2-inch plywood or beadboard. Bowers uses a Jet table saw with an extended table to do everything from ripping to cutting. A Ridgid planer is used for all the planing of the poplar used for face frames. Frames are assembled using pocket holes created with a Kreg pocket-hole jig.

For router work, the shop uses a Porter-Cable and when necessary uses it inverted in a router table built in the shop by Bowers. A Porter-Cable dovetail jig is used for dovetail drawers. Finally, the shop has Makita, Ridgid and Bosch miter saws for a number of cross cut operations. Finishes are applied with a Titan HVLP spray system using Gemini coatings.

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