Not long ago Hugh O'Connell, Matthew Fill and Kurt Bendewald were competitors. Now, Bendewald, owner of KB Custom Cabinets in Northbrook, Ill., and O'Connell and Fill, owners of New Vision Custom Cabinets and Millwork Inc., located in Lake Villa, Ill., have merged their businesses.

Both shops were featured on a CabinetMaker cover and each had achieved a solid measure of success. Located in close proximity to each other, the two shops had become friendly competitors who occasionally did work for each other.

Both shops believed in networking and outsourcing work they couldn't do efficiently. Each shop believed it was missing an important piece of the puzzle to move forward. A merger appeared to be a solution that would benefit all three partners.

Behind the decision

Bendewald was the one who initiated the merger. For years he had been cutting parts for New Vision on his Digital Tool CNC router. More recently he had been doing software consulting for Planit's Cabinet Vision instead of building cabinets. When he started doing cabinets again, he realized that as much as he loved doing the cabinets, he didn't like doing the business part of cabinetmaking.

Despite the great relationship with New Vision, Bendewald admits that he was apprehensive about approaching O'Connell and Fill. However, the merger also made sense for New Vision owners. The networking relationship they had with Bendewald grew stronger over time without ever becoming adversarial. "It was always a win/win," says Fill.

New Vision wanted to get a CNC machine for quite some time, but neither O'Connell nor Fill had the expertise to run it. Bringing Bendewald into the business along with his router and software knowledge helped the shop solve the problem. "For Matt and me, it was a perfect fit," says O'Connell.

"Cabinetmakers never think of the time involved in getting the software and machine to work," added Fill.

"It's a fantasy to think that the cost of the machine and software are the big element," says Bendewald. "It's the time involved."

Using individual strengths

In the end, the merger was about combining the individual strengths of the three owners. O'Connell is the marketing, operations and sales expert, while Fill is the purchasing wizard, who evaluates and researches materials, handles large quotes and deals with vendors. Bendewald has the technical expertise with software and has contacts in the custom and production end.

"We respect each other's point of view," says Bendewald. "There's no such thing as a bad idea."

Because of their different strengths, decisions become about deferring to the partner with the most expertise in the particular area being evaluated. When the company was considering changing panel products for closets, for example, available colors, the core and tooling all had to be discussed.

In this case, everyone had opinions based on their expertise. O'Connell wanted to open up the color choices to increase the options for the customers, which meant considering new materials and a supplier. Fill looked at it from a cost and vendor perspective. Finally, Bendewald was looking at the material for the wear on the tooling and cutting.

Neither of the parties jumped into the arrangement without carefully considering the implications. The three partners set up the merger with a year's probation, which began just a month ago. If everything is still working fine after one year, Bendewald will be a full partner of New Vision.

If there are any unfixable problems from anyone's perspective, the partnership will dissolve and Bendewald will take his CNC router and software and, with the help of O'Connell and Fill, move back into his shop. All the partners wanted to have a no-fault exit strategy that would leave the three men friends, even if the merger failed.

"Having a year makes us all work harder," says O'Connell.

"The year is a buffer for us," says Bendewald. Sometimes in a partnership, egos get in the way and it can take time for that to emerge, he adds.

Embracing CNC technology

The upgrade to the CNC controller software (WinCNC) has greatly improved the ease of use and overall efficiency of the router.

"Our goal is to produce product as quickly and efficiently as possible and to be profitable," says Bendewald. "Without that profit you won't grow." To that end, New Vision has embraced CNC technology and the changes it brings.

"You have to buy into the system completely," says Fill. The shop switched from dowel to dado to blind dado construction to make a better product and because that construction method made sense with nested-based manufacturing. "Kurt wanted to nest everything," says Fill.

All the engineering of the cabinets or closets should be done in the office, says Fill. With CNC machines and software it becomes about hiring people to assemble and do finish work rather than machine or cut, he adds.

With traditional machinery and techniques, you need skilled cabinetmakers, says Bendewald. "We're looking to make a quality product but at an effective cost," says Fill.

The company is now looking at the increased opportunities the router presents, such as networking with other shops providing quality custom parts in a timely fashion. They are also looking at the continued opportunity to help other shops with consulting and training on the purchase and implementation of CNC technology as a whole. "Before Kurt, our capacity for growth was not there," says O'Connell.

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