When shop owners today complain about business challenges, they could take a lesson in perspective from Artur Raczkowski.

He came to the U.S. in 1993 from Poland at the age of 20, trying to get a fresh start. He didn't even speak English back then, but today he is fluent and runs a successful cabinet shop that posts annual sales of $1.9 million with a staff of only eight workers. He says one key to his accomplishments is investing in equipment.

"People come and go. I invest in machines," says Raczkowski (pronounced ra-SHAWF-ski).

Listing the machinery at A-Design and Home Improvement LLC in Stratford, Conn., sounds more like the inventory for a major manufacturer than a small cabinet shop. Equipment includes a Biesse CNC router, a Makor automated finishing system, a rough mill operation with a Weinig moulder and gang rip saw, and that's just the beginning.

There's a Koch automated dowel insertion machine, a  Pistorius auto haunching machine, a  Biesse Levia 330 widebelt sander, and an  Omga upcut saw station with computerized stop system.

Then there's the wood waste briquette system and infrared heating for the shop, but taking a look at just one area shows how Raczkowski makes it all work.

Finishing in forefront

Lots of small shops may have one or two sophisticated machines, such as a CNC router, but few would even consider the investment A-Design has made in state-of-the-art finishing equipment. The Makor Q-One automated finishing system dominates one room in the sprawling 24,000-square-foot A-Design shop.

Coupled to a Kremlin mixing station, the  Makor machine is designed to deliver both production efficiency and top quality.

"We can spray 9 feet per minute," says Raczkowski.

"I would have to have four spray booths and four guys to do that."

But it's not just production. Raczkowski says the consistency of coating, usage of material and quality of top coat are unsurpassed by anything he can get in his regular spray booth, which still stays busy with work not suited to automation.

Raczkowski has worked to make his finishing system even more efficient. His preferred top coat is 2K polyurethane, but it has a pot life of just 30 minutes a challenge for cleaning equipment and switching finishes. He worked with Makor, Kremlin and  M.L. Campbell reps to provide solutions that allow instant changeovers and better cleaning solvents.

He relishes such challenges.

"It's like a rock in the road," he says.

"You have to keep going. You have to keep trying. When a part breaks, I don't just replace it. I ask why did it break?"

Raczkowski says his approach to buying a machine is always the same.

"Don't look at how much it costs," he says.

"Look at how much you can make on it."

Training from the top

Raczkowski thinks it's important that whenever he buys a new machine that he's the first person to be trained on it even if he won't be the primary operator. He says this helps him two ways. First, it gives him a thorough understanding of the equipment, so if something goes wrong, he can navigate through the issue with a repair technician. Second, because he trains the workers in the shop, he has better control and consistency in work processes and procedures.

He also thinks that much of the classroom-based training provided by manufacturers doesn't go far enough. He compares it to trying to learn to drive a car by learning about it all in class but with no experience behind the wheel. He urges manufacturers to offer more hands-on training. He also suggests that shop owners be more aggressive dealing with machine suppliers, technicians and trainers to ensure they get what they need.

"You have to be demanding, but not unreasonable," he says.

Demanding clients

One reason Raczkowski asks so much of his machines and his employees is because his clients ask a lot of him. Currently focused on building cabinetry for upscale apartment buildings in New York City, A-Design frequently gets calls to meet severe production schedules while still delivering top quality.

Raczkowski was recently asked to deliver 15 kitchens in two and a half weeks. At the outset, it might seem to be an impossible request, but Raczkowski immediately started to look for a way to meet the client's needs.

"I asked questions. I said let's talk about the details," he said.

That resulted in a solution where A-Design would deliver boxes for the kitchens in one and a half weeks, allowing other contractors to do countertops, and then A-Design could work on doors and drawers and install them later, but still within the deadline.

Seeing the whole picture

Raczkowski thinks a lot of shop owners are functioning "like horses with blinders" especially in the current economic crisis. He says these times call for a broader, more flexible approach to everything and a better awareness of all that goes into a business, especially the numbers. He thinks many don't really understand their costs.

"I think some shops are afraid to look at the numbers," he says. "You need to know your company. You need to know your costs."

When he presents an estimate or bid to a client, he details as much as he can rather than just providing one big number. He says that helps build credibility with contractors who recognize he has seriously figured out what is involved. Even with new clients, a detailed estimate helps shape the future of your relationship, he says.

"The estimate or proposal is your first appearance. This is how you'll be judged," Raczkowski says.

One-stop shop

While many shops outsource part of their production, Raczkowski is a firm believer in keeping control of production in house. A-Design builds its own doors and drawers. It does all its own finishing. It even has a full rough mill operation that can produce any mouldings it needs.

"We produce everything A to Z," says Raczkowski.

"It's our reputation on the line, and we like to be on time. So, we control every aspect field measurement, design, cutting, finishing, and most important, site installation."

It's like shopping, he says, "We're the mall. You can get everything in one place."

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