When the recession hit, Chris Williamson saw sales slashed in half at his Custom Cabinets by Williamson Millwork. But unlike some shops that just hunkered down or even closed the doors, Williamson took advantage of the situation to prepare for the future with new technology. Today, he is reaping the rewards, with powerful growth that has tripled sales from the depth of the recession and put him 50 percent higher than even his pre-recession levels.
“In the industry we’re in,” says Williamson, “if you are not constantly looking for new ways to do business you’re just one step away from going out of business.”
Family business roots
Williamson’s story is not only a company come-back story, but it is also a story of a return to family ownership and a dedication to American manufacturing. The company was actually started in 1974 by his uncle, and Williamson did work at that shop as a teenager, helping with installations. After college he worked for his uncle for a bit using Cabinet Vision software. But Williamson moved away from cabinets and millwork into other industries and away from Georgia to Ohio.
Williamson, after bringing back family ownership, guided his company through the recession, and built it up to $6 million in sales. Photo: David Robinson Photography
Still, he says he “liked the smell of sawdust” and came back to the business when he was 24. His uncle sold the business in 1996, and Williamson worked for a time in the millwork operation for the new owners, but he left them in 2002 to pursue other opportunities outside of woodworking. The new owners asked him to come back and invest in the company in 2004 as they were struggling. Williamson says he was able to turn the company around in about a year, and he made a deal to buy it himself in 2005.
Today, at 45, Williamson leads a company that does a mix of residential cabinetry and commercial millwork. Balancing that mix helped him survive the recession. “We always did high-end residential and commercial work,” he said. “But in the recession we came close to going out of business. We weathered the storm by switching back and forth between residential and commercial.”
He said the company also added some cabinet lines manufactured by others to help widen the company’s market. “We sell factory cabinet lines so we can provide a factory line for any price point,” he said. “It’s a boost to our bottom line when we’re at capacity for manufacturing.”
Williamson has two C.R. Onsrud routers in steady operation in his plant - typically seven hours of an eight-hour shift. Photo: David Robinson Photography
Increasing that manufacturing capacity with new technology has been an ongoing commitment at Custom Cabinets by Williamson Millwork. Over the years, the company moved from just a table saw and a boring machine to a manufacturing cell with a beam saw and point-to-point machining center. But Williamson was interested in seeing what a nested based CNC router could do. He was exploring his options when on a whim, he called up C.R. Onsrud and visited their plant.
He said he was impressed with the people and the product and particularly that it was American made. “We see these Chinese (cabinet) products coming into the market,” he said. “You look at how cheap they are, and it’s very difficult to compete. It burns me up to lose a sale to a Chinese product. I’m in it for the long haul, and when I visited Onsrud, they are all about American made.”
He said he was also impressed by their presentation. Although he called on short notice and just showed up, they were able to demonstrate machines running at high speed and answer his questions. He said some other firms he visited with more scheduled appointments couldn’t demonstrate their machines as well.
Two routers roaring
Currently, Williamson has two C.R. Onsrud routers in steady operation in his plant typically seven hours out of an eight-hour shift. One is a 5x12 machine that is primarily dedicated to countertop work in Corian and laminate. Another 4x8 machine is dedicated to cabinet production. But the bigger machine also takes on cabinet jobs when needed.
“With two machines we can run multiple jobs, and the 4x8 table can work in tandem,” Williamson said.
He really appreciates the reduced material handling benefit of the nested based operation. “What was really killing us was transportation, just rolling parts from point A to point B to point C,” he said. With the nested routers, all the parts are cut and machined in one place, reducing handling and motion. “It cuts down on the number of employees and helps with floor space,” he said. “It’s like putting two machines into the space of one.”
Williamson hasn’t entirely abandoned his old work cell. The Holzma beam saw is still used for cutting shelves, backs, and stretchers or any parts that don’t require additional machining. But his dedication to nested based production continues. Next on his shopping list is a 5x27 machine to give him more options for infeed and outfeed production advances. He said that will be important as the company faces growing pains, running out of space in 23,000 square feet spread across two buildings.
Not only is Williamson trying to stay up to date with his manufacturing technology, but he is also pushing the envelope with aggressive marketing using the latest social media platforms. A visit to the company’s website (custom-cabinets.net) shows prominent listings for social media with links to the company’s efforts on Facebook, Twitter, and Houzz. Williamson says the efforts pay off with good leads.
“One day we got 20 new views on Facebook,” he said. “I can tell by the updates from Facebook how many views we get.”
He says the social media effort is spearheaded by one of his office personnel. She regularly posts pictures and news about the company to help generate traffic. The focus is pictures of unique features, such as curved cabinets, or new projects. The effort aims to post new things at least once or twice a week.
Associates, not employees
Williamson says his management style is “hard but fair,” and fostering a team approach. He doesn’t like the term “employees,” preferring instead to characterize his staff as “associates.” He expresses the same concerns that many shop owners do about finding good workers, but he is proud to have a number of folks who have long tenure with the company, one having been there 35 years.
“Machines are only as good as your associates,” he said. “We’re all in this together.” But he also adds that new technology has made it easier to get new workers up to speed.
“We make it where a novice can hinge up a cabinet,” Williamson said. “Kids are able to come in the first day and hinge cabinets and load them on the truck.”
Good pay and at least one unusual fringe benefit, also helps Williamson attract the people he needs, he says. The company prides itself on fast turnaround, and sometimes that means a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time. “We’re working 60-hour weeks now,” he said in July, “and it’s hot!”
As a team-building perk, Williamson says he invites the crew at the end of the day to each have one beer from the Kegerator in his office. “We have a little camaraderie,” he said, plus it helps him to keep on top of what’s going on in the shop. “Guys will talk to you a little more over a beer. We sit around and talk about the day’s events.”
Combining the team approach with the latest equipment, Williamson is optimistic looking ahead. His market area of a 100-mile radius around Savannah is growing, and he’s bidding lots of projects off of the Internet while developing better ongoing relationships with contractors to emphasize negotiated work over bidding.
Sales that were $4 million in 2007 and dipped to $1.9 million during the recession, are back up to $6 million. At one time, the company had dropped to as few as four employees, but now it has 37. And Williamson is confident he can keep sales up and his associates busy. “I like to keep around $2.5 million in backlog on the books at all times,” he said. “You’ve got to stay ahead of that curve ball.”