At 49 years of age, Tom Farmer, owner and CEO of Hilton, N.Y.-based Upstate CNC Service Inc., is well aware of numerous contrasts and ironies that have carried him to this point in his business life as a kitchen cabinet craftsman and a supplier of wood and plastic component parts.
A 26-year veteran of the photographic paper operation at Eastman Kodak, Farmer took voluntary separation in 2004 when his department was about to be outsourced to China. His first big job after leaving the corporate nest building wooden bases for digital projectors for Kodak. He became an outsourcing service for his former employer.
Farmer builds cabinet parts, custom and specialty parts as well as jigs for a number of clients, from one-man shops to Fortune 500 companies. He also cuts display parts for museums. His niche is making unusual shaped parts in wood and plastic for any company.
With woodworking, Farmer started out as a hobbyist in 1982, making picture frames and other odds and ends for friends and relatives. His business now is thriving and has come close to doubling its sales volume in each of the past five years.
While his kitchen and bath clients are strictly local, never more than a 50-mile radius from his shop, his components business has sent work to Italy, the Virgin Islands and, through distributors, to many foreign nations.
Relying on a CNC router
Originally a manual craftsman, working out of a 15 by 15-foot space in his basement, Farmer now relies on a Techno LC Series 4896 model CNC router for "just about every job" he does. "I love this machine so much," he declares, "I just bought a second one."
For the first 25 years of his woodworking career, Farmer has run what is basically a one-man shop. "When I started doing kitchens," he says, "my wife Paula helped with the installations. And, recently, I hired a part-time assistant who comes in about 20 hours a week. Also, when I have had something really heavy to lift like a solid surface countertop I have called on friends and neighbors. Aside from that, I've been on my own."
Farmer's isolated existence may not last much longer, however.
"I never planned for the kind of growth I am getting," he says. "Oh, I joked about it, put up a sign in the shop that proclaimed it as 'World Headquarters,' and told people that my business goal was global dominance." Although that is still far from becoming a reality, this genial craftsman is moving further in that direction than he ever thought possible.
Looking to grow
"I am still working out of a converted garage adjacent to my house," he explains. "I have not quite 1,600 square feet, which includes an 800-square-foot addition I put on in 2002, plus a trailer in the back that I use for storage, and where I have installed my spray booth. But the next step, which I have started planning, will be a separate 10,000-square-foot building with optimized workflow, a proper loading dock and a few full-time employees.
"I am going to allow this business to go to whatever level it wants," Farmer says .He draws inspiration from Henry Ford, whose statement, "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're absolutely right," is prominently displayed on the desk in his office.
Farmer achieved this growth while he battled cancer for nine years and held down a demanding day job for 22 of the 25 years he has been processing wood products.
Farmer promotes the CNC-driven components business only on the Internet, "plus some word-of-mouth." He says it has taken off on a scale that even he finds surprising. "In 2006, I got so busy with the parts that I more or less abandoned the kitchen side of the business. Then, early in 2007, two local developments made it very attractive to dive back in.
"One was the closing of a very large regional chain of big-box home improvement centers. The other was the closing of the leading high-end custom cabinet supplier in our area. Suddenly, I was getting lots of calls asking about kitchens. My first job was done as a favor for a good customer, and before I knew it, we had more jobs than we could easily handle. The only thing that made it feasible was the CNC router, which performs more tasks than I ever imagined."
When Farmer's fellow workers at Kodak were spending bonus money on a boat or a vacation, he was plowing money back into his business. "Eventually, I did go on vacation, and I bought a boat, too. Even that turned into a moneymaker, by the way. I needed a new hatch cover for my boat, and I built it out of stock parts. The marina owner saw it, liked it and told Sea Ray about it. The next thing I knew I was building hundreds of hatch covers for Sea Ray.
"I don't agree with anyone who says you can't make money in the woodworking business," he says.
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