Just a few months ago  Artisan Cabinetry LLC had a three-week backlog and three full-time employees. Now, the Sheboygan, Wis., shop has nothing on the books, and the only employee is owner Ted Schermetzler.

Other shops might have closed their doors under the pressure. But Schermetzler made mid-course adjustments to keep his shop viable. "People are looking for the lowest price and quality is a secondary concern," says Schermetzler. "I'm trying to cut costs to be competitive with lesser products to keep my shop busy."

Investing in equipment

To keep his prices low and work faster without employees, Schermetzler relies on technology. He recently invested in a Kentwood M507EL five-head moulder. "To build frames, I was ripping them on a table saw, edgesanding and surfacing them, which took quite a bit of time," says Schermetzler. He can now rip 300 lineal feet in about half the time. "It's faster, safer and more accurate to 1/1,000 of an inch," he says. "No more crossing my fingers and hoping it's right."

The moulder also created a new revenue stream. Schermetzler now can produce base and case work efficiently for general contractors and other area small shops. "I'm supplying moulding to a few general contractors, and if the building industry picks up it could become a profitable revenue stream," he says.

After adding the moulder, Schermetzler invested in a Dustek 1500 dust collector. "I don't want to die when I'm 40, and I'm to the point where I had to make the investment," he says. "My equipment runs cooler and cleaner; the shop looks more professional and is easier to work in."

Being a one-man shop has its advantages, such as low overhead. "I can produce mouldings cheaper than the bigger shops," says Schermetzler.

Studying the competition

In any industry it pays to know your competition. Larger area Green Bay cabinet shops are producing cabinets with a standard laminate interior with a quarter-inch back and a nailer strip on top. Artisan Cabinetry uses a half-inch back, which eliminates the need for a nailer, and its cabinets feature a wood interior. "I can produce a higher quality cabinet at a lower price than the big shops," says Schermetzler.

Because price is paramount to his customers, Schermetzler is educating them on what you get for the money. "I take a $20,000 quote and break it down in terms of quality and features," he says. "I now try to talk people out of solid surface countertops because laminate offers a similar look for a lot less money. Instead they can invest the money in well-made cabinets instead of something they'll trash in five years." He admits it's been a challenge. "Menards offers cheap cabinets and it's a constant struggle comparing apples to oranges."

Marketing strategies

Another bankable trait all small shops must possess is versatility. Schermetzler makes his own doors and drawers to keep costs down and also fabricates laminate and solid surface countertops. As in life, it's not what you know, but who you know. Schermetzler is well-connected in his community, and word-of-mouth advertising has kept him busy, but even he admits that isn't always enough. He's tried advertising in the local paper, but after a few months he decided his marketing dollars could be better spent elsewhere. "I've had more inquiries through my Web site, www.artisancabinetryllc.com, and exhibiting at local home shows," he says.

To get the word out about his capabilities, he joined the  Sheboygan County Home Builders' Association. Schermetzler also added a showroom in November. "It's easier to sell something when customers can see and touch it rather than looking at a piece that's half completed in the shop," he says.

Looking to the future

Once the economy picks up, Schermetzler would like to run an eight-man shop and get down to a 60-hour workweek. "The first three years I was in business, I worked between 75 to 90 hours per week," he says.

The long hours paid off. He owns his building and always tries to pay for machines rather than finance them. He says, "If I don't have the money, I work a few hours longer on a project and save up. My advice to any small cabinet shop is to get out and stay out of debt."

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