Many small shops dream of reaching the kinds of customers who are willing to pay top dollar for top quality. But it takes more than dreaming to see it happen. Amer Abusafieh is making that dream happen for his shop with a business plan built on just two key principles.
The first is tenacious marketing that promises what other shops can't. The second is a philosophy of continuous improvement and updating in the shop to ensure those marketing promises can be kept even though the shop is much smaller than a lot of its competition.
Tucked into 3,800 square feet in Pittsburg, Calif., Amer's Custom Woodworks Inc. is limited by local codes to having no more than four employees. Yet the shop has found ways to compete with much larger operations in the highly competitive market of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Amer and his younger brother, Ashraf, describe a breakthrough project that came to them after larger shops turned it down or failed in the execution. The architect had specified wall paneling and shelves all in Alpi teak veneer with continuous, uninterrupted grain flowing over all the edges and connecting all the parts. Alpi is an engineered wood product with very consistent grain lines that make a break in grain very obvious.
"No one could figure how to do it," says Amer, noting that the work was part of a $26.5 million home remodeling project in the very upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.
Amer and Ashraf worked out a system to miter-fold the parts using the high accuracy of their Busellato JET 200 RT CNC router and Microvellum software that includes grain matching for panels. In some places, they had to use hot-melt glue rather than conventional adhesives to make it all work. The result was a successful project that further cemented the shop's reputation for quality in demanding high-end work.
Building on success
As proud as Amer is of that success, he focuses more on how he can use it to build additional business. He figures he spends not less than 30 percent of his time developing new business. That includes constantly introducing himself to new contractors. But they aren't just any contractors, and Amer isn't just handing out business cards to everyone he meets.
Any time he's doing a project in the kind of upscale neighborhood that he thinks could provide more profitable high-end work, Amer finds out the names of all the contractors working in the area. He gives them a no-nonsense, no-selling, three-page letter that amounts to a resume for his shop. It simply lists the shop's services and capabilities, including all the major machines. Two CAD drawings in the body of the letter suggest precision and technology. The letter ends with a direct request to bid upcoming projects, and it provides complete contact information.
This understated marketing sends a powerful message, says Amer. "A contractor has to have confidence in your ability to perform," he says. "When you can do something other shops can't do, then you get the project."
But Amer is still cautious about what work he takes on. Out of 10 bids, he expects to win only two jobs. He's careful not to underbid jobs just to get work. "There is a danger that you bid too cheap," he says. In fact, he believes too many cabinet shops are down-selling the market. Ironically, he notes the effect of low-cost immigrant labor on the low end of the market. The son of an airline pilot, Amer himself was an immigrant from Jordan more than 25 years ago. To avoid low-market competition, he devotes significant efforts to qualifying potential clients and making sure he's selling to customers who can afford his work in the first place.
Keeping up to date
With limited space, a limited number of workers and fairly expensive overhead, Amer is convinced he must rely on technology to give him the edge. He keeps up to date on new industry developments and diligently researches new opportunities. When he decided to buy a CNC router, he narrowed the choices to a few finalist companies and then asked them to provide him with a list of all their users across the United States. Some hesitated or didn't provide the list. Delmac gave him a PDF file of those names right away, and after he quizzed a few of the users on the list, he was sold on the Busellatto.
When the unit was installed, Amer says, the installation technician was an "encyclopedia" of knowledge, and the machine was quickly up and running productively. "The first paid job we did 24 panels in 10 minutes," says Amer, explaining that those same panels would have taken 10 minutes each without the CNC router.
Selling what you make
Amer's production is founded on nested-based frameless construction. A pusher bar on the CNC router moves nested parts to an outfeed table all in a group. That frees the machine to immediately begin work on another sheet, and it allows the operator to simultaneously sort, label and move parts to the next operation.
For parts that need banding, that next step is a Brandt edgebander. Then it's on to a Gannomat CNC boring, gluing and dowel insertion machine and final assembly. Amer is hoping to add a case clamp soon to the shop to speed the clamping process.
Amer says that the Euro look is "big time" in his market, but he also gets requests for more traditional styles. He still has conventional equipment in the shop to do face-frame construction, including a Striebig panel saw, Felder jointer-planer, Felder combination machine with table saw and shaper, and a Ritter face-frame clamp. But it's more efficient for Amer to stay frameless, and he's worked out a solution to satisfy most customers.
By adding mouldings and other details, he can achieve a look that mimics popular inset face-frame styles while still giving him the production advantage of frameless construction with full overlay doors. And most important, the customers are happy.
"A cabinet is a box is a box," says Amer. "We're not doing witchcraft."
Don't need dovetails
In a similar vein, even though Amer targets customers willing to pay $50,000 to $60,000 for a kitchen, he eschews typical high-end touches like dovetailed drawers. Melamine cabinet interiors are standard although they will modify that to meet customer requests. Drawer boxes are 5/8-inch Russian birch. Amer maintains that today's smooth-sliding precision drawer slide hardware makes dovetail construction an anachronism. To prove his drawers are plenty strong, one of Amer's contractors, who tips the scales in excess of 250 pounds, takes a sample drawer and stands on it.
But Amer also sees this as an opportunity to offer customers more value. Some of the money he saves on construction and materials allows him to offer higher quality slides, such as the Blum Tandem system, and still be both cost-competitive and profitable. "I can give customers a better product at lower cost," he says.
Doors and finishing
Amer outsources his doors, noting he really doesn't have the shop space for effective door production, and he can't match the cost and quality of outsourced products.
Emphasizing melamine interiors, Amer works to limit finishing to doors and drawer fronts, but all the finishing is done in house. He said the shop doesn't produce the volume required to demand the quality he wants from outside finishers, so his brother has taken on the finishing chores.
Ashraf has achieved a reputation for extremely high quality. He uses Becker Acroma finishes and a Kremlin spray system. One other quality detail is evidenced by prominent signs on the spray booth that warn visitors, "Do not talk to finisher while spray booth is running!"
Not standing still
Amer and Ashraf are both dedicated to continuous improvement of the operation, whether that means big changes or little things. To save more space, they modified their Ritter face-frame clamp to slope at a 5-degree angle instead of the standard 30 degrees. In case they need to make major changes to shop layout or equipment, they've installed air and power stations on all the fixed structural columns in the shop so pneumatics and electrical don't have to be completely redone.
Overall is an attitude to constantly move ahead despite changing conditions. "If my brother and I were not tenacious and stubborn," says Amer, "we'd have been out of business long ago."
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