Paul Nelson’s cabinet shop in Long Beach, Calif., isn’t the biggest or most up to date, but Nelson has carved out a successful business relying on traditional values of quality, service, and integrity that keep business flowing in his direction despite ups and downs in the economy.

“We’re service oriented,” he explains, telling how he will go back to fix something in a project that they did 10 years ago. “Service is just something we do.” But that commitment pays off in word of mouth advertising and repeat business. “We’re doing remodeling on houses that we did 30 years ago,” he says.

Production and automation

But while a business philosophy might be a good thing to keep for three decades, the shop’s production and equipment have been steadily updated over the years. The centerpiece of the shop is a MultiCam CNC router that is used for all cutting and machining of cabinet parts. Nelson compares the addition of the CNC machine to hiring another employee, and he’s impressed how strong and square the finished cabinet boxes are after being cut on the CNC router. He also likes the safety. “Everybody’s got 10 fingers,” he says with a smile.

Other major equipment in the shop includes a Brandt edgebander, and a Castle pocket hole machine. There is also a forklift that Nelson says is indispensible for material handling in the shop, as well as just unloading and stacking lumber and sheet goods.

The shop uses KCD software for design, which is primarily done by Steve Hoff, who has been Nelson’s partner in the company since 1991. From KCD, projects go through EnRoute software to generate the code to drive the MultiCam router. On the estimating side, Nelson uses Exodus, which he says is a user-friendly program that is especially great for quick changes. For accounting and timekeeping, Nelson uses TimeForce, which interfaces with the shop’s QuickBooks accounting software.

Different approach to employees

Nelson has a somewhat unusual approach to finding good employees. In most cases, he is not looking for experienced cabinet industry workers. Instead, he looks for enthusiastic workers he can train to be part of his team, often recruiting them from other businesses without even advertising an opening.

“It’s not so much about talent,” he explains. “If I see a busboy hustling, if I see a hard worker, it just impresses me.” Since his newest employee has been with the company more than five years, the approach seems to work.

Once on board, employees find a different kind of work schedule, too. The company runs a 44-hour work week followed by a 36-hour week. Nelson says the system results in more productivity.

“Sometimes just one more hour in the day and you could have finished,” he says, while admitting it is a challenge to schedule projects. “Everybody likes it, and everybody wins.” Also, Nelson prefers to find what his employees are most talented at and focus on those areas rather than investing a lot of time in crosstraining.

Small, effective showroom

Nelson’s business is mostly mid- to high-end residential cabinetry in the area of southern California from Manhattan Beach to Newport Beach. He says marketing is mostly word of mouth, dealing primarily with contractors and designers.

Befitting his low-key and pragmatic approach, Nelson doesn’t devote a lot of space in his 10,000-square-foot facility to a showroom, but he makes the most of what he has. The small room has four walls of displays. First is a cabinet installation designed to show as many options as possible, with different door and drawer hardware and design options.

Next comes a wall of door samples. Nelson outsources doors and drawer boxes, relying on Decore-Ative Specialties and Drawer Box Specialties, which are both headquartered in southern California. Door samples are designed to be easily removed from a rack so customers can compare options.

On the third wall is a closet system, which just like the cabinet display is designed to show off as many hardware and construction options as possible. Finally, the fourth wall has samples of carvings and specialty work that Nelson can show off to provide even more ideas of what the company can do.

Weathering the downturn

While many shops in southern California were devastated by the economic downturn, Nelson seems to be doing all right. He says 2007 was his best year ever, and then the recession hit. But after 2008, his business has been improving every year. 

He lauds a free 11-week Goldman Sachs business training course he took that put 25 people from diverse businesses together to work in teams. “It was a good networking opportunity,” he says. Nelson is also a longtime member of the Cabinet Makers Association.

He has been responding to trends for more environmentally responsive products by using more certified sustainable lumber and other “green” products. Still, he clearly thinks success is more about fundamental business principles than chasing trends.

“There’s something about honesty and integrity,” he says. “I love doing business on a handshake.”

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