Customer's tastes have dramatically changed since Park Ridge Cabinet Shop opened its doors in 1939 in the Chicago suburbs. Park Ridge owner Tim Saewert has responded, flawlessly adapting his old world skills to profit from increaseingly design-savvy clients.

"Customers are requesting more intricate designs," says Saewert.

When he started out, his main business was kitchen remodels. "Kitchens were plainer and simpler and most of them were finished on the job," says Saewert. "Cabinets are now more furniture-like and intricate, and kitchens are much larger."

Big box stores and kitchen boutique showrooms gobbled up his kitchen remodel business. "The last kitchen I remodeled was three years ago," says Saewert. "Customers now ask for additional kitchen cabinets or storage to match existing décor instead of a complete remodel."

One of his recent commissions was a reproduction of a French chateau door for a wine cellar. "The door was curved and the homeowner wanted it to have an authentic distressed look," says Saewert.

Shifting revenue streams

Besides made-to-order cabinetry, Saewert takes on a variety of jobs that fit his skill set. Recent jobs include replicating wood shutters for a historic home, custom fireplace mantels, church furniture and reproducing built-in pieces.

However, Saewert's main revenue stream comes from designing and building custom entertainment centers. "The TV is now the center of home but homeowners don't always want it visible," says Saewert. "Most of my customers can't find something ready made with all the options they want. This trend opened up an industry for all cabinetmakers."

He doesn't view mass-produced imported pieces as a threat to his business, but as more of a nuisance. "People see bookcases at IKEA and think my quote should be similar," says Saewert. "Sometimes customers are shocked at what a custom piece costs compared to mass-produced pieces.

"I don't include much wiggle room in my quotes," says Saewert. "If I can't agree with a customer on a fair price then I don't do the work."

Competitive advantages

Saewert pairs old-school customer service with solid business principles to gain repeat clients and priceless word-of-mouth advertising.

He recently completed an antique replica entrance counter and bookcase for a Park Ridge entrepreneur opening a bakery. "We worked together on a quote until we could agree on a price. I knew current and future clients would walk through her door and see my work; it's the best advertisement you can get," says Saewert. "The owner is very happy with the work and she talks me up."

Saewert makes a point of getting to know all of his customers on a first-name basis. "I want to see my customers a year from now with a smile on their face," he says. "If for some reason something isn't right, I work with them until it is."

His meticulous customer service and loyal clients have created backlogs as long as five months. Currently, Saewert is working with a 2 ½-month backlog, which he believes is a competitive advantage.

"If a job comes in and I'm working on it two days later, I haven't had time to think about it," says Saewert. "Because business is steady, I have time to think about my more difficult projects and how to tackle them."

A moderate backlog also allows customers to tweak projects. "A month or two after something is ordered customers may want to make minor changes," says Saewert. "The changes usually are no problem and even if I'm part way into something I'll try to accommodate them."

Even though Saewert is a one-man operation and likes making everything himself, he values strategic partnerships. When he's backlogged or a customer requests an intricate door design, such as a mullion cabinet door, Saewert outsources the doors.

"Purchasing the right equipment would be a huge capital expenditure, and I don't have enough of that type of work to justify it," says Saewert. "Because my jobs are so varied, it makes sense to outsource these types of projects."

Merging old, new ways

While Saewert's skill set is cutting-edge, you won't find a computer or even a fax machine in his shop. To keep track of current and future jobs, he uses a series of clipboards and all paperwork is stacked in orderly piles, much like the way his father and grandfather ran things.

When he visits a prospective client he sketches out what they want or adapts a design from a picture. "I find computer drawings impersonal and lacking character," says Saewert. "I've found most clients get lost in detailed drawings. I keep the process as simple as possible."

However, he stresses good communication is key. "I spell out all the details in my proposal," says Saewert. A quote has to cover the rising costs of doing business: rent, taxes and the ever increasing costs of raw materials, such as cherry, which has gone up drastically, he comments.

After the quote is signed, he requires one-third down. He gets the second third as a progress payment during the job. After the project is installed he requires the final third. "I've never had a problem with getting final payment," says Saewert. "Customers are usually so happy they have their checkbooks out."

Looking ahead

Once you get past the headaches of running a business (regulations, paperwork, rent and expenses), woodworking is the fun part, comments Saewert. "I lose myself in jobs."

While he thrives on the variety custom jobs provide, he is looking to tap into a new revenue stream designing a few ready-made furniture pieces in limited quantities.

"These pieces would be sold at a local store," says Saewert. "I would still do custom work for my good clients, but as I get older it would be nice to have a revenue source on my time frame."

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