In 2007, the sales of T.B.'s Custom Woodworking, located in Chicopee, Mass., surpassed $500,000 for the first time. "I didn't expect it to get to this scale," says owner Tom Brogle, "but I'm not complaining."
Brogle took three key steps to achieve that sales level. First, he shifted business away from one-off custom pieces; second, he upgraded the shop's equipment; and third, he bought an enclosed truck.
When he first started in 1994, after unemployment steered him toward starting his own cabinetmaking business, he had only the signs on his pickup truck as advertising. With a table saw, joiner and hand tools, he set up shop in a 200-square-foot space in the basement of a former brewery.
More space, employees
Over time he added space and employees, and narrowed the scope of his product. Today, 14 years later, eight employees produce commercial casework and store fixtures, in 10,000 square feet of space, for retail chains and Mom and Pop operations throughout the United States.
To achieve stronger sales, he shifted business away from one-off custom pieces and toward customized products that become repeat production items. "For me to charge what I should charge for any custom item, I would not be able to sell it," he says.
Too many variables
"Getting out of custom was a step in the right direction because there were just too many variables for us," he says. "Customers are happy with those pieces, but are we going to get repeat business with the same item? Probably not."
Customized design work often leads to additional business. "If a grocery store chain or a candle manufacturer comes to me and says, 'I need a fixture to look like this,' that's custom to a point, but it usually turns into a production item," Brogle says.
Second, he upgraded the shop's equipment to include a Flexicam CNC router with five foot by 10 foot table, Cehisa System 4S edgebander and Fravol contour edgebander and contour trimmer. "The CNC we've had for about two years," he says. "Prior to that we did everything with routers and shapers."
Brogle says he's not "a computer guy," but he gradually learned to understand and use the CNC's EnRoute CAD/CAM software. "It took me about six months to get very comfortable with the software," he says. "I slowly got it. Now you can't pry that machine out of my dead hands.
"I'll sit here, I'll enter all my parts in," he says. "I'll enter all the pertinent information, all the tool paths. I'll save it, then I'll send it to the machine. I'll go out to the machine, bring up whatever program I happen to be running, and cut the parts."
Brogle says the CNC has doubled, if not tripled, the shop's production.
Third, the company bought an enclosed delivery truck. "Prior to that, we had the trailer and my pickup," Brogle says. The truck enabled the shop to ramp up its service, especially for delivery and installations. "We deliver our own product and we don't charge extra for delivery," he says "We do some installations. Pretty basic, pretty straightforward. We don't want to get too fancy."
The shop uses whatever materials are necessary, from solid wood to veneer-core plywood. In most cases, it completes the entire process, from design, prototyping and finishing to assembly, delivery and installation.
"I love a good challenge," Brogle says. "If somebody comes to me and says, We've been to three shops and they say they can't make it,' I'll say, I'll make it for you.' If it can't be done, then I'll come right out and say it can't be done. If somebody comes to me with a challenge, that's when I put my best foot forward."
The shop outsources only upholstery work for coffee-shop booths. "We like to keep everything in-house because we have much better control over it," Brogle says. "If there's a mistake, it's our mistake. We've got to fix it." Delivery is two to four weeks for stock items; twice that for new products.
Employees make difference
Brogle says his business may not be that different from other shops, except for the caliber of his employees. "I'm not saying we're the best, but I've got a really good crew," he says. "They've been here awhile. If I'm stuck, they help me out.
"There are other shops in the area that have much better equipment than we do, and they have a lot more money than we do," he says. "But money isn't everything. You've got to have good people behind you to make that work, and that's what I've got."
Losing his job 14 years ago turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I'm happy with what I do," he says. "We're all here to do a job, and we get along with each other and have a good time. We're just like family.
"You've got to be able to like to get up and come to work," Brogle adds. "If you don't like coming to work, then you're in the wrong job."
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