Homefront Cabinetry in Burnsville, Minn., appears to be breaking all the rules. With five employees (including owner Josh Epple), the shop hit $1.1 million in sales during its first year of operation. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that Homefront is in a market where the amount of new construction and remodeling work has dropped dramatically in recent months.

Epple credits systems and procedures to the shop's success. "I've worked for so many disorganized companies over the years where I saw dollars rushing out the window because of a lack of systems," Epple says. "I knew when I had my own shop I'd have systems and operations in place."

Clearly, Epple's strategy is paying off. His reputation, together with the efficiency of his shop, has captured a good piece of the remaining new home and remodeling work in the Twin Cities area.

Start-up

In early 2005, after working for several different cabinet shops in and around the Minneapolis area, Epple decided he was ready to go out on his own. Two days before signing the paperwork to go into business with a particular investor, a friend put Epple in touch with Mike McDevitt, owner of McDevitt Homes, who was looking to invest in a cabinet shop. Epple met with McDevitt and the two decided it was a match.

McDevitt and Epple set up a business plan that included eight employees and a projected amount of gross sales per month. The plan called for a certain percentage of the monthly gross sales to be generated by McDevitt Homes with remaining sales coming from other builders.

Homefront Cabinetry opened its doors on June 1, 2005, with three employees, including Epple. For the month of June, the shop's two employees did trim work for some start-up cash while Epple began preparing the building that would become the shop tearing up carpet, tile and planning for machinery. Shop walls were built, and ductwork was installed during July and half of August. At the end of August the shop completed its first cabinet job without automated tools and machinery, which were only beginning to arrive. By September the shop was in full swing.

Homefront builds what is considered the industry standard for cabinets around the Twin Cities. Cabinets are mostly face frame with a white melamine interior, particleboard or MDF core with all veneer finished out. "The standard here has been white melamine interiors forever," Epple says. "That's all you get from any custom shop here. It's the only material we buy by the unit instead of per job."

The downturn

When Epple and McDevitt originally met to discuss opening Homefront Cabinetry, the market in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was going strong. Then, after the two created their business plan and capital expenditures were made, the market dramatically changed.

"The spending just stopped," Epple says. "We're seeing it even in the remodel industry. We figured if new construction was going to be down, then remodeling would be up. But we are seeing it all across the board in this area."

Epple and McDevitt revamped their business plan, dropping the number of employees and adjusting monthly gross sales. Epple says the adjustment has had unexpected benefits. "It's actually worked out great that we don't have all the employees that we thought we were going to have," Epple says. "Now we're the perfect size to stay diversified and try to be more specialized. We're a perfect size to try new things and see how they work."

Systems

Epple is quick to talk about what he sees as the key to the shop's success. "I'm all about systems," he says. A quick glance around Homefront's shop makes that clear. The space is very open and the route of material flow is obvious. Labels, racks, shelves and color-coding symbols abound.

All jobs are put on clipboards that are hung in job order on the shop wall. Each job is color-coded to identify the builder, together with a checklist of job items. When a shop employee is done with his task and ready to start the next job, he returns the clipboard to the wall and gets the next clipboard in the line. After a job is built and goes out to be installed, the clipboard comes off the job wall and the employee fills out a service form, notes anything that may have happened on the install and adds any other notes. They also complete a quality checklist. When the job has been finalized and final tweaking has been done, the clipboard goes to Epple who files it.

The shop also uses the Baer ORSY racking system. With the ORSY system, a shop owner coordinates with his local Baer representative who helps him organize his shop supplies on a Baer-supplied rack. Once the shop determines the items it wants to have, the Baer representative labels and barcodes the rack. Then, on a regular basis the shop checks the rack and reorders any supplies that are running low. "The system ties up some of our cash flow, but it's absolutely worth it," Epple says. He adds that most shops really don't realize how much time and money is lost by not having adequate supplies on hand.

Epples' penchant for organization and systems were actually a deal-clincher for Mike McDevitt during his and Epples' first meeting. "It was those qualities of Josh's that caused me to feel both comfortable and excited about him running the cabinet shop," McDevitt says.

Shop flow, solid woods

Jobs start with Epple in the office, where drawings are generated and then sent out to the shop floor. Solid wood starts on one side of the shop. Homefront keeps a small inventory, ordering only what it needs. It outsources its doors and drawer fronts through a company called Fleetwoods. "Having a relationship with Fleetwoods has been like having our own door department," Epple says. Solid woods are for face frames, mantles and certain accessories. All solid wood goes to a Delta Unisaw with a power feed to be cut into facing material. It then goes through a planer. If it is not going to be immediately worked with, it goes into the facing rack, where it is separated by wood species and by job, if necessary.

Eventually face-frame material is cut to size, and pocket holes are drilled. Next it goes to a face-frame assembly rack and then through a Safety Speed Cut widebelt sander. Ultimately the frames end up in a color-coded face-frame rack.

At the end of the shop there are two assembly benches flanking a "community bench." The community bench has all the drawer slides, sockets, jigs, hinge plates, false front blocks and anything that is a "community" need. Most of the time one person does assembly, and there is one full-time assembly person. A second assembler is used about one-and-a-half days a week, Epple says. Assembly benches are identical so any assembler can walk up to either bench and start work. Tools are all number keyed to a specific bench, so at a glance an employee can see where a particular tool belongs.

Shop flow, sheet goods

Sheet goods are located across the shop from solid woods. Sheet goods first go to an Omnitech CNC nested-based router with a vacuum lift. Sheet goods are loaded in the front, and are pulled off the back and labeled. Shelves are separated out and taken first to a Holz-Her edgebander and then placed on carts for labeling and wrapping. The carts are then moved to one of the assembly benches.

Staging takes place in the center of the shop. Projects are coordinated so that as cabinets get to the staging area, doors and drawer fronts are arriving to be installed in them. From the staging area, completed cabinets go out through a back door for delivery.

The shop has a two-step installation process. Since the shop does not do any finishing, it installs the cabinets but holds the shelving and accessories. After the finishing is done, shop employees go back and put in shelves, adjust doors and finish out the cabinets.

In one corner of the shop is the specialty bench. It works as an overflow assembly bench if it is needed. The specialty area is used for building mantle surrounds and non-traditional cabinets.

On the horizon

While Homefront is focused on residential cabinetry, Epple hasn't ruled out potentially getting into commercial work, though he notes that he would want to do a good deal of research before making a commitment to that market. With that in mind, Epple has toyed with the idea of building garage cabinets, which are coming more into demand in the area. "People finishing their garages want a nice laminate cabinet with all 3 mil edgebanding and full overlay doors that are easy to clean," Epple says. "It'd be easy for me to throw some of that at the guys so they'd start to see more laminate store-fixture type material. Closet systems are another possibility. But both of those things require a lot of marketing, and right now my main focus is to have a well-oiled machine here in the shop. We're not there yet, but we're close."

Epple adds that they are set up to do both frameless and face-frame cabinets, unlike most other area shops. Homefront uses both the face-frame and Euro versions of Cabnetware software, and Epple hopes to be able to expand into the frameless market as more consumers start learning about frameless cabinetry and begin asking for it.

Epple admits that while they have had it "pretty good" for a while, he realizes the time is going to come soon when he'll need to take a more active role in marketing the shop. But he feels they're ready. "With a Web site, a marketing plan and an operations coordinator all in place," he says, "we're ready to grow a little bit."

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