What if you could condense nearly 20 years of professional woodworking wisdom into 12 business rules, rules that can drive a business as well today as they did decades ago? That's a good way to look at Branch Woodworking in San Antonio, Texas, and its owner Walter Dromgoole.

He came to the business with 17 years of experience already under his belt, but when he started Branch in 1987, it still wasn't easy. Dromgoole took his experience as a journeyman woodworker, purchasing agent and production manager and has steered his business through good times and bad.

"It's been a roller coaster ever since, with ups and downs," he says. "Back then I would jump through hoops for you. Now I sit back and don't jump through hoops anymore."

Dromgoole didn't build a giant business with massive profits, but he's proud of the modest living he makes for himself and his three employees. Recently Dromgoole shared his experience, insights and advice with CabinetMaker readers in the form of a dozen steps to a steady small business.

1. Be determined.

When Dromgoole started his shop, he went to the Small Business Administration for help. "They try to discourage you, but I was determined," he says. The people he talked to presented him with the statistics of failure telling him that the first five years are critical.

"You have to be determined that you're going to be successful and don't give up. You can knock on 10 doors and nine will shut in your face, but that one that does open is your opportunity. Make the most of it."

2. Keep it honest.

Honesty and integrity are not just words to Dromgoole. When he started working at Prassels Woodworking in 1971, business was conducted on a handshake and a man's word was something you could count on. So he has built his business on these principles.

Dromgoole, for example, will not shop another vendor's prices. Vendors try to compete with other vendors' prices and they've learned that Dromgoole just doesn't work that way.

"There's no honor anymore," says Dromgoole. Contractors or builders will shop another person's bid and ask Dromgoole if he can do the job for less. He generally stays away from those jobs.

3. Charge a fair price.

In the beginning Dromgoole was taking any job. "I've got to a point where I can turn down jobs that don't pay well or pay too slowly," says Dromgoole. "I'm a cabinetmaker, and I need to be paid. I don't do cheap. I have to make a living."

Dromgoole has also learned to walk away from a bid. If somebody comes back and tells him he's high and he knows he's right on target for his costs and profit, he'll walk away. "It's not being cocky. People have to realize that you have a certain percentage that you need to make."

4. Stick to your word.

"If you're going to tell someone you're going to be there, keep your word," says Dromgoole. It will help your business if people know they can rely on what you tell them.

"We did some work through a general contractor and about a year later they called us back and wanted to know if we'd be willing to build them some cabinetry in Austin. They said they wanted us because of our dependability."

5. Pay your bills on time.

Dromgoole says that one of the most important things he learned before he started his business was to pay his bills on time. If you're going to be late, don't be afraid to call your vendors and tell them you might be a bit late. "They appreciate that. I had to do that in the early stages," he says. Now he uses paying his vendors on time as a negotiating tool.

6. Pay your employees a decent wage.

"The best way to compensate a man is in his pocketbook, so you pay a man a decent salary," says Dromgoole. "I've had a lot of my workers for a long time. I don't have to worry Monday morning about people showing up for work."

He says that his workers are dedicated and he shows his appreciation for their abilities in small ways, besides compensating them as much as he possibly can. If they need to take off for something, he's flexible. He keeps a refrigerator full of soft drinks and juice. He often provides snacks and fresh fruit for his employees.

But most important is that he involves them in the planning process for projects. "When we get a project, we all look at it. In my mind I know what I think should be done, but I get input and often get good ideas," he says. "And I let them know that."

7. Concentrate on your own business.

Branch Woodworking sticks with the work it does best, says Dromgoole. He says you can't worry about your competition because you really have no control over it. Just focus on your shop.

8. Trust your instincts.

"Whenever a new customer approaches me, I rely on gut feeling and my knowledge of the business," says Dromgoole. "I have no problem telling someone no." It's important to be selective of the people you do business with, he says.

9. Take a risk.

"Be willing to take a risk," says Dromgoole. It goes hand-in-hand with going with your gut feeling. You really need to step outside of your comfort zone sometimes and take a chance on taking a bigger job or doing something a little different, he says. "I've taken so many in my life."

10. Listen.

Take the time to listen to potential customers, to vendors, to your employees. In the early days of the shop Dromgoole received a call from a woman from a real estate school inquiring about cabinetry for a new office setup. He spent time listening and talking to her, even though the job was a small one.

"She told me that she gave me the job because I took the time to listen to her and find out what she needed," says Dromgoole. Today, this woman is running a large successful business where she teaches people real estate and she is still ordering cabinetry from Branch Woodworking.

11. Be versatile.

"Don't do just one thing," says Dromgoole. His shop does custom things that other shops in the area may not know how to do or don't want to do. And he's found that mixing the types of jobs he does has been important to his success.

"I'd rather have a bunch of $3,000 to $7,000 jobs than a $50,000 job, because I can turn them around quickly," says Dromgoole. "The $50,000 job takes more time and ties up my money longer." The smaller jobs are great for keeping cash flow strong. "If you don't have good cash flow, you've got problems," he says.

12. Learn from your mistakes.

"I guarantee you're going to have a few bad jobs, but you learn from the bad ones," says Dromgoole. So the trick is to learn from the mistakes and avoid repeating them.

In the beginning of his business, Dromgoole made drawings with every bid and it took a lot of time. He didn't always get the job, but they had his drawings.

"I wouldn't like to think that customer took the detail and approached someone else," he says. "Now I'll bid a job, make a trip, a rough takeoff and figure it out. I don't give drawings until I'm awarded the job.

"I've accomplished what I set out to do. I've got everything I need," says Dromgoole. "I started the business from scratch. I'm debt-free. All my machines in the shop are paid for, my property is paid for."

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