What's the toughest project you've worked on? An interview with 40 Under 40's Nate Cohen
October 18, 2019 | 11:08 am CDT
Recently named CFO for Cohen Architectural Woodworking, Nate Cohen oversees the finances of the Saint James, Missouri-based 80-person, $11 million custom millwork components and casework firm. He's also a 2019 Wood Industry 40 Under 40 honoree.
Nate started young, performing various roles for the family-owned Cohen for 24 years - from sweeping the shop floor at age 5 to serving in engineering and in his eventual role of senior project manager. A skilled woodworker, Nate has built chess tables for the U.S. Chess Club in St. Louis and the St. Louis Cardinals players’ clubhouse. He also has helped develop precision tracking tools for the company.
We reached out to Nate and asked him if there was a project/job that challenged him and the company more than usual. 
Here's an interview sent to Woodworking Network between Cohen and Steve Turner, his PR representative - answering some of our questions.
Question: Nate, what has been your toughest or the most complicated project you have worked on?
Nate: Without a doubt it has to be the work on the Joplin schools in Joplin, Missouri after the devastating tornado that did heavy damage there in 2011. 
Cohen Architectural Woodworking was called in right after it became safe to go to the area. It was in early June. They needed custom cabinetry for two temporary schools. Fortunately we had worked before with the construction firm assigned to this project and they liked our work. 
Our big challenge was to assemble a team and work at a rapid pace to meet the Joplin Schools Superintendent’s goal of opening the schools within two months. This really seemed impossible at the time. The Superintendent desired two schools that would not be just functional but truly exceptional.
The restored and renewed Joplin 11th and 12th Grade Center. Images by DLR Group and Corner Greer and Associates, Alistair Tutton Photography.
Question: What was your approach to this massive undertaking?
Nate: We realized the importance of the project, what it meant for the city, the educators, the parents and the students. So our team quickly made the three hour trip to Joplin. We met with architects and construction personnel. 
First we gained a complete understanding of the project needs, and then sketched out a floor plan. The team realized the project would demand more than just straight casework.  Given little time, we were asked to submit a plan and proposal by 9am the next day. 
Securing hotel space and working all night, we made our presentation the next day to some 15 members of the construction team. Installation would need to begin in just five weeks. Then on the next day, Friday, we got the greenlight to move forward. 
Question: Once you got the approval what processes did you put into place?
Nate: The Cohen team re-engaged in Cohen’s offices back in St. James on Saturday at 8am. By Monday morning we had submitted some 60 pages of shop drawings, all expertly and professionally done in great detail. Our team then notified suppliers and made things happen quickly. 
By July 18 all product was on the jobsite and the install teams were ready to roll. The crazy part of this was that the project was moving so fast the architects didn’t have the time to get the design completed before beginning construction. They were running updates sometimes every day with design changes. We had to be flexible and make adjustments quickly. Fortunately both schools were finished on time and on budget. All members of the construction crew, architects, trades and the entire Cohen team worked seamlessly together to make what seemed an impossibility a true reality for the students of Joplin.  
Question: So thinking about it now, how were you able to get this done in such a short amount of time?
Nate: We use a standardization approach at Cohen, one where we can solve design problems ahead of time so millwork and custom cabinetry can work across multiple facilities. Clients don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. This background and 30 plus years of experience in millwork and custom commercial cabinetry, really enabled our team to move quickly and gain a solid grasp of the needs of the project.  
The team was able to properly select the right products for the school, design exceptional cabinetry with proper installation, and work at a rapid pace with suppliers, architects, the construction team and stakeholders. It took great effort and teamwork by our staff, and ended up with a truly outstanding result.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user rdalheim
About the author
Robert Dalheim

Robert Dalheim is an editor at the Woodworking Network. Along with publishing online news articles, he writes feature stories for the FDMC print publication. He can be reached at robert.dalheim@woodworkingnetwork.com.