Dropping out of college 21 years ago may have been the best business decision that Kirk Ostash has ever made. That is when, in 1993, his parents bought a nine-year-old closet systems and accessories company called Closet Masters in Scottsdale, AZ, 20 miles east of Phoenix. The young Ostash decided to help out in the new family business on a full-time basis in the surrounding Phoenix area, known as “The Valley of the Sun” in the arid Arizona desert.

Their timing was impeccable: The population of the Phoenix metropolitan area increased by 45.3% from 1990 through 2000, compared to the average United States rate of 13.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Arizona was the second fastest growing state in the nation in the 1990s, behind Nevada. Thanks in part to increased business from that explosive growth, Closet Masters installed its first CNC router, an SCM Arthur 600, in 2005. Prior to that, the firm used five or six machines for cutting purposes, Kirk Ostash recalls. “The mill would cut [materials] to size for our table saw,” he says.

Having weathered the recent U.S. economic recession, the firm upgraded its routing technology in November 2013 by adding a versatile Pratix N12/N15 flat-table model, bought through a local SCM Group dealer. As the economy continues to rebound, Closet Masters works directly with designers and homeowners who have remodeling budgeted for 2014. The firm also maintains relationships with custom builders, who are beginning to do more work as home prices come down and as the market for new construction continues to recover. (Only about 13,000 new homes were built in the Phoenix area in 2013, reports housing economist/analyst Greg Burger, co-owner and COO of RL Brown Reports. That number is down more than 50% when compared to non-recession years.)

Kirk now is general manager of the 10-employee firm, whose staff includes designers and salespeople. Annual sales last year reached approximately $2 million (USD). His brother, [INSERT NAME], basically runs the shop, while Kirk oversees all projects produced on the company’s Cabinet Vision computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software program, which interacts directly with the new CNC router to streamline production . “We don’t do face-frame work,” he notes. “We run all frameless,” European-style cabinetry.

Less labor, fewer errors

Using layman’s terms -- “It’s like a big robot saw with the precision of computer control”-- the Closet Masters’ website describes the technology to customers and prospects. “The software allows us to view a virtual, 3D world of your closet before the first board is cut.” Aside from inserting and literally pounding in plastic cam-lock fasteners and refixes used for joinery and then physically stacking the cabinets on carts, very little manual work is required these days, according to Kirk.

He and his father, Ron, Closet Masters’ owner/president, say they have seen it all in two decades of designing closets -- from the early days of painted particle board to the birth of wire ventilated shelving and the emergence of melamine closet organizers. “The contemporary modern look is coming back,” the younger Ostash observes. “It’s all about sleek lines and smooth, flat surfaces.” Traditional Tuscan-style looks still are very popular in Arizona, he adds, “featuring fancy wood mouldings and trim.”

While styles and materials change and technology automates processes, the firm has not lost sight of its family origins and personal, human touch. When someone calls, chances are that VP and secretary Margie (Margaret) Ostash will answer the telephone and politely take a message. Margie is Ron’s wife and Kirk’s mother.

The most valuable benefit of the highly automated router technology, as the GM sees it, is the reduction of human error. “We have better quality and fewer re-do’s,” Kirk explains. Decreased labor is a byproduct as well: Tasks that once required three workers now can be performed by a single operator on the Pratix router. “That in itself makes the machine pay for itself,” he adds.

Its high level of production and efficiency mean something else for Closet Masters: relief. “We did not have to move,” Ostash says, which was seriously being considered and would have been stressful during recent lean, austere times. Closet Masters still uses a panel saw and an edge bander, of course, but getting rid of five legacy cutting devices freed up needed floor space, enabling the firm to spread out within its existing shop.

RTF doors as standard

When it comes to cutting on the new router, Closet Masters’ material of choice is ¾-inch, two sided thermally fused melamine. “We order a lot of 4x8 [foot] sheets,” Kirk Ostash reports, “and the Pratix N has the capability to do 5x12. But we don’t do many 10-foot-tall cabinets,” he says, adding that those larger sheets are a special order. Available in dozens of colors with matching edge-banding tapes, melamine coated particleboard is ideally suited for the frameless, Euro cabinet style. The firm also uses quite a bit of stain-grade wood veneer as well for cabinet boxes.

While real wood always is a job specification option, most doors and moldings typically are constructed from rigid thermo-foil (RTF). Closet Masters was one of the first closet companies in Arizona to offer RTF as a standard. The melamine doors are slab style with a banded edge for a more modern, contemporary look. “Just like our cabinets, these are produced in our own workshop with our CNC computerized router,” Ostash explains, “helping us to achieve a very low cost, while delivering very high quality.” PVC edge banding either can be the standard square style or, as an upgrade, can have a slight radius edge using a 2mm PVC edge banding (as not all wood grain colors are available in 2 or 3 mm edge). Customers can upgrade to a routed door or drawer front (raised panel look), if they wish. This product is offered in standard solid colors but is not available in wood grain. For a painted look, raw medium-density fiberboard (MDF) also is available.

Drawer boxes are made with dove-tail joints from 9-ply Baltic birch, although customers can choose a white, almond or black melamine box at no extra charge. (Closet Masters also was the first closet company in Arizona to make the dove-tail drawer box a standard feature.) The dovetail drawer the strongest box construction available while offering the beauty of interlocking joints, the firm maintains. The durability of the corner construction makes dovetail boxes the top choice for all of its custom cabinetry. Upgrades to solid maple, cherry, walnut or aromatic cedar wood drawers, manufactured by a door supplier, also are options.

While some 90% of the work Closet Masters does is closet-related, the firm also dabbles in kitchens and bathrooms, home offices and, yes, even garages. All of its doors use “soft close” hinges, even for garage cabinets, points out Kirk Ostash, which are finished inside and out. Notably, these are installed using a wall-hung system so that water cannot damage the bottom of the cabinets.

While cutting real wood drawers on its new Pratix CNC router is not feasible for Closet Masters, its GM does foresee the firm bringing dovetail drawer box production in house, once they figure out the logistics. “Doing 20 to 50 boxes for a job will be time-consuming,” he notes.

Next generation

Since the Ostash family acquired Closet Masters in the early 1990s, the Phoenix area consistently has ranked as one of the fastest growing economies of all metro areas in the United States. Before the “Great Recession” hit, the value of goods and services produced there had reached more than $187 billion in 2008, which is larger than the output of many countries, according statistical information gleaned by marketing firm Growth Nation.

With a population of 1.6 million people in the city of Phoenix, more than 4 million people live in the surrounding suburbs. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2030 the population of Phoenix will grow to 2.2 million and that the population of the metro area will reach 6.3 million. That growth bodes well for patriarch and matriarch Ron and Margie Ostash’s four young grandchildren, some of whom may want to continue the family’s woodworking heritage.

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