Always a step ahead - Fishing for clients

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Fishing for clients
Cunningham strategically looks at the demographic areas of his state to find the spots where high-end homeowners might be looking for custom work. Some of the best spots have proven to be South County, East Greenwich and Watch Hill. About three-quarters of his work comes by word of mouth, but local advertising in Rhode Island Monthly magazine has paid off.

An average kitchen at RMC sells for around $25,000 to $30,000, and the average wall unit, depending on the finish, sells for $8,000 to $11,000. For the most part, clients understand price, but it's a tough part of the business.

"You can give the exact same price for the exact same wall unit to two different people. One person says great; the next person says you're crazy. There's no real way to figure it out. The number's not going to change no matter who you're talking to but people's perception will. For the most part, the clientele that I'm into, it doesn't affect them that much."

Typically, Cunningham has a two-month backlog, the minimum wait time for most of his clients. Of course, he encounters his share of those who don't want to wait, but understands that sometimes they can't. Time management can be challenging because clients always want to change something, he says.

"The time allotment you have for a project always gets extended, and the next customer may not understand it. But it's almost guaranteed the next customer's going to add something and push the other guy off."

Designs are usually a collaborative effort between Cunningham and his clients. He has tinkered with design software on his computer, but felt it limited him on certain details. Drawing by hand enables him to detail his master plans with finesse, such as working in that corner cabinet with a laundry chute.

Wall units and cabinets usually feature raised-panel face frames, and other earmarks of traditional New England-style cabinetry. Not surprisingly, Cunningham has seen the most change for wall unit dimensions for accommodating new wide-screen television sets. But the shiftiest trends are in the coloring and finishing categories. People are now gravitating toward displaying natural wood after having everything painted white for years. Darker hues are popular because they exude stronger colors and character, he says.

A taste of commercial work
This past year, Cunningham's golden word-of-mouth reputation bumped him into the commercial sector for his first time as a custom cabinetmaker. In September he completed extensive interior work for a new restaurant, Eleven Forty Nine, in Warwick, R.I.

As any woodworker who's been through it will testify, the best jobs come when you least expect them. Cunningham had completed a wall unit in a home owned by a family member of the restaurant's owner, Tim Wright. Wright then called Cunningham for an estimate on the bar and the wine cabinets in the restaurant and gave him the renovation plans that same day.

"I looked at them over the weekend and told them there is nothing there for me. It was all commercial case work, and all metal and glass. They called back three days later and had changed all the designs over to wood."