Corporate guy in a cabinet shop

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Unlike many cabinetmakers, Tom Westra didn't start his woodworking business in a two-car garage. In fact, the owner of Vermont Custom Cabinetry knew little about the profession until he purchased the Westminster, Vt., shop about two years ago.

Westra, you see, is a businessman. He has bounced from one manufacturing job to another for the better part of 26 years, trying to right wrongs and set things back on track.

"The story is I'm a bit of a corporate refugee; I have no background in cabinetry," Westra said. "I've always been in business — primarily on the financial end of the business, but always for larger manufacturing companies.

"As is the case with a lot of large companies, you're always taking divisions and putting them together to make bigger divisions, and you always have a layer that you're looking to shed. It finally became my turn in the box so I decided to find something else to do."

It's manufacturing
With his business background in manufacturing and the assistance of a business broker, Westra looked for the perfect fit for a purchase. Vermont Custom Cabinetry was one possibility but it had a few problems, such as no orders on the books.

"I said, 'I don't know anything about cabinetry, but let's go take a look at it,'" he recalled. "We walked through and said, 'Well, this is manufacturing, but instead of working with metal or plastic, you're working with wood; and instead of working with engineers, you're working with cabinetmakers.' In some ways I feel like I've traded up, actually. We came to an agreement and took a shot at it."

The previous owner was the founder and had let the business run down, according to Westra, who immediately made some organizational changes. But the purchase included total access to the previous owner's customers, who started placing orders almost as soon as Westra took over.

"We sell to a network of dealers throughout New England primarily, and the customers are very committed to the product," said Westra. "But the first thing they said to us is that we have to help them out with the marketing. We didn't have any literature, our [product] selection was limited, and we didn't have a logo or Web site, and didn't do any advertising. In the first year, those were all the things we worked to put in place."

Expanding its market
Vermont Custom Cabinetry sells to the residential market, focusing on both the new-construction and remodeling sectors. It builds cabinets for any room in a house — kitchens, libraries, closets, mud rooms and laundry rooms, and the occasional entertainment center. But kitchens constitute the biggest part of the shop's business. If the shop can produce a kitchen and a half per week, Westra is a very happy owner.

"There are a wide range of customers out there, from those do-it-yourselfers who will buy cabinets at the Home Depot and install it themselves, to the high-end customers who will simply write us a check after we've built and installed their custom cabinets," said Westra. "We're trying to take the high end of that market. If you're shopping on price, then we're probably not the line. We'll be competitive with the other top lines, but we're not going to try and compete with a semi-custom line.