A systematic approach - Taking the plunge

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Taking the plunge
Ward worked out of his garage that first year and remained skeptical about the cabinet business. Mostly, he was hesitant to purchase the necessary machinery. But after doing a few custom jobs for friends, and becoming inundated with requests, he gave in and rented a 3,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. He went to the 2002 IWF in Atlanta to research machinery for building cabinets and came home with his first three production-type machines: a Holz-Her vertical panel saw and edgebander and a Ritter line drill.

He was immediately intrigued by the 32-mm system and started building European-style cabinets, which established his standards as a frameless cabinet shop.

"I can't imagine building a face frame cabinet. It doesn't make sense to me. When it comes to designs we pretty much build whatever the client wants, so long as it fits into our system. It has to be frameless, it has to work well with the equipment we have and the finishes we use. Otherwise, we pass."

Some clients peruse Ward's oversized work portfolio to get ideas, but usually they have a picture or idea of their own to start the process. Ward does all of the design and drafting, using AutoCad. Microvellum and Smartlister are his softwares of choice for his CNC.

"We use EuroSoft Ardis software for our panel optimization and label printing. The label printing is probably the number one revolutionary thing we ever did. You wouldn't understand unless you are trying to keep track of hundreds of parts in your shop by writing on the edge of the part with a Sharpie."

Nepotism works
Most of Ward's work comes via word of mouth, with a little help from his Web site. With a three-month backlog, he's always had more work than he can handle.

"Because of my building background and the fact that everybody in Winter Haven knows me, we had a good reputation for building custom homes, and that just follows me."

About 60 percent of A Ward Design work is done in residential mountain homes in western North Carolina, mainly in the town of Cashiers. Ward's brother, Roger, is a general contractor there who owns and operates RT Ward Builder Inc. Roger makes all the arrangements for the subcontractors, and introduces Ward to his clients. Ward either makes the 10-hour drive or flies to meet with them, taking measurements and doing preliminary drawings. The brothers build about a half-dozen homes a year. Ward's cabinetry jobs range from $60,000 and $80,000 for a whole-home package.

Ward says his brother really goes the extra mile for him by meeting with homeowners in his absence. Once a design is agreed upon, A Ward Design builds the woodwork in Winter Haven and ships it to North Carolina on a tractor-trailer.

Back home, most of Ward's jobs are at homes in Winter Haven. The more the company grows, the more work he gets in surrounding areas — throughout Polk County and south to West Palm Beach. The shop completes about 20 large jobs a year in Florida, plus another 40 commissions for bathroom vanities, kitchen islands and other smaller jobs.

An average small kitchen at A Ward Design sells for about $14,000, which doesn't exactly compare favorably with prices from a discount retailer. But Ward isn't interested in competing.