High-end work on the high seas

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Steve Greenwood caters to a high-end and demanding clientele. As the owner of Yorkshire Woodwork in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Greenwood designs and builds furniture and cabinetry for the yachts of the rich and sometimes famous. But it’s a tough market to crack, requiring industry connections, the ability to meet some crazy deadlines, and the skills of seasoned woodworkers.


“There’s nothing square on a boat. Everything has to be custom built to fit,” says Greenwood. “For a regular house, you can build a square cabinet on a bench, then go to the house and fit it, presumably, if the walls are square. But there are all kinds of different challenges on boats where cabinetry looks like a square cabinet, but you open the door and there’s some part of the hull sticking through, or something else.”

STEVE GREENWOOD

Owner of: Yorkshire Woodwork Inc.
Location: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Years in business: 14
Shop size: 3,000-sq.-ft.
Employees: Four
Specialty: High-end custom yacht interiors
Business advice: “Take baby steps. Everything revolves around quality. The clientele we deal with will accept nothing less than the best, so to keep things in perspective, we know to not take on too much work.”

Time is of the essence in this line of work; jobs are often scheduled so that the yachts can set out on a voyage within hours after an installation is completed. Greenwood says the only time he and his crew might see the work again is in a magazine featuring the vessel, or the following season when the yacht is returned for additional work.

Everything is unique
The best part about custom work for boats is no two jobs are ever alike, according to Greenwood.

“Some of the products we often make are interior and exterior dining and cocktail tables, automated media cabinetry, china buffets with custom stowages, bathroom vanities, built-in bedroom furniture, cabinets and closets, as well as wheelhouse consoles and dashboards. Generally, anything on a vessel that is made of wood.”

While it’s not unusual for yacht owners to supply plans from their professional designers, more often than not Greenwood is called upon to create pieces that blend seamlessly with existing interior features.

“This can be quite a task when the vessel was built anywhere around the world or has been around for awhile. To match existing veneer or wood species can be challenging due to changes in environmental laws or even the extinction of the species.”

And here’s a consideration most land-locked woodworkers don’t have to account for: the rolling seas. “Everything has to be locked in place,” he says. “And that includes everything within a cabinet. If we’re building a cabinet for stowage of cutlery and fine china, we’ll have to make compartments and spray a quick dry fiber for cushioning. We can’t let that gold fork and knife, which can be worth up to $200 apiece, rub together.”

Apprentice to entrepreneur
Greenwood, 41, was born in the rural northern England village of Austwick, North Yorkshire. He was raised on stories about his grandfather, who worked on the wooden portions of the “Lancaster Bombers,” the British aircraft bombers used in World War II, and started a cabinetmaking apprenticeship with the City and Guilds of London Institute when he was 16.


Greenwood originally set out to explore the world after his apprenticeship was complete and hoped to end his journey in Australia. But he never got past Fort Lauderdale after meeting his wife, Lara. He initially found work in construction, building concrete forms. But his “big break” occurred working on a 150' sloop, Zeus.

“Zeus was like doing another apprenticeship,” says Greenwood. “I worked under shipwright John Angermeyer and, while the medium (wood) was familiar, the woodworking had to be far more precise.” The two-year project employed a large number of tradesmen, and Greenwood started cold-molding the exterior, the process of laminating wood to make the hull of the boat. He then joined a crew building cabinets for the interior.

Greenwood left the Zeus build with a solid reputation. He went on to work for several area cabinet shops and private clients, basically as an independent contractor from the back of his Chevrolet Astro van, until he rented a small shop to start Yorkshire Woodwork in 1994. At the time, it was an easy decision to pursue marine work over residential work. “There was no comparison, either creatively or financially,” he says.

But it wouldn’t have been possible without having proved his skills.

“The marine industry in Fort Lauderdale is small, so your reputation is key. In 1998, we moved to a larger shop, and then moved to our current location. This shop gave us the space to obtain the equipment needed to complete large-scale jobs more efficiently. Our first employee came along as part of this transition.”

High-profile clients
During the last 14 years, Yorkshire has completed approximately 200 projects. Roughly 80 percent of its work is repeat business.

Greenwood’s primary role is to manage the business. He frequently travels to meet with prospective clients, discuss pricing and bid jobs. His clients are from Russia, Spain, Mexico and most of the ports in between. But he hasn’t completely left the shop. Some of his clients demand he personally build the designs they sign off on.

“With many of our older clients, when they call, they want me to do the work. In some cases it would be difficult to get a job if I didn’t agree. I have to be sensitive to their needs. They pay top dollar for the work that we do, and I want to give them the best service I can.”

All of the fabrication is done in the shop. The installs are done in the boatyards, mostly around Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Miami. Some boats are so massive they have to remain in a deepwater marina.

The schedule is a bit loose in the summer, but extremely busy for most the year. During the late summer months, the work comes flowing in as vessel owners and their captains prepare to sail their yachts south in warmer waters.

“In the busy seasons, we get all kinds of calls and unfortunately for a new client, regardless of the size of their boat, if we’re too busy, I’ll try to help them find someone else.”

Business is very good now and has been for a long time. Greenwood says he doesn’t have to worry about the economy affecting his woodworking business because his clients are extremely wealthy individuals. In general, Greenwood is not permitted to discuss his clients, many of whom are either celebrities or politicians, or are so wealthy that their privacy needs to be protected.

The exception is Merv Griffin, the late game show creator (Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune) and television host, who commissioned Yorkshire in 2006 to begin a six-month renovation of his 142' yacht, The Griff. The yacht was designed by Frank Mulder and built in Marinteknik Shipyard in Sweden. Yorkshire’s task was to precisely match exotic woods, special finishes and fixtures, and create a stateroom suite with a disappearing widescreen plasma theatre.


“I met with [Griffin] and his captain in Los Angeles,” says Greenwood. “The [stateroom] was originally a media room. We took everything away on the main level because he was getting older. We ended up with a master stateroom, new bathroom and closet. It was the first time I’d worked for Mr. Griffin, and it only came about based on the captain’s recommendation.”

Occasionally, Greenwood will place an advertisement in a boating magazine. Otherwise, all of his other marketing efforts are devoted to Yorkshire’s Web site, www.yorkshirewoodwork.com, which features some of the company’s best work.

Making the deadline
The critical component of landing a job is the ability to complete it as scheduled, says Greenwood. A yacht that is not used as a private vessel is most always used as a charter, commanding as much as $350,000 a week. Therefore, it costs the owner a lot of money to have it out of service. This is what makes the interior yacht furnishing business fiercely competitive.

“If I can’t get it done, someone else will do it. But we are fortunate enough to be regarded as one of the best shops in town.”

A typical workweek is not something employees can count on. Greenwood referred to a job he completed in fall 2007 on the M/Y Polar Star, a Russian yacht. He and his crew worked on the project seven days a week — 60 hours straight at one point — over two months to meet deadline.

“Many times our installation is delayed due to holdups with other trades (A/C, plumbing and electrical). This pushes our schedule back and we lose precious time to complete our installation since the deadline does not change with the delay.

“If something is the wrong color, or if we fall behind on something, we have to work through the night because the boat might be leaving the next day. Fortunately, we’ve always managed to complete the projects on time.”

Greenwood has devised a time-saving system in which he will fly out to meet clients, measure the vessel, then start designing and building at the shop.

Yorkshire uses many types of materials and wood species, including mappa burl, Carpathian elm burl, bubinga, pear wood, and domestics such as cherry and maple. The shop doesn’t bother to keep much inventory because Greenwood first has to see what materials are used in a yacht’s interior, then purchase lumber and veneer accordingly.

“That’s why it’s so important to fly out to meet the vessel, take photographs, and start work right away. We usually try to get as much lead time as possible of the arrival of the vessel.

“Cost is secondary; the clients need the best materials. So if you start out with the best materials, your end product is the best. Weight restrictions require most of our work to be done with veneer. I would say about 70 percent is veneer.”

Projects take anywhere from two weeks to a year to complete.

The right shop
Greenwood moved to his 3,000-sq.-ft. shop, located in a cluster of two-story commercial bay warehouses, about six years ago. He has four full-time employees, including Gibby Winsor from the Isle of Wight off the coast of England; Noel Morgan from the southern Caribbean island of Bequia; Nathan Wrigley from Poole in Dorset; England; and Miguel Carcione from Argentina.

“We work as a cohesive unit to finish each project. I do not assign a specific task to any one person. All employees are capable of completing a piece from start to finish. I may design and give specific measurements, materials needed and guidance. This is essential to keep a project moving. Production cannot stop because we have to wait for someone to finish their part of a project.


“I feel we have the best group of woodworking tradesmen in our industry. These guys stick with me through the long, difficult projects riddled with design changes and roadblocks. We are a success together. Generally the mood around the shop is light-hearted, although at times things can get pretty tense as a deadline is looming. Everyone knows what is at stake. With a small business, not only do your skills have to be proficient, your personality has to fit everybody else in the shop. And one goes hand-in-hand with the other.”

When designing a new interior component, or when revamping an existing piece of furniture, Greenwood and his crew are always instructed to keep the work with the original aesthetic of the yacht interior.

“Our biggest compliment, when someone goes into the room, is they wouldn’t know what the addition was.

“The installation process for a piece can be quite daunting due to location and lack of space to maneuver on board. Some pieces have been built in our shop in Fort Lauderdale, shipped and installed as far away as the south of France. Pieces are usually too awkward for carts to transport, so it is good old-fashioned manual labor that gets a piece on the vessel and in place.”

Expansion possible
The interior boat design business is always presenting the Yorkshire crew with trends in the market, keeping it interesting and challenging. But Greenwood knows trying something new will bring in new clients. While clients in the past have always tended to prefer classic, traditional cabinetry and furniture designs, changes in the audio and video industry have presented Greenwood with the task of modifying those designs. Sometimes they even require him to consult with subcontractors who specialize in audio/video, electrical, air conditioning and plumbing.

“In the past couple of years, everyone has wanted to change their television to one of the plasma screens, and they want their plasma screens to pop up out of the cabinetry, so you need the right hardware. One client wanted a cabinet put into the end of the bed and the old television location was converted to storage.”

Greenwood has done a couple residential wall units in the past. The residential market is not something he is interested in pursuing, but he would consider working in the home of a long-standing client as a special request.

Greenwood says he’s definitely interested in expanding his business as far as getting more jobs and subsequently hiring more employees. But there is no rush.

“When I’m not at work, I’m at home. When I’m not at home, I’m at work. There’s no in-between.”