Success through familiarity - Early connections

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“We have certain standards we try to stay within, but we’ll do anything — frameless cabinets, we’ll do face frame, we’ll do flush inset doors with face frame, we’ll do anything anybody wants,” he says. “That’s been our saving grace with this downturn I think because you’ll get people with special needs and they’re willing to spend the money.”

The population of Battle Ground was a mere 3,758 in 1990, grew to 9,605 in 2000 and jumped to 16,710 in 2008. The estimated median house or condo value in 2007 was $240,619, nearly double what it was in 2000. Obviously, it’s not the same small town Coughlin grew up in, but he notes that “it’s still a real nice place.”

“Spring, summer and fall are great. Winters can get a little gray like anywhere on this side of the mountains in Washington. It’s really growing because we’re so close to Portland, we’re just an extension of Vancouver [Wash.], which is a bedroom community for Portland. A ton of people out here commute every day. It’s just real nice. The schools are good; you’re close to the mountains, close to the lakes and the beach. There are a lot of outdoor activities and great motorcycle riding. It’s really grown.”

Early connections
Like most starting out with a small cabinet shop, Coughlin began by taking on minor cabinetry jobs, which gradually led to an increased workload and more complicated projects. He wasn’t married at the time, didn’t have much overhead, so the business was manageable and even had some early growth spurts. He took part in delivery and installation during the first few years and learned some valuable lessons from some old-timers about how to make a decent cabinet and run a respectable business.

“You end up picking up a builder or two, and I was born and raised in this town, so I always knew a lot of people, and business kind of multiplies. You get more contractors, more people calling you, and you have to gear up. And, thank goodness, I don’t have to do the scheduling and that sort of thing anymore because that’s one of my weak points. I can sell the work and lay the work out, but I have a real good shop foreman who takes care of all the scheduling for me and that’s good.”

Coughlin credits much of his success to building a nicer cabinet than most of the competition. He adheres to some basics, making sure the shop mills quality wood, grain matches doors and floors, and other practices that a lot of shops have abandoned.

As the years passed, the business grew and expanded to as many as 16 employees in 2003-2004. Coughlin left the shop floor and found himself behind a desk concentrating on design layout. He ran a swing shift for a while, but realized having more employees didn’t necessarily equate to higher profits. However, it did result in spending more hours at work, which was accompanied by an increased number of hassles. He downsized the shop back to a comfortable level of eight employees and continued his design work.

“Once in a while I’ll do a little something in the shop or do an install, but I don’t really get in the shop at all. When I was young, that’s what I enjoyed. I really enjoyed working things and getting to the finished product. Now, it’s just making sure your accounts payable are dealt with, and the payroll is dealt with, and the government is dealt with. That’s the finished product now and it’s not as much fun.”

Experience
One constant problem for small shop owners is finding good employees and then maintaining them in the fold. Frankly, lousy employees are, well, simply that — lousy. They come and go and serve as little benefit in the short- or long-term. Finding good employees is difficult and, when you’re lucky enough to find one or two, they tend to leave, either for better-paying jobs or to follow the dream of opening their own shop. Coughlin Custom Cabinets has the luxury of experienced employees. Coughlin and three of his co-workers have a combined 87 years of working together.

“Dean Parker was my cutout man for more than 10 years, and he also does sales and layout, and he’s been with me 23 years,” explains Coughlin. “My shop foreman, Scott Gilcrease, came here in high school when he was 17 and he’s been here 21 years. And my sawyer, Steve Woolsey, has been here since 1995. There have been years when you go through 10 guys to find one, but sometimes it just clicks. We’re not only a shop where guys put drawer guides on or just sand a cabinet. You have to be multifaceted.”