Youth is served

youth_is_served_01_29John Willard has been building cabinets since he was 15 and his cabinetry and millwork shop in California is an up-and-comer

John Willard started in the woodworking industry at a young age and is relentlessly working his way to the top. He is the owner of Willard Woodworks, located in Norco, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles. He has been building cabinets since he was 15 and used his self-acquired skills to establish his custom woodworking business at the ripe age of 21. He may have been a bold entrepreneur, but his early clients were wary of his abilities.

"I'd knock on their door, and they'd want to see this little guy that's balding, who's got a belly, who's got nubs for fingers and leather for hands," says Willard, 40. "I still get that sometimes ... but it's getting better."

Willard has since gained volumes of experience that has reflected positively on his reputation, and he now spends less time convincing clients he's worthy. He and his three employees are busy producing custom cabinetry and millwork for clients in the Greater Los Angeles and Southern California areas, in styles that complement the Mediterranean-style homes widespread in that part of the state.

Willard now grosses an average of $500,000, which has been a steady figure for the last three years. A master at business networking, he exercises efficient marketing techniques such as investing in his Web site to show off his capabilities. And with plans for a new and larger shop down the road, he's still just getting started.

Motivated and driven

Willard grew up in Diamond Bar, Calif., and took four years of shop classes at Diamond Bar High School in order to avoid the alternate requirement of taking a foreign language. He excelled at woodworking, and even earned a cash award through the local Rotary Club because of his achievements. He put the money toward business management courses at a community college. From the time he was 15, Willard worked in a handful of small shops during his summers off from school.

John Willard

Owner of: Willard Woodworks

Location: Norco, Calif.

Shop size: 2,500 sq. ft.

Employees: 3

Annual Gross: $500,000

About: Willard Woodworks specializes in cabinetry and millwork, and has completed entire custom home projects, from the cabinetry to the countertops, coffered ceilings, wainscot wall paneling, arched cased openings and many other built-ins for plasma or flat-screen televisions, bookcases for libraries, dens and studies, as well as custom bars.

Quotable: “Bigger is not always better.”

The shop that had the biggest influence on Willard was Carl and Sons in Anaheim, Calif. It was a mom-and-pop business that had been around for a long time and served all of Southern California. He rose to the position of lead shop supervisor by the age of 18, overseeing all projects and installations. He knew he would someday run his own shop and wanted to be as prepared as he could be.

"The majority of what I learned, I learned working for myself. I was 21 when I started my own business. I was confident," says Willard. "At the time, I thought I knew a lot about what I was doing. As I look back on it about how much more I know now, I say I don't think I knew much then, but I knew enough to sustain a lower end of the kitchen cabinet market."

A one-man operation, Willard worked directly for homeowners. Requests for commissions came through solicitations and referrals.

"I found the door-to-door flyer thing didn't work very well, but I got involved with some business networking groups. I think the networking part of my business with other subcontractors and real estate agents and interior designers, has contributed to my longevity."

Willard soon hired one part-time helper to accommodate his increased workflow, which involved about one kitchen every couple months, as well as several mantles and entertainment centers in between.

"I used to do all of the interior finish, interior doors, crown and base molding; whatever I could get my hands on at the time. I wouldn't turn down any work, even if it was just a $500 job, because it would often lead to bigger jobs."

youth-is_served_28Willard admits to some rookie mistakes, especially with pricing. He was savvy enough to factor in his time and materials, plus the costs to pay for his helper and overhead, and an anticipated profit. But he didn't know where he stood against the competition.

"The hardest part of my business early on was selling somebody on me doing the work and me being such a young age. I looked a lot younger than 21. It was hard to convince people to trust me with doing their kitchen or fireplace mantle. At the time, I was already six years into it but they still didn't have the confidence in me that I needed."

Eventually, Willard discovered his most effective sales approach was to show how much knowledge he had about a particular project. So if he was going to be building a mantle, he'd bring samples, mocked-up profiles and moldings to show the client.

Reaching the next level

Willard's repertoire now includes entire custom homes, from the flooring to the cabinets and countertops, entertainment centers for large projection televisions and flat-screen TVs, bookcases for libraries, dens and studies, as well as custom bars. But it didn't happen overnight, and the company went through several fluctuations before it was well defined.

At his first shop in La Habra, Calif., Willard hired additional employees to handle the volume of orders. But quality-control issues forced him to downsize quickly.

youth_is_served_01_30"It was so important that the quality was good when I was first starting out," says Willard. "I have a real problem with anybody being unhappy about my work."

Willard acquired new contacts such as interior decorators and designers through the homeowners with whom he was working. He's maintained those relationships for years now.

"The referrals I get are really good referrals, and as long as I give them a price that's not completely off the scale, we generally get the job. Then I do my part to ensure the job is top-notch."

At 26, Willard bought a house in Diamond Bar, Calif., and moved his shop to a detached garage on the property. His reputation for quality and fair pricing began to skyrocket and that led to more lucrative jobs. He bounced back and forth from one to two employees during the next six years.

Currently, Willard serves about 50 to 60 clients per year, all within a 60-mile radius of his shop in Norco.

"Because we work in Orange County, so many of the new homes are built in the Tuscan or Mediterranean style. The woods are dark and a distressed finish is called for.

youth_is_served_03_29"You get into making a really nice cabinet, sanding it all the way down, then you mark it up with tools like chains with nuts and bolts screwed to the end. We whip the cabinetry with the tools to give it a nice beat-up look. We also make wormholes with wooden hammers with screws and nails sticking out of them."

The shop gets few calls for contemporary work. It's pretty much Tuscan or nothin'.

"The Orange County area is a real beach-influenced area because everybody is either living by the water, has a view of the ocean, or they're a maximum of 30 minutes away. So you don't get people that want lacquer finishes or a real modern style."

When quoting a job, Willard gives clients a premium price with everything included and it can be scaled back from there. He has recently been working in higher-end neighborhoods with celebrity-type residents, but has not yet made that connection with their designers or publicists. He hopes that will happen one day.

"As far as my future plans go, there are a lot of major league athletes out here that live just minutes away and I hope to be working on some of their 10,000- to 12,000-sq.-ft. homes.

A 'low-stress' shop

Willard built his current 2,500-sq.-ft. shop from the ground up. He has about $100,000 invested in tools and machinery, along with two trucks and two trailers for delivery and installs.

"I don't have a real glamorous tool list. I have tools that work well in a small shop. I'm all for buying a tool that makes your life easy."

youth_is_served_02_29The inventory includes a Robland E300 sliding table saw with dado and scoring capabilities, Laguna 16" ResawMaster bandsaw, Blum hinge boring machine, Virutex EB25 hot-air edgebander, and Lobo 18" undercut saw.

About 90 percent of the wood used at Willard Woodworks is alder, which can be finished to resemble walnut and cherry. One of Willard's specialties is finishing.

Willard incorporates Blum hardware into doors and drawers for automated openings. One of the recent trends he's noticed is the microwave drawer, where you hit a button and the drawer pops out and you drop your plate into it. He also sees clients wanting to visually show their appliances for a commercial look, whereas they used to prefer to have them concealed. But it goes back and forth.

Willard has found that three full-time employees work best when the shop is busy. "I like to get a job all the way done before starting a new one. In a small shop, things get too hectic with multiple jobs going at once. Three guys in the shop and me doing the installs works best for us.

"I run a pretty low-stress shop and I don't hold a grudge when mistakes are made. I find it's best to just move on and keep things positive so that the morale doesn't suffer."

Hoping to expand

Willard admits that the impact of the recession caught him off guard. "I didn't think it was going to go in the direction it was going to go so quickly. Early 2008 started a little slow, but we really picked up steam through the year and ended up right on target with what we did in 2006 and 2007."

youth_is_served_02_30But in early 2009, Willard Woodworks suddenly had no backlog. He's back to having two to three months of future work, but it was another lesson learned.

"I wasn't prepared for how slow things would get. In the past, the small recessions didn't affect my clients; they always had the money. But they started to become cautious about spending."

To guard against future downturns, Willard pays an outside designer to maintain his Web site and has a professional photographer on speed dial to keep his portfolio up to date.

"The Web site is high maintenance and it's something I find a lot of shops aren't doing, but I don't know why. I'm the quintessential little guy, but the difference is I'm the little guy that has a big appearance - that's what I try to shoot for. I appear on the Web site as a bigger company, and I don't have a problem with someone thinking I'm a bigger company."

Willard says his long-term goal is to purchase a new building in the next 10 years and have his twin sons involved in the business. He'd also like to experiment with nested-based CNC manufacturing.

youth_is_served_03_30"I don't want to have any more employees. I just want to get the work done quicker and do better quality. Better quality is No. 1. I don't shoot for having more clients. I would just like to be able to do better jobs, more technical jobs. I want to do the technical jobs that no one else will do. I'd rather be able to do a job where I can charge a little more for it. I like the jobs that are challenges because it makes us a better shop."

Contact: Willard Woodworks. Tel: 951-279-8268.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.