Rising from the ashes

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Tom Burkhart operates his shop in an old-school way. For 31 years, he has operated a woodworking company in Louisville, Ky., and he's conducted business on his own terms. His shop does 100 percent custom work and Burkhart says it is more versatile than any shop of its size in the Louisville area. At The Burkhart Co., you won't find any CNC machinery or the use of any CAD programs. Burkhart sketches his designs, hands them to a draftsman and the plans eventually make their way to the shop floor. The process may seem slightly out of date, but it works. Frankly put, don't knock success.

The Burkhart Co. is now at its fourth location after its third shop burned to the ground in 2000. Burkhart bought a 65,000-sq.-ft. building listed on the National Register of Historic Places following the fire and the shop presently occupies about 25,000 sq. ft. The facility was built in the 1800s and was originally the Falls City Jeans and Woolen Mills, and was later home of the Enro Shirt Factory.

Product line

Plantation shutters are a big item in the Midwest and South. Before he began his woodworking career, Burkhart worked with some interior decorators and one of his main jobs was to install plantation shutters. So when he opened his first shop in the basement of a rented house in 1978, finishing and installing plantation shutters was a main source of income. Gradually, he began manufacturing them.

33_burkhart_01Owner of: The Burkhart Co.

Location: Louisville, Ky.

Building size: 65,000 sq. ft.

Shop size: 25,000 sq. ft. Years as a pro: 31

Employees: 15

Major event: Previous shop burned down.

"They're all custom fit, but an easy custom item; there is very little engineering involved," he explains. "I could measure a shutter job this morning and put it out in the shop this afternoon.

"Kitchens make up about 20 percent of what we do. For a long time, I didn't do kitchens. Even when we got back in business, I kind of stayed clear of them until we got things a little bit more together. We do a lot of basic custom built-in bookcases, desks and entertainment centers. We do wooden countertops like butcher block-type tops; that's a pretty good item for us. We just bought equipment to build exterior louvered shutters because a lot of people ask us for that. We do some custom millwork and short runs of moldings. We have remodeling contractors who are our customers. We're really all custom."

The Burkhart Co. also produces a limited amount of furniture, including tables, furniture-style cabinets and television cabinets with a pop-up feature. More than 80 percent of its work is residential, although an occasional commercial job will come along.

"We did 10 tables for Brown-Forman, a liquor manufacturer. They own Jack Daniels and a restaurant down in Lynchburg, Tenn.," says Burkhart.

Travels and troubles

Burkhart's only formal woodworking education consists of some summer classes at the Penland School for the Arts in Penland, N.C. But ever since he was a kid, he has enjoyed working with wood. He stayed in that basement shop for five years, then took on a partner for one year, but that didn't last. He then bought a building on Louisville's Frankfurt Avenue that was an old bar and turned it into a shop.

33_ashes_01"I was making a little bit of everything, but didn't do a lot of kitchens for a long time. I stayed clear of them because there was a lot of work and a lot of layout. I was in that shop for about seven years."

He moved again in 1990 into a more industrial space along Louisville's waterfront. He took on some employees and his business expanded. The economy was strong and things were going well. But after 10 years, with 15 employees and plenty of work, the ultimate nightmare happened: his shop burned to the ground.

"The fire started in the middle of the night and I really don't know what happened, whether it was spontaneous combustion, electrical, arson - we don't really know," recalls Burkhart. "I was insured, but you usually don't have enough insurance; business interruption insurance was not enough."

Following the fire, Burkhart had three choices: scale back to nothing and become a one-man shop again, totally rebuild with an even larger shop or throw in the towel. Because the economy was healthy, he chose to rebuild the business.

"I wouldn't have done it [rebuild the business] today. I would have closed the whole thing down, taken the money and run. At the time we shut down, we were busy - real busy - and saw the potential and kept most of our customers.

34_ashes_01"We didn't put any product out for over six months when we moved to our present shop. It took a long time to get set up and a couple of years to become profitable again. I had to mortgage my house because the insurance money ran out about the time we got the shop back up.

"We were non-profitable for a long time because every time we'd turn around we were like, 'Wow, we don't have that any more,' so we would have to go out and buy something else. We thought we had set up a really nice shop, which we did. We had just the basics, though. We had to keep buying tooling and stuff that was no longer there. We were able to rebuild a few of our machines, but it was a mess."

Ironically, a similar-sized shop owned by a friend of Burkhart's burned down about five years ago. In the end, it turned out to benefit Burkhart.

"I gave him a lot of advice and counseling just from what I'd been through and he went a different direction and ended up closing it all down and I hired all his people from him. I have all his top people who had 20 or more years of experience, so that worked out pretty good."

Buying a historic building

Following the fire and having made the decision to rebuild the business, Burkhart found that industrial space was hard to come by and much of it was unaffordable. He got a good deal on his space in the 65,000-sq.-ft. building, but it's proving to be a very expensive building to operate.

"I could have bought a little itty-bitty metal building in an industrial park, but I decided that I wanted to have something where I could have a little room to grow in and we have grown. There's a building in the back that we have expanded into. We're pretty much using the entire first level of this building now. My old shop was about 8,000 sq. ft. so we're over three times the size of the old shop.

"It is on the National Register. A lot of people know the building; it is real distinctive. It is not in a historic neighborhood, there is no association, so I can pretty much do anything I want with it, which is good because a lot of historic buildings have a lot of stuff you can't do to them. We've replaced a lot of windows and if I had to replace historically accurate windows, it would have cost a mint because there are about 200 windows and they're huge."

The client connection

Burkhart has strong ties with interior decorators who supply a steady stream of referrals. He also works closely with a builder of high-end homes. After meeting with the client, the design process continues with pencil and paper.

"We hand-draft everything," says Burkhart. "I present sketches to the draftsman who draws everything up. We've gone through the CAD process a couple of different of times with a couple of different people, but it's never really worked. I can't get the detail that I want without really spending more time than hand drafting takes."

35_ashes_01The plans go to the project manager and finally the shop foreman. Because everything is custom, Burkhart has no interest in CNC machinery. Without production runs, he doesn't consider CNC financially viable.

His clientele resides in the downtown Louisville area and, to the east, the more affluent region of Louisville. He doesn't take on many jobs outside Louisville, although he will occasionally go to Lexington if the client has Louisville connections.

He says it is a competitive market, but the variety of his product gives him the upper hand.

"I'm competitive for certain things. We're diverse enough that I have several groups of competitors. I've got kitchen competitors, shutter competitors and trim carpenters that compete with us on our built-ins. It's pretty much word of mouth. We've got a Yellow Pages ad for the shutters and I do a little bit [of advertising] here and there, but not much."

Switching roles

Burkhart's role from woodworker to businessman was a slow transition. It paralleled the slow process of growing from a one-man shop to a 15-man shop.

35_ashes_02"One thing I can say is there is nothing in the shop that I can't do, so if I see someone doing something really goofy, I know it. I'm pretty easy to get along with; it's rare that I even say anything to anybody. I have a shop foreman and we have a project manager. The project manager gets everything together to go out into the shop and the foreman watches everything while it's being done. I also have an installation foreman.

"We have a meeting with everyone in the shop on Monday morning and that is our safety meeting for OSHA. We also go over what happened in the last week and what's going to happen this week. Then I meet with my project manager several times during the week."

Machinery

Running a versatile shop without a single piece of CNC machinery necessitates having an array of good machinery. Burkhart hasn't failed on that part. Here is just a partial list:

  • Oliver 30" planer and 116 (circa 1953) band saw
  • Extrema 16" jointer
  • Diehl 16" straight-line rip saw
  • SCMI sliding table saw, shaper and 36" wide belt sander
  • Delta 10" Unisaw
  • Northtech tilting arbor shaper and horizontal edge sander
  • Safety Speed Cut vertical panel saw/router
  • Holz-Her edgebander
  • Castle pocket screw borers and upright assembly table
  • Hoffman face frame guillotine
  • Ritter pneumatic door press
  • JLT 8" horizontal board clamps
  • Grizzly oscillating spindle sander
  • Mid-Oregon Mini-Hog scrap grinder

Economy and future

Burkhart believes his company's versatility is what is getting it through these tough economic times. Admittedly, the jobs are a little more difficult to obtain and contractors have asked him to tighten his belt on some occasions. But his company isn't in trouble and that can be attributed to experience, reputation and variety of product. But, obviously, the business environment could be better.

"One thing that has saved us is we do have pretty close ties with a bunch of remodeling contractors," adds Burkhart. "What's happening around here is a lot of the new homebuilders have tried to take over the remodeling business from the remodeling contractors. A lot of them don't know what they're doing, so they underbid. They're also doing a crummy job because they are used to having everything subbed out and don't have a foreman on the site. It's not a good situation for the builders or customers - nobody's happy."

Contact: The Burkhart Co., 1010 S. Preston St., Louisville, KY 40203. Tel: 502-587-1538. www.burkhartcompany.com

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.