All in the family

26_family_01Chesapeake Woodworking in Baltimore, a family-owned custom millwork shop, was founded in a small garage in 1987 by brothers Jim and Dave Schreiber, along with their cousin Mike Boettcher. Determined to grow the small business into a premier architectural millwork operation, the three worked around the clock to boost their clientele and gain name recognition.

They met their initial goal in 1996 when they began grossing an annual average of $3 million and had about 35 employees, and are still just as driven as on Day One.

"To start a business, you can't work 40 hours a week. You've got to work whatever it takes to get the job done and make the customer happy - that's how we started the business," says Dave Schreiber.

Most of Chesapeake's clients are from the commercial sector, where project managers and general contractors seek custom services in fabrication of countertops, built-in cabinetry, hardwood floors, trim moldings and doors, and historic restorations. Commercial customers routinely include hotels, restaurants, schools, banks and corporate offices.

Occasionally, the company does other services such as furniture repair and small jobs for other businesses with less-equipped shops. Chesapeake has a dynamic machinery inventory ranging from historic die-hard shop staples to highly technical CNC machinery, which enables it to fabricate without limitations.

Making the move

Prior to founding Chesapeake, the three partners had grown up together in Baltimore, and worked together at Western Mill & Lumber Company in Maryland. They ventured into the business without hesitation, but still recall those exhausting days in the late 1980s when only the three of them handled everything from estimating to installing. They were mainly focused on cabinetry and restoration back then, and they also did a fair share of repair work on yachts. It couldn't be more apparent that all of that has changed.

27_family_03"At some point, you reach a time where you're faced with the decision of 'Do I want to continue to renovate basements or do I entertain the possibility of doing bigger work?' We decided to grow," says Schreiber.

The company's expansion took a gradual course. Initially, the owners hired one employee who is currently their shop foreman. During the course of the next five years, the company grew to 20 employees, which is when the owners decided to move into their current shop in 1996.

27_family_04"Being in a community where everyone knows everyone, someone was impressed with the work we did at a local restaurant. After that the referrals began and some of our biggest contracts followed. Some of those customers are still our customers."

Commercial focus

Chesapeake completes hundreds of projects per year, of which about 80 percent are from repeat clients. About 85 percent of the company's clients are within an hour-and-a-half drive of the shop, but the company will service the entire East Coast and has gone as far as Florida for a job. They have shipped all of the woodwork for a bowling center in Japan. The shop is currently working on a large hotel in Blacksburg, Va. Schreiber says the company has worked on many hotels during the last five years.

26_family_02Chesapeake Woodworking Inc.

Owners: Jim and Dave Schreiber and Mike Boettcher

Location: Baltimore

Shop size: 40,000 sq. ft.

Number of employees: 37, including four estimators, two draftsmen, one shop foreman, two project managers and a support staff.

About: Chesapeake Woodworking is a family-owned architectural millwork business with skilled employees and dozens of specialized machines. It mainly serves commercial clients in the mid-Atlantic coastal area.

Gross: $3.5 million

Quotable: “Our company is based on a network of family as co-workers and childhood friends. Our support staff alike includes the mothers, fathers, sister, daughters and sons of the owners. No one other than family has handled the bookkeeping, and our 84-year-old father [George] comes in every day to keep old tools in good repair,” says Dave Schreiber.

With about 97 percent of Chesapeake's work being in the commercial market, designs primarily originate with architects and interior designers. Chesapeake's skilled employees in the design department do about 20 percent of the company's original design work. Mostly, the jobs involve millwork and paneling for lobbies, break rooms and conference rooms. One of the shop's specialties is custom trim and doors.

After the job is estimated and the bid accepted, Chesapeake starts the process of fabricating shop drawings. From there, the drawings get approved and go to the craftsmen. Aside from the owners, three management personnel keep things running smoothly from the design department, including shop foreman/draftsman Tom Raschka; Rob Maschal, shop foreman and a childhood friend of the owners; and Sharon Podhorniak, estimator, project manager and installation administrator.

Chesapeake has completed a number of projects in Baltimore at Henderson's Wharf, Geppi's Entertainment Museum, and Fort McHenry. The shop has also performed work at the Maryland governor's mansion and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Of particular significance to the owners, Chesapeake completed work in the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Schreiber says it's really exciting to see the lockers on TV after games.

Residential clients are mainly high-end homeowners wanting strictly custom work done to meet their aesthetic preferences. Chesapeake's most recent project in this category was a half-a-million-dollar millwork package for a home in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore in 2008.

Schreiber proudly states the company has never had to do any advertising. The word-of-mouth reputation has certainly helped, but most job offers come from bid solicitations. From a practical standpoint, commercial companies such as Chesapeake typically have their names bounced throughout the construction industry by general contractors who, in turn, ask for bids on their jobs.

No limitations

Chesapeake's style is tough to define because there isn't one - the shop will do just about anything. Schreiber concedes the shop machinery boosts their success, but knows the combination of experience and well-developed skills that he and his partners and his employees have are really what make the operation successful.

28_family_05"What separates us from other shops is that a lot of shops do just plastic laminate countertops and boxes. We will do doors and windows, we make our own moldings and we match any historic millwork. A lot of cabinet shops buy the moldings from somebody else. We don't purchase components - we do it all in-house."

The endless options are carried over to the finishing department as well. About 20 percent of the projects are painted, but for the wood finishes, the company will match just about anything with a sample of what the client desires. A custom spray booth in the shop allows pieces to be fully fabricated and finished in-house by finishing specialist Bob Alt.

"A lot of shops have color charts that they're committed to ... we don't have a color chart. You show us a piece of your furniture and we match it. We'll get it dead-on."

Chesapeake's main lumber suppliers are O'Shea Lumber in Glen Rock, Pa., and Lafferty Lumber in Lemoyne, Pa.

28_family_06Schreiber attributes his success to being trained by an "old timer," who was trained by another "old timer." Training of that quality is scarce these days, he says.

"They've pulled woodshop out of many of our nation's school systems. I used hand tools in shop all through high school - a lot of guys don't know any of this, it's disappointing. When we first went into business, I used to call my old woodshop teacher and recruit students and then it just died off."

Well-equipped facility

Chesapeake's large facility includes all of the offices for the planning, designs and drafting. There's a 40,000-sq.-ft. shop area and a 30,000-sq.-ft. loft/storage area, usually filled with about 40,000 bf of wood.

The work force features 15 woodworkers and about a dozen installers. Camaraderie in the shop is "very much like a family," says Schreiber. Most of the employees have been with the company for around 10 years.

The shop features a 9" molder, plus a 12' Weeke CNC router, Holz-Her edgebander, Altendorf table saws, Hendricks vertical panel saw, 16" Oliver jointer and Diehl rip saw.

28_family_07"Of all of our machines out there, our [Weeke] CNC router is probably the most important one. It reduces manpower in areas where skilled manpower is not necessary."

Schreiber anticipates adding a 12" molder within the next year. "Our volume of work has exceeded our capability. We will be able to service our customers more efficiently with this new machine."

The shop certainly has room for expansion, but Schreiber has been down that road before. "We spiked at about 64 employees and we've gradually come down to about 37. Finding skilled employees is difficult, but we've always trained many of our new employees. Expansion is always an option; it's just a matter of waiting for the opportunity."

The best part of owning a business is the feeling of freedom, says Schreiber. The challenge is waiting for retaining fees from the general contractors who hold 10 percent of each project for up to a year. Schreiber says "it's the nature of the business."

28_family_08In light of the nation's economic downturn, the owners admit they've had to place more bids to keep up the same volume of work. "The competition is out there, but many of those guys are just looking for work. They've been doing construction in the housing industry and are not used to doing the customized woodworking in the commercial industry. Chesapeake's specialized in that all along. We just do our best to make clients happy." n

Contact: Chesapeake Woodworking, 125 North Kresson St., Baltimore, MD 21224. Tel: 410-276-1060. www.chesapeakewoodworking.net

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.