Generational journey

26_fehrenbacher1When Gilbert Fehrenbacher opened a small cabinet business in his garage in 1957, it's doubtful he envisioned what his tiny shop would one day become.

Now, 52 years later, Fehrenbacher Cabinets Inc. of Evansville, Ind., is owned and operated by his son Bob, grandsons Peter, Patrick and Zach, and longtime employee Jim Balbach. Dennis Fehrenbacher, another of Gilbert's sons, retired from the business several years ago. The 45,000-sq.-ft. shop manufactures custom cabinets, countertops and furniture, and sells appliances.

The third-generation business thrives on its reputation of producing quality custom work while providing exceptional service from a project's beginning through its installation.

But the family affair doesn't stop with Fehrenbacher Cabinets. Next door is Wood Specialties by Fehrenbacher, a family owned and operated millwork shop founded in 1986 by yet another son of Gilbert, Gary Fehrenbacher. Gary's sons Chris and Keith have joined their dad at the wood products company, which manufactures doors, stair components, casings, moldings, flooring and various custom items. Despite the family connection, the companies are run independently.

Starting early

Before Peter, Patrick and Zach became involved with Fehrenbacher Cabinets, the business experienced years of success and shop expansion. Their father and uncle purchased a piece of property in 1975 that is the current location of the business.

"Grandpa still did quite a bit of the little stuff at his shop in the 1970s through the spring of 2000 when he passed away at age 86," Peter says. "It seemed like every four or five years they had to expand, adding on rooms and they just kept growing and growing ... whether it was a piece of furniture for downtown, a commercial office, residential bars, exterior [work], countertops, appliances, it really kept them diversified enough starting back in the '70s."

Owners: Bob, Peter, Patrick and Zach Fehrenbacher, Jim Balach

Location: Evansville, Ind.

Founded: 1957

Shop size: 45,000 sq. ft. (including showroom)

Employees: 33

Major machinery: C.R. Onsrud Panel Pro CNC router; Koch oven-curing finish system

Peter Fehrenbacher: “What separates us from all the other custom shops around here is the equipment that we use, the technology that we’ve got and the large amount of research and development that has taken place over the years.”

Patrick Fehrenbacher: “We do the whole thing from start to finish — the design work, the manufacturing, the finishing and the install. We develop long term relationships with our customers, servicing and standing behind our products.”

Shop experience for the third generation of Fehrenbacher boys began when they were young and it didn't have much to do with building cabinets.

"We started in early grade school here," Peter recalls. "Patrick started in the second grade mowing grass and being around the guys, cleaning the shop. For Patrick, Zach and I, every Friday after school was like a ritual. Mom would pick us up from school and bring us here. We couldn't be here during manufacturing time because of OSHA standards, so after 2:30 shutdown we came in and we would clean. We did that every Friday."

When it came time for college, the three brothers went off in different directions. Peter studied business management, Patrick focused on computers and Zach concentrated on finance and marketing. The diversification proved to be beneficial, especially as the brothers became more involved in running the company.

Their education wasn't limited to just traditional schooling. The three also learned all the facets of woodworking that took place under the roof of the family's shop.

"We started from the ground level working with maintenance-type issues to sanding and assembling doors to putting cabinets together," remembers Peter. "Patrick and I worked in the finishing room and helped install. I definitely would not consider myself a master of woodworking. But I've done just about everything out [in the shop]. Any one of us could go out there right now. We each kind of have our expertise. For instance, Patrick and I really watch over the finishing area so if we needed to pick up the gun today and start spraying, we could both do it."

Product diversity

Fehrenbacher Cabinets will build just about anything. If someone walks through the front door with an old photo of a stand-alone piece of furniture, they'll build a reproduction. How about custom cabinets or a countertop for a kitchen that is loaded with bizarre angles and quirky dimensions? It's not a problem. Although 90 percent of its customers are residential, Feherenbacher Cabinets is happy to accommodate commercial clients as well.

26_fehrenbacher2On the day Woodshop News visited the Evansville shop, at least four separate projects were under way, including work on high-end residential tables, cabinets for a middle-class residential kitchen, a commercial project for a nursing home, and a large triangular-shaped doll-house display.

Cabinets are the bread and butter of the Evansville business. Three "semi-custom lines" are offered, which allows for varying price points, short lead times and the opportunity to mix and match a combination of Fehrenbacher custom cabinets with the semi-custom cabinets.

"The semi-custom lines are manufactured lines; we handle Wellborn, Prestige and Tru-Wood," says Patrick. "We'll install and [offer to] sell the countertops and appliances. We do an estimate on the custom and if they say it is a little over their budget, we can say we have options for them instead of sending them out the door. We can be from one end of the spectrum to the other. They just need to tell us where they want to be."

"Everybody locally perceives Fehrenbacher Cabinets as high end; that you've got to spend $60,000, $80,000, $100,000 to even walk in the door," says Peter. "But once you walk somebody through it and give them an estimate, then they finally realize that, hey, if you really compare apples to apples, they're right where they need to be."

Computer-aided

All five owners of the business are designers. Zach and Patrick as well as two others do a majority of the computer design work and programming.

"We start out with floor plans and working up a cabinet layout with a CAD program," says Patrick. "Any of these CAD programs are so powerful now, especially with the computer-operated machinery. For the cabinets, we use Cabinet Vision for all the perspective and working drawings."

In 2008, Fehrenbacher purchased a C.R. Onsrud 145G18D Panel Pro CNC router, which has a 5x12 table. The addition of the machine brought about changes in the design and manufacturing processes, especially for cabinetry.

27_fehrenbacker_kitchen1"Now, with the CNC, everything is screen to machine. It cuts all our case parts, every bit of our plywood parts, and it also creates every piece for our frames, cabinet doors, cleats and drawer-box parts," Patrick explains.

The company designs and manufactures framed and frameless cabinets in any size, shape, color and wood species. The CNC is also available to provide custom work for outside contractors, whether it is square, arched or elliptical, as well as stile-and-rail doors and overlay moldings.

Oven cured

Fehrenbacher has developed a reputation for the high quality of its finishes. All of its stains are custom made, mixed and formulated at the shop.

"We are using a lot less reducer for our catalyzed finish in the last year, year-and-a-half," says Peter. "We run all of our finish out through heaters, which obviously thin the finish down. Whether it's a paint or some type of a pigmented varnish or some kind of a clear varnish, everything is run through heaters."

27_fehrenbacker_kitchen2The largest piece of machinery at Fehrenbacher Cabinets is a Koch wood-finishing system manufactured by George Koch Sons of Evansville. Once a piece is sprayed, it takes several trips through the Koch oven system on a conveyer system.

"It goes through the oven three times," says Peter. "Once after it gets stained and again after it gets two seal coats. If a glaze is added, it goes through the oven again, then gets top coated. The exhaust temperature is anywhere from 125 to 135 degrees."

Some of the other mainstays in the shop include a Felder F700 shaper; Holz-Her Super-Cut 1225 vertical panel saw; Holz-Her Sprint 1310-1 edgebander; Holz-Her Kundig Triplex 42" wide belt sander; Whirlwind chop saw with digital sliding stop; 36" Northfield planer; JLT Door Pro clamping system, and three Denray downdraft sanding tables.

The plywood used at Fehrenbacher Cabinets is all Columbia Forest Products' Purebond, which is 100 percent free of formaldehyde.

A full-service operation

Kitchen remodels, mainly consisting of cabinets and countertops, have always represented a significant segment of Fehrenbacher's operation. Because of the economic downturn during the last two years, remodeling work has increased and now represents 60 to 70 percent of the company's business.

27_fehrenbacker_kitchen3Balbach has 32 years experience with the company and is described by Peter as the "nuts and bolts of our solid surface and installation."

"We fabricate all of the solid surface in-house," says Patrick. "It's more of a convenience to the homeowner. We will show up to install cabinets, countertops and appliances all on the same day."

For 25 years, Corian was the company's main countertop product, but in the world of countertops today, solid surface is facing stiff competition from granite.

"The granite is the thing that's in," says Peter. "We're seeing solid surface percentage going way down. Three years ago, Corian was the lion's share and, in the last two years, it's transformed to probably 75 percent granite. We have a local fabricator who does all of the granite for us. We do all the design work and help the customer select the stone. Then we send an e-mail file to the fabricator and all they do is cut the stone."

Fehrenbacher has two full-time installation crews. On installation day, trailers arrive with the cabinets and a box truck shows up with the granite countertop.

"It's definitely a risky deal," says Patrick. "You've got thousands and thousands of dollars of countertops. There's a lot of upfront measuring and when we make our cabinets, we make them exactly as we say. Our guys, when they go to install, the angles have to be exact because the countertops are out there in the truck. It's not like you can come back and template an odd angle - you've got your countertops right there."

Reputation

The combination of talented craftsmen, experienced leaders in every department, product diversification and quality service has helped Fehrenbacher Cabinets establish long-term relationships with interior designers, decorators, architects and contractors. And, equally important after 52 years in business, the client base is still growing.

28_cabinet_doors"We can range from the $5,000 kitchen in the semi-custom lines with laminate tops to a $150,000 kitchen with granite and high-end appliances - we sell the whole deal," says Patrick. "We've got commercials jobs. We have such a broad spectrum of clientele that we can go after. Over the years we have taken a lot of jobs that aren't real profitable and I think we get a lot of respect from that. It may not be a moneymaking job, but 10 years down the road when they need something, they're going to go to the people that can service their product if they ever need it."

At Fehrenbacher Cabinets, there won't be any radical business changes in the foreseeable future. The success of the company, longevity of its operation and reputation in the area speaks for itself.

"Evansville is a pretty conservative market and I think that is why we have been fortunate to stay fairly busy," Patrick says. "It's not an area like Florida or California where people may have been living beyond their means and the prices of stuff shot up. It's a pretty even market for the most part. When you look in magazines and see popular trends in California and Florida, it's usually five years later when they come trickling in here. It's usually never to any extreme on any of these trends."

28_shop_equipment"In the spring we were going real strong, then it tapered off a little bit over the summer but we're really seeing it pick back up to where we're used to being," Peter observes. "We're starting to see some of these big homes that we had already confirmed; we're finally getting to the point where they are ready for our cabinets. We're still seeing a lot of remodeling, but some of the new homes are starting to pick up as well."

Contact: Fehrenbacher Cabinets Inc., 8944 Highway 65, Evansville, Indiana 47720. Tel: 812-963-3377. www.fci3.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.