Turnaround Artists

26_turnaround_01Founded in 1994, Aubin Woodworking of Bow, N.H., keeps its competitive edge by embracing the latest industry technology. The high-end architectural millwork shop is fully equipped with automated equipment that enables employees to quickly meet project requests of commercial clients.

"It's a fire drill almost on a daily basis around here," says owner Tony Aubin. "A customer will call up and say they want to accept the quote on the job, that they're ready to go and that they want it in two weeks. A year ago, that was unheard of. We'd tell them we couldn't do it. These days, we have to take it or they'll turn around and say another shop down the road said they can do it."

27_turnaround_02Meeting the demands of clients is critical because the competition is fierce in light of the recession. However, Aubin Woodworking has never lost sight of its ability to offer clients hands-on craftsmanship and superior service. The strategy of melding technology with traditional skills has solidified the company's reputation and helped its doors remain open while other businesses struggle or fail.

With 16 employees, including nine in the shop, the company services general contractors throughout New England. Custom products are made for commercial entities such as hospitals and health care facilities, banks, schools and libraries. The company's commercial preference may change in the future, however, as Aubin is ready to take on any job that comes through the door.

Employee to employer

Aubin was born in Vermont and has lived in New Hampshire since high school. He grew up around woodworking enthusiasts, but is the first in his family to take it to a professional level. He took design and drafting in high school, and some woodworking courses at the University of New Hampshire, where he graduated with an associate degree in applied business management and civil technology.

Aubin Woodworking Inc.

Owner: Tony Aubin

Vice president: Randy Wasylak

Location: Bow, N.H.

Shop size: 12,000 sq. ft.

Employees: 16

About: Aubin Woodworking is a high-end manufacturer of custom architectural millwork, furniture and fixtures, cabinets and desks. The company serves clients throughout New England, the majority of which are from the  commercial sector.

Annual gross: About $3 million in 2008.

Quotable: “Bigger is not always better,” says Tony Aubin. “Sometimes smaller steps make more sense. When growth is  uncontrolled it puts enormous stress on the business and all of   its employees and owners. I speak from experience. We have had  several years of tremendous growth. In those years we        experienced a lot of frustrating moments. Those moments included frustrated customers due to late delivery of product, excessive  workloads for employees and costly mistakes due to rushing orders,   for example. The numbers may  look impressive, but to see what   is really going on behind the scenes can be scary at times.”

Throughout college, Aubin manned the lumberyard at Benson's Lumber and Hardware in Londonderry, N.H., and got a taste of the construction industry. He then took a position as installation manager for Criteria, a school furnishings supply company.

"My forte has always been in building and design," says Aubin. "I enjoy building more than I enjoy running the business end of things, though I am in the office most of the time.

"All my life I have been around woodworking and tools - from my father, who had a small home shop with a Craftsman table saw he bought at a yard sale to my grandfather who had a woodshop that was built from necessity."

He was ready to start Aubin Woodworking while working as a draftsman and project manager at another millwork company in Salem, N.H. "At that point, I had gained some general experience about the industries, both on the school furnishings side and the custom millwork side. But at both companies, I was not satisfied with how they were run, nor did I feel I was being utilized to my fullest abilities."

So Aubin started producing custom millwork out of his basement, then rented a 1,500-sq.-ft. space as orders increased. With the help of his wife, Gina, a full-time teacher, the new business grew quickly.

"We had many late nights of reviewing the books, working on estimates and Gina still grading papers and preparing lessons for classes the next day," says Aubin.

Taking on a partner

In the beginning, Aubin had two primary customers - School Furnishings Inc., a school supply company in Amherst, N.H., and Tucker Library Interiors, a library supply company in Manchester, N.H. Aubin was soon overwhelmed with work.

28_turnaround_03"Two or three cabinet orders started turning into 20 or 30 cabinet orders," says Aubin. "There weren't enough hours in the day.

"I was at the shop for 15 to 20 hours a day and there were a few all-nighters to meet the next day's deadline. Eventually, I needed more help and more space because I couldn't keep at that pace."

In 2002, Aubin partnered with Randy Wasylak to further develop the company. The two have been best friends since college. Wasylak manages the sales and finance side, while Aubin oversees engineering and manufacturing.

"Randy was in the wire and cable industry and, when that industry went south, he was eventually laid off," says Aubin. "I offered for Randy to come to work for me while he was job hunting. He worked in the shop helping out and learning the basic routine of a custom millwork shop. After a while we got to talking about the possibility of partnering up. I knew his abilities with sales and finance - two areas I was not strong with nor was I really interested in. We eventually came to an agreement, had the papers drawn up and Randy bought into Aubin Woodworking as a full partner.

"He turned the business around incredibly and made us very profitable. I certainly attribute a lot of where the business is today to him. Obviously, the quality of the product is on my side, but you need more than that to keep the business running."

A premium on service

In general, projects at Aubin Woodworking can range from $5,000 to $750,000, although those on the higher end are few and far between these days. Aubin says projects higher than the $50,000-to-$75,000 range have been scarce.

The majority of the company's jobs originate with general contractors in New Hampshire. "We're on a bid request list for 20 to 25 general contractors in the area. We have about 10 contractors we do consistent work with," says Aubin.

28_turnaround_04The current backlog is three to four months, down from six months or more before the recession. But Aubin is not letting that ruin his morale.

"We're fairly aggressive in pursuing work and staying in contact with our current customers. We call them and see what's going on for work. We have a good relationship with the architects and contractors out there.

"Our customer service and our past relationships help us stand apart. We service the heck out of our customers. If one of our installers can't put something in, Randy or I will be out there doing it. Some of our competition does the same thing, but I think our customer service is where we really stand above. Our customers have said that to us."

The company has never taken on residential jobs, but now finds it somewhat necessary to diversify.

"We receive requests from a local residential cabinet retailer/dealer for custom units that can't be filled with any of their stock lines. Essentially, we have become another line for them to offer their clients," says Aubin.

Aubin Woodworking's marketing efforts basically consist of a one-line listing in the phone book, though the company has recently redesigned its Web site.

"We felt it was necessary for our customers and visitors to be able to educate themselves about how millwork functions and what is required to create a quality product and installation," says Aubin. "We also wanted to make available to them resources for hardware, veneers, solid surfaces, laminates and many other items. We also wanted to be able to showcase more of our projects in a more professional environment."

28_turnaround_05Materials used primarily consist of veneer placed on MDF or particleboard. The company does equal amounts of both paneling and trim using solid wood and veneers. "We use mostly maples, oaks and cherries," says Aubin. "This is what the local architects are specifying. The more exotic woods tend to be in the Boston market and the higher-end residential."

Lumber suppliers and distributors include North Pacific Lumber, Atlantic Plywood, Main Street Millwork and Keiver Willard.

State-of-the-art shop

Still in the same facility as when he first started, the business has since evolved into a 12,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility. The Bow location serves Aubin and his employees well.

"The location is convenient for me. I live in Concord, N.H., and my commute is only about 20 minutes with minimum traffic. For Randy, it's about 40 minutes with a little more traffic. But the price is right and right now it is cost-prohibitive to move."

Tool and machinery investments are approximately $500,000, which includes the shop's CNC machine, an SCMI Tech 99L point-to-point router, brought in six years ago. Aubin is a regular visitor at woodworking industry trade shows. He purchased $100,000 worth of equipment at the 2008 IWF in Atlanta.

28_turnaround_06"Had we known where the economy was going to be right now we probably wouldn't have bought as much, but we did want to buy a new CNC machine. We would like to buy a new machine eventually. Ours is currently in need of an upgrade, but we held back this year because of finances. If things turn around soon, then maybe we'll buy one next year. We are looking at a nested-based machine with 5' x 12' capacity."

The shop also features a SCMI Sandya-3 37" wide belt sander, Selecta 20F edgebander and S3100 Nova sliding table saw; Gannomat Index Logic 130 CNC horizontal bore and dowel inserter; Striebig standard panel saw; SawStop 10" cabinet saw; Powermatic 10" cabinet saw; Delta 10" Unisaw; Festool Kapex miter saw; and Binks spray equipment.

Employees enjoy full benefits such as health insurance, paid vacations and holidays, and a retirement plan. Aubin also runs a fairly flexible schedule so employees can enjoy time with their families. Lately he's been offering sporadic overtime opportunities for the quick turnaround requests of clients, increasing employees' hourly pay.

The company uses prefabricated designs and also creates it own designs using AutoCAD and Microvellum software and DesignCAD. Finishing is performed in-house with M.L. Campbell products, including catalyzed lacquers and wipe-on stains.

Future outlook

Because of the current economic circumstances and a less-than-reliable inflow of work, Aubin has nixed plans to expand the company's facility.

"We were going to build a new 25,000-sq.-ft. building last year," he says. "We were going to purchase land down the road and build from the ground up, but we pulled the plug on that and we're doing renovations here instead."

29_turnaround_07Aubin says the upcoming year is questionable. He's on the board of directors of the Architectural Woodwork Institute's local chapter and says his peers are in the same predicament. Some have had to lay off workers or gone out of business.

As for the company's survival aside from the economy, Aubin is in it for the long haul, though he believes his partner will eventually move on. Aubin has two sons, Tyler and Sal, who may eventually join the business.

"We're certainly not sitting on our laurels waiting for things to happen for us," he says, adding that a new job avenue is beginning to emerge. "We get calls almost on a daily basis from owners of buildings and people in charge of maintenance of buildings who have seen our work. We put products in their buildings through a general contractor, and now they want to continue to upgrade so they are doing it on their own and contacting us directly." n

Contact: Aubin Woodworking Inc., 85 River Road, Unit 15, Bow, NH 03304. Tel: 603-224-5512. www.aubinwoodworking.com

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.