When a visitor opens the door to Village Woodworking in Sarasota, Fla., he enters a large showroom filled with 11 full-size kitchens. The majority of them feature frameless cabinetry with high-gloss finishes, stainless-steel appliances, and the latest in hardware, including push-to-open drawers and custom-fit storage options. Down a short hallway is the entrance to a 25,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility. For owner Kim Alvis, it is a far cry from how he started his woodworking career in the early 1970s.
After serving in the Marines, Alvis went about restoring a 1948 school bus. When the bus was ready for a road trip, Alvis set a course for Summertown, Tenn.
"I ended up going up to The Farm, which is a commune run by Dr. Stephen Gaskin and is the biggest commune in the country," says Alvis. "My first son was born up there and basically they were building furniture all by hand. I came back to Sarasota to get some more equipment and then return to the commune."
But Alvis never made it back to the commune. He was too busy with work from Sarasota homeowners.
"So one day I just went and wrote the name Village Woodworking on the side of the bus," he says with a laugh. "That's the way the whole company was started, even though I never officially started. I just never got out of here again."
Thanks to word-of-mouth sales, Alvis ditched the bus and rented a shop above an antique store in downtown Sarasota. During the '70s and '80s, the Sarasota-Bradenton region grew from small towns to wealthy cities, with a huge increase in the construction of high-rise waterfront buildings. According to U.S. census figures between 1970 and 1980, the population in the area increased by 61 percent; between 1980 and 1990 another 40 percent, and between 1990 and 2000, an additional 20 percent. With the construction boom in full swing, work for Village Woodworking increased, as did the number of its employees.
"It was all basically word of mouth, especially in the upper end of the market. Then you get into a place in the high-end market, where you have to have a showroom," Alvis says. "It was probably the late '70s when we started our first showroom. It's just continually grown from there. This shop was built in 1982. We were one of the first in the United States to do frameless [cabinetry]."
Through the years, Village Woodworking has done just about everything, including work for high-end stores, major hospitals, restaurants and banks. The company once turned the base for college football's Heisman Trophy.
"We are all custom," says Alvis. "We do audio/video rooms, complete millwork [packages]. We've done major high-rise buildings, but for most of those we've worked with Neff Kitchens out of Canada. We'd install a kitchen, get to know the clients and the custom work - bedroom sets, wall units - would follow. We've also done lobbies, yacht clubs, libraries and home offices. We'll do custom furniture like rolltop desks and secretaries as long as the [customer] will pay the price."
Village Woodworking's projects are not confined to the indoors. The company used to do a lot of prototype work for yacht companies, which hit a peak in the 1980s. With the economic downturn, that work has tailed off and subsequently many of Alvis' employees, particularly custom woodworkers and draftsmen, have come from the yachting industry. He believes that if you can design and build something that is going to fit inside of a boat with all the weird angles, you must be pretty good.
Owner: Kim Alvis
Business opened: early 1970s
Shop size: 25,000 sq. ft.
Employees: 35 total; 12 in shop
Housing crisis impact: “Everybody down here in construction got hurt because we only had two things —
construction and tourism.”
Specialty: “Finishing has always been our forte. We’ve been using Italian polyester since the early ’80s, all kinds of Italian finishes.”
"We work a lot with King StarBoard (a high-density polyethylene sheet material) from King Plastics to build the outdoor kitchens," says Alvis. "Since we already do a lot with contemporary cabinetry, we're trying to produce an outdoor kitchen that looks more or less like an indoor kitchen. I don't necessarily like the look of plastic so we're building the exterior doors in a very high-end style that looks like indoor cabinetry. That's worked out well; we're able to use metallic high-gloss polish finishes and everything. We don't have to worry about humidity because everything is stainless steel throughout. It will take full rain."
Inside the shop
Alvis says he runs a millwork shop. But what he is most proud of is the finishing department.
"Finishing has always been our forte," he says proudly. "We've been using Italian polyester since the early '80s; all kinds of Italian finishes. We've worked with a couple of national companies on their high-gloss finishes for a long time. I love contemporary and you've got to be good to do contemporary. Now, everyone may not like it and it has to be right because you can pick up any mistake on it. You can hide things with moldings, but when you get into contemporary, the work has to be good."
The shop is fully loaded and the larger machines include a Busalato Jet 100 Series CNC machinery center, Holz-Her Accord 1445 edgebander, Altendorf 45 sliding table saw, Selco horizontal panel saw and a large custom cyclone dust collector.
About a dozen people work in the Sarasota manufacturing facility. Then there is the office staff as well as installers and designers at the Naples showroom and Miami gallery.
"We do work with a lot of interior designers, decorators, contractors and developers," Alvis notes. "When things were really going strong down here, we worked with the developers even before they got involved with a contractor. It makes for a nice project because the contractor is not going to shop this thing and get less quality. If you have a good developer who wants to put out a good product, he's picking the quality that he wants to put in it."
More than frameless
Although the showroom would indicate otherwise, not all of Village Woodworking's products are frameless with high-gloss finishes. The company has several product lines known as the Studio Village lines.
"One product line is full stainless-steel drawers with a stainless bottom. Our wood drawer is wood and it has the glass sides and those are doweled. The bottoms and the backs of our drawers are 1/2", so we're building more of an upscale product. We use the Columbia Purebond product for the boxes."
Alvis insists that all of his salespeople be designers. He wants artists who will get excited about their work. If not, he says they might as well go work at The Home Depot. Alvis is always trying to stay ahead of the design curve, looking for something new. In the last year, he has traveled to Ecuador numerous times to meet with a group of furniture makers about putting together a new line.
"We have a relationship with an old-line company in Ecuador that was basically just doing furniture," he explains. "But they were worried about the Chinese furniture. So we have specced out kitchens, dens, closets - just everything. It's a very good product. All the doors are 1-1/8" thick and they really specialize in mahogany. We've started importing their product, which I think in the next few years will work out very well because it gives people a very high-end product at a price structure like a standardized distributor. The next step will be designing a contemporary line of furniture. We signed for exclusive rights for the entire United States. What we're looking for is things that aren't in the marketplace right now. You've got to have a unique product. It's called our Brittany line."
About 50 percent of Village Woodworking's business comes from walk-ins, people who have heard about the company by word of mouth. During the design phase, Alvis attempts to get the client involved as much as he can, letting them make as many choices as possible. He says wealthy people can be "pretty choosy," so it's not hard to get them involved.
In recent years, the company has taken on more remodeling projects.
"With all the waterfront keys, we have a lot of people out here that buy major mistakes. We've done $30 million houses. Some places we go back 20 years later and tear the kitchen out. You go into it and think there's nothing wrong with this kitchen, it's 20 years old. People sell a house like that. Somebody else moves in, the first thing they want to do is redo everything."
When it comes to pricing a project, Alvis says Village Woodworking does its best to match a client's budget. If it doesn't work out, so be it. After a retainer is negotiated, the design process begins.
"Even with the designers in the Naples showroom, once they get their work done, they still have to sit down with manufacturing and installation. It puts three heads together. For the installers, they may say, 'Well, that is going to be a hard installation, but if we did it like this, it would install better and give you a much cleaner job.' Manufacturing lets everyone know what we will and what we won't do."
During the housing crisis of the last two years, four areas in the country have repeatedly been mentioned as having the highest foreclosure rates: Orange County, Calif.; Las Vegas; the greater Phoenix area, and the state of Florida. Village Woodworking hasn't escaped the effect of the severe downturn in building construction. Alvis says Florida's Gulf Coast has been hit really hard. With builders shutting down left and right, he says if it wasn't for the walk-in business he'd be dead in the water. And then there are the speculators.
"For several years, there were a lot of speculators. They'd put $25,000 down, but they weren't really buying it. We were doing [high-rises] and it would be the same people; they would move from building to building. And these had $3 to $4 million apartments. They used to have cocktail parties where they would sell all the units out. The market was going up 30 percent a year; it couldn't keep doing that. And people who couldn't even afford to buy were jumping in. And the next thing you know - it was bound to happen, but nobody knew when - things crashed. Now things are actually undervalued here."
Much of Village Woodworking's residential work is for $300,000 to $400,000 houses. Several years ago, the houses were valued at about twice that amount.
"What has saved us is how long we've been in business," says Alvis. "People are wary of giving their money for deposits. They want to know that [a company] has been around an awful long time."
Survival of the fittest
Alvis isn't worried about the survival of Village Woodworking. The company has been around for nearly 40 years and has a tremendous reputation. He will continue to look for innovative product lines while trying to stay ahead of the curve. But he admits he has to be very careful and keep a close eye on his competitors.
"There are a lot of fish in Florida, but there has been a lot of downsizing - big-time. What I've noticed is the really longtime [millwork] companies have cut back, but they're still going to make it. Then there are guys who don't have any work [suddenly] going after the high-end work. They're lowballing bids and they don't know what they're doing.
"The last two or three years, it's been rough around here. It's getting tougher and tougher with workmans' comp, insurance, etc. The day it's not fun is the day it's time to leave. But right now, it's still fun."
Contact: Village Woodworking, 6110 Clark Center Ave., Sarasota, FL 43238. Tel: 800-929-5020. www.villagewood.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.