Memories that last for generations

45_memoriesEven though standard and semi-custom furniture is built on the mass-production scale at Samuel S. Case Cabinetmakers, the business is committed to handmade quality and old-fashioned customer service. Owner Samuel Case enjoys managing his 16-man, 43,000-sq.-ft. woodworking facility nestled in an old apple-packing factory in Berryville, found in Virginia's scenic Shenandoah Valley.

Most of the furniture designs are inspired by the "neat and plain" furniture of 18th century Virginia. Case says one of his earliest goals in developing a furniture design and retail business was to create a niche of his own.

Samuel S. Case Cabinetmakers Inc.

Owner: Samuel S. Case

Location: Berryville, Va.

Employees: 16

Shop size: 43,000 sq. ft.

About: The furniture manufacturing company offers several lines of standard, semi-custom and custom items ranging from traditional styles made with mortise-and-tenon construction to contemporary designs with sleek curves. Clients are mainly residential homeowners from across the U.S., with the majority residing in northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the area.

"When I first started this business, I looked at what other guys were doing and they'd hand me their business card. The cards would say 'architectural millwork, 18th-century furniture, contemporary furniture.' It was like they didn't know what they wanted to do. To me, it just wasn't a very good way to present yourself, saying you can do everything, because nobody can."

Case Cabinetmakers currently offers six furniture lines consisting of about 300 standard and semi-custom designs. The lines include 18th century, Mission, Farm Tables and Windsor Chairs, upholstery, traditional and contemporary, and bedroom. Truly custom work accounts for about 10 percent of the business.

Not his first rodeo

Case was born in Purcellville, Va., a town close to Berryville that now houses one of his company's three showrooms. His family has been working with wood in Virginia since the late 18th century and dealing in American antiques since the early 1900s.

With a background in graphic design, Case worked as a magazine photographer in his early-20s. He admits he didn't do well financially and went to work for his father-in-law as a finish carpenter. After acquiring some basic woodworking skills, he started his own carpentry contractor business, which evolved into a land development business. For the next decade, he kept busy with a crew of four employees doing high-end remodeling and millwork.

44_memories_01The business was successful enough for him to retire by age 35, but he wasn't ready to retire. In 1989, he started building custom furniture in his garage. He eventually hired one employee and bought a 6,000-sq.-ft. building, using 900 sq. ft. to sell his furniture and renting the rest of the space to antique dealers. He had 26 tenants at one point.

When the antique dealers started to leave, Case expanded his showroom. Meanwhile, his work force grew to nine and the garage became too crowded. He bought the apple-packing factory in 1999. The shop can accommodate 50 workers and Case wants to build the business to that capacity.

Changes occur

In the first few years, the shop focused on Queen Anne, Sheraton and Hepplewhite designs, and a Southern version of Chippendale.

"At that time, most pieces were built one at a time. One man would go from the lumber pile to finishing room with his project. Almost everything was custom until we moved here in 1999 and then we started focusing on lines. It was more about trying to become more profitable in the recession.

44_memories_02"We had about 300 standard items in the 18th century line and we reduced that to about 100 items. We tried to gain efficiency by mass-producing certain items so we could lower the prices. The other items are still available, but they're categorized as custom."

Prices range as drastically as the pieces offered. For example, a three-board pine farm sells for $749, while a custom table has fetched as much as $50,000.

In 2008, the company added about 35 contemporary furniture pieces. So far, they haven't been big sellers, but Case says it's just a matter of time.

"We've been doing nothing but 18th-century furniture for the past 20 years, and when you start introducing something new, it takes time for people to realize they want it."

Client demographics

A local clientele within an hour's drive makes up about 50 percent of the customer base. The rest are from coast to coast. Clients are primarily from the upper-middle class and are a well-educated group who know that good furniture will last for generations, says Case.

"Our typical client is between the ages of 35 and 55. They're more knowledgeable about the quality of custom furniture and they have a different mindset than the younger generation."

46_memories_04Other clients include those above age 55 who are typically preparing to retire and downsize their homes.

Occasionally, Case takes commercial jobs that account for about 10 percent of the shop's work. This typically means a conference table for a law office. In 2009, he did a large commission for the White House, but is not permitted to discuss the details.

"When clients visit, they'll sometimes show me a photograph and the first thing I'll ask is 'Why aren't you buying it from that manufacturer?' And if they say price, I say, 'Have a nice day.'

"Sometimes they'll come in with something from a cheap manufacturer and they like the design, but they want something of better quality, so I'll do it. Or it could be something they saw in a museum and they can't buy it anywhere."

Case Cabinetmakers also has retail stores in Purcellville, Va., and Kensington, Md. The company advertises heavily in local newspapers and national magazines. Case says he has always advertized and says it's worth the investment with well-designed ads. The annual advertising budget totals more than six figures each year.

In the shop

The shop atmosphere is rather old-fashioned with a laid-back spirit that resembles a small custom furniture shop.

Case designs all of the pieces by hand, constantly referring to the vast library of books on 18th century furniture that line the shelves in his office. Often, he'll draw the patterns on plywood and have his employees build a prototype. Throughout the day, Case checks on the work and makes adjustments as needed.

The shop has a rotating schedule for types of furniture. For example, beds are built in three-month cycles and occasional tables are built in batches of 30 to build inventory.

47_memories_05The shop has had as many as 26 employees in the past. A large number of them are early retirees from the corporate world. Others are recent high school graduates and parents working part time.

The shop features a stable of Bridgewood machinery, Grizzly inflatable drum sander, SCMI Mini Max stroke sander and about 75 English carving chisels. Case purchases lumber by the truckload and maintains an inventory of about 10,000 bf, primarily cherry, tiger maple, quartersawn white oak and red oak. Lumber suppliers include Lafferty & Co. in Lemoyne, Pa., and TBM Hardwoods in Hanover, Pa.

Staying the course

Case says the future of the business depends on what his children do with it. Two of his sons have been part-time employees during summer school breaks.

"If they want to pick up the business, it would help the company. I don't know if they're interested - you can't read a teenager's mind. If they don't enter the business, I will probably be to looking to sell it at some point."

Either way, the time spent with the business so far has been meaningful and worth his investment. Case knows from experience that, though a cliché, the phrase "Do what you love and success will follow," holds true.

"We try not to become a commodity. Our whole success has been that we've been a niche market. Following the trends would be out of the scope of what's made us successful."

Contact: Samuel S. Case Cabinetmakers Inc., 104 First St., Berryville, VA 22611. Tel: 800-985-2725. www.sscase.com

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.