Similar to many custom shop owners, Ralph Harden's woodworking career had humble beginnings. He worked as an engineer during the day and as a part-time woodworker at night. It wasn't until he landed a restaurant job 28 years ago that he sent his engineering career packing and became owner of a full-time woodworking business. That was the birth of The Harden House, currently a 12-person high-end cabinet shop in Clearwater, Fla. From the start, it was a sole proprietorship with just two employees, Harden and his wife, until he decided to take a leap.
"We decided to make the change to full time and see where it took us," recalls Harden. "Within a couple of months we hired our first employee and we still have him, as a matter of fact."
Owner of: The Harden House
Shop size: 10,000 sq. ft.
Years in operation: 28
Pitfall of custom cabinetry: “Cabinetry is a budget number that is at the back end of the house construction list. So everyone spends money up front, up-charges here and there, so by the time they get to the cabinets, they don’t have the money for it, they’re already over budget. It is a matter of whether they want to spend the money or not and therefore may start looking at production-type cabinets.”
Harden didn't have any formal woodworking training. His initial experience was building items for his house and then pieces for a few neighbors.
"I'd buy a few tools here and there and set up in the basement. We were up north at the time and then moved down here and still worked out of the garage. We had two or three people in the first year because we had a couple of accounts bidding with contractors. You bid low [because] you are new; you really don't have a perspective on what job costs are and so you are able to get quite a few jobs that way. From there, we settled in with about six builders, two finishers, my wife, myself, my son and a foreman."
The Harden House offers a broad range of custom cabinetry for kitchens, bars, studies, family rooms, home offices, wine cellars and home theaters. The high-end work is elaborate and meticulously built.
As residential building along Florida's Gulf Coast blossomed in the 1980s and '90s, so did the reputation of the work produced by The Harden House. For nearly three decades, at least 85 percent of the shop's work has been residential with an occasional commercial job coming in through various contacts.
"I guess over the years we've specialized in custom things," says Harden. "Decorators have called us because they couldn't find somebody to make something. We've often heard, 'Can you make this?' It's a little challenging, but I don't mind trying. It's worked out. We developed a client base and then they started giving us [more work]. As long as the quality is there, they'll keep you in mind."
Harden says he has considered production work to outlast the economic downturn, but it doesn't suit his shop's structure.
"Why am I going to pay good wages for a guy to build a production cabinet," Harden asks. "It doesn't pay in the long run and luckily I haven't had to go that [route]. Most of the shops that are closing up are production shops. They have a big overhead with tools and machinery and those are the ones that need to maintain a large volume of work. With seven builders, we don't need three or four houses to keep busy."
One person, one job
Harden's shop philosophy is rather unconventional. His builders work on a project from start through installation, skipping only the finishing stage that's handled by a dedicated three-person crew.
"We don't have one person doing the cutlist and another person doing sanding," Harden says. "They get their own projects. We are particular with who we hire. It's only for those who are really into the craftsmanship and not just looking for another job. And in the end, by having their own project, they get some satisfaction, they get the praise, the customer loves the work and so that's the whole idea here - keep them professional."
Seven of the 12 employees have been with the shop for at least nine years. Harden does most of the design work, primarily drafting and drawing, with a minimal amount of CAD work for special presentations. When he completes that process, he sends the plan to his shop foreman "who looks it over, is very smart and catches my mistakes." He reviews any questionable areas before the project is sent on to a builder.
Dennis Sidell leads the veteran crew with 25 years at The Harden House.
"We pay them well so we expect more out of them and they stay here. Maybe I'm overpaying. I did research on this area and we do have the highest pay rate in the area. Everyone also has their own parking spot, they get company shirts, and birthdays off. We try to maintain a close relationship with our employees. You can't dabble into their personal lives, but yet you are interested in what is going on and you pay attention to their life as well. I'm sure they have gripes - nobody is ever completely happy - but I think they like it here."
Harden has seen the high-end work dry up in the waterfront areas of greater Tampa Bay. There simply isn't much undeveloped waterfront property left in Clearwater, St. Petersburg or Tampa. So, with the assistance of his son, Todd Harden, the shop is extending its market reach as far south as Naples and west to Orlando. The expansion has been greeted with increased competition, especially during the last two to three years as the residential housing market floundered. Florida still has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.
"There is a lot of money around Tampa Bay, but I think it is new money. They really don't want to pay for things," Harden says. "That's why we are looking elsewhere. On the East Coast, people would rather pay more thinking they'll get a better piece. Here they want to pay less and think they'll get a better piece. You get what you pay for. People with $3 million houses only want a $50,000 or $60,000 cabinet contract."
Harden says he has been able to weather the economic storm by a combination of luck and his company's reputation.
"You have a history of contacts that call on you and those are the ones that keep us busy," he explains. "But there are many jobs we don't get, others we get even though we are higher and others we have to keep a sharp pencil to see where we can still be competitive."
He gave an example of how frustrating it can be as the owner of a custom cabinetry business at the moment. With unemployment so high, startup 'craftsmen' have suddenly emerged, claiming they can build and finish any project when they actually can't.
"We had a $400,000 contract for a house, calling for curved walls, curved crown and a lot of bells and whistles with carvings, and the contractor said he had a bid for less than half of that. There's no way. But he went ahead with it and the customer, after moving in four or five months ago, had to hire a finisher to try and do on-site work; that finisher took the money and now they can't find him. It's like, you're mad because you didn't get the job, but you're glad because they're finding out that it didn't pay. But that doesn't help you because you still lost the job and, in times like this, $400,000 is a good-sized job."
Even though waterfront property is difficult to find, there are still people with big bucks putting up huge homes in Pinellas County. Harden estimates that about 50 percent of his work comes from interior decorators and designers, about 30 percent from contractors and the remainder by word of mouth. He is pleased that he is developing contacts that call for repeat work.
"I always think that I'd like a customer that cares about what they are getting, as opposed to just a 10' cabinet. So the more they know, the smarter they are about cabinetry and the better we look. Yes, it's on the higher-end large houses. People who don't have vacation condos down here or second residences or they're moving from their main house. But I guess that's what we thrive on. Every house seems bigger than the last. It's amazing. But there is a lot of money here still. There are a lot of large houses that are going up. People are finding areas that are down a street that has houses that are 30, 40 years old, but when you get to the end, there's a big house."
Old versus new
Harden prefers traditional designs, but with a business noted for its finishing prowess, he admits he has warmed up to contemporary styles of cabinetry. Remember the old phrase, "change is good?"
"I like both. Traditional is more about the craftsmanship, while contemporary is about producing deep colors and great finishes. New technology is for that field. We've recently been on cabinetry that was very modern and high gloss, with the electronic doors and drawers that at a touch will open and close. If that concept carries on, it would be nice to enhance it even more."
When you sit down and talk with Harden, he clearly has a special feeling for his employees. He is like a proud new father when he speaks about his builders and finishers and the jobs they perform.
"Finishing is an art," he explains. "Because we are getting into the antique, distressed, glazed finishes and when there are four, five layers, everything has to be consistent. You also need to have a knack for where dings and scratches go. I think that sells our product sometimes. When I look at other shops, I know that we have good finishers. There are a lot of products out there and everybody has the best, you use what works, but it is the person out there that is applying it that makes the difference."
Ralph Harden is the type of guy who will continue to keep his nose to the grindstone, keep pushing ahead and at some future date probably turn the business over to his son. But that day appears to be a long way away.
"I've had the philosophy that as long as I could keep everybody working - and in these times you stretch out and start taking more things than you would normally want to look at. We haven't gotten to where we would like to be in 28 years. Are we a shop that started from scratch and made it into a multimillion-dollar company? No. Are we a shop that, compared to other cabinet shops, does great work? Yes. So we keep plugging along.
"At some point business is going to turn around and you still want to be here. I think we have a good group and a good philosophy. We may not make the big bucks, but we're maintaining."
And that seems to be a very appropriate attitude during these tough times for residential custom cabinetmakers.
Contact: The Harden House, 626 Grand Central St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Tel: 727-442-7546. www.thehardenhouse.com
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.