Risks and rewards

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30_risksandrewards_01When Dale Hagerty purchased Cabinets by Charron in Escondido, Calif., in 1979, the deal included a small customer base, some basic machinery and a few anxious employees. It was hard, even for Hagerty, to imagine that the business would prosper for another 31 years and counting.

"Thinking back now, I am quite surprised at some of the things that we were able to produce with what we had to work with," says Hagerty.

Owner: Dale Hagerty

Location: Escondido, Calif.

Shop: About 5,000 sq. ft.

Employees: Eight, but varies depending on backlog of work

About: Custom cabinet

business that specializes in providing all types of cabinetry for new custom homes and residential remodels.

Quotable: “I believe client relationship management is the cornerstone of a successful business. It takes less time and marketing dollars to win the opportunity to complete projects for clients, contractors, architects, designers, etc., with whom we have previously worked. We have already established their trust, they know they can count on our quality and that is really worth something to the client and to us.”

"What's different about the company now is that we are able to produce a far greater volume of work in a shorter amount of time. Except for hinges and slides, pretty much our only option when we started was to build every feature of the cabinets, both inside and out. We made our own Lazy Susans, spice racks, stemware racks; we even notched stock to make the lattice for wine racks. If we needed decorative fluting or other specialty moldings, we would figure out some way to produce it by using a table saw and router."

The current shop has a full complement of production machinery to supply custom cabinetry and millwork to its Southern California customers. What's most unusual about this shop is how Hagerty became the owner and how he's guided it through the years.

Gotta go where it's warm

Hagerty graduated in 1974 from the University of Florida's College of Architecture and Fine Arts, earning a bachelor's degree in building construction.

Since he was accustomed to Florida's climate, Hagerty's post-graduate plans pretty much focused on living where it doesn't snow. He was recruited to work for Bechtel, an international engineering, construction and project management firm, in its Southern California offices as a cost and scheduling engineer. The weather suited Hagerty and he stayed with the company through 1979.

"I enjoyed my time at Bechtel, and the hands-on scheduling and estimating experience turned out to be invaluable when I later got into the cabinet business."

31_risksandrewards_01But Hagerty's dream was to be self-employed, so he saved up to buy or invest in an existing business. "While I was still with Bechtel, I recognized that I could have had a good career. But there was just something missing and my entrepreneurial drive was kicking in, so I had to follow it," he says. "I was still single - without the responsibilities of a family - so I decided to strike out on my own. I liquidated everything, which left me with about $25,000."

A broker led him to Cabinets by Charron, named after its founder Bob Charron, housed in a former chicken hatchery just north of San Diego. It was a bold transaction for a young man, especially one without much woodworking experience. Still, he was confident in his abilities. "I am mechanically inclined and enjoy working with my hands. That, coupled with the experience I gained while I was working for Bechtel, made for a perfect match," says Hagerty.

Cabinets by Charron eventually moved to its currently facility in 1986. It features about 3,600 sq. ft. of manufacturing space and another 1,100 sq. ft. for storage. But Hagerty isn't a big believer in storing anything for very long.

"Staying on top of our schedule is imperative," he says. "It's to our benefit and to the client's benefit that we not begin a project so soon that the completed job takes up crucial workspace sitting out on our floor, but that it be completed and immediately delivered to the job site 'just-in-time' for the client's other subcontractors to stay on schedule. That requires regular communication."

32_risksandrewards_01These days Hagerty is seldom on the shop floor, but his employees know that his door is always open for guidance and advice. Most of his time is spent interacting with customers, estimating and designing.

His wife, Rhonda, who handles the administrative functions, has also switched careers. She was formerly an administrator of in-school computer-based learning programs for high-risk students and a high school English teacher.

"I like to be here because I like the interaction," she says, "especially with the female clients. We speak the same language. When 'Mr. and Mrs.' sit down here in the office for a consult, it becomes a family affair."

Scope of work

Originally, Cabinets by Charron's work was almost exclusively custom cabinetwork for new homes. But as the local population increased, Hagerty found a new market as a remodeler. He remains partial to residential construction, but has also tapped into a few commercial jobs, such as restaurants and corporate offices. He's been savvy enough to take on a variety of other jobs as well.

"Over the years, clients have asked us to create custom accent tables, wall panels to camouflage hidden entrances, custom-designed guitar storage to transport guitars during a tour, a box for cremains, and everything in between," he says.

"The size of the job doesn't really matter. We offer clients anything in cabinetry from a single item to a whole home package. Any cabinet that would be in a house, be it a kitchen, entertainment center, bathroom, built-in, bar or library, we do it. We offer a plethora of cabinet function and design options, many times beyond what clients have imagined."

34_risksandrewards_01Hagerty has always believed that if his shop does one thing very well, it will prosper.

"I determined long ago that we are a custom cabinet company, so when someone is going to redo their kitchen, we're that cog in the wheel. We don't do the countertops, we don't do floors ... we focus on meeting and exceeding our clients' expectations for the cabinetry portion of their projects.

"Often, clients have some idea of what they want before we meet. Our cabinetry designs are personal reflections of our clients' tastes and lifestyles. We always create our designs by listening to our clients' needs and preferences. Our slogan is 'It's about form. It's about function. It's about you.' Our cabinet solutions incorporate all three."

In keeping with the Cabinets by Charron's philosophy of "do one thing and do it well," the company does not have a finishing department. Typically, pieces are finished after an outside company has installed them. If a homeowner doesn't have a connection with a finisher, Hagerty will refer them to a finisher or hire a subcontractor.

The shop will work off professionally prepared plans or in-house designs. While most of the work is traditional face-frame cabinetry, Hagerty has recently seen an increase in contemporary commissions incorporating bamboo, Lyptus and other sustainable materials.

Hagerty has seen his share of trends come and go in Southern California.

"All through the '80s and into '90s, when we built cabinets for somebody, you hardly needed to ask them what they wanted. It was oak. In the last 10 to 15 years, oak has really fallen out of favor. Now people primarily go for cherry, maple or alder."

"Alder is plentiful. It is grown in the Pacific Northwest, is less costly than cherry or maple and can be stained many different colors. We've been doing more projects in alder than any other species and have been for many years now. That's the direction it seems to have gone."

A local clientele

A bulk of the shop's work comes from clients within an hour's drive. There have been the occasional jobs as far north as Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and the delivery of a small knockdown drawer to a repeat customer who moved to Hawaii.

35_risksandrewards_01But expanding outside of the local market has never been part of the plan. There are plenty of jobs to be had from the luxurious estates of Rancho Santa Fe and coastal communities of La Jolla and Del Mar, and new condos in downtown San Diego's revitalized Gaslamp Quarter. Hagerty is much more interested in generating repeat business.

"The customers who keep coming back for more are always important, but our relationships with them takes on an even greater significance during times of economic downturn, as they comprise an even larger percentage of our business.

35_risksandrewards_02"Some repeat clients ask us to give rooms we've built cabinets for in the past a new feel by using a different species of wood and more ornate door styles, for instance. Other clients come to us to with rooms in their home where we have not built previously. Some former clients come to us with plans for new homes or whole house cabinet remodels. Previous clients also lend credibility to our name when they recommend us to their friends and associates."

Tools and machinery

The shop floor features a Masterwood (Speedy 207) point-to-point boring machine; SCMI sliding table saw; Brandt KD 57 edgebander; Ritter face-frame assembly system; Delta Unisaw; 36" Timesavers wide belt sander; Safety Speed Cut panel router; and Williams & Hussey 6" molder/planer. An Oneida 10-hp central dust collection is housed outside of the main building.

Hagerty is gradually embracing modern technology. The point-to-point has reduced the handling of materials significantly and he's thinking about the next big purchase.

"When the economy improves, the next step, of course, is to replace the point-to-point with a flatbed router with drilling. At that point, we will have taken the step of breaking down panels from the table saw and combined all of (boring and grooving) steps at a single machine. Our efficiency will shoot up even more. Right now, though, I have a pretty good selection of machines for the size shop I have and for the operations that are required."

Future plans

Hagerty says he's been affected by the economy just like everyone else and knows he's fortunate to have endured what everyone hopes has been the worst. During the last couple of years, the shop's backlog has been generally less than it had been in years prior, but it's still in the six- to eight-week range.

He attributes much of his company's success during these slower times to its marketing efforts.

"To help fill the void, rather than just waiting for a contractor to call, we have expanded our presence in the Yellow Pages. However, the most significant source of clients has been our company's Web site. It is quite interesting how clients over 50 or 60 years old seem to find us through the Yellow Pages and the younger set finds us over the Internet.

"We do anticipate growth in the years ahead. Although mortgages are harder to come by, current real estate values have made it possible for buyers to get more home for their money. They can now delegate for home improvements what would have been consumed as part of their buying budget three years ago.

"I look back and recognize I started out in high-end residential construction; that's the niche that I found and the market that I enjoy. But I've taken pleasure in the addition of a broader scope of work. It's all interesting and I like it, so what I plan to do in the future is probably going to be more of the same."

Contact: Cabinets by Charron Inc., 1930 Commercial St., Escondido, CA 92029. Tel: 760-741-9442. www.cabinetsbycharron.com

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.