Doing what they do best

34_doing_01The owners of Nelson's Cabinets Inc. make it their priority to keep up with current styles and trends using the latest in computer design software, machinery and quality materials. Whether the project is a house full of cabinets or just a few, their attention to detail sets the company apart.

Paul Nelson started the company as a residential custom cabinet shop out of his garage in 1981 and incorporated the business 10 years later when employee Steve Hoff became an equal partner. Presently manned with 10 employees, the Long Beach, Calif., headquarters is now the company's fourth shop location. The 10,000-sq.-ft. building houses more than $200,000 worth of high-tech machinery, including a MultiCam CNC router that has significantly increased production volume since it was purchased in 2004.

Steve Hoff and Paul Nelson

Owners of: Nelson’s Cabinets Inc.

Location: Long Beach, Calif.

Shop size: 10,000 sq. ft.

Employees: 10

About: Nelson’s Cabinets designs, builds and installs custom cabinets for high-end residential clients along the Southern California coast. The company prides itself in using its own specialized cabinet design software to show clients the plan view, wall elevations and 3-D drawings of their projects.

Quotable: “I think much of success in life stems from who you are as a man or woman and if you yourself are a person of integrity. If you have integrity, people will want to be near you, follow you or hire you. One of my many favorite sayings is to ‘Start with the end in mind.’ How do I want people to remember me or this business and then how do we get there from here?,” says Nelson.

However, good managerial attitudes are the key to keeping employee morale up, making the equipment only incidental to the company's success.

"We might be the owners, but we show up to work and leave at the end of the day with all the rest of the guys - if they have to be here early, then we should, too. That's a good leader. That doesn't mean that we are with them or all over them the rest of the day. In fact, it is our intent to give them the work and then stay out of their way so they can complete it. That works well for us," says Nelson.

The two have built up their residential cabinetry business to serve discerning high-end clients along the Southern California coast from Manhattan Beach to Laguna Beach. In the past, they have done only limited commercial work, but are keen on growing on that prospect as it offers an avenue for the business to flourish in the recovering economy.

A quick learner

Nelson grew up in the San Pedro, Calif., area and, as a young adult, he quickly realized he wanted a vocation where he could build things with his hands and stand back at the end of the day to look at what he'd accomplished. At the age of 20, Nelson got his first job in woodworking at a San Pedro cabinet shop where the owner was Helmut Leintz, a German craftsman. The only woodworking Nelson had done to that point was tinkering in the garage with his father's tools. Leintz hired Nelson after he qualified for a city program that subsidized 50 percent of his earnings.

"[Leintz] took time out to show me many of the techniques that he learned over in the Old Country. After three-and-a-half years with him, I was out on my own," says Nelson.

35_doing_02Nelson had a few jobs lined up before leaving Leintz's shop. Once his shop was operational, the work just kept coming in and he focused mainly on custom cabinetry for new and remodeled homes. Within three years, the business outgrew the garage and it was moved to a 2,500-sq.-ft. shop in Long Beach.

Hoff came aboard in 1987 without much woodworking experience. He says he was just looking for a 'real' job because he wanted his fiancé to become his wife. They married and Hoff bought half of the business in 1991.

"Don't tell anyone, but this area is a great place to live and work. Sometimes the traffic and congestion can start to get to you, but there are a lot of people and nice weather and nice homes," says Hoff.

The partners soon purchased their first computer and CAD software program, which increased client approval and brought more referrals. Growth, in terms of adding employees and machinery, has followed a steady upward trajectory through the years.

The bread and butter

35_doing_03The company has been in business for almost 30 years and still relies mostly on word-of-mouth advertising and cultivating long-term relationships with architects and general contractors.

"I think that's what primarily helped us to grow," says Nelson. "While a contractor is building a home four or five times a year, a homeowner is only going to remodel their kitchen once every 25 years. The contractor always has more opportunities coming to him and then he calls us because we're the cabinetry subcontractor."

35_doing_04Services include kitchens, whole home packages, baths, wall units and entertainment centers. The shop used to build stairs, but gave that up to focus on cabinetry. There's simply not enough time to do it all. Nelson's Cabinets produces about 75 kitchens per year.

When it comes to dealing with the competition, Nelson and Hoff just focus on serving their clients well, rather than spending time dwelling on other shops trying to outbid them.

"First impressions say it all," says Nelson. "It's usually our quick returning of calls, making appointments on time and a timely return with the thorough quote that shows the perspective client that we are ready and able to handle their project. Then when they see the color perspective and shop drawings, those really set them at ease, because then they know that we understand exactly what it is that they want with their cabinets."

Inside the shop

35_doing_05The shop builds face-frame and 32mm cabinetry, or really, whatever the customer wants.

"We go through a slew of contemporary, slab-type designs and use some of the special woods like wenge and walnut, ribbon-striped mahogany, but then again, those are also used with traditional designs, such as face-frame cabinetry with beaded inset doors," says Nelson.

"We still like using cherry, mahogany and maple. Recently we have done several more contemporary kitchens with bookmatched slab doors in rift-cut white oak, wenge and bamboo."

36_doing_07The shop has enjoyed a long relationship with Forest Plywood in La Mirada, Calif., for most of its hardwood and plywood needs. Doors are supplied from Decore-ative Specialties in Monrovia, Calif.

The company's machinery includes a:

  • MultiCam MG-NB 204 nested-based router
  • Brandt Optimat KDN 520 edgebander
  • SCMI Formula S1 MiniMax panel saw with Tiger Stop digital fence
  • Kaeser SK T rotary screw compressor
  • Ritter R-19F spindle line drill
  • Castle TSM-21 pocket screw cutter
  • Delta 10" table saw and 31-380 edge sander
  • OMGA MEC-300 ST precision miter saw
  • Northteck 20-hp dust collector
  • Davis & Wells 60" joiner
  • Rockwell 14" band saw
  • Pacco two, spindle horizontal pneumatic boring machine
  • Clark fork lift

36_doing_06The CNC runs with KCD and EnRoute software and the shop recently purchased Exodus estimating software. Nelson says KCD's design software, capable of producing color 3-D drawings, has been extremely beneficial on the sales side.

"To be able to show a housewife a 3-D rendering of her kitchen is just fantastic because she either goes 'That's exactly what I wanted' or 'That's not even close to what I wanted.' It used to be that when we'd draw things up by hand, which was tedious, and when we'd build it, we'd get an unexpected reaction."

Branching out?

37_doing_08Nelson's Cabinets grossed $1.6 million in 2007, which was the company's best year since it was incorporated. Revenue fell by 18 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2009. Nelson is optimistic about sales for later this year and expects to increase revenue. The shop's backlog is three to six weeks.

While relying on work from general contractors has its benefits, there can be slow times. Nelson believes that branching out into other avenues might be the only way to remain afloat.

37_doing_09"The old adage 'Do not put all your eggs in one basket seems,' to be true. So even though we are more residential than anything else, we hear about the commercial job availability out there and go, 'Oh, maybe we should start getting into that, too."

The company attends the biennial AWFS fair in Las Vegas to purchase machinery and keep up to date with the industry.

37_doing_10"Our plans are not so much to expand the shop square-footage-wise, but to streamline processes," says Nelson.

Contact: Nelson's Cabinets Inc., 2860 Seaboard Lane, Long Beach, CA 90805. Tel: 562-808-2200.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.