Survival of the fittest

31_kentGregory St. John attended the Cleveland School of Art to be a painter or perhaps a sculptor - at least that was the plan. Instead, St. John became a woodworker and, more than 30 years later, is the proud owner of St. John's Bridge, a five-man shop in Kent, Conn.

St. John's journey through the sawdust happened almost by chance while he was in his early 20s. He and a friend rented a loft that they quickly discovered was above a high-end cabinet shop. The short commute suited St. John, who got a job as an apprentice and learned the basics.

30_kent_03Gregory St. John

Location: Kent, Conn.

Education: Cleveland School of Art, where he studied painting, printmaking and sculptural art

Employees: three full-time cabinetmakers, one full-time draftsman

Experience: nearly 30 years

Shop size: 8,000 sq. ft.

Dealing with diversity of work: “Several years ago, we were doing a kitchen where the client wanted all the cabinetry hand-planed, the drawers had to be hand-dovetailed; everything was 100 percent traditional. At the same time we were working in an apartment in New York City doing bubinga and eucalyptus veneer work. To me it makes your head spin, but I love the challenge of that extreme pressure.”

"I was in the Chicago shop for quite a few years, then went to graduate school at Hunter College in New York and went to work for a shop in Manhattan," says St. John. "I ended up moving to Providence, R.I., and became part of a cooperative shop in Fall River, Mass., for about six years. That was a really good experience because it was me, another cabinetmaker and a guy who built pipe organs for churches. There was a contractor who was also involved and I really picked up a lot from him. I learned a lot about doing dovetail casework and how things went together. It was a really great group of guys."

He felt prepared to open his own shop in 1996 that specializes in custom furniture, cabinetry and millwork.

30_kent_01"I get off on challenges, so I court a lot of clients who want what they want. My job is to make whatever their vision is to come into reality," says St. John. "I get to work on some really cool kitchens and they have become really challenging. We just did a project where we were working with this sinker lumber that they pull out of the Great Lakes. It's just really beautiful material.

"The furniture [work] comes and goes. Some years we do a lot, then it disappears. A lot of the cabinetry we have done historically is basically furniture; it's that type of level of cabinetry."

Multitasker

As the owner of a small shop, St. John assumes many roles: supervisor, marketer and designer, which he especially relishes. He's got the energy to do all three at once.

"I approach the world as though I enjoy people," he says. "I work with architects, interior designers, builders ... I work with all walks of life and communication is key. I spend a lot of time writing and talking with people to find exactly what they want.

"If it is their vision, I will try to make their vision. I always go back to the point of view that whoever my client is I'm bringing forth their vision of what they want."

Kent is a small wealthy town in western Connecticut and many of St. John's projects are for owners of second, third and fourth homes. Although much of his work is fairly local, some of it is also in New York City, which is about two hours away.

32_kent"We do a lot of work in Connecticut and we do a lot of work in New York. We've gone as far as a house in Ketchum, Idaho. We've done a house in Florida; we go where our clients are. And we've worked for a president of the United States and a lot of high-profile individuals.

"When I started here, I was very, very poor and ... it was a very slow process when it came to meeting people and slowly building this business, but there has been a steady growth up until the last couple years, growing at a steady pace every year. It's been a very good experience and I love this area. Litchfield County is a great place to be."

Dealing with the economy

As any shop owner knows, the last two years have been very difficult. In 2008, St. John had a backlog of about a year. Today it is a little more than two months. He used to turn jobs down because he didn't want his backlog to exceed a year; now times have obviously changed.

33_kent"What has been kind of interesting has been for many years, for the volume of woodworkers in this general surrounding, work was very easy. You were bidding, but very often there were a lot of no-bid situations. But now, in the new economy, it has become much more competitive. We are very conscious of numbers, which is very hard because you want to give people the same quality that you have traditionally done, but you are trying to do it a little faster and a little cheaper. Achieving that balance is a very complicated game.

"I've been much more aggressive about pricing, which I'm being forced to do because I see such disparaging numbers. I've seen people low-blowing things and God knows how they are doing it. You get what you pay for and I also think it is one of those things where you can lose money once, but losing it twice is not too good and losing it three times you might not survive. So you have to kind of stay at your price point."

30_kent_02However, St. John believes there are signs of a turnaround.

"It seems that in the last few months I am bidding on a lot more work and there are definitely more things happening. They are not going to happen tomorrow, but there are definitely foundations going in; there's more interest and I'm on phone calls into [New York City] all the time. It's still moving very slowly, but compared to a year ago I see a distinct change. I think it is real because I've been doing this a long time. It's moving and I see the bottom feeders aren't as strong.

"This economy thing has been a testing period of time and before the great change I was definitely thinking about expanding the facility and growing because, historically, I have had to turn down a huge amount of work. In the new economy, I will definitely need more space down the road. Basically I am the king of readdressing everything and seeing where the economy goes. But my direction hasn't changed that much."

Contact: St. John's Bridge, 25 Railroad St., P.O. Box 41, Kent, CT 06757. Tel: 860-927-3315. www.stjohnsbridge.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.