Only the beginning

26_featureLocated in Flagstaff, Ariz., Distinctive Woodworks Inc. is a designer, manufacturer and installer of fine cabinets, moldings and wood interiors for commercial and residential clients. Owner Brad Clark has a team of eight experienced professionals focused on quality and customer satisfaction. From design to install, the team understands its role in producing well-built products on time.

Clark describes himself as an old-school cabinetmaker surrounded by high-tech people. His knowledge of the industry and his dedication has kept business rolling in, even as his competition dwindles because of the challenging economy. Yet he remains humble and knows that every day requires the same amount of hard work as the last in order to keep the doors open.

“It hasn’t been easy for me; it’s been a struggle. In a small town, you’ve got to be diverse. You can’t find a niche market. You’ve got to be able to do a wide variety of things to survive,” says Clark.

Opportunity knocks

Clark grew up in Redlands, Calif., where he developed an appreciation for working with his hands, particularly on cars, but also at woodworking. He eventually took up geology and attended Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff for a year before deciding that route was not for him. He moved back to California where he got in touch with his seventh-grade shop teacher, who owned a cabinet shop.

“I walked in and introduced myself and he put me to work the very next day unloading trucks and sweeping the floor. By exposure, I learned how to identify wood species, how to properly unload particleboard, apply stains and lacquers. I took to it and was really excited about it.”

27_feature_1Brad Clark

Of: Distinctive Woodworks Inc.

Location: Flagstaff, Ariz.

Shop size: 8,000 sq. ft.

Employees: Eight

Average annual gross: $980,000

About: Distinctive Woodworks is a custom woodworking shop in northern Arizona established in 1985.

Learning while he earned, Clark advanced quickly and felt that woodworking was his true calling. In 1982, he and his wife, Jayne, moved to Flagstaff where he worked for several cabinet shops. At one of them, opportunity knocked when a boss decided he’d rather focus on modular cabinets than custom work.

“I didn’t want to become a salesman for him, so I offered to rent the back part of his shop and do custom work,” says Clark, who was officially in business by 1985. “It was a good partnership because he would feed me custom things that he couldn’t buy from a catalog, like fireplace mantles to match modular cabinets.”

Meanwhile, Clark built his own designs under the name Distinctive Woodworks. Slowly but surely, his customer base grew.

“You earn a customer’s trust and they call you back. I didn’t have any great marketing strategy, just one referral after another,” says Clark. Still, it took him five years before he could afford a shop to call his own.

Flagstaff and beyond

Initially, Clark’s clients were based mostly in Flagstaff, about 140 miles north of Phoenix. He has since branched out to neighboring communities with residential work accounting for about 60 percent of his business. For a time, Flagstaff’s growth meant more commercial work, but the sluggish economy has taken some of that away.

“When communities were expanding and a subdivision came, that would prompt more commerce. When Flagstaff got to 50,000 people, we saw a Home Depot, Olive Garden and Red Lobster come in. It takes a certain population base to support those kinds of stores and once Flagstaff reached that milestone, there was a lot of commercial work. Along with that, hospitals expanded, doctors, dentists, law offices, chiropractic offices and ice cream parlors came to town, and they all needed commercial casework.

“I haven’t had to spend much money advertising or marketing; it’s all word of mouth. And once you hook up with about five or six general contractors, that’s your best source and they’ll do the selling for you.”

27_feature_2Clark says the company’s bread-and-butter products include basic cabinets, laminate countertops, entertainment centers, wet bars and bookcases. “We’re pretty willing to do anything. We’ll also do custom ceilings, millwork and doors on occasion.”

Designs ideas are usually the result of a brainstorming effort between Clark and his clients.

“We’ll use their magazine pictures and give our own recommendations about what does and doesn’t work. We’ll work with interior designers on helping select stain colors, etc. A lot of times the designers have a good knowledge of solid surface and laminate colors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of calls lately for Shaker-style cabinets, but we still do raised-panel doors with nice crown molding.”

Client preferences are mostly about individual taste, which Clark attributes to Arizona’s rapidly increasing population.

“The East Coast has a lot of nice millwork, and I believe that when the Old World craftsmen migrated west, they didn’t take a lot of things with them. They got out to the Midwest and saw new things and developed their own styles. Here, I’ve seen just about everything, from the simple to the wild. Flagstaff has acquired high-end golf resorts and, with that, they brought a lot of people with money in to spend on their high-end homes.”

Finishing preferences have become very sophisticated through the years, says Clark.

“There was a time when you could open a can, stain it and add a few coats of lacquer. Now it’s base stain coats, glazing, using dye stains … there’s almost a seven-coat finishing system to get that rich look clients want.”

The most common wood requested is alder, both knotty and clear, followed by cherry and oak. Veneer over MDF accounts for about 20 percent of the shop’s work.

In the shop

Clark purchased his 8,000-sq.-ft. shop in Bellmont, west of Flagstaff, in 2005. He acquired a Biesse CNC router soon after and the workflow improved. Clark says he gets much more accurate work done in much less time, and that the machine is comparable to having an additional two employees. He admits he needed a push to make the purchase.

28_feature“I read trade journals for years to see what other shops were doing and kept weighing it out. I was scared to make the decision, but I had a good salesman with Biesse whom I was able to express my concerns and fears with. I’m glad I made the purchase because it gave us the opportunity as a small shop to do a lot of work and some sophisticated work with radiuses and wow the clients.”

Clark currently has eight employees, with four in the office, two on the shop floor, and two installers. Clark wears many hats, as needed, as the estimator, purchaser, shop supervisor and installer. He’s been more hands-on than ever before to keep up with the workload, which is improving his prospects.

“Now that I’m back in the field, I’m doing lots of unintentional networking and I’m enjoying it. Everyone I talk to is crying the blues and commiserating about the economy, but at the same time we’re all finding better ways of doing things.”

Stability is the goal

Lately, Clark has only seen incremental increases in his profit margins, but he remains hopeful because of his current backlog. He says one obstacle that stands in the way of his financial goals is the practice of underbidding by competitors.

“When the competition’s bidding is really low you’ve either got to give up and file for bankruptcy or get smart, analyze the competition and find a way to beat it,” says Clark, who makes a point to look at the way his competitors handle their business matters and improve his own based on their mistakes. He has already learned that he can be more efficient by doing better accounting and pouring over drawings to assure there are no mistakes.

29_feature“I’m hoping this year that with the successful bidding we’ve done in the commercial sector, I’m going to reach $1 million gross. We’ve got our work cut out for us and we’ve got to really push,” he says, adding that his best year was 2008 with $1.2 million and the same number of employees.

Clark says that, aside from the financial challenges, problems can arise throughout the course of the project. There can arise a great deal of tension stemming from decisions that need to be made, clients that change their mind, delays of materials or jobs, and mistakes. But the finished product makes everything worth it in the end.

“As you’re winding up and wrapping up your tools and you do a last little touch-up on your cabinet and look back at your work, you take a big sigh of relief and go to the next job. That’s the intrinsic value. It’s a feeling that gives you the confidence to go and do it again.”

Contact: Distinctive Woodworks Inc., P.O. Box 668, Flagstaff, AZ 86002. Tel: 928-774-7295. www.distinctivewoodworksaz.com

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.