Cohen Architectural Woodworking in St. James, Mo. is a custom commercial woodworking and millwork company operating on a national scale. It employs approximately 80 individuals and operates out of a 55,000-sq.-ft. facility. Since its formation in 1982, it has completed jobs in all 50 states and earned notoriety through happy clients, as well as awards and accolades.
Sales topped off at $12.5 million last year, and the company is still in excellent financial health despite some impact from the Covid-19 pandemic. Founder and principle Phil Cohen, with the helping hand of his wife Gina, attributes the company’s longstanding success to the team within. It’s a village, as he puts it, which needs to be nurtured with a strong positive culture to reap bountiful rewards.
“A company is run by a human spirit, by human energy. As you get that energy flowing strong in one direction, you’ll have a healthy village that creates wealth for its customers to sustain itself,” says Cohen.
Decades ago, Cohen never dreamed of owning a business of any sort, let alone a large custom woodworking company. He endured a difficult childhood, and in turn made some detrimental decisions as a young adult. Through woodworking, he turned his life around.
Woodworking to the rescue
Born in Chicago, Cohen moved all over the map as he approached adulthood. Transparent about his dysfunctional past, he discusses the hard times.
“I grew up in a lot of violence. Our home was abusive. My father committed suicide and my mother tried multiple times. I was homeless for several years, doing hard drugs, wandering around the country, and ended up in central Tennessee on a mountain in one of the poorest counties,” says Cohen.
It was 1975 when he settled in that rural and isolated area near the town of Altamont at the age of 25. He hadn’t been able to hold a job to that point and things needed to change.
“I had taken a woodworking class in high school, so I started building porch swings in a neighbor’s pig pen out of walnut, cherry and cedar I got from local sawmills. I got $20 for those. It took a day to build and it cost $10 for the material. I was so messed up from all the drugs, abuse I went through, and my dad’s suicide that woodworking was just my therapy.”
He married Gina the following year. “We couldn’t afford groceries. We had to raise our own food. We started making wooden trucks with roller skate wheels, baby cradles and birdhouses. Then we built a house with used building materials. It cost $12,000. I tried farming, carpentry and odd jobs. I was a mess trying different things.”
Cohen made a new friend around that time named John Heubi who had apprenticed with a German cabinetmaker. Mostly conversing by phone, the two discussed the ins and outs of woodworking for about five years. The most important lesson Cohen took away was what he calls the heart of a craftsman; that a great craftsman can build something beautiful out of whatever he has because his skills are in his heart and in his hands.
With a growing family to support – the Cohens have nine children - he started Country Woodshop in 1982 building kitchen cabinets and simple furniture for neighbors. In 1984, a golden opportunity took things to a whole new level.
“Through a chain of events, I started working for Bencor, a general contractor owned by future U.S. Senator Bob Corker. Among other projects, they were building Walmart stores. So, we got on the ground floor with Walmart, and ended up doing over 850 Walmart stores over the years.
“We started doing more national work and business was surging. Our children worked for us and we used a lot of local people from the community. We cranked out a lot of work.”
The Cohens moved to Kentucky in 1994 and four years later moved to southern Missouri, then to St. James in 2004 where they built their current shop and changed the name to Cohen Architectural Woodworking. Starting from the pigpen to where they are now, the series of shops they worked in over the years went from primitive to pristine.
“When we built our 12,000-sq.ft. shop up here, I thought I’d never have to expand. I was in for a big surprise,” he says.
Thriving commercial niche
From elaborate custom reception desks to exam rooms, airport terminals, restaurant booths and more, current jobs generally entail work at healthcare facilities, restaurants, airports, offices, and retail stores throughout the country. Clients have also included Lowe’s, Olive Garden, T-Mobile, and Toys R Us.
Commercial work suits Cohen. “Commercial work is more of a discipline where residential is more emotional. It’s also an advantage since we’ve always been in rural areas. To scale a company to $12.5 million you can’t do much local work,” he says. “We’re agile. We know how to ship work around the country, we don’t mind traveling, and we have connections with several installation crews.”
The shop has a variety of automated equipment including three CNCs, two edgebanders, two dowel inserters, and three clamping machines that help keep jobs moving out the door. It relies on Innergy ERP software for project management.
While he revels in company growth, Cohen also keeps true to his personal mantra of keeping a healthy infrastructure.
“In 2015, we had done $6.4 million and were doing our annual planning. We were in good shape financially, and somebody said we should try for $10 million. I wasn’t sure about that. I said, ‘Joe might lose his marriage, and Fred might cut his fingers off and Bill might have a heart attack. Our best employees might burn out and leave.
“I created a PowerPoint and said, ‘What if we don’t set financial goals and instead concentrate on a healthy root system like caring for each other, praying together, good money management and just creating a healthy company. We promise our customer was the finest craftsmanship, excellent relationships and on-time delivery, and I said, ‘If we have a healthy root system, I think we can do that.’ To our surprise we did $11.8 million that year.
“The most important thing is to have a strong infrastructure. That needs to be stronger than your sales. When sales are stronger than that, you collapse,” says Cohen.
A cared-for crew
Cohen is well-known in his community and beyond for hiring those who need not only work, but a second chance and a better life.
“We’re unique about who we hire. Many of our people have come through difficulty. Some have been in prison, were drug addicts, or have PTSD from combat. Some came from broken homes. Some come from good career paths and want to devote themselves to doing something that matters.
“We’re a faith-based company. We don’t care where people came from, we tell them to draw a hard line and don’t cross it and we’ll help you get better, so we give each other a chance and rise to our potential. If they want to move forward, we’re here to help them get there.”
Cohen says he sees anxiety levels of new hires drop within a few weeks of being on the shop floor because they feel safe and cared for. After all, he knows from being there himself.
“We help people buy cars. They get ripped off on cars and high car loans, so a few local car dealers have promised to treat them fairly, and a local bank offers a offer a good interest rate if they’re in good standing here. A local prosecutor offered to show leniency to help clean up their driving record if they are in good standing here and show an honest effort to straighten up their lives. Everything we do is about caring for them and their families.”
Good planning and hard work
Their meticulous planning showed when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year, as they handled it like they would anything else. They didn’t shut down or issue any layoffs.
“We practice good hiring processes, we operate debt free, we manage ourselves well and maintain cash reserves. It’s almost like when the Covid crisis hit we were ready for it. I began thinking about how we were going to exit this as a better company.”
Cohen said many of their projects were put on hold, so they kept people busy with training, deep cleaning the shop, and upgrading software. Miraculously they showed a small profit for April. By mid-May, they already were ramping up operations to fill a rush order for sneeze guards for a large national restaurant chain.
He and Gina have a retirement plan in place in which four of their children who work full time for the business are currently paying off a note to their parents to own the building. As Phil phases out of the business, he says his dream is to do some consulting to help other struggling companies become strong and healthy.
“I’m a visionary by nature. Even when I was homeless out on the road hitch-hiking I just wanted to see as far in the distance as I could. My way of coping with the present is seeing something better in the future. I’ve just cultivated that.”
Contact: Cohen Architectural Woodworking, 9 Industrial Dr., St. James, MO 65559. Tel: 573-265-7070. www.cohenwoodworking.com
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.