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Always an eye on the future

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In 2008, just as the recession took a hammer to the economy, Northside Cabinets Inc. was in the midst of a 13,000-sq.-ft. expansion and acquisition of state-of-the-art CNC equipment. Unlike many rivals, the Hillsborough, N.C., company didn't head south with the downturn, but prevailed thanks to a set of long-standing business principles including a conservative financial plan, a satisfied customer base and a healthy backlog of jobs.

Northside Cabinets operates out of a 13,000-square-foot shop in Hillsborough, N.C., producing architectural millwork.

More than a year later, company president Peter Singer recalls that period. "We were in a unique position to get through that difficult time. We won a number of bids prior to the contraction that kept us going."

President: Peter Singer Location: Hillsborough, N.C. Founded: 1982 Shop size: 25,000 sq. ft. Employees: 25 Annual gross: $4M in 2009

Regardless of those slack times, he and his wife, Debra, who helped start the business in 1982 and now serves as CFO, saw their way through with no layoffs and little interruption in day-to-day activities. "If someone didn't have something to do, I had them cleaning up the shop or washing trucks. I value my people too much to put them out of work and make their families suffer."

The experience may have strengthened Singer's resolve to keep building on a solid foundation. "My philosophy is what drives the business - do quality work, care for the customers, provide the best working conditions for my employees and be proactive in anticipating and correcting problems."

Although still in survival mode, Singer is not sitting on his laurels. "Things are always changing and I have to adapt to every change that comes along. We've converted to an improved computer program which will rapidly and accurately calculate updated estimates in response to changing qualifications and prices. But probably the biggest problem a company like ours has is the ebb and flow of jobs, which is the bane of our lives."

But there are some things that never change, namely, the importance of estimating job quotes for bids and clients. "Accurate calculation of quotes for competitive bids is essential to winning jobs and allowing clients to make decisions as well as being sure we make a reasonable profit. I depend on Matt Juliana, my right-hand man, to input data and operate our estimating program to come up with an accurate number. He's been on the money every time so far."

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The bigger picture

"Cabinet" doesn't begin to convey the breadth of woodworking services provided by Northside. Projects at Winston-Salem State University exemplify the wide capabilities and the medley of contours and materials that characterize Northside's profile. The interior of the college's fieldhouse incorporates metal, glass, Plexiglas, cherry and oak. Distinctive designs of lockers, windows and handrails reflect the academic atmosphere.

At Wake Medical Center in Raleigh, N.C., Singer's design called for the use of laminates and thermoformed Corian in the reception area of the pediatric emergency room. As the father of six, plus two adopted children, Singer is in tune with the young mind and its preferences and produced a whimsical, colorful environment.

Besides numerous educational and medical facilities, the company has completed hundreds of projects for corporations. Leith auto dealerships in Raleigh commissioned Northside to outfit a number of its showrooms. Singer has designed cabinetry and furniture for executive offices in several banks in North Carolina's Triangle area around Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Fitness centers, restaurants, museums and historic preservations are also part of the shop's portfolio.

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"I like variety and unusual projects, anything that's challenging I'll take on if there's time in the schedule. I like to design more than just about anything else," says Singer.

Building on the past

Singer's design preference reflects back to his years growing up in South Orange, N.J. Interests in school centered on ceramics, art, woodshop and outdoor activities. His dad, a retired firefighter and decorated war veteran, settled the family in an antiquated five-story Victorian house that often needed repairs.

"There wasn't any money to hire the work done, so we did it ourselves - roofing, painting, plumbing, basically everything," says Singer. "I also worked a couple of summers for my brother who built houses."

After graduating high school, Singer moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he had friends and family. He tried his hand at a number of jobs including teaching ceramics and carpentry. At one point he decided to enroll at the University of North Carolina to study business, thinking that would be the ticket to the more responsible jobs he always yearned for, but he found himself staring out the window during lectures and "all the professors sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher - 'Wawawa wawa wa.' It didn't take long to realize that college wasn't for me."

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Eventually, Singer formed his own residential construction firm. Then, while waiting for a subcontracted cabinetmaker to arrive at a job site, Singer revived an old yen to build cabinets and built-ins. He began doing small projects in some of the homes he built and slowly graduated to architectural millwork. Now punctuality is just one of the demands on himself and his employees. "Getting the job done according to contract is something I bird-dog all the time. We always deliver according to the agreed schedule." Confirmation of his reliability comes from the Better Business Bureau, which gives the company an A rating with zero complaints.

Facility fills every need

A top-notch, all-inclusive building serves Northside in every aspect of design, building and installing. When Singer drew up plans for the expansion, his vision included four pods: office and tech, custom shop, production shop and storage area. He was aiming to streamline the process from initial bid to installation and make the complex large enough to create a spacious feel. Each project begins under the guidance of Alisa Burgess, office manager in charge of purchasing, and flows to a three-man team of CAD technicians who produce construction plans and write programs for the CNC equipment.

If the project is a unique design, it lands in the custom pod managed by Bill Hull. As a 16-year employee at Northside, he speaks with satisfaction. "I like the variety of jobs Pete gives me. My old carpentry job I was doing more or less the same type of thing over and over. Here it's really interesting every day. For instance, I like rounded and curved lines and I have a chance to create those with our vacuum press. Then we also have an oven for thermoformed wood and laminates."

Northside created this concierge station for the Washington Duke Inn in Durham, N.C.

Singer recalls one of the most challenging and fun custom jobs the company undertook: a multi-building lobby area. There was to be a woven wall formed by cherry and bird's-eye maple tiles. The serpentine form had to fit in a designated area with no odd-dimensioned tiles at either end. Though Singer sticks mainly to getting new business and managing, he delved into the middle of that project because it had all the features he loves - it was challenging, intricate and unique. "We'll tackle anything, no matter how hard it is and make it work, no excuses." All the pieces fit together perfectly and now he can view a photograph of the finished wall on his computer with satisfaction and pride.

The production pod is managed by R. J. McCaskill, a 10-year employee, and like the custom area, it is designed to minimize movement of pieces and make the working atmosphere as pleasant as possible. The walls are a bright, reflective white, the lighting is superior, and the waste management and dust collection systems are the best quality. It's large and roomy with plenty of space to spread out the high-tech equipment, which includes a Holz-Her Triathlon 300 edgebander, Altendorf and Griggio sliding table saws, Kentwood six-head molder, Stiles profile grinder, Extrema double-head planner and shaper, Unitronex shaper, Timesavers sander, General International mortiser and a Blum hinge inserter.

Northside's work is also featured at Wake Forest's Heritage Hall.

The production lines in both workshop areas consume most of the company's total square footage and are humming - glue guns squirting into dowel holes of stock shelving for a library, the vacuum press bending cherry veneer for a contoured bar in a Durham restaurant, a sliding table saw cutting through bamboo destined for a North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation conference room. In the finish room, sealed off from the custom area, spray guns are wafting Chemcraft conversion varnishes and vinyl sealers onto completed veneer cabinets for the YMCA in Greensboro. All the finished products will be loaded onto the company van and installed by Singer's four-man crew. "I wouldn't have anyone else do my installations. I like being able to assure quality. I inspect all the jobs myself and guarantee everything for one year."

Track record

There are always at least three or four jobs under way simultaneously and none are generated by a penny of advertising. "I have a long list of satisfied contractors and architects who have called on me since I've been in business because they can depend on me." He did bend to his children's insistence and designed a website, which may develop into a good marketing tool. "It's brand-new and still needs improvements, but it's there if anyone wants to know about us."

As Singer makes his rounds toting plans and specs, he also has an e-book containing about five titles that he peruses when he has a minute. He likes mystery and science-fiction, but concentrates on management and personal improvement. "You can never learn too much and I like to know the ideas other managers have come up with." It appears he's doing a good job but, in his eyes, maybe not good enough. He's always mulling over how he can better serve his clients and his workers. He readily diverts the reason for his success to his staff. "A company is only as good as its employees. I'm lucky to have talented people who have a good work ethic, care about doing the work right, appreciate family and enjoy each other's company."

At 55, Singer has no intention of retiring soon, but he's thinking about the future when he can't or doesn't wish to call the shots. It seems the continued success of Northside Cabinets may live in a name. His youngest son, Peter, 17, has all the makings of a successor - talented woodworker and a desire to learn the business. After college, Peter Singer hopes he will step into his dad's shoes and walk the same walk. n

Contact: Northside Cabinets Inc., 301 Millstone Dr., Hillsborough, NC 27278. Tel: 919-732-6100.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.

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