A little more than 30 years ago, without any formal training to guide him, Jim Bucko started a custom woodworking company on pure determination. The shop, now called Custom Cabinets by Jim Bucko, serves the residential and commercial markets in the coastal community of Wildwood, N.J., fueled by Bucko’s long-term relationships with several of the area’s builders and developers.
Though business is now running smoothly, that wasn’t always the case for the company, which filed for bankruptcy during the late 1980s. Persistent by nature, Bucko managed to get sales rolling again, taking a lesson or two from each experience.
“I learned by making mistakes. I probably made every one there is to make,” he says with a laugh.
Fast start and end
Bucko grew up in Pawtucket, R.I., and graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1969. He eventually moved to Cape May, N.J., and worked in a book factory for a number of years while doing odd jobs on the side. He remodeled kitchens with a neighbor who had a cabinet shop and discovered he was a natural at it. In 1980, he established Atlantic Custom Cabinets, specializing in custom plastic laminate products.
Jim Bucko Owner of: Custom Cabinets by Jim Bucko Inc. Location: Wildwood, N.J. Shop size: 5,200 sq. ft. Number of employees: 5 Average annual gross: $900,000 About: Established in 1980, the company is a full-service cabinet shop that provides an array of cabinetry in a wide choice of woods and finishes to local clientele. Quotable: “One of the biggest misconceptions about custom cabinets is the fact that most people think they are more expensive than stock cabinets. In reality, we have found when we are competing against mid-grade or high-end cabinets, we are almost always less.”
Within a year, he landed an order of 120 vanities for a 60-unit condo development. An even bigger job followed — for about 500 units — and Bucko hired his first employee to keep up with the work.
“At that point, I was anticipating growth, so I bought some more machinery. Still, we were cutting every single cabinet by hand. Eventually I got smart and began outsourcing components through Stevens Industries,” says Bucko.
Then the economy went in the tank, just after Bucko had purchased a 12,000-sq.-ft. building for a shop, showroom and warehouse. The bank ended up with the building and Bucko had to start over.
“In 1988, I did $650,000 worth of business. In 1989, it went down to $350,000. The  unit job stopped construction for a couple of years and all the money I thought was coming in just went away for a while,” he says.
So he became a salesman for a kitchen cabinet dealer in Atlantic City. When that company experienced problems, Bucko rented a 500-sq.-ft. shop and made the cabinets himself. The economy finally recovered and Custom Cabinets by Jim Buck was established in 1992.
“I knew there would be work again because there are so many motels in the area, and I knew there would be enough work to keep me busy. I also had faith in the economy picking back up,” says Bucko.
Clients and styles
Most of Bucko’s customers are referrals. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, so I know a lot of people. We have a couple of builders I work with and they send their people right to me. We do design, installation and everything for them. Most of that work is in Cape May. I have a general contractor who lives up near Atlantic City.”
About 60 percent of the shop’s work is residential. Bucko also has a good bit of commercial work for medical offices, banks and retailers. Most jobs are within a half-hour drive.
Clients mainly prefer a modern look with painted, frameless cabinets. An average kitchen sells for about $22,000. Bucko tells clients that it costs less to produce a custom cabinet, using higher quality materials, than it does to buy, alter and resell a pre made cabinet. Aside from cabinetry, there are often requests for hotel furniture, such as media stands, headboards and dressers.
“It’s hard to pin down one thing we do; everything is just so unique. One thing that’s helped a lot is the minimal competition. One of the problems is that in the wintertime it’s slow, and that’s my busy time. There are a lot of motels here so I don’t know why there are not a lot of cabinet shops to meet the remodeling needs. I’m guessing because this is primarily a summer area.
“About 60 percent of our kitchens are painted and the rest are stained. White has always been the No. 1 color since I’ve been in business. We’ve done lots of antique and distressed white finishes recently.”
An oceanside shop
Bucko’s shop is about five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, close enough to pick up the scent of sunblock and the bustling noise of the boardwalk crowd. During the last year, Bucko accomplished one of his long-term goals, which was to add an office and showroom space.
The shop features a Streibig panel saw; Altendorf slider; Powermatic, Delta and Jet table saws; Gannomat case clamp and boring machine; Ayen line-drilling machine; Grizzly planers and sanders; Pinske Edge thermoforming oven; and Kremlin finishing equipment. There’s currently no CNC machinery.
“We do such a diverse offering right now that it’s not worth my while. I feel like I have more control over my operation as it is,” says Bucko.
Bucko had five employees when Woodshop News visited, down from a high of seven. There’s not a lot of turnover among the full-time crew. Part-timers are hired as needed, usually in the winter months.
Bucko takes care of designs, estimates, ordering materials and finishing applications, using spray lacquer and water-based paints.
After what he experienced in the ’80s, Bucko knows never to trust the economy. In fact, he says a look at his recent books will show that 2008 was the company’s best year; 2009 was the worst; 2010 improved on the previous year; and 2011 is proving to be a very good year.
“I was affected in 2009. From March to October, I experienced a big downturn and just bit the bullet. My business doesn’t depend on new customers, but a huge base of people who know me. And, like the tide, they roll in and back out again.”
With the showroom finally complete, Bucko has noticed a void in the local ceramic tile market and plans to expand his operation in that direction.
In the big picture, Bucko wants to find someone interested in running the shop so he can think about retiring. His son, Paul, is already on the payroll as an installer and might be next in line.
But Bucko’s got too much going on at the moment to think about retirement.
“We had 13 kitchens earlier this year,” he says. “The last couple of months have been relatively slow, but it gave us a lot of time to get our other jobs finished. Now, heading into the winter, we just got a big job for a motel making furniture for 65 rooms and we’re going to be making 45 kitchens for another motel.”
Contact: Custom Cabinets by Jim Bucko Inc., 135 W. Burk Ave., Wildwood, NJ 08260. Tel: 609-522-7445. www.jimbucko.com
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.