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Bed of roses

William Lawrence Murphy is credited with inventing the Murphy bed more than 100 years ago. It’s a bed that is hinged at one end to store vertically against a wall or inside a closet or cabinet. The design is said to be making a comeback, particularly among city dwellers living in tight quarters or as an extra bedroom in downsized family homes.

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It’s a niche product that Charles Kurak has made the focus of his woodworking business, Murphy Beds of Florida in Fernandina Beach, Fla. Kurak has taken the concept a step further, tweaking a previous design for a study desk that folds down to a bed, while capitalizing on the Murphy bed’s original hook as a space-saving solution.

“I get a very real sense of accomplishment by doing this. This is meeting someone’s specific need right in their own home and making them something that’s going to be around for decades. That you can’t put a price on,” Kurak says.

Kurak started the one-man shop in 2008. He has a comfortable 4,000-sq.-fit shop near his home with a showroom attached. His primary market extends about 200 miles. He generates about a third of his sales through a local home show and about half through his website.

“A Murphy bed is one of those tactile items where some customers know what it is, then see it on my website, and that’s great. But other people want to look, touch and feel it. They want to see the quality, feel the wood and they want to see it operate themselves before they go further and that’s hard to do over the Internet. I have a video on my website showing people how it opens and closes, but it’s not the same as seeing it in person,” Kurak says.

A computing background

Kurak has had a diverse career that spans more than 40 years. A native of New Jersey, he spent 14 years in the Navy as a data processing technician. He earned the rate of Chief Petty Officer (E-7) and qualified for Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist during his sea duty tour on the USS Saratoga, stationed in Mayport, Fla.

Kurak also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Thomas A. Edison State College in New Jersey; a master’s degree in computer science from University of North Florida in Jacksonville; and a master’s degree in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After his military duty, he worked for several large IT companies during a 10-year span and as a purchasing agent and management consultant.

But Kurak wanted a new challenge and became a cabinetmaker, founding C. Kurak Custom Woodworking that served the high-end residential and commercial markets. Once the recession hit in 2008, Kurak identified a market need for a guest bedroom/home office combination. He began to reinvent his custom cabinetry business, building Murphy beds to solve this space issue. After honing his craft, Kurak introduced his design of a Murphy bed product line to the public. He then added the study bed, which gives the homeowner the option to turn an office desk into a guest bed without moving anything off the desk. Business has continued to grow in double-digits since revamping the business.

What's behind door Nos. 3 and 4? A Murphy bed, of course, and maybe some surprise artwork.

Initially, Kurak focused on a creating a high-end product. Now it’s more about marketing. He exhibits twice a year at the Jacksonville Home and Patio Show, which attracts about 30,000 visitors.

“At the beginning. I spent a lot of emphasis on the technical end of things, making sure the products I made would last a long time. I didn’t really have a good handle on the marketing end of it,” Kurak says.

“Before the recession got bad, word of mouth was working and I was getting lots of work from designers. That was all I needed. Then the recession hit and the rules completely changed. I had to look for other ways to get work, learn about marketing, sales and advertising. If I were to do it over again, I’d still work hard at the technical end, but concentrate more on the marketing because you can have the greatest product in the world but if folks don’t know about you, you don’t have a business.”

Styles, designs and pricing

Since clients are often newcomers to Florida, many from New England, they often bring their regional style with them.

“Typically maple is the most popular wood selection because it’s a native hardwood for this part of the country,” Kurak says. “We have about a dozen different stain colors. We do stain grade and paint grade. As far as styles go, we have what I call contemporary, some people call Scandinavian, with the flat-slab doors. We also offer a flat panel or Shaker design and a beadboard look, which some people call wainscoting.”

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Kurak says his asking price is a combination of time, material and what the market will bear. He will not underbid his worth and holds a firm policy not to negotiate his prices.

“I have to make a gross profit. Otherwise, the company goes under. You’re not making money; you’re just funding it. It’s got to make a profit to sustain itself and grow.”

He says it’s important to know his competition, so he’s constantly looking at their websites and visiting showrooms. And his computer skills come in handy for the shop’s design and manufacturing software.

“[The software] helps me standardize production, but still be custom under the mass-customization concept,” Kurak says. “My background in computer science makes me think very logically. I’ve also learned about parallel processing, not multitasking, where multiple things happen at the same time.”

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Ready to grow

Kurak, serving his second term as vice president of the Cabinet Makers Association, says his volume of work has increased during the last year.

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“I’m not sure about the economy overall, but the folks that are buying my products have the discretionary funds to do this. When the recession hit, people in general were pretty reserved, but now they’re more relaxed in their spending. My demographic wants to have relatives visit them and use the Murphy beds. They know they’re getting a top-quality product and don’t try to talk me down in price.”

Kurak adds the goal for 2014 is to double last year’s sales.

“We have the fiscal capabilities of doing it. I’ve got the manpower available to do it. I’ve got the product refined quite well after doing this a number of years so I can build it quickly. I can handle an occasional rush project where someone needs me to get a bed to them immediately.” 

Contact: Murphy Beds of Florida, P.O. Box 15940, Fernandina Beach, FL 32035. Tel: 904-626-3977.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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