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Building business in the bayou

Located minutes from the festive atmosphere of downtown New Orleans, Custom Cabinet Specialties of Harahan, La., is a full-service woodworking company serving both commercial and residential clients throughout the city and its outskirts.

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The company has experienced such an increase in work volume in recent years that its owner, Dale Smith, relocated to a larger facility in May to give his employees more elbow room. The new 10,500-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art facility is manned with 12 skilled employees. The shop specializes in high-end work for some of the area’s most prominent hospitals.

Smith believes his company’s success is simply driven by his team’s eagerness to complete new projects promptly and properly. This mantra has helped the business remain ahead of the competition and retain referrals for future work. Because of his strong work ethic, it should be no surprise Smith reopened the shop two days after Hurricane Katrina wiped out portions of the city beyond repair in 2005.

“You don’t want to let anybody down. These customers relied on us prior to the hurricane so we definitely tried to keep everybody happy, which was impossible, but we tried,” says Smith.

Starting from scratch

Smith essentially started woodworking without any prior experience in the early 1990s when his first child, a daughter, was born. It was time, as he puts it, to get a real job.

Dale Smith Owner of: Custom Cabinet Specialties Established: 2004 Location: Harahan, La. Employees: 12 Shop size: 10,500 sq. ft. Quotable: “Take advice from others. If anybody’s in business and they’re willing to sit down with you and really give it to you from the heart, take it. Because obviously they’ve been there and advice helps. And advice that I’ve taken from others really helped me to be somewhat successful and I hope to pass that off to others as well.”

“I went down to the labor office and applied for a job as a helper at a cabinet shop here in the city and it kind of soared from there. I knew nothing about cabinetmaking. [My wife and I] had lived with my parents and I had to go home and ask my father to teach me how to read a tape measure, which is pretty bad — it wasn’t good at all. But within six years, I was managing and running that facility.”

Smith opened Custom Cabinet Specialties in 2004 with one employee. Using connections he’d made through his former employer, he was able to find work immediately and built a backlog.

Within the first six months, the shop’s workload required 28 employees. But the expansion was so drastic Smith had to scale back quickly to make the business more manageable. He’s in a comfort zone with a dozen employees and appreciates their talents. He’s very aware that a lack of skilled help is one of the many dynamics changing in the cabinet industry.

“Cabinetmakers like myself are a dying trade. I believe that. People that I talk to at the Atlanta show [IWF] every two years, there are people from around the world saying that, too. Thank God for machinery, but still, there just aren’t enough people out there that want to learn this and make something of it.”

Loyal clients

Whether working for a hospital, restaurant, bank, local university or even a private home, obtaining work has never seemed to be problem for Smith, who relies solely on referrals and industry connections.

“My clients absolutely trusted me back then and they do today. I have repeat clientele that doesn’t question anything. They just want what they want and they want us to do it.”

The client base is about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent residential.

From a 10,500-sq.-ft. shop, CCS serves a predominantly commercial clientele.

“Residential work, in my opinion, is a really a high-end kitchen or a very expensive entertainment center or units for living rooms; not just a remodel. That’s what we do,” says Smith.

The shop offers complete design and build services, all done in-house. Just about any request will be honored.

“If I don’t know how to do it, you can believe that by the time we talk again I will know how to do it; I promise you. So I want to say I can build you anything. I’m pretty confident in that. I try to teach others this, that even if you don’t know how to do it, never lead your customer to believe that you don’t. You can do anything that they wish. I’ve always said this to my guys — you just need the drive and you can achieve anything.”

Smith acquires most of his commercial work from architects and interior designers working in New Orleans. The shop has contracts with many of the area’s largest health care facilities.

“Often times a hospital will try to get a doctor to come from a specialized field. So we’ll make a complete specialized build-out in a hospital just to bring a new employee on board with them in that facility. That happens quite often with just about all of them,” says Smith.

Other commercial projects include work in well-known New Orleans locations such as Acme Oyster House, Houston’s Restaurant, Celebration Church and Loyola University.

The shop's work is featured in the lobby of the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.

The styles of commercial work in the New Orleans area are evolving rapidly from purely traditional to diverse modern, ranging from the historical architecture in downtown buildings to the modern development schemes in the city’s suburbs. Because the company mainly services commercial institutions, it uses a 50/50 mix of hardwoods and alternative materials.

“The architectural style of New Orleans has lots of different solid woods, large columns to the houses, and some of the facilities we service are trying to recoup that traditional character. It’s what people love in New Orleans. In the health care facilities, we build a lot of high-pressure laminate cabinets and use lots of solid surface, which is really becoming more and more popular than laminate.”

Shop operations

Smith does all of the estimating and oversees the two-person CAD department. But he hasn’t stayed away from the shop floor.

“I make sure all employees understand that I’m not the boss that sits in the office and cannot do the work. There are companies that I know of that that owner really doesn’t know cabinetmaking that well. I can get in the shop and work circles around any one of them any day of the week.

“My employees are all very skilled in every aspect of the shop. My theory has always been that if I want somebody to put boxes together all day long, anybody can do that. But I want you to put boxes together and be able to build me a curved desk at the same time. We have a CNC, but I do try to require them to do some projects by hand.”

Smith keeps a watchful eye on his son.

Major machinery includes a Biesse Rover CNC point-to-point machining center; SCMI edgebander; Altendorf sliding table saw; Cam-Wood router; Evans countertop miter saw; Powermatic sliding table saw, widebelt sander, planer, jointer and drill press; and Williams & Hussey molder.

Smith is a regular visitor to the IWF show to look at new machinery and network with colleagues.

“It’s a good way to know what’s happening in the rest of the country and the other side of the world. When you talk to somebody in the U.K. and he’s telling you the exact same problems that you have already here, whether it’s something about an employee or a machine, it’s like ‘Wow, I thought it was just us here in the U.S.’”

Work volume

The recent downturn actually helped Smith catch up on the shop’s backlog. “Work died down to what I can comfortably manage,” he says. “For a time, we were just overwhelmed with work and the additional profit just wasn’t there. I was able to sit down several months later and really take a good look at the margins and I learned that we really weren’t capitalizing. If you’re working that hard with that many more guys, your expenses are higher and you’re only making about 15 percent more at the end of the day. It’s just not a good thing.”

More of CCS's work at the Touro Infirmary.

Smith believes that the downturn weeded out the weaker competitors who had a habit of underbidding. It also added to his backlog.

“We were picking up where everybody was making mistakes. On top of the work we had, we had work where other companies left clients hanging because they had bid super-low thinking that would keep their doors open. Many of them dropped out of their projects and we picked the pieces up and finished for the client.”

“It’s a tough business; it’s not simple. We’re not just getting rich here and I’m sure others like me say the same. We make a decent living and we’re comfortable raising our families.”

Contact: Custom Cabinet Specialties, 1209 Dealers Ave., Harahan, LA 70123. Tel: 504-733-0220.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

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