Buoyed by a backlog

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Andy Sutherland, owner of New Hampshire Woodworks in Manchester, N.H., had a ready answer to a question about running a successful custom shop:

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“It’s all about your relationships with your customers,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how good of a woodworker you are. If you can’t sell it, it’s going to sit in your shop.”

There aren’t any pieces sitting unsold in Sutherland’s four-man shop. In fact, customers were willing to wait five to seven months for their backlogged orders as of February.

“Another thing that sets us apart is personality,” Sutherland says. “When we go to the jobsite to install, our guys aren’t swearing; they’re very respectful. The job is tarped off and we leave the house cleaner than when we arrive at it. That certainly has a lot to do with why we get referred, but it is also about building relationships with the customers.”

The beginnings

Originally from Goffstown, N.H., Sutherland learned woodworking in high school shop classes and from his grandfather. After four years in the Marines, he started out installing drywall. He opened a drywall business, sold it and opened Sutherland Builders in 2008. He admits, though, that his timing could have been better.

“In 2008 the market had essentially crashed and there wasn’t a whole lot of building going on, so I started doing custom cabinetry full time out of my garage,” Sutherland says.

“I’ve always liked the entrepreneurial part of anything I’ve done. When I started Sutherland Builders, it was an easy transition because I’d always made cabinets and furniture for friends, but never sold any of it. I always said I’d never do it for a living because I enjoyed it too much, but here I was.”

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Sutherland Builders lasted about two years before New Hampshire Woodworks was formed in 2010.

The client base

Sutherland works mostly for homeowners who contact him directly for built-ins, cabinets and millwork jobs.

“I was fortunate that I already had a client base from my construction company. I didn’t have to do much solicitation to get this business up and running. The same people from before would still call me and ask me for something,” he says.

The shop’s main market is the Boston suburbs.

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“In some of these areas, such as Wellesley, Mass., there are a lot of community groups, like mothers’ groups and whatnot and my name spreads around very fast from one house to the next.

“One of the projects we’re doing there now has been going on — and off — for about four years. We’ve done the kitchen cabinets, laundry room, bathroom and now we’re working on their basement. We’ve probably done close to $300,000 worth of work in this one house.”

Commercial work presents itself every now and then, but Sutherland likes to be choosy. “We are a strictly custom cabinet company,” he says.

“I have advertised in the past, but it leads to a lot of tire kickers. It takes me a whole day to do a kitchen design for them and then they say, ‘Oh, that’s twice as much as Home Depot.’ The only advertising that’s ever worked for us is in something like a golf magazine.

“One of the kitchens we did in Wellesley about two years ago got selected for a kitchen tour. It’s a pretty prestigious event. Only a few houses a year get chosen and people pay $40 a ticket to go through. It’s all for charity. I think I talked to about 400 people who walked through that day. I handed out my card and got some work from it, but even that was word of mouth.”

From start to finish

For the most part, Sutherland’s customers want traditional designs. “We kind of spice things up with different door styles, but people really like the Shaker look that’s simple with little detail around the doors. We are building a cherry kitchen now, but for the most part [customers] want their work painted white or off-white. We use hard maple for anything that’s painted.

“If you see it, we can build it and we pride ourselves in that. We work differently than a lot of woodworking companies. We don’t have one person doing doors, another person doing boxes and another one sanding. How I work is one guy takes the job from the start to ready for finish. I find that the guys take a lot of pride in seeing a job through.”

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The 2,000-sq.-ft. shop is getting too small for the volume of work and Sutherland has his eye on some property in a nearby town. Expansion isn’t far away.

“We have no automated equipment right now,” he says. “I like the fact that we are handcrafted, but for better production I may get a CNC for certain operations. But I would still like to see the guys doing hands-on work as much as possible.”

Sutherland wears several hats: owner, designer, salesman and finisher.

The shop will try to squeeze in smaller projects, especially for a new customer. But even then the backlog is no less than three months.

“One guy doing a kitchen averages a month and a half. Kitchens are probably 30 to 40 percent of our business. We also do a lot of vanities and entertainment centers. We’ve been doing a lot of mudrooms lately, which is essentially a breezeway with built-in cabinetry. It goes in cycles. We do one and one of the customer’s friends goes in and loves it, we get a few in a row. Kitchens are the same way. We’ll go three or four months without doing a kitchen, then all of a sudden we’ll get four in a row.”

No worries

Sutherland likes to have his bases covered, meaning there’s usually enough in the bank to cover payroll and overhead.

“If you’re not business-minded you’re going to fall into the trap of you need to get the job done because you need to get paid for it,” he says, “Once the job is started, I’m not worried about the payment aspect. I want to do a good job, which will lead to another job.”

Competition from other custom shops isn’t a problem, he says.

“Once in a while, we have to bid against someone, but it’s Home Depot or someone who’s not a true cabinet company. People who know and like true custom know it’s expensive. We would never try to compete against a cabinet manufacturer like KraftMaid; it’s two different animals like Mercedes versus Kia. We’ve got our style down building a reliable, quality product.

Kitchens dominate the schedule, but there’s also demand for entry doors and mudrooms.

“Everyone cares about their money and has a budget. What we found works is to come up with an initial cost, then tweak the design — make two drawers into a door, for example — to save a little. Some companies will start customers off with one low price, then change it. They advertise you can get a kitchen for $5,000 and there’s a picture of a really nice-looking kitchen. But if you want crown molding, that’s another $2,000. Suddenly, the bill is up to $14,000. We might start out at $20,000, but everything in my estimate is broken down. We can always add extras or find a way to reduce the cost if that’s what the customer wants. I never try to talk someone in or out of anything.”

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The future

In a perfect world, Sutherland would like to have two-month backlog, double or triple the size of his shop and hire a designer and finisher.

“I have so much work doing the designs and meeting with clients. I’m working 70 to 80 hours a week,” he says.

He’s targeting the Lake Winnipesaukee region, filled with vacation homes, for more work. As for regrets, he’s got a few.

“Looking back, I think I spent too much time in the drywall business,” he says. “I made good money in it, though. Now I wish that I had a little more time to be hands-on in the shop. Like any woodworker, you start a company because you really have a passion for it. Then the business part takes over and you don’t have time to do the part you really enjoy.”

Contact: New Hampshire Woodworks, 1000 East Industrial Park Dr., Suite 1, Manchester, NH 03109. Tel: 603-722-8989. www.nhwoodworks.com

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.

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