Charles Griffiths, president of Vigilant Inc. in Dover, N.H., provides a very distinctive range of custom products through his woodworking firm, serving customers who are extremely passionate about fine wines and cigars. Projects are designed to house and display these commodities and include climate-controlled cigar humidors, wine cabinets, wine racks and wine cellar components for both residential and commercial establishments.
“It is a lot different, but we’re just a cabinet shop really. The only thing we don’t identify with are smaller shops that do kitchens and baths. Our difference is we specialize in something very specific, and we have a ton of product that’s pre-designed and we do a ton of custom work. We’re very custom friendly,” says Griffiths.
Formed in 1995, the company name stems from the Baltimore schooner, Vigilant, and represents dedication to superior design, craftsmanship and dependability.
Always striving to create new innovative products, it has grown significantly over time. Housed in a 40,000-sq.-ft. modern production facility with an average of 45 employees, sales now exceed $6 million annually.
Griffiths didn’t exactly plan his current situation. It came to fruition thanks to his formal business training and innate ingenuity. He tinkered with wood as a child because his father, a surgeon, dabbled with hobby projects in the home shop and welcomed company. He pursued business studies at Boston University in the late ’80s, got an MBA and went directly into food marketing in the years that followed. In ’95, a colleague who liked smoking cigars as much as he did, built them both cigar humidors and the two hatched an idea.
“We started thinking about something we could do for people who were really into it, so we came up with a way to make an end table cabinet that had an electronic humidification system in it. We knew a bunch of tobacconists. This is barely internet, people only had the search engine AltaVista, so we went around to tobacconists we knew who would put one on their floor and buy another one if they sold it.”
These tobacconists were part of a very tight knit community, particularly on the East Coast, some having been in business over 150 years. The partners knew they had to deliver and do a good job because their reputation was at stake. They literally burnt the candle at both ends and pounded the pavement to find success. Initially all woodworking was subcontracted out to small, local cabinet shops and while Griffiths and his partner did the electronics installations at a small facility in Portsmouth, N.H.
“Things did so well I quit my corporate job in early 1995 and basically made as many of these things as I could make, and I rented a van and just started driving down the I-95 corridor. I dropped one off in New Haven, two in New York City, one in Baltimore and Philadelphia. When I ran out, I came back for more and we had a business.”
Still relying on pre-internet distribution marketing channels, the partners decided to go heavy on the advertising. They spent $10,000 for a print ad in Cigar Aficionado magazine in April ’95. They offered tobacconists a deal – If they could put a product on their floor, their name and number would appear at the bottom of their ad. By ’96, technological advances allowed them to build their first website for an online catalog which, coupled with cold calling, prompted orders to pour in.
Evolving product lines
After creating several variations of their flagship cigar humidor, the partners decided to create wine storage products which now account for most of their sales. In 2000, they made a deal with a nearby shop in York, Maine that specialized.
“We acquired a small mom and pop wine racking and installation manufacturer just outside of Boston. We brought them on to help us learn the business and run that side of the business. That’s taken off and now the wine storage business is 75 to 85 percent of our business,” says Griffiths, who bought out his partner in 1997.
“The cigar business is a real rollercoaster. It gets popular, dies down, and right now there’s a huge uptick. In early 2000 it was on a downswing which is why we got into the wine storage business and it was sort of steady Eddie after that, but the wine storage business has been good. It’s a lot bigger business and there’s a lot of products within the business that we can manufacture.”
All over the map
On average, about 60 percent of clients are residential. Commercial clients including retail, restaurant and hospitality establishments. The vast majority are in the U.S., but many are overseas.
“We’re national. We don’t really have a regional attraction to people. Being close doesn’t matter, just the cost of freight. We market ourselves to the world, really. We used to do a lot of business in Japan before the Japanese economy took a hit in the early 2000s, but 95 percent of our work is in North America, Canada, and a little in Mexico, Europe and Asia,” says Griffiths.
“It skews to very high-end homeowners. The cigar business attracts males. Gender doesn’t matter in the wine business. We do lots of work with residential designers who do lots of hospitality design management for lobbies and restaurants.”
A recent project included refrigerated cabinets and lockers for a 62-story high-rise in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The wine room in this building had lockers where the owners pay a monthly fee to keep their wine in them. It was very technical and part of a big project that went on for a long time. We’ve developed a solid reputation with developers and engineers that we make cool products, and we can deliver.”
Behind the scenes
Almost everything at Vigilant is fabricated in-house, including humidification system electronics and lighting. Wine refrigeration systems are the only exception, which are subbed out to dependable domestic manufacturers.
The company offers thousands of pre-kitted parts to make every project custom.
“We’re not starting from scratch every time,” says Griffiths. “When you do that, you just can’t be competitive and it’s very technical. Wine racks mostly go out in kitted boxes because they’re too big. It’s not practical to ship an assembled wine rack. There can be 10,000-plus parts for a wine cellar to put together on site.”
Vigilant is responsible for ensuring every part and piece fits perfectly upon assembly. In addition to expert handwork, the company uses an Anderson Stratos 5’ x 12’ CNC router to fabricate solid wood entry doors and large wine cabinet doors, and an Anderson Selexx Plus 512 for panel processing.
There are about 30 employees on the shop floor, including woodworkers, finishers, and electronic specialists. The rest focus on administration, design, estimates, sales, and marketing.
“We spend six figures a year on Google AdWords, Facebook ads, Instagram, all sorts of other things in the marketing side of the business. It’s important. We have some really big competitors, one in the Midwest and one on the West Coast,” says Griffiths.
Vigilant doesn’t install but sends instructions and helps the project’s management from afar. On very complicated jobs, an oversight technician is sent to assist.
Orders slowed last spring as the pandemic took hold. But they were pouring in by summer, especially from homeowners and private country clubs.
“As summer started moving along business started to get crazy. No one was traveling or spending money going out to dinner. Everyone was stuck at home and working on their houses. It’s been a huge boom for us.,” says Griffiths.
“Golf and tennis clubs have seen a surge in membership because people can do it and social distance themselves and these clubs are investing in wine rooms and cigar rooms etc. There’s been some uptick on that.”
Griffiths is grateful to have his full staff back on board. For a while, he was short-staffed as some employees accepted the option to stay home and stay safe. Although he says it’s difficult to find new employees, he wants to continue expanding.
“We want to keep growing the business. We want to grow responsibly so we want to do a really good job with the customers that we have, and we love the categories that we’re in because when you sell stuff like we sell, our customers are so excited. That’s what really brings energy back in here and all the way down to the shop floor.”
Contact: Vigilant Inc., 85 Industrial Park Drive, Dover, NH 03820. Tel: 888-812-4427. www.vigilantinc.com.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.