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Charleston charm

Hostetler Custom Cabinetry is a small business in Charleston, S.C., that has been serving the needs of homeowners for more than 30 years.

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The family-owned shop is run by Dale Hostetler and his youngest son Chris. The two have opposite personalities. Essentially, the father is the brakes and the son is the gas of the operation. These traits complement one another by keeping business spending under control while assuring reasonable growth to keep up with today’s competitive economy.

Specializing in high-end residential cabinetry, the two work with the region’s top architects, designers and builders and pride themselves on their ability to execute the challenging projects. Given today’s economic climate, they are trying to remain diversified while continuing to offer the highest quality product possible.

“I would say that for a long time we were one of the best quality shops around, but now there are more quality shops in the area. We’ve adapted to that by trying to show clients we have things like modern machinery, new glazes for finishing and that we will create whatever they want us to,” Dale says.

Growing the business

Dale moved to Charleston from Iowa in 1979 while working for Habitat for Humanity. He was also installing for local cabinet companies and, as those businesses grew, he started building cabinets on job sites. After two years, he decided to stay in the area and start his own business.

“At that time I was working out of the back of my truck and eventually had to find a shop to put stuff in. I was doing interior trim and cabinetry for builders, but the builders didn’t want to give me that much time in the house, so I dropped interior trim and then went to strictly cabinets.”

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Dale & Chris Hostetler Owners of: Hostetler Custom Cabinetry Location: Charleston, S.C. Number of employees: Five Size of facility: 9,000 sq. ft. About: Designs, manufactures, finishes and installs work in high-end residential homes located in South Carolina’s coastal areas. Quotable: “Treat people fairly and give yourself an opportunity to succeed. Follow through with what you tell them. Give them a goal, such as a quote by Wednesday, and make sure you follow through with what you say.”

He rented a small garage-sized building until he purchased his current 9,000-sq.-ft. shop in 1997. Business grew mostly by word of mouth and continued to do so steadily until the economy went south in 2008. In 2007, Chris, who’s been working with wood since he was 10, signed on. He’s a college graduate of Clemson University, where he focused on business management with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Dale says his son’s college education has been an asset to the company as sales have improved and the business is more competitive. His responsibilities include designing, operating the CNC router and generating sales leads.

“We were hit pretty hard by the crash in the economy. One of our main builders went out of business and he was providing about 75 percent of our work at that point. But just prior to that we had installed our CNC. When Chris came on board, he helped with the CNC router and that has helped us win jobs and be more competitive.”

Aside from the Omnitech Eco CNC router, other machinery includes a Holz-Her 1405 edgebander; SCMI Uno 36” wide belt sander, shaper, line-boring machine, planer and jointer; Altendorf sliding table saw with Tigerstop fences; Hoffman face-frame notching machine with dovetailing inserts; 10” Powermatic table saw; and Oakley edge sander.

High-end preferences

The company has done commercial work in the past, but is currently focusing on high-end residential work as its primary niche. The Charleston area is a good market for that kind of work and the Hostetlers are noticing an uptick in construction activity, particularly on the private islands that dot the coastline.

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“Most of the time we try to market directly to architects, builders and designers and we’re looking for repeat work with them,” says Chris. “But a couple of summers ago, we got involved with a house on Hilton Head and started working directly with the homeowners.

“Our goal is to offer whole home packages in the future. We don’t often do interior trim unless it’s like a mahogany-paneled office because it’s more cost effective to hire outside. So we do little millwork, but we do kitchens, baths, bars and basically anything else made out of wood.”

The market favors traditional design and the shop goes through quite a bit of cherry, maple and walnut.

“We don’t do anything super modern. If anything, its transitional work that’s still elegant looking. We do lots of distressing and lots of antique finishing. We’re seeing lots of whites and gray finishes right now. There’s no real style. We have a really broad range of offerings. Show us a picture of anything you like and we can do it,” Chris says.

Meeting goals

The company backlog is about six months for a bigger project and about eight weeks for a small remodel.

“Right now, we’re busier than we’ve been in a long time. When you work on these big projects there’s a tendency for a drop off, but we’ve been lucky. A lot of the homes we work in are around 6,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. and some can take two-years to complete,” Chris says.

He says that if company were to grow, he’d like to have as many as 10 employees.

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“We have had up to seven in the past, before the recession. And although we don’t count the CNC as one, it really is like a person-and-a-half out there. Where we are right now is I’ve taken a lot of the shop management responsibilities off my dad’s shoulders and on a day-to-day basis have been selling and meeting with clients. So I’m trying to learn how to manage all that if I’m going to grow this business so I don’t overwork myself. I’m putting all of the puzzle pieces together.”

In the future, the two plan to put more effort into planning their high-end custom projects, the biggest challenge being in multimillion-dollar homes with complex architecture.

“You have to comb all the details of any room to make sure we integrate our cabinetry right with all of the appliance and fixtures,” Dale says. “It requires a lot of careful engineering, making sure everything is all set before the project is started. So far, I’ve benefitted from having a good reputation and no debt and 30 years of projects filling a portfolio. That’s what we have and we will continue to work on our quality output so that our customers are happy,” says Dale.

Contact: Hostetler Custom Cabinetry, 445 Fleming Road, Charleston, SC 29412. Tel: 843-795-0946.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.

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