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Corporate guy in a cabinet shop

Unlike many cabinetmakers, Tom Westra didn't start his woodworking business in a two-car garage. In fact, the owner of Vermont Custom Cabinetry knew little about the profession until he purchased the Westminster, Vt., shop about two years ago.

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Westra, you see, is a businessman. He has bounced from one manufacturing job to another for the better part of 26 years, trying to right wrongs and set things back on track.

"The story is I'm a bit of a corporate refugee; I have no background in cabinetry," Westra said. "I've always been in business — primarily on the financial end of the business, but always for larger manufacturing companies.

"As is the case with a lot of large companies, you're always taking divisions and putting them together to make bigger divisions, and you always have a layer that you're looking to shed. It finally became my turn in the box so I decided to find something else to do."

It's manufacturing
With his business background in manufacturing and the assistance of a business broker, Westra looked for the perfect fit for a purchase. Vermont Custom Cabinetry was one possibility but it had a few problems, such as no orders on the books.

"I said, 'I don't know anything about cabinetry, but let's go take a look at it,'" he recalled. "We walked through and said, 'Well, this is manufacturing, but instead of working with metal or plastic, you're working with wood; and instead of working with engineers, you're working with cabinetmakers.' In some ways I feel like I've traded up, actually. We came to an agreement and took a shot at it."

The previous owner was the founder and had let the business run down, according to Westra, who immediately made some organizational changes. But the purchase included total access to the previous owner's customers, who started placing orders almost as soon as Westra took over.

"We sell to a network of dealers throughout New England primarily, and the customers are very committed to the product," said Westra. "But the first thing they said to us is that we have to help them out with the marketing. We didn't have any literature, our [product] selection was limited, and we didn't have a logo or Web site, and didn't do any advertising. In the first year, those were all the things we worked to put in place."

Expanding its market
Vermont Custom Cabinetry sells to the residential market, focusing on both the new-construction and remodeling sectors. It builds cabinets for any room in a house — kitchens, libraries, closets, mud rooms and laundry rooms, and the occasional entertainment center. But kitchens constitute the biggest part of the shop's business. If the shop can produce a kitchen and a half per week, Westra is a very happy owner.

"There are a wide range of customers out there, from those do-it-yourselfers who will buy cabinets at the Home Depot and install it themselves, to the high-end customers who will simply write us a check after we've built and installed their custom cabinets," said Westra. "We're trying to take the high end of that market. If you're shopping on price, then we're probably not the line. We'll be competitive with the other top lines, but we're not going to try and compete with a semi-custom line.

"One of our major [dealers] is r.k. Miles, based in Manchester, Vt. They carry [the cabinet lines] Wood Mode, Plain and Fancy, Cabico, Medallion and us. Wood Mode is probably their top line as far as price, with Plain and Fancy just a point below. We can fit between the two. We can service anyone from the Northeast better than anyone who has to ship from the outside of the region."

Westra is attempting to expand the market beyond the Northeast.

"The founder's philosophy was, 'We'll sell as far as we can drive the truck to and get back in the same day,'" said Westra. "One of the things we have been trying to do now is branch out in the Mid-Atlantic area. Currently, we have a dealer in New Jersey. We're talking with several dealers in the Philadelphia area, and there's another one interested down in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina. I'm at the point where I need to get some more maps."

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Westra hasn't changed the installation procedure. Vermont Custom Cabinetry is responsible for delivery to the back of the truck, and then outside installers take over. It's an arrangement that continues to work well.

"Our installers tend to love us," said Westra. "It's not unusual to get comments back from the installers, who say it is some of the best cabinetry that they've worked with."

Adding styles
When Westra took ownership of Vermont Custom Cabinetry, the company only built frameless cabinetry. However, there was potential to do more, something the previous owner apparently was reluctant to do.

"That's been another thing about the business. The guy who owned it before; he kept limiting what he wanted to do just because he wasn't really looking for new challenges," said Westra. "What we've been trying to do is open it up more. Where he said no, a lot of times we've said yes. It keeps it interesting and keeps our customers happy."

One of the changes was to offer framed inset cabinets, and the response from dealers has been very positive, Westra said.

"Our dealers were telling us, 'We love your frameless cabinets, but the market right now is demanding framed inset at the high end. I carry this other line because you don't offer it. If you offer it, I won't have to carry this other line,'" said Westra. "That made the decision fairly easy to make.

"All of our cabinet boxes are made from 3/4" plywood and we use what we refer to as a modified 32mm system. That means the dimensions we give to the customers are in inches, but all of our machines in the shop work off the 32mm system."

Vermont Custom Cabinetry buys its plywood from Atlantic Plywood and North Pacific. Domestic hardwoods are sourced from Highland Hardwoods, Kiever-Willard and Rex Lumber. "We do a little bit with exotics if we have a customer who is looking for something special," said Westra. "We just did a sample door in bubinga and it's absolutely beautiful."

Keys to success
Westra credits his employees, many who have been working at Vermont Custom Cabinetry since it was founded, for its success. He referred to them as true artists and repeatedly praised their work ethic. Without their talents, Westra doubts that Vermont Custom Cabinetry would even be in business.

When Westra bought the business, the lack of an Internet presence was glaring. The Web site, www.vermont, was added about a year ago and gives the business legitimacy, Westra said.

"We had to get something up and it had to look professional. It has really enabled us to go out and market our business," he said. "We've also started to do a little bit of advertising in Vermont Life [a quarterly magazine published by the state of Vermont], which promotes our Web site. A customer can find a list of dealers on our Web site, and once they get together, the design and order process begins."

In the two years that Westra has owned the business, orders have increased enough to justify the employment of 11 full-time and three part-time workers. Westra says he's following a simple formula.

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"It's our attention to detail," he said. "Our first priority is to give customers exactly what they're looking for. We had a woman come in a few months ago with an antique drawer, painted with milk paint; it was like a mustard-yellow over red with a rub through on it. We're very ecumenical. Whatever you like is beautiful. We keep our personal opinions to ourselves. They had already tried Wood Mode, which couldn't re-create the finish. We don't do milk paint, everything is conversion varnish, but we'll try to give the look.

"We made a sample and got approval. We delivered it on a Saturday; she called on Monday morning just to tell us how beautiful it was. Our finish suppliers are Bradley Labs in Brattleboro, [Vt]. They sell nationally but they're only 20 minutes away, so when we need to do custom colors, I can run down there and give them a sample and they'll turn it around in a few days."

Staying put?
Westra didn't foresee the day when he would own a cabinet shop but he knew he would at some point buy his own business. As it turns out, he's having a really good time running a cabinet shop.

"It's an incredibly enjoyable business because it's a beautiful product, something you can be proud of. Your customers love it. When you show up, it's Christmas, so in that way it is very rewarding."

The question has to be asked, though — if he hasn't stayed put in one place during a 26-year span, why is Vermont Custom Cabinetry going to be any different?

"This is what I am going to do until I retire," said Westra. "It's the quality of life and it's close to home. It's also a chance to take everything you have learned over the past 30 years at all these businesses and put it to use in your own business. Previous businesses I did not own; this is the first time and place where I am out on my own. It's about time that I put the money where my mouth is."

Contact: Vermont Custom Cabinetry, 7668 Route 5, Westminster, VT 05158. Tel: 802-463-9930.

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