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Family ties

Satisfying clients is the focus at Martin Woodworks, a family-owned-and-operated shop in West Warwick, R.I., specializing in premium custom cabinetry. Established by Joe Martin in 1988, the company works closely with designers, homeowners and contractors at every stage of a project.

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“When we first started, we built cabinets, but we also offered carpentry services such as repair work or cabinet installation, and when we got those requests, we would respond right away. That was one of the things that helped us build up a client list because a lot of other cabinetmakers wouldn’t even answer calls for something that small. We did, and we usually got more work from that. The business just snowballed from there,” says Martin.

Services now include all types of custom cabinetry and millwork for homes and commercial buildings. The majority of jobs are now in the residential sector, but the company has developed a loyal clientele in the commercial sector as well.

Joe and Matt Martin Of: Martin Woodworks Location: West Warwick, R.I. Shop size: 14,000 sq. ft. Employees: Six Average annual gross: $500,000 About: The company provides custom cabinetry and millwork to high-end clients throughout southern New England.

The shop recently acquired a laminate countertop fabrication business, directed by Martin’s son, Matt. The primary customer is a national distributor and, to accommodate the expansion, the shop was moved to a 14,000-sq.-ft. space in a former textile mill.

A quick startup

Joe Martin grew up in Warwick, R.I., where he graduated from a vocational program at Toll Gate High School. He worked at several cabinet shops through his 20s before he decided to start his own business. It was a family affair from the beginning as he was quickly joined by his brother, John.

“It was scary in the beginning. When I started, I was 32. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I had two young children at home and had left a steady paying job. There are no guarantees when you start a business. I made it succeed by taking on all jobs related to our field cabinets. There were lots of long days, nights and weekends — just plain old hard work.”

Several customers followed Martin to his new shop, most of whom he had done work for on the side. They were not solicited, he says, and to this day Martin Woodworks doesn’t aggressively advertise its services. All jobs are acquired through referrals or originate through the company’s website.

The scope of the work has changed since the initial startup. Martin says the company has gotten away from mainstream remodeling and now focuses on new cabinets for high-end homes through general contractors, interior designers and architects, all of whom the Martin family has been associated with for years.

But this faithful following of clients didn’t happen overnight. Tapping into the high-end market required offering a premium product. “The high-end class expects a certain quality and we go above and beyond to supply that,” says Joe.

Matt joined the company in 2001. The father and son are best friends, according to Joe, and Matt plans to carry on the family tradition.

Expanding clientele

Martin Woodworks is a shop with connections, so it has access to 6,000-sq.-ft. vacation homes from Charlestown to Newport. Manhattan and the Boston suburbs are also nearby, and the shop is making inroads to those markets as well.

“As long as the additional travel expenses are covered by the client, we’ll go wherever we’re needed,” says Joe. “It can be difficult to get employees to leave for overnight jobs when they want to be home with their families, so the compensation has to be right.”

Martin Woodworking used Lyptus veneer paneling for this contemporary kitchen in North Kingstown, R.I.

Martin Woodworks enjoys a backlog of eight to 12 weeks, putting Joe in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose jobs. “Despite the economy, we’re having our best year so far. For the last two to three years, we’ve grossed between $450,000 to $550,000,” he says.

The shop produces 20 to 30 projects annually. Custom kitchens comprise about one-third of the work, while residential orders include custom built-ins, wall units, barrooms, media centers, bookcases, vanities and other small cabinetry items. Commercial orders, such as conference tables and reception centers for law firms and medical offices, represent about 20 percent of the business.

“We do a lot of face frame and inset doors with interior glass beads,” Joe explains. “They’re more labor-intensive, but more high-end custom furniture-looking than 32mm overlay cabinets, which we also do. The high-end clients want more of the inset doors, the full-extension self-closing slides, and things of that nature.”

Painted finishes are specified most often, particularly glazed and distressed. Matt, who also runs the finishing room, prefers lacquer to oil-based paints.

John Martin, Joe's brother, has been with Martin Woodworks since its beginning.

“Lacquer is a more durable product and also has a faster dry time, which is very important to keep jobs moving along,” he says.

Joe Martin prefers to use brown maple for painted projects over poplar because of its durability. The shop also works extensively with cherry, walnut, mahogany and bamboo. “Last year there was a big run on cherry. But so far this year, we’ve gotten white paint requests for every project, except for a mahogany library in Massachusetts,” he says.

Two years ago, Matt persuaded Joe to buy the laminate countertop fabrication business from Crompton Woodworking, also of West Warwick. “After looking into it, we decided to purchase. We just had to take it over. It was a smooth transition,” says Joe.

The countertop division runs as a subsidiary of a national commercial countertop supplier in Lincoln, R.I. Material used is flake board with a laminate top and bottom. Weekly orders are received by fax and Matt oversees production and delivery.

New digs

In January, the shop moved to the former mill building and tripled its manufacturing space.

“We were just banging into each other at our old shop, which was about 5,000 square feet,” says Joe. “The countertops were taking up too much room.

“The move was stressful and more expensive than anticipated. The last shop was only half a mile away, but we moved all of the equipment ourselves and there was a lot of downtime that wasn’t very cost-effective.”

There's no more "banging into each other" at the new shop.

While Matt stays busy running the countertop division, Joe wears many hats on the custom cabinetry end. His primary roles are meeting with clients, providing estimates, helping with designs if clients don’t have their own, building and installing. His wife, Cindy, is the bookkeeper.

There hasn’t been much employee turnover, which suggests that hiring your brother and son might be a good thing. The rest of the cast includes three cabinetmakers and two journeymen. Recent hires have come from reputable shops forced to downsize.

“Finding good help can be challenging at times, so when you do find them you make sure you can hold on to them,” says Joe.

The suddenly spacious shop includes two Powermatic table saws; SCM slider; Delta 8” jointer, 20” planer and shaper; Casadei edgebander; Grass hinge machine; Conquest line borer; two Jet shapers; Williams & Hussey molder; Kreg pocket cutter; Binks spray booth and Safety Speed Cut panel saw.

Employees Jareth Carlson, left, and Justin Sturdeuant operate the shop's edgebander.

There’s plenty of room for a CNC router, but Joe doesn’t see a need. “There is not enough repetition work to warrant a CNC,” he says. “When there is, we sub it out to Coventry Millwork in Coventry (R.I.) in exchange for the use of our edgebander.”

Stay with the script

Joe is content with the size of business and hopes to make few changes in the future. He doesn’t want to mess with the quality of the end product, which is responsible for the shop’s success. “At one point, I had 10 employees and, while my income increased, quality suffered because the workers tended to cut corners and cabinets had to be redone,” he says. “I don’t want to go there again.”

Matt Martin says he’d rather purchase machinery than hire more employees. “I am definitely interested in investing in a CNC machine at some point when I move forward with the business. I think I will have to take that step to be more efficient and competitive.”

Despite the day-to-day challenges of running a business, Joe believes his greatest strengths are persistence and a resolve to produce the highest quality products. The work is rewarding, he says, and it allows him to appreciate his career choice on a regular basis.

“The best part of running this business is the feeling that you get when you see something finished that you built from scratch. The customer’s happy, and we’re happy, and hopefully it continues from that point.”

Contact: Martin Woodworks, 3 Bridal Ave., West Warwick, RI 02893. Tel: 401-823-1860.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.

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