Combining his formal business training with a passion for building cabinetry, Pete Steele, along with his former business partner, opened Astral Plane Woodworks in Wilmington, Del., in 1994. The custom shop has been going strong ever since, despite some challenges along the way.
Business fell drastically during the Great Recession from 2008-10, but Steele made it a priority to work through the slow times so his employees didn’t take the hit. “Things dropped off by a third. I had money in the bank and just tried to keep work going. I didn’t lay anyone off. I didn’t want to do that. They have families,” Steele says.
Of course, not every business owner can keep the doors open when the economy goes south. But Steele’s personal business mantra of delivering quality products on time in the early years gave him a solid reputation that kept work coming in and the lights on.
Astral Plane currently has three full-time employees and one part-timer building custom furniture and cabinetry, with a focus on commercial projects such as banks, theaters, hotels and professional offices.
Driven to succeed
Originally from Wilmington, Steele grew up spending time with his uncle, who was a woodworker. He started taking shop classes in seventh grade and continued with woodworking courses through high school. He graduated from the University of Delaware with a business degree.
“When I got out of college, I ran some retail stores. I liked the management part and the aspect of running my own business, but I didn’t like dealing with the corporate side of things,” Steele says.
So he switched jobs, working for a small cabinet shop before starting out on his own.
“I give my ex-partner, Jerome LeBlonde, credit for getting me started in this business. We knew each other at the University of Delaware where he studied design. Jerome started a woodworking business right out of college, whereas I worked in the corporate world. I soon found out this was not for me. So I went to work for him for two years before we partnered in 1994 to form this company. Jerome helped teach me to be more creative in my woodworking.”
The business basically began with a clean slate. “We had contacts through my partner’s former business. And both of our wives had pretty good jobs in the first couple of years we were trying to get clients. It’s a tough business, but I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it and I like when my clients are happy and like the products,” Steele adds.
The partners did it all in the early years, covering the shop and the office. They started in the residential market and added a full line of stock cabinets from JSI Cabinetry, based in Fall River, Mass. The focus has shifted to more lucrative commercial work, particularly around the state’s coastal areas.
LeBlonde left the company in 2003 to start a shop closer to his home in Baltimore. That left Steele with no other choice but to hire several woodworkers and shift his role to estimating, designing, managing and other ownership duties.
Attention to detail
Steele prefers commercial work over residential because the jobs are bigger. But he welcomes any type of request, putting 100 percent of the shop’s resources into every job, catering to a vast range of design styles. He works closely with a network of general contractors and designers, obtained entirely through word-of-mouth referrals.
Residential jobs include casework and custom kitchen packages. The shop also produces conference tables, reception desks, bars, vanities and countertops.
“Right now, I’m working on a kitchen with quartersawn white oak cabinetry with a liming wax finish,” Steele says. “We work with all different types of wood and finishes — some are painted and some are natural. We do a little bit of everything. Usually the designer has some idea of what the client wants and I give my input.”
Styles are somewhat in between traditional and contemporary influences. “We do a little of both. Here, the door style is a little more contemporary, but it fits into an older school overall design,” Steele says.
“A lot of the commercial work is more on the laminate side. We do some columns and different architectural designs when the prints requires them, along with stock laminate products.”
Keeping a positive reputation
Steele notes the competition is pretty fierce in his location. His solution is to deliver the best custom work money can buy, coupled with excellent customer service.
“There are a lot of shops in this area. They’re all pretty much non-union shops and competition is pretty tough. There are probably 10 shops within three or four miles of me.
“I’ve always stayed small. I provide excellent service. I always get the job done on time. No matter what, I get it done on time. The quality and the service sets me apart from the other guys that are a little bit cheaper than me, but don’t finish the job like they should. It drives the general contractors crazy when these shops complete 95 percent of the job and leave them stuck with all of these little odds and ends that they don’t finish up. There’ve been a number of occasions when I’ve gone out and finished another cabinetmaker’s job that didn’t complete the job.”
He says he will continue doing what it takes to run a successful business for the next decade or so and, from that point, isn’t necessarily sure what lies ahead. Everything will depend on finding a potential successor.
“I’ve got at least another 10 years before I make any decisions. I’m not trying to expand. I don’t need to make a fortune. The business is not something I think I can easily sell when I retire, unless one of my employees wants to buy me out. But even then, if they didn’t perform, my general contractors won’t keep calling, so there’s no guarantee of work. It’s tough, but you get rewards out of it,” Steele says.
Contact: Astral Plane Woodworks, 28B Germay Dr., Wilmington, DE 19804. Tel: 302-654-8666. www.astralplanewoodworks.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.