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From humble beginnings

Lurk Custom Cabinets in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., is a family affair. Led by Mike Lurk and his wife, Mary, four sons have joined the crew in a monstrous 33,000-sq.-ft. facility that has been building custom cabinetry and furniture since 1993.

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The company caters to high-end homeowners in the St. Louis suburbs, either for remodels or new construction, depending on the state of the economy.

“For a long time, our work involved new homes with occasional ones getting remodeled once in a while, but when the economy tanked it was all remodel work. We didn’t really see the recession until about the end of 2009. We were dealing with the upper-end clientele and they always had money, but at that time, they were just scared to let go of it,” Mike Lurk says.

Carpenter by trade

Lurk grew up in the area and was a union carpenter for 11 years before starting the business.

“I started building custom cabinets halfway through the time I worked as a carpenter in St. Louis. I worked my way through the ranks and I was a general foreman on a residential crew. I was five to six years into what I started and I got the opportunity to build some really nice homes. And I just had the opportunity to build a set of cabinets for one of my friends and got a little money up front and did it.

“I worked out of my basement from 1987 to 1993 and continued my full-time job as a carpenter. This was side work and I got all of my clients through referrals. Everything I’ve ever done has been though a referral,” he says.

In the fall of 1993, he quit his day job and built his first shop. Mary has worked with him every step of the way, sanding in the early years and now keeping the books.

The original shop was just 400 sq. ft. But it’s been expanded significantly with large multi-station production rooms, design rooms, a finishing section with six spray booths, and an 8,000-sq.-ft. showroom. Things might look like they’re running smoothly now, but Lurk assures that it’s been blood, sweat and tears much of the way.

Mary and Mike Lurk.

Customer networking

Lurk’s business mantra is to never put all of his eggs in one basket. He wants a diversified customer base and works with several general contractors and a network of cabinet dealers. The dealers use a white-label marketing approach, selling Lurk’s custom kitchen and bath cabinets without mentioning the company’s name. The customer only knows that its product was custom-made by someone, somewhere.

The anonymity doesn’t bother Lurk. “It actually works pretty well for our team,” he says.

Limitless designs

The showroom features more than a dozen door styles and there’s five dozen more not on display. The idea is to get a design conversation going and not overwhelm the customers. Lurk works with a wide range of hardwoods and veneers and offers extensive finishing options, so it’s best to keep it simple at first.

Lurk says today’s customers are leaning towards contemporary designs. “It’s a pretty simple design they’re looking for. The dealers are selling very simple flat-panel door styles. The mitered doors are kind of a thing of the past.”

A custom kitchen, completed in 2014.

Customers are also requesting a paint or glazed finish.

“The brushed glazes throughout the panels — that’s what we do 50 percent of the time,” Lurk says. “We make all of our own colors. We mix our own stains and our own paint. We had to do that to earn ourselves a spot in the St. Louis market. That’s one thing that set us apart from other companies. We have 800 to 900 different finishes in our library. Customers can bring a picture out of a magazine and we can match it. We may struggle with it for a while, but for the most part we can get the color.”

Teamwork matters

Zack Reyering sands a cabinet door.

Whether they’re a member of the Lurk family tree or a hired employee, everyone is close and works as a team.

To focus on quality control, the shop is now divided into four production areas: manufacturing, sanding, finishing and assembly. This system works well in combination with the right number of employees (anywhere from 15 to 20).

Lurk says it’s difficult to find good employees and it takes a long time to train them to where they’re reliable. He makes the effort to treat them well by offering health insurance and other benefits and even a fully air-conditioned shop.

“Basically we are not a union shop, but I run it and manage it just like it would be. We try to cover our employees and make it fair for everyone. Their pay is commensurate to their expertise.”

While everyone is treated the same, it’s no secret that Lurk is a proud father to have his boys on board.

“My oldest son [Randy] runs the CNC equipment. We have an Onsrud CNC router and a panel saw, so that’s primarily what he does. He manages all of the parts cutting and makes sure things are cut and machined right.

“My second oldest son [Terry] is a programming engineer. Once we get done with all of the sales we pass it on to him and he takes care of the technical aspects. We do all of the designing here using Cabinet Vision. He wrote a program to cut patterns on our CNC machine. We can do arch details, convex or concave and we can make all of our own moldings.”

The youngest sons are Tim and Danny, involved with final assembly, shipping and installation.

Business stats scrutinized

Carrie Bader, the shop’s finishing manager, applies a final varnish.

Volume is difficult to put a number on, but Lurk estimates the company runs about $250,000 to $300,000 in gross sales per month.

In 2010, Lurk hired a business consultant who helped create a production schedule.

“It was very expensive, but it was very well worth it. They created a schedule where I can add a job and mark production days based on a dollar amount. The only problem with it is when we outsource doors, which we do when we get too busy. I can’t order them if our backlog is too far out. I try to make the lead time eight weeks, but right now it is 12 and that’s too far out to place the order.

Lurk says there are several shops in the St. Louis area that do similar work, but don’t offer quite as much. He has gone head-to-head with some of them on bids, before realizing he will only lose money.

“These guys are bidding low production-run cabinets. Lowe’s prices are higher than they are. That’s what kills me. Where’s their prestige? Where are they cutting corners? I don’t do that. The customer has hired us to do the job. I will not sacrifice quality to save a buck. This is what leads to us having repeat business.”

At this point, Lurk is cautious about growing his business. “I kind of like where it’s at,” he says. “We had up to 33 employees at one point and I was still installing cabinets back then. I would come back and have to work in the shop. I don’t like being behind, but that’s what happened with that many employees. It was hard to control the quality because I wasn’t there enough and too many things were done wrong.”

Contact: Lurk Custom Cabinets, 15308 State Hwy. V, Ste. Genevieve, MO 63670. Tel: 573-483-9792.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.

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