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Full steam ahead

The economic stability Oceanic Ventures has maintained in its 27 years in business is admirable and something the Lewes, Del.-based custom cabinet shop takes pride in. With a good balance of employees and equipment, combined with a well-developed and loyal following of clients, even the Great Recession didn't adversely affect the company's annual gross income of $1 million.

Jon Stout cuts with the shop's Casolin Astra slider.

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John Nelson started the business in 1984 and was joined by co-owner Damian Birl in the mid-1990s. The two rely on a positive word-of-mouth reputation to keep business alive, saying that great customer service is what continually brings in new clients by referral and generates repeat business.

Oceanic Ventures Owners: John Nelson (above) and Damian Birl Location: Lewes, Del. Shop size: 5,000 sq. ft. Employees: Seven Average annual gross: $1 million About: Oceanic Ventures specializes in custom residential cabinetry, from design to installation. With more than 20 years of experience, the seven-man team works on a wide range of customized cabinetry, from kitchens and bathrooms to entertainment centers and home offices for clients in the region, primarily second homeowners. Quotable: “I think the key is in showing that we care what we’re doing, particularly in installs. We give it the personal touch. Anyone can have a problem — we put our extra effort into making it work out.”

The owners run the shop efficiently with five full-time employees. Services include the design, manufacturing and installation of custom cabinetry, ranging from kitchens and bathrooms to entertainment centers and home offices. The company also specializes in closet systems.

Lewes is a quiet waterfront town on the Atlantic Ocean that possesses a wealth of historic flavor and is only a few hours from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. With popular Rehoboth Beach nearby, things get a little crazy during the summers, but for most of the year the town has a rural feel.

"The Lewes area has a real interesting mix of locals who've lived here all their lives and newcomers who've moved in from other places, so there are a lot of people from all different walks of life," says Nelson.

He adds that Lewes has been a good area for doing business as the general population has a strong appetite for home improvements.

A woodworking natural

Nelson, who grew up in Minnesota, is a self-taught woodworker who says he came into the trade through the backdoor. As the former operator of a diveboat and charterboat business, he'd fix up wooden sailboats in the offseason, which led to other woodworking projects.

He moved to Lewes in the early '80s when his wife was offered a job out of college. He started the charter business, called Oceanic Adventures, sailing a 50-footer out of Delaware Bay. Then the side woodworking jobs morphed into residential cabinetry and it was time to abandon ship.

"The charter sailing business was challenging back in the day. Nowadays you've got cell phones, but back then communicating was very difficult. The groups would be at the beach, with no phone, and you'd have to have everything planned out. Now cell phones make it happen. Back then, at some point, I just said I'm not going to do boats anymore."

Nelson built his first shop - a 1,400-sq.-ft. building next to his current location - and established Oceanic Ventures, sharing shop space with another professional woodworker. Built-ins, stair work and millwork often gave him more jobs than he could handle.

Employee Brien Pierce assembles casework.

When Birl came aboard, the new partners put forth a plan to focus on casework and cabinetry. "We wanted to get out of the field and do more shop work. The stair casing was half shop and half site work and it became burdensome, especially accessing houses with two or more floors," says Nelson.

They invested in production machinery and outgrew their first shop by 1998.

Clients and scope of work

Oceanic Ventures is a local shop, serving most of its customers from within a 10-mile radius. But repeat business has opened up new markets in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania where clients have their year-round homes.

The company completes about 50 jobs each year, half of which are generated through the building trade, the rest from architects and homeowners. Almost all of its work is for the residential market.

Kitchens, fireplace mantels and built-ins represent the majority of work for Oceanic Ventures.
Kitchens, fireplace mantels and built-ins represent the majority of work for Oceanic Ventures.

There's not much competition in the area, Nelson reports. "There are some other cabinet shops around, but we have a good reputation in the area so a lot of times it comes down to referral. We put our effort into trying to make customers very delighted."

Most of the company's designs gravitate to traditional, formal styles, ranging from a simple Shaker influence to a more detailed piece with step-ups, crown molding, carvings and ornamental flutings. The shop builds in the 32mm system.

"We've developed a few style variations people are looking for," says Nelson. "Our designs are a little less formal compared to what you'd see in a city because these are mainly beach homes and people like things a little bit simpler."

Most work is done in American hardwoods. Very little veneer, if any, is used. The company outsources doors and drawers, but cuts its own fronts for the European-style cabinetry frames.

"We do a lot of work in maple because it's so versatile. We also use a fair amount of cherry when people are looking for more grain and get occasional requests for red birch and mahogany."

Kitchens, fireplace mantels and built-ins represent the majority of work for Oceanic Ventures.

All finishing is done in-house and is usually paint or stain. About half of the paint jobs consist of some decorative effects, such as antiquing or glaze.

"Many of our clients like the paint, but think it's practical to have it look a little old when they first purchase the work. They have kids and grandkids around who might mark it up or they just like the casual, comfortable look of it."

Inside the shop

In restaurant terms, Nelson works the front of the house. In this case, it's from an office in the showroom that fronts the shop. His primary role is to meet with customers, design with the Cabinetware CAD program and produce estimates.

"If people had asked me 20 years ago if I'd be sitting in front of a computer all day, I'd have laughed. I went from having about six hours of paperwork 20 years ago to a constant supply. I've had to hire a part-time bookkeeper on a weekly basis just to keep our records orderly."

Kitchens, fireplace mantels and built-ins represent the majority of work for Oceanic Ventures.

Birl manages the shop floor and installation work. Most of the employees have been with Oceanic Ventures for at least six years. Nelson strives to have skilled, experienced employees in every department.

"When you're a small company, it's very important to be able to have someone be able to fill the role of someone who's sick, hurt, on vacation, etc. Everybody's really important, but we divide it up into one guy that does all of the solid wood cuts, one assembles all of the boxes, one does the finishing and so on."

The shop features a Casolin Astra sliding table saw; Rockwell 12" table saw and 8" jointer; SCMI S520 20" planer and Uno 36" wide belt sander; Crescent 20" band saw; Ridgid chop saw; Kreg pocket hole machine; Delta shaper; Williams & Hussey molder; Vitap Linea line borer; and Cehisa EP-8 edgebander.

Oceanic Ventures' extensive portfolio includes this range hood detail.

There is no CNC equipment and Nelson says automated machinery is not in the plans at the moment.

"I guess I'm hesitant about that because it's a big investment. What I have now works really well for what we do. We have a state-of-the-art 32mm system without the CNC."

Future plans

Oceanic Ventures has managed to weather the recent economic storm. The shop is certainly less busy than it was three years ago, but Nelson is realistic.

"We just lucked out with jobs that were already lined up to keep us through the down times. We now average a three-month backlog, but it's been a lot higher than that."

Nelson says he's fortunate to have had such a good balance of quality equipment and employees through the years. Retirements could deplete the roster in the next few years, but for now the company's plan is to continue running the shop as efficiently as possibly.

Nelson, left, confers with shop foreman and co-owner Damian Burl.

"Our physical space is maxed out. If I do anything else, I've got to add on a building and there's no room to add here."

Since he plans to continue working through builders and contractors, Nelson hopes to find a way to better manage scheduling difficulties, which occur all too frequently.

"We never know when something is ready for us. On a remodel, for example, the contractor will say June, but then it's September when it's actually ready. We hate to turn down work because we're ready for another job that turns out being delayed. It's challenging to figure out what delays are going to occur. We need about three weeks here to prepare before something comes in and goes through the system."

One of the best parts of the business is working with customers. He says he enjoys the opportunity to interact, even if the client is challenging.

Oceanic Ventures' extensive portfolio includes this cherry kitchen range.

"Some of them don't visualize the projects all that well, so I'll go through and show them project renderings of the end result. And we do a lot of marriage counseling - we always have to figure out the dynamics of who's the boss and where the tensions are between them. I enjoy that. And then there's design work; I especially enjoy being creative with odd requests and other challenges."

Contact: Oceanic Ventures Inc., 32292 Nassau Road, Lewes, DE 19958. Tel: 302-645-5872.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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