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Growth spurt

Boulder Mills is off to a fast start. Established in 2010, the seven-man cabinet and millwork shop in Lafayette, Colo., is generating about $1.5 million in sales for the second straight year.

Chris Recker operates the shop’s Weeke ABD 050 automatic boring and doweller.

“We’ve actually doubled our growth every year for the first three years, but not this year because things were going too fast and got difficult to manage. We’re striving to maintain quality,” owner Sascha Ayad says.

Ayad’s journey began in Cairo, born to a German mother and an Egyptian father, a physician, who moved the family to Buffalo, N.Y., for his residency. The cold climate suited the younger Ayad, who developed an affinity for skiing, and after graduating Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., he became a ski instructor in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

“Everyone else was putting on suits and ties in college and heading off to Boston or New York to find work. I moved to Steamboat and taught skiing for five years. Then one day I decided to take some pre-med classes at [the University of Colorado] to maybe follow my father’s footsteps and go to medical school. But instead of studying organic chemistry or whatever, I was just building furniture all the time on the side,” he says, pointing to an Adirondack chair in his office, one of his first creations.

By the late 1990s, Ayad found work as an EMT with plans on applying to medical school, but he wanted to break away from constantly being around ill and injured people. He applied to High Country Millwork in Longmont, Colo., and says he only got the job because the company head was also captain of the local fire department and a fellow emergency responder.

“I walked in and thought I died and went to heaven. A couple of days in, I couldn’t believe they got paid to do what they did. So, two weeks later, I realized I wanted to do this and not just on the weekends. I called my parents and my dad said I had to do what I had to do. He was very accepting.”

High Country specialized in custom store fixtures. Ayad started out sweeping floors and then became a project manager. He was so intrigued by the business end that he decided to get his MBA. With a wife and two daughters at home, plus a full-time job, the only way that could happen was through an evening program at the University of Colorado. After a stint as a general manager at a Denver shop, Ayad earned his MBA in June 2009 and soon opened Boulder Mills.

Boulder Mills was created from an Internet-based woodworking business called Cubbies in a Box, Ayad says.

“The idea was to take advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet, so we developed a way for a customer to develop a custom product at a reasonable price for us to build. But sales weren’t pouring in and I needed all sorts of search engine optimization done. I realized the need to get cash flow going, so I incorporated Boulder Mills.”

Field rep H.T. Davis.

Ayad hasn’t given up on Cubbies in Box, which still basically pays for itself through monthly orders, and he believes it can be sold or franchised some day.

Back and forth

Boulder Mills started with residential work, but the focus has recently shifted to the commercial market. The shop completes about 20 projects per year. They’ve included renovation of an AMC Theater, country club, restaurants and retirement centers.

Ayad hopes to create a better balance with residential work to improve cash flow. “The business model of commercial work is pretty miserable,” he says. “You can be done with a $200,000 job for many months before ever seeing a dime. You essentially end up funding them and it becomes very irritating and expensive. You need a line of credit at the bank and it’s risky. Residential work is more business-friendly, so with a combination of the two we can grow comfortably.”

Boulder Mills is a 4,000-sq.-ft. shop located in an industrial park. At the drawing board is Charles Wilkes, Ayad’s engineer, draftsman and righthand man. He’s involved with every project from start to finish.

“We will get drawings from an architect and then resubmit shop drawings to the architect in a certain time frame. Our shop drawings are more detailed in how we perceive what their requirements are for the job. It shows them how we assemble our product and that we’ve interpreted their drawings correctly,” Wilkes says.

Wilkes sees design trends accentuating natural wood grain with lots of dark finishes such as mocha and very few painted finishes. Materials can range from melamine and laminate to hardwoods like alder. It all depends on the specs. The company used to do its own finishing, but currently subs it out.

Bursting at the seams

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Ayad and his crew are huge proponents of automated machinery. It has enjoyed a strong relationship with Stiles, supplier of the shop’s Weeke Vantage nested-based CNC router.

“There’s no way we can produce all of our parts manually. We’d need an enormous number of guys to keep up with it and we don’t have to worry about errors,” Ayad says.

Other machinery includes a Weeke ABD 050 automatic boring and doweling machine, Brandt Ambition 1100 edgebander, Holz-Her sliding table saw and Extrema 36” wide belt sander.

In 2015, Ayad had 12 employees working two shifts. In 2014, it was just Ayad, Wilkes and one full-time woodworker. Ayad says he’s still trying to figure the correct employee-to-work ratio.

“The first of this year, we were down to four guys and now we’re up to seven, so there’s a little fluctuation. It’s tough to maintain too many people in one shop for a single shift. I wouldn’t want any more right now; there’s not enough space. We’re very heavily machined so that takes up a lot of space, but it also speeds up production so you don’t need as many guys to produce.”

Ayad is exploring the possibility of building a new shop to accommodate future needs, noting that owning a building would be more economical and convenient in the long run.

“A critical factor in our growth is getting the space we need. We are maxed out at 4,000 square feet. We’d fill 6,000 square feet in a blink of the eye and, if things work out, could easily double that.”

John Miller and the shop’s slider.

Ayad recently opened a showroom in Steamboat Springs called Steamboat Mills. “We opened the retail outlet with hopes of capturing the residential market. There’s opportunity up there. We have a number of personal contacts in Steamboat.” 

Contact: Boulder Mills, 1214 Commerce Court, Suite 200, Lafayette, CO 80026. Tel: 720-221-7064.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.

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