What goes up must come down in the stair business, though that hasn’t been the case for King & Co. in Marlborough, Mass., celebrating its 32nd year anniversary.
Owner Bob King and his six-person crew complete about 20 projects per year in a 6,000-sq-ft.-shop, recently outfitted with more automated machinery. The shop has hundreds of high-end staircases in its portfolio, gracing residences in New England and beyond.
The goal of King & Co. is to support the customer – whether it’s an architect, homebuilder or homeowner – every step of the way, providing design, fabrication, finishing and installation services.
“My approach with a builder is to take the issues of the stairs out of their concern,” says King. “Many other trades tie their work into the stairs, including electricians, trim carpenters and framers. As the business has evolved into larger projects, the shop drawings and the office end of it has become much more involved.”
King was born and raised in Keene, N.H., and started out as a carpenter, working for a custom homebuilder while still in high school. He was supervising by the age of 24, when he decided to become a business owner.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen until I was around 30,” says King. “My wife Diana (the shop’s co-owner and bookkeeper) was extremely supportive. She said going into business was my goal, so I should try it. I had not considered it, but with her support and blessing, I started the business and never looked back.”
That first business, Robert C. King Builder/Cabinetmaker, did renovations with a focus on trim and casework. He quickly realized opportunities with custom stair building and took the time to learn the basics through trial and error.
“It’s a specialty and there was no one in the area doing stair work,” King recalls. “I figured I can build the parts in my shop and take them out to the site. Once I started doing them, it became apparent it was a good direction for a business.”
He started with straight and L-shaped designs, and then progressed to more complicated work. King relished the challenge.
His market started to expand around 1992, particularly around the ski resort areas of northern New England.
“Most of our work comes from builders we’ve worked with before. We never look at working with a builder or architect as a one-time deal. We always look at it as the start of a long-term relationship,” says King.
Nowadays, most projects are in the six-figure range. Most are for new construction or extensive remodels.
“The general market we cater to is homes in the $2 to $10 million range,” says King. “We’ve also done a special project for $60 million home in Ohio, through a prominent architect, and for an $80 million coastal home on Mount Desert Island, Maine.
Commercial jobs are rare, due to code issues for public buildings, King says.
These days, King spends about as much time nurturing client relationships as he does building stairs. He doesn’t need to advertise, but he does need to clearly articulate the capabilities of his shop.
“If a client calls me, I can do well selling the job. I’ve never really advertised. When I first started out I had a brochure, then got our website up and running. That really started to expand business,” he says.
“We typically get stair concept plans from the architects, and then resolve the details. We generate shop drawings and do 3D model renderings for approval and fabricate from there. When there’s direct correspondence with the owners I can give them the right information to make the best choices. Ultimately, they always tell me they will never look at a staircase the same way again. By that point they have a better understanding and appreciation that the stair is a central part of the house aesthetically and functionally, as important as a kitchen and a bathroom.”
Tapping into technology
King relocated to his current shop 20 years ago. It’s been expanded twice to accommodate a pair Shoda CNC machines. The first, a two-head model, was purchased 13 years ago when he had four employees.
“At that point our business was continually growing and I got it to expand our ability to do curved and complex work more easily. That basically changed our business. It dramatically improved the level of service we could offer the clients which took us to much higher-end projects,” says King.
After witnessing proven results from one CNC, King purchased a 5-axis model six years ago to do even more detailed work.
“They’ve expanded our horizons with the amount of curved work and rail work we do. The CNCs have allowed us to maintain a higher consistent standard of quality and keep up with demanding schedules. So we’re able to turn around complex jobs in a much timelier fashion,” says King.
The shop started using Staircon software two years ago. It is a Swedish-based 3D parametric modeling program created for stair manufacturing that is still relatively new to the U.S., according to King. It has a web-based presentation feature, allowing clients to simply click on a link to approve drawings, choose baluster options, request a finish, and more.
A comfortable pace
King is pleased with the consistency of the shop’s day-to-day operations. He has no plans to add employees or change the scope of work. Occasionally, the shop produces millwork and flooring requests from its regular customers.
King is also secretary of the Stairbuilders and Manufacturers Association. “I’m very involved with the SMA,” he says. “I’ve been in it for about 12 years and I used to contact [executive director] Dave Cooper a lot for code information. They do workshop tours around the country, including last July at our facility.”
King reveals that when he first started, he was intimidated around other stairmakers but now it’s all about building relationships with them.
At some point, King hopes to hand he reigns to his son-in-law, Nate Clay, currently responsible for the shop’s CNC programming.
“I’m 56 and envision being involved in the business until my early 70s. In ten years I want to turn the bulk of the operation to Nate and just come in to work,” says King.
“We currently have all the work we can handle and an extensive backlog. We’re fortunate that we can pick and choose our jobs. A lot of businesses can’t do that.”
King & Co.
8 Roxbury Road
Marlborough, NH 03455