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Loving the Land of Enchantment

During the last 21 years, Mike Godwin has grown his custom woodworking business, Ernest Thompson Furniture in Albuquerque, N.M., into a full-service furniture and cabinet shop. Godwin purchased the company through a business broker in 1990 after leaving a career on Wall Street.

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“When I bought the business, we were very well-known for the traditional New Mexico style and we still obviously do some of that, but I’d say we’re more known now for handcrafted custom work. We do everything from antique reproductions to more contemporary-looking pieces. We still have standard lines in our catalog, but at least over half of what we do is custom,” says Godwin.

Mike Godwin President & co-owner of: Ernest Thompson Furniture Location: Albuquerque, N.M. Size of shop: 26,000 square feet Number of employees: 20 Quotable: “Our terrific builders are what make this business and help us get the amount of repeat business that we get. I’m proud to say that our builders have been with us an average of 15 years and that kind of long-term relationship is tough to beat.”

The Texan started his professional life in Houston. In 1980, he was transferred to Manhattan, where he worked for several large brokerage firms in the bond business. In 1989, he and his wife decided to move to Albuquerque with the intent of purchasing a running business in the construction industry.

“I had done a little woodworking and home renovations in Houston, and I’ve always had an interest in architecture. So when we were looking for businesses to buy, it was only natural for me to seek something related to the construction field.”

Founded by the namesake in the early 1970s, Ernest Thompson offered a small furniture line. Godwin soon began an expansion. “When we bought the business, it mostly served the residential sector. When we took over, we started doing work with architects and designers, which represents a good percentage of the business today,” he says.

A broad scope

The company’s main territory covers New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, but shipments are common to all 50 states, Europe and Japan. Recently, an order was filled for a small hotel in Alaska that was so remote the furniture had to be shipped by boat.

While residential orders still comprise a majority of the company’s overall business, commercial work for hotels and small businesses is catching up. The shop has completed high-end projects for the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M., and the Westin Keirland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., to name a few.

A well-developed website has attracted a number of recent clients, but the company’s success has largely been built on its word-of-mouth reputation. Godwin typically works with designers and architects, striving to reach a common ground between their artistic vision and what’s practical from a building standpoint.

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“The reason we’re seeing a lot of residential clients is because we do so much custom work. A designer can come to us and we’ll do what they have on the sketch.”

The business flourished in the late 1990s as custom homebuilding took off in the Rio Grande Valley. Godwin assembled an inside sales force to make the most of the opportunity and expanded the shop’s capabilities to include cabinets.

The company continues to use traditional furniture-making techniques, which has dovetailed nicely with customer requests to have their cabinets look more like furniture. “We have a couple of very good competitors in our market, but our ability to build furniture, as well as cabinets, has given us a bit of an advantage,” says Godwin.

While classic Southwestern styles remain popular, Goodwin is also seeing a demand for more European, contemporary and traditional American styles. As a result, he’s offering American Southwest, American Craftsman, contemporary, French country, Mission, Old World and Tuscan styles in knotty alder.

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“We’ve also been using a lot of walnut and cherry in our custom work, while most of our contract projects specify maple,” adds Godwin.

The company also produces a unique twig-covered screen product called the Sombraje.

“Utilizing twigs harvested from river banks all over New Mexico, this is the ultimate green product. These twig panels can be fashioned into shutters, screens and furniture that is as durable and long-lasting as it is beautiful.”

Hands-on approach

Ernest Thompson Furniture moved into its current 26,000-sq.-ft. shop, which features a large showroom, in 1996. The shop does not use CNC.

“Everything is bench-made. We have a mill shop, but there’s still a lot of hands-on, 101-type work that we do. A good portion of our furniture and paneling is enhanced with carvings, and that is mostly done by our master carver. But, for the most part, when the builder gets the wood from the mill shop, they work on that piece until it’s ready for finishing.”

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Major machinery includes a Casolin sliding table saw, AEM wide belt sander, Weinig Profimat planer and Rondamat grinder, Houfek double-head wide belt sander, Dantherm dust collection system, Taylor glue clamp and Graco spray booths.

“We’ve considered automating in the future when the economy picks up and we can justify the expense. I can say we’ve had our eye on a CNC router and we probably will purchase one for furniture applications because there are many things we’re cutting on the band saw right now that would be so much easier on the CNC.”

Godwin is president of the company, but also serves director of operations and designer. His wife, Doreen, manages the custom design process and commercial accounts.

Furniture and cabinets are bench-made by a crew of 18 builders at Ernest Thompson, including carver Emillo Gallegos.

“We run a pretty lean operation,” says Godwin. “Our front office help includes a bookkeeper and salesperson. We have a production manager, 18 builders, one carver and a small group of finishers. My wife and I both do design work and still draw entirely by hand. At some point we’ll start using AutoCAD for our cabinet jobs, but I would imagine we’ll always do our furniture design work by hand.

The employee turnover rate is low. The average length of stay is about 15 years. There are several employees who predate Godwin’s acquisition.

“One of the best things about this business is the general relationship the employees have with one another. Some of us have been together for 21 years. We have gotten to know each other and their families and have seen each other’s children grow up,” says Godwin.

What’s next?

While the company experienced steady growth through 2009, it’s been hit hard by the recession. The area’s new home construction market has slowed down considerably, but remodeling has remained fairly strong.

George Ortiz is part of the Ernest Thompson crew.

“Right now I want to get through this economic slope,” says Godwin. “We’ve downsized our business to a very comfortable level. We want to grow. I don’t see us getting huge, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future. If we can consistently and steadily draw business, I’d be very happy with that.

“Downsizing was a very painful process, but a necessary component to adapt to the new economic environment. For the most part, our clientele is affluent. They have money, but are being a lot more cautious about how they spend it.”

Despite the weak economy, the company is considering adding another retail/showroom location. Godwin is a proponent of offering a high-quality product backed by excellent customer service. “If we continue to do that, we’ll keep the company in good standing,” he says.

“There’s a 400 year-old tradition of furniture making in New Mexico. Unfortunately, so many of our friendly competitors have been affected by the economy and are no longer in business. Now, more than ever, we feel an obligation to carry on that tradition.”

Contact: Ernest Thompson Furniture, 4531 Osuna N.E., Albuquerque, NM 87109. Tel: 800-568-2344.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

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