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Men of steel

Take one craftsman with an established shop, add a businessman who owns another shop and mix thoroughly. It’s been a recipe for success at National Woodwork in Pittsburgh.

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Craftsman Joel Palmer and businessman Russell Rice formed a partnership in 2012, three years after Rice purchased National Woodwork. Palmer had been operating JSP Woodworking in Pittsburgh since 1991.

“I brought my clientele, experience and an established shop, which was better than the one Russell purchased. He brought equipment and employees,” Palmer says.

Ricel also brought a background in sales and finance. Both say melding their diverse skills was a great decision as the company has experienced a 500-percent growth in assets since Rice’s purchase in 2009. While they still experience uncharted territory from time to time, they know they are better together.

Immediate growth

After the merger, the shop has more than doubled in size to about 27,000 sq. ft. There are 17 employees with plans to hire a couple more.

“Our turnover is pretty low,” Palmer says. “Most of our guys are here because they want to do this for a living. We’ve managed to hire a couple of younger guys in their 30s and that’s very encouraging that they want to learn the business. It’s hard to find skilled and motivated younger guys.”

The shop produces furniture, millwork, kitchen cabinets, closets and more for residential and commercial customers. It completes 70 to 100 jobs per year, ranging from whole homes to one-off pieces such as a conference table.

Part of the company’s success comes from being very selective when sourcing work, according to Rice.

“We limit the number of general contractors we work with and it’s a pretty simple criteria,” Rice says. “The first time we do business with somebody, there are three outcomes: We’ll either do business with them again, make an effort to do business with them again or decide to never do business with them again.

“If they’re unorganized and they’re running their job poorly, we’re done. But if they are organized, run their job well and finish promptly, we’ll do anything for them. We’ll cover an error or mistake and establish a relationship with them.”

The shop completes about 70 to 100 jobs per year for an even mix of residential and commercial clients.

Regional focus

Despite the implication of “national” in its name, the bulk of the company’s work comes from a roughly 200-mile radius, stretching northwest to Cleveland and east toward Philadelphia. There’s about a 50-50 split between the residential and commercial markets, with which Rice is more comfortable. Before the last recession, residential work accounted for about 70 percent.

“We’ve got a better balance now,” Rice says. “I think it’s a nice mix for our employees as well because the commercial (work) tends to be more production-oriented and they can be more creative in detail with the residential.

Commercial clients have included the University of Pittsburgh and PNC Park (home of the Pittsburgh Pirates), banks, country clubs, hospitals and hotels.

Residential jobs lean towards frameless or inset traditional-style cabinetry, while most of the commercial work requests are contemporary, according to Rice. Wood preferences tend to include a fair amount of soft maple, walnut, cherry and white oak. White paint is currently the most popular finish.

Challenges and demands

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Rice and Palmer say they are in a competitive market, but aren’t too worried because there’s plenty of work to go around. Plus, National Woodwork has the advantages of being a high-tech shop with skilled employees.

Their biggest challenge continues to be managing growth.

“When you’re a three-man shop, you know when things are shipped and parts are coming in,” Rice says. “When you’re bigger and running 10 jobs through the shop, the complexity of keeping track of everything becomes more difficult. There’s just a lot more going on, so you have to really grow and pay attention to your process.

“If you fail — and everybody does this from time to time — then that’s because you generally didn’t follow the process. We try to follow our process, but we get busy and say we’ll just do this and it comes back to bite you every time. You’ve got to follow the process and you can’t take shortcuts or you’re going to experience a problem.”

Recently completed jobs from the shop’s extensive portfolio.

Palmer is also a believer in process.

“I had never been in a business this big before,” Palmer says. “I started out as a little one-man shop and took on some business roles as I needed to. I didn’t come at it from a business standpoint, I came at it from a craftsman standpoint. So I was just looking to make some things and make a living and now it’s a full-fledged business.”

Both owners expect the company will continue to grow, especially in what they term as a “business-friendly” Pittsburgh market.

The owners have a plan to expand the business, involving the development of a product line for national distribution. They weren’t ready to share the details, but given their proven track record, it’s not hard to predict more success.

Contact: National Woodwork, 4075 Windgap Ave., Building 20, Pittsburgh, PA 15204. Tel: 412-331-1116.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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