Apologies to the late Fred Rogers, the gentle personality who made his mark in children's television, but Felix and Lisa Hendrickson, the husband-and-wife team who own Hendrickson Custom Cabinetry, have something pretty special going for them, as well. The 40ish couple, who celebrated the fifth anniversary of their Bronx-based shop in January, developed a highly unusual organizational structure that is built on a neighborhood concept.
"We don't have departments here," explains Lisa. "Rather, we have neighborhoods. We're convinced that people are far more willing to work together with neighbors than they would be to seek help from or give help to people from other departments."
All told, there are 13 neighborhoods, some large and some small. The production neighborhood, for example, incorporates three smaller neighborhoods â€” fabrication, finishing and installation. Similarly, the office neighborhood includes finance, marketing and human resources. Other large neighborhoods are leadership, drafting/engineering, estimating/sales, and project management, which also contains purchasing.
"In principle," says Lisa, "people in all neighborhoods are expected to interconnect with each other, and, in practice, they do. When we hire, we don't just look for skill sets, we try to identify people who will fit into the corporate culture we have established."
"Many employers try to accomplish this by hiring people of the same ethnic or educational background," adds Felix. "We do it by seeking people who understand and reflect the corporate values we try to live by. These are: 1) Excellence; 2) Innovation; 3) Integrity; 4) Service; 5) Community; and 6) Urgency. We look for these qualities during the interview process, and then, to be on the safe side, we have a trial period of 90 days before an individual is officially on board."
Hendrickson Custom Cabinetry
The resulting staff is, in his words, "a mini-United Nations," with several nationalities and ethnic backgrounds represented. And, helping hold it together is an atmosphere of trust and respect that is fueled by the owners' encouragement. There are monthly "lunch-and-learn" programs in the shop, and safety training also is offered every month.
The Hendricksons have 27 employees at HCC, up from 21 just a few months ago. In 2003, when the business was launched, there were just four. Focusing on residential high-end custom cabinetry and architectural millwork for "high net-worth individuals, celebrity homes and buildings of architectural note," the company has no retail presence, working exclusively through architects, interior designers and general contractors.
The biggest market is nearby Manhattan, the city's toniest borough, where, says Felix, "We deal with some of the most discerning and demanding customers that can be found anywhere. Our typical large job two years ago was about $100,000, and now it is around $300,000."
Hendrickson isn't bragging, just reporting a fact. But if he chose to, he would have plenty to brag about. A native of Ridgewood, N.J., and no stranger to metropolitan New York, he went off to college in Wooster, Ohio, but never finished. Instead, he dropped out to pursue a career as a drummer with rock and blues bands.
Over the next decade, he experienced some success, but also some very slow periods. During one of these, he filled in at Above Board, an Austin, Texas, cabinet shop that handled mostly commercial jobs â€” counters, desks and specialized teleconferencing kiosks. "I swept up and helped anyone who needed help," he recalls. But he also discovered he had a gift for this type of work.
"I learned how to handle laminates, veneers, do radiuses, and a lot more. It was a quick, broad-based education," he says.
In Austin, he met Lisa, who is originally from Albuquerque, N.M. A business strategist, marketing specialist and consultant, she had an organized turn of mind that was to prove invaluable later on when Felix was three months along as the owner of HCC.
But there were a couple of other stops along the way. When his supervisor at Above Board left that company to begin a residential furniture business, Felix trailed along. There, he worked on custom nightstands, beds, tables, chairs and home entertainment centers.
And, still feeling the beat of his music career, he created his own drum set, using six alternating layers of maple and gum. One of these drums is now kept in the mezzanine-level office at HCC, and he is happy to show it to visitors. The drum project led the musician cum cabinetmaker into a gig building drum sets for the Fibes Drum Co., another Austin-based firm with customers all over the world.
Building a business
By the late 1990s, however, Felix and Lisa had tired of Texas and were ready to return to New York. "I went to work for Phillipe Besnard, an old-school French cabinetmaker, and stayed with him for five years, until his retirement," Felix says.
That was the moment Felix went from employee to employer. "I bought his tools and took over his lease, and I was in business," he says.
In the beginning, with just four people rattling around in the 8,000-sq.-ft. facility (6,500 of which are "usable," says Felix), it may have seemed lonely. That changed quickly when Lisa, with her administrative skills, joined the company in April 2003, barely three months after start-up.
The previous owner had an artisan's approach to business, says Felix. Each cabinetmaker worked alone, handling all aspects of a project, from milling the wood to assembling the piece, except for finishing. "We were doing the equivalent of 'knitting sweaters,'" Felix remembers. "We didn't even have an edgebander."
A 5-step program
Recognizing that there were more efficient methods available in the 21st century, the newly minted entrepreneur aimed to break the production process down into steps that could benefit from technology and specialization. "I was convinced that we would complete jobs more quickly and with improved quality," he says. And he was right.
Hendrickson developed a five-step design/build methodology to ensure that every piece meets the same high-quality standards. Elements of the program include: architectural drafting; hand selection of hardwoods and veneers; custom fabrication; custom finishing; and professional installation.
Step one begins after the architect has designed a custom piece for the consumer. HCC prepares its own drawings, which further define the architect's vision by engineering functionality and durability into the piece. No work begins until the shop drawings meet the client's approval.
Hand selection of hardwoods and veneers, Hendrickson tells clients, is "critical to the beauty, durability and uniqueness of your custom millwork. Our staff travels to lumber yards and suppliers and examines each and every piece of wood and veneer to ensure quality, color and suitability." Wherever possible, the woods used in a job come from the same tree, in order to maintain a consistent appearance.
Once the woods and veneers have been selected, HCC's staff lays out all the materials. At this point, pieces are book-matched and end-matched to ensure aesthetic balance in the finished piece. Then, says Hendrickson, it's time for the actual fabrication â€” cutting, molding, shaping and assembly.
Step four involves disassembly of the piece, which allows for more efficient sanding prior to custom finishing. Installation is the final step and one of the most critical.
"The success of any installation starts at the drawing phase when we apply the architect or designer's actual field dimensions to the architectural drawings," says Hendrickson. "We check and recheck our field measurements so our installation process is quick and exact."
Despite the focus on precision, Hendrickson says the human element isn't overlooked. He uses two words, "friendly" and "professional," to describe the people HCC sends into consumers' homes.
The old and the new
Today, modern equipment blends with the skills of experienced craftsmen to keep HCC humming. Key machinery and technology acquisitions during the shop's first five years include an OTT Kantomat edgebander, a SCM Sanya 1CS 95 Plus 37" x 60" wide belt sander, a Hastings air makeup unit and Kremlin finishing equipment.
The modernization of the finishing neighborhood has Hendrickson raving. "We added an in-line paint heater for such materials as sealer, coater, lacquer, polyurethanes â€” anything with a high solids content. Heating the material enables us to achieve better coverage while using less thinner, and this translates into less VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and lower cost."
One other significant addition, adds Lisa, is a Microvellum AutoCAD-based manufacturing and design software system that is expected to optimize the creation of shop drawings, takeoffs and cut lists, and the conversion of submittal drawings to machine code and reports. While the Hendricksons were being interviewed for this story, three of their employees sat huddled in front of a computer terminal taking an interactive class to bring them up to speed on the new software.
HCC planned to have the new system under control by the first quarter of 2008, paving he way for installation of its first CNC router.
"We've narrowed it down to a couple of models," says Felix. "We didn't want to go ahead and make the purchase until we had the software mastered. This way, when we bring the machine in, we can put it to work right away."
While HCC has been making strides on the manufacturing side and building its volume significantly, it has not broadened the type of customer it serves. "We started out building millwork and cabinets for upscale urban residences, and that is still what we do."
One slight difference: the amount of millwork done by HCC has picked up somewhat. Felix explains: "When we say millwork, we are thinking of work that is more closely tied into the architecture of the existing space; it is not just a table or chair that can be carried in and carried out. Thus, we often include cabinets when we are talking about millwork, along with paneling, moldings and so on.
"As the jobs have gotten bigger and more expensive," he continues, "we find that the designers are calling for a more integrated look throughout. Their goal is to transform a room, not just replace a cabinet. And our job is to give them what they want."
Contact: Hendrickson Custom Cabinetry, 132 Saint Ann's Ave., Bronx, NY 10454. Tel: 718-401-0137. www.hccco.com