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Employees Luke Hunter attaching the face frame to a cherry kitchen island.

Employees Luke Hunter attaching the face frame to a cherry kitchen island.

Vartanian Custom Cabinets in Palmer, Mass. just celebrated its 35th year in business and is looking forward to more prosperous years ahead. The family-owned turnkey custom cabinetry company prides itself on having outstanding employee retention and a well-equipped shop with cutting edge machinery, as well as a great reputation with its customer base.

Owner and founder Aram Vartanian says that the key to continued success is to remain flexible and let customers dictate their needs, then produce top quality products with unmatched service that brings them back time after time. This includes taking on as many jobs possible regardless of size, a strategy he used during the Great Recession to keep the doors open.

“We just kept going and always stayed busy and always pushed. We took jobs whether big or small and we learned that you never say no to a bathroom vanity because it turns into a kitchen. We still try not to turn work down. We try to take the job and we try to keep our clients happy and it turns into another referral,” says Vartanian.

The business has 14 full-time employees. There are 10 in the shop and four in the office, including Vartanian and his wife Lisa, who handles administrative duties. The owners say everyone is equally motivated to see the business thrive and evolve. And so far, so great, with an annual sales volume of just under $4 million and 10 percent growth.

Adam Portelada assembling panels.

Adam Portelada assembling panels.

Auspicious beginnings

Just out of high school and a few years from starting the business in 1984, Vartanian joined his older brother and mentor in the building trades.

“My brother John and I started together in his basement in Wilbraham. We worked several years in the remodeling business together, and in the evenings and on weekends we’d build cabinets for some of those projects. It started as a hobby, then we split the two companies apart and created this cabinet company and he remained in the remodeling business,” says Vartanian.

Eager to grow, Vartanian hired a couple of employees for fabrication and sales help, and had the current facility built in 1986. The first building was about 5,000 sq. ft., but several additions over the years have bumped it to 15,000 sq. ft, including a showroom.

The shop has progressively implemented automated and high-tech machinery and continues to review the latest products on the market. This practice stems from the incorporation of Cabinet Vision design software in 1988, which runs the shop’s CNC router, panel saw and cut-off saw.

“We do all of our designing and everything in here and we’re downloading cutlists straight into the shop. We had to automate because we went to all of the effort of learning Cabinet Vision and it was so amazing that if we didn’t link it to the machines in the shop, we were throwing away 90 percent of the information for a guy in the shop to rethink things through. So, technology for us is number one.”

The shop’s dovetail joinery produced with an Omec 750 CN.

The shop’s dovetail joinery produced with an Omec 750 CN.

Expanding the market

Vartanian limits the scope of work mostly to residential jobs, a decision he made early on as a business owner simply because homeowners appreciate the quality of work he has to offer.

“The only commercial work we do is when it’s with a contractor we have a good relationship with. Recently we did the bar and lockers in the Long Meadow (Mass.) Country Club. I got that job through a builder that we do business with, but if some other builder came to me, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it.”

The initial client base was in western Massachusetts, when there was plenty of new construction and remodeling going on. But that has changed.

“Now we’re out to Cape Cod, up to Maine and New Hampshire, covering a good part of New England. A lot of these jobs are secondary homes for customers in this area so wherever it happens to be, we’re comfortable traveling a couple hundred miles easily. We’ve put plenty of kitchens for secondary homes on a truck and shipped them to Florida. It’s not work that we’re actually pursuing; it’s work from clients that we have done work for in the past,” says Vartanian.

He doesn’t worry about competition, even though its out there. The company has a special niche in the local market with its service offerings and price points that other shops just can’t compete with.

“We do a lot of work in the Boston area, and there’s a lot of competition out there. There are a lot of high-end shops and it’s really nice to compete at that level. They’re so talented and the quality is there, and dealing with the architects, it’s just brought us up to a whole new level.”

Staying ahead

The shop advertises but nearly 70 percent of its clientele is channeled through referrals from family, friends, builders and architects.

When the market crashed in 2008, the shop survived by cutting prices and offering semi-custom and stock cabinet lines.

“When the bottom fell out, it was painful to a certain degree financially, but it was easy to shift gears and get down and dirty and go after the middle- to lower-end product lines and that kept our guys busy. We weren’t making a whole lot of money, but I wanted to retain my employees and we absolutely did keep everybody. We didn’t have to do that for too long and we were back in the high-end market pretty quick,” says Vartanian.

The shop has discontinued the stock offerings but does offer three different price points based on material and construction options. It has also gained a broader clientele by offering more entertainment centers and closet and storage solutions.

The shop builds to the latest trends in its market, which currently lean 

The shop builds to the latest trends in its market, which currently lean 

Changing styles

Vartanian observes what customers seem to go for and updates the showroom accordingly.

“When we bring our clients into the showroom, it’s a real educational process where we explain how we build the cabinet and what sets us apart from everybody else,” he says. “We’re certainly not trend setters. We tend to follow the trends. One of the things that we are very good at is picking up a trend and refining it a bit and taking it to the next level.”

The local market calls for mostly inset framing and painted wood cabinetry, while interest in oak, cherry and other stained products is diminishing. Moving east towards Boston, trends are similar but with cleaner lines and fewer details, according to Vartanian.

“It’s been trending that way for several years and it’s really starting to move from the Boston market into the western side with just cleaner lines,” he says. “One of the things we’re starting to see now are more gloss and high gloss finishes. Kitchens are predominantly matte but the high gloss trend is starting to pick up especially in certain areas such as pantries and bars where you’ll see a more edgy type finish.”

Refinement and growth

The Vartanians say they are fortunate to have a very low employee turnover rate, as all but a few of their employees have been there for at least 10 years. They’ve also had great success hiring from the nearby trade school, Pathfinder Regional Vocational High School.

Employee insight is highly valued, and the owners often engage them in idea-sharing meetings to make the company better as a whole. A recent meeting topic considered ways to implement more lean production practices, and the Vartanians believe it produced better results than if they’d sought an outside consultant.

“Lean is something we studied on our own as a group and tried to apply the best we could. It has had tremendous effects on our operations. We cut a lot of waste and inventory out and there’s less clutter in our facility and it’s more organized on a day-to-day basis. We work as a team here to figure out how to do things better.”

The owners clearly want to expand their business but are not quite sure the current building is large enough to get them to where they want to be.

“In terms of growth it’s always hard to tell but at some point, we’re going to plan another addition and add on to the shop. I think we have all the equipment and toys that we need out there now and it’s just a matter of space to become more efficient. At that point we will have to figure out where we need to be as a company and determine if we want to stay at this exact location or move into a new facility. That’s a big jump for us so we’re going to take our time and make sure we make the right decision,” says Vartanian.

Contact: Vartanian Custom Cabinets, 10 2nd St., Palmer Industrial Park, Palmer, MA 01069. Tel: 413-283-3438. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.

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