When Malcolm “Rusty” Brewer started a small woodworking company in 1987, he never dreamed it would grow to what it is today.
“Did I have a plan to build a big business? No. If I had been better at business, I’d be a lot further ahead,” Brewer says. “But I wasn’t driven by the money; I was driven by the work. You have to love what you do. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to be successful.”
His company, M.R. Brewer in Portland, Maine, caters to several markets, starting with residential and commercial construction. There’s also an interior and exterior millwork division, supported by an in-house design department and custom fabrication shop. As Brewer nears retirement, sons Matt and Jeff Brewer are taking the reins of the 25-person team.
“Most of our customers come to see us for a kitchen or library and realize we not only provide the cabinets, but can do the complete construction project for them. It’s kind of a nice feature to be a one-stop shop where people know they’re not dealing with multiple contractors from multiple trades,” Matt Brewer says.
Prior to ’87, Rusty ran another big cabinet shop near the Portland area for many years. But when he wasn’t given what he said he was promised — a 50 percent ownership share — Rusty quit to go into business for himself. With three children at the time and no gainful employment to rely on, the pressure was on. He employed a friend, Richard Beaudoin, as his business partner and they started building bookcases in a barn.
Within that first year, they rented a shop space in the basement of a Portland warehouse and hired 12 employees. Beaudoin had a turnkey commercial construction company of his own that he merged with the business and ran that while Rusty focused on millwork and cabinetry. Rusty’s wife, Patricia Brewer, managed the books.
Bursting at the seams, the company moved to its current 12,000-sq.-ft. facility in 1994 at a former Portland lumberyard. After Beaudoin’s retirement in 1997, Rusty decided it was in his best interest to keep the construction end running. Meanwhile, his sons were making their way in the industry. Mike Brewer got a construction management degree and went to work for HE Sargent Inc. in Enfield, Maine, in 2001 until 2003 when his father asked him to come work for him. Jeff Brewer joined the family business in 1997 after getting out of the military. Jeff is skilled at running the shop floor, while Matt is better at project management, true complements to one another, according to Rusty.
In the early years, most projects consisted of small commercial jobs for offices in downtown Portland. In the late ’90s, the whole direction of the business changed when Rusty began a business relationship with a Portland realtor who had ties to high-end homeowners.
The client base is fairly local and generally consists of the greater Portland area up to Rockport, and reaches down to Worcester, Mass., Boston and Cape Cod. About 90 percent of the millwork services are for residential homes located in coastal areas such as Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
“In the millwork shop we do a lot of commercial work as far as office furniture repair, office countertop repair and on-site furniture repair, but a majority of our work is primarily residential,” Matt says.
“The millwork side of the company complements the construction end because anything that requires construction will usually guarantee that job. It also allows us to be able to do things that other construction companies can’t do such as replicate existing moldings and other woodworking details on houses and things like that. We like to think of ourselves as experts at remodeling old homes. That’s really where our strongest capabilities are.”
Rusty, who grew up in Portland, says the population is ever-increasing in Southern Maine, which is making it seem like a suburb of Boston, thanks to the diversity of the seasons, clean air and location close to the ocean and mountains. He foresees an abundance of work in the future.
Never say never
Rusty and his sons have invested in all of the necessary equipment, technology and people to build and renovate homes with custom cabinetry and millwork and they make it a point to accommodate all types of requests.
“With new products coming out and new equipment coming out, we try to stay ahead of the curve on trends. You need to know what the new products are before your clients tell you. You need to educate them first.
“We have the capability of producing anything. We’ve done custom windows and doors, coffered ceilings and, two years ago, we built a timberframe house in our shop,” Jeff says.
“One day we’ll be doing a high-gloss finish on a very modern cabinet. The next day we could be doing a beaded inset face frame for a traditional kitchen. It’s very random,” Matt adds. “We see lots of painted kitchens, lots of natural wood, Shaker-style beaded inset frames with flat panel doors. Some customers want that modern look, though. Younger clients want the modern farmhouse look. It really depends on the client. We base our designs on their needs.”
Two years ago, the company hired an interior designer named Tavia Douglass, who creates CAD designs for the shop floor, deals with color and material selection and works with plumbing and electrical specs.
“Before it was just Rusty doing designs on paper. Then when we got the CNC we had a draftsman that did CAD drawings from Rusty’s work. Now it’s much more organized with our in-house designer. She is the first point of contact for a client,” Matt says.
Another new hire, Chris Philbrook, has been increasing the company’s marketing efforts and developing its website. He’s also been involved with writing a succession plan for Matt and Jeff to take over when their father retires. That step will leave the brothers some key decisions to mull over.
“We’ve been talking over the past few months about how we need to make a decision if we’re going to expand or not because we have enough work coming up that could warrant us to expand,” Matt says. “We’ve been blessed with work and have work lined up through the winter. We are at maximum capacity right now and we have room to expand, but we want to see what the payback will be first.”
Jeff adds that the two plan to continue their focus in the residential market to stay competitive.
“There are a lot of bigger millwork shops around here that are on the commercial side of things. I think in the millwork field if you’re going to get into the commercial side, it’s a huge investment. You have to have a lot of square footage for a shop. It’s very competitive and it’s very tough to get down to that price point the larger shops are at. So from our standpoint, we like to have our guys more focused on the craftsmanship and the detailed work in the residential buildings,” he says.
Contact: M.R. Brewer, 91 Bell St., Portland, ME 04103. Tel: 207-797-7534. www.mrbrewer.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.