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Serenity now

It doesn’t sound like it now, but 70 years ago the home of Rockwood-Serenity Cabinets and Millwork was a swinging dance hall where banjo and piano tunes rocked and rolled into Virginia’s Appalachian foothills.

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“Yeah, it was right here in the main workshop that Fats Domino belted out his blues and boogie,” says Brad Smart, co-owner of the company with his wife, Tiffany. “Now it’s where we manufacture and finish all our products.”

The old structure on 7 acres had been in the family for almost 30 years before Smart began using it for his finishing business in 2004. It had lost its billing as the only hot music spot for miles around and fell silent in the early 1960s. Though various companies had rented the facility, it had been vacant for a year or two before Smart adopted the venue to accommodate his woodworking equipment and set it humming again.

Originally, the building, located near Bassett, Va., headquarters of the furniture giant, measured about 7,500 sq. ft. In 10 years, it’s grown to 60,000. County ordinance required adding increments of no more than 12,000-sq.-ft. per year and each addition had to be separated by a firewall.

“We wanted plenty of space to grow into,” says Smart. “The 60,000 includes an attached modular mobile structure for our offices and also a 12,000-sq.-ft. lumber storage area.”

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Smart’s climb into the woodworking business began after graduating in 1989 from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a degree in communications.

“I came back home to the Martinsville (Va.) area and went to work for a couple of wood products companies. I was mostly in sales and management, but I got to know all about woodworking techniques and equipment.”

He started to see a need for repairing all the imports pouring in from China and East Asia. Furniture and cabinets were often defective and needed repairs and refinishing before being put on the market. Mold, tip test failure and rubbed-off finish were some of the problems. That was when he decided to launch his own finishing business. He and Tiffany called it Rockwood Specialties, named for the road on which it’s located. Through the years, they have branched out to include manufacture and installation of commercial cabinets and millwork, primarily for the

hospitality industry.

“In 2011, Serenity House Cabinets in Ferrum, Va., never recovered from the recession and had to close. We acquired the client base, many of its key employees and the right to take Serenity as our operating name. We wanted to retain Serenity because we just like the sound of it and it also made for a smooth transition.”

A team effort

Under the husband-wife team, the newly formed company quickly found its stride. Smart is in charge of sales and customer service. As the managing member, Tiffany oversees administrative operations, keeps her eye on the bottom line, develops advertising agenda, and tends home base when Smart is on the road. With a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Averett University in Danville, Va., she has the formal education in the right field to carry out her responsibilities.

As she glides between shop and offices, there’s usually at least one dog trotting along beside her. The pet-friendly atmosphere is a reflection of the Smart’s round-the-clock devotion to the causes of the Martinsville-Henry County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“Everyone seems to enjoy the pets — suppliers, visitors and especially the employees. We have 30 outstanding members on the Rockwood-Serenity team who get a lot of credit for the success of our company,” Tiffany says. “I dare say we couldn’t get along without our manufacturing supervisors, project managers, accountant and estimators.”

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Vice president of manufacturing Kevin Wampler has charge of the shop. He’s also a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and has a master’s in business administration degree from Averett University. He’s tuned to production quality and consistency and safety issues.

“We meet every Monday morning to plan the work and talk over any problems. I think getting everyone together is important to keep up the morale and keep communication going. I’m a stickler for safety and training programs. Our two basic pieces of equipment besides the CNC — the Brandt edgebander and Detel horizontal boring machine — demand attention to basic operating rules.”

As senior project manager, Stephanie McDaniel always has a hefty stack of design plans on her desk to be rendered into workable drawings. AutoCAD and Cabinet Vision are her constant office companions. She’s also one of the programmers of the company’s Weeke Proline CNC, so her eyes are glued to her monitor all day.

Accountant Doug Wyatt says the economic climate has improved considerably the last four years. But there are always bumps in the road.

“The worst of the downturn was from about ’07 to mid-’09, so Rockwood-Serenity came in at a pretty good time. Most areas in Virginia exist in a bit of a vacuum anyway. We’re usually a bit behind the curve so we can usually dodge the heavy blows. It really depends on lending practices, so when the money to big companies we deal with like the hotel conglomerates slows down, so does our business. But things seem to be loosening up.”

Marketing matters

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After four years in business, Rockwood-Serenity has been able to keep at least 10 to 20 projects in the pipeline at any one time. The enterprise grossed around $3.5 million last year. To meet revenue and production goals and to keep a sizeable job backlog, Blue Book network bids have been helpful. Smart says, “We still do bids, but on a less frequent basis. We’ve found our footing in commercial hospitality (hotels and restaurants), retirement homes and schools and now a lot of work comes to us by word of mouth.”

The idea is to do everything they can to keep the company name out there. Smart handles most of the promotional effort with some help from a couple of independent sales representatives. Their area of operation is the entire East Coast, but Smart says “we’ll go anywhere east of the Mississippi.”

Tiffany takes responsibility for other publicity channels. When Rockwood expanded its operations, she applied for and won a grant to improve the company’s website.

“It goes without saying that a company needs an online presence,” she says. “It can present a good visual picture for the occasional hit.”

Social media also plays a big marketing role. “Posting project photos on our Facebook page has been a lot of fun. It’s been a good way to keep family, friends and clients informed about our work. While the internet is a wonderful tool for introducing a new client to your business, I believe managing the Facebook page has actually been more effective in keeping repeat customers apprised of our manufacturing abilities and completed projects gallery.”

The success of Rockwood-Serenity is due to many attributes, but basically it delivers what the clients want. “They know our work, which is why companies call us again and again,” Smart says. “There are two things we offer: No. 1 is experience and dependability in building cabinets and millwork and No. 2 is we have the capability to handle every aspect of a job, from the initial drawings to final installation. Companies know we handle the complete package and they don’t have to consult with anyone else. We make it easier for them.”

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Staying connected

But it isn’t always easy for the Smarts. Because of the potential for construction delays on big projects, installation crews must be ready to mobilize on short notice. They load up and head out, using one of the company’s five cargo trailers emblazoned with its logo.

“The key to heading off as many problems as we can is for me to visit job sites and check out the details,” Smart says.

His suitcase is always packed and he’s on the road hundreds of days each year along with his trusty sidekick, Sugar, a blue heeler. Not only does he review everything, he gets to know the people on the job. “Staying connected” is his most important management rule.

When he’s back home, his head is bent over his smartphone staying connected with his field crews.

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“I just got the message the installation in Hilton Head has to be done by Friday. Our molding contractor — we do everything but moldings — delivers on Monday.” He glances at Tiffany. “Sure wish I had time to play a round of golf and I bet you’d like to hit the tennis court.” 

The Smarts, both in their 40s, agree that they’re in this for the long haul. It was tough getting started and Smart admits, “I wouldn’t want to have to do it again. But we’ve made it this far and we’ll make it work. In five or 10 years we’ll be even bigger.”

Golf and tennis will have to wait.

Contact: Rockwood Specialties, LLC dba Serenity Cabinets and Millwork, 2303 Rockwood Park Road, Bassett, VA 24055. Tel: 276-627-8010.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.

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