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Success through familiarity

Pat Coughlin received his first taste of woodworking in a cabinet shop at the age of 16, and he hasn’t looked back. He continued woodworking after high school and eventually opened a small custom cabinet shop in his hometown of Battle Ground, Wash.

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Now, 30 years later, the owner of Coughlin Custom Cabinets operates a successful shop that handles a combination of cabinetry projects for new housing contractors, and an increasing amount of remodeling jobs.

On the surface, Coughlin’s journey appears to be a nice smooth ride, a gradual transition that just fell into place as his business grew.

If only it were that simple.

“I started in the winter of ’79-’80 and we were in a pretty good [economic] downturn and luckily at that point we didn’t have a lot of overhead,” says Coughlin. “Overhead is higher now and back then it was easier to pull in the reins a bit, it was easier to survive. But now, you have to work pretty hard to be surviving.”

Toughing it out
It was only two or three years ago when a typical Woodshop News profile would include a mention of a shop’s backlog. Answers usually ranged anywhere from six months to two years out, depending on the comfort zone of the shop owner and the patience of the clients. For Coughlin and most other shop owners, those days have disappeared.

 COUGHLIN CUSTOM CABINETS Owner: Pat Coughlin Location: Battle Ground, Wash. Shop: 8,000 sq. ft. Started business: 1979 Employees: 6

“I have a good crew, we do a nice product, and we take care of service and, during times like this when money is a little tighter, I think it helps us through these types of times,” Coughlin says. “I don’t get real rich during the good times, but I hopefully don’t go broke during the poor times, either. Like I said, I think it’s a combination of having a good crew and a good product. I’ve also always had a good core of contractors and repeat customers.”

Although Coughlin has maintained a relatively steady flow of work, he has had to work much harder to obtain it, and he recently had to lay off two of his eight employees.

“Hopefully they’ll be back not too long from now.” he says. “We’re hanging in there and paying the bills. We have a few jobs going and that will be OK with the smaller crew, but the phones have been fairly dead.”

Success has never come easy for small shop owners, and anyone who enters the trade thinking they are going to get rich should find another vocation. The lucky ones only encounter a series of bumps. But for most, particularly in tough economic times like the present, it’s more like a roller-coaster ride.

“It’s never easy when you’re self-employed,” Coughlin reflects. “Basically, I was a cabinetmaker/ woodworker and you learn through the school of hard knocks how to become a businessman, which I’m still not that good at.”

Battle Ground
The majority of Coughlin’s business comes from Battle Ground and Vancouver, Wash., growing communities just north of Portland, Ore. There are also small housing developments being built just south of Mount St. Helen’s, about a 30-minute drive from Battle Ground, that occasionally provide Coughlin some high-end work. It’s the perfect spot for a small custom shop.

“We have certain standards we try to stay within, but we’ll do anything — frameless cabinets, we’ll do face frame, we’ll do flush inset doors with face frame, we’ll do anything anybody wants,” he says. “That’s been our saving grace with this downturn I think because you’ll get people with special needs and they’re willing to spend the money.”

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The population of Battle Ground was a mere 3,758 in 1990, grew to 9,605 in 2000 and jumped to 16,710 in 2008. The estimated median house or condo value in 2007 was $240,619, nearly double what it was in 2000. Obviously, it’s not the same small town Coughlin grew up in, but he notes that “it’s still a real nice place.”

“Spring, summer and fall are great. Winters can get a little gray like anywhere on this side of the mountains in Washington. It’s really growing because we’re so close to Portland, we’re just an extension of Vancouver [Wash.], which is a bedroom community for Portland. A ton of people out here commute every day. It’s just real nice. The schools are good; you’re close to the mountains, close to the lakes and the beach. There are a lot of outdoor activities and great motorcycle riding. It’s really grown.”

Early connections
Like most starting out with a small cabinet shop, Coughlin began by taking on minor cabinetry jobs, which gradually led to an increased workload and more complicated projects. He wasn’t married at the time, didn’t have much overhead, so the business was manageable and even had some early growth spurts. He took part in delivery and installation during the first few years and learned some valuable lessons from some old-timers about how to make a decent cabinet and run a respectable business.

“You end up picking up a builder or two, and I was born and raised in this town, so I always knew a lot of people, and business kind of multiplies. You get more contractors, more people calling you, and you have to gear up. And, thank goodness, I don’t have to do the scheduling and that sort of thing anymore because that’s one of my weak points. I can sell the work and lay the work out, but I have a real good shop foreman who takes care of all the scheduling for me and that’s good.”

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Coughlin credits much of his success to building a nicer cabinet than most of the competition. He adheres to some basics, making sure the shop mills quality wood, grain matches doors and floors, and other practices that a lot of shops have abandoned.

As the years passed, the business grew and expanded to as many as 16 employees in 2003-2004. Coughlin left the shop floor and found himself behind a desk concentrating on design layout. He ran a swing shift for a while, but realized having more employees didn’t necessarily equate to higher profits. However, it did result in spending more hours at work, which was accompanied by an increased number of hassles. He downsized the shop back to a comfortable level of eight employees and continued his design work.

“Once in a while I’ll do a little something in the shop or do an install, but I don’t really get in the shop at all. When I was young, that’s what I enjoyed. I really enjoyed working things and getting to the finished product. Now, it’s just making sure your accounts payable are dealt with, and the payroll is dealt with, and the government is dealt with. That’s the finished product now and it’s not as much fun.”

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One constant problem for small shop owners is finding good employees and then maintaining them in the fold. Frankly, lousy employees are, well, simply that — lousy. They come and go and serve as little benefit in the short- or long-term. Finding good employees is difficult and, when you’re lucky enough to find one or two, they tend to leave, either for better-paying jobs or to follow the dream of opening their own shop. Coughlin Custom Cabinets has the luxury of experienced employees. Coughlin and three of his co-workers have a combined 87 years of working together.

“Dean Parker was my cutout man for more than 10 years, and he also does sales and layout, and he’s been with me 23 years,” explains Coughlin. “My shop foreman, Scott Gilcrease, came here in high school when he was 17 and he’s been here 21 years. And my sawyer, Steve Woolsey, has been here since 1995. There have been years when you go through 10 guys to find one, but sometimes it just clicks. We’re not only a shop where guys put drawer guides on or just sand a cabinet. You have to be multifaceted.”

Coughlin started subbing out his installations about 15 years ago, but it is not the normal outsourcing arrangement. Once again, experience is a key.

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“One fellow, his dad and uncle had a cabinet shop locally, so he was raised in the cabinet industry and they’ve installed for me for years,” he says. “The one guy I use mostly is just incredible. If there’s a slight problem, he doesn’t call you unless he can’t fix it. And the cabinets don’t come back to the shop. He’ll do the slight modification on the job if he can. He was a cabinetmaker and an installer. If you get guys who are strictly installers, they don’t understand the cabinetmaking aspect of it.”

Style changes
Word of mouth can often be an overused term, but in Coughlin’s case, it’s right on the money. The business doesn’t have a showroom, has never had a Web site and doesn’t advertise. Business is acquired through recommendations and referrals, normally from contractors and interior designers. The familiarity of living and working in the same town for one’s entire life combined with putting out a quality product has been enough to keep Coughlin busy for 30 years.

“It’s kind of funny not having a showroom because when these designers bring their customers out here they say, ‘Now don’t be scared by his display area.’ One thing that always helps us sell a job is if the person has done some research on how cabinets are put together, then they can kind of see. I take people out in the shop and show them how things are being built and how things are being put together and that usually helps sell our jobs.”

Coughlin began using Cabnetware software in 1989 as a sales tool, but its main use now is for project layouts. He relies heavily on the software, although he occasionally has to create life-size layouts by hand for intricate custom projects. It certainly is a long way from the ‘L’-shaped kitchen that existed when he started his business.

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“From the ‘L’-shaped kitchen, we went through a phase where everything was an oak slab door with a clear finish and routed finger pulls. Those jobs were just gravy train, you could bang those out. But then the market changed — there was a separating. The middle class kind of went away, so it now seems like it’s either starter homes or the upper-end stuff. We went the upper-end way because of the size of the shop. We could do all the stain and glaze, the mitered door styles, a lot of the carving, that sort of thing. We don’t do islands, we do massive continents.”

Remodeling, new housing
Work produced by Coughlin Custom Cabinets is about 95 percent residential. Commercial jobs don’t normally pop up on Coughlin’s radar. Before the housing market dried up in 2008, the cabinet shop’s business was about 50/50 new housing versus remodels. Now it is at least 70 percent remodels and that number is increasing.

“I think a lot of people are deciding to stay in their homes because the homes aren’t selling like they were before. So they are doing remodels, even just an average-size home where they want a nicer cabinet, something a little more personalized. They don’t want off-the-shelf stuff having to use fillers and working within the 3” increments that modular shops will.”

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The remodels range from kitchens to multiple pieces throughout the house such as new entertainment centers, buffets and built-in furniture.

“I think it’s more work for the designers, for Dean and myself, for us to get the remodel stuff out sometimes because there’s more work on our end.”

The new housing market isn’t dead, but its pulse is definitely weaker than it has been for many years. The local growth management plan has made it tougher for the middle class to afford property, according to Coughlin, and therefore new housing is primarily for the wealthy.

“Luckily there are still some people who have money and still want to build and that helps us. In general, we do the complete house as far as cabinets, but not the trim work. In most houses in the upper end, they end up having media centers in multiple rooms and offices. We just did one where the house was 9,500 sq. ft. and it has five bathrooms, a massive office, a kid’s study, a mudroom, and a separate laundry room.”

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Coughlin is currently working on several new homes in an area near Cougar, Wash., just south of Mount St. Helens. Some people live there year-round and since it is off the electrical grid, they use alternative power sources such as solar, propane, generator, and battery.

“I’m also doing a new house in Longview that is a biggie. The guy is very detail-oriented and I probably have 120 to 140 hours in it before we even cut a piece of wood. It’s a lot of work on my end and we bounce ideas off each other and there is a designer involved and she has input.”

Materials, machinery
Coughlin is not a believer in CNC for his shop; he doesn’t feel a financial gain would be realized by making the switch. But his shop isn’t void of modern equipment. His mainstays include:

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  • Striebig Automat III 5192 AV Optisaw
  • Ritter R46 double-row system drill; face frame assembly system with a Castle borer, and door-clamping table
  • Holz-Her Accord 1441 edgebander
  • Sandingmaster double-head wide belt sander
  • SAC RS 630 24" planer
  • Unique 336-4 shaper and 313 miter machine
  • Jet TWSS-2-3 tilting spindle shaper
  • Two Powermatic 26 shapers and 66 table saws
  • JLT door-clamping system
  • Binks 25-hp compressor with air dryer and spray booth with a Weater Rite heated-air makeup system
  • LMC dust collection system

He buys the bulk of his materials from Hardwood Industries in Tualatin, Ore., basically because they cater to the smaller shop.

“Maybe I’m a bit foolish, but I’m not a big price shopper and as long as you get the good service so you can serve your customers, then it’s nice to be able to come back to a place, in case we have any issues.”

Coughlin’s doesn’t do much veneer work, but when the need arises, they will buy components that are already veneered. The outsourcing is limited to thermofoil doors, an occasional door style they can’t build, and most countertops.

“For finishing, we use a Sherwin-Williams product; one of their better pre-cat lacquers that meets conversion varnish standards. I’m not saying it’s better than a conversion varnish, but they have their standards that they have to go by that conversion varnish has to meet.”

Riding out the storm
Coughlin considers his business to be in a competitive market during normal economic times. Being in a recession has made life even tougher for the small business owner. He now bids on jobs that he never had to before and, years ago, when he submitted bids, he would capture 90 percent of that work. Today, he’s lucky if he captures 50 percent of the projects he quotes. The near future for Coughlin Custom Cabinets is dependent upon what the economy does.

“We’re kind of at the status quo right now; we’re not trying to expand. A couple years ago, I was going to take on a partner and start going into doing complete remodels, and that could still happen. But right now, we’ll probably just keep going the way things are and not get overextended.”

Contact: Coughlin Custom Cabinets, 811 S.E. Grace Ave., Battle Ground, WA 98604. Tel: 360-687-8440.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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