Dan Matheis, owner of Riverside Cabinet Co. in Lynden, Wash., offers this proven advice to his peers: “If you treat people fairly and with respect, do the best job you can, they’ll come back.”
His customers have been coming back since 1994, often willing to wait about three months while other jobs are completed.
“I used to tell people what they wanted to hear, but it gets you in trouble,” Matheis says. “Now when they call up and ask for a project, I will tell them where we are at. If they can wait, we will do it.”
Matheis got his start building houses with his two older brothers in the late 1970s. He might still be swinging a hammer had not interest rates skyrocketed in the early 1980s.
“We were doing all this work and then the housing market fell flat on its face, so we kind of split up and went our separate ways. I had just gotten married a month before and had a baby girl and no job,” Matheis says. “I knew I needed to do something so I set up a little shop making wooden towel rods, medicine cabinets and all sorts of accessories. I went around to stores asking the owners if they wanted to buy the stuff.
“I sold the knickknacks for a while and then I had a friend who was building an apartment in Emerson who asked me for a price on some cabinets. I had never built a cabinet in my life, but he must have liked my price. That led to another job and suddenly I was a self-taught cabinetmaker. That was like 33 years ago.”
He became the go-to shop in the area when interest rates came down.
“People started building houses again,” Matheis says. “I still had friends who were in construction and they always came to me for cabinets. We had a good network. It’s a very close-knit town. It evolved from there.”
Mathies has five employees, including his son, Tyler. He works out of a 3,500-sq.-ft. shop next to his house in the scenic farmlands north of Seattle. Sure, the winters can get cold, especially when a nor’easter swoops in from Canada, but the view is quite spectacular.
Most of his installs are in Lynden or Bellingham, which is only about 12 miles away. He’s never really had the need to expand his market any further.
“I have had people call me from Canada who saw my website, but I just don’t want to deal with it,” Matheis says. “I’d have to be working up there with the right documentation and it would just make it more complicated. Working in another state is one thing, but it’s totally different going into a different country.”
The website is a fairly recent addition and probably not even necessary. More than half of Riverside’s work comes from repeat customers. The rest comes from contractors and referrals.
“This is a very closely knit neighborhood. And when you’re in a small business like mine, your business builds off of personal relationships with contractors and to the point where they don’t ask you for a price, they just state what their next project is. What we do is we pride ourselves on taking care of the jobs, taking care of all of the little odds and ends. You give people a fair price, you do a good job and they’re going to come back,” Matheis says.
New construction dominates
Riverside serves the residential market, providing kitchen remodels, storage solutions throughout the home, staircase railings, fireplace mantels and just about anything else the customers needs, as long as it can be made from wood.
Three quarters of the shop’s work is currently for new construction as the economy in the Pacific Northwest continues to improve, according to Matheis.
“In the past two years it’s really turned around. People are getting things with their money. When things collapsed, people were just holding onto their money. They would still want to improve things and would remodel their kitchens, but they would not build a whole big new house. Lately people are building new houses,” says Matheis, adding he prefers working on new houses as they’re always level and plumb.
Customers favor a “Northwest design,” which Matheis describes as a simple, elegant, Shaker-like style.
“We probably do that 85 percent of the time,” he says. “It’s a traditional look with exposed timbers in your house, clean and simple straight lines. People really like that. It goes with anything you bring into the house. People are starting to go back to the darker stains and we also do a lot of painting and glazing. We have a really good finish guy who’s got a good handle on that.”
Alder is used for about 75 percent of the projects, a local hardwood that can be stained to mimic several other species. Cherry and woods with a rustic appearance are also popular, according to Matheis.
Matheis has been able to keep his current crew in tact for about five years. Tyler is a veteran of 10 years. The shop also has a full-time installer and hires part-timers as needed.
Matheis has assumed the administrative duties, making sawdust only when one of his woodworkers is on vacation. He wishes he could spend more time in the shop.
“When I first started out doing this I was doing the work, but that changes with the more people you hire,” he says. “You’ve got to have someone who knows how to bill stuff and handle the books. I had to teach myself all of that, too, with the help of my accountant. I still struggle with that because I’m not a business kind of guy. I guess I know how to run a business with meeting the people, but the taxes and payroll and all of that I just get lost in it.”
Pricing is typically based on the lineal foot with extras added on. Matheis says he has estimating down to a science.
“If you do this long enough, you pretty much know how long it’s going to take you and how much material you need to have. At the end of every job — and at the end of every month — I compile lists of materials used and the hours spent on a particular project so we know exactly where
“I think a lot of new business owners, especially cabinet guys, don’t do that. They think they’re making money, but the cost of materials and labor is often underestimated. You have to sit down, itemize everything and see the real picture.”
“I’m at the point of my life where I want to start slowing down,” Matheis says. “My son doesn’t really want to take this over. He sees me stress out a lot and he doesn’t want any part in that. He’s more of a hands-on guy. He’s very intelligent and right now he’s into making longboards using veneer. He is only 30 and has too many ideas and doesn’t want to commit himself to being stuck here.”
Matheis doesn’t think he’ll ever sell the business. The plan is to keep things running whenever he decides to retire, but there are some details to work out.
“We own the building and the land, so we have assets that could be sold. But when you’re a small-business owner, you personally are the business. People come to Riverside Cabinet Company because they want Dan Matheis, not his replacement, because he developed all of the relationships with the people.”
Knowing that he’s still in demand, he carries on. He is thrilled to be at the point where he’s actually being asked to replace kitchens that he did many years ago. Competition from other shops has increased, but his customers remain loyal.
“People come here for a reason. They want us for the job and not the big-box stores. There are a lot of shops kind of like mine around here with father-and-son teams. I think there are three of them in this area within a five-mile radius. I know everyone and have a good relationship with them. It’s a friendly competition.”
Contact: Riverside Cabinet Co., 1145 Polinder Road, Lynden, WA 98264. Tel: 360-354-3070.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue.