The Dark Horse rises

An Atlanta shop, led by CMA president Chris Dehmer, has experienced steady growth focusing on residential work from a general contractor’s perspective
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Chris Dehmer, owner of Dark Horse Woodworks in Atlanta, reports that business has certainly improved since grinding to halt this spring. He’s brought back two full-time employees and may add another. In fact, 2020 could exceed financial goals.

“Right now, business has really picked back up,” Dehmer said in June. “We definitely had a lull in our schedule because when the city closed there were a number of weeks where they just didn’t issue permits, and we had jobs in that process so they couldn’t start.

“There definitely was a slowdown with our big projects. We saw an uptick in inquiries for small projects, and I think that’s because people were sitting at home thinking about what they wanted in their house. That seems to be turning around. We have a few contracts going and are heading down the right path.”

One of the more promising jobs on the horizon is a collaboration with fellow members of the Cabinet Makers Association. Dehmer was recently appointed to his second term as president of the professional organization serving small- to mid-sized woodworking shops in the United States and Canada.

Teeing it up

Dehmer, 55, has worked different jobs over the years. He grew up in North Carolina and relocated to Georgia in 1995 to take a position at a manufacturing company. Several years later he began working in the tech industry.

“I worked for a couple of tech companies through the dot-com era and did okay with that. I didn’t work for a year and just played golf. A golf buddy of mine owned a construction company and I got into doing project management with him. That got me back into this industry.”

The projects were at airports in several states, requiring frequent travel for three-month stretches, which led to the desire of starting his own general construction business with a local clientele. The first customers were friends and acquaintances.

Dark Horse Woodworks serves the residential market, primarily in Atlanta and Decatur, Ga., where contemporary reigns.

Dark Horse Woodworks serves the residential market, primarily in Atlanta and Decatur, Ga., where contemporary reigns.

“About halfway through one of those early jobs someone wanted some closets done and I was like, ‘well, I can do that’. I thought, ‘boy, I like this a whole lot more that Sheetrock’. I just spent the next several years transitioning over and doing cabinetry.

“Another thing that kicked me into cabinetmaking is I bought an early 1900’s bungalow and remodeled the whole place and built the kitchen myself.”

Dehmer started Dark Horse Woodworks in 2008 from his garage. Soon he had a storage pod parked in the driveway, then moved to a light industrial complex. “A year later I moved into a 950-sq.-ft. place I thought was gigantic, which it was for the first two years, then a 3,200-sq.-ft. space which I thought would never ever be too small. Now we’re in 6-000-sq.-ft space and I’m starting to think about moving again,” he says.

Bringing in the jobs

Ninety percent of the company’s work, which is all residential, is from Atlanta and neighboring Decatur. Dehmer says his experience as a general contractor continues to give him a leg up on the competition.

“I understand that aspect of each project and I think that helps us when working with builders and everybody else involved,” he says, adding that his willingness to do complex work is another plus.

“We made a name for ourselves doing difficult projects that other people don’t want to do. Also, most of our clients are very contemporary in nature. Maybe once a year we’ll do a Shaker door and even less often do crown molding. In the Atlanta area, the other cabinet shops don’t embrace contemporary work; most of our competition ends up being the European companies.”

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Material and finish trends fluctuate with the contemporary influences. Paint-grade and matte finishes are popular now. Acrylics, textured melamine, and pre-finished panels are most often specified, along with walnut and rift-sawn white oak.

One of the company’s biggest markets is Ansley Park, an intown residential district in Atlanta. “If you put a dot down in the middle of Ansley Park and draw a circle with a four-mile radius, you would probably have all our clients,” says Dehmer.

“We also do a lot of work for [famous] people I can’t identify. I’ve had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.”

Referrals and social media bring the clients. Dehmer outsources the latter.

“Our Instagram has a lot more [content] than our website because it’s super easy to snap a picture and upload it and get something out there. I did Houzz for a year. I’m not sure we got anything out of it, but a few of our projects got a lot of interest which makes us an ‘influencer’,” he says.

Networking is key

Dehmer got involved with the Cabinet Makers Association early in his career, which he says changed everything.

Employees Billy Rhoton (left) and Ray Huntley.

Employees Billy Rhoton (left) and Ray Huntley.

“The CMA is the best thing that ever happened to me not only professionally but personally. It really has changed my business in how we do things and made us smarter and more efficient. I am proud to be nominated by my peers as the current leader of the organization.”

He joined the board four years ago and has also served as vice president. He’s hosted several seminars including CMA’s popular “What’s Your Problem” program which helps members with their questions.

Dehmer had been looking forward to IWF 2020 in Atlanta where he was scheduled to speak and host a CMA gathering at his shop that features a Camaster CNC router, Homag AirTech edgebander, and CabinetVision design software.

“I am disappointed that IWF was cancelled, especially since it’s in my city. However, it was necessary given the situation.”

2020 and beyond

The plan is to upgrade the shop’s equipment and procedures for an eventual sale. “I would like to get this business built up so I can turn it over to someone. I can’t do this forever, even though I’ll always keep busy doing something. I think in the seven- to eight-year range I might sell the business. But a lot has to be put in place first and that’s my plan in next few years.”

Last year, the company produced two large jobs that took up about six months to complete. This year, the schedule is full of much smaller jobs.

Matt Krig.

Matt Krig.

“We will probably do between $750,000 and $1 million this year if things keep going like they are,” says Dehmer.

Dehmer plans to add another full-time employee to manage CAD programs and a showroom in a separate building downtown. He’d like to get out of the shop to meet prospects face-to-face but doesn’t want to give up woodworking.

“I probably do more in the shop than I should. Every small shop owner should probably work more on the business, not in the business. But most people that own a cabinet shop got into it because they like to work with their hands. If I just work on the computer for long periods of time, I start to go a little stir crazy. So, I like to get down and run the machines.”

Contact: Dark Horse Woodworks, 675 Metropolitan Pkwy, Ste. 6045, Atlanta, GA 30310.Tel: 404-798-9829. www.darkhorsewoodworks.com 

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.

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