When Bernie Le Boeuf fell from the top rung of the ladder, it was a long way down. He suffered no physical injuries, but Le Boeuf Architectural Woodwork Inc. was almost totally broken.
His company, founded in 1979, had soared to the top. “We were grossing $1.5 million, had 32 employees, two installation crews and seven office personnel, a 20,000-sq.-ft. shop and a big backlog with no end in sight and all without any advertising. I purchased new equipment to keep up with demand. At one point, new work had to be turned away,” says Le Boeuf.
Then uncertainty began to creep in on stealthy paws, not immediately perceptible. Business continued at a steady pace. But, in time, signs were less subtle and it became increasingly obvious that the moneyed class was starting to stash away their millions, as though sensing something dreadful was about to happen. And then it did. The Great Recession bulldozed through the woodworking/construction business and there was a giant crumbling sound.
DONALD JOHN BERNARD LE BOEUF President/Owner of: Art of Woodwork & Design Charleston LLC Location: North Charleston, S.C. Shop size: 7,000 sq. ft. Employees: One full-time, two part-time. About: In addition to custom-made entrances built to withstand hurricanes and windows, shutters, paneling, balusters, columns, mantels, decorative timber trusses, is a line of “green” boats called Gentlemen’s Craft. Quotable: “When you’re on the way up, treat everyone right, because you’ll see them all again on your way down.”
“The bank told me I had to consolidate my loans and that was the worst thing that could have happened. That one move put all my new equipment in jeopardy of being repossessed.” His wife, a nurse, helped sustain the household. He borrowed from family members to pay the monthly installments, but the lifelines were too short, the debt too large. Bankruptcy was the only alternative. There was a fire sale and almost everything went for a song. With the economy in the dumps, no one could afford to purchase the goods. In the end, he owed his creditors and the IRS around $1.3 million, which he has whittled to $250,000.
To speed repayment, he’s taken a job with ReadySC (www.readysc.org) in Charleston, S.C., a division of the state’s technical college system that is currently training workers to assemble the Boeing 787. Le Boeuf spends the night shift distributing tools to the students, keeping inventory and occasionally dispensing a bit of instruction on their use. Between his workshop and evening job, he puts in a 14- to 16-hour workday, but appreciates the reward of a steady paycheck.
Financial ruin can leave one bloodied and out of the picture, but Le Boeuf landed on his feet ready to keep walking. Though his competition continues to lap at his heels, he’s regaining the stride of the determined, talented 30-year veteran artist in wood. At 59, he still has it in him to pick up the pieces and start over again. It was never a question of would he or wouldn’t he, as the forces of nature hurled him in just one direction — toward rebuilding.
Woodworking has been an overwhelming part of his life, as it was for his ancestors. Back in the 1800s, Le Boeuf woodworkers emigrated from France to Quebec and eventually migrated down the coast to Vermont, Virginia and South Carolina. His own heart has been in it since the age of five when his grandfather gave him a Swiss Army knife and taught him whittling. That hobby stuck with him through his youth growing up in Aiken, where he took drafting and shop courses at Aiken High School. He enrolled at Midlands Technical College and pursued industrial drafting, architecture and mechanical engineering certificates. Then it was on to a variety of pursuits — Le Boeuf Drafting Co., lumber store employee, millworker, architectural woodworker — all of which prepared him to form Le Boeuf Architectural Woodwork Inc. in 1998. The company specialized in interior and exterior historic restoration as well as new commercial and residential architectural woodwork.
Through the financial crisis, Le Boeuf was able to hang on to a couple of essential assets. The most important is a 7,000-sq.-ft., climate-controlled shop with an understanding landlord. He also has an array of original pieces of equipment amassed in the early days that includes a 12” Invicta table saw, a Hegner lathe and shaper, a 16’ Striebig vertical panel saw and a Yates American 36” band saw. There’s also a monstrous old Oliver lathe from the 1950s, a must for millwork and turning huge columns up to 16’ long and 24” in diameter featured on historic buildings. Additionally, he retained a unique Griggio louver-groover that is indispensable for making any type of shutter or louver vent.
Le Boeuf is also grateful for his one loyal full-time employee Danny Kellett.
Kellett signed on with Le Boeuf during the 1990s. He broke away to work in construction and rejoined the company when the building business slowed. Besides devoting most of his life to all phases of woodworking, he served in the Gulf War as an Army communications specialist and later in the National Guard doing equipment maintenance. “I’ve just always liked woodworking and I’m comfortable here knowing what Bernie wants,” Kellett says. “I get a lot of respect.”
Before the fall
A long list of high-profile projects follows the name Le Boeuf Architectural Woodwork. One of the most notable is the Charleston County Courthouse, which was an ongoing job from 1996-2000. The building had endured fire, war, earthquakes and hurricanes. Restoration efforts focused on returning it to its original 1792 appearance.
“We’ve always specialized in Georgian Period architecture, 1725-1775, so we could successfully match that style on the doors, windows, shutters, staircases, trim, mantels and wainscots. We did research and visited several buildings in downtown Charleston to be sure all the details were authentic. Everything had to be done according to standards set by the historic Preservation Society [of Charleston]. And here in ‘Hurricane Alley’ after 2005, all entrances had to be pressure- and impact-rated. We had to pay $100,000 and provide five to seven door samples for testing to be certified.”
By the turn of the century, Le Boeuf and his crew had restored plantations, public buildings, inns and churches, and had refurbished restaurants, theaters and multiple residences. Their mark was all over the Charleston area and extended to the adjacent islands. Those were the so-called halcyon years when everything was going their way and they were receiving awards for their work. They excelled in everything they did and LeBoeuf had a knack for getting it right.
“In this business, you need what I call a third eye. That means you can take an architectural drawing and turn it into a buildable plan. It’s almost like an artist who has a vision in his mind and puts it to paper. I’ve been able to do that all my life. Drawings are my strong suit. The only time it was a real challenge for me was when I had to come up with a plan for a ‘wedding cake’ window on an elite home in downtown Charleston. It posed a design problem in the beginning, but we worked it out and turned it into another success story. I can’t help feeling proud of all we did every time I see one of our projects today.”
After the fall
After financial collapse, Le Boeuf renamed his business Art of Woodwork & Design Charleston LLC and began building on his reputation with a complete interior architectural woodwork package for a prize-winning residence. The “Potts Home” was presented a Standard of Excellence Award from The Architectural Woodwork Institute. The one-and-a-half-year project was a perfect fit.
“We incorporated almost 10 types of wood to satisfy the owners’ luxurious taste. The barrel ceiling in the media room, reminiscent of a yacht hull, was particularly noteworthy. Also unusual was the curved raised panel opening to the dining room, hidden doors in the raised paneling in the foyer that open to a full bar and the variety of columns throughout the house — fluted, plain tapered, round and square. Due to an oversight, the fireplace mantel in the master bedroom wasn’t included in the contract, but we gave it to the Potts as a housewarming gift.”
Art of Woodwork and Design also played a part in renovating the Husk Restaurant, which serves only what its award-winning chef considers Southern cuisine. Husk is in a high-end consortium of Charleston eateries and includes McCrady’s, one of the company’s prime renovation projects in the 1990s.
In 2007, Le Boeuf added a sideline of 8’ and 17’ custom-built green boats dubbed Gentlemen’s Craft, which run with electric motors and batteries recharged with solar panels. The idea developed when he stopped to consider the large amount of falloff lumber he threw out regularly. “The lengths and widths turned out to be within the parameters used for a small Chris-Craft. My boats are constructed of mahogany, maple, and cedar scraps from the building of front-door entrances and windows. Eventually, I hope they’ll sell. I’m targeting boaters on a 53-acre lake near here that allows only clean electric-powered craft like mine.”
When you’re struggling, it’s hard to look too far into the future. “I’m focused on short term right now. All I want is a steady flow of work again. Keeping it small is the name of the game until I can get some momentum and the business climate improves. I may never want to get big again. If I regret anything, it’s that I got so big and took on too much debt. That’s a lesson the whole world can learn.”
Obviously, Le Boeuf has had to ramp up his advertising. He’s working with a public relations consultant who is designing a brochure and bringing Le Boeuf’s website up to date. In the meantime, he’s snagged quite a bit of work. He and Kellett are finishing some custom brackets for a service station, modernizing a hidden pantry in a residence and completing an exterior renovation on an historic College of Charleston building. They’re bidding on a large commercial complex of downtown stores and they have their fingers crossed. It could be that the best is yet to come.
Contact: Art of Woodwork & Design Charleston LLC. Tel: 843-554-9655. www.awdcharlestonsc.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.