Jim Shuffler, owner of Exquisite Custom Cabinets in Portsmouth, Va., has always focused on his reputation, first and foremost, since the inception of his business in 1985.
“It’s all about integrity. You only get one chance in life to prove your name. You have to live up to all the expectations they have of you when the customers come in,” he says.
Shuffler has put an enormous amount of sweat equity into his company over the past 34 years. He currently operates out of his fourth shop, a 14,000-sq.-ft. facility manned by 10 employees, which he purchased in February 2018. The shop is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery for precision and efficiency.
The shop enjoys a six- to eight-month backlog of mostly residential projects including kitchens, baths, closets, studies, entertainment centers, bars, wine cellars and more.
Eager to succeed
Shuffler was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Va. After graduation from vocational school in 1979, he went to work for three different cabinet shops. In 1984, a contractor suggested he start his own business to help him with several upcoming projects. At 24, Shuffler opened Exquisite with a big assist from his mom.
“My mom put her house up for collateral and I started my business on a $20,000 loan. I paid that loan off the first year,” says Shuffler.
Photos of his previous shops hang in his office, providing a timeline for customers to see how the business has progressed. He started in a 2,500-sq.-ft. space in Norfolk, Va. That had a short commute.
“I was working in that first shop from 7 a.m. to as late as 1 a.m., seven days a week. I had a couch with a pull-out bed in the shop. I would get up and go to work, shower, sleep then start all over again. I was religious about starting at 7 a.m. and I did that for seven months before I bought my first house.”
He hired his brother-in-law less than two years in and continued to pound the pavement.
“Every day was a Monday. I had the drive and the passion and did not want to fail.”
He moved to a 5,000-sq.-ft shop, also in Norfolk, in 1992 as the business began taking off.
The pivotal moment
From the beginning, Shuffler pursued residential projects – and other opportunities – to make money and get his name out. His mantra, from day one, was to treat each day like his first day on a new job and represent. He humbly reflects on his mother’s support, and how it helped him get his foot in the door.
“My mom raised my sister and I alone. I just wanted to be successful. I was out to prove to her and everybody else I was going to amount to something and build something good. I would bring her to jobsites, and she marveled at the work.”
While his contractor acquaintance continued to feed him work, he started to get other offers, big ones at that, which led to an increase in his pricing structure.
“When I first started, I was working on $6,000 to $7,000 kitchens that were in $130,000 homes. It was a middle-class market. I didn’t know what I was getting into or what I wanted to get into.
“The biggest break that opened up the floodgates was with my first really wealthy client I met through a contractor that hired me for about $20,000 worth of kitchen cabinetry. That was a pivotal moment. From that job I saw the domino effect of referrals by word of mouth in an upper echelon of work.”
While most of the shop’s current work is in southern Virginia, Shuffler’s willingness to travel has led to several projects in New York City and elsewhere.
“We’ve had some wonderful opportunities because of the kind of workmanship we produce. There’s a huge market in this area,” he says.
In 2007, Shuffler moved to his third Norfolk shop just before the Great Recession. The 8,500-sq.-ft. shop offered plenty of space but needed electrical upgrades and other improvements. Shuffler filled the space with his first CNC purchase and an edgebander before the financial crisis began.
“I moved in there right at the height of the market and then the economy crashed,” says Shuffler. “There had been talk about a possible market crash. I had six to seven months of work lined up, so I thought I’d get through it. Then in 2008 it was just like walking off a cliff. I had 15 employees and I went down to my top three guys and struggled until 2010.
“Now we are back to 10 employees. I would hire more but it’s hard finding good help. We’re busy and it hurts us because we’re turning down work. We put ads out but it’s hard finding qualified cabinetmakers.”
The shop produces traditional and contemporary cabinetry. Demand is highest for the European style, according to Shuffler.
“We do a lot of painted kitchens with glaze applications. We also do stained cabinets with glaze applications. We’re starting to do more work from repurposed barnwood.”
Recently, the shop has completed high-end restaurant jobs in Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
“Commercial work is not my forte,” says Shuffler. “I love doing residential work but there are no limitations on what we will do.
“I hope the next couple of years are good, solid years like they were coming into this building. The economy’s good right now.”
Shuffler says he still has a passion for success.
“I’m blessed to work with the clientele that I have,” he says. “I love coming to work every day. And I’m blessed to have a good staff. You can’t have a company without a good staff. I still have people that have been with me 28 years. This day and age it’s huge to have someone committed through all of the ups and downs.”
Contact: Exquisite Custom Cabinets, 807 Florida Ave., Portsmouth, VA 23707. Tel: 757-625-5622. www.exquisitecabinets.com
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.