Like The Carpenter Shop in Oklahoma City, most fabricators do not employ a hundred workers and aren’t making tens of millions a year in revenue, but nonetheless manage to compete. In these shops, no CNC machinery hums in the background; rather the sound of power tools can be heard and the sight of dust flying is the norm. Al Gerhart, owner of The Carpenter Shop, shared his strategy for successfully competing and how the typical, more manual shop fits into the scheme of things.
Before opening The Carpenter Shop, which has a dual focus on high-end custom cabinetry and premium countertops, Gerhart worked in a high production setting, manufacturing furniture. In 1988 his furniture plant shut its doors, unable to compete against an influx of cheap foreign competition. He relocated in 1992 to Oklahoma City, opening a small facility making specialty items.
“We did cabinets from time to time, but really didn’t go out looking for them,” Gerhart explained. “We ended up moving out of our building because the city had plans for it, and moved into an industrial park. Because of that, we no longer had a retail address; we had to get into high-end custom cabinetry and went from there.”
Gerhart credits his wife, Christina, as the driving force in getting him out of the general carpentry business and focusing strictly on the cabinetry. While he admits the transition was a difficult one to make, he eventually found his legs and started to grow. The business did well for several years, just focusing on custom cabinetry, but then it started losing jobs.
“We had competitors that would do the top and the entire set of cabinets,” Gerhartsaid. “We realized we needed to be a one-stop shop if we wanted to compete.”
Stepping Into Solid Surface
“We looked into several companies and didn’t think we could afford to get into [the solid surface industry] because, back then, it was around $5,000 just for the training and the material for a first kitchen,” said Gerhart. An Avonite representative was able to work with him to provide training, and in 2001 the shop was fabricating solid surface.
Before Avonite, when the cabinetry business had just opened, it was just a two-person operation. Once Gerhart brought on solid surface, he was able to hire more people over the years, and now operates with a staff of eight and has expanded his service area to cover the entire state of Oklahoma.
Gerhart advocates cross-training in his shop, ensuring that all of his employees remain active in some part of the business. “Sometimes you’ll have three solid surface jobs a week, and sometimes you’ll be three weeks without getting one, so it is important to be able to shift [employees] around.” Of his staff, three are trained to work on the solid surface side, with one dedicated and the other two being able to move over to cabinetry when needed.
Although Gerhart said the solid surface market in his area is currently a bit soft, his business is typically 25 percent countertops, with the rest being custom cabinets. The shop makes a lot of its sales directly to homeowners, with about 60 percent going into new homes. He also does a fair amount of business through kitchen and bath designers.