Cabinet and Furniture Maker and Business Owner – Mentor, Barry Suderman
This Mentor is both a highly skilled tradesman and a successful business owner. His career path shows what you can achieve with hard work, an aptitude for your trade and by building a team that reflects your own high professional standards. His background is similar to many successful YPNG Mentors who grew up on farms or in small rural towns where they learned the importance of hard work at an early age, something that they carried with them their whole lives. This Mentor first shares with you how he gained the experience to become a skilled tradesperson. He then talks about the basic principals you need to understand to be able to create a successful business. This article should be read by young people interested in this or any other skilled trade as well as anyone who is considering starting his or her own business.
I grew up on a farm near a small town of twenty five hundred people located about fifty miles north of Wichita, Kansas. My father put me on a tractor pulling a plow when I was eight and told me to keep the wheel in the furrow in order to make straight rows for planting. Farmers need to know how to do a little of everything including basic carpentry and mechanics. Because of this I had the opportunity to work with my hands and discovered I enjoyed it. In high school, my main interests were athletics and classes in which I worked with my hands. My football coach was the industrial arts teacher and encouraged me in this course of study, which included nine weeks each of woodworking, metal shop, sewing and meal preparation. In addition to learning about a variety of vocations, these classes provided lot of necessary practical life skills.
I went to college for a year after I graduated from high school, but I found academics didn’t suit me. I then moved to Tulsa and went to work for a builder who built low-income homes. I started at the bottom doing clean up and hauling stone before beginning work with a framing crew. That winter I worked for a trim carpenter building cabinets and installing trim. I found it to be more satisfying work and began purchasing tools in order to pursue fine carpentry. The quality of the work we were doing was quite low, so I made a change in employment when I had the opportunity to work with a contractor who built and remodeled finer homes. He had high standards and made it clear that he wanted the job done right, not quickly or cheaply. I worked for him for a year and a half. He taught me a great deal about quality remodeling for upscale homeowners. Afterwards I began slowly building my own remodeling business. I worked two years with the help of only one employee and then hired the superintendent who had worked for my previous employer. Soon after that a friend/contractor I had worked with relocated and handed his clientele over to me. It was then that I began building my own cabinets, millwork (trim pieces), and custom furniture for these homes. My business continued to grow. I first leased space for two years before purchasing property for the cabinet making and millwork business. As the business expanded, I eventually employed a crew of seven to eight people. I was able to build a good reputation for being capable of remodeling and building additions to older homes that appeared as though they were originally part of the house.
In 2003, the remodeling business slowed down and I made the decision to end that facet of our business. It had become very stressful, so I decided to do what I enjoyed most, which is making cabinets and custom furniture. Today that is our primary business.
Rewards and Challenges of the Trade
- Because our work is custom, we never do the same thing twice. We enjoy the constant challenge this variety of projects provides as well as the opportunity to demonstrate our creativity.
- I love to see my customer delighted with our work. It gives us great satisfaction when we know the customer is happy and appreciates what we have built for them. There is a lot of personal satisfaction in seeing a project completed and the finished result of your creativity and effort. This is one of things that everyone in the skilled trades will tell you. Seeing the end result of something you have designed and built gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
- I have enjoyed the process of building a team over the years. People all have individual talents. It is fulfilling to see them develop their talents over the years and become successful in our trade.
- Any business can control a large part of your life. Understand that as a business owner there is no such thing as a forty-hour work week. I generally work fifty to sixty hours per week. I am fortunate to have a wife who understands this and works with me to balance work and our home life.
How Technology Has Changed the Trade
It used to be that all fine woodworking was done with many different tools and machines, each performing one task. But like many other manufacturing businesses, computer numerical control systems, called CNC machines, are now being used to accomplish multiple stages of the work simultaneously when making fine cabinetry. The picture at the beginning of this article shows me standing besides the most recent CNC machine I purchased for my business. Here is how this machine works:
We use a CNC Machine to control tools like drills, routers or saws to machine the parts needed to build cabinets. We then take the parts and assemble the cabinet much like a jigsaw puzzle rather than having to produce each part separately. To be able to make a specific cabinet, a computer program is customized from a CAD (Computer Assisted Drawing) for the specific cabinet parts. That computer program controls all the tools needed to create the cabinet parts. We design, build, and assemble at a much more rapid pace now than was possible before.
How to Prepare Yourself for this Trade
If you are considering a career in cabinet making or woodworking, prepare yourself by taking classes in mathematics, particularly geometry, as well as industrial arts like mechanical drafting. Additionally, you’ll need a solid foundation in computer operation and navigation in order to make use of machines commonly utilized today in the trades. At the high end of technology for today’s builder, CNC machines are becoming more advanced and are frequently used in the industry to create well-crafted quality furniture.
In my opinion it is important for young people to take a variety of classes and discover what they really like to do. There is nothing better than to pursue a career that you truly enjoy.
Building and Running the Business
Once you know you have learned your skills well, it is time to test yourself and get started. Plan well before you start. Don’t be afraid, but be wise and use caution.
You must have a way to generate business. As the owner, you will now be required to spend time looking for customers and creating estimates for new work. If you establish an excellent reputation in your trade, you will receive a great deal of your business from general contractors who know the quality of your work as well as referrals directly from satisfied customers. Prepare yourself for these new marketing responsibilities.
Because you will be spending more and more of your time pursuing jobs and managing the business rather than doing actual woodworking, you will need to build a reliable team to handle your production. It is important to choose people who have the same motivation as you for producing quality products and who are willing to put in the time to help you meet deadlines when it is necessary. Also understand and prepare for the fact that when you have good, committed people in your employ, the business may encounter slow times economically when it may be necessary to reduce your own salary in order to retain them. This is different than in some businesses where you can lay people off and easily hire new people when the business improves. Efficient, skilled laborers are a valuable part of any operation.
In addition, because any business that is involved in the building trades is cyclical, it is important to develop and maintain a realistic budget. I have always limited the amount of money I have borrowed from banks for this reason and feel it is an important factor in getting through the ups and downs of the business cycles faced by the building trades. I have also limited what I have taken out of the business so that I have the money to invest in new equipment that is necessary to remain competitive and grow the business. Disciplined spending habits are important. Because of this, I maintain separate business and personal bank accounts. I pay myself a salary as an employee, rather than take money from the business when I want. It is also necessary to stay current in all taxes and other costs. Small business owners encounter many hidden expenses that must be carefully attended to in order to remain solvent.
Don’t act out of emotion. When you are running a business you are going to be faced with any number of decisions concerning what equipment to purchase, as well as how much work you can comfortably handle and still maintain quality. These questions all relate to the speed at which the business can grow. Do your analysis, rank your goals and only act after you have thoroughly thought through the problem and know that you are making an objective decision. It is natural that everyone wants to grow their business as fast as they can. But you must develop a consistent framework to help you make decisions about when to act and when not to by prioritizing your goals.
Develop relationships with people who can provide wise counsel. This can be a good banker, accountant or other people in the same business. For example, I always visit others with similar shops in order to see how they do things and look for ways to improve my own operation.
Make sure your wife is on board and understands the time commitment. Communicate with her and keep her informed about what is going on in the business. Wives can often give you a different viewpoint that can help you make better decisions.
Owning a business in the woodworking and home remodeling trade has been a very satisfying career for me. There is a constant variety of work and new challenges. It is possible to earn a good living, especially if you start your own business once you have become proficient in your craft.
By preparing yourself in high school, most young people who decide to pursue this career field can quality for apprenticeships or entry-level jobs where you can earn while you learn. By doing this, you may find opportunities in woodworking and carpentry, as well as in many other skilled trades, that will enable you to build a satisfying career without having to be burdened with a lot of debt from student loans. There are some technical schools as well that offer more advanced computer assisted design and industrial arts classes than those available in high schools. Some of these technical schools are supported by the community like the Tulsa Technology Center where the tuition may be free. Classes offered by these technical schools can help you better prepare for a career in any skilled trade or might assist you in advancing your career more quickly if you are already employed.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Woodworkers and Carpenters
There is a wide pay scale for Woodworkers varying from as low as $9.03 per hour for the bottom 10% to $21.31 per hour for the top 10% with a median of $13.67. The lower end pay scales are for basic manufacturing operations as opposed to custom woodworking that requires more skill and training.
There were 202,700 people employed in woodworking in 2012, the date of the Bureau’s last survey. Job growth is projected to be 8% over the next ten years, about the average for all occupations.
The Bureau also says that they expect employment growth to be best for woodworkers who specialize in items used in renovation like moldings, cabinets, stairs and windows as well as woodworkers who know how to custom designs on a computer.
Carpenters make about 30% more than woodworkers with a median wage in 2012 of about $19.20 per hour or about $40,000 per year.
Job growth for carpenters is expected to be 24% over the next ten years or much higher than the national average for all occupations. The Bureau expects there to be increased levels of new home construction as well as building renovation to drive the demand for carpenters.