An island all his own

1995, only three years after it was established, Mooney's Custom Woodworks of Amelia Island, Fla., grew rapidly. Three employees were suddenly five. Annual sales were increasing by $150,000 a year. By 1999, the company's ambitious owner, Bill Mooney, was building a new 9,500-sq.-ft. shop and showroom.

Mooney and his crew design and build custom entertainment centers, kitchens, desks, tables, and bedroom and bathroom pieces. On average, the shop completes about 130 commissions a year. About 70 percent are directly from homeowners, and the rest from contractors. The shop mantra is keeping high-quality standards while delivering attention to detail in designing whatever the customer needs and wants.

Mooney prefers residential work because it distinguishes him from commercial competitors. While his rivals' shops may have the benefits of high-end machinery with less manpower and overhead, Mooney says avoiding the cookie-cutter approach is the ultimate secret to his success.

"Me, I have a little more overhead in labor and quality selection of materials because we're more versatile based on the various design details. We're more customized. There is no style that we can't do. We do traditional, we do contemporary and modern , When you go into commercial, it's a little bit more simplistic, and it becomes more competitive," he says.

A fresh start
Mooney left New York and arrived in Amelia Island in February 1992, a place he'd quickly grown to love after earlier work he'd done there as a union carpenter on a Ritz-Carlton project. "There were no politics, there wasn't any traffic commuting to work, and it was a much more peaceful and relaxed way of life," he says.

Eager to start his own business, Mooney began working out of his van, installing millwork and built-ins. He borrowed tools and did the best he could until he was finally in position to lease a 1,600-sq.-ft. shop.

Mooney hired his first employee in 1995. At this time, he was also raising his 3-year-old son on his own. The child, he later revealed, was another reason he moved to Florida. Fortunately, being a father helped Mooney learn the importance of balancing his schedule and assigning priorities. No more working 3,000 hours a year in the union.

"[In Florida] my workday would end at 5 or 6. I really had no choice. I probably would work later if it wasn't for my son , nobody babysat my son, he was 3. I had no family around to rely on."

The business progressed because of the strong work ethic Mooney claims to have acquired from his father, William Mooney, a tool- and dye-maker who owned and ran a storefront in Manhattan.

Raised in Massapequa Park on Long Island, N.Y., Mooney took every class that was available in woodworking, drafting and industrial arts from seventh grade through his senior year in high school. After graduating, he enrolled in a four-year apprenticeship program with the New York City District Council of Carpenters, a popular union program averaging more than 400 graduating students a year.

It must have been his innate talent that allowed him to move up quickly through the ranks as he went from framing to interior cabinets and finish work in only a year.

Mooney worked for two union construction companies, Creative Woodworks and V.B.S. Interiors, in Manhattan and graduated first in his class in 1990. He went on to teach six semesters of interior trim a few nights a week at the trade school.

At 23, Mooney was already a foreman supervising jobs in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere. He ran a yearlong project at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, and was offered a similar job for the hotel chain in Barcelona, Spain, which he declined. He admits his freedom as a bachelor, combined with his determination, allowed him to be aggressive in his own path.

"[Spain] would have been a great opportunity, and I was really excited about it, but the offer wasn't financially in my best interest based on the 84-hour workweek required. The other guys that were in the company were married and had mortgages so they were more willing to accept the job. I was young, I felt that I had something else out there that I wanted to explore.

So Mooney packed up his van and headed south, eager to start his new self-directed career in the building trades. He has since learned word of mouth can be a very positive way to acquire new clientele on a small island.

Regulars result in profit
Occasionally, Mooney will place an advertisement in a local magazine, but usually only when he wants to showcase a particular product. In general, his logo T-shirts and trucks advertise his business. But Mooney knows his valued repeat clients come via word of mouth. The repeat clientele accounts for about 20 percent of his business, because his name is mentioned in conversations in restaurants, golf courses and wherever any of his satisfied clients convene.

"Organization, scheduling, the way we present ourselves, the professionalism , I think that all reflects on how we get repeat business."

Every now and then, walk-in customers will come to the shop with a broken table leg or another damaged piece of furniture which he fixes many times without charge. Mooney acknowledges the majority of his work comes from the larger jobs, but feels many of the smaller jobs might lead to bigger ones.

Cecilia Carmichael commissioned Mooney's Custom through her contractor for an interior package for her luxury oceanfront condominium at the Ocean Club Villas at Amelia Island Plantation. The project included completion of a large wall unit, buffet, bathroom cabinets and home office. She was very impressed with Mooney's professional demeanor and reliability, creativity and craftsmanship.

"It's been a very good experience," says Carmichael. "Bill and his staff have been absolutely wonderful. The quality of the work, the creativity of the work, the attention to detail , I would highly, highly recommend him. He's a pleasure to deal with. I can't say enough good things. My house looks fantastic."

The shop services clients from Amelia Island year-round and clients from Jacksonville, Fla. — the closest major city — about twice a year.

"I could hit the Jacksonville market harder if I really wanted to, but it isn't here," Mooney says. "Out-of-town customers pretty much have to come here for the first meeting. They can see our quality of high-end work. I go to Jacksonville for developers and contractors — people who I know that there is a good chance of securing the job."

Bill Mooney

OWNER OF: Mooney's Custom Woodworks Inc.

LOCATION: Amelia Island, Fla.

MAKER OF: Custom furniture

SIZE OF SHOP: 9,500 sq. ft.

FULL-TIME EMPLOYEES: 10

YEARS EXPERIENCE: 23

2007 GROSS: $1.4 million

QUOTABLE: "I'm comfortable where I'm at because it works, and we're all making money. Each one of our employees owns a home, owns vehicles, has kids , and when I think about that and what I can do for them, it really makes me feel good."

As Mooney progressed into his new shop, one of his goals was to attract customers to his comfortable headquarters where they could work with him on details and possibly sign a contract for proposed work. He also strives to decrease the number of house calls and time invested on those quotes. He would prefer the customer come into the showroom where he has the opportunity to present his design and show the quality of his work.

On average, Mooney will work on an out-of-state job once a year. — For example, he went to New York last June —, but enjoys staying in the area and at home with his family.

A majority of cabinetry packages are about $20,000 or more on average, and a whole home package averages $50,000 to $250,000. About 95 percent of Mooney's work is residential.

For the rare commercial work, Mooney tells the customer upfront that he'll charge more than a commercial-grade cabinet shop. Still, he's built many offices, mainly for doctors, who are willing to pay for custom cabinetry.

All a matter of budget
Mooney is the lead designer, and he works with his full-time draftsman who creates computerized designs on Cabinetvision software.

One of the more noticeable design trend changes Mooney is seeing are that the cabinets are getting taller to accommodate the high ceilings in newer homes.

"An 8' tall cabinet is ideally the best bang for your dollar because it works best with minimal waste for plywood size. I have no problem going to 10 ft. and that's usually what a room needs. If the room calls for it, I'll tell the customer. I'm not going to sell the customer on something just to make more money. I have no problem giving them my honest input."

Mooney builds mainly with maple, and a majority of the shop's finishing is paint.

"I like maple because it's a durable hardwood. It takes abuse, you can bump into it and not ding it, and its moisture content is pretty low and it paints well."

Spacious shop
The shop is located on the main road in downtown Amelia Island, a runoff from the scenic coastal byway A1A. Mooney invested about $800,000 on the property, building and new machinery. He only owes about $10,000 on the loan, which will soon free up some funds for future growth.

The shop features a Daloni and Grizzly 12" sliding table saws; Virutex edgebander; two Denray 4x8 downdraft tables; Devibliss 20' x 20' and 20' x 24' spray booths; and a Dustek 25-hp dust collection system.

But it's currently void of CNC machinery. "We still fabricate in basic fashion, but I definitely think about [CNC] at times. I'm not too computer savvy. But I know that I know I need to go that route to be competitive in the next stage market."

On his toes
A majority of the design work is done in-house, where Mooney works with his full-time draftsman Aaron Opheim to create computerized designs on Cabinetvision software.Mooney currently has 10 full-time employees, down from a high of 13. The most challenging part of the job, he says, is finding good employees when needed.

"I hire all my guys based on personality and talent," he says. "If I can see that they can work with their hands and have a good personality, I pretty much put them to work. If his personality doesn't fit, then I'd have one bad apple , I need guys that are compatible."

The crew includes shop foreman Thomas Carless, fabricator Chuck Perry, lead finisher Tony Leggett, assistant finisher Chris Fletcher, lead sander David Kilcrease, installer Tim Rogers, designer Aaron Opheim and office manager Kathy Lawrence.

Mooney offers health care and retirement plans, paid holidays (including birthdays), and one week's vacation after one year of employment and two weeks after five years.

Mooney does 90 percent of the installs, mostly because he's good at it and hasn't found anyone better. "The installer has to be pretty talented and I haven't found that person yet," he says. "They have to keep my volume going and not disappoint the customer or contractor. If it's not installed right, we've got to correct it and that slows everything up for the next job. When I'm out there, I make adjustments to avoid material being sent back to the shop."

Maintaining relationships
Mooney says the best part of his job is seeing a good-looking cabinetry package go together like it's supposed to, which in turn makes for a happy customer. But at the end of the day, he's only completely satisfied if his employees and, most importantly, his family members are happy as well.

"I am very proud of my shop and the many things I have been able to accomplish and achieve on both a business and personal level. We regularly attend the IWF conventions. We will be attending the Atlanta show in August this year in hopes of obtaining a CNC machine and a wide belt sander. I plan on continuing to progress slowly forward in growth so I can maintain control of quality and details that have made us a success so far."

Contact: Mooney's Custom Woodworks Inc., 1854 S. 8th St., Amelia Island, FL 32034. Tel: 904-277-9639. www.mooneyscustomwoodworks.com