Success through familiarity

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Pat Coughlin received his first taste of woodworking in a cabinet shop at the age of 16, and he hasn’t looked back. He continued woodworking after high school and eventually opened a small custom cabinet shop in his hometown of Battle Ground, Wash.

Now, 30 years later, the owner of Coughlin Custom Cabinets operates a successful shop that handles a combination of cabinetry projects for new housing contractors, and an increasing amount of remodeling jobs.

On the surface, Coughlin’s journey appears to be a nice smooth ride, a gradual transition that just fell into place as his business grew.

If only it were that simple.

“I started in the winter of ’79-’80 and we were in a pretty good [economic] downturn and luckily at that point we didn’t have a lot of overhead,” says Coughlin. “Overhead is higher now and back then it was easier to pull in the reins a bit, it was easier to survive. But now, you have to work pretty hard to be surviving.”

Toughing it out
It was only two or three years ago when a typical Woodshop News profile would include a mention of a shop’s backlog. Answers usually ranged anywhere from six months to two years out, depending on the comfort zone of the shop owner and the patience of the clients. For Coughlin and most other shop owners, those days have disappeared.

 COUGHLIN CUSTOM CABINETS

Owner: Pat Coughlin

Location: Battle Ground, Wash.

Shop: 8,000 sq. ft.

Started business: 1979

Employees: 6

“I have a good crew, we do a nice product, and we take care of service and, during times like this when money is a little tighter, I think it helps us through these types of times,” Coughlin says. “I don’t get real rich during the good times, but I hopefully don’t go broke during the poor times, either. Like I said, I think it’s a combination of having a good crew and a good product. I’ve also always had a good core of contractors and repeat customers.”

Although Coughlin has maintained a relatively steady flow of work, he has had to work much harder to obtain it, and he recently had to lay off two of his eight employees.

“Hopefully they’ll be back not too long from now.” he says. “We’re hanging in there and paying the bills. We have a few jobs going and that will be OK with the smaller crew, but the phones have been fairly dead.”

Success has never come easy for small shop owners, and anyone who enters the trade thinking they are going to get rich should find another vocation. The lucky ones only encounter a series of bumps. But for most, particularly in tough economic times like the present, it’s more like a roller-coaster ride.

“It’s never easy when you’re self-employed,” Coughlin reflects. “Basically, I was a cabinetmaker/ woodworker and you learn through the school of hard knocks how to become a businessman, which I’m still not that good at.”

Battle Ground
The majority of Coughlin’s business comes from Battle Ground and Vancouver, Wash., growing communities just north of Portland, Ore. There are also small housing developments being built just south of Mount St. Helen’s, about a 30-minute drive from Battle Ground, that occasionally provide Coughlin some high-end work. It’s the perfect spot for a small custom shop.