On surviving recession, General Woodcraft nails it

Craftsman Art Sylvia trims a door in the millwork shop at General Woodcraft in New London.
Craftsman Art Sylvia trims a door in the millwork shop at General Woodcraft in New London. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

New London - General Woodcraft has repelled rough economic times just as easily as its hardwood decking weathers New England's climate changes, thanks to a series of strategic decisions that expanded its customer base nationwide in the past few years.

Just in the past year, the company based on Broad Street went bicoastal, opening up a new division in the San Francisco Bay area that is known as Mataverde West, named after a decking material which General Woodcraft has the exclusive right to sell worldwide. The high-end Mataverde decking, harvested using sustained forestry methods, is particularly sought-after in California because of its resiliency and resistance to termites and mildew.

"In this economy, it's been important to go where the action is," said Steven Crook, president of General Woodcraft.

The action on the East Coast had included New York City and Boston, and General Woodcraft's central location, thanks to a distribution center the company established four years ago at the former Thames Valley Steel building on Eastern Avenue, extends there and beyond. The company keeps an inventory of about 2 million lineal feet of premium decking material at its warehouse.

Some of the company's most interesting projects have included the restoration of the Coney Island boardwalk, the installation of a deck on the 42nd floor of the Goldman Sachs building in Manhattan and work on a waterfront pier and reception center at the South Street Seaport in New York City. Locally, it has provided teak for the restoration of the whaling ship Joseph Conrad at Mystic Seaport and for the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle while also providing decking material at cost for the boardwalk project at Ocean Beach Park.

Having already established relationships with mills in Brazil whose wood is certified as "green" by the Forest Stewardship Council, Crook has moved on to work out similar arrangements in Central America, expanding the number of suppliers from whom he can directly import. He also has worked out a deal to become the exclusive supplier of the Climate-Shield Rain Screen Wood Siding System for the United States and Canada.

At the same time, Crook said he is starting to make inroads in another market that General Woodcraft hopes to reach by offering up supplies of exotic hardwoods to guitar manufacturers. Interest is keen, he said, though no deals have yet been reached.

The idea, he said, is to expand General Woodcraft's footprint by cashing in on its established expertise and business arrangements.

"It's not just change for the sake of change," Crook said. "It's systematic change or synergistic change."

Crook said he has several six-figure projects under way on the West Coast, where Mataverde decking is already well known among builders and architects.

The West Coast office is being managed by Perry Alibrio, a longtime industry executive that Crook hired last year.

Crook said General Woodcraft, known locally for its kitchen designs and millwork along with its specialty decking materials, has added other personnel as well, including an executive director to help expedite strategic changes and an in-house counsel who allows the company to move quickly on contracts and licensing arrangements for new projects. The company, he added, currently has several seven-figure projects in the pipeline being overseen in New London.

"We are so fortunate to have the team that we have," Crook said. "That has enabled us to move forward with these initiatives in an efficient and effective way."

Crook said the company, which had only about 15 employees a few years ago, should have double that number in the next year or so.

General Woodcraft's ability to find niches nationwide has allowed the company to ride out a difficult local economy, Crook said, particularly since the company concentrates on higher-end projects.

"That part of the market has been the most stable," he said.

Helping out in its national expansion, General Woodcraft now has the ability to track the 5,000 hits a month it gets on the company website, he added, and the information proves the firm's reach has become far-flung, with interest from surprising places such as Nebraska, Texas and Florida. The company also has been looking to get into the Canadian market, attending a show just recently in Toronto.

"Technology has enabled us as a smaller player to get business," Crook said.

Crook also makes sure General Woodcraft focuses on the customer's experience, always aiming to make sure that the company meets or exceeds expectations. To that end, he is aiming at an "error-free operation" that constantly monitors problems and conducts a "blameless debrief" to try to make sure things go more smoothly the next time around.

"We're interested in doing it better, not in finding out who did it wrong," he said.

Crook admits that expansion can have its downside, but he believes General Woodcraft is now positioned to sustain 50 percent growth because of the infrastructure it already has in place.

"Adding people is a great thing," he said, "but truthfully our main focus is adding profitable value."

l.howard@theday.com

One of the kitchen displays in the General Woodcraft showroom in New London.
One of the kitchen displays in the General Woodcraft showroom in New London. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Business snapshot: General Woodcraft

Address: 531 Broad St., New London

President: Steven Crook

Employees: 24

Established: 1949

Website: www.generalwoodcraftinc.com

Phone: (860) 444-9663

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