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New London - Diversification, the economic battle cry in southeastern Connecticut a generation ago as the Cold War faded and defense jobs fizzled, is back to buzzword status as the region begins to recognize that the struggles of a few major employers can wreak havoc on the region's economy.
But Steven Crook, president of the specialty home-improvement supplier General Woodcraft, has been on the diversification bandwagon for some time. As the local economy struggled to regain its footing after job cuts at the casinos and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., Crook started to look west for new business and expansion possibilities.
"We're going where the action is," he said last month during an interview at his Broad Street offices.
General Woodcraft has added five employees in California, where real estate is booming and calls for the company's specialty decking and wood siding is strong. Crook plans to head northwest to Seattle and Portland as well, eventually setting up a network of dealerships nationwide to carry General Woodcraft products.
"A lot of things we put into place last year worked," Crook said. "We increased our volume by more than one-third - that's something that made us smile."
Reaching out nationwide has brought residual benefits, too. Website hits that once totaled 5,000 a month have doubled during the past 18 months - and these are not just passing fancies, since potential clients have kept pace with Internet activity.
"We're getting almost double the leads we were getting before," Crook said.
General Woodcraft is focusing its new dealership program for now on the West Coast, but intends to work toward the middle of the country as time goes by, with an eye particularly on the Great Lakes region and the Southwest. Crook said the company will work only with dealers that have a customer-centric philosophy similar to General Woodcraft's.
"It's a select group of dealers," he said.
General Woodcraft, celebrating its 65th year in business, is working with about three dozen established lumberyards and specialty stores in southern California, teaching the dealers how their products work so they can better serve customers. Many of the projects, Crook said, are started by architects familiar with the Mataverde decking and Climate-Shield Rain Screen Wood Siding for which General Woodcraft is well known.
To better handle questions from dealers, architects and builders, General Woodcraft has added a technical department that is equipped to explain the proper installation techniques as well as designing solutions to building problems and tricky specifications.
In addition, the company has added a kitchen designer to its team in New London, boosting General Woodcraft's ability to execute remodeling work from concept to completion. The idea, said Crook, is to make General Woodcraft a one-stop shop for people looking for a kitchen makeover, saving customers time and money.
"We know design, we know space and we know construction," Crook said. "The initial response has been very positive."
Crook admits that expanding during the region's economic slump may seem counterintuitive. But he said it was the right move for General Woodcraft to tap into the high-end residential and commercial customers that are largely driving the home-improvement market today.
Increased activity on the West Coast - along with the company's established market between Boston and New York - has allowed the company to grow while others in a hunker-down mode have faltered.
"The commitment and focus of our team has allowed us to expand into these areas," Crook said.
What: General Woodcraft
Address: 531 Broad St., New London
President: Steven Crook
Phone: (860) 444-9663