In 1948, Miami, FL wasn’t the wealthy bustling metropolis that it is now. No, in post-WWII, Miami was a smaller town and a tough place to make a living. Charles Burpeau needed money. He was an industrious young man, so he purchased a 15’ x 20’ derelict Coast Guard Station and a piece of property on which to moor it.
Here, he and brother-in-law Harry Gaver launched a wood working business, which they called West End Cabinets. Their first product idea was to make tackle boxes for fishermen. Long on desire but short on capital, Charles and Harry dove into dumpsters to gather scrap wood.
That’s right, back in the 1940’s what are now either pressed steel or plastic were carefully built out of wood, some of which was recycled from dumpsters. The fishing caskets were sold to tackle shops all over town. It was a start.
Small cabinet jobs filtered in to the new enterprise, the quality of which brought the approval of builders who were developing Coral Gables. This put West End Cabinets into a pole position for the post-war building boom. The pair soon outgrew their micro shop, moving into quarters on a main street in Miami. West End Cabinets blossomed into a highly successful enterprise that supported two families as well as many employees.
While West End Cabinets grew, so did the Burpeau family. Charles had a son, Robert, who could be found helping his dad in the woodshop. The boy learned the woodworking trade by osmosis at first, then via shop classes at school.
“I was born and raised in the cabinet shop,” quips Robert Burpeau.
In the seventh grade, Robert took part in a work/study program called DCT that encouraged students to apprentice at local businesses for the experience. He chose to work for his father, Charles, in the cabinet shop.
“The most vivid memory I have of working with my dad was him firing me,” laughs Robert. “I was in seventh grade, and I didn’t take my job seriously at all!”
Charles Burpeau closed his shop in 1969 after 20 lucrative years and moved his family south, to Key Largo, which is where son Robert attended high school and met his future bride, Jan.
Once Robert graduated, South Florida was a difficult place to make a living, due to the nationwide recession in progress at the time. He hung billboards and performed air conditioning repairs to support his fledgling family.
He also discovered that there were only two cabinet shops in the Florida Keys. His father’s tools were stored in the garage, so Robert began to make cabinets for family and neighbors.
Western North Carolina
In 1975, the two Burpeau families moved to Western North Carolina, into a house Charles purchased in Broad River, halfway between Black Mountain and Chimney Rock.
By then, Robert had a son, Allen, and needed a stable income. He was hired on as a carpenter for a local North Carolina house builder, who three years later, moved away, leaving Robert a rich legacy of satisfied customers.
It was time for him and his young wife, Jan, to jump into a business of their own. For their future, Robert looked to his father’s past and named this endeavor, West End Cabinets.
One prominent customer was Asheville entrepreneur, John Cram, who needed cabinets and shelving for his New Morning Gallery. Steady work from John enabled Robert’s business to gain momentum.
West End continued to grow due to Robert and Jan’s hard work. Local homebuilders liked the quality of their products. The good word spread and soon enough, they moved out of Charles’ garage into a 2500 sq. ft. building constructed on the same property.
The Burpeaus opened a small showroom in Black Mountain and a year later they purchased a small manufacturing building down the street. Eldest son, Allen, became a full time employee after he graduated from high school.
The three ran West End Cabinets, but more help was on the way. The younger children, Brian and Ashley, spent their spare hours helping around the shop, sweeping up, edge banding cabinets and hammering in dowels prior to final assembly.
Robert and Jan ran the business, guided by advice laid down by Charles: “work hard, listen to your customers, and stay flexible in the hard times.” This strategy kept them afloat and allowed West End to grow with the area.
Residential cabinetwork had been their mainstay, but the Burpeaus discovered that demand for commercial casework was high. West End Cabinets had the agility to respond. The family began to service new customers that included hospitals, medical offices, medical labs, and schools.
Commercial customers, particularly medical applications, require cases laminated in Formica, as opposed to the exposed wooden fronts found on residential work. Allen began to take the responsibility to run the new commercial product line. His sister Ashley, about to graduate from high school, wasn’t so sure about working in the family business, however.
“As soon as I was old enough to think clearly about my future,” says Ashley, “I began to think surely there is something better out there, a different way to make a living than working in the cabinet shop.”
Seeking to avoid the high stress and long hours of the family business, Ashley secured a Bachelors of Science in Human Services at Montreat College with a clear intention to use her people skills as a guidance counselor.
While waiting for employment offers which would allow her to use her degree, she picked up a few coaching jobs at Montreat and worked part time for her father.
By then, the business had close to 50 employees, and no one was in charge of communication. Ashley jumped at the chance to use her recently acquired skills and became a one-person Human Resources Department. She saw to it that West End was meeting the workers’ needs. Had she not had this opportunity, Ashley might have moved away and worked for a large corporation or learning institution rather than remaining with her family.
She signed on to work full time with the family in 2005, and the Human Resources activities became a smaller part of her day. Ashley then learned the intricacies of the residential as well as commercial product lines, and discovered, much to her surprise, that she liked the work.
Ashley was responsible for marketing as well as Job Estimation, Quote Generation and Billing. Her brother, Brian, became a full time employee as well, concentrating his efforts on re-energizing the residential cabinetry side of the business, which had atrophied due to the overwhelming success of the commercial.
The entire Burpeau family was working together for the first time and moved to their present location on Hwy 70 in Black Mountain. Business decisions were reached at democratic family board meetings. These gatherings were Ashley’s equivalent of an MBA program, where she learned business theory and saw the practical applications implemented.
In 2007, the family added the capability of a granite shop, which flourished. Two years later, this division needed a full time manager, so brother Brian stepped in to fill that gap. A clear division of duties had taken shape: Allen ran the commercial shop; Brian, the granite shop; and Ashley focused on the residential market.
“2009 chopped a lot of feathers in the building industry around here,” says Robert. “If a business survives what we’ve been through, it’s a good company.”
When Robert and Jan decided to retire in 2010, it was clear that their three children had differing strengths and management styles. As it turns out, the business had already morphed into a three-way division.
Mom and Dad decided to leave well enough alone and divided the Burpeau enterprise into the three separately owned, freestanding businesses.
Brian’s countertop business was renamed Exotic Countertops. Allen’s commercial cabinet shop was dubbed: Western Carolina Custom Casework, and the residential business was appropriately named after its owner: Ashley’s Kitchen and Bath Design Studio.
Residential cabinet customers need help in visualizing the look they’re shopping for when revamping a room. Before Ashley took over, West End maintained small residential studios that contained cabinets and countertops only.
Ashley’s Kitchen and Bath Design Studio has added plumbing fixtures, faucets, tub sets and flooring to their repertoire. They’ve designed and built high-end closet organizers, consulted on wall coloring and provided faux paint treatments. Ashley and her team can now give residential customers a full service remodeling experience.
Her favorite part about the job is working closely with homeowners to solve space or design problems.
“It’s fun to see a customer’s excitement when we show them drawings of their new kitchen,” says Ashley. “The ultimate satisfaction comes at the end of a job, when the homeowner sees the final installation of their new room. I never get tired of that feeling.”
Before the US financial meltdown, the Burpeaus were mainly designing and installing cabinets into new homes. They employed six full time designers back then. Now, Ashley employs one designer, and 90% of their sales are the remodeling of existing homes.
The stressful part of the kitchen and bath business is the details, and if it’s a remodel, stress multiplies. The work flow chart required during a kitchen makeover is staggering in complexity, and the number of line items seem unending.
The devil is in the details, and he nudges Ashley awake many nights.
From the cabinets to countertops, flooring to lighting, and all the plumbing fixtures in between, if one thing is omitted, the entire schedule can suffer. The timing of everything is crucial.
“You can have made the highest quality cabinets, placed them on a pristine floor but if you forgot to order an appliance or a specific faucet, the customer will be without their kitchen or bath for another 4 weeks!”
Cash flow is another challenge inherent in this business. Ashley’s design showroom has to front some of the costs of the installed items, and they don’t get paid until the new room has been completed. If they are working on multiple jobs at once, the capital exposure can get quite high.
A truism for most entrepreneurs, the hours are long for Ashley, and the days off are few. Her answer to time management is a familiar one we hear at Capital at Play: she doesn’t leave work every day until everything that needs to be done is done, weekends and holidays included.
All work and no play is not a recipe for a life well lived, so Ashley’s five month old son, Lex, can be seen in her office most days. Her husband, Hawk McElreath, takes a more active role in helping Ashley to balance work and personal time. When she creates the opportunity, Ashley gets together with childhood friends or hikes with her young family.
Expansion of the current market is on Ashley’s mind. Historically, the bathroom remodeling business has been a small percentage of overall sales, so she’s revamping her design studio to include a dedicated bathroom display area.
Recently, she has hired a designer/specialist to guide customers through fixture and plumbing decisions, which are essential components of a bath-remodeling project.
“I take my time when choosing a new employee,” says Ashley. “The last thing I want is to hire another version of me. I want my team to play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses; this makes us strong.”
Penetrating future markets requires advertising in some areas, but the keyword in the residential remodeling business is: referrals. This makes sense, as most cabinet jobs bill out in excess of $5,000. No one wants to take a chance on such a crucial element of his or her home, so word of mouth is a great source of business development.
The enterprise that her parents, Jan and Robert, started 35 years ago has supported the family as well as many employees, contractors and homeowners. West End Cabinets has delivered quality products on time, and they’ve been nimble in reacting to market conditions, which has served them well.
“When someone comes to me and says, ‘Teach me to open a business like yours,’” says Robert, “I tell them to come back to me when they feel it here, in the heart, not in the head. Anyone can look at a successful business and want the dollars, but there is no magic wand for success. Growing and maintaining your own business is such hard work, that it must be a labor of love.”
Ashley Burpeau McElreath is bullish on the future of her enterprise because she has witnessed the success of her family’s business. She has been trained on the job in business theory, and she understands the customers she services, because she knows how to listen. Overall, Ashley knows what it takes to be successful: love what you do and work very hard at it.