MANCHESTER — The shop at Parkerville Wood Products is full of pieces that will be part of an elaborate system of built-ins and wood paneling in a guest house at a Southampton summer estate.
The billionaire owner is spending about $80,000 on the project.
The craftsmen who designed and are producing this project have also made wood paneling for giant corporations' board rooms, matched historical moldings at the Yale Rep theater, and taken on other prestigious, $100,000 to $300,000 jobs.
But Dave Harris, owner of Parkerville, said it's not the ultra-luxury homes, wealthy private schools and corporations that are going to build the business.
"The average work is what sustains us," he said. He mentioned a West Hartford house where the owners bought a custom vanity and a bathroom's worth of wainscot paneling in soft maple for $7,000.
Parkerville is Harris's third go-round as a business owner. Harris, 59, fell in love with woodworking in industrial arts in high school and then ran a woodworking shop in Ghana while in the Peace Corps.
When he returned in 1979, he worked for himself as a carpenter, roofer, furniture maker and furniture restorer.
Then he founded a custom millwork shop that at its peak employed 45 people. Its carpenters did elaborate bars and interiors for Foxwoods Resort Casino. In 2000, the shop's best year, it did about $6 million in sales.
Harris said he sold the business in 2004 but was fired by the new owners in 2006. Luckily, he had already spun off Parkerville Wood Products, a specialty lumber supplier that offers 50 species of lumber.
Home Depot and lumberyard Sanford and Hawley might have red oak, mahogany or walnut, but they don't stock curly maple, birds eye maple, teak, zebrawood or other varieties with exotic grains and colors.
Currently, selling that kind of wood and woodworking tools is just a third of the business. Harris would like it to be half of the sales.
"The part of the business that I really want to increase is the people that walk in the door," he said.
That's important, because he's 59, and thinking about retirement within the decade. He's seen you can't sell a custom woodworking business for much more than the value of the equipment. Custom built-ins and paneling projects are based on his reputation and his working relationships with clients. His former business failed after he left it to the new owners.
Guitar makers and other instrument makers, boat and kayak builders and woodworking hobbyists — they are all in the customer base. Harris said he needs to advertise more, and will do so next year, so these groups can find him, and maybe even move to a more visible location.
"It's pretty common for us to have people drive 50, 100 miles" to the store, Harris said.
Bob Schneider, a home builder from Tolland, heard about Parkerville by word of mouth. He was there recently to buy quarter-sawn oak, which displays the grain more prominently than standard boards. He wanted the wood to make an end table. Last year, he'd bought maple from Parkerville to make a kitchen cabinet for his house during the winter, when business was slow.
He said Sanford and Hawley might have maple or red oak, but they wouldn't have it cut in the size he wanted, or sand it for him on the wide belt sander. He said he has been very pleased with the customer service.
The company's sales grew about 15 percent from 2012 to 2013, when they reached $1.5 million. But Harris is still only earning two-thirds of what he made when he left his old company.
If he could grow to an additional $1 million a year in retail sales, he said, he thinks he would be in a good position to sell at retirement.
He talked with his middle son about taking over the business in a few years, and it could still happen, but he's not thinking it's likely.
His son, he said, "sees how hard I work." Harris said he puts in 50 to 60 hours a week at Parkerville, is there almost every Saturday, and generally doesn't take a weekday off to make up for it.
Parkerville has 10 employees, five of whom worked for Harris at the other company, one for 15 years.
"Our ability to help our customers technically is one of our biggest assets," he said.
Harris said he doesn't think Parkerville will ever do as much as $6 million in sales, but his goal is $2 million for 2014, and he thinks reaching $3 million in five years is doable. If he grows that much, he will need two or three more workers this year, and maybe as many as 10 more over the next few years.
Parkerville Wood Products at 580 Parker St., Manchester, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. 860 649-9663.Copyright © 2015, CT Now