Posted 2/24/2014 12:00 am
Updated 9 months ago
Twenty-five years ago Mike Gueringer and Paul Reesnes had had enough.
The two, both cabinet builders for the aviation industry in central Arkansas, did what so many people do: They determined that they could make a better product in a better work environment.
Then they did what so few people do: They followed through on that determination.
Twenty-five years later, Custom Aircraft Cabinets in Sherwood employs 218 workers and sees annual revenue of $20 million to $30 million. It manufactures high-end cabinetry and upholstery products — the interior, essentially — for the private, corporate and head-of-state aircraft market throughout the world.
With an attention to detail and an eye for efficiency, CAC co-owners Gueringer and Reesnes have converted a 146,000-SF former National Home Centers building into an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) facility that transforms pieces of honeycomb composite panels and slices of veneer into aircraft interiors that can pass Federal Aviation Administration muster.
Their employees earn $15 to $20 an hour, though highly skilled and experienced workers can command more, and Gueringer and Reesnes hope to double their workforce as they grow their business.
The partners bought the Sherwood building in July 2012, gutted it and remodeled it to suit CAC’s requirements, spending $5.9 million that they’d borrowed. They opened the new facility just over a year ago, in January 2013, and in just the last three weeks added a production line and 13 workers.
Workers, after a six-week training program, craft handsome aircraft interiors whose components must pass strict federal and international standards. Custom Aircraft Cabinets must combine beauty and comfort — sleek, polished cabinets and well-stuffed, roomy aircraft seats — with safety, when safety means the ability to withstand a jet crash without burning.
CAC employs eight FAA-certified inspectors to help the company do just that and must be prepared for an FAA audit at any time.
In addition, aircraft components must be lightweight, the better to increase fuel efficiency.
The facility includes a showroom, or VIP room, with color-corrective lighting that displays products as they would look in a lighted aircraft cabin. And a climate-controlled room houses the micro-thin panels of wood veneer used in cabinet-making; heat and low humidity can make veneer too brittle to work with.
CAC’s avionics department installs all the wiring and plumbing a component might need so that it’s ready to be installed once it’s delivered to a client. It takes CAC nine to 10 weeks to finish out the interior of an aircraft.
The company sells primarily to major OEM and completion centers, though confidentiality agreements prevent CAC from sharing most of its customers’ names. However, Dassault Falcon Jet is one, and a reporter spied in the showroom what appeared to be a wood veneer cutout of a very famous mouse. Gueringer and Reesnes have done work for Disney in the past.
Good word-of-mouth is essential in this business and CAC seems to have that. But the company also has plans to expand its business and is exploring different markets, including larger, so-called big-iron aircraft and commercial airlines.
The Custom Aircraft Cabinets facility is far different from where Gueringer and Reesnes started. That was in 1989 in Gueringer’s father’s garage in North Little Rock.
They spent a year in that garage after quitting their previous jobs, using their own tools and a Shopsmith multi-purpose woodworking tool belonging to Gueringer’s father.
“It took us that long to earn our first job of actually getting to build cabinets at our place on site,” Gueringer said. “In order to get that order, Paul and I had to go up and personally work on their site to show them what we could do.” The company then sent a few cabinets back to their garage for them to build.
“We didn’t have any money to our name, so we actually had to get a job and complete it to get paid,” Reesnes said.
At that point, Gueringer said, his father took out a loan — Gueringer and Reesnes made the payments — to build the partners a 2,000-SF shop on his property.
“We used the profit from each job to grow a little more and hire another person,” Gueringer said.
The partners — who, seemingly without thinking, volleyed answers to a reporter’s questions back and forth in an almost equal split between them — reinvested as much profit as they could back into their fledgling firm.
Reesnes: “We ate a lot of beans and cornbread because there just wasn’t a whole lot left over.”
Gueringer, laughing: “That’s true.”
Reesnes: “And then we actually got some employees and we made sure they got paid every week, but Mike and I didn’t always get paid. And then the wives would look at us and say, ‘Hey, what about us?’ And it was like, ‘Well, let’s figure out something and make it last.’”
Gueringer: “They became real good with coupons, and that’s no joke.”
The partners added on to that original building about seven times, first 1,200 SF, then 3,200 SF and later another 3,200, until it totaled 40,000 SF and the business outgrew the location. “The only way we could grow to the next level was to move,” Gueringer said.
The move to the old National Home Centers store was a “huge” step for the company, Reesnes said.
The move allowed the partners to design a facility that incorporated all the things they had learned over the years, such as setting up work stations so employees can order the tools or other items they need online and have them delivered from the shop tool room to the station instead of being forced to leave their stations each time they need a new tool. It’s a small time-saving step that adds up to a big efficiency.
Gueringer and Reesnes are also equal partners with two other men, Mark Hall and Wallace Reed, in another enterprise on the CAC grounds, Reliable Fire Protection, which designs and installs commercial fire sprinkler, repression and alarm systems. Hall and Reed are the managing partners of the business, which employs about 65 and is also growing, Reesnes said.
Gueringer and Reesnes have a big advantage in running Custom Aircraft Cabinets: They’ve both done almost everything they ask their employees to do.
New employees have been known to test the pair’s knowledge about their jobs, but, Reesnes said, their expertise quickly shuts down that challenge. “It’s kind of funny,” Reesnes said, but it also means they won’t accept excuses for not doing something they know can be done.
“We worked on the bench and we knew what it was like to be a number instead of a person,” Reesnes said. “So we set up our business to be where we treat our people — we all work together. And we’ve got a family atmosphere. We want them to be happy to come to work but still get our work done. It makes for a good atmosphere.”