Back in the year 2000, I was a Union project manager for Dettmers, a 135 year old, 5 generation union cabinet shop with 50+ employees. It was a tough job but I loved it.
We provided high end cabinetry, exotic wood components like elevator panels and custom trim for projects all over Chicago including Water Tower and Park Tower. I helped manage six to eight ongoing projects, about 2 million in construction.
The owner decided he wanted to retire and sold the company to a man who was just what this company needed – experience in big business and he had a great personality that made you want to be part of the team.
Dettmers had a good reputation for producing excellent products but they’d been losing money for years and were about to go out of business. The Union cabinet makers were very good but set in their ways. It was a nightmare to expedite a project to meet a deadline or add a component that was missed or damaged. The shop ran their own schedule and showed little interest in being flexible or learning new methods of production.
I quickly learned how to work around them in order to stay in their “Union boys club” or face the Union dead man walking black list. Once you were on it you might as well quit as you will not get anywhere.
I think they liked me because I was a union carpenter/ cabinetmaker before I got in to management in the office.
Hint: if you ever want to get anywhere in the office, make friends with the office manager. The real boss.
The new owner called for a meeting with the office staff and said he wanted to make some changes. He was a Harvard business graduate (and a wood boat builder) who has built successful companies. He said he knew what it would take to bring Dettmers back and turn it around. He made sure we knew no one would be laid off.
With a new business plan, the managers met with the cabinetshop foremen to talk about the new methods needed to make the company successful.
The next week, about one third of the workers called in sick. The cabinet lines stalled, the spray booths were empty and a few components were found damaged. They refused to comply with any changes and sabotaged the ongoing work schedule.
I was stuck in the middle, not wanting to rock the Union boat but we had clients waiting for cabinetry. Architects were calling looking for their trim package and elevator wood panels.
After a few weeks, the new owner met with the cabinetshop foremen. I could hear them in his office and was glad I was not included in that meeting.
A few days later, two lawyers showed up and called for a meeting with the whole company. We were told that Dettmers was restructuring. They were taking over the company and needed us to work with them to finish the ongoing projects.
The workers protested loudly during the meeting and eventually walked out, leaving the lawyers and office staff behind.
We knew this was the end of Dettmers.
I stayed behind and tried to see if there were any components ready for my jobs that I could still deliver that day. As I walked around the shop, I couldn’t help but look at all the cabinet maker’s work stations.
The wood benches were old and well used. Some had big wooden vises with wood screws on the side, bench dogs made of brass and a few old hand tools sitting on top. They had notes and measurements scrawled on them from years ago. There were dusty pictures of family members tacked to the shelves. I thought of all the hard work performed and the cabintery that was created, the stories these benches could tell.
The company folded and was sold for probably half of what it was worth. The next owner tried to keep as many workers as he could but eventually, he gave up and the company was dismantled.
All the power tools, woodworking machines, inventory and the old cabinet maker’s benches were sold to the highest bidder.
I had to call my clients to let tell them know we were shutting down and their projects would not be delivered. Any refunds would be handled by the attorneys – here is the number to call.
It was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my career. I eventually quit the Union and started my own remodeling business. That was the best thing I ever did.
-- Mark - I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.