Counter Revolution

Thinking outside the box while staying within the confines of tradition

simpson0415When Bruce Simpson became terminally ill and was seeking a buyer for his well-regarded business, Simpson Cabinetry, he approached Andy and Betsy Cabrera about buying it. The Cabreras agreed and, in the last four years, have put his experience as a contractor and hers in business to good use.

by Rosie Wolf Williams

The concept of cabinetry is full of angles, ends, and strict adherence to square. Andy and Betsy Cabrera, the owners of Simpson Cabinetry in South Burlington, know that sometimes, good business means staying within the confines of tradition. At the same time, that box might just be the beginning of something bigger.

A framed black-and-white photograph of Andy as a child sits on his desk at Simpson Cabinetry. The boy stands in front of a shed made of scrap boards and random materials. It was Andy’s first building project. The adult Andy’s smile matches the one in the picture as he says, “It wasn’t perfect, but I was so proud of it. I just wanted to build things.”

After graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School in 1989, Andy started work with Sterling Construction cleaning up job sites and eventually acting as assistant supervisor. He founded Catamount North Construction in 1990, while continuing to work with Sterling until 1993.

He began building trade show booths for Burton Snowboards and a handful of other companies. “Our construction company had started years ago building panelized components of homes and pre-building components of buildings — prefab walls, dormers, anything that can be precut,” he says. “I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by taking measurements for something, building it somewhere else, and then erecting it at its final resting place, be it a tradeshow booth or components for homes or cabinetry.”

Andy had a large barn in Richmond, and he kept a small woodshop there. “The residential construction piece of it was really the main focus of our company, and we would focus on tradeshow exhibits from November to March 1. It was a perfect sort of mix to keep going in the construction field in the nice weather and go back in our shop for the wintertime.”

Andy’s booths were original and eye-catching — a rebellious turn of the snowboard industry away from standard booth rental. Others took notice of his custom exhibit work at the trade shows, and he began to take on projects at the homes of Burton’s senior management.

He met Betsy in 1993 at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Las Vegas after a mutual acquaintance introduced them and suggested they attend a workshop together. She was with The Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.

Originally from Massachusetts, Betsy graduated from The University of Vermont in 1990 with a degree in English and political science, and a minor in mathematics. After a brief stint in banking, she quickly found a position with the Home Builders Association in 1990 as director of membership. She accepted a position at Vermont Information Processing Software in Colchester in 1993 as an installer and trainer, and in 1996, took on the role of director of operations at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. She also served as executive director of Leadership Champlain, a subsidiary of the chamber, during her 10-year tenure.

Betsy and Andy married in 1998, and she left her position with the chamber in 2006 to begin Cabrera Solutions, a consulting business that focuses on nonprofit management and event planning.

Master cabinetmaker Bruce Simpson had founded Simpson Cabinetry in Jonesville in 2002. His business quickly grew, and within a year he had moved to a 5,700-square-foot metal building on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. In 2011, Simpson learned he had inoperable brain cancer and began to look for a qualified buyer who would take on his solid customer base. He went to brokers but found no interest. Simpson Cabinetry’s success was because of Bruce Simpson, and without his craftsmanship and reputation, they saw the purchase as arisk.

Andy had been using Simpson Cabinetry kitchens and baths in his own homes and projects since 2002. Simpson approached the couple about buying his company. After looking at the numbers, they realized that it was a solid business. Simpson had a good product, consistent customer list, and a loyal group of employees who understood the process. The Cabreras bought the business in late 2011 and took it over on January 1, 2012.

They decided to keep the name of the company out of respect for Simpson (who passed away in May 2012) and to continue the brand recognition. A “Simpson kitchen” meant quality, and they wanted to hold onto the brand while expanding and improving the company. They kept the same location and the website address, but they updated the look and the logo. The original Simpson crew stayed on, and Andy transitioned employees from his Catamount North Constructioncrew.

As a builder, Andy had shied away from kitchen remodeling projects. A tremendous amount of work goes into a kitchen, making it one of the most expensive rooms in a home. “To bring in a crew to just simply remodel a kitchen requires a lot of logistics and a lot of planning and not often a lot of work for the contractor’s crew,” explains Andy. “When you get the cabinetry out of it and you can control the largest part of it, which typically is what holds up these projects, they become a lot more appealing.”

Recovery time from issues such as damage, size discrepancies, or changes made by the homeowner is significantly reduced when the cabinetry is made and finished locally. “To just take that piece out of the puzzle is kind of nice, both in the remodeling situation or in a brand new home. The kitchen just comes in, it’s complete, and it’s done. If it’s wrong, it’s our problem. We’ll fix it.”

His construction company shifted its focus to pre-build subcontracting and kitchen remodels after the purchase of Simpson Cabinetry. He made a concerted effort to let other builders in the area know that Catamount North Construction would not be bidding against them for residential projects.

“We don’t want to compete with our customers,” Betsy says. “About half of our business comes from builders. If a homeowner comes in and says, ‘We’re interested in cabinets and we heard you have a construction company; could you price the remodel?’ We immediately ask if they have talked to any builders. If they say yes, we tell them we would be happy to do the cabinets, but we won’t price the building project.”

Dunbar Oehmig, owner of Red House Building, worked with Simpson’s company from 2005, and continues that relationship with the Cabreras. “They have carried on the traditions and the mission that Bruce set out to do — high-quality custom cabinetry that comes in at a fair price. Andy has done a good job of carrying that forward.”

The factory hums with the sounds of saws and sanders, but there is a focused calm and fluid purpose throughout. At one end of the building, raw lumber is inventoried on racks. At the other end, finished cabinets stand ready to go into the painting room for a custom color match. They have streamlined and standardized production, and implemented better business systems. From design to finish work, there may be up to 15 projects in some stage of production at any one time. The owners carved out office space and a small showroom at the front entrance of the building, which sits on U.S. 7, just north of Bartlett Bay Road.

“As a builder I used to come here with clients, and I was always faced with trying to find something to show them other than a couple pictures hanging on the wall,” says Andy. “We’ve tried to develop a little bit of a showroom that shows some of the things that we do here.” Betsy can show clients finished samples, or take them through the shop and show them work in production.

The Cabreras understand the importance and sentiment in every design choice — they have two children (Dana, 13, and Lucy, 9) and a home in Richmond. Direct connection with the client allows the designer, craftsmen, and installers to determine the homeowners’ needs — for example, whether cooking or entertaining is more important to them or if they have small children or special needs. Along with quality and quick recovery time, locally made cabinetry can be competitively priced due to the reduction of transport and overhead costs.

David and Deb Bieg of Pittsford contracted with the company for their kitchen renovation project. “We were acting as our own general contractor and Simpson Cabinetry took the time to collaborate with us and advise us on a well-thought-out and functional design which incorporated our antique butcher’s block table and lifestyle,” says Bieg. “The quality of these cabinets is the highest I’ve seen, and we looked at a lot of cabinets before we went to Simpson.”

With approximately 90 projects a year moving through the building, the company has clearly outgrown its space, and there are plans to expand in the next year. Gross sales have increased an average of 28.5 percent since the 2011 purchase. Commercial projects include cabinetry for Eating Well magazine’s test kitchens and the Burlington Boathouse kitchen. And the company’s unique corner-drawer cabinet design became a social media favorite after appearing on Houzz.com, garnering a Best of Houzz 2015 design award.

In their rare off-hours, Betsy likes to read, hike, and run; Andy hikes so he can find new mountain biking trails. But they admit to being very work-oriented. For the Cabreras, cabinetry is so much more than a box. It’s all about everything that lives outside of it. •