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Camely Furniture: Putting “Custom” in Customer Relationship

December 14, 2017
Carlos Robert Castillo and his daughter, Melissa, at Camely Furniture’s warehouse
Carlos Robert Castillo and his daughter, Melissa, at Camely Furniture’s warehouse

How a capital loan and honest business practices helped a furniture maker to expand.

When Carlos Robert Castillo first came to Los Angeles, he knew nothing about making furniture. Now, this East West Bank client operates his own high-end custom furniture company, Camely Furniture, and has been in the business for 37 years.

Castillo grew up in a small town in El Salvador and didn’t have much exposure to furniture-making. “El Salvador is very poor,” he explains. “People don’t have enough money to buy expensive furniture.”

When he moved to the United States, he initially worked at an upholstery company in Los Angeles, sweeping up leftover fabric scraps, but eventually worked his way up to handling actual upholstery work. After eight years there, Castillo switched to a job at a production furniture company, where he learned the ins and outs of making furniture, and eventually decided to start his first business.

Finding the right niche

Success didn’t just fall into Castillo’s lap—it took a couple tries before he found the right niche for himself. In 1994, Castillo started a production furniture business, since that was the area he had experience in. However, a few years later, he had to close his business down for a little while to reassess his business tactics.

“Production furniture has too much competition, and we had to give [creative] credit to the store that sells production furniture,” Castillo says of the difficulties in the industry. “In 1997, we had a hard situation, and we closed for about six months. After that, we started with custom furniture.”

The inside of Camely Furniture’s warehouse
The inside of Camely Furniture’s warehouse

Making custom furniture proved to be considerably more fruitful than production furniture. Although production furniture was easier and less labor intensive, the payment cycle took longer and the profit margins were also considerably smaller. “The margins are, let’s say, about $50 on each sofa,” says Castillo. “If there is one mistake, we lose everything.”

Luckily, Castillo found his calling making custom furniture for high-end stores and interior designers. Along with the bigger margins, he also finds the work more fulfilling and hands-on. “In custom furniture, it’s more details because the customers know what they want,” he says. “It takes more time, but, in the end, it’s more profit and the work is more challenging.”

Honesty is the best customer policy

Camely Furniture (named after his three children, Carlos, Melissa, and Lynette) is a relatively small operation with about 20-25 regular clients, but what they lack in size they make up for in business integrity, customer loyalty, and attention to detail.

Camely has had a particularly long relationship with high-end, custom furniture store Plantation Design, whom they have worked with for over 10 years. According to Castillo, Plantation was their first client, and they both expanded together over the years. “We started with one customer [Plantation], and that customer, at that time, had one store—now they have six stores,” he shares. “They grew up, too—it’s good for us, it’s good for them.”

Castillo credits the strength of that business relationship to his own emphasis on treating his customers with honesty and integrity. He recognizes the creative process that goes into each furniture piece and makes it a point to never sell one person’s or company’s designs to someone else, as a way to respect their work and creative property. “Some designers take time to develop their styles,” he says. “I work with a designer who is very specific with his style. I do furniture for him, and I never sell to anyone else—that’s very important for the designers.”

Jose Vega, first vice president and manager of small business development at East West Bank, has helped Castillo with the small business loan process and also attributes Camely Furniture’s success to their ethical business practices. “Camely has been successful mainly due to their ability to provide high-end custom furniture services and outstanding customer service,” he says.

Castillo also adds that it simply doesn’t make business sense to sacrifice a profitable, longstanding relationship with the stores just to make a few additional sales. “It’s not good business to sell one or two sofas a year to a designer, if I lose the relationship with the stores that we’ve had long-term,” he quips.

Worker making a chair at Camely Furniture
A worker making a chair at Camely Furniture

It was Castillo’s dedication to his customers and craft that helped grow his business via word-of-mouth. “I have a customer in Chino Hills,” he shares. “Somebody else had recommended us to her, and we made the furniture for her house—everything. She [then] recommended me to about five other people.”

Expanding the business

As Camely’s business grew, Castillo decided to expand into casegoods (chests, dressers, bookcases, etc.), to diversify his business, but he needed to acquire and move an entirely different business to his warehouse. He took out an SBA Working Capital loan with East West Bank to help with the costs and make his plans a reality. Vega adds that the SBA loan would also help support the expected increase in Camely’s sales and new orders from the addition of the new department.

“When we got the company, I had to buy different equipment, had to move [everything] here, pay the electricity and installations,” Castillo says. “We had to move machines, install new systems—we brought everything they had there.”

Although casegoods was unfamiliar territory for Castillo, he’s relished the challenge of learning a new craft and taking his business to new heights. However, Castillo has expert help: along with acquiring the casegoods equipment, he’s also brought over the majority of people who worked at the casegoods company. “We have this person, Shane—he was in charge of the factory before,” shares Castillo. Shane has been a tremendous help, says Castillo, since he knows so much about different types of wood and how each one reacts to certain climates.

Camely Furniture’s digital future

Eventually, Castillo also wants to further develop the website for Camely Furniture so that he can broaden his customer base and even develop his own furniture line under the Camely name. “The most challenging thing was…trying to open my own website,” he admits, which he put off largely because he was too busy working on other projects. “And I want to develop my own [furniture line] style—I think that can open a new door for us, too.”

Castillo sees another niche ready for him to occupy in the mid-range furniture market, one that would benefit from having a snazzy new website. “The market I see right now—there’s cheap furniture that people use two, three months, and then there is very expensive furniture,” he explains. “There’s a market in the middle, where the young people who like new styles are.”

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