Phillip Cohen – Founder and CEO of Cohen Architectural Woodworking

Instead of stepping on the gas and operating at a frenzied pace, as many do, it is best to slow down in order to maintain discipline, quality and control.

Phillip Cohen started working with wood in 1975 in a neighbor’s barn, building porch swings from walnut, cherry, and cedar. In 1976, he and his wife Gina converted half of their tiny 576 square foot house into a shop. They began making birdhouses, baby cradles and toy wooden trucks.

Phillip met a master cabinetmaker who offered to mentor him and in 1982 he purchased his first business license. By 1986, Phillip and his young sons were building cabinets for large general contractors. By 1990, they were shipping cabinets across the U.S., including to Alaska and Hawaii.

They changed their name to Cohen Architectural Woodworking in 2004 and built a 12,000 square foot facility in Saint James, Missouri. In 2016, they expanded to 54,250 square feet, which resulted in 35 new jobs. The company also has a branch office in Lenexa, Kansas that will be expanding reach in Kansas City. Cohen has averaged a 46% sales increase annually for the past 13 years.

Phillip was named the 2017 Small Business Person of the Year for Missouri by the US Small Business Administration (SBA). The firm also received many accolades such as a Top Family Owned Business by St. Louis Small Business Monthly in July 2016; Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) Award of Excellence for the Wichita Airport project (4th AWI Award of Excellence for Cohen); and 2016 Small Business of the Year award by Rolla Chamber of Commerce.

Growing up in violent neighborhoods in Chicago and an abusive household and later overcoming drug use/addictions and manic depression, Phillip is deeply committed to creating a healthy company culture. He and his team have developed an infrastructure for success where those willing to work hard and overcome any obstacle, regardless of their background, can thrive and grow both personally and professionally.

Where did the idea for Cohen Architectural Woodworking come from?

I was often homeless and strung out on drugs between 1969 and 1974. I met Gina and we married in 1976. We couldn’t afford groceries, so we worked a large garden and canned everything on our wood cook stove. A neighbor loaned me a few basic woodworking tools, I built a large sander and started making wooden trucks with roller skate wheels, baby cradles and birdhouses in half of the old 24 X 24 house we lived in and rented for $15 a month.

A neighbor taught me how to build houses from start to finish. We would set up a table saw and build the cabinets right in the house. I was building a house for our UPS driver and convinced him to let me build his cabinets from the basement of my house. Late one night I started working on his cabinets on a rough lumber workbench and with an old rickety 8” table saw. I was emotionally overwhelmed and realized I had found my calling. I purchased my first business license in 1982.

We moved a few times and ended up in Saint James, Missouri, not far from Saint. Louis. Our business has grown over the years. We now have a 54,000 square foot facility and employ around 75 people.

What does your typical day look like?

I usually get up around 4:30am. Gina and I each journal in the morning around what we’re facing that day and share our journals with each other. I also study the Bible and journal about how to apply it to life and business. Over the years I’ve accumulated more than 6,000 pages of journals in MS Word. Several mornings I work out in our home gym while watching good video teachings. After breakfast I head for work. Some days my schedule is more structured than others. I try to keep white space in my calendar to wander around, talk to staff, and address other issues that may arise. I usually leave the business around 5pm.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I read a lot, listen to audiobooks and podcasts, attend conferences and meet with peer groups. I’m always looking for new ideas and approaches that can benefit us. Once I get an idea that could benefit us, I present to it to our inner circle, and we process it together. I like simplicity, clarity, bullet points. Some ideas begin with scribbles on a napkin or envelope. The goal is to keep it easy to understand and look for ways to integrate it into what we’re already doing. If everyone agrees, we take the next steps, and eventually launch it. It’s important to know how much tension to keep on an idea so it doesn’t either die or move ahead too fast.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m never done being fascinated with Technology. It’s a great tool that connects people in so many different ways. Now is a great time to be alive. I Google stuff all the time. I research technology that can help us both in business and my personal life.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My morning ritual keeps me focused. It takes discipline to get up every morning at 4:30am. I use that time to quiet myself, and then feed my mind with proven ideas, business trends and other information, and manage my calendar. It helps me navigate through the rest of the day.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Always look for and learn from people smarter than you. Read good books and articles. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts (I have more than a thousand audios.) Find experienced, successful mentors who will help you master what you need to learn. Take care of your health. However, I’m not sure my headstrong, younger self would have listened to me.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

I find principles in the Bible that address practically every situation in everyday life. It really works. We don’t force it on our employees or anyone else. We just look for practical ways to apply it in business. This approach has benefitted us greatly.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Invest in growing yourself as a person and leader as much as you invest in growing your business. I feed on really good information. I love to listen to and read books and articles from the best authors. I surround myself with people smarter than me. Great information provides business insight and advice, and also gives positive energy you need for both your business and personal growth.

What is the one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

When our business grows too fast or starts “hydroplaning,” instead of stepping on the gas and operating at a frenzied pace, as many do, we slow down to maintain discipline, quality, and control. We learned the hard way and it’s why we’ve created an infrastructure model that absorbs fluctuations in our sales volume without hurting our customers or employees and helps us prepare for growth before it comes. If I share it with you, it will make sense.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We were very successful early on. Business came in so fast we didn’t know how to handle it. It was a nice surprise but we spun out of control. We were working long hours and got burned out. It took me a while to lay my ego aside and bring in people who have been through this before. I found some wise coaches and mentors who helped us right the ship. It was a smart decision and we have been on a better trajectory ever since.

What is one business idea you are willing to give away to our readers?

Create standard operating procedures or SOPs. You are not going to grow without them. Secondly create a business plan of what you wish to accomplish. This can be as simple as a one page plan. Each year we list three or four things we wish to achieve for the next 12 months. These must coincide within your vision and values. Our team meets once a year to discuss and document them. Then we meet weekly to discuss our progress. When we reach a goal we move to the next one. It has been a highly effective approach. Much of how to do this type of business planning is available in books and online resources.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I spent an additional $100+ to travel first class for a recent meeting with a potential client. I’m not a first-class flyer. I wanted to arrive rested and refreshed. It turned out to be a great meeting and was money well spent.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Microsoft Outlook helps me manage my time and energy. I look at it several times a day. I’m most productive when I have just the right amount of white space.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Hands down it’s Good to Great by Jim Collins. One of the best business books ever. His concepts have proven to work and can be applied for businesses of any size.

What is your favorite quote?

“Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity,” I have that Proverb on many of my email signatures. I see many people who work hard, but don’t have a good plan. This applies to most facets of life. Slow down, come up with a good plan, then work hard.


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