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A Reputation for Quality

John DeRonne thrives in the furniture trade.

30 August, 2023


Oakland Furniture Service, John DeRonne’s 20-year-old specialty finishing
company, is located in Oakland County, Michigan, a little northwest of Detroit. John
mostly works as a loner, and company size fluctuates from one all the way up to two
and back again. But no matter. DeRonne has a long-established reputation for quality
residential and commercial work, confining his business to cabinets, furniture and
kitchen painting. Read on to see how he got started, how he deals with the ups and
downs, and how hard work gets him through hard times.


John DeRonne

Jerry Rabushka, APC: So tell us a bit about your background and how you came to start up Oakland
John DeRonne, Oakland Furniture: I’m a 54-year-old husband and father of three great kids. I was a
single father with one son for 13 years until recently getting married again. I started in furniture restoration
in 1986 at a co-op job in high school; I quickly worked my way up to head finisher and shop manager, and
I stayed with that shop for almost 14 years. After that, around 2000, I ran the finishing department at a
custom cabinet company. This was all new construction work for high-end clientele. That shop started to
delay payments and had problems with health insurance premiums, so I thought I’d better get off a
sinking ship and launch my own company for smoother sailing in 2003.
Jerry: How was it starting out on your own?
John: It was a struggle, to say the least. I knew how to do the work, but I had to learn about running the
business as I went along. It took lots of advertising to get my name out and lots of hard work, doing
anything to survive. I did a lot of cold call sales to cabinet shops to see if I could get them to outsource
their finish work to me, I networked with a local upholstery shop to trade work back and forth, and I even
used to go to a restaurant or bar and just tell the manager, “Your tables need refinishing.” My biggest
challenge came at the end of 2007 with a bad economy and a divorce. I believe I survived that time with a
strong work ethic, being a small company with a single employee, and tight personal spending.
Jerry: How big is your company now?
John: I’ve never considered more employees, as the challenges of even just one can be demanding. I’ve
only ever had one employee at a time, and sometimes I’ve gone solo. I’m solo now; I just lost another
employee. It’s just part of the business. Jerry: What got you interested in cabinets and furniture, rather
than, for example, painting drywall and concrete? John: I did not come from a painting background; I’ve
only been involved in furniture or cabinet finishing. When I started, we weren’t even painting furniture — it
wasn’t a trend. Now it’s all the rage, but I’m also seeing the wood finishes coming back. I still get a strong
satisfaction from restoring a client’s piece of furniture back to its original beauty.
Jerry: What are some changes you’ve noticed since you started in the trade?
John: Product development, specifically for wood finishing, has seen some huge improvements over the
years. When I started, it was all nitrocellulose lacquer. If we wanted to paint an item, we used automotive
primer and paint — almost all of our technology back then trickled down from automotive finishing. I think
the development of higher solid catalyzed finishes has been one of the biggest improvements. We went
from using five to seven coats of finish down to three or four, and the durability went way up. I’m a little
old school and have only used a handful of waterborne finishes, but I know it’s the wave of the future. I
struggle with having the time to R&D new finishes. There are always new jobs coming in, going out and

deadlines to meet. If I’m shipping out cabinet doors next day, I can’t just “try” a new product on someone’s
custom built kitchen.
Jerry: How do you — or do you — manage work/life balance?
John: I have never had a problem with work/life balance. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked in the shop till
2 a.m. to get jobs out, but I’ve always made my family time come first. I’ve found that being self-employed
has given me the flexibility to be at all my son’s activities, doctors’ appointments and so on. I can work
late a few days a week if I need to take Friday off. Setting my own schedule is a huge benefit to me. I
wouldn’t consider myself a rich man, but I’m happy. I can take time off when I want — unpaid, mind you
— and I can afford all my expensive hobbies such as mountain biking, downhill skiing, hunting, fishing,
kayaking and camping.
Jerry: What would you say is your biggest challenge?
John: Lately it has been finding employees, even if it’s only one. I’m kind of a control freak and try to do
it all myself. Like I mentioned, right now I’m flying solo. My biggest weakness is not relying on others or
asking for help. I’ve always found help in the past through word of mouth.
Jerry: Do you have any advice for others wanting to get into this aspect of the trade?
John: If you’re considering furniture and cabinet refinishing, I would say having a shop is a must. I know
some refinish entirely at the client’s home, and my hat’s off to you, but if you want to add contract finishing
for other cabinet shops, you’re going to need a dedicated location for finishing. Furniture refinishing is not
like painting. You have way more contamination problems, and most furniture is veneer, so you will have
to learn repair, touch-up and some color-matching skills. I would also urge you to take a training class to
get started.
Jerry: Any final thoughts? If you had anything to say to the contractors of America, what would those
words be?
John: I see a trend in the industry to be influenced to try the next “latest and greatest” products, from
finishes to paints to spray rigs and sanding, but you need to seriously look into how these products
perform before you put them into practice. Someone is telling you every day to “up your game” or that
“this is a game changer,” but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. These new finishes are developed in a
lab with very controlled environments, and what works in Michigan may not work in Alabama or Arizona.
What works on new wood cabinets may not be a good fit for refinishing. My advice is to develop a
finishing system that works for you and run with it. Get with a supplier that knows what you’re trying to
accomplish and will work with you to succeed. We are all looking for perfection, but most clients will not
pay for perfection. In the end, we are trying to make a living. APC


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If cost and liability were not an issue, what's your one must-have at the company picnic?

Paintball Feld
Axe Throwing
10-Foot Nacho Trough
Potato Salad

Dang it's hot! Does your work vehicle have an orange water cooler?

It's not orange

Did you work for a painting contractor prior to owning your company?


Why haven't you hired a business coach?

Not worth the money
Too difficult to find a good one
I don't need one
I did hire one!

Has OSHA ever inspected your jobsite?


Who Buys the Paint Brushes?

We do...the company
Our painters buy their own

What's the most paint you've ever spilled?

5 Gallons
An Ungodly Amount

Did you take a week-long (or longer) vacation this summer?

Not yet, but I'm gonna

If you had to rename your company one of the following, which would it be?

Flapjack Painting
Porkchop Painting
Half Slab Painting
Whole Hog Painting

You meet someone new, and they ask what you do. What do you say?

I'm a painter
I'm a contractor
I'm a painting contractor
I own a painting business

On the job site, my painters mostly listen to...

Classic Rock
Hip Hop
Who knows. They got headphones

Which social media platform is most effective for marketing your business?

I don't use one

What do you drive for work?

Pickup Truck

How long ago did you redesign your company hat?


Do you have a spray booth?


If you've bought a used sprayer, was it a good decision?


Will your crews be working the week between Christmas and New Years?


Do you accept credit card payments from customers?


Will you be giving end-of-year bonuses (not gifts) this year?


Do you give your employees a holiday gift?


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