This kitchen job features the popular white dove perimeter and gray island plus driftwood gray beams.

 

A Master of Transitions

Henri Menendez Built a Profitable Niche With Cabinet Finishing

Henri during a typical spray day, going through a stack of doors from a heavy-duty rack (which his company distributes).

Making a living in the decorative arts profession involves some combination of creativity, craftsmanship and productivity. Of course, artists love the creative part—the opportunity to delve inside themselves for the inspiration that brings forth something truly unique and breathtaking into the world.

Atlanta-based artist Henri Menendez has experienced those creative opportunities often over the years. He got his start doing murals and faux finishing, but his creativity in mural-making was coupled with something that might seem at odds with inspiration: speed and efficiency. In fact, he was so fast in the production of a mural that he even taught classes on the subject: “The Two-Hour Mural.” The objective of the class was to send a message to decorative artists: You can produce something creative and be fast and be efficient and make a lot more money in the process.

More than a decade ago, when the market shifted dramatically away from mural painting in Atlanta, Henri began exploring other ways to make a living. The answer could be found in every kitchen and bathroom in America: cabinets. Henri recognized a lucrative opportunity for finishing cabinets and immediately set up a business structure to capitalize on it.

At first the emphasis was on heavily distressed, glazed, and rubbed techniques for most of the cabinet projects. That trend has steadily moved toward solid colors with less glazing and less decorative techniques. True, this type of finishing does not indulge his creativity as much as murals, faux finishes, and decorative cabinetry; but a focus on craftsmanship and productivity is just as fulfilling.

Henri Menendez

“It’s not as artistic as creating an intricate faux finish, but I’m doubling and tripling my profits, and that’s why we’re in this business—to make money—so there’s definitely a lot of fulfillment there,” Henri says.

New York Origins

Henri started his painting business in 1989 while he was living in upstate New York. He had a fine arts background and showed his work in several galleries during the late ’80s and early ’90s. He thought about going into architecture—he even went to architectural school for a couple years—but ultimately decided that this was not the career path for him.

At first, Henri decided to try the straight painting profession. “I had a friend who owns a painting company, and it seemed like the perfect job because he had some great guys working for him and it looked like all he had to do was do a few estimates, then sit back and collect the money,” he recalls. “Well, that’s what it seemed like, but in reality, it was incredibly difficult.”

Henri was able to use his salesmanship to get business; but in the overcrowded field of professional painting, he wasn’t able to stand out or staff up in a way that would allow him to be competitive.

“I realized pretty quickly that I would have to find a niche,” Henri says. “So within the first year of being in business, I started looking at faux finishing and mural painting. I took a few courses, did a lot of experimentation on my own, and because of my artistic background, I was able to do faux finishes and paint murals that nobody else in my area was doing. So, from the necessity of trying to stand out from the other companies is how I found my niche.”

This finish is what Henri calls "The Full Monty," since it involves a bit of everything: stain, distressing, paints, glazes, worm holes and rub-through techniques, all topped with a clear coat of satin lacquer.

Henri named his business Dehuelbes Designs, the first word of which comes from his mother’s side of the family and refers to their Spanish town of origin. He was inspired by the fact that infamous artist  Pablo Picasso honored his own mother using her surname. “When I was a young lad, my mother taught me about art, how to draw, and about scale and portraiture, which helped me considerably through the years. So when it came time to choose a name for my business, I thought: What better name to use than hers?” Henri recalls.

He admits that the name is hard to pronounce (phonetically, it’s “de-well-bess”). “It annoyed me that first year that no one could pronounce it. But now I love it and appreciate that it can’t be mistaken for any other company,” Henri says.

A Move to Atlanta

Henri’s move to Atlanta took place in 1994, and he immediately found a market for the same type of art he had been doing in upstate New York. “I’ve been here for 22 years now, and I transitioned very easily,” he recalls.

Initially, there was great demand for Henri’s mural work. He did work for dozens and dozens of restaurants as well as other commercial businesses and private residences. But then, abruptly, everything stopped.

“In 2005, I noticed a drastic change where the mural business just plummeted for me here in Atlanta,” Henri says. “Even though I know plenty of artists who were still doing murals, and even to this day are still doing murals in other parts of the country, that wasn’t the case in Atlanta.”

In Atlanta, the trend turned away from murals toward giclée prints and other printed graphics that could be installed like wallpaper for a fraction of the cost of a hand-painted mural. “Right around the time that was happening, I was getting more and more calls for cabinet finishing,” Henri reports.

Henri's company won the 2015 APC Top Job Award for this kitchen in Panama City Beach, Fla.

Immediately Henri began turning to this niche to fill the void in his business. He admits to being a perfectionist, which served him well in this new venture. He wouldn’t rest until he found the perfect finish to give his cabinet finishes that “straight-out-of-the-factory” look.

We had always done cabinet refinishing in the past but on a much smaller scale. Typically we would do a kitchen a month at best.  Henri used regular oil-based house paints for his work, but he wasn’t happy with the look or the time it took to achieve those finishes. “So, I checked with some of the big cabinet manufacturers out there, found out what they were using, and then went to those suppliers to do a little hands-on training with them,” Henri says. “Since they want to sell you their products, they’re more than happy to show you their products.”

Based on that experience, Henri switched to high-performance lacquers. “And almost overnight, we became the No. 1 go-to cabinet finishing team in Atlanta,” Henri reports. “All of the builders wanted to use us because our finishes stood out so far above what the house painters were doing.” We went from the occasional kitchen refinish once a month to finishing newly installed cabinetry throughout large homes at a clip of two homes a week.

A Productive Crew

By “we,” Henri is referring to himself and his crew. “I have anywhere from four to nine finishers, depending upon how busy I am. A couple of my guys have been with me for more than 15 years. I strongly believe in compensating heavily to keep really good people and treat them as you would expect to be treated”.

Ultimately, that led Henri to implement a highly motivational way for paying his crew. It came about because of a suggestion from one of his guys, namely to pay them by the job instead of by the hour.

“So, every time I sold a job, I put a price on it. I’d say, ‘Okay, guys, this next kitchen is $1,000.’ I would take the material to the jobsite, and they would do it. I wouldn’t have to look at it again until it was finished. I wouldn’t have to supervise them because they knew what they were doing, and they would set the pace.”

Before photo of a client's basement bar that was originally a dingy amber color with new raw wood parts.
After picture shows a uniform Tone 'N Glaze finish, considered one of his company's top money-makers.

The faster his crews worked, the more they earned. So that meant they were moving faster through a job than they previously did. In some cases, they’d work evenings or weekends to get the job done, which made it a win/win/win situation all the way around: Clients were happy because the job got done more quickly, Henri’s crews were happy because they made more money, and Henri himself was happy because he could sell more jobs and earn more profits.

This system continues to work well, and Henri as company owner, splits his time between selling and working on jobs. When the work is a bit limited, he’ll be out in the market calling on builders and filling the pipeline with more jobs. “When work is plentiful like it is right now, I’m actually spraying jobs every day,” he reports. “I’ll take a helper with me and do one house, and then a couple of crews will go out and do two or three other houses.

Though their home base is Atlanta, Henri and his team do work from northern Georgia all the way into Florida around the Gulf Coast area. As of this writing, he was preparing to take a crew of eight guys to Florida to do some work for a builder in Santa Rosa Beach. “By the end of the week, we’ll have completed two houses and done work in four others,” Henri says. “These are pretty massive homes with seven or eight bathrooms, two kitchens, a couple wet bars, built-in bookcases, a home office, laundry and mudroom across three levels of a home.”

For each of these homes, the builder will shut the site down to everyone but Henri’s crew. “That gives us the opportunity to set up sprayers on every floor of the house and put up drying racks where we set up all the doors and shelves from the cabinets,” Henri reports. “We’re able to run sprayers throughout these homes without interfering with anyone else’s work.”  

In the event that builders want a faux finish on the cabinets, Henri still stresses speed as an advantage. Much of this speed can be accomplished because of the finishing system we developed, the racks we use, and fast-drying cabinet friendly materials. “Regardless of what type of faux finishing they want on the cabinets, whether they want weathered, aged, distressed, glazed or rubbed, we can do all those techniques in a day or two instead of weeks simply because we’re using mostly fast-drying coatings.”

Spraying a clear sealer over stained sections, which will show through the paint color once the crew rubs through the edges.

When using a glaze, Henri and his crew often will spray it on the surface. “Again, time is a huge factor and the big reason that builders hire us in particular,” Henri says. “They need somebody who can get in and out in just a couple days, and that’s why we’ve been able to cultivate this relationship with so many builders.”

While focusing on cabinets, Henri’s business still offers a variety of faux finishes like Venetian plasters or wall glazes. “Usually what I’ll tell a customer is: You can hire us to do everything that your house painter cannot do,” he says.

An Eye To the Future

Henri’s cabinet finishing business is going gangbusters right now. But keeping in mind how his mural work dried up so quickly, he is staying alert in case demand for cabinet work dries up eventually as well.

“I really don’t believe there is one fail-safe plan for everybody,” he says. “Cabinets are going well right now, but I’m not expecting it to be guns-a-blazing 10 years into the future. The painting business has different sectors that go up and go down. You just have to be ready, when there’s a drop-off, to float toward whatever the next big thing turns out to be.”