When the new Legal Sea Foods ‘C’ Bar going into Garden City needed someone to do their interior woodworking, cabinets, and fixtures, they turned to Design Fabricators, a Cranston family-owned business headquartered on Stamp Farm Road off of Comstock Parkway.
That’s because Design Fabricators, founded by Bob Armstrong roughly 40 years ago, has been a longtime fixture in the woodworking industry, growing so much that they had 700 requested bids for their services in 2015, according to Roberta Degraide, the daughter of Bob and now the president of the company.
Degraide and her sister, Denise Armstrong-Florio, the vice president, now run the 35-employee woodworking enterprise and were awarded last year the “Family-Owned Small Business” award by the Small Business Administration (SBA) last year.
The company has utilized the SBA for six loans since the 1990s that have totaled nearly $3.5 million, according to SBA lead economic development specialist Matthew Spoehr. The most recent loan was made in 2015 to purchase the latest equipment needed for their work.
Mark Hayward, director of the SBA in Rhode Island, said that Cranston has become a hotbed for loans in recent years, with 31 loans given out by the SBA already in fiscal year 2018. He said that most businesses that have utilized them use the money for new equipment and additional expenses to expand their customer base.
He said the SBA is seeing more manufacturing companies using their loans, though in Cranston he said the industries range across the board, from service to hospitality and, like Design Fabricators, manufacturing.
He said that smaller, family-owned businesses like them may be successful already, but don’t have access to bigger loans like large businesses do, and the SBA provides loans with low interest rates (the one Design Fabricators used in 2015 he estimated to be in the 2-2.5 percent range).
Mayor Allan Fung, who toured the facility along with members of the SBA and the Armstrong family, touted the amount of loans Cranston businesses have received this year.
“It’s been fun to see our growth, to see people wanting to come here, to live, to enjoy all we have to offer,” he said. “We appreciate the help for our small to medium sized business and family-owned businesses of our city. A lot of businesses are looking to do more, expand, grow, get to the next revenue generator, and we thank the SBA for their support to all of our businesses.”
The history of Design Fabricators is rich, according to Bob Armstrong. He said the company started with outdoor lighting fixtures and built up a customer base through that.
They had one very big customer, however, who wanted them to build the inside of all of their locations. That customer was Papa Gino’s, and they ended up doing the inside work on 125 of them across the country, Armstrong said.
He also said they now have Dave and Buster’s as a customer, and Degraide added names like Ashley Furniture and Bose Headphones, who use them for their stores in Europe.
Armstrong said they first moved to their current 80,000 sq. foot location, an office/warehouse on Stamp Farm Rd., around 30 years ago.
Degraide and her sister Denise are both Cranston born-and-raised, having graduated from Cranston West. She also said that she originally went to Rhode Island College to be a teacher, but got involved in the family business when she couldn’t find a teaching job. Similarly, Armstrong-Florio said she was a criminal justice major at Bryant who then went into the family business.
The sisters said there have been some major challenges they have to deal with in the woodworking industry, most notably workforce development. Armstrong-Florio said that because the industry is so small and “nobody is going into it,” all of the companies fight for the same crop of workers.
Degraide also said the company values quality over quantity and they “aren’t the cheapest and never will be,” and they also don’t have a single salesperson on staff.
“The product sells itself,” she said.
Despite those challenges, Design Fabricators has developed into an award-winning family-owned business with clients spanning the globe, with some help from the SBA along the way.