Iraq vet builds a new career in luxury wood.
Competition is nothing new for Ted Kalb, from football fields and bond-trading floors to Iraq battlefields, but winning means something different now that his woodworking hobby has led him to vie for a slice of Atlanta’s luxury housing market.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store every day when I come to work,” says Kalb, 46, who in January bought Douglasville-based Smallwood Custom and Commercial Cabinets, now Southern Oak Woodwork.
The Atlanta native took up woodworking while living in Memphis. When his family moved back to Sandy Springs in 2013, he turned part of the basement into a fully outfitted woodshop.
Having stared at a computer screen all day, he would head for the shop after wife Michelle, daughter Kinley, now 14, and son Hudson, 11, went to bed and “make sawdust” to relieve stress.
He developed a side business as friends asked him to build tables, bookcases and cornhole boards and connected him with designers.
Last year he met Andy Smallwood, who was looking to sell his cabinet business. Kalb had left bond sales in 2019 for a small stake in commercial painting company Goodman Decorating, and he was ready for the next step.
“I was hooked,” he says about seeing Smallwood’s shop. “You’re not supposed to lead with your heart in those types of situations, but it was a perfect marriage of my entrepreneurial dream and something that I truly love.”
Half of the 17-year-old business serves commercial clients by building such items as counters, display cases and clothing racks for stores and hotels. Kalb is more excited by the residential side, where he sees great growth potential in homes worth $1 million to $5 million in Buckhead, Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, and the lakes and mountains. Southern Oak provides kitchen and bathroom cabinets, closet shelving, and built-in bookcases. A complete package, sometimes with custom furniture, costs $100,000 to $250,000, he says.
His 17 employees match market- leading competitors’ quality at better prices because of lower overhead, Kalb says. He’s investing in marketing, including a new website and social media presence, and promising a better customer experience with more responsive communication.
Meeting delivery deadlines is key, so he applies military discipline. Kalb played linebacker at Presbyterian College and joined teammates in ROTC. He enjoyed the training and liked that the Army helped with college expenses. He was commissioned as an officer after graduation in 1998 and deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2003, his last year in the Army.
Kalb had a largely positive experience in a Kurdish area and says, “There is no better organization that’ll give you a crash course in leadership and responsibilities than being in any of the armed services.”
Organization and sales are his focuses, but he has bigger dreams. He wants to hire a few designers and open a showroom near Atlanta to provide the start-to-finish, whiteglove experience high-end customers expect, then target homes worth $3 million to $10 million. He hopes Southern Oak grows to be a premier design company across the Southeast and expands beyond woodwork, perhaps into renovations.
Kalb has a problem, though: He isn’t spending much time in the woodshop, and he hasn’t figured out how best to relax from his competitive dreams now that his hobby has become his business. “It’s either coaching my son,” who plays sports at Chastain Park, “or trying to get my daughter away from her phone to go have dinner with me every once in a while.”
SOUTHERN OAK WOODWORK
Jack-of-all-trades writer covering almost anything but beauty and fashion at Simply Buckhead; fond of flamingos and sloths.