This Portland, OR-based store fixture maker shoots for personalized perfect service to maintain customer satisfaction and win new business.
Editor’s Note: When Wood & Wood Products profiled Boden Store Fixtures Inc. in April 2000, the company had bold plans to grow sales to $40 million by 2005. A sluggish economy has seriously upset those plans but has not kept Boden from pursuing new avenues of growth for when better economic times arrive.
Boden Store Fixtures Inc. is more than holding its own against increasing competition and a sour economy. It is largely doing so by pushing customer service to a higher level.
The Portland, OR-based company last year achieved its highest annual sales in more than a half-century of operation, hitting the $24 million mark, says Dan Dunn, Boden’s vice president of sales and marketing.
It’s a hard-won achievement. Overseas competition and a wave of business failures that flooded the market with used office furniture put a dent in Boden’s attempts to increase its reach in the office sector, Dunn says.
Retail fixtures continue to make up the bulk of the company’s production, but the economy has hit retailers hard. A reverse auction mentality is taking hold, as manufacturers’ bids spiral downward in an effort to win orders.
“I’ve seen too many go down to where the winning bid is below our material costs,” Dunn says.
Obviously no business can survive for long in that type of climate. Thus, Boden tries to avoid bidding on projects where price is the sole consideration, emphasizing instead the extras it offers, including capitalizing on strategic alliances that make Boden a one-stop shop for projects big and small.
The company also keeps a constant lookout for new niche markets to tackle, areas that offer better margins or less competition. The idea, Dunn says, is “to hit the ball where they’re not” and avoid heavy competition for bids. That may mean offering more services as well as products, he says.
Today, Boden’s retail sector breaks down into seven target groups: grocery stores, apparel retailers, specialty retailers, mass merchandisers, food services, financial services, and designers and architects who specify fixturing projects.
Corporate downsizing has left many customers with fewer people responsible for more work. “We can give them a single point of contact,” he says. Providing a “single-source solution” can tip the balance in signing a deal.
Customer service has been a part of the Boden way of doing business since the beginning and has helped preserve some early relationships through the company’s 57 years. Fred Meyer Inc., for instance, was among Boden’s first customers. Although the Kroger Co. acquired the Portland-based grocery retailer a few years ago, the Boden-Fred Meyer relationship remains strong and continues to present new opportunities, because Boden has made new contacts at Kroger, Dunn says.
’Personalized Perfect Service’
”It’s a simple concept,” Dunn says. “We don’t try to fit clients into a mold.”
Instead, Boden assimilates its customers’ practices. For instance, one client may require online billing in a particular format rather than paper invoices. Another may ask for a special order-tracking system or ordering procedure. Others want password-protected spreadsheets accessed through Boden’s Web site to show specific information as the order progresses through the design and production process.
The underlying principle is that each client — and often each project for a client — requires individual attention, he says. A cookie-cutter approach is not going to cut it in today’s business world.
Many of these individual needs fall outside the manufacturing sphere, but not all. Some retail customers change their store’s look every season by dressing up the space with new fixtures, so they do not need the same extended life-cycle products that other customers demand. This affects the quality and price of materials and construction methods involved, he says.
Easier Said Than Done
Boden’s personalized perfect service starts with the company’s salespeople asking customers the right questions to determine their true needs for each project and set of fixtures. Designers take that information and work out value-engineering suggestions and hammer out specification details with the customer. The production staff joins the process during hand-off meetings to go over each upcoming project and offers its suggestions on how to handle the work most efficiently.
“We have a basic framework of quality standards for every job — a benchmark,” Dunn says. “Then we customize them depending on the needs of the project.”
Emphasizing communication throughout the company and with customers has also boosted efficiency, says Morris Thacker, the company’s project coordinator. “We manage and schedule projects better because we have more accurate information,” he says.
The changes have made production more orderly. “In the past, it seemed like we were scurrying around trying to get a project done and then we’d find we didn’t need to ship that one for a few days,” Thacker says.
Bar coding and manufacturing software help track fixtures throughout production, alerting project managers when the job is nearing completion, Thacker says. Project managers confirm shipping dates with customers and quickly pass along any changes to production staff.
Coordinating work more closely allows Boden to ship more full loads in place of two trips with half-full trucks to the same area, Thacker adds.
Economy Withers ‘Green’ Sales
Mainstream retailers in particular may not be looking to show their “green” colors through their fixture selection, Dunn adds. “I don’t see it now in this economy.”
Equipment Investments Pay Off
But the changes on the production floor hold the company back from easily achieving the same economies of scale on those smaller jobs. “We’ve got to feed the equipment we have,” Dunn says.
It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but a question of moving higher on the learning curve. Nor is there one single answer, Thacker says. Everything depends on the individual project. A prototype, for instance, that will be refined into a larger run may require a greater investment than a true one-of-a-kind fixture.
A single-piece job and a thousand-piece order, given the same complexity of production, require the same amount of programming and setup for the machinery, Thacker says. While the CNC workcell produces more precise cuts that match specifications more accurately, sometimes reverting to manual production is the better choice.
New equipment, including a Weeke BP-120 point-to-point machining center, a Homag SE-9300 edgebander and a Holzma HPP81/88 computerized panel saw — all from Stiles Machinery — have eliminated bottlenecks, allowing the company to better meet deadlines, he says. It has also raised production capacity without affecting employment levels among Boden’s roughly 200 workers. As a direct result, Boden turns out more product per man hour than before.
“The marketplace has forced us to be more efficient,” Dunn says.
Most of Boden’s fixtures are now doweled. A new Uhling HP-5000 case clamp has increased assembly capacity, and works in conjunction with an Accu-Systems HVPP-100 CNC boring and dowel insertion machine.
Many of Boden’s fixtures also incorporate plastic laminate. A cold-press station now handles what was once a time-consuming hand operation. A new Midwest Automation SL-500 panel feeder and LS-LR-500 lay-up station turns what was a two-person job into a task that can be handled by one worker.
Employees are cross-trained on two or three different machines for added flexibility, Dunn says. Boden typically runs two daily shifts but jumps to a third shift when needed, as was the case this summer.
“It comes down to making good decisions, keeping things lean and eliminating redundancies,” Dunn says. And while that extra effort for personalized perfect service may require more management, Dunn concludes, “It’s essential. That’s our position in the market.”