A CNC machining center helps this North Carolina-based small shop branch out.

     
Con-Tab Inc.

Thomasville, NC

Founded in 1994, Con-Tab Inc. employs 16 people to manufacture unfinished fancy-face veneer and high-pressure laminated tabletops; laminated panels for cabinets, RVs and specialty buses; and wood components for other types of furniture and boats.

Three Keys

1. The company originally did not manufacture goods; it strictly handled orders, contracted out the woodworking and delivered the finished product.

2. In the past year, Con-Tab has invested $250,000 in equipment, including a DMG Busellato JET CNC machining center, L&L high frequency gluer and an S&R Sheet Metal dust collection system.

3. Due to the niche market and custom nature of the business, Con-Tab’s owners say they are not worried about overseas competitors.

 
   
     

When a trio of North Carolinians started supplying conference tables to an office furniture manufacturer in the mid 90’s, they were determined to keep things simple at their new company.

“We didn’t want employees. We didn’t want equipment,” remembers Randy Woolard, 48, founder and corporate secretary for Thomasville-based Con-Tab Inc. A manufacturer’s rep for furniture industry suppliers, Woolard started Con-Tab (short for “conference tables”) in 1994. He was joined in 1995 by Rick Motsinger, another furniture-industry suppliers’ rep, and Jim Brewer, an employee of Con-Tab’s lone customer.

Con-Tab handled the orders, contracted out the woodworking and finishing, and handed over the finished product. There was no payroll to worry about and no large shop to maintain. At one time, Brewer recalls, the three owners shared one desk.

They soon found they were not happy with the lack of control they had, particularly in scheduling work with other companies. The final straw came when some of the contractor’s employees were unwilling to work nights or weekends to complete a rush job. “What was important to us wasn’t necessarily important to them,” Woolard recalls.

An About-Face

Rather than continue to put their fate in the hands of others, they hired their own employees, moved into 12,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space across town in Thomasville, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment and expanded their product and customer base.

     
 
Mitchell Duncan uses the DMG Busellato JET 3006 CNC machining center to put contours on tabletop components. The CNC router enables Con-Tab to make furniture components more quickly and efficiently, and to take on non-furniture jobs as well.  
     

“We knew we couldn’t keep all our eggs in this (tabletops) basket,” Woolard says. “We just said, ‘Hey, we’re in it, let’s do it right.’”

In the past year alone, they have invested $250,000 in equipment, including a Busellato JET 3006 CNC machining center from Delmac Machinery Group. During that time they also bought a new Du-All high-frequency gluing machine from L & L Machinery, a used Oakley stroke sander and a dust collection system from S & R Sheet Metal.

Today, the company has 16 employees; 12 of them are woodworkers. College students are added in the summer.

Sales are now above $2 million. Included in the product line are unfinished fancy-face veneer and high-pressure laminated tabletops; laminated panels for cabinets, RVs and specialty buses, and wood components for other types of furniture and boats.

Opening New Opportunities

Con-Tab uses the JET CNC machining center to make curved edges for the “P” tabletops, one of the irregular shapes in which the company specializes. Others are “bullet” and “bow front” tabletops.

According to Woolard, Con-Tab does not compete with high-volume manufacturers of rectangular tabletops. “But we can compete when it comes to irregular-shaped tops.” The company uses steam-bent lumber from Sawyer Bentwood in the manufacture of many of its products.

Before Con-Tab added the CNC router, Woolard says, “The maximum we could do of these odd-shaped tops was 20 a day. We can easily do four times that much now.”

“That piece of equipment,” he continues, “has given us so much more capability.” It’s not only allowed Con-Tab to diversify into fields other than furniture, Woolard adds, “it helps us to do more inside the furniture industry as well.”

Con-Tab employees also use the CNC router to cut styrene and nylon for manufacturers of plastic products. The same tooling is used for both wood and plastic, Woolard says. The diamond tooling is from Saber Diamond Tools, while the carbide tooling comes from Carolina Specialty Tools.

In addition to the Busellato JET 3006, the Du-All high-frequency gluing machine — which uses radio waves to glue the lumber edges to tabletops — is also integral to the production process. Con-Tab employees can glue 250 tabletops a day, Brewer says, compared to the 50 which could be done when gluing and clamping by hand.

Other equipment in the production area includes an Altendorf F-90 panel saw, a Midwest Automation panel laminator, an AEM abrasive planer and a Stefani contour bander.

More Machinery Planned

The owners’ wish list does not stop there. They are also looking to purchase a new panel saw, as well as material handling equipment such as a scissors lift and a vacuum lift.

“Everything we do out there,” says Woolard, “is pretty heavy. They don’t need any more backs out there. They need something to save their own backs.”

     
 
Randy Stevens removes a laminated panel from the Midwest Automation laminator.  
     

Con-Tab can afford to make the investment in equipment because, instead of drawing full salaries at Con-Tab, Woolard and Motsinger take reduced amounts and use the rest to grow the company. In addition to their work at Con-Tab, the two also hold jobs as sales reps for other companies; Woolard sells cut-to-size plywood, mouldings, carvings, turnings, chair frames and laser cuttings for a variety of manufacturers, while Motsinger is the North Carolina sales rep for Southeast Wood Products.

“Hopefully, it will be our retirement,” Woolard says of Con-Tab’s profit growth. Brewer jokingly adds that it may just cover a big retirement party.

Joking aside, all three say they expect their investment in equipment to open new avenues for sales and keep the company growing in what has recently been viewed as a chancy climate for furniture manufacturers.

Slow-But-Sure Growth

Con-Tab hopes to attain a size that satisfies “both our profit needs and our customers’ needs,” Woolard says. But the owners say they think a slow, steady growth is best.

Their experience in sales has taught them there’s nothing worse than not being able to deliver on time, Woolard says. A typical run is 25 to 50 of an item, though in the case of highly custom tables, they will do one or two. The CNC router can do thousands of parts, “the more the better,” Woolard says. However, he adds, efficiency remains a top priority.

What Import Threat?

Con-Tab stayed busy throughout the 2000-2001 downturn in furniture sales, with no layoffs and none anticipated. In fact, most of the college students who came in as temporary employees during the summer, were replaced with full-time workers in the fall, Woolard says.

Being a niche manufacturer helps, Woolard says, as does the custom nature of Con-Tab’s business. For these reasons, Woolard says he does not expect to lose out to overseas competitors. “The volume would not lend itself to going overseas. If someone wants just 10 of something, they’ll find it difficult to import.”

In anticipation of market changes, Con-Tab’s owners say they expect their new machinery to serve them well. “Our niche moves around, but we hope we’re positioned for growth,” Woolard says. “It’s kind of like that vein of gold. You keep digging at it and hope it lasts.”