Central Florida company bucks the recession
August 15, 2011 | 11:09 am CDT
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 This project by A Ward Design won the 2009 Southern Living Cottage of the Year award.

Last year saw the downsizing or closure of many woodworking companies. Yet despite the struggles faced by many in the industry, A Ward Design located in Winter Haven, FL, had a successful 2009 and moved up 20 spots on Wood & Wood Products’ WOOD 100 list.

Kevin Ward, president/CEO, credits most of that success to the management team he has assembled. “I have really good employees who make [up] the nucleus of the management team,” he says. “What separates [us] from the competition are the people we have.”

That management team includes Office Manager Sheila Cantrell. Ward says that her ability to interact with customers and the fact that she learned the business so quickly has been a “huge relief” to him. Also having an impact on the company’s efficiency and productivity is Shop Foreman, James Caudle, who had experience working in a larger shop and was very familiar with the 32mm system, Ward says.

“He came from Boca Raton, and he worked for a big shop there that went out of business. He moved here looking for a job. I had a 70-question test for anyone interviewing, and he got all but three to four [questions] right,” Ward says. “Some applicants didn’t even know half the [answers]. It was on the 32mm system, and James passed the test with flying colors. He’s really taken the ‘bull by the horns.’ He’s the first guy that I’ve had who can run the shop.” Ward’s son, Eric, who is in charge of engineering, coordinates with Caudle. Eric also designed and maintains the company’s Web site.

Other key players include Ward’s other son, Bryan, who can run every machine in the shop and builds Web sites for other people; Michael Schively, a shop worker; Denny Taylor, who handles finishing but also has a carving background; and William Dortch, a shop worker who was hired with prior experience on the beam saw and CNC machine.

Ward says that the company is well managed with its current team, which results in quick turnaround time for projects. “When we get ready to do work for somebody, we see the job through as fast as we can make it go, [because] we know [homeowners] don’t like to be out of their kitchens, and a new construction contractor doesn’t want to wait around — and we don’t want to wait on our money. The faster we get a job done, the faster we get paid.”

 Kevin Ward started his career in his family
custom home building business, and he says
that the last name Ward became synonymous
in the region with high-quality craftsmanship.
Embracing technology, without the risks
Ward also credits his success last year to the fact that the company was not over-leveraged. He says that they did not put all of their eggs in one basket, which helped them weather the storm. While over the years they have made investments in software, such as Tractivity and Microvellum, they purchased their major machinery secondhand.

“All of our [major] equipment, all of our saws and stuff, are used,” Ward says. “I think a lot of the guys that are having trouble right now financially are guys who went out and bought brand-new expensive machines and now they can’t make the payments on them.”

Although the more expensive machinery, like the company’s Weeke BP 80 CNC machine and Holz-Her beam saw, is used, Ward also says that he has purchased other items new at the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) in Atlanta. (Editor’s note: visit woodworkingnetwork.com to view a video with Kevin Ward’s opinion on the importance of tradeshows.)

“At every show, I’ve bought something new,” he says. Some of those purchases include a Timesavers sander and brush sander and a Kremlin spray pump.

Ward says that embracing technology is essential for growth, but his plan has allowed him to embrace it without exposing the company to risk.

The company’s investment in software has shown dividends in increased efficiency. Ward says that using Microvellum enables them to automate cabinet construction in the shop. Tractivity was implemented at the beginning of the year and is already creating a buzz in the office.

“Tractivity has done for our front office what Microvellum did for our shop,” Ward adds. “We’re really excited about what it’s doing. Guys in the shop didn’t like to write down what they did all the time, and they never did it when they were supposed to like right after they [finished an activity]. Tractivity allows them to select from a list, which automatically creates what they did all day and how long they did it.”

The automatic time card and sheets allow for accurate reports, Ward adds, and it makes the process easier for Cantrell. It frees her up from the “mundane” office work and allows her to focus on media contact, customers and vendors.

Perception is reality
Another component of A Ward Design’s success is its reputation in the Polk County, FL, area. Before starting his own company, Ward worked with his father and brother as a custom homebuilder.

“The last name Ward is synonymous with high-quality craftsmanship,” he says. It really helped my business, because we didn’t have to sell people on the idea that we were going to do a good job.

“It’s the perception of your business that people buy into,” he continues.

To aid in creating a positive perception, Ward says it is the small details that matter. For instance, all employees have to wear company shirts onsite and they are not allowed to smoke in the shop or on the job site.

The shop is always kept clean. Ward says that when customers visit, he does not want them to see a mess. “When they see a mess, that gives them an impression, the illusion, that we’re sloppy. So the shop is always clean and the guys are always neat and clean,” he says.

Company trucks are also well maintained. As a whole, Ward says he believes that this not only improves morale, but it also generates pride.

Ward says that the company’s goal is to not just meet customer expectation, but to exceed it.

“I think giving people more than they expect is a big part of our success,” he explains. “I mean everything — a little better finish, a better drawer box, a better experience, a better guy on the job that’s showing up at their house and better service. I think all of these things add up to a big difference. I think perception and the ability to deliver on that is key to our success. And we’re always trying to learn new things.”

One new project for the company is a series of “how-to” videos, which will be featured on the company’s Web site. Ward says that they have already worked on a couple. They have invested in video and audio equipment and plan to invest in a sound stage that will be built on the top floor of the shop.

A WardTV: Cabinet shop develops 'how-to' videos for the Web
Florida Company Produces How-To Videos

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