A Ward Design has grown sales of its cabinetry and millwork products through increased service and marketing efforts, including an enhanced Web site and videos.

It's an achievement these days for woodworking businesses to survive in today's challenging economy, yet alone thrive. But there are some doing just that.

As part of its ongoing "Survival Guide" series, Wood & Wood Products polled seven woodworking companies from this year's WOOD 100 whose firms not only grew in 2008, but are projecting increased sales for 2009.

Here are their stories.

Banking on Reputation

A Ward Design President Kevin Ward credits a great work ethic and professionalism as keys to the Winter Haven, FL-based custom cabinetry and millwork company's growing success for 2008 and in 2009.

"I was a general contractor before founding this company, so I understand what the 'other side' wants and needs. We have a philosophy that we come to work in professional attire. We try to make a good impression from the first phone call. We answer questions and return calls. Our shop is always clean and neat so that when customers visit -- people shopping for high-end products often want to see the place -- we make sure we provide the kind of atmosphere they expect," he says.

Ward says the company goes the extra mile in customer service, including being very proactive. "We are engaged from the first call and try to set up a meeting in a timely fashion. We want people to see that we are interested in working for them and that they matter to us."

And while many of his competitors charge for design fees, A Ward offers it for free. "I can tell if a potential client is really interested and I don't charge them to provide a detailed drawing. We try to provide a totally positive experience, from the first call. Once they have a comfort level about you, you pretty much have the job," Ward says.

Thriving with Flexibility

Jorge Lagueruela, president of Trinity Furniture in Trinity, NC, says success is due to his employees' dedication, quality work and production flexibility. These assets, coupled with unique designs and hard work, have opened doors into new markets.

"We have stressed quality improvements and customer satisfaction with all our product lines and it has been a big success. No one ever complains about a company's quality being too good," Lagueruela says.

The contract office and health care furniture producer's list of customers includes the U.S. Congress and Federal Courts. It has earned numerous awards for its designs, including NeoCon Best of Show, Platinum, Silver and Gold ADEX awards.

The company also differentiates itself from competitors through many of its product lines. For example, the Facelift Collection allows customers to replace, recycle and totally renew any furniture components in the field. "In this economy, you need to adapt, and Facelift offers function, value and a truly green product line," says Lagueruela.

Trinity Furniture uses solid hardwoods, including cherry, maple and ash, for all its exposed components, and hardwoods and plywood on all unexposed frame members. State-of-the-art manufacturing techniques ensure efficient production, and Lagueruela says he is continually upgrading and adding machinery to remain competitive. The manufacturing space has undergone five expansions over the years, to 105,000 square feet spread over two buildings. Plans are already in the works for another addition, Lagueruela says.

Enhancing Productivity

Goshen, IN-based BriMar Wood Innovations earned the top spot in this year's Wood 100, due in part to hard work and strategic positioning of high-volume products to utilize automated equipment. According to Owner and President Brian Roe, BriMar invested heavily in 2007, with an 18,000-square-foot expansion, additional staffing and production equipment such as panel saws, edgebanders, a radio frequency gluer and veneering equipment. "These investments allowed us to pursue and bring in larger projects that really boosted our sales in 2008, especially the last half of the year," Roe says.

"Prior to making these investments, much of our production process was manual and more time-consuming, making it difficult to take care of customers needing a solution for large quantity repetition-type projects. We simply could not commit to their required schedule. By making our production areas more efficient and faster, we were able to become more competitive with our price points," says Roe, "and it also allowed us to be flexible.

"Being able to run custom products alongside of high-volume, more standardized products is part of our planned diversification to weather dips in the economy. This ability, along with a wider product offering in niche markets, accounts for our current success and is the foundation for future growth," Roe says.

"We have been able to rebound with larger volume projects, making us 20 percent higher in sales this year compared to last year. We are in the process of installing a CNC router that will allow us to move into the next level of automation in preparation for growing the business even more next year."

The new machinery also will help the custom side of the business. "We are not against making unique products, like a one-of-a-kind radius reception desk or very large unique shaped board room table. Our employees have the experience and talent to make these low-volume, high-profile products and our customers appreciate our attention to detail," he adds.

Developing New Products

An emphasis on product development and packaging of services has led Corbin, KY-based Stidham Cabinet Inc. to increased sales. "We can offer them a one-stop shop deal, including all cabinetry, doors, custom flooring, trim and ceiling -- in short, the whole package," says James Stidham, founder and president. "It has been very well received by customers."

All manufacturing has been brought in-house. "We decided to upgrade all our manufacturing and purchased a wide range of high-tech equipment, including CNC moulders, routers, point-to-point machines, dowel inserter, edgebanders and panel saw. We have a state-of-the-art equipped shop and it has given us tremendous flexibility. With technology, I believe you have to ‘get in the boat' and ride or be run over," Stidham says.

According to Stidham, the additional technology has allowed the 60-man shop to enter new niche markets, which keeps it busy during slow periods. Now, in addition to producing commercial casework and residential cabinetry, plus custom interior and exterior doors, mantles and fireplace surrounds for churches, judicial/government offices and retail stores, Stidham Cabinet does projects for HUD housing. It obtained the necessary HUD Severe Use Certification, enabling it to bid on a number of federal contracts. "With the federal government pumping money into public housing as part of the economic recovery, there is a notable increase in HUD housing approved cabinets," says Stidham. "Pursuing this market offers us more work and allows us to take up the soft schedule time we now have."

In addition to the HUD certification, the company offers ANSI/KCMA certified products and is an AWI Certified Manufacturer.

Investing in Automation

Investments in technology have enabled architectural woodworker Giffin Interior & Fixture to achieve quicker production times, a key element in the company's market niche, says President Gordon Giffin.

2008 capital investments include: Weeke CNC machining centers, an Altendorf sliding saw, a Dantherm dust collector, GreCon spark detector, plus software from Microvellum. A long-time proponent of technology, Giffin recalls, "We purchased our first CNC machine in the late '80s."

And although times have been tough, the Bridgeville, PA-based firm is projecting a 20 percent increase in sales for 2009, with projects in the store fixture, institutional and office casework and hospitality markets. "We recently completed a casino in Pennsylvania, but there isn't much going on in the gambling market, especially in Vegas. Law firms have also cut back on renovations and new building," he says.

"The thing anyone in manufacturing will tell you is that growth is very easy in boom times, but it is how you handle the slow times that matters. We have always operated on a lean philosophy and that's certainly helped," says Giffin. "I believe in hiring great people and listening to their input. Management can be its own worst enemy if it hires talented people and then ties their hands and feet."

Strength in Marketing

Tom Ancona, president of Evansville, IN-based ProLam Products Inc., credits his company's marketing programs as a key element of their success. "Our marketing efforts, led by a new sales team focusing on our manufacturing strengths, helped increase our 2008 sales," says Ancona.

With its 50 employees, the company produces plastic laminate components for commercial markets. "Our philosophy of being good at what we do, never saying no to work, and actively entering new markets has been a great help. We have been branching out into the hospitality/restaurant market with our new Table Logix line versus strictly office components. In a tough economy you have to go where the work is and you have to do effective, aggressive marketing so people know who you are."

Ancona says this proactive approach has netted 20 percent growth over the past year and he is predicting additional growth in 2009. "Marketing is key. You also have to be open to exploring new markets. Be flexible and be willing to go where the work is," he says.

"We are encouraged that our sales are actually up overall [in the hospitality market], while a lot of our office furniture customers have seen a downturn," he says. "It takes a proactive approach, and a willingness to enter new markets and say yes to work, to be successful in this economy. Unfortunately, you may be forced to ship much farther than you are accustomed to, but that's where the customers are."

Expanding Services

Witmer Furniture's decision to increase the size of its market area has helped the Abbotsford, WI-based company grow its solid wood furniture business. "We expanded to other areas expressly to reach more potential customers," says President Kevin Schlinkmann. "We increased our sales staff and they have increased their efforts, knocking on doors, telling people our story and the benefits of dealing with us."

Expanding its business to the East Coast and as far west as Colorado also is helping increase sales for 2009, and the company is projecting a double-digit increase this year. Witmer also has made a push to get back sales lost to foreign competition. "We can stress that we offer four-week delivery. Our goal is to get our foot in the door, answer questions and offer excellent customer service. We are available to our customers seven days a week," Schlinkmann says. "We take pride in our customer service. I'm the president and I want them to know they can call any hour of the day or night."

Success also has resulted from a reorganization of Witmer's manufacturing methods. "We took a look at our products and made our product lines more uniform. Instead of several dresser sizes, we went with one. We also automated our finishing line to decrease changeover times with different colors," adds Schlinkmann.

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