A Philosophy of Commitment

At Berkeley Mills, an FSC-certified manufacturer, going ‘green’ is just one part of its overall dedication to quality.

By Helen Kuhl

   
 
Berkeley Mills

Berkeley, CA

www.berkeleymills.com

Year Founded: 1988

Employees: 50

Shop Size: 27,000 square feet

FYI #1: Berkeley Mills was one of the first U.S. manufacturing companies to obtain FSC certification.

FYI #2: CEO Gene Agress started out as a craftsman selling toys on the San Francisco streets.

   
       

For Gene Agress of Berkeley Mills, Berkeley, CA, the commitment to being an FSC-certified company and using primarily FSC-certified woods is only one component of his overall business strategy. Agress, who is CEO of the corporation (although his business card shows “visionary” as his main title), also believes in building a high-quality product while providing top-notch, ethical service to customers, suppliers and employees alike. In fact, his business philosophy stretches to include a commitment to family and the local community. He feels that using woods from sustainable forests is a practice that supports all these interests.

“From day one we have had the same philosophy, which is to provide the best service and the highest quality furniture and solutions for our customers,” Agress says. “I like to say our goal is to make furniture that lasts longer than it takes a tree to grow, which also goes along with conserving our natural resources.

“We also want to build a business that’s as well made as our furniture,” he adds. “For people in ‘the crafts,’ that is often an element that is left out. We think that a company should have excellent business practices, not just craft practices.”

Agress explains “excellent business practices” as a dedication to providing the same service to employees and suppliers as to customers. “It’s all consistent with the way we build our furniture,” he says. “It’s the way we treat each other, the way we treat our suppliers, the way we interact with the community, the way we buy materials; the same values apply.”

     
 
This piece is called the “Mizuya Tansu” and is a striking example of the tansu’s adaptability, Berkeley Mills says, making it suitable for a kitchen or great room. It features multiple drawers, shelves behind sliding doors, a large cabinet and glass-doored display. It is shown in Honduras mahogany. Photo by Don Tuttle  
     

Berkeley Mills uses primarily American cherry, some Honduras mahogany and sapele pomele, plus a few exotic species for accents. It buys its wood from Kane Hardwood in Kane, PA, a company owned by Collins Pine. Agress says he always was supportive of the idea of sustainable forestry, but was unfamiliar with the Forest Stewardship Council until several years ago when Kane asked him if he would be interested in buying FSC-certified wood. Since Kane assured him that it was committed to providing a steady supply long-term, Agress agreed. Berkeley Mills itself subsequently became one of the first FSC-certified furniture manufacturers.

While Agress says he was willing to pay more for certified lumber, nowadays it costs no more than non-certified woods. “Suppliers are not charging more for FSC now because it’s becoming available and more people are asking for it,” he says.

Agress also buys from Kane because he believes they have the best hardwoods available, he says. He maintains an adequate inventory by placing large orders four times a year and storing the wood at a local lumberyard, which delivers it by the truckload to Berkeley Mills as needed. However, Berkeley Mills does all its own rough milling, as well as its own veneer layup.

From Toys to Tansus

While Agress’ business philosophy and practices have remained the same throughout his 30 years as a professional woodworker, the range of the products he has produced has varied widely.

He started out designing and building a line of wooden toys and three-dimensional puzzles while he was in college. He sold them on the streets of San Francisco, becoming one of the city’s first established street craftsmen. The toys turned into a full-fledged company, Toy People, which sold products through 150 outlets, including the

Smithsonian Institute’s gift shop and Ansel Adams’ Yosemite, CA, gallery.

By this point, Agress had started a small shop and was joined by a friend with a cabinetry background who taught him how to build fine cabinets. The shop took on occasional custom work and eventually the toy business was sold. Agress then became interested in custom doors and windows, and with two partners he started a company called Fourth Street Woodworking to make mortise-and-tenon doors and windows. Agress says that shop made him better acquainted with all types of woodworking equipment, which are used in Berkeley Mills today.

     
 
This all-in-one Home Office Tansu incorporates a shelf in the upper left cabinet and a deep drawer below. Pull-out pocket doors allow full access to the computer cabinet. The pull-out keyboard desk is behind a hinged drawer front. The piece has a vented back for electrical cords and connections. It sells for $14,450 and is shown with the Lambda chair, shaped after a letter in the Greek alphabet. Photo by Sean Sullivan  
     

The door and window company, which also was successful, eventually was sold to the other two partners, and Agress joined his current partner Dave Kent in opening Berkeley Mills.

“In 1988, we opened up this little high-end, made-to-order custom furniture company,” he says, “and we had a showroom and a window into the shop, so people could see us making the furniture. We designed it, we made it, we delivered it, we milled our own woods and made everything the way we wanted it, and we were instantly successful.”

Berkeley Mills’ tagline is “East-West Furniture Design,” reflecting Agress’ early designs for the company, which were influenced by his first wife, who is of Japanese ancestry. Agress says that she is a talented designer who gave him guidance about Eastern aesthetics, adding that he always appreciated the simplicity and beauty of the lines in Eastern styles. He was one of the first Americans to build Japanese-style Tansu cabinets, and Berkeley Mills continues to feature Tansu as one its four main lines (the others are Arts & Crafts, Prairie and Mesa, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Agress currently is working on a new line, Zen, which he says will be “separate, but related” in style to the company’s existing lines.

From its start as a small shop, Berkeley Mills has grown to offer 85 different pieces in its lines, which are featured in an impressive new catalog (see sidebar below). Ten years ago it moved into its current 27,000-square-foot building, which includes a 3,000-square-foot showroom; there also is a 9,000-square-foot finishing facility in Oakland. About 30 percent of its work is custom, and it also does some commercial projects and even an occasional kitchen. Although Agress says that annual sales figures are proprietary, he adds that the company is “endlessly busy,” with loyal customers worldwide.

All sales comes from the Berkeley Mills showroom, its catalog or its Web site (www.berkeleymills.com); the company does not participate in any shows or galleries. Some work comes through architects and interior designers, but most is direct with the customer. In addition to the catalog and Web site, the company plans to expand its marketing efforts in the future. Currently, most business is repeats and referrals.

     
 
This bedroom setting includes a bed and four-drawer dresser from the Arts & Crafts line, paired with a Tansu side table. The bed is Honduras mahogany. The dresser and side table are Honduras mahogany with sapele pomele drawer fronts. Photo by Don Tuttle  
     

Customers include well-heeled people who often buy a roomful of furniture at one time, as well as loyal fans with smaller means who save for years and buy one piece at a time, Agress says. Prices range from $875 for a basic chair to $16,750 for the Kaidan Tansu home entertainment center, and prices are always the same, whether it’s to a designer or direct.

“Our marketing really in the past has been customer by customer,” Agress says. “We have many customers and enjoy a very loyal following.”

A Legacy of Quality Craftsmanship

While Agress’ cabinetmaker friend taught him Old World-style craftsmanship in the original small shop, Agress says he already was attuned to a tradition of high quality through his uncle, who manufactured Venetian blinds and had a woodshop. “My values and practice and the learning I did were all consistent, and I had a very disciplined and highly focused practice,” he says.

       
Educating the Customer

One part of Berkeley Mills’ operating credo is to provide excellent service to customers, and that includes educating them about what makes good furniture.

“We spend a great deal of time educating our customers,” CEO Gene Agress says. “And we never measure the amount of time that we spend with somebody based upon their buying ability. We spend as much time as necessary to help each person understand clearly what they need to know to help them make good choices.”

One of the most dramatic examples of this commitment is the company’s new catalog — one of the first projects undertaken by President Cynthia Miyashita after she joined the company. The 64-page full-color catalog, which is sold for $20, contains not only beautiful photos of the company’s furniture, but also several pages written to educate the consumer about the nature of wood, craftsmanship and finishing. There also is an explanation about the Forest Stewardship Council, sustainable lumber and the company’s FSC certification. There even is a full page with a list of points on how to recognize fine furniture.

The catalog was conceived not just as a promotion piece, but also as an educational tool, Agress says. In the process, it amply illustrates what makes Berkeley Mills furniture high quality and creates an image of excellence.

 
   
       

At Berkeley Mills, the attention to quality starts with the lumber; the company buys the highest grade wood it can, Agress says. Construction is frame-and-panel, and joinery is mortise and tenon. Drawers are dovetailed or, for drawers with an integral face, the company often uses a hand-pegged stub mortise joint secured with handmade ebony pegs. The finish is a catalyzed lacquer, custom-formulated for the company. It is hand-rubbed, and the company does not use any stains or coloring.

Agress says he believes strongly in hand-work and the craftsman being intimately involved in a piece. There are about 30 shop employees, and all pieces are built start-to-finish by teams of three to four craftsmen. They are given the initial drawing and a team leader decides how the job will be done, allocating the work and coordinating the piece. Each team member signs the piece when it is done, and the Berkeley Mills stamp is put on.

“It’s a non-linear process,” Agress says. “It’s not a manufactured process; it doesn’t start at one end with somebody working on it and then someone foreign from them finishes it at the other end. It starts with one team touching it and completing it. We have become very effective at this.”

The dedication to individual hand-craftsmanship is equally matched by Agress’ belief in buying top-quality equipment, and he has invested a lot back into the shop. Equipment includes an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw, Butfering widebelt sander, Diehl rip saw, Heian single-end tenoner, several Maka mortisers and an Omga cut-off saw equipped with a Tigerstop. There also is a sliding table saw, four-sided planer and jointer, all from Martin. The veneer department has a Kuper stitcher and an Ott hot veneer press.

The company follows what Agress calls “an ongoing improvement process” of never-ending evaluation. “We like to institute and actuate change as quickly and efficiently as possible,” he adds. “It’s not a long process.”

Part of the changes instituted recently involved a shifting of management duties, including the hiring of Cynthia Miyashita as president last year. Although Agress continues as CEO, he says that the company needed to have someone else come in and take over day-to-day business functions.

“I had to give some things up and step aside in order to let things happen. That was difficult,” he says, “but it’s part of our commitment to quality.

“We have a strategy for the future of the company and this is just the beginning,” he adds. “In the past, I wasn’t motivated to do more than design and build good furniture. Now I’m motivated to build the company. But whatever size we grow, our philosophy will always be the same — to offer the highest quality of service and furniture you can have.”

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