Northbrook, IL-based Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. leverages a dedicated employee base, modern equipment and relationships that have grown and been maintained over the years to stay atop of the architectural millwork market.

The award-winning Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. has built, and sustains, a place in the high-end millwork market through its attention to detail and drive for customer satisfaction.

There’s a reason that the lobby walls at Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. are covered with awards: the company knows what it takes to compete in the high-end architectural millwork market.

The Northbrook, IL-based company has been fabricating high-end architectural millwork for the residential, commercial and retail markets since it was founded in 1965.

For Bernhard Woodwork’s discerning clients, quality is a must, and the company’s staff knows it.

“Where we excel and where we can compete is the quality, the service and the turnaround time,” says Mark Bernhard, president of Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. “We have the skilled people to get the job done extremely quickly, which in this market is very important.”

This is evidenced by the company’s “premium” grade quality certification from the Architectural Woodwork Institute, as well as winning one of seven grand prizes in the Association for Retail Environment’s 2008 Retail Design Awards.

“The Association for Retail Environments gave us one of seven grand prizes for all retail worldwide,” Bernhard adds. “I’m very proud of that.”

Since its founding in 1965, Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. has produced high-end architectural millwork for the commercial, residential and retail markets, including these display cases and store fixtures for Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end retail locations.

An Autonomous Workforce

According to Bernhard, the average employee has been with the company for 14 years, with several employees having been with the company for more than 35 years. Currently, the company employs 72, with 42 in manufacturing, 15 in the office and 15 in the field. The company will hire or contract out additional field employees for larger installations.

“We really want to recruit people who love this industry, want to stay in this industry and want to grow,” says Bernhard.

“We do the really complicated, difficult work,” he remarks. “If you truly love woodworking and have woodworking in your blood, then we give you the challenges here to work on.”

Manufacturing employees at Bernhard Woodwork go through a four-year apprenticeship program that is similar to the training programs found in German cabinet shops. They start by sanding and helping out, explains Bernhard, then move from one area to another for training, picking up the quality standards that are expected at the company.

“It really drills into their head what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Bernhard says. “We expect our people to work independently,” he says, adding that his employees are all adults and he trusts that they do not need close scrutiny.

That said, there is a plant foreman and a quality control foreman that walks through and certifies that everything is up to company standards.

“I’m happy to say it’s not a huge problem here. I [also] walk though the plant at least twice a day and I make sure that quality is up to snuff,” Bernhard says.

In addition to the apprenticeship program, Bernhard likes to send the employees out into the field from time to time to see how the products are installed. Also, a group of employees is taken to the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair U.S.A. every two years to gain a better perspective on the industry and the available technology.

“I want them to see the whole world out there. I want them to be educated. There’s nothing like going and physically seeing something,” he adds.

“Look at where technology has gone since I stared in the business until now — it’s huge. That’s why I try to send the guys out and let them educate themselves,” he adds.

Organic Growth in Technology

In 1987, the company purchased its first piece of CNC machinery, having purchased its first CAD program just prior to that. Since then, the company has remained on the forefront of technology.

“We’ve grown organically in technology, not in big leaps. It has to be continuous. If it’s not continuous and you don’t move forward, then you’re lost,” Bernhard says.

Today, the company uses a variety of machinery throughout its 100,000-square-foot shop. For sizing and shaping the pieces, Bernhard Woodwork turns to its two Weinig moulders, a Komo CNC router, a Schelling CNC panel saw, two Striebig (Colonial Saw) vertical panel saws and a Diehl ripsaw. Additionally, the company has a wide variety of equipment from Martin, including three shapers, three sliding panel saws, a joiner and a planer.

The company lays up and applies its own veneer using two Heesemann veneer sanders, a Josting guillotine, a Kuper veneer sticher (from Stiles Machinery), a veneer stitcher from Fischer+Rückle and an Ott veneer press.

Other equipment in the shop includes an Ott (Reibling) edgebander, an Oakley stroke sander, a conveyor finish line from Eisenmann, an Atlas Copco compressor, and a compressor and an air dryer from Kaeser.

“We’ve invested a lot of money [into technology] and we keep investing a lot of money,” says Bernhard. “You have to try to stay on top or ahead of the curve.”

“We’ve grown organically in technology,” says Mark Bernhard, president of Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. The company’s 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space is filled with the latest in woodworking technology.

Spreading the Word

With the quality produced by its highly trained employees and up-do-date machinery, much of the company’s business is generated through word of mouth and existing client relationships.

“I don’t do a lot of marketing,” Bernhard explains. “The best thing for us is the repeat business and word of mouth. I think that’s very common in our industry; it’s a relationship-based business and you have to be competitive.”

And despite the poor U.S. economy, the company continues to thrive, winning contracts for high-end work.

“The high-end clients that have money are still building and are still having work done,” he says.

Additionally, Bernhard adds, because of the weakened U.S. dollar, companies that had switched to sourcing their high-end millwork overseas are coming back to U.S. manufacturing — and coming back to Bernhard Woodwork.

It is due to the relationships that the company has built and maintained throughout the years that keep it going strong.

Part of the Community

As a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute, Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. knows the importance of being part of the woodworking community.

“Working as a community, there’s only to be gain from it. If you look at the great things that our associations do, like the cost of doing business survey, like the quality standards, they couldn’t be done if we didn’t work together as a woodworking community,” Bernhard says.

There have been many times when Bernhard Woodwork has opened its doors to other woodworkers who wanted to come in and see for themselves how the company does business.

“Most folks open their doors for others,” Bernhard explains. “I have a lot of woodworkers that I take on tours through our place.”

Conversely, Bernhard has been on many similar plant tours of other companies.

“As long as you’re willing to learn and willing to listen, there are a lot of things out there that you can learn from other folks,” says Bernhard.

“This is not a formulaic business; everyone has their own take on it. Everybody’s got their own philosophy. As similar as you think it is, there’s a lot of differences in how people approach woodwork,” he adds.

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