Mantel Manufacturer Finds a Niche Through E-Commerce Expansion
A+ Custom Mantelpieces thrives as an Internet spin-off of a local South Carolina maker of fireplace mantels.
By Hannah Miller
Can the Internet fan the flame of custom mantelpiece sales? After 2-1/2 years of taking customers’ electronically transmitted measurements and building mantels to their specifications, one entrepreneur says yes.
“Right now, I’m pretty happy with it,” says A+ Custom Mantelpieces’ owner Fred “Woody” Woodard of Cleveland, SC, who started the company as a spin-off from his employer, custom mantel maker Brees Manufacturing Inc. in Greenville, SC. Woodard is a manager for Brees, and he buys oak, birch and MDF mantels from the company for re-sale through A+’s Web site, www.custommantels.com.
The enterprise has the blessings of Brees’ owner Gene Brees, whose 18-year-old company sells some $1 million worth of mantels to individuals, distributors and custom builders, mostly in North and South Carolina, each year. Woodard, who went to work for Brees 16 years ago, approached the Internet as a way to expand the custom mantels market.
His first attempt, however, was not an overwhelming success, Woodard says. He commissioned a Web page that got his company on the Internet, but failed to sell mantels.
“Some months I didn’t even get a hit,” Woodard says. “I know how to build mantels. But I know hardly anything about the Internet.”
After a slow year of watching hits crawl along at 30 to 50 a month, he called a computer-savvy friend from college. “I said, ‘Jon, I’ve got this Web site. It’s a beautiful thing. But I can’t sell any mantels. What’s going on?’”
The friend, Jon Whited of Central, SC, reworked the site to give customers more direct access via an order form for both mantels and brochures, plus a measuring guide. With the first version of the Web site, interested homeowners had had to call the company to place an order.
Whited also made the site quick to navigate, so it is easy for surfers to move from pictures to prices to order forms. His design has landed A+ on the first page of several major search engines’ listing of fireplace mantels.
Now, a year and a half later, A+ gets 800 to 1,200 hits a month. It is selling about 150 custom mantels a year, with a basic price range of $180 to $875, unfinished, with shipping and handling $20 to $40 extra. Woodard’s wife has cut back her hours as a speech pathologist to handle Internet orders from their home.
“I get orders from people I haven’t even spoke to,” says Woodard. “I’ve got people on the Internet at one or two o’clock in the morning, looking at my Web site.”
A+ has sold mantels in New York, California and Colorado, he says, adding, “People in Japan want me to sell them mantels. People in Kuwait want me to sell them mantels.” He hasn’t yet decided whether to sell outside the United States, however.
Brees Manufacturing occupies a 14,000-square-foot shop on the second floor of a former textile mill. Gene Brees is a former cabinetmaking teacher who worked for major corporations for 10 years before starting his own woodworking company. He made and sold several different specialty items before taking mantels to a craft show. “I came away with 100 orders,” Brees recalls.
“That’s when he quit his day job,” Woodard adds. Woodard, a 10-year Air Force veteran who is now a master sergeant in the SC Air National Guard, joined the company two years after it started. “I had just enough experience so I wasn’t too cocky and I could learn the way they wanted things done around here,” he says.
Since the days when the Brees staff consisted of Brees, Woodard and one other employee, it has grown today to include Brees, Woodard and seven employees, some of them part-time. The company does its own installation within a 50-mile radius and sells to builders and distributors who do installation elsewhere in the Carolinas.
The initial idea for starting an Internet business came to Woodard from a New York woman who was visiting Greenville. She saw a Brees mantel and wanted to buy one, but the shop was too busy at the time, Woodard says. Later he got a phone call from her, saying, “Now I’m in New York. I still really want one of your mantels.”
The shop already had the capability to build mantels in several pieces for shipment and reassembly, because of its builder and distributor business. So Woodard took the order, the shop built the mantel, disassembled it and shipped it to New York. Intrigued by the possibilities of expanding into a wider market, Woodard later received a go-ahead from Brees to try Internet sales through his own A+ company.
The trick to making mantels for installation by customers is keeping it simple, Woodard says. A+ ships the mantels in four pieces — the two legs or pilasters, the mantel board or breastplate that connects them, and the shelf. Mouldings and trim are attached by glue and corrugated-nail gun to each piece before shipping. All a customer has to do is reach inside a hole in the back of the shelf, pull out a dozen or so screws packed there and insert them in the pre-drilled nail holes marked with arrows and circles.
“It may take them 20 minutes,” Woodard says. Usually the mantels are going into new homes under construction, so the customer’s carpenter can assemble them and attach them to the wall. Woodard is now preparing installation instructions for wall attachment, a chore he presently walks some customers through by phone.
Usually, the customer or his carpenter also does the finishing, which Woodard prefers. For an additional charge, A+ will stain and finish before shipment. But it does not do any painting.
Though the Internet site offers a measuring guide as well as an order form for both mantels and brochures, Woodard still ends up talking to most customers. “We spend extensive time with them teaching them how to measure,” he says.
The two main things customers want to know, he adds, are, “Can you custom-build to my specifications? (yes), and “What does this Letter G mean on your form?” (Letter G on the measuring guide asks customers to measure the depth of return or the thickness of the fireplace marble, plus the space between the marble and the sheetrock behind it. This lets A+ build the outer edge of the mantel so that it is flush against the wall, while the inner edge overlaps the marble.)
Customers choose from among 18 standard Brees styles in birch, oak or MDF. But they can mix elements from several styles if they want. Woodard has even designed custom mantels from pictures.
Mantels will be built in any size with little change in price, Woodard says. “The only time we change the price is if a customer adds something to it, if he says, ‘I want a medallion here,’ for example.”
Brees has kept prices relatively low by buying simple equipment and by reducing waste, Woodard says. “I buy a $1,000 saw and rig it up so I can use it, and I make the shop employees use as small a piece of wood as they can.”
When a customer chooses a style and size of mantel, Woodard draws up a cutlist. Employees Matt Green and Barbara Billingsley cut the lumber, using a tilting arbor table saw made by Transpower, with a Biesemeyer rip fence. Green also does the fluting on pilasters, using a Ryobi router attached to an Exac-T-Guide bought from Bradbury Industries.
Most mouldings and trim are outsourced, as are raised panels for the mantels that include them. Brees woodworkers cut mouldings to size using Black & Decker miter saws outfitted with jigs so that they function as compound miter saws.
A 12-inch Hitachi planer “is all we need for what we do,” Woodard says. Finishes are Minwax stains brushed on and covered with polyurethane. Mantels are hand-rubbed between coats.
Upon receiving the cut pieces of the frame, each woodworker builds a mantel start to finish, with everything he or she needs, including mouldings and trim, stacked near the miter saw and worktable.
“You know where we got this idea?” Woodard asks. “Taco Bell.” He says that he and Brees were eating at Taco Bell and Brees pointed out the way ingredients were lined up. “The lettuce is right here, the meat is right here, the cheese is right here. Gene said, ‘That’s how we want to build our mantels,’” Woodard says.
Despite this assembly-line approach, the woodworkers are craftsmen and sign their work on the back. If a mantel is built by, say, woodworker Ralph Dewley, “it kind of has Ralph’s flair to it,” Woodard says.
There are a few differences in the way A+ mantels and Brees mantels are built. “Things we normally would glue together for Brees, we won’t glue together for A+,” Woodard says. Also, if a piece of moulding would ordinarily go all the way across a joint, it’s cut at the joint with a miter saw for A+.
Since mouldings have to fit precisely when reassembled, whoever is building a mantel will check the fit by assembling it after completion. Then it is broken down into four parts for wrapping and shipping. UPS sent representatives to the shop to design shipping boxes and estimate how much bubble wrap and cardboard is needed for packing, Woodard says.
There are a few styles of Brees mantels that just don’t lend themselves to Internet sales, he adds. Some mirror frames and top panels are too big to ship, and plaster decorations tend to get broken.
Mindful that customers may be inexperienced at measurement and that they are buying a product sight-unseen, Woodard offers to buy back any mantel that a customer is not satisfied with.
“Sometimes there is a misunderstanding,” he says. So far, though, he has had to accept only one back, and that was because of a mistake on the part of the shop. It built the mantel in oak when the customer wanted it in birch. It made a second one of birch and made the swap.
Because A+ only accepts orders C.O.D. or with advance checks, and it takes more than a week for the C.O.D. checks to clear, “a customer has 10 days to look at it and decide if they absolutely love it,” Woodard says.
Usually, he adds, they do. “They are amazed. They will say, ‘Man, I can’t believe this mantel only cost $600.’”
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