Versatility Powers Fixture Manufacturer
Being able to build store fixtures in a variety of shapes, wood species and other materials has led to Bruewer Woodwork's growth in size and sales.
By Sam Gazdziak
Where many companies have found success by specializing on one aspect of the woodworking industry, Bruewer Woodwork Mfg. Co. has succeeded by not specializing in anything. Rather, the company and its employees are diversified enough to tackle almost any store fixture or architectural millwork job, whether it is laminate work, solid surfacing, veneers or solid woods.
Bruewer Woodwork, of Cleves, OH, had been strictly a millwork shop until it started doing projects for Lenscrafters around 15 years ago. That relationship and many others have continued to the present day, to the point that store fixtures take up 70% of Bruewer's work, which generates about $15 million in sales annually.
"That's probably been the best part and created most of the growth of the company," says Ralph Bruewer, who runs the company along with his brother Gary. "When one industry is down, the other is up, and we can flip-flop back and forth. Our employees are used to doing an architectural job and a fixture job, one right behind the other, and we don't jeopardize any quality from one to the other."
Growth has been so strong for Bruewer Woodwork that the company more than doubled the size of its facility in 1998, expanding from 72,000 to 165,000 square feet. The expansion has helped the company in several ways, especially by adding room for warehousing.
"It's notorious that we were finished and we were sitting here with a huge project, and the job site wasn't ready," Bruewer says. "That was the biggest hindrance we found with our growth. As our plant filled up, we had things stacked everywhere, and there was no room to work. You had guys working around finished products." Now that the company has enough space, employees can work more efficiently, and finished fixtures for companies including Bloomingdales, Macy's and May Co. can be stored away for shipment.
Bruewer Woodwork was founded as a one-man shop in 1963 by Ralph and Gary's father, August, who was a master craftsman in cabinetmaking in his homeland of Germany. August's sons took over the company upon his retirement in 1985, and the company now totals about 85 employees.
Bruewer Woodwork manufactures loose fixtures for its clients, although it also does perimeter work on some occasions. One of its current jobs is manufacturing about 1,000 loose fixtures for a three-story Bloomingdales in Boca Raton, FL. "A lot of it is exotic veneers: wenge, sucupira, even some man-made veneers," says Jeff Wessel, project engineer. "Even the walnut on the project is Australian walnut, not American."
Bruewer Woodwork also uses many different species of solid wood, which creates other problems. It is getting makore shipped directly from Africa, due to a shortage in the United States. Other species, like anigre or purpleheart, are very tough on the tooling. Still, Bruewer thinks other manufacturers are going to have to turn to other, non-traditional species for their jobs.
"One of the things the fixture industry needs to work on is finding a substitute for maple," he says. "Within the last five years, it has geared everything to maple and clear maple. In the coming year, it is going to be a serious problem. They are actually logging trees that are 14 inches in diameter. That's nothing. The species needs a break, big time."
Bruewer Woodwork's projects have required a mix of many different materials. For example, one Active Wear store needed painted wood, glass and powder-coated metal for its display tables. Another fixture had a large video tower behind smoked glass. The dressing rooms were round and double-decked and were made of fiberglass. ("It was the same stuff you would use on a barn on a farm," jokes Bruewer.)
"It integrated every facet of the business -- metal, glass, fiberglass, painting powder coating, solid surface, rubber feet -- everything." Wessel says. "At the same time I was laying these out on AutoCAD, our metal supplier was fabricating parts. It flowed perfectly."
"We were engineering, fabricating, ordering materials, all at the same time," Bruewer says. "It was totally backwards from how we normally do it. That job finish date is it, so you work back from there, and you already know there's not enough time for engineering, not enough time for approval, there's barely enough time to get the metal and the wood together. So, we're going to start ordering the metal and glass, and building, and everybody has got to talk. There was a lot of communication needed to pull it off."
Bruewer Woodwork was able to engineer and manufacture the store fixtures in five weeks. It has an affiliate company, Universal Installations Plus Inc., to install its finished products.
The Bruewer facility has been carefully planned to make sure projects can flow as smoothly as possible. It is possible for the company to take large, million-dollar jobs and break them apart. The facility is divided into several different departments -- milling, machining, solid surface, custom, modular and finishing -- and each department has its own supervisor.
At the start of a project, the millwork department grinds knives and runs the needed mouldings on a Weinig Hydromat moulder.
In the machining department, case goods for projects are entered into Pattern Systems software, which downloads the information to Holzma and SCMI rear-loading panel saws. From there, panels can go to one of two Stefani edgebanders, one of which is a 55-foot-long machine that can edgeband PVC, plastic laminate, 3mm, 5mm and solid wood up to one inch thick. Bruewer has three Busellato point-to-point machining centers from Delmac Machinery Group to get the parts ready for assembly. The custom department also has an offline Homag panel saw for its panels.
"The stuff is being machined at the same time as the millwork is going on, and all those parts meet up for the guys on the bench," Bruewer explains. "Jeff and Bill (Fellinger, plant foreman) make a decision on whether it goes to custom or it goes to modular." The custom cabinetmakers do the one-offs, while large rollouts, like a recent 300-table order for the May Co., go directly to the modular department.
Bruewer says that everything his company does is made to order, so the modular supervisor changes the department's workstations for each job. The modular department has a manual conveyor, so workpieces can be pushed from employee to employee until they are ready for finishing and shipping.
Another growing market for Bruewer Woodwork has been building wood surrounds for interactive kiosks, developed through a joint venture with NCR Corp. The kiosks have gone into places as varied as Einstein Bagels and the 1996 Republican National Convention. Bruewer provides everything from the birch paneling to the gas struts; when the kiosks ship, all that is missing is the PC, printer and monitor.
In spite of all the work that the company has, Bruewer says he is still looking for new clients. "We don't just go out to do one job for a client," he says. "We want to create long-term relationships with them. We have been working with some of our clients for 10 to 15 years."
Although the company is booked almost through the second quarter of 2000, it is able to act quickly if a new job comes along, Bruewer says. "Jeff will go out and pull a group of guys together who are willing to put in extra time. Maybe it's a Saturday, maybe it's a half-day Sunday. It's got to be a commitment from everybody, but we do reward the 10 or 12 guys it took to get the job done. A lot of times, these projects are from our existing clientele, and you really can't tell them GÃÆÃâ¡ÃÆÃÂ¿no.' Sometimes no is not an answer."
Bruewer Woodwork has more than enough current and future work to keep growing. It has implemented an apprenticeship program to make sure the company has enough employees up to the task. Apprentices are brought in and trained by five of the company's journeyman cabinetmakers for up to a year each. By the end of the fifth year, Bruewer hopes to have an employee capable of working on any project.
"The machines can only do so much," he says. "They can cut the parts, machine the parts, and get them ready to put together. But you have to have the hands, and they've got to be qualified, to put the stuff together and finish it out in a quality fashion."
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