By Mike Wilson

Baton Rouge-based Wells Woodworks went from producing cabinets to making doors, which has caused former cabinetmaking competition to become their customers.

Wells Woodworks' switch to cabinet door production required extensive investments in new equipment, as well as a new building.

James Loyd Wells Jr. left his high-school mechanical drawing class in good standing, but with few drafting skills. That is because the teacher, who knew about Wells' already-extensive woodworking experience, let the young woodworker ditch class to build his personal kitchen cabinets.

"I got good grades in that class," Wells says. "But I have zero mechanical drawing abilities."

The teacher's cabinets are just one of many projects Wells built during 20-plus years of cabinetmaking. He grew up helping at his father's woodworking shop and eventually started his own company, Baton Rouge-based Wells Woodworks, Inc. The shop grew steadily since opening in 1983, despite a competitive Louisiana cabinetmaking market, Wells says.

A lack of skilled labor, area shortages of cabinet doors and local cabinetmaking competition, however, recently caused Wells and his company to take a completely different direction. Although Wells Woodworks still “picks and chooses” some cabinet jobs, its primary focus became cabinet doors in April 2007.

“It’s been running me ragged, but I’m really excited about it,” Wells says. “I had to get into a whole new field, as far as equipment goes.”

Despite the pressures of change and growth, the family-owned business has kept its roots. Office Manager Erica Crawford said family is always number one when working for Wells Woodworks.

Local Cabinet Climate

Wells says his company used to make its own doors when producing cabinets, but stopped after he realized it was more efficient to outsource. When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, however, those outsourced doors the company relied on became scarce, he adds.

“There was an immediate need for housing,” Wells says. “Everything around here immediately sold. I was getting two (kitchen) jobs a week from one contractor I was working with. Nobody could keep up with the demand for doors. They kept taking (our) orders and kept getting further behind.”

The company was also having difficulties hiring and maintaining a skilled labor force, Wells adds. The shortage of labor and the door drought were two major factors that finally pushed Wells Woodworks into the components business.

“Making the doors required less skilled labor,” Wells says. “It was easier to train someone with no woodworking background to operate the equipment.”

The final factor in the decision was the more than 100 cabinetmaking shops in the area, which made for a large potential client pool, Wells says. Making doors could turn those competitors into potential customers.

Making the Change

The cabinetmaking business was housed in a 3,700-square-foot facility, and Wells bought an identically sized building to house the new door shop. He then had to buy new equipment.

After plenty of research and his first trip to an AWFS show, Wells bought a straight line ripsaw, a 20-inch planer, a panel saw, an upcut saw, and a shape and sand machine, a hopper-fed machine, and a stand-alone cope machine.

“Before I got into the door business, I had everything paid off,” Wells says. “So what do I do? I go to the bank and ask to borrow a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He says he chose the equipment with growth in mind. Production averages around 70 to 80 doors a day, but the equipment has the potential to build 500 doors daily. Employees were told about the changes, and many decided to stay with the company. However a few felt the work would be too monotonous, Wells says. He helped those employees find different cabinet jobs and hired new help. The company now has 12 employees.

Wells then began learning to utilize his shop’s new equipment.

“It’s been a learning experience,” he says. “I knew how to build a door, but had to learn to run the equipment to make it make money. It takes a lot of cabinet doors to make any money.”

Since larger-scale door manufacturers set prices low for high-quality doors, Wells says he must continually improve the efficiency of the shop to compete. He often works on the floor himself, constantly looking for ways to break bottlenecks in the manufacturing process.

One example was his recent purchase of a radio frequency gluer to improve drying times. If a panel split while it was being cut, someone would have to go back, glue another panel, let it sit, then remember to finish that door later to complete the order.

“It was a nightmare messing up one door in the middle,” Wells says. With the new gluer, an employee can glue, plane and sand the panel quickly, then continue manufacturing the door order.

Eliminating mistakes is another one of Wells’ goals to increase shop profits. He is emphasizing to employees the importance of catching mistakes in the panel phase of production as opposed to later stages.

“If you mess up one door, you’ve eaten the profit on four doors,” he says. “It’s easier to throw away a board than throw away the whole door.”

The company has made their door shop into a division of Wells Woodworking called Cabinet Doors of Baton Rouge for marketing purposes.

Growth and Future Outlook

The company began advertising its new door business using flyers, faxes, phone calls and personal visits. Wells Woodworks also created a Web site to inform people of the switch, says Erica Crawford, office manager.

In September, Wells Woodworks separated the door shop as a division of the business, naming it Cabinet Doors of Baton Rouge. The change was made to enable potential customers to recognize its products online, Wells says.

Currently, the business has about 40 cabinet shops as clients and is adding about two to three customers a week, Wells says. Most of the growth is coming from word-of-mouth recommendations between local cabinet shops, thanks to the convenience of a local door shop, the company’s quick turn around for orders and its ability to fill both large and small orders.

“We have been getting a giant influx (of orders) for three doors of this, four doors of that,” Wells says. “We have people specifically build those jobs and walk it through step-by-step.”

The time to fill an order is seven business days, but it is currently taking an average of five, Crawford says. The business occasionally accommodates jobs on very tight deadlines, which also helps separate it from the competition, she adds.

His prior experience as a cabinetmaker has helped sell doors to customers, because of his complete understanding of the client’s needs, Wells says. Customers even pick his brain for tips.

“I know what they have to deal with,” Wells says. “So many guys sit behind a desk and don’t know how to solve a problem, they don’t know how to make two parts come together.”

Wells also sees opportunity for his company for expansion in the future. For example, adding a CNC machine would allow the business to do MDF doors, which are in high-demand locally, he says, but he is waiting for more door business before purchasing new machines.

The company still produces some cabinets to help pay for shop overhead as the door business grows. Wells says eventually he hopes to have enough business to concentrate completely on doors.

“We need to be at the 100-door-a-day range to make money, and we’re still short,” Wells says. “We’re right at the breaking point, covering all the bills, but not making any money off it.”

Current growth is putting the business on track, however, and there is still a large, untapped group of potential clients in the area, he adds. "We started with less than a dozen customers and now have a base of more than 40 in a 6-month span. At that rate, the future looks pretty bright."

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