Chicago-Area Company Stages Remarkable Productions

A second shift helps Midwest Woodwork & Veneering turn out big custom jobs quickly.

By Greg Landgraf

Mike Joyce has finally renovated his one-time home, more than fifty years after moving out.

Joyce is president of Midwest Woodwork & Veneering Inc. His one-time home is Chicago’s Navy Pier, the former naval base where he was stationed in 1942. The renovation job was to turn the space where he once bunked into the new home of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which moved to the location in October, 1999.

 

     
     
 

While the top of the seven-flight staircase at the Shakespeare Theater starts out in a straightforward manner, lower flights might be more at home in an Escher drawing. Midwest cladded the staircase from 3-inch thick ash alotted for baseball bats and installed the work in three days.
 

Navy Pier, now one of the city’s major tourist attractions, features several examples of Midwest’s work. The company made the millwork for the Pier’s food court, as well as casework for the E.B. Smith Stained Glass museum. The latter job required about 160 cabinet boxes to hold the glass on display.

Joyce and Randy Smith, secretary/treasurer of the Carpentersville, IL-based company, say that a reputation for producing quality work on time is key in Midwest’s ability to land such high-profile jobs. “There are a lot of other people who could do it for the same price or less,” Smith says. “But it was our reputation that got us the job.”

“We really had to turn over quickly to get that job out on time,” Joyce adds. The company had less than three months’ lead time for the nearly $700,000 job.

Part of the 10-year-old company’s ability to make tight deadlines stems from a choice Joyce and Smith made early on. “Our second year in business here, we decided to set up two shifts,” Smith says. He adds that the company’s high overhead and limited shop space — 25,000 square feet for 75 employees — forces the company to find ways to get the most value out of what it has.

It took a couple of years to get the second shift up to speed. “We needed to find the right foreman to run it, the right staff that wanted to work it, and the right machines that were simplistic enough to run at night but sophisticated enough to make us money,” Smith says. The shift has grown from two employees when it started to 15 currently.

To build interest in joining the second shift, the company offers a 10 percent pay bonus and a modified schedule of four 10-hour days to night employees. While these perks are featured in the company’s “help wanted” ads, Midwest also allows current employees to move from one shift to another when there are openings.

“It’s a good selling point, too, if the client doesn’t think we can get the work done,” Joyce says. “We can tell them, ‘Oh, our night shift will take care of it.’”

That capability for speed shows through in a current job for an area school. In April, the general contractor sublet four schools to different companies, one of them to Midwest. With its second shift, Midwest delivered its goods in June, before the other companies delivered completed shop drawings.

Of Midwest’s $7 million in annual sales, a major portion is done in the Chicago area. About 90 percent is commercial rather than residential architectural woodwork.

 

     
     
   
    Midwest has done three jobs so far at Navy Pier, including building booths for a food court expansion that was installed in June. Joyce credits plant supervisor Mike Wright’s efforts and skill for being able to produce the booths in three weeks.

The latter figure will change, however, as Midwest enters a new market. The company plans to enter the residential cabinet arena, focusing on the growing market for other-room cabinets like home office furniture, entertainment centers and fireplace surrounds.

“We already have all these tools — why not venture into that market?” Smith says.

The company anticipates its speed will also be a prime asset as it diversifies. When necessary, the smaller residential jobs can go from shop drawings to finished product in a week or less. “If we have to, we can fast-track anything,” Smith says.

The company plans to develop this market through existing connections with designers and by advertising to end users, recognizing that there will be a significant transition in working directly with end users rather than general contractors. “The drawings we are used to supplying to builders and architects are way too much information for a homeowner,” Joyce says. “They want to see a picture and know how big the piece is going to be, what wood and what color, and that’s it.”

Presenting this design information properly to residential clients is the job of Bob Dunlap, who was hired to take charge of the new division devoted to residential pieces. Dunlap came to the company with experience in residential casework. The company hopes residential work will eventually account for $1 million in annual sales.

The shop opened in 1991 with a Delta Unisaw table saw from Smith’s garage. Since then there have been many new equipment purchases, several through equipment auctions.

“You can buy new equipment when you are starting out,” Smith says, “but that will put you out of business when you are undercapitalized.”

The gem of the company’s auction finds so far is a Heesemann MFA 8 widebelt sander purchased for $80,000, which Joyce says is about half the machine’s typical cost. “It had probably only been used for a week before the company decided to go out of business,” Joyce says. The sander reads each piece’s thickness to prevent sand-through and has two perpendicular belts to accommodate sealer sanding. A recently added 14-foot Schelling FW CNC panel saw was also purchased at auction.

Other shop equipment includes an SCMI Model Z-32 panel saw, two Weinig moulders and a Rondamat knife grinder, a Mattison straight-line machine to give hardwood boards a straight edge, and a recently purchased Wood Power Products self-feeding wood chopper, which has allowed the company to downgrade from a 30-yard waste bin to a five-yard one.

Midwest uses a guillotine trimmer to straighten veneer edges, a Kuper stitcher to assemble veneer sheets and a V Berthelsen hot press for veneer and laminate panels.

The company makes extensive use of veneer, plastic laminate and solid surface material, which it uses in 1/8-in. pieces laminated to particleboard. “They price it by thickness, so an eighth-inch is much more cost-effective than a half-inch,” Joyce says.

The finishing room uses Binks and Graves spray guns and pumps. It also makes use of an overhead track with clips that hold pieces to be sprayed for sealer and finish coats. They rotate so both sides can be finished at the same time.

 

       
       
   
  The lobby of the Ty Inc. world headquarters in Westmont, IL, features kevazinga veneer. Ty’s management didn’t want any glue seams in the curved reception desk, so it uses a single leaf of veneer 14 feet long and 29 inches wide at the wide end.    

The shop converted to AutoCAD in 1996 and now runs six stations equipped with AutoCAD 2000. For installations, it prints out life-sized drawings to tape to the floor. “That way, you can’t go wrong,” Joyce says. “It has to be right.”

The shift from paper drawings to AutoCAD was difficult, but it did afford the opportunity for staff development. The company hired Scott Kunze directly out of high school to run the department. Kunze knew AutoCAD from school but nothing about woodworking.

The youth movement also shows through during the summer months, when the company hires high school students for positions they can legally perform, like loading trucks. Smith says the company has put a lot of work into developing young, “impressionable” workers, even though some of them have never held a job before and need to learn the responsibility that goes into it.

That’s not to say the company abandons its long-term employees. The business relationship between the two principals, for example, started in 1976, when Smith answered an ad Joyce placed in a Neenah, WI newspaper. Smith answered the ad on Saturday and began a four-year apprenticeship Monday. Their career paths crossed at other points before the two joined up to start Midwest in 1991.

Many current employees were co-workers at the shop Joyce and Smith worked at before starting Midwest. “When that shop closed, they had some very good men,” Joyce says. “We knew those people, so we picked the cream of the crop, and that’s how we got started here.”

In an era when it’s difficult for woodworking companies to find the manpower to cover one shift, let alone two, Joyce and Smith attribute their success at hiring and retaining good people to a spirit of teamwork and the standardization of procedures at the company. “We pay employees the going rate, send them to seminars, belong to AWI, and take them to meetings,” Joyce says. “We try to keep them updated in what’s going on.”

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