Constant Improvements, Working Smart, Keep Southern Architectural on Top

This North Carolina company constantly reassesses itself in an effort to keep improving its efficiency.

By Hannah Miller

Southern Architectural Woodwork probably spends as much time figuring out how to improve processes and equipment as it does in actual woodworking, says Vice President and General Manager Frank Crachiolo.

Results of the woodworking are easy to see: paneling, moulding, doors and custom furniture in some of the highest-end commercial offices on the East Coast. The $8 million, 70-employee company in Columbia, SC, counts among its customers companies like Bank of America, Deloitte Consulting, Wachovia and multi-city law firms like Smith, Helms, Mulliss & Moore.

     
 
This conference table of anigre and maple with brass inlay was done for Capital Group Cos. In Washington, DC.  
     

But you have to know where to look to see the shop improvements: for example, the workbenches where lazy Susans deliver tools, the Homag edgebander which combines pre-milling, edgebanding and shaping, and the wall full of magnetic cards that show progress of each project at a glance.

Southern bends its energies toward shop improvement because it wants to become “better, faster, smarter,” Crachiolo says. It seeks improvement rather than increased sales volume, which has averaged about $8 million for the last five years.

“If we grow, fine. If we don’t, fine,” Crachiolo says.

What Southern is interested in is making a healthy profit while leaving customers awestruck at what it is able to do, he adds. It also wants to become so efficient that the ups and downs of the economy can’t derail it.

When the next downturn comes, Crachiolo predicts that Southern will be a survivor because it will have its processes perfected. “We have a prescribed way of doing everything,” he says.

Southern was started in 1983 by former Columbia carpenter Charles S. Porter III. He sold it late last year to Southerly’s LLC, a group of five investors with family connections to the owners of a venerable New York City woodworking firm, the John Langenbacher Co.

Southern has evolved from being a broad-based architectural woodworking firm doing residential and commercial work, to a company that focuses narrowly on the kind of corporate and commercial customers that appreciate and are willing to pay for what it has to offer.

“We do charge more than a lot of people. We have to find customers who understand why we’re charging more,” Crachiolo says. “It’s as much (for) service as it is product.”

One of Southern’s selling points is its involvement in planning, he says, “helping the designer understand how the woodwork integrates with other materials.

“What we value...is our ability from the engineering standpoint to take the designer’s ideas and figure out the best way to bring them to life,” he adds.

Southern is the only large-project architectural woodworking firm south of Washington, DC, that procures and lays up its own veneers in-house, Crachiolo says. This has gained a reputation for them. “We’re very painstaking,” he says.

For its veneer selection, possible vendors are chosen through samples, then Southern’s people go on-site to check entire logs, leaf by leaf. “We’ll sit there and flip them for hours. Trees are like people. Every one is different,” Crachiolo says. Southern makes not only its veneer faces, but all its other parts as well, he adds.

Another feature Southern is known for is its proprietary finishes, according to Crachiolo. “A lot of people say they want a furniture finish,” he says, but Southern thinks its finishes are better than those on a lot of furniture. It uses a Graco air-assisted airless system to spray catalyzed lacquers and conversion varnishes from Becker Acroma. The topcoat is applied in a clean room to discourage dust.

Crachiolo was interviewed in Southern’s conference room in its 50,000-square-foot building on the edge of Columbia. Conference room walls are covered in panels of quartered block mottled makore, all from the same tree. The conference table, with its gleaming, mirror-like finish is also of makore, this time crotch. The same wood, Crachiolo says, “just a different manifestation of it.”

     
 
A $1.4 million, five-story job for Transamerica in Charlotte, NC, included this room of block mottled makore, anigre, maple and ebonized wood.  
     

Shelves on the walls hold models representing solutions Southern has found for customers’ problems. One is a fire door, a code-required rated wood door with metal frame that separates the elevator-plumbing-electrical core of skyscrapers from surrounding offices. One side of the door matches the fabric and wood panels used throughout the office. When the door is open, it looks like just another panel. On the rare occasion that it would be closed, a hinged border of the door/panel lets it slip into position behind the wall.

Solutions are documented and filed in Southern’s library, Crachiolo says, so that they can tell other customers with the same problem, “here’s a solution to what you’re trying to do.”

Documentation extends to carefully drawn posters placed throughout the shop. One poster notes when every employee has completed certain classes, some taught in the shop, others at a local community college or at a veneer vendor’s place of business.

Based on job evaluations and classes completed, employees can rise through the ranks from apprentice to woodworker, to craftsman and then to master craftsman.

Southern divides 20 percent of its profits among employees each year and shares company financial information with them as well. “Employees don’t come to work saying, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Crachiolo says. “Everybody is educated in how we make money.”

The leadership at Southern has worked together for some 15 years, either there or at a shop where several of them were formerly employed, Crachiolo adds. “We are like a veteran football team,” he says. “Everybody knows the plays, and everybody knows where everybody else is going.”

Besides Crachiolo and production manager Steve Crawford, who runs the shop, long-standing employees include senior engineer Tony Milligan, draftsmen Wayne Peake and Dan Hogan, assembly foreman Chuck Butcher, finishing room foreman Andy Brown, project managers Dave Bolt and Jack Magradey, master craftsmen Rich Visser, Steve Tapping and Larry Miller and senior installation superintendent Joe Byington.

Those “veterans” are working to build a support staff of young people, Crachiolo says. The classes they complete contribute to that.

Other shop posters show carefully detailed drawings of parts, plus a code number and the name of the machine used to make the part. If somebody hasn’t made a part for six months, he can go to a poster and familiarize himself with what’s required.

Southern has standardized much of what used to be haphazard processes. Ten years ago, there were seven or eight ways to make a miter joint, several different machines were used and every woodworker used his own individual method. Now there are only three ways to do it, at three workstations, “and everybody does it the same way,” Crachiolo says.

   
Southern Architectural Woodwork did the paneling, doors, framed fabric panels and credenzas in this headquarters office for Goodrich in Charlotte, NC. Woods used were mahogany, sapele and crotch mahogany.  
     

“The more common language there is, the better it gets,” he adds.

One of the building’s most useful features is a steel panel installed in a wall by the company’s founder. The panel has been converted into what Crachiolo and Crawford call “the giant game board.” It shows the day-to-day work schedule of the company’s dozen assemblers, with each day’s body of work represented by a magnetic card. The cards are color-coded according to customer and are moved at the end of the day to show what remains to be done. Small green stick-on dots show whether materials like moulding are ready for an assembler’s use on a particular day.

“This works better than any computer,” Crachiolo says. An employee making mouldings can see that there are enough already on hand and, thanks to the cross-training he’s received, he can pitch in to help the assemblers.

One of the company’s key machines is a custom-made Homag edgebander, Crachiolo says. It premills, edgebands and shapes panels, doing the work of the former edgebander plus four shapers, he says. A Komo CNC router also is a workhorse. Operators take staggered breaks and lunch periods to keep it running nearly continuously, Crachiolo says. Other shop equipment includes a Griggio straight-line ripsaw, Weinig moulder, SCMI F120 shaper, Holzma Optimat CNC panel saw, Diehl seamer, Timesavers calibrator, Heeseman sander and Friz veneer press.

For their individual work stations, the 12 assemblers were asked what their “dream” workbench would be if they could have everything they wanted on it. They got their wish, a dozen benches with lazy Susans that store and deliver all the tools one person could need, Crachiolo says.

Such tool duplication is expensive initially, but worth the outlay in time saved, he adds. “You don’t have to walk around the shop to get something; in fact, with the lazy Susans, you don’t have to walk around the box.”

Southern hoards time and energy because it wants to spend it maintaining the kind of excellence that built its reputation and customer list. “Everybody here is very serious about it. We want to be absolute masters,” Crachiolo says.

Nothing is left to chance, or to outsiders. The company builds the woodwork, delivers it, installs it and finishes it. And if you are the customer, says Crachiolo, “when we walk away, you are absolutely delighted.”

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