Ohio company provides clients with more than just the basics.

 

In 1968 Creative Cabinets Systems Inc. began as a small custom kitchen cabinet shop in Greenville, OH. Today, the company has left behind its local residential work in favor of producing custom mid- to high-end commercial architectural millwork and store fixtures nationwide.

This change, however, did not take place overnight. For several years the company tried to blend both its commercial and the residential work, but found it increasingly difficult to do so. The problem was that each area had different needs and it was like running two totally different businesses. So about 10 years ago, the decision was made to focus solely on just one area, commercial. "As the company developed, we found that the larger we grew, the harder it was to compete for smaller jobs," says CEO Dan Riegle.

This center fixture is considered to be a focal point in the store.

Such a decision has allowed the company to focus all of its attention on large projects like the sky boxes at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. In addition to the suites, Creative Cabinets also did the bars and concourse areas, as well as panels for the multiple floor atriums. "We got letters of recommendation from the contractor for that project," notes Riegle.

Architectural millwork is just one facet in the company, the other being store fixtures. Riegle says, "On the architectural side, we find that we are trying to align ourselves with bigger construction managers who do the actual bid packages. On the retail side, however, the process is very different. These jobs are typically done by invitation only from the owner."

Between these two areas, shop drawings and schedules can vary to the extremes. "The retail work is on a different velocity. It is quick, typically, and reactionary. However, in architectural work we typically have a longer period of time [to get things done], but the documentation is much more severe," Riegle says. "Our business is about 50/50 or 60/40 between millwork and store fixtures in any given year."

Some store fixtures that the company manufactures include gondolas, cash wraps, tables, showcases and back islands, as well as perimeter items like bunkers, shams, shelving and cornice work. These items are made from plastic laminate or wood products and are generally interfaced with other media like glass, metal, acrylic and solid surface material.

"We have seen a lot more wood come back into play recently, as opposed to plastic laminates," Riegle notes. Other trends he sees in the industry right now are the use of multiple products in a fixture and fixtures where function is just as important as design - like kiosk booths in the mall that have been integrated with technology. "Nowadays, people want products that can do more than just display items," says Riegle.

The median store fixture package price is typically $400,000+, according to Riegle. Creative Cabinets produces mid- to high-end fixtures for high-end department stores and also does program packages (a.k.a. rollouts) for chain and service stores. Program work consists of making hundreds of one type of fixture or item for a few dozen stores at a time. However, the company can (and does) work on several different styles of "fixtures and items" at the same time, which will be placed in different areas throughout each store.

Although the company does not solicit small jobs per se, it does not turn away requests from tried-and-true customers. Riegle says, "If a client of ours comes to us and wants to do a small $100,000 package (for example), we will not turn them away. If it is somebody that we are doing business with or have done business with, then we are more than happy to accommodate them."

The fixtures and perimeter work at this communications store an example of a rollout program.

New projects are acquired by word of mouth, repeat business and reputation. Riegle says his customers come to Creative Cabinets, because they demand quality goods, and the company does not skimp with materials and accessories to save money, unless a client specifically requests they do so. Creative Cabinets believes value is more important, and price is not the single most important factor in a job, says Riegle.

The company will help a client develop an initial idea into a real working product with design and function. "If there is a cost problem, then we will make changes and recommendations for different materials. We try to take care of things right away," he says. This is what the company refers to as "value engineering," a practice that helps reduce overall costs for a client.

Designing this way enables the company to maintain a high standard of quality, while honoring original design intent, so the end product looks the same and functions the same as its costlier counterpart. For example, wood veneer can be used in place of solid wood, or using one joint style over another can save a client a considerable sum of money.

Providing turnkey work is another way the company has added value to its final product. For example, Creative Cabinets will do light painting or wallpapering around a store fixture's perimeter.

"The demands for the store fixture industry are tough," says Riegle. "There is always going to be someone out there who can do it for less. What we try to do is sell value as a complete turnkey manufacturer. We offer extra things to our clients from a customer service standpoint that a lot of other companies just don't offer."

"We are pretty reactionary to our clients' needs and requests. Whatever has to be done we do. From a value standpoint, the quality that we maintain - over and above the industry norm - is pretty high," Riegle says.

The company also does almost all of its own installations and everything needed on site to complete the job properly. Creative Cabinets even owns a small fleet of trucks, which it uses for hauling finished products to locations that are close in range. Otherwise, semi-trucks are hired to haul the larger loads that are sent farther away.

Different schedules for the store fixture and millwork industries prove to be demanding on the company. "We live in a fast-paced world where people want to place their orders at the front and pick them up in the rear," says Riegle. "It is just the way it is and it's not going to change, so you either accept it or get run over. We have adapted our processes accordingly and are structured to go forward and meet clients' demands."

One way the company accomplishes this is to appoint a project manager for every project and furnish the manager with all of the resources readily available to complete each project. The company then assigns every job a number, which allows it to be tracked from its creation to its completion with ease.

The makeup counter at this high-end department store features showcases and back islands that Creative Cabinets manufactured.

Shop drawings are created in-house for each project. Cutting and milling work is done at the Arcanum, OH, main production facility, along with most assembly and finishing. Some light assembling and fabricating work is done at the company's two other locations in Greenville, OH.

Among the three locations, the company has 112,000 square feet and has an additional 75,000-square-foot addition in the planning stages right now. It employs 88 people and runs two shifts daily to maximize the output of its large machinery, which includes a Homag CH12 panel saw, a Weeke BP100 CNC (both use Pattern Systems software for cutting and optimization), an Altendorf F-45 sliding table saw, a Midwest Press panel layup and a Brandt KD85 edgebander.

This year the company anticipates reaching $12 million in sales. Just four years ago, Creative Cabinets' annual sales were at $2 million, jumping to $8 million two years later and $9.5 million last year. However, it is the company's policy not to let all of this growth take away from what makes it stand above its competition - its open door policies and its small business management mentality.

"We were a small company at one time and we try to keep some of that mentality about us," Riegle says. "There are certain things that we really want to emphasize, and one is to not become bureaucratic. We try to keep things to a minimum. There is a supervisor at every level but the focus is on getting a quick resolution for any situation. Most people have a direct line to me or whoever they need answers from. We have an open door policy and [as a company] we want this to be the best place our associates have ever worked. We want them to have time off, have a good home life and take vacations."

Riegle tries to make a point to learn every associate's name at all three facilities. He maintains that efforts like these go a long way in creating a successful corporation with a close-knit atmosphere.

Right now the company has a strong foothold in an industry that has seen many acquisitions and consolidations by umbrella companies. In the last four to five years, the industry has also seen the loss of many good millwork and casegoods manufacturers that could not be financially competitive.

With so many mitigating factors in today's market, Creative Cabinets took action to protect itself by diversifying its work portfolio to remain strong. Riegle says, "There is always a place for quality fixtures and millwork. Sometimes we need to get more work, like any company, but that is why we have made the conscious decision to diversify. We made the decision to do both retail and architectural, and that takes some of the bumps out of the road [during slow periods]. We try to structure our work load according to our core capabilities."

Creative Cabinets currently has all of its shop leaders reading "The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement" by Eliyah M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. It is a story that identifies the bottom line in manufacturing and teaches how to improve throughput by identifying and solving problems created by constraints.

The company also tracks productivity levels each week with work schedules that are based on budgeted hours, pre-determined for each job, thus allowing the company to track all of the peaks and valleys that affect its bottom line. "That is one of our key measures from a management standpoint," Riegle says, adding that, "the success of the business is a result of the people who are working here. Our whole emphasis is on service and the quality of the products that we make here. There is also an emphasis on doing things right. If we make mistakes, we don't drag our feet about making the corrections and we don't get hung up on affixing blame.

" Instead," he says, "we try to make the corrections while a product is in the production phase, because typically it is not a people problem, it is a process problem. We always try to solve the problem first and not let our customer suffer because of it. As we have come down the path over the last few years, our problems have become fewer. We have become more reactionary and flexible and that makes us stand out when compared with others [in the industry]."

Once the 75,0000-square-foot addition is completed, Creative Cabinets plans on doubling its machinery inventory and hiring more people to increase its overall production. If the company needs more space, it will rent space, so that when the increased work load decreases, it will be able to reduce its overhead without incurring financial loss.

Looking to the future, Creative Cabinets will maintain its conservative approach to growth. Riegle says the company "has fall-back positions, but we do not want to implement these unless it is necessary." He also says that five-year plans are okay, but unless you are revisiting them every six months, then they are not much use.

Riegle predicts that the store fixture industry will continue on a flattening trend for awhile before it bounces back, but at the same time he expects the the architectural millwork industry to remain constant.

If necessary, the company will focus its efforts in this area to ride out the bumps in the store fixture industry. "We will continue to align ourselves with bigger architectural millwork projects, [and may even consider tapping into new territory] like hospitality. But we will not [tap into these] unless our core competencies are good enough to accommodate these special growth areas," he says.

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