New Machinery at Custom Cabinets Co. Marks an Investment in the Future

This small Wisconsin shop upgraded to high-tech equipment to keep up with a booming commercial market.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Faced with a booming economy, heavy work commitments and a shrinking pool of qualified workers, Custom Cabinet Co. Inc. "took the plunge," according to Gene and Larry Gruber, brothers who own the Green Bay, WI, company. Gene Gruber sums it up this way: "The company, founded by my father and mother, is 32 years old. Basically, we have done business the same way for 28 years. But in the last four years we have seen a technological 'explosion' in the way we have upgraded the shop and improved our processes. It has been a kind of technological blur, but well worth it."

 

One of Custom Cabinets' high-profile clients is the Green Bay Packers football team. The company recently built this reception desk for the team's Media Relations Office. It features a custom laminate from Wilsonart, which was created by a relatively new process that used digital technology to reproduce the Packers' logo and the years of the team's title wins. The artwork for the laminate was designed by Paul Martzke of Berners-Schober & Associates, the architect on the project.

The company's work is all custom, most of it commercial casework, some residential casework and a small portion of millwork. Commercial work includes schools, hospitals, dental clinics and banks. Its client list features some high-profile names, among them the Green Bay Packers, Proctor and Gamble, and Fleet Farm.

The company's first major new machinery purchase was in April 1997 when it installed a horizontal beam saw, a Holz-Her Model CA80. "The beam saw has been a tremendous help to us. In the past, panel processing was a log jam. Prior to the beam saw installation, we used five table saws. We still have them, but they are not part of our production line," says Gene. "We use the horizontal beam saw to cut panels to size. That work used to be done by three different employees on saws and what once took 10 hours a day, now can be done by one man in a fraction of the time. When we first bought the beam saw, it seemed like such a huge investment. But we soon found it was making money for us and that helped justify purchasing more machinery, such as our Busellato Optima machining center from Delmac Machinery Group, installed and running since early 1999, and a Holz-Her SE1436 edgebander."

The company employs seven workers full time in the shop. The Grubers' sister Sue supervises the office, working as a bookkeeper/manager and, in her words, "pays for all these new toys."

"The new equipment has a lot to do with our being able to expand with just seven employees," says Larry. "We find it difficult to hire qualified people. Our business was growing and we made the decision to get some high-powered equipment to help us keep up with the work. Our production process is now as streamlined as it can be for what we do, which is custom in every sense of the word. Every job is run on a custom basis. There are no batches as a rule, although if we can run jobs together as a batch, we certainly do. Each job is run on its own and gets individual attention.

"Our fear of buying expensive machinery was overcome with the beam saw purchase," he adds. "After we realized it was making money for us, it justified the purchase of the machining center."

Asked if the new machinery saves steps and time, Gene points to the computer in his office and says, "The whole process starts here. I select the cabinets for a job from Pattern Systems' Product Planner and from there export them to Cut Planner, which creates patterns for our beam saw. The beam saw cuts panel stock to size. Then the sized parts go to the machining center for processing. It does in one step what used to take three steps on three separate machines. The machining center drills construction holes for Confirmat fasteners, as well as holes for shelving, drawer slides and the like. It also minimizes handling while greatly increasing accuracy."

Gene credits the new machinery for increasing assembly speed, too. "Everything that comes off those machines is right on the button as far as size and accuracy. It is definitely part of a whole process that has improved our production and product."

The brothers said the edgebander paid for itself in a year. "I can't imagine anyone being competitive in this business without an edgebander. With the machining center, you have to have a volume business to make it profitable," says Gene.

"The new machines have changed the way we build cabinets," adds Larry. "Before the installation of the machining center, we ran parts on a line drill and shaper and then assembled using stapling and hand screwing into holes that were pre-drilled. Now it is a complete process, and instead of staple and screw construction for assembly we use Confirmats."

 

The company's biggest single project to date, completed last year, was for the Prevea Clinic, located in St. Mary's Hospital in Green Bay, WI. The job included this reception desk in maple solid woods and veneers, plus nurses stations and examination room cabinetry.

Gene describes the machining center as a versatile machine. "It can do anything. It can cut the pattern for anything I can draw. The way it makes money for us is by processing cabinet parts and allowing us to make them faster. That is our 'bread and butter.' If I have 500 cabinet ends to put through the machine, that will be more profitable than doing a single weird shape. But having the ability to do unusual cuts is also a big plus.

"After we first set up the machine, we had a big job that posed some interesting problems because of the unusual arcs in the designs," he adds. "Our first 'test' of the new machine was with the arches, and everyone in the shop stood and watched it work and said 'Wow! This is something else.' Parts are machined to perfection, and then they fit together perfectly."

Gene says the company had long thought about computerizing operations, and after reading about the benefits of computerization and talking with salesmen and seeing demonstrations at trade shows, they decided to take the plunge. "And we have never looked back," says Larry.

"The last few years have been so busy that without the machinery, we would never have been able to do what we do. We have a core of very talented people here who we value. Our 'rookie' has been with us for six years, and we have two men who have worked here all 32 years. So we are grateful to have very qualified employees. The machinery frees them up to do other important things," says Larry.

"We have seven employees now and could use more, but there is a big problem today hiring good workers," he adds. "Masons, electricians, plumbers, carpenters - any company involved in trades across the board is having trouble hiring people. When my Dad was running the business, he had 15 men working in the shop. You had the option back then to use a lot of inexpensive tools and a number of employees to run them. Now we have a few expensive tools and a smaller group of talented people to run them."

Another compelling reason for making the move to computer-controlled machinery is the Grubers' belief that you must change with the times. "You cannot afford to stagnate in any type of business," they say.

Other equipment in the shop includes five Delta Unisaws, a Ritter line drill and Porter-Cable belt sanders, routers and other portable power tools. "A guy with a well-equipped garage shop has what we have here, once you get past the high-technology machines," jokes Larry.

The past summer's hectic routine of working for three different local school systems underscored the need for a streamlined shop. "Without the new machinery and production process, we never would have attempted to take on that volume of work. Schools have a small window of time when you can do their work. You have to adhere to their schedule. We felt confident we could meet deadlines, and we did," says Gene.

"The size of the projects we have undertaken more than the projects themselves has changed," says Larry. "Right now, I am bidding a job for 37 display boards, and the machining center has been very helpful in allowing us to bid competitively."

 

Gene, left, and Larry Gruber are co-owners of Custom Cabinets, which was started by their parents 32 years ago. Their sister, Sue, is bookkeeper/office manager.

Gene says that much of the company's work features plastic laminate cabinets with melamine interiors. It gets a lot of repeat work, Gene says, including jobs for the three local school districts and all the convenience stores that Fleet Farm is building. Most work is in a 60-mile radius of the shop, but the Fleet Farm jobs require installations as far away as Fargo, ND. Last year, annual sales were about $1.1 million, Larry says.

One client that sparks the interest of any Wisconsin football fan is Custom Cabinets' work for the Green Bay Packers headquarters at Lambeau Field. The company recently made a reception counter for the team's Media Relations Office. It incorporates the famous Packer logo and all the dates of the title wins using a custom laminate from Wilsonart, which it got through its distributor, Alpine Plywood Corp. in Milwaukee.

"We have done a lot of work for the Packers over the years," says Larry, "as well as for Proctor and Gamble and our local schools and hospitals. We have always done some residential work, but we spend most of our time working for our regular commercial clients."

 

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