A Partnership Pays Off

While helping its clients grow, Design Fabricators has become one of the largest store fixture manufacturers in the country.

By Sam Gazdziak

In 1989, Design Fabricators Inc. was a manufacturer of mall amenities that had started to branch into store fixtures. Three years later, the Lafayette, CO-based business started making custom fixtures and furniture for a small coffee shop chain that was looking to expand its market. That coffee shop chain was Starbucks.

Nine years later, Starbucks is a household name, with thousands of stores around the world. Design Fabricators, meanwhile, has expanded on that successful venture to bring in sales approaching $45 million a year. In 1999, the company was acquired by Leggett & Platt, becoming one of 17 members in the company's store fixture/commercial fixture group, the largest store fixture manufacturer in the world.

Design Fabricators has an impressive list of clients and has built more than 1,500 Starbucks stores, as well as doing ongoing work for Barnes & Noble, Jamba Juice, J. Crew, Chipotle and Discovery Channel stores.

"Starbucks really springboarded us, and people started to take notice of us," says Marc Sagrillo, president of Design Fabricators. "If you say that you do 60 percent of all the Starbucks in the world, it gets their attention."

Sagrillo says that along with its famous clients, the company became known by offering value engineering before it became a familiar catchphrase. "It was something we did as part of the process of our accounts. We could build it better, more efficient and cheaper, with the savings passed onto the client," he says.

Design Fabricators' work on the Viacom Store in Chicago won a NASFM Retail Design Award. Sections of the shop were decorated according to theme; the Nickelodeon cash wrap was accented with "slime."

Design Fabricators started in 1986. Much of its early work was for vending carts, seating and food courts in malls. Design Fabricators built seating for the food court for Gurnee Mills, a 1.5-million-square-foot mall located near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, along with vending carts and seating areas made to look like a living room.

The company's first push into store fixtures came from working with The Body Shop, a skin and hair care products store from England. "We got hooked up with them and basically trained each other in the process of how to do a roll-out the right way, how to do customer service, how to go a little bit further than just delivering store fixtures," says Sagrillo.

From there, Design Fabricators began its ongoing relationship with Starbucks. At the start, the company was using custom store fixtures, with cherry woodwork and crown mouldings. Sagrillo says his company was only making 15 to 18 stores per year. It wasn't until 1996 that Starbucks and Design Fabricators worked on a modular store fixture package, so it could open coffee shops faster.

"We were the main store fixture manufacturer helping them then, so we were fairly instrumental in getting the modular program going," he adds. "We helped them come up with a modular program that not only reduced the cost for them per store, but it allowed them to do at least 10 times the amount of store openings they were normally used to."

Currently, Design Fabricators makes fixtures for most of the Starbucks in North America west of the Mississippi River, plus the entire Pacific Rim and the Middle East. It also makes tables for all the stores, plus the grocery store, cart and kiosk programs.

To accommodate its large workload, Design Fabricators has three manufacturing facilities in the Denver area, employing more than 400 people. The Lafayette headquarters is 119,000 square feet in size, the Denver plant is 123,000 square feet and the Ft. Collins facility is 148,000 square feet.

All three facilities are set up to do work independent of each other, but raw materials or components are often shipped back and forth. Lafayette has the bulk of the engineering, project management and executive management, plus some finishing and hardwood processing. Ft. Collins is set up more for laminate and melamine work. Denver, the newest facility, has a high-tech production and finishing area.

This PB Pages store also won a Retail Design Award for Design Fabricators. The store front was designed to look like books, while the interior has several flying books hung from the ceiling. The books were made out of wood and covered in silk-screened graphics.

In addition to production, Design Fabricators has a design team on staff. They can make their own designs or work with client's designs to make a workable, affordable product. The company is NSF (National Sanitary Foundation) certified, so it can make products for restaurants and other food-handling locations. The company also does some vinyl and silk-screened graphics.

Design Fabricators has been able to grow to the extent it has because of Leggett & Platt's ownership. Sagrillo says that the company was getting too large for its former owners, and they decided to sell. "It gets a little scary if you let the company be as big as it could potentially become. Bank gets nervous and don't want to finance you," he says.

"Leggett & Platt allowed us to continue to grow," he adds. "We started work on the Denver facility six months after they bought us, and we had the financing we needed through the corporation."

Sagrillo adds that the business relationship is a two-way street. Design Fabricators has retained its own management and market identity. It also takes part in a give-and-take relationship with its 16 sister companies. The relationship has been beneficial; Design Fabricators subs out much of its metal work to a sister company in Toronto.

Design Fabricators is somewhat of a rarity in the store fixture manufacturing business. Despite its large size, it does not shy away from custom woodwork. Rather, Sagrillo says the company uses custom woodwork to keep the job from getting too boring. "If you have to build 500 condiment stations, you can't really be too creative," he says. "So when we decided that this was our niche, we continued to do custom woodworking in the commercial venue."

In the custom woodworking vein, Design Fabricators built fixtures for the Viacom Store in Chicago, a store that featured themes based on MTV, Star Trek and other Viacom brands. The store only lasted for two years, but it did garner Design Fabricators a National Association of Store Fixture Manufacturers Retail Design Award. The MTV area was made predominantly of 2 X 4s, OSB and plywood for a "grunge" look. A Nickelodeon cash wrap was accented with "slime" made from sculptural foam.

The company has also tackled larger custom jobs, including the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and Universal Studio Islands of Adventure in Orlando. The Islands of Adventure has several different themed areas, and Design Fabricators made fixtures for seven stores in the park. Some were based on cartoon characters, while others had a medieval look.

"I think there were close to 100 different fixtures," Sagrillo says. "You may have one fixture that you would have to engineer and design and do prototypes and samples, and there's a constant back and forth. There may be three weeks of engineering for one gondola."

Occasionally, a custom job can turn into a production job, Sagrillo says. Design Fabricators did the flagship store for the Discovery Channel store in Washington, D.C. Since then, the company has also done more than 98 of the company's retail stores.

Discovery Channel's flagship store also led to one of Design Fabricators' most unusual creations. One cash wrap was made of an amber resin with insects trapped inside it, +í la "Jurassic Park." Recreating the effect took a little extra work, says Berndt Hennig, vice president of manufacturing.

"We actually had to provide those bugs," he says. "The first ones we tried cracked the resin. The bugs weren't dry enough, so we had to get a food dehydrator."

The cash wrap for the Discovery Channel's flagship store in Washington, D.C. features a front made of an amber resin with insects trapped inside. To keep the resin from cracking, the insects were first dried out in a food dehydrator.

Sagrillo adds that the dehydrator got rid of the excess moisture, and the insects, which are exoskeletal, still looked like insects when dried. "But, talk about the smell," he says, laughing. "It's like nothing you've ever smelled before."

Design Fabricators began using CNC technology in 1996, when the company bought a CMS router and started programming in ABC CAM. "It was a little difficult at the beginning, because there was a lot to learn, but it paid off," Hennig says. "The old systems we had in place no longer worked anymore, and we had to redo them."

Denver, the newest facility, has a Busellato Jet 4000 and Jet 6000 point-to-point machines from Delmac Machinery Group, plus a HPL11 Holzma panel saw, a Homag edgebander with a Ligmatech boomerang return system and a state-of-the art finishing system. Parts are put on an overhead trolley system and are sprayed before entering a infrared oven. Denver is also preparing part of its production space for solid surface thermoforming.

The Lafayette plant features two HPT11 Holzma panel saws and two Altendorf sliding panel saws, two Holz-Her edgebanders, two Koch and one Ayen boring/dowel insertion machines, a CMS R-8 five-axis CNC router and two more Busellato point-to-points. The Ft. Collins plant has two Mayer panel saws, a Homag edgebander and four Biesse point-to-points.

When parts go to the bench area, they are broken into teams. One team will do Starbucks, while another works on J. Crew displays, for example. For just-in-time production, Design Fabricators machines parts in advance and shelves them, so employees can use them in cases of short lead times. "Sometimes our clients have a schedule that's very aggressive, and they are looking for a company that can meet it," says Hennig. "We have a tendency to be able to do that."

Design Fabricators' success has not gone unnoticed in the woodworking industry. The company has won several NASFM Retail Design Awards for its store fixtures and was the 1999 WMIA Exporter of the Year, recognizing its success in sending fixtures overseas. Its success has in turn benefitted its community. Apart from being one of the largest employers in Lafayette, Design Fabricators visits high schools to educate students about the opportunities in woodworking. The company, along with some of its vendors, donated the millwork to Project Hope, a remodeling of Columbine High School in nearby Littleton.

"You have to give back to the community," Sagrillo says. "You can't just take from it."


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