Unique custom fixtures and a wide-ranging clientele keep business successful and interesting for MurphyCatton. 

MurphyCatton was part of the design development, fabrication and installation of the “Woodland Wander Inn” at the Emily Oaks Nature Center in Skokie, IL.

Although many companies call themselves “custom,” Walton, KY-based MurphyCatton Inc., a themed exhibit design and manufacturing firm, takes the concept to a new level.

“What is unusual for us is doing something twice,” says Mark Catton, the company’s vice president of operations. “This year I had a client come through, and one of our photographs on the wall is a giant, walk-through tree. He said, ‘We want that tree.’ So we built something twice. That was fantastic! We never do that.”

From the aforementioned walk-through tree to interactive museum displays to tradeshow booths, the products themselves are also unusual. MurphyCatton manages to be multi-dimensional, serving a variety of clients and specialties.

“We divide our clients up into five or six different segments,” Catton says. “We have the commercial clients, and for them we might do a tradeshow booth, a lobby or a boardroom. Then we have children’s museums, science centers, natural history museums, zoos and aquariums. Those are the different clientele that we identify.”

Catton and Mike Murphy, the company’s vice president of production, met in college at the University of Northern Kentucky. In 1983, they joined forces and opened a small shop in a four-car garage in Covington, KY, working on a few furniture pieces and some kitchens. After doing some tradeshow and corporate work, MurphyCatton manufactured its first museum exhibit in the mid-’80s, and Catton estimates that the company’s largest segment of business — nearly 60 percent — is now children’s and history museums.

Being Resourceful Pays

Catton attributes some of MurphyCatton’s success to its versatility, and the fact that it does many different things for many different people. The company has done work for clients that include Abercrombie & Fitch, Proctor & Gamble, American Financial, International Paper, Nevamar Corp., The Cheesecake Factory, The Field Museum of Chicago and Hewlett-Packard.

“We have survived several downturns in the economy by virtue of the fact that we have lots of different products we can offer,” Catton says. “I think our willingness to take on the custom work is really what has made it for us. There will always be a need for custom work. When you get into the repetitive stuff, there is a lot more competition.”

Not to say that MurphyCatton does not have any competition. “Surprisingly, there is competition,” says Catton. “The advantage we have is that a lot of them are niche players. There are fewer competitors for us that do the entire project like we do. We like to do the whole project. But there are a few competitors. It seems like every time I bid something, there are a few.”

Performing the entire project can involve a number of variables. Design, manufacturing, installation and even tradeshow management services are performed by MurphyCatton, with occasional sub-contracting of design firms, sculptors, artists and others. This can make for a somewhat different design process.

“More times than not, we will pull together a design bill package that I will sell to the customer,” Catton says. “We bring in a design firm as a sub-contractor, so that is kind of an unusual relationship as well. Typically, the design firm and the architect would take the lead. But if you think about it, we are responsible for more of the budget than they are. We have brought a lot of design firms into projects, and it has worked out very well. Then the designer is not only responsible to the client — as are we all — but he or she is also responsible to us. We review the drawings a couple weeks before the client gets them so we can help add input into bringing the project into budget. What it means is a better product for the customer, and the designer does less drawing at the end of the day.”

The company uses a Stiles Machinery Weeke CNC machining center that it purchased in 2001, to cut custom parts.

Making Upgrades

MurphyCatton recently completed a restructuring and renovation of its entire plant, including new offices and a wood shop with a new dust collector, new compressors, new coating equipment and basic woodworking equipment to augment its CNC manufacturing. The company also upgraded its software, information processes and job-costing systems.

“What we needed to do was have a place where we could bring clients,” Catton says. “Since we are not doing production work, we are doing one of a kind, and we get involved with the design as well as the fabrication, we needed a space where we could work with them. We needed a big conference room area, a place where we can spread their plans out. Sometimes they will come in for a couple of days and we will work through all the issues of their project.”

The company bought a small CNC machine in the mid-’90s, originally to do signage work and cut out letters, but eventually started using it for cabinet parts and other jobs. MurphyCatton now has a Weeke CNC machining center it purchased in 2001. According to Catton, getting comfortable with using the CNC to fit the company’s needs took a little time, as it doesn’t use the machining center the way other manufacturers might traditionally use it.

“When you look at our equipment, it is set up for a custom application, which is kind of a dying breed, I think,” says Catton. “That machine is designed to cut 1,000 of one part and we cut one of 1,000 parts, so we had to work on that. And then we had to work on nesting parts and things like that. It doesn’t run nearly as much as other [production] manufacturers’ CNCs run. Like I said, we don’t use it like everyone else does, but it is indispensable. It takes a lot of work out of guys’ hands, which is good.”

The company’s equipment line-up also includes a Holz-Her Sprint edgebander, Powermatic table saws, a Holz-Her sliding table saw, and Rockwell shapers. For CAD software, MurphyCatton uses ArchiCAD.

“ArchiCAD is an architectural level of drafting, rather than using a generic CAD,” Catton says. “We use the architectural model because we do a lot of three-dimensional projections for our clients. They need a little more than just line work.”

MurphyCatton designed and manufactured the decorative casework, framing and furniture for housing baseball memorabilia at the Green Diamond Gallery in Cincinnati, OH.

Going the Extra Mile

MurphyCatton does most of its own installations. Taking into account the uniqueness of the company’s products, the installation can sometimes be challenging.

“We are not bringing in cabinets; we are bringing in trees or dinosaurs or dinosaurs that sit on cabinets,” Catton says, “so yes, there are a lot of challenges. Sometimes we incorporate water and lighting. We get a little bit more involved than a traditional cabinetmaker. Some of our stuff has to come in before the building is ready. If it’s structural, we need to get something bolted to the floor before they put the floor covering down. Some of it is like the traditional cabinet where it has to scribe to the wall and we want the place to be a little more finished. So it is a lot more involved. Shipping it and getting it there in one piece is also a challenge.”

When it comes to tradeshow programs, the company doesn’t stop with designing and building the structure, but also can manage the services as well. “We price shipping the product to the show, getting it set up on site, helping the clients select the booth space and helping them update the booth,” says Catton. “We get a little more into the service work than traditional cabinetmakers as well.”

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