Expansion and New Equipment Put California Chair Maker on Solid Ground  

Since a devastating earthquake in 1987, Office Chairs Inc. has racked up sales increases for 10 straight years

 

The original Office Chairs Inc. plant in ruins after the Whittier earthquake in 1987. Within 10 days, the company was operating again and on its way to appearances in eight of the next nine WOOD 100 reports.

BY BARRETT KILMER

The sun rose over Whittier, CA, the morning after the 1987 earthquake to reveal a massive heap of rubble where Office Chairs Inc. once stood.

The entire inventory of chair parts, rolls of fabric and other materials was a complete loss. Much of the woodworking machinery was also damaged beyond repair. And the force of the quake was not the only problem. "The sprinkler system went off and just soaked everything," owner Don Simek said.

Despite the desperate situation, Simek decided he was not about to let his years of work collapse like the roof and walls of his manufacturing plant. He had what equipment was salvageable taken into the parking lot, and Office Chairs was back in business within 10 days.

The company operated some of the machinery outside and some in a part of the plant that had not been destroyed. Business dropped off by 50 percent, but within two months, Office Chairs relocated to a 22,000-square-foot rented space in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

"We had 42 dumpsters worth of stuff to throw out. Rolls of fabric -- everything, just threw them away and started over," said Simek. "And we didn't need financing, we did it all ourselves. But nothing comes without hard work, you know."

Renewing Progress in the Wake of Disaster

Office Chair's Hi-Back Rotary Chair. The company's other offerings include side chairs, gang seating and reception room tables.

The company has come a long way since the dark days following the disaster. In the first year after the quake, the company grossed $1.33 million in sales. In 1989 it grew by 34 percent and earned a spot on Wood & Wood Products' first-ever WOOD 100 report. The company has grown steadily since, a success record Simek attributed to Office Chairs' commitment to two-week turnaround times, quality control, and aggressive sales and marketing efforts.

Last year, with an eye toward improving efficiency and production, the company moved again, this time to a 60,000-square-foot factory. The company had been making do by adding surrounding buildings to its former plant to accommodate the demand for more space. This meant shuttling parts between the rough mill, the finishing area and the warehouse -- all of which were in different buildings. The new facility has greatly increased efficiency by bringing all these functions under one roof.

"We still have room to double again if we need to," Simek said. "What's happening, though, is that with automation you don't need as much space as you used to to do the same job. Just because your business has gone up, your required area doesn't grow proportionately."

The move, and investments in new equipment, have already paid off. Office Chairs posted a 20.2 percent gain in 1997 as sales reached $7.3 million, earning the company a spot on the WOOD 100 for the eighth time in the report's nine-year history. (See September 1998 W&WP.)

Cash is King in the Wood Mill

One of the things Simek said he is most proud of is that, even after the earthquake, his company never had to borrow money and always takes cash discounts when paying for supplies. "Many competitors don't seem to put money back into inventory, then they have to order supplies and that slows them down," Simek said. "We put money back into the corporation and have enough money to get cash discounts from suppliers. This allows us to buy in larger quantities."

Office Chairs buys most of its wood from Northwest Hardwoods, a division of Weyerhaeuser. The company uses 4/4 and 5Ã?4 frame grade alder for the inner frames and northern red oak, northern walnut and select eastern white maple for the outer finished chair parts.

Simek's focus on cash also applies to purchasing woodworking equipment. "We save our money and buy new equipment when it's on sale, even if we're not ready to use it. Then when work is slow we install it and prepare it for when we're busy again. You've got to make hay when the sun shines," Simek said.

One recent equipment purchase is an SCMI M3 laser-guided ripsaw that allows the company to make multiple cuts. This replaced a table saw that required multiple passes to make the same number of cuts. The new saw has reduced man-hours, and therefore cost, from the first step in the rough mill operation.

Ripped boards are then taken by hand carts to the two Whirlwind Model 1000 chop saws. Simek purchased them last year when he bought the building. Prior to that, the company used hand-operated radial arm saws that were slower and less safe to operate, according to Simek.

Simek also bought a Hipoint 20-spindle boring machine last year, and the company has been busy making drilling patterns since. Once those patterns are complete, all boring operations will be moved to that machine. For now, though, much of the boring is done on standard boring machines that can make only a few holes at a time.

The bored pieces are transported from there to a C.R. Onsrud inverted pin router which is used to shape outer and inner edges of chair arms and frames -- especially larger pieces such as those used for sled-based side chairs. Simek said Office Chairs had just purchased an identical router immediately before the earthquake. "I made just one chair, then the machine got destroyed," Simek said. The company uses an older shaper for smaller pieces such as wood caps for the bases of many of its chairs.

Sanding and Finishing

Office Chairs uses several Powermatic RB 37 widebelt sanders for sanding the majority of pieces. For the finish sanding process, hand-held sanders are used in conjunction with downdraft tables designed by the company to collect sanding dust. The widebelt and downdraft tables give the chair parts an improved finish and save time, Simek said.

Finish sanding is not the only process Office Chairs does by hand. "All our stains are wiped on by hand the old-fashioned way. This ensures a very consistent color," Simek said.

Stained pieces are sent to the painting area for application of lacquers and sealers. The painting area is equipped with a new Binks double spray booth, two single Binks spray booths, pressure pots and HVLP spray guns, which have improved the quality of the finishing and given the company more finishing booth space, according to Simek. The company offers eleven different acetone finishes, including several oaks, maples, cherry, mahogany and walnut.

Putting it All Together

One reason Office Chairs is able to keep to a two-week shipping schedule is the stockpiling of finished chair parts and a large supply of chair coverings and other outsourced items such as metal bases and premoulded parts for the non-wood ergonomic chair line.

Office Chairs assembles all of these parts in-house, using glue, dowels and clamps to join the pieces. Staple construction, and in some cases dovetail joinery, are also employed.

"The warehouse has an area dedicated to chairs parts that are finished and ready for the phone to ring and tell us what fabric and wood finish to use," Simek said. "This inventory turns over every two weeks or so. Upholsterers are hired on a piecework basis and sign each chair they make. Taking responsibility for their own work has gone a long way in maximizing quality," Simek said. "The threat of having to repair a chair at their own expense keeps them giving us good quality. They know what to do."

 

Southern California Not All Sun and Fun

Office Chairs Inc. is located in Santa Fe Springs, just outside the city of Los Angeles in sunny Southern California.

The location has its advantages, to be sure. The Los Angeles basin is surrounded by a mountain range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The weather is noted to be among the best in the world with sunshine nearly every day.

But there are some drawbacks, as well. A devastating earthquake, stringent environmental regulations and long distances from most of the nation's market are all things owner Don Simek has had to deal with. Simek has found the environmental regulations to be the biggest headache. "You people [in the rest of the country] don't know what it's like. But in Southern California, it's probably the toughest area from an environmental standpoint to do anything. And understandably so because the air is kind of captured in by the mountain range. So their emphasis is really heavy on ozone-depleting, air-polluting products.

"Putting in new spray booths was a major challenge," Simek said. "The air quality control people have insisted on the use of the latest technology when relocating or installing new permitted equipment. It must be friendly to the environment and non ozone-depleting."

Two-Sided Success

For Simek, sales figures represent only half of Office Chairs' success. To him it's gratifying to see how far it has come since its humble beginnings before the earthquake.

Office Chairs Inc. started in 1974, when Don retired from his job as a mechanical contractor in Chicago and moved to California to be with his new wife Sharon, who owned a small chair manufacturing business there.

"It was a small business at that time -- less than $1 million a year," Don Simek said. "We just got into it and when it started to show signs of being vital enough we decided to attack it pretty well.

"We've gone from a little local company which was primarily in southern California to a national company now," Simek said, adding, "It's more difficult to sell on the East Coast because of the freight problems involved."

But the company has been tenacious enough to get some large customers in the East who can buy in large quantities and ship large truckloads.

"We have hooked up with a few people that make desks. They make desks but not chairs; we make chairs but not desks. So we've become rather friendly with several of them so we can combine a truckload of desks and chairs from California and ship them to Virginia or Florida or New Hampshire. But you have to be large enough to get a truckload quantity going back to the East, otherwise its cost prohibitive."

Simek credits stepson and sales manager, Jay Klapper for much of Office Chairs' success in this area. "He dedicated a lot of time to producing a new sales brochure and sales information as well as building a national sales force that's well respected in the industry."

Office Chairs produces an average of 800 chairs per week and Simek estimates his production capacity to be about 1,200. While this does not put Office Chairs in a league with the larger office furniture manufacturers in terms of size, Simek said he can compete with them on quality and consistency. He also knows satisfied customers are repeat customers and goes out of his way to make sure Office Chairs delivers when it says it will. "Shipping dates are just critical. If you're going to maintain a good customer relationship between you and your wholesaler/retailer, by golly you'd better give him his furniture when you've committed to do that."

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