Fetzers' Meets the Challenges of the Store Fixtures Industry

Supplying an industry that has fierce competition, immovable deadlines and requires expertise in multiple materials has been the forte for Salt Lake City-based Fetzers' Inc. for the past 87 years.

By Helen Kuhl

It's not easy working in a market where deadlines are not just important, but they must be met or the possibility of future work is gone for good. But such is the nature of the store fixtures industry, and Fetzers' Inc., of Salt Lake City, UT, has met that challenge successfully for almost 90 years.

"One of the characteristics of the store fixture industry is that a store opening date is typically immovable," said President Richard W. Fetzer. "It's not simply a matter of having to pay rent like it is for a law office or some other commercial enterprise. A retail store has ordered its advertising, hired its people, trained its clerks and ordered its merchandise, so that date is absolutely critical. There is no such thing as being late, and that has weeded a lot of people out of the industry. If you're late, you're out. It's that simple. And there are some pretty anxious moments, especially where there are a lot of changes, because the end date never moves."

Fetzers' deals with the challenge by establishing a strict schedule for every phase of a project, and project managers constantly review those schedules to ensure that the company does not miss any "milestone" dates.

"You set a schedule literally by counting backwards from the end date," Fetzer said. "You say, 'If it's going to take two days to clean up after everything else is done and four days to touch up before that and three months to install before that and 12 trucks with fixtures going to the job site every two weeks before that, then we will have to have all the drawings approved by "X" date and have all materials ordered by "X" date, etc.'"

The competition for projects is another ever-present challenge in the store fixtures market. Virtually all contracts are bid and, "There are no free rides," Fetzer said.

"The big national department store chains usually have long bid lists, and it is tough competition. However, some of our customers have taken what we consider an enlightened view and they will very carefully select five or six vendors and work closely with them to value engineer and drive costs down," he added. "Of course, those five or six are still in fierce competition with each other. But they have been prequalified to some degree so that the customer knows the quality level he is going to get and he can rely on them to give it their best shot. So there are both approaches."

Fetzers' is cautious in drawing up its estimates. Company estimators break down all materials for a given unit and all labor by department, sometimes even by function, to develop an accurate cost, Fetzer said. The company also takes into account the cost of factors like producing samples, trips to the job site, taking field measurements, template making and per diems. Especially when dealing with a new customer or a job where the fixturing is very different from what has been done before, the company really "noodles it down" and is careful with its calculations, he added.

Another factor that makes the store fixture industry a challenging market is its volatility, Fetzer said. Retailing is very sensitive to ups and downs in the general economy, and the fortunes of retailers can change dramatically overnight. Even large chains can go out of business or severely cut back their expansion with little notice, leaving a store fixtures manufacturer to scramble to find new clients to compensate for the loss.

On the other hand, a retailer may open a prototype store that does well and generates a contract for another 10 stores to be added within three months. Fetzer said he watches newspapers and trade magazines for reports on store chains' profits and losses to try to stay aware of changes. "But even so, the market catches us flat-footed sometimes," he said.

While the store fixtures industry offers numerous challenges, it also offers opportunities for large contracts and interesting work. Most work for store chains is awarded in multiples, so a fixtures manufacturer may get a contract to do 10, 20 or more stores in a given year or portion of a year, Fetzer said. Or, one manufacturer may get a contract for the bulk of the work in a large department store. Just the cosmetic islands alone in a major department store can be worth $1 million, he added.

The mix of the work is also something the company enjoys, Fetzer said. "There is a lot of variety in store fixtures. Each retailer is looking for some way to differentiate his store from anyone else's, so materials, colors, configurations, types of hardware and other elements are in constant flux," he said.

Fixtures often incorporate a variety of materials in addition to wood and laminates, such as stone, glass, metal and composite materials, plus electrical components. So part of Fetzers' job is to coordinate work from other trades and deal with other suppliers.

There also is variety in the finishes which are used. Fetzers' specializes primarily in high-end retail stores, which use a lot of woods and exotic veneers with clear finishes, plus specialty finishes, such as faux looks. Fetzer said that when a customer comes in with a new design or elaborate veneer work, "Everybody in the place gets excited. It's fun."

The periodic changeover in store designs that occurs in the retail industry also offers constant variety in Fetzers' work. Fixture renewals in retail stores run the gamut from a total makeover every 18 months at one extreme, to evolving, subtle changes made over a 10-year period, Fetzer said.

"I'm no expert in this, but I think five or six years is about the time when stores start looking to renew their fixtures," he said. "But stores that have timeless designs, like some really high-end jewelry stores which have a 100-year-old brass and mahogany look, may leave their fixtures in place for longer. Sometimes they need to for financial reasons, because the initial work is terribly costly."

In a market where competition is tough and there is little room for error, Fetzers' strives to achieve high quality and high productivity. In addition to developing careful estimates and production schedules, the company has a very good engineering department, Fetzer said.

"In store fixtures, shop drawings are a very important element," he said. "Because of the custom nature of the work, you are always building something that has not been done before. So the architect, the contractor and the store owner all check the shop drawings to make sure it's what they think it should be. It's a rather elaborate process to prepare the shop drawings and get approvals, which can include making color samples and even mocking up fixture joinery. But it's a very important process."

Fetzers' tries to do as much work as possible in the shop so that as little possible needs to be cut or fitted at the job site. Depending on the customer's wishes, the company does its own installation for some jobs or works with installation firms or a retailer's contractor.

"We try to do our work in the logical sequence so that the installer can install it without having to break off and go do something else and then come back," Fetzer said. "We also provide adequate blocking and scribing and those kinds of closure materials so they can get it tight to the walls in the back."

When it comes to achieving overall quality, Fetzer said, "We hire people who have a lot of experience or very good training. And we buy machinery that is very costly and very accurate and quite generalized. We don't buy much specialty machinery because our product mix varies so greatly."

The 94,000-square-foot shop area houses some of the industry's newest production technology. Fetzers' lays up its own veneers, and the veneering department includes Diehl and Kuper splicers and a Torwegge guillotine. The company has a 5-foot by 12-foot Sennerskov hot press, fed by a Black Brothers glue spreader. There is a Costa widebelt sander and a new Heesemann is being added.

The milling area has a Martin sliding bed saw, several Tannewitz table saws and a Pistorius double-end cut-off saw with digital readout. A new Torwegge double-end tenoner is on order. Fetzers' also has a Wadkin moulder.

Panel processing equipment includes a three-year-old Schelling FW Unique panel saw, a two-year-old IMA Nowimat edgebander and a Biesse Rover 342 point-to-point boring machine.

A specialty milling area contains shapers, bandsaws, a Griggio C350 gang rip saw and a Doucet Machineries clamp carrier.

Fetzers' uses dowel construction for its cases and has a new Lignatech MPH40 case clamp. It is teamed with a new dowel inserter from Accu-Systems.

In addition, the company recently added an 18,000-square-foot finishing area, which has a JBI 72-foot-long spray booth that can be divided into four smaller booths, a JBI drying tunnel, explosion-proof storage area, air makeup units and Jarvis B. Webb material handling equipment.

The company expanded its finishing operation for two reasons, Fetzer said. "The government is ever more restrictive and we knew we had to make some changes from that standpoint in order to be ahead of the regulations," he said. "The other factor was that our previous paint shop was too small and it didn't have state-of-the-art equipment. We wanted to be at the forefront of both these issues, environmentally and technologically."

Fetzers' uses water-based stains predominantly, with catalyzed lacquer and conversion varnish as standard topcoats. It uses Kremlin HVLP spray guns and Graco pumps. With the new finishing equipment, the company can spray in the morning and ship in the afternoon, Fetzer said.

Richard Fetzer is the third generation of Fetzers to work in the company, which was founded by his grandfather, Kasper Fetzer, in 1909, in a building very close to where the current plant is located. Kasper Fetzer arrived in Salt Lake City from Germany, where he was a career military man until he was thrown out of the military for joining the Mormon church, his grandson said.

He teamed up with two cabinetmakers, also German immigrants, to found the company. Leonard Wendel and Lester Schulz were in charge of production, while Kasper "hustled" for business. While the company did whatever jobs it could get, sizeable projects included work for local merchants and fixtures for ZCMI, a local department store chain.

According to Richard Fetzer, about four years after its founding the company received a large contract which worried Wendel and Schulz, who thought that the firm could go broke and they might be held personally liable. So they sold their interest to Kasper, staying on with the company as employees. Fetzers' weathered the storm and has remained in the Fetzer family since then.

Gradual but steady growth has brought Fetzers' to its current size with about 130 employees and annual sales of woodworking around $16 million. Store fixtures are about 60 to 70 percent of the total, with the rest in architectural woodwork and library furniture. The current building, which began at 20,000 square feet in 1923, is now 100,000 square feet.

Kasper's two sons each served as president of the company, and five of their children are involved today. They include Richard and his brother Robert, plus cousins Paul, Wallace and Carol Kusterle. There is one fourth generation member on the payroll, and Richard Fetzer said that some other children also may enter the business eventually.

Richard's involvement with the business started when he was six or seven years old and walked his father's lunch to him during the summers. Throughout its history, he has seen the company win many awards for its work, including most recently the naming of one of its projects -- the World of Disney store in Lake Buena Vista, FL -- as "Store of the Year" by the National Association of Store Fixture Manufacturers.

However, when asked what his most unusual store fixture job has been, Fetzer described a project in Russia.

"We sent fixtures to a store for Botany 500 in the Gum Trade Center on Red Square in Moscow," he said. "There was so much red tape, the labor there was unpredictable and their electrical system was different. It was a highly unusual job, but Paul Fetzer managed it well. We now feel well prepared to handle other challenging overseas projects."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.