Quality Keeps Ohio Millwork Company on the 'Fast Track'

Forum Manufacturing of Milford Center, OH, meets the demand of providing craftsman-like quality at a fast-track pace.

By Beverly Dunne

You've grown disenchanted with your job. The industry you started with right out of college 15 years ago no longer holds your interest. With a wife, two children and a mortgage you leave your position as sales manager of an agricultural company to start your own shop. Oh, and your woodworking experience amounts to four years as a hobbyist. What are the odds your business will survive, much less succeed?

"When I approached my wife with this idea in 1987, I half expected divorce papers," joked Kirk Westfall, president of Forum Manufacturing of Milford Center, OH. Times were rough at first, admitted his wife, Nancy Kovacs, who is also the company's vice president. Westfall's first shop, Environments in Wood, was re-named as Forum Manufacturing Inc. when he took on a partner in 1990. The partner pulled out six months later but Westfall was determined to keep the business going.

"I believe that we survived those first years on Kirk's sheer determination," Kovacs said.

Capitalizing on the needs of the market helped Westfall recoup as well. "I noticed that there were several building contractors in central Ohio but only two decent shops doing woodworking." In response, he re-directed the business focus in 1991 to provide high-end millwork to the Columbus market. His hunch paid off. Sales have steadily increased from $227,000 in 1991 to $1.8 million in 1997.

Westfall was fortunate in that his first project gained him recognition in the industry. He was asked to build a solid surface conference table designed by Wavefront Technologies of Santa Barbara, CA, for its corporate headquarters. Fabricated from Avonite Midnight Sky, the table features a geometric pattern of contrasting red and white inlay. In addition to "wowing" the customer, the project established the company as a fabricator of solid surfacing materials -- qualities that have helped the company win big-ticket projects, Westfall said. "A big part of our success is that we handle jobs that require 200 sheets of solid surface material." One such job was fabricating 10 elevator lobbies of Avonite for the Midland Insurance Co. in Columbus. All of the sheets were glued up to resemble solid stone and stone columns. "The advantage of solid surface is that it is seamless when fabricated and can be polished to look like stone," Westfall said. The six-week project totaled $130,000.

Working with solid surface materials enables Forum to be a one-stop shop, a critical feature for an architectural millwork firm. "Because we offer solid surface, wood and laminate capabilities we are able to provide complete turnkey fabrication and installation," Westfall said.

Forum's next "big break" came in 1994, when it was awarded two substantial woodworking contracts -- Merrill Lynch's executive offices in Columbus and the Medallion Golf Club in Westerville, OH. At $330,000 and $425,000 respectively, they are typical "fast-track" jobs.

The Merrill Lynch project was completed on a tight 90-day schedule. The customer specified birch but wanted to match existing cherry, a challenge that Forum carried out successfully.

For the Medallion Golf Club, Forum provided and installed all the millwork and casework for the clubhouse. Reported to be one of the largest in Ohio, the clubhouse features locker rooms with solid surface vanities and more than 800 maple lockers. There is also extensive millwork in the bar and mixed grill areas, and custom moulding throughout. Plain-sliced maple, bird's-eye maple hardwoods and veneers were used on the project. All of the millwork was pre-finished at Forum prior to installation.

What made this project especially complex was that the customer ordered a number of changes in the last six weeks of production. Despite additions totalling $100,000, the project was still completed by the club's opening day of July 4. "As with all projects, our greatest challenge is producing craftsman-like quality at a fast-track pace," Westfall said.

Outsourcing and automation have helped the company achieve its impressive growth. Forum purchases overlaid panels for much of its casework. "We would rather let the companies that specialize in laminating and veneering handle those functions," Westfall said. Laminated panels are supplied by Distributor Service Inc. Veneer is purchased from Bill Kraemer Veneers.

Some products are laid up by hand. "We don't do enough of it to justify purchasing equipment to automate that process," Westfall said.

Panel processing, however, is fully automated. Panels are sized on an Altendorf 45 Elmo sliding table saw, the shop's "work horse," Westfall said, and machined on a Morbidelli Author 504 point-to-point boring machine from Tekna Machinery. Purchased in early 1996 to machine parts for casework, the machine is used for radius work and even some crown mouldings.

"When we do large production runs it can look pretty much like a factory," Kovacs said. An IDM edgebander from Tekna and an HP case clamp from J.C. Uhling Products rounds out the panel processing equipment.

For much of its casework, drawings are done on AutoCAD and cutlists are produced on Product Planner from Pattern Systems International. When truly custom pieces are needed, Forum has found that it is often easier to prepare cutlists by hand. "As with any software designed for standard products, you have to go through so many formulas to customize it that it's often easier to cutlist the old-fashioned way," Westfall said. "Being custom is almost a contradiction to the idea of doing things efficiently. Once you figure the best way to make something, you rarely need to build it again." Forum also uses a customized software program, written by Kovacs, for parts labeling.

While Forum has benefited from outsourcing and automation, it prefers to leave some things in the hands of its skilled employees. Its finishing department, Westfall said, is second to none. With the experience of its lead finisher, Todd Anderson, Forum can duplicate any finish, he said.

"Frequently we are asked to match mouldings to passage doors or to duplicate a small sample found 'God-knows-where,'" he added. Because of this, Forum works with everything from aniline dyes to catalyzed lacquer. A combination of hand sanding and machine sanding on a Timesavers widebelt sander helps produce a superior finish, he added.

Having skilled woodworkers and installers has also contributed to Forum's success, Westfall said. It has taken several years to acquire employees of this caliber. "I've always tried to hire people that know more about this business than I do. My strength lies in managing people, not woodworking," Westfall said. "You have to hire the best, place them according to their strengths and then let them do their jobs." Forum has 20 employees in the shop and 6 in the field.

As for the future, the goal is to become more efficient and profitable without a big increase in volume, Westfall said. "As the market demands tighter deadlines, we are constantly striving to step up production." Bringing the moulding operation in-house is the next step toward reaching that goal, as it would help ensure timeliness and quality, he added. Mouldings are currently supplied by Paxton - The Wood Source and P & W Millwork.

Sales for 1998 are expected to reach $3 million, an amount that is "big enough," he added. "We don't plan on becoming huge. Our work in central Ohio keeps us plenty busy."

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