The Path to Success One Step at a Time
A Pennsylvania millwork shop finds its niche by fabricating staircases.
By Lisa Whitcomb
"Doc Sankey really talked me and George Lucaric into opening a millwork shop,” recalls Vern Swartz, current and sole owner of Greenville Wood Products in Greenville, PA, in describing the company’s beginnings in 1971. “Doc found equipment for sale and thought that we should go into business with each other. George said that he’d give it a try if I would, so I said ‘okay’ and that is how it all got started.”
Prior to partnering up and forming Greenville Wood Products, the men had worked together at another millwork shop in a different town. After deciding to go ahead with the business venture, the trio happened onto a windfall of good luck. The men collectively bid on equipment for a shop that was going out of business because its owner was retiring. They wanted to purchase the entire inventory of equipment, but only had limited capital to work with.
“Someone was bidding higher on three machines than we had bid on the whole shop,” recollects Swartz. “It was an amazing blessing that we even got it. We just assumed that we were not going to get it because our bid was so much lower. But in the end, the guy [selling the shop] said to us, ‘I can tell that you guys really want this equipment, and I don’t want to sell [everything] to fifteen different people, so you can have it.’”
In this instance, though, the men had put the cart before the horse because they had no place to put the equipment. The pieces sat on an empty lot covered with tarps for a month. It was about this time that a local community leader heard of the men’s plight and proposed an Army warehouse in Greenville that they could use as a shop. “These warehouses were built in the early ‘40s with a seven-year life expectancy. They are still in use today,” Swartz says. “It was pretty hard the first winter with just a coal-burning stove because it was only about fifteen degrees warmer inside than out. The wind would blow right through it, but we were happy to have [the shop space].” For the first nine months of Greenville Wood Products’ life, the men worked part-time at their own shop and part-time at other local shops . They did not quit their “day jobs” until they felt sure that their business was strong enough. “That’s when we decided to give it a try and go full-time,” adds Swartz.
Since then, the shop has moved two blocks over into its own new building and grosses around $500,000 a year. Swartz services a 100-mile radius spanning Ohio and Pennsylvania and is looking into expanding this area in the future. While times have not always been easy for the shop, it is debt-free today, something that Swartz is proud of because he feels it is an important aspect in being successful. One way in which he has remained debt-free is by buying used machinery or rebuilding the equipment he already has, like a 24-in. Porter joiner, 18-in. Timesavers widebelt sander, Mattison straight line ripsaw, Porter stratoplane and an 18-in. Powermatic planer that are in the shop. Swartz says in his specialty line of work it is hard to justify the cost of a new machine like a moulder that may only get used a few times throughout the year.
Lucaric retired and sadly passed on, and Sankey sold his interest in the shop to Swartz in 1987. Prior to this, Swartz had worked on the shop floor while Lucaric handled business-related duties. Now Swartz handles the business end while his son Matthew works on the floor, learning each aspect of the business that he will someday assume. Shop foreman is Rick Griswold, who has been with the company for 20 years.
A Transforming Millwork Industry
“There has been quite a transition in the type of work that we do. Restaurant chains go with a large fabricator who will make everything in the restaurant and for every location nationwide. For example, in the old days, if a McDonald’s came to town, we would have fabricated the counters and other things for them. But now an account like that would go to whomever had all of the other restaurants in the chain,” says Swartz. “Likewise, schools being built at that time were fancy, and that has gone by the wayside. Hospitals were also having a lot of intricate millwork fabricated and that [market] is gone.”
Another facet that has dried up in the last 30 years is exterior millwork. “We used to make a lot of custom doors, louvers, windows, etc. But society has evolved to a point where people do not want to own a paintbrush anymore, so even on new, million-dollar homes, we don’t see the same volume of exterior millwork like we used to,” says Swartz. “Everything is being replaced with aluminum and vinyl products.”
Sustaining a Niche in Residential Millwork
“We do a lot of these and that is the one thing that has prevailed,” Swartz notes. “Doors have become too competitive. The only time we do a door any more is if it is really complicated and fancy.”
In addition to stair work, the shop has been fabricating high-end interior residential millwork for the last eight years. This includes mouldings, built-in furniture pieces, cabinetry and raised-panel wainscoting. A shop specialty is to take a special room in a house and make it really elaborate, says Swartz. “We really take a room and put the gingerbread to it,” he adds. “Sometimes that is all we get on a job. Someone else will do all of the main mouldings and casings and we will be called in to design something in a special wood grain that is really supposed to be the highlight of the house.”
Such is the case in a current project that the shop has been working on for the last two years, (a typical timeline for an extremely high-end home project). In the “Stone House” project (see sidebar at left) the shop already has fabricated, among many other things, curved cabinetry in the kitchen, a wine dumbwaiter with wooden gears, a Bolivian rosewood library (see sidebar on page 69) and a curly maple spiral staircase with 700 balusters.
It was the homeowners’ intention to use a different domestic exotic species in every room. However when they reached the library they ran out of choices and decided to go with South American rosewood because of its beauty. “The ‘Stone House’ project has been an unbelievable blessing to the shop in several ways. One is that the young guys who would have had to wait many years to do the type of intricate work that we are doing on that project, had an opportunity they might not have otherwise had,” says Swartz. “By participating on this complicated project, these men have grown by leaps and bounds.”
Other wood species used in this project include quarter-sawn white oak, quarter-sawn sycamore, ropey cherry, butternut, walnut, wormy chestnut, lignum vitae and sassafras. Swartz says that he has used quarter-sawn Douglas fir in a few other projects. “It is very unusual and a great substitute for heart pine from the South, which is very expensive. It looks just like it, and it offers considerable savings,” he adds.
Another unique area that the shop works in is circular and elliptical millwork, specializing in making hand-carved shell-topped cupboards and built-in wall hutches and corner cupboards. Swartz is looking into the viability of marketing these specialty pieces via the Internet. “There is a lot of handwork in making the shell part,” says Swartz. “ When someone asks me to design a high-end room, I tend to put in a shell-topped cupboard.”
Diversifying Keeps Workers Working
“The neat part for me is to be able to bring an average guy in from the street to do basic woodworking and raise his skill level up from that. I always have a need for a couple of guys that are not developed in their trade yet, because if I only had high-end work and workers, then I would have a hard time replacing someone if they moved on or retired,” Swartz says.
The shop is also looking into expanding its overall size and adding a finishing department. “We are considering doing more of our own finishes because we are finding that we are struggling more and more trying to find good finishers. The problem arises when we finish something in the shop and another contractor finishes other woodwork at the home site. This results in two different qualities of finishes, and this can create a problem for the homeowner,” he says.
Also on Swartz’s “wish list” for the expansion is an office with a part-time secretary to handle incoming calls. “It’s kind of crazy to run a business for 30 years with eight guys and not have any help in the front office.” He adds that he is looking into hiring a couple of full-time installers as well. Presently he provides a man to oversee the installation at the homesite in case the installers need technical assistance with something like a circular stair case installation.
Swartz says he believes that Greenville Wood Products’ ability to continually expand in the residential millwork area is due to new homes being built with no interior personality. ”More and more, when people are putting something special into their homes, they are thinking wood. High-end homeowners want something special [to differentiate them from their neighbors]; they want positive feedback,” he adds.
An Unusual Staircase
Ligo Architects of Slippery Rock, PA, designed the spiral staircase, as well as the rest of the room renovations in the 12,600-square-foot Stone House, which was originally built in 1848, and has been one of the most spectacular projects ever handled by Greenville Wood Products. Brett Ligo was project architect and worked closely with his associate Carl Gravatt to complete the drawings for several buildings on the 3,000-acre estate, including the Stone House.
The Stone House spiral staircase was built to connect the third floor with the level of the cupola, which was 14 feet above. It was constructed of curly maple to match the original staircases connecting to it, which was installed in 1848. There is no center post in the spiral space, which is unusual for this type of stair work. For installation, a crane was used to lift the stairs to the roof where they were “screwed” into an opening that was later sealed with a stained-glass window. Once the stairs were installed by Whalen Contracting Inc., the general contractor from Franklin, PA, who installed all of the millwork in the Stone House project, a plasterer came in and finished the underside of the stairway.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.