Shop Expands for More Efficiency
Aiming for continued steady growth, Heritage Woodcraft already has been successful enough to warrant an expansion.
By Renee Stern
Jim Zollinger is leading the business he began seven years ago to a new and more efficient level. The company, Heritage Woodcraft Inc. of Salem, OR, is finishing up an in-house remodeling project to remove bottlenecks and add space for new equipment. At the same time, Zollinger is stepping back from doing some of the hands-on woodwork to devote more attention to design and management tasks. That’s a direct result of fitting together a tight-knit group of employees who can handle just about anything, he says.
Heritage produces high-end custom projects from architectural millwork and cabinetry to furniture. “We’ve found our niche in being flexible to meet the needs of everybody’s ideas,” Zollinger says. “That’s been our biggest strength.”
Although the economic downturn hit Oregon with the country’s highest unemployment rate, it hasn’t seemed to affect business at Heritage, Zollinger says, even though most of the company’s work stays in-state. Millwork and cabinetry projects wind up in Oregon homes from the coast to the Silicon Forest around Portland and to the wide-open spaces of eastern Oregon. Furniture goes farther afield, selling through galleries.
"Three years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed we’d go from edge to edge of the state, and our radius keeps expanding,” Zollinger says.
Having a wider focus than the immediate neighborhood or one type of woodworking is the key to success, despite a shaky economy, he adds. It’s a strategy that evidently works well — in April, Heritage posted its best quarter yet.
Millwork and cabinetry account for about 80 percent of the business, split evenly between the two. Many jobs integrate both, because customers want a “sleek look,” where all woodwork elements combine seamlessly. Others just want the convenience of dealing as much as they can with one shop, or they want a whole room (or even an entire house) to be tied together by a single shop’s style.
The average job falls into the $20,000 to $30,000 range, Zollinger says. That best-ever quarter, however, included three home projects: a small one priced at $5,000, and two more-expansive jobs at $40,000 and $95,000.
About three-quarters of his work is for residential customers, mainly through contractors. Word-of-mouth among the end clients plays a large role, however. He has also worked on projects featured in Sunset and other magazines. “That opened the door for us and created credentials,” he says.
He does not advertise, but relies on his work to do the selling. Building a reputation was a struggle at first, “but now we’re over the hump,” he says.
‘Digging’ into a New Career
Since then, he has worked out of two buildings behind his house. A 4,300-square-foot building contains the shop, while the other offers 2,500 square feet of storage. The arrangement demands a lot of back-and-forth movement during production until each project is ready to ship. It’s also a tight squeeze without regard to flow or sufficient room to work comfortably. “Our efficiency has dropped because of our size constraints,” Zollinger says.
To eliminate those problems, the remodel will connect the two buildings, adding a little more floor space. Most important will be the ability to rearrange operations. Panel processing will move to one area, so cabinetry work, boring and machining of parts will be concentrated all on one side of the shop. The surfaced four-side work, such as doors and cabinet parts, will move to the opposite side. All the elements for a project will flow more easily to the midpoint for assembly.
The new setup will also allow Zollinger to break out the company’s three product areas — millwork, cabinetry and furniture — a little more. “They will feed each other, but they also will have more separation,” he says.
Good Employees a Key to Success
In describing what he considers as “qualified,” Zollinger says that experience is not as important as interest and desire. “When somebody wants it, they push for it and excel,” he says.
To retain good employees, Zollinger fosters an attitude of partnership on the shop floor. “We work together, they don’t work for me,” he says. “As (business has) expanded, everyone benefits.”
Shop foreman Kevin Ennis says this approach makes the company stand out from other workplaces. “We are encouraged to be creative,” he says. With a more cooperative rather than a “top-down” management style, assembling the right mix of people is important, he says, adding that working together in a small shop underscores the need to consider personalities. “I have to respect their abilities, and they have to respect each other’s. Everyone finds their niche.”
“We have been a little discriminating as to who we retain,” Zollinger adds. Some successful employees came to the shop with the right attitude, he says, rather than with a lengthy resume. The rest have been referrals — people Zollinger or his staff have worked with before.
The hiring process doesn’t end the moment a new employee walks through the door. Zollinger solicits input from everyone in the shop, then runs prospective employees through a tryout process. “Usually if a person is not going to work out, it’s apparent pretty quick,” he says. “We have had experiences with talented people whose personality didn’t fit.”
For example, flexibility is an important employee trait in a small shop that handles many different kinds of projects. “Our kind of work is not for somebody who can’t shift gears,” Zollinger says, nor for someone unwilling to take on responsibilities.
Finding all those qualities in prospective employees is not easy, he adds. And once successful candidates are found, it is important to keep them. “I have found that to have good people, I have to pay them like they’re good people,” he says.
With his solid staff, Zollinger is able to devote more of his own time to managing the business and handling the design work. “I’ve always been a doodler, an artsy person,” he says. “I’ve been able to doodle faster than I work.” Changing his own area of responsibilities has required some adjustments for him, but should lead to more efficient growth, he says.
Managing the company’s growth thus far has been his biggest challenge, he adds. Turning down work is difficult, but sometimes it is the only choice if he wants to meet commitments, he says. He prefers to expand at a moderate rate.
‘Doodling’ a Wide Range of Projects
But the big projects led to other jobs and steady growth from there. Along the way, Zollinger says his work has improved through exposure to different designs and ideas. “Every project is a bigger challenge,” he says. “If we can’t improve on the last one, it doesn’t give the customers anything to search for. They want something different. We’ve had to push ourselves to meet the challenge of that.”
So far in his career Zollinger has produced decorative beamwork, cantilevered shelves, layered crown mouldings and surrounds with fluted columns. One recent job involves an entire room in quarter-sawn white oak, with a distressed, sand-blasted finish, while an upcoming project calls for a hand-rubbed oil finish.
Heritage also works with salvaged materials. Flooring from an old bank became a table for a beach house. A large black walnut tree that a local farmer had marked for burning was instead cut into slab material and veneer for matching millwork and furniture.
“I’m not a fan of whacking down old trees, but in that case, it was going down anyway,” Zollinger says. He replants when possible, and put 30 black walnut whips in another location.
A large portion of the company’s work features native American hardwoods: cherry, mahogany, vertical-grain fir, knotty alder and others. Exotics such as lacewood are also tapped; inlays and accents include ebony.
While some furniture pieces and millwork feature an oil finish, the standard finish Heritage does is a catalyzed varnish because of its durability, Zollinger says.
Some metalwork is done in-house, but most is outsourced. Millwork that is cantilevered off a wall requires an internal metal structure, for instance, while doors may incorporate custom brackets using Zollinger’s designs. Glass or upholstery work also is farmed out.
With the extra floor space gained in the shop’s remodel, Zollinger hopes to add a gang saw or straight line ripsaw and a CNC router to expand the company’s capabilities and increase efficiency. For now, he relies on an SCMI sliding panel saw and a Powermatic 66 table saw for cutting work, as well as a Holz-Her edgebander, Sandingmaster widebelt sander, Ritter face-frame table, Ayen boring equipment, and SCMI shapers and planers.
But the most important tools for the company’s success are its people and their skills and ideas, Zollinger stresses. “Our name is what our shop is all about,” he says. “Everything is about our heritage — what’s been handed down to us, the abilities and ideas that someone passed down to us.”
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