In Praise of Learning
October 15, 2003 | 10:34 am CDT

An unabashed commitment to education and training helps Joseph Cannon Jr. earn Wood & Wood Products' new Jerry Metz Achievement Award.

At first glance, Joseph Cannon Jr. does not appear to be the most likely candidate to champion the cause of continuing education.

By his own admission, Cannon, who never earned a degree beyond his high school diploma, is not qualified to definitively tell professional educators how they should do their jobs. But that admission has not kept the recipient of Wood & Wood Products' first Jerry Metz Achievement Award from getting actively involved in Rhode Island's continuing education system and chipping in his two cents in an earnest effort to help improve it. Nor has his lack of a college degree stymied his own personal development or his will to better the lives of those who work for him.

Indeed, education and training are vital to satisfying CAS America's mission, which Cannon, founder and president, says is "to become the best equipped technically, the best trained and the highest skilled organization in at least this part of the United States. Beyond that my goals are to create an environment in which people enjoy working, can make a living wage so that they can support their families and educate their children, and enjoy a higher living standard and quality of life. I believe we're well on our way to doing that."

As Gladys Cannon, his business partner and wife of 36 years, puts it, "Joe's always trying to improve things; he's never satisfied. He's always looking at new ways of doing things. He's always thinking 10 years ahead as if he was running a Fortune 500 company instead of just a small woodworking business. I think if we have lived 150 years ago, we'd be on a conestoga wagon heading west."

One Investment Augments Another
CAS America has made a substantial investment in panel processing machinery and CAD/CAM software to manufacture residential, commercial and institutional cabinets and case goods. With the exception of a Morbidelli point-to-point machine, all of the key equipment is leased from Stiles Machinery Inc. This includes a Homag Espana panel saw; a pair of Homag edgebanders, one of which is outfitted with a Ligmatech automatic panel return device; a Weeke point-to-point machine and a Ligmatech case clamp.

The equipment provides more than adequate production capacity for the company to push beyond its nearly $2- million-a-year business. Because the machines are leased, CAS America has the flexibility to upgrade to the next level of equipment needs as it grows.

"To be competitive today you have to be investing in technology and training," Cannon says. "Take a $200,000 machining center and pair it with an employee making $6.80 an hour, which happens in our industry. Personally, I don't want to risk a $200,000 investment on an unskilled operator who can crack the head and cost me $25,000 in a blink of an eye. I want to match the training and education to the machinery that we work with."

Cannon says one of the major reasons he invests in flexible, programmable machinery and systems is so that the employees who are cross-trained to operate them "get paid for using their heads instead of their backs."

Cannon also says he thinks it is essential that "training be done on the management side, including in the areas of sales, marketing and finance. The personal improvement of business owners and managers is critical to raising the level of training of the workforce," he says.

Opportunity from Challenge
Cannon's decision to pump up the volume on education and training at his workplace arose from the need to turn a challenge into an opportunity. He recalls reading about the impending skilled labor crisis four years ago and then experiencing it first-hand beginning in 2000.

"You could run ads and do all of the promotion you wanted to do and no one came through the door because we had almost full employment in this country at that point," Cannon says. "So what you would have to do is steal employees from another business. Of course, if you could steal from them, then they could steal from you.

"I began to look at how we could retain our employees and read several articles about developing employees within your business," Cannon continues. "Because I'm a numbers guy, I came to realize that if we could raise everybody's competency in the business by 10 percent, then I would have a 10-percent better business."

Cannon investigated several available programs, but "wasn't satisfied" with any of them. "So I decided to design my own program which shocked a couple of human resources people because they knew I didn't have an education beyond high school."

Ultimately Cannon helped develop a 15-credit Lean Certificate program that involved brokering a deal between the Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Service.

Cannon's Reflections on Jerry Metz

"I had great respect for Jerry Metz," says Joseph Cannon Jr., the first winner of the Jerry Metz Achievement Award. "I started reading his column in 1979 when I came into the wood products industry as a salesman with Triangle-Pacific. For someone who did not have a professional woodworking background, I learned a lot about woodworking. I think he filled a need by freely sharing his knowledge to the industry."

Cannon says one of the most important lessons he learned from reading the monthly "Consult Jerry Metz" column was to "continually probe people for answers. By reading his column, I learned to challenge my employees about how they do things and I learned a lot reading Jerry's solutions to other manufacturers' problems."


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About the author
Rich Christianson | President/Owner/C-Level

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the industrial woodworking sector. Rich is the former long-time editorial director and associate publisher of Woodworking Network. During his nearly 35-year career, Rich has toured more than 250 woodworking operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia and has written extensively on woodworking technology, design and supply trends. He has also directed and promoted dozens of woodworking trade shows, conferences and seminars including the Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and the Woodworking Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo, Canada’s largest woodworking show.