North Carolina Company Covers All the Bases

Interior Trim started as a millwork installation company and branched out to become a millwork producer as well, with great success.

By Hannah Miller

The sunbelt city of Charlotte, NC, has grown by leaps and bounds the last dozen years, and millwork installation company Interior Trim Creations Inc. has grown right along with it.

The company, on the city's outskirts in the small town of Harrisburg, has made a name for itself installing moulding, wainscoting, mantels and other trim in the million-dollar-plus custom homes springing up in the city and its suburbs.

But owners Antonio and Lin Valdez kept running into what they felt was a stumbling block to growth. "Our installation company pretty much outgrew the vendors that were in the area," says Tony Valdez. "Every time we were doing jobs, they wouldn't get the materials there fast enough."

To get control over the quality of millwork and the pace of installation, they considered starting their own millwork manufacturing company, with the idea that it would be separate from the installation company, but also could work in tandem with it.

Several custom builders who already were clients were enthusiastic about the prospect of getting a turnkey package. "They thought it would be a lot easier for everybody all around," Valdez says.

So in the fall of 1999, they leased a site with a 10,000-square-foot shop and 6,000 square feet of warehouse space in Stallings, about a 30 minutes' drive from Harrisburg. They bought equipment, hired woodworkers and moved several key people from the installation company to the new Interior Trim Creations Millwork Division.

They were in production by February of 2000. By the end of the year, the Millwork Division (or "ITC2," as it's called by company employees) had racked up $1.3 million in sales, while sister company ITC did $1.7 million in installations.

A site-built mantel of stain-grade poplar with a walnut finish surrounds a limestone hearth and complements the matching 42-inch raised-panel wainscoting, built-in cabinetry and coffered ceiling, all built by Interior Trim's Millwork Division.

"It was a good decision that we made," says Valdez.

The two companies work so closely together now that customers often think they are one, says operations manager Shane Higginbotham. At any given time, probably half of each company's work is with its sister company, while the other half is with other firms, he says.

The Harrisburg site where ITC began is now mostly given over to administrative work, with both installers and woodworkers using Stallings as home base. Customers continue to be custom builders catering to the high end of the area's residential building boom. The homes range from $500,000 up to $5 million in price, and homeowners include some of the area's best-known sports and business figures.

Years of experience in handling millwork at ITC prepared two key Millwork Division managers for their new roles, Higginbotham says. Bob Wittaker became production manager and Rick Ramsey, ITC's former chief foreman, became sales manager. All sales representatives, including Ramsey, play a major role, bringing their experience to bear in helping architects and homeowners choose millwork materials and design.

"They are selling the product with the knowledge of whether it's going to work or not," Higginbotham says. For example, a homeowner may bring in a picture of "a mantel not necessarily proportional to the room," he says. The sales reps will try to convince him to let the Millwork Division design it so it will fit the room's size as well as its d+¬cor and style.

They make a drawing of the proposed millwork for the client, either CAD/CAM or freehand, and sometimes the shop makes models and mockups. If a client wants to see a specific crown moulding or assembly of mouldings, for instance, "I can go out to the shop and make it and say, 'Here it is,'" Higginbotham says. Once a decision is made, the sales reps turn their drawings into production orders and shop drawings.

Radii figure largely in many of the home designs. "That's one of our fortes," Higginbotham says, including arches for doorways and windows, concave/convex crown assemblies, custom radius shelving as well as curved work from any of their stock and custom mouldings.

Millwork Division workers learned to use the equipment in the new shop by following manufacturers' instructions "and by doing," Higginbotham says. Machinery includes two SCMI six-head moulders, a widebelt sander, a jointer, a shaper, an M-3 gang ripsaw and a bandsaw, all from SCM Group, and two shapers, a planer and a table saw, all from U.S. Concepts. The shop also has a Multi-Moulder from Charles. G.G. Schmidt Co.

From its original six employees, the Millwork Division has now grown to 20, and many have had prior woodworking experience. Specialty millwork manager Mike Pittman, who has more than 15 years woodworking experience, came to the company several months after it started.

ITC's Millwork Division does some remodeling in Charlotte's historic neighborhoods. There, Higginbotham says, the sales rep obtains samples of existing moulding. "We have to match something 125 years old. That's something you don't go to your local home center and buy."

The Millwork Division makes some of its mouldings and buys others. But in cases like historical replications, it makes its own mouldings and grinds its own tooling.

This large mantel was done in a gothic style with arches and decorative trim.

Along with its standard fare of mouldings, ceiling beams, wainscoting and other trim, the company will sometimes build entertainment centers to match. However, it stays away from kitchen cabinets and also does no finishing. Most work is in hardwood solids and veneers.

The average home Interior Trim works in costs $1.5 million to $2 million, Higginbotham estimates. Forty percent of the time, they are working with builders and architects. Another 40 percent is with builders and homeowners, he says, and the other 20 percent is work on builders' spec homes ranging from $500,000 to $1 million.

"Our big plus is that we are able to get done on time, because we can get the material there on time," he says. Having both a millwork and an installation company, he adds, "enables us to move a little faster than companies that just do one or the other."

Also, competitors don't have anywhere near the 36 installers that they can draw on, he says. "We can put seven or more guys on a job."

Another advantage in covering both areas is that there is a constant liaison between the job site and the millwork shop. "We deliver a day before the installation crews get there," Higginbotham says. "If material runs out, we can get it to them very quickly, the same day or the next morning. We make it a point to support our group out in the field."

Installers have frequent contact with the millwork shop, coming in once or twice a week to pick up individual supplies or to use equipment to make adjustments to whatever they are working on, Higginbotham says. Adjustments are a necessary part of the business, he adds, because in totally custom work, there are always a lot of things you don't know up front.

"You have three different ideas going at the same time," he says, "the architect's, the builder's and the homeowner's. You try something. If they don't like it, you tear it out and try something else."

ITC and the Millwork Division are content for the moment to stick to residential work. "I have so much residential, I haven't got time to look at commercial," Higginbotham says.

But the companies, which already do some work in other Carolinas cities, intend eventually to go multi-state.

Even if they maintain status quo, Valdez says 2001 is shaping up to be an even better year than 2000. He expects Millwork Division sales to be $2.5 million, almost double the volume of its first year. Installation sales are growing too; he expects them to rise from last year's $l.7 million to $2 million, bringing the two-company total volume to $4.5 million in 2001.

Adding the Millwork Division, he says, was "probably one of the best moves we have ever done."

 

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