Louisiana Company Goes from Startup to Upstart

Baton Rouge-based Kellerman Woodworks has plans for big growth.

By Greg Landgraf

In four years, Kellerman Woodworks has grown from a four-person startup to a 16-employee company with sales totalling $1.4 million last year. If all goes according to plan, however, the next five years will blow that figure away. The goal: $5 million in sales in 2005.

           
           
     
      This kitchen, built in salvaged cypress, is one of four that Kellerman built as displays at Shelton’s Gallery, a Baton Rouge lighting and appliance outlet. The island features a wax finish, while the cabinets are varnished.    

“Our goal has always been to expand into a large cabinet manufacturer,” says Jack Kellerman, who founded and owns the company with his brothers Kurt and Brett.

The plan to achieve better-than-350% growth in six years has two parts: expanding cabinet production and increasing the market for it.

Not surprisingly, technology figures prominently in the company’s bid to increase production. Earlier this year, during the span of one week, the company spent $300,000 on three new pieces of equipment. The additions — a Komo CNC router, a DMC Polisand widebelt sander from SCM GROUP USA and a Tiger Stop from Precision Automation for the company’s Whirlwind cut-off saw — facilitated procedural improvements throughout the shop, even in areas not directly connected.

The impetus for buying the CNC router was the prospect of increasing production but not workforce. “I always knew we were going to go there,” Kellerman says. “It came to the point where we had the backlog of work to support it.”

The company uses the router for nested-based manufacturing of all cabinet parts. While the CNC router dramatically improves machining speed and frees the operator to perform other tasks while parts are being machined, it also aids assembly and finishing operations.

“The router has pretty much idiot-proofed everything,” says plant supervisor Karl Robillard. In addition to cutting out cabinet parts, the company uses it to pre-drill screw holes, shelf holes, create grooves for dadoes, and cut arrows and the letter “T” to indicate the outside and top of a cabinet. He says the system makes it simple enough for new employees to begin assembling within an hour.

       
       
    Sharing the knowledge

Kellerman frequently visits other cabinet shops to study new systems. In four years of business, he has toured seven plants.

His last trip was to Barbosa Cabinets, a 200-plus-employee plant in Tracy, CA. Barbosa links its computerized equipment, including several Tiger Stops, to office computers. Kellerman studied the system before adapting it to his own company.

Kellerman says he finds these plants simply by reading about them in trade magazines. “When one catches my eye and they are doing something we eventually want to do, I’ll just pick up a phone and call them,” he says.

The flow of information will not stop there. Kellerman says he is interested in serving as a consultant on the production systems Kellerman Woodworks has adopted.

 
       

“When the assemblers are putting it together, anywhere they see a hole, they put a screw in,” Kellerman adds. ”We could machine more pieces of plywood in a day without that extra machining time, but we feel it’s important to save time in assembly.” The increased machining makes assembly three times faster than the old way, where the assembler was responsible for his own machining, Kellerman says.

The extra machining has also allowed the company to introduce new assembly techniques. “Face frames are put on with sort of a mortise and tenon, if you will,” Robillard says. “Grooves on the back of the face frame slide over the tenons on the wall side, the top and the bottom, and are shot with staples from the back so nothing is ever seen.” The company also converted from nails to screws for assembly, which hold together better and eliminate the need for glue.

In the finishing room, the CNC router’s capability of cutting finished panels has allowed the company to finish flat stock rather than completed cabinets.

Kellerman says he added the Polisand and the Tiger Stop to help the rest of the shop keep pace with the increased machining speed. The new sander includes a random-orbital head to remove cross-grain scratches from the widebelt, minimizing hand-sanding after a piece goes through the sander. The Tiger Stop automates cutting and also links to the office computer and downloads cutlists to optimize and produce labels.

Except for one employee, who left the company soon after the new equipment purchases, the staff eagerly embraced the technology. “It helped boost morale. I think most people have a need to learn new things,” Kellerman says.

         
         
     
    Kellerman Woodworks recreated this mahogany hutch to match the client’s photograph.    

The added equipment also helped to counteract turnover caused by the strong economy. Kellerman says the 13 shop employees now produce more than when the shop peaked at 18 workers.

Kellerman says adding the Tiger Stop and Polisand were relatively easy decisions to make. The CNC router, however, took more evaluation time. Kellerman made the decision after several months of research.

The company bought the machine through Elkins Technology in Arkansas, which delivered and installed it. Kellerman trained for a week in the shop with the Elkins salesperson and three representatives from Komo. A Cabnetware representative also came to the shop to make sure that the shop’s Cabnetworks software would coordinate. “I think our earliest night was 11 p.m. We stayed until 1 a.m. one morning,” Kellerman says. He also trained for two weeks at Komo’s facility in Minnesota, primarily learning Router-CIM.

Kellerman has since trained two more employees on the CNC router.

So far, Kellerman Woodworks has done work mainly for the Baton Rouge area. Changing that is the second part of the company’s ambitious growth plan.

“We’re trying to diversify right now so that when the economy does slow up, we’re not just drawing from the Baton Rouge market,” Kellerman says. The company is establishing a network of kitchen dealers to spread its work beyond the local area. Working through a factory cabinet representative, the company has lined up four dealers, three in New Orleans and one in Houston. Kellerman says he plans to add to the network after a trial period of about six months.

“In a two-year period, we’re looking to have about 20 dealers set up,” Kellerman says. The company’s initial efforts will focus on Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

Kellerman says the company will always do custom work, but as sales through kitchen dealerships grow, it will develop production cabinet lines as well. “You’ve got to do that for the showrooms,” Kellerman says. “People want to say, ‘I want the Heritage or I want the such-and-such.’” He adds that the company will focus on specialty lines that larger cabinet manufacturers don’t build, such as distressed, wax or glazed finishes and specialty woods like salvaged cypress.

Kellerman Woodcrafts built its business by focusing on the finished cabinetry market, an under-served niche in the Baton Rouge area. Each piece is custom, and specialty finishes are already a strength. “If a customer can give us a photograph of what they want, we can give it to them,” Kellerman says.

           
           
       
    This kitchen features mitered doors and a glazed finish.    

The company’s early marketing was primarily by exhibiting at home and garden shows to get its work in front of families building their own homes. It also formed a partnership with Shelton’s Gallery, a local appliance and lighting store. The company built cabinetry for four displays in Shelton’s outlet. “That’s like a permanent showroom for us,” Kellerman says. “We get work just from that.”

The company manufactures for the mid- and high-end residential market, with jobs averaging between $25,000 and $30,000. All of its work uses face-frame construction because customers in the area prefer the traditional-looking cabinetry.

The 10,000-square-foot shop includes a Powermatic table saw with a power feeder used for ripping, a Ritter face-frame table, a Blum hinge-boring machine and two spray booths with Kremlin guns and pumps in the finishing room. Kellerman says that the recent additions have nearly filled the shop to capacity and that an expansion up to 50,000 square feet, with room to expand further, will be the company’s next major move. “We’re trying to get away from the mentality of a local cabinet shop and move toward the mentality of a cabinet factory,” Kellerman says.

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