Work Ethic + Family Approach = Kountry Kraft

This Pennsylvania custom cabinet company looks back on 40 years of growth, built on family commitment all the way.

By Anthony G. Noel

Elvin and Helen Hurst beam as they recall the early years of their business. It blossomed not long after Helen gave her husband a table saw as a Christmas gift.

"Fifty dollars down, 10 dollars a month -- and I have no idea where I got that money!" she laughs.

"My wife and I both were raised on farms," says Elvin, as he glances out the window of a spacious office, which sits on land that was once part of the family farm. "Our whole background is agriculture. And, naturally, on the farm we did a little bit of everything. My father did his own carpentry work, as well as electric, plumbing, heating and mechanics. So a lot of the trades I was taught as I grew up. I was pretty handy with most anything, and Helen knew I liked woodworking as a hobby."

The strong work ethic engendered by farming served the couple well as their job focus began to shift toward woodworking. After building hutches and coffee tables in his basement while working in the daytime for a local kitchen contractor, Elvin decided in 1959 to try doing kitchens on his own.

"My father was an electrical contractor. He moved off the farm and my wife and I moved onto it," Elvin says. "Then he introduced me to the (local) builders, and I got my first sales like that."

Elvin moved his woodworking operation into a small garage. "In the very beginning, when Elvin and I had the little shop in the one-car garage," Helen says, "Elvin would go measure a kitchen, bring me the measurements and I would draw it up. We would write a supply list, get the supplies and then we would make the kitchen.

"We had four children in five years. We would put them to bed at 8 o'clock and listen in on an intercom system. Many times we would work until 12 or one o'clock in the shop to do a kitchen," she adds. "Then he would bring another order in, and the next day he would go and install the first kitchen while I would design the next one. It was really one kitchen at a time.''

 

Kountry Kraft designs cabinetry for every application. This his-and-her's oak vanity includes hand-carved details and is just one example of the company's versatility, which extends to entertainment centers and china cabinets.

In the 40 years since, Kountry Kraft and the Hurst family have faced their share of challenges. There have been no fewer than 17 expansion projects, some small, some large, and one almost too large for the company's own good. There was the loss of a son, who had kept the family farm thriving until losing his life in a car accident in 1980.

There was the time and effort required to establish a dealer network that now spans the country, while keeping local ties strong (the company still keeps a total of seven crews busy doing installations within a 70-mile radius of the factory). And, of course, there has been the constant challenge to keep production efficient and designs current, without making sacrifices to product quality.

Kountry Kraft now occupies nearly 100,000 square feet of what used to be Hurst family farmland. It employs 125 people in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, about 20 miles north of Lancaster.

"We followed the work theory that we were taught on the farm,'' says Helen, who in the early days completed a course on public accounting and ran the bookkeeping end of the business. "That was, we did what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, with what we had to do it.''

The little table saw that started it all has long since been retired. It sits, bronzed, in the company lobby. But if production techniques at Kountry Kraft have changed with the times, one thing hasn't -- the company still makes totally custom kitchens. There are no three-inch increments and no "You can have this, but not that.'' The company builds whatever the customer wants.

This commitment to the principles on which Kountry Kraft was founded has paid off. The company has customers in each of the fifty states, a dedicated workforce which Elvin calls the company's "finest asset'' and sales totaling more than $10 million last year -- not bad for "a couple of farmers with eighth-grade educations."

"I had no formal training in business,'' Elvin is quick to note. "I went from grade school to the farm. I liked to work, I liked to make things happen and I was pretty aggressive. But I did not plan to build a big business. Somehow, we were blessed with the foresight to make the right steps.''

One step which almost proved wrong was the company's first big addition, in 1974. The construction doubled the size of the facility and forced a complete reversal in the way work flowed through the plant.

"It was very strenuous financially, physically and mentally,'' Elvin says, "because we took such a big leap, and '74 was the first recession.''

"We built a little bigger than we needed,'' Helen adds.

Previous additions had been done as needed on a smaller scale. The 1974 expansion "was the first time we built to grow into it,'' Elvin says. "It took a long time to do,'' his wife adds.

But it was the loss of their son Jere, in 1980, which Elvin Sr. calls "the saddest, toughest thing our family ever experienced. Of all the business downers, that was a real rough year for us.''

Elvin Jr., now Kountry Kraft's production manager, took over for his late brother, farming 100 acres for another two years. "So,'' Elvin Sr. says, "the family knows how to work and endure tough times and,'' he adds, brightening, "good times.''

Times were very good between 1984 and 1989. Sales grew from $2 million to $8 million, as Elvin Sr.'s brother, Lloyd, teamed up with then-sales manager Mike Bowers. "Those two guys came in here in '84,'' Elvin Sr. recalls with a laugh, "both challenging the other to outdo him. The salesman was determined to bury the factory, and the factory pushed sales.''

Lloyd left in 1989, after successfully meeting the increased demand with a second shift. The rapid growth was capped with a 19,000-square-foot addition in 1990. Kountry Kraft installed an automatic finishing system, trimmed about a third of its workforce and went back to a single shift.

Today, Elvin and Helen are about ready for retirement, and their children are set to take the reins. In fact, Elvin Jr. and a daughter, Delores Hurst-Funk, have been steering the ship in a number of areas for several years already. Both have worked at the company full-time since the early 1980s and have been top managers for 10 years.

Elvin Jr. oversees all production and Delores ("Dee'' as she's known) is director of marketing and handles office management. A certified kitchen designer, she also directs the firm's design services.

Another of the Hurst's children, Dale, has been instrumental in designing company buildings and equipment. He was the driving force in developing the automatic finishing system, an innovation that allowed Kountry Kraft to maintain its higher output and trim its workforce without sacrificing quality.

At the system's heart is a towline by Pneu-Mech Systems Manufacturing. It uses 105 carts to convey parts over a 780-foot course, through three ovens. The line stops for intervals of just over one minute after moving forward one cart-length. Employees all along the line have access to "stop'' buttons if a quality issue isn't quite resolved when the line starts moving again.

Kountry Kraft uses a conversion varnish topcoat and will match or produce literally any finish a customer requests.

Elvin Jr. and Dee have introduced innovations of their own, while preserving time-tested policies and product features that set the business apart, like dovetailed case and drawer assembly and veneer-core plywood construction.

Elvin Jr. instituted weekly quality-control meetings within each department. "It's just a think tank, where we go through the week; if a door goes back to be refinished for whatever reason, or if a door get drilled wrong, our quality control manager will keep records of all that. Of course, the mistakes that are repeated the most are the first ones we work on,'' he says.

"If you get the employees all together and the line is stopped so you don't have to worry about 'quick, get that line going,' it's incredible what you can do," he adds. Thanks to all the company's quality-assurance measures, the reject rate at the pre-assembly QC station runs between just 1 and 2 percent.

Elvin Jr. was also involved when Kountry Kraft replaced its original shipping and warehouse area in 1995. Prior to that, the company had handled shipping out of a cramped, low-ceilinged room since 1968. The new area is spacious and well-lit and allows complete kitchens to be set up for quality assurance prior to shipping.

As the company increased its plant size over the years, it added other major pieces of equipment besides the finishing line. Current machinery includes a new Holzma HPP 11 panel saw from Holzma=U.S., a division of Stiles Machinery Inc.; a Morbidelli Author 504 point-to-point boring machine from SCM GROUP USA.; a Gannomat 280 dowel inserter from Tritec Associates Inc.; a Holz-Her edgebander; a Dodds dovetailer and a Sandingmaster 52-inch triple-head widebelt sander.

While Kountry Kraft continues to sell and market locally, Dee, in her marketing role, is particularly focused on growing the company's dealer network, which already numbers better than 60 dealers nationwide. "With the retail end we have to handle the whole installation and countertops and all that. With the dealers, we are just manufacturing. We have decided that we would more or less lean to just being a manufacturer,'' she says.

Still, says Elvin Jr., having the mix of nationwide dealers and local retail business is a good hedge against a sometimes-fickle economy. "Even if one goes down, the other still holds strong and you always have something. If you are just all dealers and your dealer business goes slow, everything goes slow,'' he says.

His Dad agrees. "I like that network of variety, and I also like to be spread out geographically,'' Elvin Sr. says. "That way, if the market goes down in the Northeast and you have dealers in the South or West, you are protected.''

Dee has just finished a new brochure, which marks the company's 40th year and features kitchens as well as custom entertainment centers and bathrooms. Last year, she helped bring the company into the digital age of marketing, when the Kountry Kraft web site (www.kountrykraft.com) was launched.

In her role as office manager, Dee, like her mother before her, is a stickler for checking customers' credit before offering them terms. "We do thorough checking up front, and if there is any problem we demand a down payment and cash on delivery,'' she says.

This sound financial philosophy extends to paying the company's own bills, which are "always,'' Elvin Sr. notes, paid within the discount period. That practice attracts more vendors and enables Kountry Kraft to purchase raw materials at better prices than slower-paying concerns, he says.

Forty years of combined effort by members of the Hurst family and many dedicated employees (the average length of service among Kountry Kraft workers is now 10 years) have allowed Kountry Kraft to grow to a size few custom shops ever achieve. And if the growth continues, there is still plenty of acreage just outside the door to accommodate it.

 

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