California Cabinetmaker Enjoys Being One of the 'Old Guys'

With more than 30 years of experience in the San Francisco area, Robert Boynton has earned his reputation as the owner of a top-notch cabinet company.

BY HELEN KUHL


 


This contemporary kitchen was given a soft, sophisticated look by designing radius corners to the outside cabinetry facade. The maple cabinets are sequence matched and feature a natural, clear finish.

 To look at him, Robert Boynton does not appear to be what anybody would call "old." Yet Boynton, owner of Midland Cabinet Co. in San Carlos, CA, takes pride in referring to himself as one of the "old guys" in the San Francisco area cabinet industry. Having started his career working for a local cabinet shop when he was in high school, Boynton said he has patiently waited to attain "old guy" status and enjoys having more than 30 years experience to draw on for his work.

After working for that first company and doing side jobs in his father's garage on the weekends, Boynton opened his own shop, San Mateo Cabinets, with a partner in 1965. In addition to cabinets, they began building box containers for products that were being shipped to Vietnam. The box containers developed into a strong business of their own, and to distinguish between the two entities, they named the box business Midland Manufacturing, which they felt had a nice commercial ring to it. When they moved from San Mateo to Redwood City in 1969, they dropped the San Mateo Cabinets name and kept Midland to cover both.

With Boynton running the cabinet business and his partner running the box business, they eventually decided to go their own ways and in 1975, Midland Manufacturing continued doing boxes only and Boynton started Midland Cabinets. Boynton kept the Redwood City location, where he stayed until 1989, when he purchased his current 20,000-square-foot building.

Boynton said that it took a lot of convincing for him to leave Redwood City, which was close to affluent areas where he had built a reputation for high-quality, high-end work. However, his new location is equally ideal, he said, because it is in a light industrial section filled with tradespeople serving the remodeling market. "There is a carpet company, a door and window supply company, plumbing supply houses, tile shops -- it's unbelievable how much stuff is right here in this little area," he said. "And we are right smack dab in the middle of it."

But besides being in favorable locations, Midland Cabinets built its reputation and grew because of its commitment to quality, service and producing cabinets that last, Boynton added. "We stand behind our product and service our customers for the lifetime of their cabinetry."

The payback has been growing into a company with 20 employees, $2 million in annual sales and working with the area's top designers and architects on jobs that can have close to $1 million in cabinetry and architectural millwork, Boynton said. "My attitude in business is to strive constantly to improve our product and service. As 'one of the old guys,' I am beginning to appreciate the fruits of my endeavors."

As Midland has grown through the years, Boynton has felt a strong commitment to his community and his employees as well as to his customers, said his wife Sue, who joined him in the business about three years ago.

Boynton has given lectures for a local junior college on "How to Buy Cabinets from Your Local Custom Cabinet Manufacturer," and has been asked to teach a class for interior designers called, "Designing Furniture, Cabinets and Interior Architectural Millwork."

Among her duties, Sue Boynton handles human resources, overseeing a benefits program including full employee coverage for medical, dental and vision insurance. Midland also implemented a 401K plan last year, she added, with a small matching program which it hopes to increase periodically. In addition, the company has a unique policy to encourage employees who want to do side jobs (see sidebar).

Safety matters also are overseen by Sue, who has developed a comprehensive program that includes weekly 10-minute safety meetings and a monthly company-funded barbecue lunch/safety meeting.

"The safety program was always going, but it wasn't documented as well as it could have been," she said. "I developed a catalog of 52 safety-oriented discussions, one for each week of the year. They can be on our ear protection policy, our eye protection policy or equipment training, for example. The catalog is something that is important to me."

Sue Boynton also asks the fire department to conduct a brief fire safety meeting during its annual permit checks and has developed an evacuation procedure to get all employees out of the building safely in the event of an emergency. From time to time, she works with an outside safety engineer to keep the company compatible with Cal OSHA standards. In 1989, Midland was complimented on its top-quality shop in a letter from the agency, she said.

The shop itself is set up to enhance safety and comfortable working conditions. The company has a large capacity Northfab dust collection system, big enough to accommodate future expansion. The entire plant is vacuumed from the walls on down, three times a year. It has an exterior combustion heating system, which eliminates the possibility of an explosion, Boynton said. The shop also is outfitted with 400-watt metal halide light bulbs, spaced 15 feet on center, which project 100 lumens at 3 feet for ideal lighting, he added. And in the door department, each station has its own pull-down electricity and air hoses.

In addition, the shop has painted aisleways on the floors to encourage customers not to weave throughout the departments when they are visiting. "I think the men first saw the aisleways as kind of overkill," Sue Boynton said. "But once they saw me walking through with a customer and not leaving the aisleway, they actually kind of liked the respect we were giving them. When they are working on these big machines; they should not be disturbed, they should be allowed to stay focused. I think they really enjoy that."

The company also has invested a lot in its shop equipment. Among its latest purchases are a DMC Finesand orbital sander and a Chronosand triple-head segmented platen sander, bought from Tekna Advanced Technologies one month before last year's Anaheim Fair. Also new is a James L. Taylor panel clamp.

Other equipment includes a Brandt D-3000 edgebander from Altendorf America, a Striebig vertical panel saw from Colonial Saw, a five-head Wadkin GD220 moulder, an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw and several Vega edge sanders. The company also has shapers from SCMI and Wadkin and a 24-inch Wadkin planer. Midland grinds its own knives on a Wadkin NV300 grinder and joints them on a machine from Nielsen Tool.

 

 A NEW TWIST TO SIDE JOBS

Robert Boynton started his professional woodworking career by working in one shop and doing side jobs for himself on the weekends -- a practice he encourages among his own workers.

After an employee has been with Midland Cabinet Co. for 90 days, he can work on his own during off-hours (the company operates on a 10-hour, Monday through Thursday, work week). Boynton refers some customers directly to employees if the job can't be handled by Midland economically or the company is too busy.

Boynton is no longer involved with a job once he refers it to an employee. The employee works directly with the client negotiating price and confirming delivery dates. Some employees do as many as 12 outside jobs a year.

"When you allow an employee to work for himself, it gives him a sense of entrepreneurship and he learns how to make decisions on his own," Boynton said. "He has to figure out how long it's going to take him to do something, develop plans on his own and learn how to work with customers. It hones his skills and is motivating."

Some employees have gone on to open their own shops, and Boynton stays on friendly terms with them. He said that there is enough work to go around, and he also will send work to another shop if Midland is swamped.

Boynton's unconventional attitude about employee side jobs earned him a mention from author Tom Peters in his book, "Liberation Management," (published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992). Peters described Boynton's policy in a chapter on "Networks and Markets."

 Midland does what Rob Boynton calls "interior architectural millwork for residences." Projects range from a "typical" kitchen for $35,000 up to a house-full of cabinetry for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Its work is all in solid woods and veneers. Boynton and his staff do all the estimating and bidding. The staff includes two interior architectural designers/project managers who develop plans and generate shop drawings.

The company has just started doing automated designing, Boynton said. It uses a software package from Cabinet Vision that includes CAD for drafting.

Boynton said that there are seven parts to Midland's production process -- layout, cutting parts, making doors and drawers, assembly, finishing and delivery. The layout of the shop corresponds to those tasks.

Among the steps Midland takes to obtain high quality is following the Woodwork Institute of California's specifications for "premium" grade cabinetry. "Although residential cabinets generally do not get built to those specs, Midland does what's labeled as 'premium' in about 85 to 95 percent of the specification areas," Boynton said.

Boxes are built out of 3/4-inch material and Midland uses both maple and melamine interiors, he said. "We grain match our doors, one door on top of the other," he added. "When we have a lock rail in a door, the grain match runs through."

When Midland makes a stove hood, it always incorporates a custom stainless steel hood, which Boynton said is pretty unique.

The company hand selects its lumber and uses ApplePly from States Industries for its drawer boxes. It has a drawer-making machine from Hammer Machinery that makes interlocking joints. "It's a very clean joint and it's WIC-approved," Boynton said. Drawers are prefinished before bottoms go in and before hardware is installed. Midland uses Accuride drawer slides, Salice European-style hinges and non-barrel hinges imported from France by Gerber Hinge Co.

Midland makes its own doors, but subs out veneer layup to Woodcraft Studios, a local supplier. The company does its own finishing, including a lot of unique specialty finishes, Boynton said. "I think our finishes are pretty darned sophisticated," he said. "We do a lot of glazing work."

About 25 percent of Midland's jobs are for frameless cabinets and the balance is for a beaded flush-inset style, which is a very popular look right now, Boynton said. It does little traditional face-frame cabinetry at the moment. A distressed, burnished finish is especially common on the inset-style cabinets, he added.

Boynton is often involved in project designs, and with 30-plus years' experience in the industry, he has developed a keen sense of design which his customers value, Sue said. Boynton and his design staff work closely with clients to refine plans to fit specific needs.

"I don't run a cabinet shop. I design a product that my cabinet shop builds," he said. "'Form follows function' is extremely important to me. Function is foremost."

Although Midland has built a strong clientele through word-of-mouth referrals, Sue Boynton also tackled marketing tasks when she joined the company, which included starting an advertising campaign that has been very successful.

"Sue started a program where we had a full-page ad every month in two local magazines," Boynton said. "We wanted the ads to highlight Midland's diversity. We kept track of the responses to help us develop future advertising strategies."

"I think the biggest thing about marketing is just to tell your story," Sue said. "I feel that when we talk about who we are, that is the best."

Sue Boynton also said that she likes to see Midland host events that are hands-on and help bring people together. She is a strong advocate for networking among suppliers and other local cabinet shops and tradespeople, as well as with customers. She said that enhancing the image of the woodworking trade in general benefits everyone.

The most ambitious and innovative event Sue developed to date was holding an anniversary party to celebrate Midland's 30th birthday. A reception was held on the shop floor, which was transformed with spotless cleaning, rented tables and catered food. Guests also toured the newly remodeled showroom.

Around 500 people were invited, including every Midland client from the past 30 years, as well as architects, designers, contractors, trades people, suppliers, employees and a few guests with sentimental significance, such as Rob's former woodworking teacher. As a special memento, Midland made 125 walnut keepsake boxes for its VIP invitees. The lumber was donated by Higgins Lumber, which supplies most of Midland's wood.

Sue Boynton said that she would like to host another event to promote the woodworking industry in general and showcase its high-tech side. "It's not about us, it's about the trade. It would have to be interesting for everybody," she said. "I think it would be interesting to have an event where some vendors of high-tech equipment introduced the technology to all of us in the area. I think it's important that we all share our information, and we would like to be the vehicle for doing it."

While Rob Boynton may enjoy being "the old guy," he is not resting on his laurels and remains as enthusiastic about his work as when he first realized in high school that he loved woodworking.

He sees the future for Midland Cabinets as pursuing, and getting, more "big" jobs involving $1 million and up in cabinetry and related millwork, bringing with it the challenge of increased project management and production scheduling to accommodate change orders.

"Large-scale jobs are interesting because on a job where they pull out all the stops, we can really be creative. Rob enjoys that," Sue said. "He likes the excitement of working on a team with creative architects and designers. But Midland will still do a bathroom vanity for somebody if they want us to."