Editorial: Mill's Pride Eight Years Later
BY RICH CHRISTIANSON
"If seeing is believing, then I believe I have recently seen one of, if not the most, impressive manufacturing start-ups in North American woodworking history."
So began my March 1990 Editorial, written fresh on the heels of my first visit to Mill's Pride's ready-to-assemble cabinet manufacturing plant in Waverly, OH. Initially developed to the tune of $75 million, the highly-automated, vertically-integrated operation was then poised to begin shipping products in a bold attempt to successfully navigate the most uncharted segment of the burgeoning RTA market -- kitchen cabinets.
The Editorial prefaced my exclusive and broader account of Mill's Pride's setup and aspirations also published in the March 1990 issue of Wood & Wood Products. It was an important story not only because of the level of sophistication of the technology Mill's Pride was using, but because the article highlighted the growing importance of home centers for selling cabinets.
Having recently had the distinct privilege to visit and write about the complex for a second time, I can only say that my earlier pronouncement of the impressiveness of Mill's Pride's operation still rings true, only louder. For example, the Washington building, which houses most of the company's feed-through cut-to-size, edgebanding and boring lines, has tripled in size during the eight years between my two visits. In fact, the entire operation has tripled in size and most of the buildings I toured did not exist in 1990.
Aside from the roughmill, dry kilning and cabinet door manufacturing operations, there was little that I recognized from my initial visit. This is largely due to the fact that Mill's Pride is constantly re-engineering and reorganizing its product lines, its facilities and its processes. For example, one warehouse replaced by a bigger, more modern storage facility is currently being converted to produce armoires and home entertainment units.
The Last Laugh
I especially remember the alleged insider views of a cabinet door company executive. He took me aside at an industry trade show to tell me that Mill's Pride was in deep financial trouble, was up for sale and that his company was one of many that had received an invitation to buy it. He said his company had no interest in making an offer for what he referred to as that "folly in Waverly."
To make a long story short, a few months after this conversation took place, Mill's Pride began shipping product to Home Depot. Eight years later, Mill's Pride's products are not only being sold in Home Depot's 623-and-counting home centers, but in other successful 1990s retailers like Wal Mart and Office Max. This year the company expects total sales to far exceed $500 million and as Home Depot and the others build more stores that sales figure is sure to climb.
From what I saw in my journey to Waverly last month, far from fading away, Mill's Pride is coming on strong. It's a big-league operation with big league plans.
How this RTA cabinet and case goods giant has gone from $0 to $500 million in sales in 10 years.
BY RICH CHRISTIANSON
To trek through Mill's Pride's 3-million-square-foot complex in Waverly, OH, is to understand what high-tech, high-production woodworking is all about.
Since breaking ground in 1987, Mill's Pride has invested well over $200 million on buildings and technology with millions of dollars more already committed this year for significant capital improvements and expansions. During its first decade, Mill's Pride doubled in size and sales about every three-and-a-half years. Michael Connelly, chief financial officer, said 1998 sales are projected to far surpass $500 million in what he predicted will be the company's "best year ever."
Mill's Pride's rapid rise to the leadership ranks of North American ready-to-assemble wood products manufacturers began by focusing on an RTA niche that was virtually overlooked -- kitchen cabinets. While other manufacturers doubted there were sufficient numbers of cost-conscious consumers willing to assemble and install their own kitchen cabinets, Mill's Pride forged full-speed ahead. The success of the company's frameless RTA cabinet lines was quickly followed by the introduction of home office workstations, home entertainment units and other RTA wood case goods, sold under the "Room Additions" brand name. In February, a company record 1.1 million units of cabinets and case goods were produced.
During its ascent to the top, Mill's Pride has not only moved up to No. 2 among RTA wood products manufacturers behind fellow Ohio resident Sauder Woodworking, but has also staked a claim as the second largest North American cabinet manufacturer next to Masco. (See W&WP's Top 25 Cabinetmakers chart.) With its position as the undisputed leader of RTA cabinets firmly established, Mill's Pride is preparing to introduce its first line of fully assembled cabinets. The Premier line is set to begin making its way to selected Home Depot stores this month.
A Handful of Customers
In many ways, Mill's Pride's growth has mirrored that of its biggest retail partner, Home Depot, the world's largest home center chain. The 20-year-old, Atlanta-based corporation generated $24 billion in sales at its 624 stores, including 32 in Canada last year. Home Depot's fast-track growth is underscored by the fact that it only operated 423 stores in 1995 and plans to have more than 1,000 opened by the year 2000.
The opening of more Home Depots, Wal-Marts and other customer stores has helped propel Mill's Pride's sales. In addition, the company has expanded its product line to include RTA occasional tables, for example. Plus, Mill's Pride is actively pursuing an expansion of its color palette beyond its popular standards: oak, maple and white vinyl.
A Sea of Technology
"We have found what works and we're sticking with it," Garber said. "The biggest difference between today and 10 years ago is that the machinery is faster and much more flexible."
Mill's Pride's 11-building operation is a veritable working exhibit of high technology. In every phase of the plant's operation, from lumber grading and panel processing through finishing and packaging, automated loading/unloading devices and motorized roller conveyors help keep production moving steadily forward with a minimum of intervention by the company's production employees.
It's not just that Mill's Pride is using some of the world's most advanced technology that blows the visitor away. It is the sheer quantity of technology that leaves a lasting impression. Among the mind-numbing numbers, Mill's Pride's arsenal of high-tech woodworking equipment includes:
In addition to three-dimensional thermal-formed doors, the company operates two flat-line systems from George Koch Sons for finishing five-piece wood doors. Plus, Mill's Pride has one of the only feed-through IMA contour edgebanders in North America. The machine shapes and edgebands a part in the same pass, which Wilkinson said "has solved one of our biggest bottlenecks for making curved worksurfaces and table tops."
In-Line Panel Processing
The basic configuration of the 180-foot-long strip lines, engineered and supplied by Delmac Machinery, includes an SAG automated vacuum suction panel feeding device, followed by a ripsaw, a Gabbiani-GDG combination double-end tenoner/ edgebander, a cross-cut saw and an SAG automated outfeed. Each of the operations is linked by conveyors for continuous operation. An in-line turning device rotates the ripped panels 90 degrees after the combination machine to cross-cut them.
The secondary panel processing lines are divided into two major production categories: shelving and end panels. A typical end panel line runs 150 feet, including infeed, combination double-end tenoner/ edgebander, two Biesse aggregate spindle drills and an automated panel stacking device. Ray Wilkinson, senior vice president of operations, explained that while one drill machines a panel, the second resets to tackle the next one. By alternating machining between two drills, a potential production bottleneck is eliminated and the line is able to increase output substantially.
The shelf lines are similar to the end panel lines, minus the combination machine operation, since shelves do not require edgebanding on all four sides.
In light of the considerable investment in these machining lines, it is essential to keep them humming along as much as possible. "Keeping all of the lines busy is our biggest challenge," Wilkinson said. "Keeping everything coordinated between departments is the name of the game."
"One of the reasons we are so vertical is that sometimes we cannot find the available capacity in a reasonable time frame to supply us with the volume we need," said Garber. "We don't have the luxury to go through the trial-and-error process of finding vendors. By doing things ourselves we can operate in a tight little loop and meet our schedules."
The People Factor
"This company has a very unique organizational philosophy that gives people latitude to exercise their creativity," Garber said. "The various managers of the different departments and buildings are encouraged to look into ways to improve their processes. People are constantly coming to Ray and myself with ideas.
"Too many big companies have too rigid of organizational structures," Garber continued. "Creativity gets lost in the shuffle as people get used to the idea of waiting for someone to tell them what to do. It's not that way here. People are doing things on their own all the time."
Wilkinson added, "We've found that having 2,000 people trying to make things work better is a lot better than one person trying to do it all by himself."
Mill's Pride has a heaping plateful of expansion plans for 1998 and beyond.
For starters, the company is in the process of releasing Premier, its first line of assembled cabinets. Premier cabinets will soon make their debut at selected Home Depot stores.
In addition, Mill's Pride recently built the 400,000-plus-square-foot Madison building, a modern warehouse that features bar-coded inventory control. In turn, the Eisenhower building, which used to serve as storage, is being converted into a manufacturing plant dedicated to producing large RTA furniture, including armoires and home theater units. When completed this fall, the building will have several strip lines, end lines and shelf lines similar to what is found in the Washington building. The building will also be equipped with four Shoda routers, several Wemhoner membrane presses, a Hymmen 5-foot laminating press and its own packing line. "For the first time we'll have everything for that kind of product in one building," said Ray Wilkinson, senior vice president of operations.
Even with the recent addition of the larger warehouse, Mill's Pride plans to build a 1-million-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of Waverly.
In case that's not enough to keep Mill's Pride's managers busy, plans are well in the works to open a major production facility in the western United States.
Mill's Pride's Waverly, OH, operation features some 3 million square feet of production and warehousing space divided among 11 buildings. Each of the buildings is named after a U.S. president, which Ray Wilkinson said "is meant to instill a bit of character and sense of stateliness."
A quick run-down of the each building follows:
In addition, a building leased across the street from the complex by Mill's Pride houses the company's only outlet store, plus automatic bagging lines and printing functions.
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