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Go to April 1998 Mill's Pride Story

 

Editor's note: The following feature article on Mill's Pride was originally published in Wood & Wood Products' March 1990 issue. A follow-up Editorial and article appears in the April 1998 issue. It should be noted that Mill's Pride aborted plans to produce its own particleboard within a couple years of the March 1990 issue's release.

 

 

A new, Ohio-based wood products manufacturer puts its faith in technology and consumer acceptance of ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets.

BY RICH CHRISTIANSON

After more than three years of carefully orchestrated planning, research and development, the countdown has begun.

Mill's Pride is poised and ready to launch its first ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinet lines in a bid to quickly establish itself as a dominant force in the relatively untapped "do-it-yourself" cabinet market.

By forging a nationwide distribution network involving major home centers and mass merchandise stores, Mill's Pride spokesman Bill Graves says the company aims to hit $60 million in annual sales within its third year of operation. If that target is hit, Mill's Pride will be bucking to join the ranks of the nation's top 10 cabinet manufacturers.

Such a lofty objective would seem an arduous challenge for most new businesses, but them, Mill's Pride is not your run-of-the-mill woodworking start-up.

A $75 million investment
Mill's Pride is the cabinet division of DWP which has invested close to $75 million since 1987 in developing a totally integrated woodworking operation in Waverly, Ohio. DWP's storage and manufacturing operation encompass nearly 1 million square feet of enclosed space, including plants for lumber sorting, grading and drying; rough milling and dimension wood production; flat-line finishing; door production; fingerjointing; and veneering.

Within a few months, the company will begin impregnating its own melamine to be used in conjunction with a Hymmen continuous double-roll laminating press. Later this year, the company plans to start up its own particleboard production mill.

Once the particleboard mill has begun production, the company will have achieved its goal of self sufficiency. The main benefactor of this vertical integration will be Mill's Pride, which, combined with its state-of-the-art panel processing plant, has the capacity to produce 30,000 cabinets a week. The high level of automation housed in the 100,000-square-foot panel processing plant is attested by the amazingly low number of workers required to man it -- 26 divided between two eight-hour shifts.

The sophisticated panel plant is indicative of the company;'s philosophy to put is faith in technology. According to Ray Wilkinson, production director, "Our company will no rely on cost-effective labor. We know that we can be more cost efficient relying more heavily on technology."

Wilkinson's comments are not meant to imply that DWP does not realize the importance of its 270 production employees. In fact, the company's average wage and benefit package is high by industry standards as an inducement to reduce costly employee turnover. As an added benefit, employees are treated to a choice of hot meals for lunch, serverd daily in the company's cafeteria.

DWP's English roots
DWP was initially established to serve Hygena, the United Kingdom's largest kitchen cabinet manufacturer, with a steady supply of dimensioned white oak. In fact, DWP continues to export about 130,000 board feet of finished oak each week for Hygena's consumption.

Hygena is a success story in its own right. Since being founded in 1977, Hygena's annual sales of RTA cabinets and furniture have steadily climbed from $4.7 million to more than $250 million last year. Now the former corporate ownership of Hygena, the moving force behind DWP, hopes to carry over that type of success to the American marketplace. Bearing in mind that RTA cabinets are common in Europe, and just the opposite here, the $75 million question is: Are there sufficient numbers of American consumers ready, willing and able to assemble and install their own kitchen cabinets?

Graves is certain the answer is, "yes."

"When word first got out that we would make RTA kitchen cabinets, the most common comment we heard was, �«That was tried 10 year ago and it didn't work,'" says Graves. "But a lot has happened in the last 10 years. The increased sophistication of the manufacturing equipment and the development of cam bolts for easier assembly makes for a more precision-crafted product compared to that of 10 years ago.

"Even more important, the growth of the home center industry has really opened doors for a lot of new concepts. Home centers are doing a good job of marketing the concept of the dollar savings and personal satisfaction that can be gained from doing this yourself.

"Once a consumer comes to realize that a kitchen is simply composed of a series of individual boxes, then I think he begins to realize that it is not that monumental of a project to redo his own kitchen," Graves says, adding, "Because of the extreme ease of assembly of our products, and what we consider sizable savings to be obtained, we believe our cabinets will have a certain mass appeal."

"We're trying to bring something fresh to this market," Wilkinson says. "If we sold rigid units, what more could we offer? The competitive pressures just drive prices and profit margins lower and lower."

"We know that we can't expect to just take market share from others," Graves adds. "To succeed, we must expand the market by offering a high-quality product at a competitive price. We know that our product will exceed what a retailer is looking for in terms of dollars per square foot of inventory. They can put an awful lot of RTA product in a small amount of space."

Test sales yield no surprises
Recently, Mill's Pride closed its lone retail showroom in Enfield, Conn., through which the company test marketed more than 100 cabinet styles to gauge consumer preferences.

"Our `experiment' proved within percentage points what the trade magazines were saying all along," says Graves. "White melamine Euro-style and oak raised panel doors are the most popular, with the flavor of the day being the pickled or frosted look. The other flavor of the day is white painted maple."

The closing of the Enfield store also marked an end to Mill's Pride's thoughts of attempting to open a national chain of retail outlets bearing its name. "Our focus is now 100 percent on manufacturing and leaving retailing to the experts," Graves says.

In anticipation of its first deliveries to home centers, Mill's Pride has built up an inventory of 5,000 of each of its initial six cabinet lines. These styles, best typified by their door designs, include:

  • "Europa," a traditional Euro-style square-edged cabinet door in white melamine.
  • "Harvard," a traditional oak raised panel door style.
  • "Country Plank," named in reference to its doors which are composed of four or five random-width planks fingerjointed to that the grain pattens run vertically.
  • A traditional oak flat panel door style.
  • Two versions of postformed laminated doors in white or almond.

All box construction consists of low-pressure melamine over 3/4-inch particleboard and features beech melamine interiors. Cabinets are manufactured in standard heights of 12 inches to 36 inched in 3-inch increments. Also in keeping with the traditional demands of the marketplace, wall cabinets are a standard 12 inches deep and base cabinets are 24 inches deep.

Because the boxes are standardized, they can pretty much be used for any one of Mill's Pride's cabinet lines. The design stylings are differentiated most by the laminate color or wood finish that is used on door and drawer fronts.

Each cabinet comes individually packaged in a colorful carton featuring a line drawing of a complete kitchen cabinet setting and bullet-pointed copy describing its dimensions and other information. Each carton contains side, top, bottom and back panels: door fronts (and drawer front for base cabinets); handles; a full complement of cams and dowels for assembly; hinges (currently supplied by Salice); and assembly instructions.

"We're not making any bold design statements," says Graves. "We're not getting involved with islands and peninsulas. The trend we'll be setting will be that of an extremely efficient manufacturing company bringing a substantial product to market at a great price -- a great value."

Graves says a typical Mill's Pride galley of L-shaped kitchen, consisting of 10 cabinets, will retail for under $1,000. He adds that the average consumer should be able to assemble a Mill's Pride wall cabinet in eight to 10 minutes.

While kitchens are the primary focus of Mill's Pride's manufacturing and marketing efforts, Graves says he expects that 10 to 20 percent of cabinet sales will be for other-room uses, including laundry rooms, garages, childrens' bedrooms and workshops. "There are a lot of areas where people can use a 12-inch deep wall cabinet for storage," he says.

Further down the road, Mill's Pride plans to add bathroom vanities, manufactured to coordinate with its kitchen cabinet stylings.

The next generation
DWP's vertically-integrated manufacturing scheme is patterned after that of Hygena's, Wilkinson says, adding, "Only ours represents the next phase of technology." Wilkinson should know. He was with Hygena from its inception, before moving to Waverly to direct DWP's production operations.

Wilkinson says he especially takes pride in the company's panel processing plant, which features five feed-through production lines, assembled with the help of the Delmac Group. In a nutshell, the lines function as follows:

  • The first begins with a Stemac cut-to-size panel saw, followed by a Gabbiani-GDG double-end tenoner and a Stefani double-sided edgebander to band the length edges of each panel.
  • On the second line, a Stemac panel saw machines smaller components, including rails and drawer fronts.
  • The third line is equipped similarly to the first.
  • The fourth line converts some of the melamine panels processed on the first line into cabinet doors, and also features cross cutting, double-end tenoning, edgebanding and drilling operations.
  • Stefani postforming equipment comprises the fifth line for making doors for Mill's Pride's postformed cabinet lines.

At either end of each line are SAG automatic stacking and destacking devices that help keep manual handling of material to a minimum. Each of the lines also features SAG motorized roller conveyors; carts mounted on rails allow parts processed on one line to be trolleyed to another line for further processing.

In addition to the savings on material handling, Wilkinson has other reasons for being a firm proponent of conveyor use. "Conveyors help organize workflow and lessen confusion," he says.

Machine set-up instructions for each of the five lines is programmed separately. Wilkinson predicts that even several years from now, the company's panel processing plant will still be state-of-the-art by woodworking industry standards.

Constant fine tuning
Inasmuch as Wilkinson believes the panel processing plant will service Mill's Pride's needs for a long time to come, he and other DWP production overseers are constantly on the lookout for improvements that will make the overall manufacturing operation more efficient.

An example of this fine tuning process is the company's recent decision to purchase a Barr Mullin Compu Rip to get a better yield out of No. 2 common white oak. The Compu Rip will be used on conjunction with a new Mereen-Johnson gang ripsaw and a Newman*Whitney planer.

As a result of this improvement, Wilkinson says DWP will realize substantial dollar savings on lumber purchases by switching from a mix of 70 percent No. 1 common-30 percent No. 2 common to a 50-50 mix.

Whereas European technology is at the heart of the company's panel processing plant, a big investment was also made in American-made equipment for solid wood operations.

For openers, about 45,000 board feet of white oak is graded, sorted and sticked each shift using a Hemco lumber grading and sorting system. American Wood Dryer supplied DWP with its two predryers, with a combined capacity of 1.8 million board feet, and 12 kilns, which can dry up to 485,000 board feet per week.

In the rip-first rough mill, where nearly half of DWP's total labor force is employed, four computerized optimizing saws manufactured by Oliver Machinery cut out wood defects by length of random width lumber. Rimann saws optimize lumber yields by width.

The lumber that makes the cut is made into edge-glued panels using five James L. Taylor clamp carriers. The panels are made into raised panel doors using two Ekstrom Carlson CNC routers, two Weinig moulders, four Medalist/Challoner double-end tenoners and a Biesse drilling machine.

The offal from the optimizing operation measuring at least 10 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide is processed into boards using an Industrial Woodworking Machinery fingerjointing system. Most of these fingerjointed boards measure 12 feet by 21 inches and are marketed under the name "Okrian" for use in truck flooring, countertops and flooring. Some of this material is used in door production for the "Country Plank" cabinet line.

Wilkinson says the company produces about 120,000 square feet of Okrian each week. The product's possibilities will be expanded when DWP completes the installation of its veneer plant in April. It will be equipped with Marunaka slicers, Ruckle guillotines and Duespohl fleece backing equipment.

Costly EPA compliance
Solid wood doors, drawer front and other wood parts are coated with a medium oak finish supplied by The Lilly Co. on a flat-line finishing system engineered by George Koch Sons. Wilkinson says DWP invested $1.5 million on a regenerative fume incineration system installed by Huntington Energy Systems to comply with finishing emissions rules mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality standards.

DWP also spared no expense when it installed a state-of-the-art dust collection system to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new wood dust regulations. Wood dust and particles extracted by the system engineered by Saxton Air are fed into a boiler from Industrial Boiler Co. That powers a pair of turbines to cogenerate electricity. Wilkinson says the system helps DWP save about $1,000 a day in electrical costs.

The bottom line
In its current planned format, DWP will have the capacity of shipping up to $100 million worth of product annually from it Waverly site; $60 million is in the form of RTA cabinets, according to Graves.

"We hope to be at that level within three years -- we need to be," Graves says. He adds that the Waverly site is large enough to accommodate additional expansion to produce up to $80 million of RTA products per year. Beyond that, the company would have to build a new plant.

Only time will tell.

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