High-End Millwork Redefines Bay Area Beauty

Four California brothers create custom commercial interiors that resonate with architectural sophistication.

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
Mission Bell Manufacturing
Morgan Hill, CA
www.missionbell.com

Year Founded: 1959
Employees:
108
Shop Size:
61,000 square feet, 9,000 square feet of which is dedicated office space.

FYI: Co-owner and President John Scianna highly recommends reading The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. He says the book is a good source for shop owners who want to streamline their manufacturing processes by identifying and solving problems created by constraints.

 
   
     

Situated in a panoramic valley, not far from the megalopolis of San Francisco, is Morgan Hill, CA — a tranquil community where Mission Bell Manufacturing is located.

This high-end custom architectural millwork company was founded in 1959 by Leonard Scianna. Leonard decided to open a millwork company with some co-workers when he found out that his then employer, Pacific Manufacturing — which was noted as being the largest manufacturer of wood products west of the Mississippi — was closing its doors forever. Leonard soon bought out his partners and became sole owner of the company.

He and his wife Marjorie brought their four sons, Gary, Gregg, John and Mark, into the business to learn the trade from the ground up. In the mid 1980s Leonard retired and his sons took over the business. “It was always a foregone conclusion the we would take over the business,” says John Scianna. “I remember coming in after school when I was 12 and sweeping up in the shop.”

John says that he and his brothers spent time apprenticing in all areas of the shop and in the office. “As we grew into the business, my dad started backing out of it,” he recalls. Today, Gary, the eldest son, has stepped down as company president, and although semi-retired, still assists with procuring new sales. Mark is in charge of sales and estimating, Gregg oversees project production and plant operations and John is company president and does administrative work and sales calls when needed.

“Being a family-owned business is an interesting dynamic. Having four people running the business makes decision making more complex sometimes, but I believe that the decisions are better because there are four different points of view and personalities going into the process,” adds John.

     
 
This board room boasts figured sycamore wall cladding. The hanging light soffit, made from MDF, has a faux painted finish on it.  
     

Filling a Fortuitous Niche Market
Today, Mission Bell employs 108 full-time union craftspeople and specializes in high-end custom commercial architectural millwork for law firms, venture capital firms, hospitals and retirement homes. In the beginning the company‘s commercial architectural portfolio included schools, which heavily reflected the massive suburban expansion of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s in California.

Today, John says that the company crafts cabinets for retirement homes and office break rooms; reception desks; wall paneling for reception and boardroom areas and conference tables on occasion, as well as trim and other various mouldings, such as crown and base.

Over the years the company’s steady rate of growth has warranted changing buildings. Its current facility is 61,000 square feet, with 9,000 square feet dedicated to offices and a conference room.

In 2002, Mission Bell grossed $13.9 million in sales. It was a commendable sales quota, but one the company has had to work hard for because of the flat economy. “When the economy turned, we were riding on the wave of technology industries in Silicon Valley,” John recalls. Business that the shop was getting from those dot.com companies started to dry up, so the brothers decided to make a new business plan and stick to it.

“Instead of cutting back, we really made a big push to increase our market share and increase our sales. When other shops in the area began to scale back, we took the opposite path and decided to go after everything. We got a lot of work that way. In addition, we were able to increase our staff,” he says.

“When the economy began to slow down we did not want to slow down with it,” John adds. “We believed if we could stay busy when everyone else was slow there would be this talent pool available, and we would be able to hire new people. The plan worked well because we acquired some really talented people.”

It is a plan that has worked well for the company. Last year it contracted a couple of particularly large office projects and increased its staff to 140 people to meet the demand. Today, John says that Mission Bell has more jobs on backlog than it has ever had. “We are seeing large projects right now and not very many medium-sized ones. The work is pretty competitive, and there is a lot of it right now, but it is still not like the good old days (during the dot.com era),” John says.

     
 
Mission Bell fabricated the wall paneling and store fixtures in this museum gift shop from maple. The maple was finished with a clear lacquer from Chemcraft-Sadolin.  
     

“Two years ago you almost had to try to not make money. It’s been a struggle, but we are doing well. We have really had to get lean and have some people pulling double duties. But, the economy will turn around, and if we can keep our crew together and even add to it, then, when things do turn around, we will be in a great position,” he adds.

Technology in the Shop
Radius millwork is a forte of the shop. “If there is a project with a lot of radius walls, we will make a full-size template of the room out of 3/4-inch particleboard. The template is shipped in pieces to the work site where it is reassembled like a puzzle. Every trade working at the site appreciates having these templates because they know that everything will be spot on. They can be assured of a consistent accuracy within 1/16 of an inch. State-of-the-art technology is what makes this possible,” John says.

Mission Bell produces all of its drawings in AutoCAD and cutlists are made using Microvellum software. John says the shop also uses AlphaCAM sometimes for fixture work. Recently, all veneering capabilities were brought in-house. The shop uses a Midwest Automation veneer press and glue applicator with Titebond white PVA glue from Franklin, a Kuper veneer guillotine and Kuper Innovation veneer stitcher from Stiles Machinery.

It buys its veneers from Bacon Veneer, Crown Veneer, the Dean Co., General Veneer and Dooge Veneer. John notes that maple is the preferred wood in commercial work, but there are requests for a gamut of other wood species like anigre, pecan, walnut, etc.

Other equipment used includes two Murphy-Rodgers 50-hp dust collectors, a Ligmatech case clamp, a Brandt edgebander, a Striebig panel saw, two Altendorf F45 sliding table saws, two Altendorf Elmo sliding table saws, a Selco panel saw, a Weeke machining center, a Homag edgebander, a Multicam CNC router, a Heeseman sander and a Midwest Automation countertop assembly line.

Mission Bell uses laminates from Formica, Nevamar, Abet Laminati, Laminart and Wilsonart. John says that public institutions like hospitals and medical centers have a large need for laminated cabinets, which the shop can produce competitively. “We pride ourselves on having the capabilities to do a standard box competitively as well as high-end millwork and fixture work, so our customers do not have to go to two different woodworking shops to get what they want,” John says.

     
 
Figured sycamore with a clear finish was used on this corporate lobby’s walls and reception desk.  
     

Finishing is done in-house, with clear lacquer frequently being specified for maple applications, although John says that architects do specify other colors and finishes as well. The shop finishers use Chemcraft-Sadolin lacquers and Sherwin-William stains.

Mouldings are outsourced, “But we plan on bringing moulding capabilities in-house as well,” John adds. “We have many great sources to turn to right now for mouldings, but when the occasion arises and a client wants mouldings right away, it would be nice to have the capability of filling those orders in house.”

Finding Old Work in a Young State
The shop currently does 95 percent commercial work and 5 percent residential. Projects range from small jobs, like a low-end office that needs two lobby tops and a coffee bar for $5,000, to high-end office projects in excess of $1 million.

“We do not advertise,” John says. “Ninety percent of our work comes from invitations from current customers. The remaining 10 percent of our clients come to us by word of mouth referrals.”

John says that the shop has been carving another specialized niche for itself — historical restoration. While there may not be many buildings in the State of California that are more than a century old, there is a need to fill, and Mission Bell has the know-how to recreate the ornate custom millwork of the past.

In addition, “We are looking to open up a showroom for millwork and to spec samples for architects. We want it to be almost like a working studio where things can be mocked-up, so architects can see firsthand how things like radius reveals come together,” John says.

He adds that having a working showroom would also help architects understand the need for longer lead times on certain complex millwork projects, like paneling a radius room. “Time is an important issue in the Bay area. Job schedules are constantly being compressed because we have some of the most expensive real estate in the country. For instance, someone renting office space wants to be in their office [as soon as humanly possible] and making money because he is paying a high rent. That puts a lot of pressure on an industry like ours,” John says. A working showroom at the plant can also be used as a tool to educate clients, architects and designers about the complexities involved with a millwork project, a worthy venture since time is money in California.

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