Modern Woodcrafts: A Fixture in the High-End Retail Market

Modern Woodcrafts LLC’s laminated and veneered store fixtures can be found in Filene’s, Tiffany & Co. and other regal retailers.

By Karen M. Koenig

     
Modern Woodcrafts LLC

Farmington, CT

Modern Woodcrafts is a $16 million manufacturer of high-end custom fixtures for retail stores and hotels. The company operates two unionized plants, in Farmington, CT, and Lewiston, ME.

Three Keys

1. Overall, laminated fixtures account for 25-30% of Modern Woodcrafts work, although this figure is expected to grow. At the Lewiston plant, laminated fixtures account for 60% of the work.

2. There is a very low turnover rate of employees, who are cross-trained on the different machinery.

3. Modern Woodcrafts installs all the hardware, lighting and other accessories and assembles the fixtures prior to shipping.

 
   
     

Like well behaved children in a store, fixtures should be seen, but not “heard.” Their purpose is to enhance the store’s products, not overpower them.

Such subtle elegance, combined with durability and functionality, have been the hallmarks of Modern Woodcrafts’ store fixtures and architectural woodworking since its inception by Gerald Pelletier back in 1959. The tradition is continued by Modern Woodcrafts’ new management team — Donald Ramsey, president and CEO; Jean-Louis Bouchard, executive vice president and COO; Philip Shuman, chairman; and William Kallenbach and Peter Spring, vice presidents — which recently were awarded Equity Ownership in the company by Pelletier and have formed it into an LLC (limited liability company).

     
 
Stores that once exclusively used veneers are integrating laminates into their store fixtures and architectural woodwork, especially along the ceiling panels.  
     

Modern Woodcrafts operates a 60,000-square-foot facility at its headquarters in Farmington, CT, and a 95,000-square-foot facility in Lewiston, ME, which it purchased in 1979. The company has 150 employees between the two plants.

“We’re well known for our service and our quality,” says Kallenbach. “We also make sure we meet all our schedules; we know that’s what matters to our clients — no matter what.”

Classy Clientele

Modern Woodcraft’s clients encompass a who’s who list of classy retail giants: Tiffany & Co., Nieman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, the May Co. (Filene’s, Lord & Taylor, Hecht Co. and Kaufmann’s), Bergdorf Goodman and Federated Department Stores Inc. (Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Lazarus and Burdines).

Modern Woodcrafts has also built fixtures and perimeters for major corporate clients and hotel chains, including: American Express, Heinz Inc., Universal Studios in Orlando, and Hilton and Marriott hotels.

“We’ll often contract for everything but the floor and ceiling,” says Philip Koboski, plant manager at the Farmington facility. “That may include all the loose fixtures as well as the perimeter work.”

Although the majority of Modern Woodcrafts’ work is in veneers — primarily cherry and oaks — there is a growing market for its laminated fixtures, says Kallenbach, particularly in retail departments aimed at teenagers.

“In the Juniors’ departments, for example, we’re starting to see a lot of high gloss or brushed metallic- laminated fixtures,” he says. In other cases, companies such as May Co., recently changed some of their fixture specifications from veneer to woodgrain laminates, and have had patterns specially designed to look virtually identical to wood.

According to Koboski, laminated fixtures currently account for 25 to 30 percent of Modern Woodcrafts’ overall work — a figure which the company expects to grow. The majority of the laminated products are manufactured at the Lewiston plant, with smaller amounts done in Farmington. According to David Roy, plant manager at the Lewiston facility, approximately 60 percent of the fixtures manufactured there are laminated. Roy also says he expects this figure to increase due to laminates’ ease of maintenance and growing popularity.

Modern Woodcrafts purchases most of its laminated panels from Northway Industries. “We buy the boards pre-laminated, usually with a high pressure laminate for the front areas. We’ll use melamine laminated boards for the back areas or for (box) interiors,” Koboski says.

     
 
Both plants utilize Schelling panel saws for cutting laminated panels to size. A Schmalz panel lifter is used to flip the sheets so both sides can be machined quickly and easily.  
     

There are advantages to using laminates. One of the most important is price. According to Kallenbach, the average price for a laminated 4-foot cashwrap is between $450 and $500 per lineal foot; it jumps to $800 for one that is veneered.

Finishing is another advantage, he adds. Unlike veneered panels which typically need to have a lacquer topcoat applied for protection, the laminated boards already have a finish layer inherent in the overlay.

“Some designers, though, are still on the fence. For fun, they’re looking at (metallic) laminates. Those going for a ‘touchy-feely’ effect are sticking with veneer,” Koboski says.

Manufacturing Methods

Whether laminated or veneered, each fixture is custom manufactured to the store’s specification. “Each store’s layout can be different, so everything has to be individually made. They’re not like stock items that someone can buy out of a catalog,” Koboski says.

According to Koboski, it can take up to six months to complete a new store, depending upon the amount of work involved; a remodeled store can take longer because of the coordination needed to avoid conflicts with existing business schedules. “This time includes the initial approval stages — submitting of shop drawings, approval of colors and veneers, etc. The material is then ordered on a just-in-time basis.”

Once the designs and specifications have been approved, the production process begins. What distinguishes Modern Woodcrafts on the shop floor is the fact that not only are its production employees — 39 in Farmington and 46 in Lewiston — all cross-trained, but there is very little turnover. In an age when some companies’ employee loyalty is at an all-time low, many of the employees at Modern Woodcrafts have 20 or more years at the company, Koboski says.

This experience comes in handy, Kallenbach says, because there can be 10 different jobs moving through each plant at any given time. “There is no size requirement on the jobs we’ll take. Most of them are large commercial jobs, but we’ve taken small jobs — always in the hope they will lead to something bigger,” Kallenbach jokes.

The production process for all jobs is relatively the same in both plants. The laid-up panels are brought first to the Schelling panel saw, where operators use a Schmalz VacuMaster to position the 5-foot by 12-foot panels for cutting on all sides. Next, the panels are machined on a new, custom-made 26-foot long Anderson America ANDI CNC router with dual tables and two heads for sawing and drilling capability. At Farmington, additional boring is done on an older (SCM) Morbidelli Author 504 point-to-point boring machine. The machine can also be used to make radius cuts as needed.

     
 
In addition to boring applications, the Morbidelli Author 504 can also be used to make radius cuts on this laminated panel at the Farmington plant.  
     

At the Farmington facility, additional machines used for both laminate and veneer components include a Mercury Vacuum press for creating radius forms and an Abal five-head V-fold machine for making linear V-folded columns. A single-head Abal V-fold is used at Lewiston. “The V-fold machine is especially good with laminates. You can make an entire column with no black line and which is perfectly mitered,” Koboski says.

In Lewiston, the edges of the panels are banded on a Holz-Her Accord 1444; in Farmington, a Holz-Her Accord 1443 edgebander is used. Both are capable of applying wood veneer, solids and PVC using hotmelt glue. After banding, the laminated components are assembled and all hardware is applied. “We also install all the lighting, so the fixture is complete,” Koboski adds.

Maintaining quality control is the responsibility of each individual employee, at all stages in the operation, Roy says. Once a final check has been made, the products are shipped already assembled and ready to install.

Job Selection

Modern Woodcrafts’ sales and estimating department uses cost accounting and estimating programs in order to bid competitively on its jobs, Kallenbach says.

“We are on the bid list for all the major stores,” he adds. “We also get our name out to potential customers through word of mouth.” New clients can also find out about Modern Woodcrafts LLC via its Web site, www.modernwoodcrafts.com.

“It makes it interesting because we don’t know from day to day what the bidding situation will be, so we can’t necessarily plan our schedule way in advance,” Kallenbach says.

“We seem to lag six months behind the economy,” Koboski adds. “My personal feeling, however, is that high-end type of customers shopping in these stores are still going to be shopping, no matter what. As for other types of jobs, we’ll wait and see. You never know what the future holds.”


Modern Woodcrafts Ranks in the WOOD 100

With a sales growth of 15.8 percent in 2001, Modern Woodcrafts made its inaugural appearance in the Wood & Wood Products September 2002 WOOD 100 ranked at number 59.

The company anticipates a 9 percent sales growth in fiscal 2002. President and CEO Donald Ramsay credited the Modern Woodcrafts’ employees for the success. Many of its employees have more than 20 years of service at the company, with some, like himself, surpassing the 40-plus year mark.

“Just treat (employees) right, give them adequate overtime and avoid layoffs like the plague,” Ramsay said in his WOOD 100 entry. “Even though we are union shops at both locations, we usually pay well above rate for qualified employees.” Health and pension benefits, an employee-contribution 401(k) plan, plus a factory-incentive program shared 50/50 between the company and the employee pool are added incentives.

The 14th Annual Wood 100 report of fast-growing companies will be published in the September 2003 issue. For information, contact Rich Christianson, W&WP editorial director, at (847) 634-4347 ext. 652 or e-mail him at: rchristianson@vancepublishing.com. A complete copy of the 2002 WOOD 100 Report is available online.

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