April 2005

The Evolution of a Family Company

Mountain Home's 31-year history is a journey of steady growth, with a commitment to quality and improvements through technology.

By Renee Stern
This cherry raised panel kitchen, a total remodel, features fluted columns that were hand-made by Mountain Home Cabinets. The custom finish was outsourced to a local colorist.

Milwaukie, OR-based Mountain Home Cabinet Co. has always been a family operation. In its earliest incarnation 31 years ago, owner John Earp and a former brother-in-law built spice cabinets and cassette racks to sell at Portland's Saturday Market, a long-running collection of street stalls selling crafts, art and food.

However, over the years, Mountain Home changed its focus to high-end custom residential casework and moved from basement quarters to a 4,800-square-foot shop in an industrial park in this Portland suburb. But the staff of eight remains either family, friends or woodworkers recommended by this tight-knit circle.

"I want to work with people who have woodworking as a passion, not just a job," Earp says.

He is also looking for employees who will shoulder responsibility and uphold the company's high standards without his constant oversight. After three decades in charge, he is beginning to ponder stepping back a little from the production side.

"I'm trying to make it so there is nothing here that I'm the only one who knows how to do," he says.

That can be a pitfall for founders of a small business, such as his, he adds. "Some guys get stuck in a one-man shop with five helpers."

Instead, Earp hopes his role change will free him to concentrate on management and guiding the business to greater success - while also giving him a little free time to utilize his woodworking skills for a different aim.

He calls it "furniture for God," building pieces he can donate to local church auctions as a more meaningful contribution than simply writing checks to charities.

"I've been so blessed," he says.  Woodworking "isn't my hobby any more, but this would be a fun way to give something back, doing what I love to do."

Switching careers and building a business

This set of bathroom vanity cabinets with curves is part of a job outfitting an entire house.

Earp moved into woodworking after an earlier career in manufacturing engineering. With guidance from friends in the field and learning his craft as he went along, he built Mountain Home into a solid business. The company's second phase began with the addition of a few key pieces of automated equipment to the shop and adjusting operations to take best advantage of their capabilities.

Now, it is time for a new approach.  "Business management is a craft just like woodworking," Earp says. Adding more efficiency and organization to scheduling, budgeting and long-term planning are some of his current goals.

"It took me 15 to 20 years to realize that I am in business not to make cabinets, but to make money," he says. That means not simply making cabinets, but making high-quality cabinets and making them quickly.

Earp runs the shop under three main precepts: Don't sacrifice anything for safety.  Don't sacrifice safety for quality. And don't sacrifice quality for efficiency.

About four years ago, Earp says he faced a major decision: Either hire more employees to handle business growth or find another way to control the workload. He opted to add a Biesse Rover 24 flat-table router to the shop, complementing the Holz-Her Sprint 1411 edgebander he already had.

"It's really starting to pay off," he says. "I love working with wood by hand - the feeling and sound of a plane taking off a perfect curl. But I also love pushing a button on the Biesse."

The benefits of automation

Automation isn't always easy to assimilate, especially when serving high-end customers who expect unusual and one-of-a-kind designs, he says. A production facility that builds only stock lines as a commodity has a shorter learning curve on new equipment, compared to how Mountain Home employees have to use it.

Mountain Home

Cabinet Co.

Milwaukie, OR

Year Founded: 1974

Employees: 8

Shop Size: 4,800 sq. ft.

FYI: Although most work is custom, the company uses its equipment capabilities as a supplement, producing parts for a customer that sells children's toy furniture kits.

But now that Earp and his employees have mastered all the capabilities of the Biesse and Holz-Her machines, coupled with their new Cabinetware software, jobs move through the shop more quickly and efficiently, he says. For example, a job that once took two people two days to mill and band now is ready for assembly after one employee puts in four to five hours, says project manager Brandon Geimer.

Before they began using Cabinetware, Mountain Home employees used layout sticks to create a cutlist for each cabinet. Then they cut parts by hand and assemble the boxes before taking measurements for drawers and doors to ensure a proper fit.

"Now that is all figured in the computer, and it zooms through the shop," Earp says.

A 30-item layout check sheet guides them, including such points as room setting, layout setting and drawer and door construction.

The purchase of the Holz-Her edgebander resulted in a similar change in construction protocol. Employees previously built cabinet boxes without faces, sanded them, applied edge tape, and filed and sanded the edges smooth. Even a simple job might take 20 minutes to band.

Now, pieces run through the edgebander before assembly. "It has saved us a lot of time," Earp says.

Project manager Brandon Geimer uses a Biesse Rover 24 router for a new task - making MDF hammers that are included in toy furniture kits Mountain Home makes for a client.

In addition, other benefits came to light only after the Biesse and Holz-Her machines were fully integrated into the production process. Drawers now fit and slide perfectly instead of requiring shims and other adjustments, Earp says. Previously, measuring and cutting could come quite close. But even a tiny fraction's difference in each stage would add up, he says.

The same holds true with all components. Today, the company gets perfectly square boxes right off the line. The CNC router also drills perfectly positioned holes, which "drastically" reduces the amount of adjustments needed during installation. Also, because the router nests components, the shop uses materials more efficiently, Geimer says. "Our scrap has dropped way down."

Other major pieces of equipment in the shop include a Griggio sliding table saw, Powermatic table saw and Hitachi chop saw.

A range of custom projects

Apart from occasional jobs in far-flung areas, such as Palm Springs, CA, Mountain Home's market remains primarily around the Portland area, stretching into Washington state and out to the Oregon coast. The company relies on word-of-mouth and repeat business and has never advertised.

After some ventures into commercial work - retirement residences, restaurants, the first phase of Nike's headquarter campus - Earp began concentrating solely on residential casework, split evenly between new construction and remodels. Today, jobs range from a $5,000 entertainment center to $180,000 in cabinets for an entire house.

(There is one exception - a long-term customer sells toy furniture kits for children, and Mountain Home makes all the parts, including hammers, out of MDF for the pint-sized stools, tables and toolbox kits.)

A rundown of recent jobs underlines the truly custom nature of most of the company's work. One recent project included fitting a kitchen island with a flat-screen television that lifted from storage and swiveled on its mounting. The cabinet was makore with beech interiors and "took some figuring out" to achieve all the design specifications, Earp says. The company is building all the cabinets for the house, along with some matching makore furniture.

A loft project in Portland's trendy Pearl District also incorporated a flat-screen TV. For that job, Mountain Home built a swiveling stand to hold the TV on one side and artwork on the other; a swiveling cabinet below holds electronic components. Veneered with coigue, the stand is 71?2-feet wide, 61?2-feet tall and 61?2-inches thick.

For another house, Earp and his employees put together a sequence-matched anigre island with curved ends on two levels, along with paneling a fireplace edifice in the middle of one room, adding cabinets to give a built-in appearance. A floor-to-ceiling entertainment center for the same client was an installation challenge, Earp notes.

Currently, Mountain Home is buying five-piece doors and dovetail drawer boxes from outside sources. However, long-range plans include acquiring the necessary equipment to bring those jobs in-house, Earp says, as well as adding enough space for a full finish shop.

Most of the casework is finished with a clear pre-catalyzed lacquer spray. Often, finishing must be scheduled for nights or weekends.  "We have such a small shop that we get a conflict with running the Biesse and throwing dust around," Earp says.

He is weighing an opportunity to expand his current location, the company's fourth addition, to eventually accommodate those tasks.

"We're getting a little squashed here," he says.

However, expanding too much or too quickly isn't in his plan, he adds. Instead, he is focused on his new approach, working for the day when he can spend at least half his time away from the shop or on other projects and rely on his employees to maintain a profitable business. It is just one more step in the careful, steady growth process that has taken him so far already.


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