Millwork Division Succeeds on Its Own

O.G. Bradbury began as an in-house millwork department for a construction company, and now with equal success, it is emerging into a separate firm.

By Helen Kuhl

Despite the fact that the company, for all practical purposes, has been in the millwork business since 1923, O.G. Bradbury Architectural Millwork of Albuquerque, NM, is just now off to a brand new start.

 

O.G. Bradbury's work for the Acantilado Vista Assisted Living Center in Albuquerque included this reception area. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

It began as the architectural millwork department of the O.G. Bradbury Construction Co., pretty much doing work for company projects only. As the firm (now known as Bradbury & Stamm Construction Co.) grew, so did the millwork department -- to the point that about 10 years ago, management decided it should be treated as a separate business, operating as a division.

"We got our own name, our own financials, our own accounts and we started doing a lot of work for contractors outside the company," says Rick Thaler, a former employee who rejoined the millwork division as general manager nine years ago "to crank it up."

Since then, O.G. Bradbury Architectural Millwork has grown from $350,000 to $3.5 million in annual sales, with employees increasing from 7 to 30. This year will be another benchmark for the division, as Thaler is in the process of buying it. It will then become a totally separate entity.

"Bradbury & Stamm has been growing really fast and wants to pull back to its GÇÿcore competency.' And the division is now big enough that it needs to be run by somebody who has a very strong vested interest and can really micromanage it," Thaler says. "We have been talking about an ownership role for me for a long time. So now I will dump all the money I've got in here and see if it works."

With few exceptions, O.G. Bradbury Architectural Millwork works exclusively in the commercial market. Projects include banks, tenant improvement, offices and assisted-living facilities. Most work is done in the local "Four Corners" region, including eastern Arizona, southern Colorado, west Texas and New Mexico. Jobs typically include a little bit of "plain Jane" casework, mouldings, plus some fancy reception desks and paneling.

The company has always specialized in doing difficult, high-end work, Thaler says. "We are not the low-price leader at all. We are known for doing really good work and we charge accordingly," he says. "We tend to get held to a very high standard. So we can't afford to be cheap."

Thaler adds that the company is not competitive on big institutional casework jobs, such as schools. But it has a dealer relationship with a large laminate casework manufacturer. So occasionally it will bid an institutional job, sub out the routine casework and do the custom work in-house. "This helps us get into some projects that we otherwise wouldn't be able to compete on," he says.

OGB works primarily with general contractors, and its projects involve a wide variety of materials, including plastic laminates, veneers, solid lumber and solid surfacing materials. "We are pretty good at just about everything," Thaler says. "That's how we survive."

The company uses the 32mm system and dowel construction on the majority of its casework and uses pocket screws for nailers and "anywhere you put two pieces of wood together," Thaler says. They use a lot of Panolam panel products, utilizing its system of matching melamine and high-pressure laminate panels for projects that require value engineering. The company also uses Domtar products occasionally, and all of its sink tops are Medex waterproof MDF from Medite Corp.

 

O.G. Bradbury did a lot of work for Sun Healthcare's headquarters, including the lobby area, which features pewter laminate paneling and an avodire veneer reception desk with a stone top and pewter accents. Photo by Robert Reck

OGB's standard drawer is the Julius Blum Metabox. "It is a lot more expensive than drawer slides, but the labor is almost negligible," Thaler says.

He adds that the company tries to maintain high quality by paying attention to details and by either meeting or exceeding customers' expectations. "If we can exceed them and it doesn't cost too much, we always will," he says, "because that's something that they remember."

While good work is a key to high quality, service is equally as important, Thaler adds. "Even when we fall down on service, which everyone does occasionally, we make it a point to never leave anybody with a product that they don't like. We make absolutely sure that when they look at the work, they see something they like. And even though that philosophy has cost us money at the time, it has paid out in repeat business and negotiated business, which is the kind of work we want to do."

In the past, the company has done most of its own installation. But Thaler says they are starting to subcontract installation and it seems to be more cost-effective. However, even when the work is subcontracted, Thaler says that it is critical for someone from the company to be involved.

"You really need to have someone from your plant very involved in the process," he says. "We have a separate installation superintendent. He is there with the subcontract installers, and the project managers visit the site often, too, when installation is going hot and heavy."

Installation is the riskiest part of the job, Thaler adds. To minimize the risks, OGB tries to have everything completely built in the shop, "so that all that has to be done on-site is to lean the woodwork against the wall," he says. "In the same degree that we fail to do that, we lose in the field."

Although OGB will be changing owners shortly, it will remain in the same facility -- a new, 20,000-square-foot building in back of Bradbury & Stamm's headquarters offices. Both companies moved into the space in January 1999, and OGB will continue to lease the shop, Thaler says.

OGB's previous site was an old, 8,000-square-foot building divided into numerous small rooms. With the move, the goal was to make the new building "an efficient tool," where materials move from one end to the other in the fastest and best way, while providing a comfortable working environment, Thaler says.

"It is set up so that work flows the way we do it," he says. Raw materials are unloaded, and solid lumber goes down one side of the shop. "We do lots of straight line ripping and S4S," Thaler adds. All panel products are cut to size on a Striebig vertical panel saw. Casework goes to one side, while solid surface and countertops go to another.

"Up to one point in the shop we are panel processors," Thaler says. "Past that point, we are assemblers. And past there are the cabinetmakers, doing the odd stuff that requires the highest skills."

Equipment includes "venerable oldies" -- a Whitney shaper, Northfield jointer, Ogam ripsaw and a Sandingmas-ter 36-inch double-head widebelt sander. There also is a Brandt KD84 edgebander; two Vitap boring machines, one for line boring and one for construction boring; a used H. Kallesoe case clamp; two Castle pocket drills, a Powermatic bandsaw and a JLT panel clamp.

One of two Denray downdraft dust tables is in the countertop/solid surfacing department, along with an Edgetech CTS740 countertop saw. The other Denray is in the sanding department.

About 1,500 square feet is dedicated to sanding prep and finishing, and there is one spray booth, equipped with Binks spray guns and a Kremlin hot lacquer system. "We use mostly catalyzed lacquer," Thaler says. "The Kremlin system heats it so that we are not spraying a diluted product. It's straight from the can, so it is higher solids and less waste. The finish also dries faster because the material is heated."

To facilitate work moving efficiently through the shop, OGB has job carts to keep track of hardware and small items. Each job of any size has its own cart, and all smaller supplies that come in for a project go to the appropriate cart, so everything is ready when it is time for assembly and shipping. "We do anything we can to cut down labor time," Thaler says.

In that same vein, the shop uses self-dumping trash hoppers which can be dumped by one person with a forklift, instead of hoppers that require two people to empty. This also saves time and increases productivity, Thaler adds.

Thaler says that he is pretty happy with the layout of the new plant, although he admits that they almost simply replicated what they had in the old shop. Instead, they developed a new plan to take maximum advantage of the expanded space. He says that he is still working to improve the loading area, which is his current goal.

The move itself was a challenge, and his advice to anyone moving into a bigger building is, "Plan, plan, plan." He also recommends that people be assigned responsibility for various systems, such as air, electric, HVAC, sprinklers and the spray room, to make sure they are set to go upon move-in.

"We didn't coordinate them very well, so we were still playing catch-up two months after we moved into the building," he says. "Don't be afraid to commit yourself early. If you plan carefully in advance to decide where the machines will go, you can have power and air already there and you can start working right away.

"If I had it to over again, I would assign a project manager to each of those systems and say, GÇÿMake sure that these are ready when we start moving machines,'" he adds. "Also, throw everything away before you move, not afterwards."

 

This bar was part of the work OGB did for the historic renovation of La Posada Hotel in downtown Albuquerque.

Prior to the move, Thaler sent some employees to a plant tour and also to a plant layout workshop, both sponsored by the Architectural Woodwork Institute. Both were extremely helpful in getting ideas and planning the space, he says.

Although Thaler does not foresee making any major changes in OGB once he becomes the new owner, some adjustments are inevitable. While the overhead structure will be more favorable as a separate entity, he says, OGB will have more cash flow worries once it is on its own.

"Being part of Bradbury & Stamm was sort of like having a bank at our shoulder all the time," Thaler says. "We have never really needed to worry about money as much as most businesses, which has made us a little lazy at times. I think it will be really good for us to get out there and struggle."

Even though OGB already has several Bradbury & Stamm competitors as customers, Thaler believes that there are more rival companies that will use OGB once it is a separate firm. However, he anticipates that OGB's sales volume will drop a little next year, to a "smaller and better" level.

"I hope we will get a higher percentage of bids and a higher quality of customers. It's not that important to do GÇÿX' number of dollars, it's doing GÇÿX' number of dollars for someone who pays you that is the key," he says. "If we had done $3 million last year instead of $3.5, we might have made more money because we would not have been working for GÇÿJoe Schmoe' who hasn't paid us yet."

Currently Thaler has been handling all estimating and sales. However, he recently bought a TakeOff estimating software package so that he can train someone else to do some estimate work, too.

Estimating is one of Thaler's favorite tasks, he says, noting that the essential part of any system is to make a really good list. "I make a really detailed list of everything I'm putting in my estimate, and that list goes to the customer with the proposal. They know exactly what I'm including and what I'm not including, the more detailed the better. And shame on them if they don't read it.

"Also, I don't sign contracts that say, GÇÿper plans and specs.' I stipulate that my proposal be included as the limits of my responsibilities," he adds. "And if whoever I'm dealing with can't deal with that, then I'm inclined not to deal with them, because they have a responsibility to know what's in the job just as much as I do."

Another policy he has to help maintain a good cash flow is to send out materials proposals and installation proposals separately, and he asks for purchase orders for materials and a subcontract for installation. With the purchase orders, he can get paid on a regular basis for materials he has to buy upfront, he says.

"They come to us and buy the materials and they pay for them," he says. "We give them nice terms, net 30 days, but that's it." He says that most customers go along with it, or at least will include a "prompt pay" notation for materials, which helps.

The installation subcontract terms are not as favorable -- 10 days after the owner pays the general contractor, if the owner pays the general contractor. "That's really an insane way to do business, but we are forced to do it," he says. "We are trying to break our customers of that habit."

To Thaler, all these challenges are part of the excitement of the woodworking industry, however. "The thing about this business is that so many things can go wrong," he says. "It's almost a miracle when everything goes right and you end up with a little money afterwards. That's what is fun about it."

 

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