CWB May 2004
When owner Rick Thaler purchased OGB, he immediately invested in state-of-the-art-machinery to increase the plant's productivity.
By Lisa Whitcomb
In commercial architectural woodworking, time is of the essence. Increasingly, clients want projects to be on time, under budget and to emanate high quality. Shop owner Rick Thaler of OGB Architectural Millwork, Albuquerque, NM, has embraced this need by purchasing state-of-the-art equipment to increase production in the shop.
In 1923, OGB began as a cabinet shop in the Bradbury Stamm Construction company. Then-owner Orville Bradbury successfully grew the division over the years, and it became widely known in the region for its exceptional wood products. In 1988, the division became its own company (under the ownership of the construction company), and was then called O.G. Bradbury Architectural Millwork Division. In September of 2000, Thaler purchased the company (from his employer) and set to work modernizing the 22,000-square-foot plant.
Prior to the purchase, Thaler had worked at O.G. Bradbury as a benchman and cabinetmaker. A New York state native, Thaler got his start in woodworking as a teen working as a framer and then trim carpenter. "I began to accumulate tools when I worked in construction. When I moved here 30 years ago, I evolved into a very small residential furniture business and cabinet shop - just me and another guy. I worked at this for six years and then I discovered commercial work," he recalls. "I went to O.G. Bradbury to have some widebelt sanding done and saw a spiral staircase being built in the shop. I thought, 'This is what I want to do.'" Subsequently, Thaler closed his residential furniture/cabinet shop and went to work for Bradbury in 1980.
He left the company after a year and worked in other shops in the area for another seven years, honing his skills as a commercial woodworker. In 1990, he returned to Bradbury as an estimator and project manager. "I was hired to 'crank it up.' At the time, the company was famous for its high-quality millwork, but it didn't work in other areas. It wasn't thriving financially, so they wanted me to broaden the customer base and bring in some new business ideas," Thaler says.> Thaler worked in this capacity until 2000, when the Bradbury Stamm Construction Company decided to sell its millwork division. He expressed an interest to buy it, and the company agreed to sell. "They made it very easy for me to buy," Thaler notes. "They were very interested in having the millwork company continue because the owners believed that it was a good thing to have a quality millwork company in the area. But there was also an enormous amount of tradition and history with the millwork company that the owners were proud of and wanted to continue. They have been a great help to me in succeeding as the business' new owner, and they continue to be supportive," he adds.
Growing Pains/Growing Gains
"In the first two years that I owned this company, I spent a lot of money and energy on equipment and modernizing plant systems," Thaler says. But the increases in sales and changes in production came with growing pains. "When I announced that I was going to buy the company, we had 55 employees. By the time the deal closed, we lost about 15 people for one reason or another," he says.
Some woodworkers left because they were "old school" and did not want to learn to run CNC-controlled equipment. "They were tremendously effective employees, but it was very difficult for them to make the change. Some people cannot get their minds around it," he says. "Still, other people left because the pace of the shop changed and they could not stand that."
Thaler says that while the capital investment to upgrade the shop's equipment was expensive, "t was worth it. Given the fact that I am working at the level I want to be at isn't even the question. The upgrade was essential. It is exciting and fun to modernize, and it gives you a whole new set of things to do with your business. Your capacity for sales grows along with your ability to tackle complex, interesting, fast-track projects. In addition, there are labor savings. But the machines do not take the place of jobs, they just allow a shop to grow and enable a shop to hire operators.
"We have access to interesting jobs with curved work and strange shapes that we never had access to before. Technology isn't a magic wand, though. It does not do the work for you, but it opens doors of opportunities for the shop as well as for the employees," he adds. By that, he means that employees can increase their career span. "We have people in the business who have been at their job for a long time. It is physically demanding and doesn't always pay well. But you get a guy in his 30s or 40s, who maybe has never had the opportunity to stretch his mind, and put him in front of a CNC-controlled machine and he is a whole different person.
"I have seen it happen a dozen times. Guys get a whole new lease on life. They are able to go forward in the woodworking business and work into their 50s and 60s instead of having to quit because of a bad back or something. It is pretty amazing and today, having machinery like this on the floor helps us to attract and retain employees," he continues.
Today the shop, an AWI member, employs 47 people. "A great bunch of folks," Thaler says. "The people in the shop are really the key to success in any shop. The machinery is just extra. You have to have people who are really dedicated and turned on to make the machinery work for you."
Thirty employees work in production, five work as installers, eight as engineers and four as support staff. The shop has built a solid reputation for fabricating difficult, involved projects. "Our customers are looking for a complete package with all of the specifications (i.e. stone tops, solid surface material, glass, metalwork). They want a sole source for anything that is connected with their project. Since we are willing to provide them with what they want, we get a lot of work," Thaler says.
He adds that the shop prides itself on working best under tight deadlines and with complex design. "We do a lot of curved work for our clients," he says. The shop's client base is the whole of New Mexico and includes banks, hospitals, tenant improvements for doctors, lawyers and others, and restaurant work. The shop has completed projects for clients in Texas, California and Michigan as well. Business is procured through referrals, repeat business and bids on public work that is advertised in Construction Reports. Projects range from $40,000 to $300,000+. "We like to have between 15 and 20 jobs on the books that are more than $100,000," Thaler adds.
To keep the shop profitable and working, Thaler has one rule. "We won't bid on any job unless it is under 10 percent of our gross annual sales. To bid more interferes with our mission, and that is to keep the customer happy," he says. "We are committed foremost to servicing the customer. I see that we are expensive and the only way that we can continue to sell our product is to make it worth more than what our competitors offer."
A Blueprint for Productivity
A conveyor system moves pieces easily and quickly through the plant. "A conveyor system is a tiny investment with huge paybacks," Thaler says. "Having one in place rationalizes the work flow. When you are dealing with a lot of parts, you want them to get to where they need to be without thinking about them.
"With a conveyor system, they don't get lost or shoved off into a corner. They don't fall off and get damaged, and it is easier on everyone's back. You don't have to handle the parts again and again. Handling parts is a hidden profit killer. It is astonishing how much time in the shop is spent handling parts. We still have a long way to go," he adds.
Another machine in the shop that helps increase productivity is the Busellato Jet 3600 CNC router, which is being run on two shifts because so many parts are run through it that it creates a bottleneck otherwise. Thaler says that the router is also being utilized for engraving identifying part numbers on project components. He adds that he is planning on adding another CNC router in the future to prevent "the choke point" from holding up production potential.
Other equipment includes a Holzma panel saw, Brandt edgebander, Edgetech countertop saw, Auto V Grooving miter folder, DMC widebelt sander, Powermatic surface planer and 36-inch bandsaw, Oliver joiner, Ligmatech case clamp, Altendorf sliding table saw and Disa dust collector. Finishes are purchased from Sherwin-Williams, and colors are mixed in-house using a computerized S-W stain mixing system. "We are doing a lot of dye stains, and staining particleboard and MDF," Thaler says. Precatalyzed lacquer is used most often and sprayed hot using a Binks hot lacquer spray system. "Sometimes we do a conversion varnish, and once in a great while we apply a polyurethane," he adds.
A Midwest Automation glue spreader is used for laminates, purchased from companies like Abet Laminati and others.
The shop uses Blum hinges and Grass drawer slides, as well as Grass' Unigrass metal drawer systems in its projects. Microvellum software is used for drafting, engineering, cutlists and optimizing capabilities. Thaler says the shop does not outsource too much of its work "for control reasons." However, it purchases postformed tops and some mouldings from area shops. Sometimes OGB will network with other shops on bigger jobs, thus sharing the workload.
Thaler says that the company is the right size for the market in New Mexico and he has no immediate plans for expansion. "We plan on focusing on profitability in the next couple of years." He is in the process of purchasing the shop and office buildings from Bradbury Stamm Construction. When the sale is final, he wants to "take everything out of the plant and put it back in in a different configuration to make production flow even more smoothly. But I don't want to do that until I own the building. A lot of the setup is a remnant from the way the shop was run years ago. It is actually a pretty good setup, but it can be improved upon," he adds.
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