Store Fixture Company Has a Reputation for Making Life Easier

Connecticut company improves store quality with both its services and products.

By Sam Gazdziak

 

In addition to OshKosh B'Gosh's clothes racks and shelves, Paul Herbert Woodworking built a caboose and a railroad track runway that runs the length of the store.

When Paul Herbert Woodworking Co. is at its peak production schedule, a regular work week just is not enough, particularly when the company gets a rushed project. But that is par for the course in store fixture work, which is the company's specialty.

"In many instances, we're getting last-minute work from a client," says Paul Herbert, president of the company, which is located in Torrington, CT. "And often, it's important enough for them to tell us to go ahead, and they'll pay the extra costs to get the work done by the deadline."

Along with the quality of its products, Paul Herbert Woodworking can be characterized by its willingness to work with a client to get a good end-product on time. "We do a lot of research on our clients," says Richard Pullman, chief operating officer. "We're really trying to find those retailers whom we can help improve their stores and the quality of their fixtures, and just make life easier as far as their store roll-out."

The results have paid off for the store fixture company, which generated sales of $8 million last year. Since its inception in 1985, Paul Herbert Woodworking has worked with a varied list of clients, including Barney's New York, Toys R Us, Florsheim and Nordstrom.

"For about five years, we've been building Mikasa stores. We started with Colorado a year and a half ago on a prototype and have been working with them ever since We also brought in Vitamin World last year," Herbert says.

One of the company's other steady clients is OshKosh B'Gosh. "They're really fun stores," Herbert says. "We even built a caboose for their mall stores, which has a runway the length of the store, and the kids head right for the back of the store and play with that." To complete the train motif, the company also built a water tower, which has a row of shelves at its base, for some of OshKosh's outlet stores. "We figure we'll do 16 to 20 stores with them this year," he adds.

For the Vitamin World stores, Paul Herbert Woodworking designed as well as built a new shelving system. "Their current system wasn't working well for them," says Herbert. "So we sat down with our design team and redesigned a whole new system, which they've been implementing into all their stores now. They wanted it to be simple for their employees to utilize, clean and change around. We've taken a lot of the time and energy requirements out of their displays, so it's much easier for them to merchandise their product."

"It was really a stockroom shelving," he explains, "and we gave them a little higher grade shelving and more of a sales area shelving."

Herbert's company has provided many unique touches in the products it creates for clients. For one Colorado store, the company built an overhead truss for decorative purposes. To give some of the store's fixtures a weathered look, workers dent the wood with a tool made up of a wire with nuts and bolts attached to it. They also use a sander to rough up the edges before applying a crackle finish.

Paul Herbert Woodworking also went an extra step to build a special slatwall system for OshKosh. "They were building walls in the field," Herbert says. "The quality was dependent on how good the carpenter they contracted was. We put together a proposal to build all these in our shop, and it would just be installed in the field. The perimeter system went up in half the previous time, and the quality is 100 percent better."

The company says it can deliver on a project within four to six weeks once it has the shop drawings. One advantage Herbert feels his company has is that it offers a prototype service, where a client can get a sample fixture within a week. "A lot of architects and owners design fixtures that don't necessarily end up looking like they thought they would look," Herbert says. "They start to hang clothes on them, and if it doesn't work and they've ordered 50 of them, they've got 50 fixtures that don't work. We found that it is extremely helpful to the architect and the owners, and it give us a little bit of an edge over some of our competitors, who can be four months out on their ability to deliver."

Meeting those deadlines is critical for a company in the store fixture manufacturing business, Herbert said. "The quickest way to lose a client is not to deliver on time," he says. "It's the kiss of death. If you miss a date, they might miss a whole season of clothes, because they didn't get them in on time. They're into the next season. By the time they open up, they have to sell at mark-down prices."

In addition to steady customers like Mikasa and Colorado, Pullman notes that the company gets jobs from designers and architects that have worked with the company in the past. "They want to make themselves have an easy job," he says, "and a lot of times they'll call us because they know our reputation and our quality, and they know that the service is going to be there."

"I'm an architect, so I speak their language," Herbert adds. "They figure if they give me weird conceptual drawings, that we can probably turn them into something that can be built."

Paul Herbert Woodworking was started in 1985 as a supplement to Herbert's construction company. Herbert built retail stores, and he started the woodworking company to answer the demand for millwork.

After fourteen years, the supplemental company has grown into a 140-employee shop, 125 of which are involved in manufacturing. The factory covers 65,000 square feet of space, with an additional 35,000 square feet of space in a warehouse located six miles from the headquarters.

The company's machinery includes a Schelling panel saw, a Holz-Her edgebander, two Biesse Rover point-to-points, and a five-head Weinig moulder. The company makes its own mouldings. Knives are ground on a Weinig Rondamat 932. A Timesavers sander is used for solid stock, while a Sandya sander from SCM GROUP USA is used for veneers.

Paul Herbert Woodworking also lays up its own laminates, which account for 10 to 20 percent of the business. Abet Laminati and Nevamar are frequently used brands. Blum hinges, Accuride slides and Haydock casters are also used in the fixtures.

The company primarily does store fixtures, but it is also diversifying to even out its yearly production schedule. Herbert said that November, December and January are traditionally slower months, when stores are heavily involved in the Christmas retail season. To level off the fluctuations, Paul Herbert Woodworking took on a furniture line last year, building cabinets for a designer. It has also done commercial and residential interiors, including a large and colorful project for a residence in Westport, CT. Roughly 10 percent of the company's work comes from residential projects, according to Pullman.

Herbert says the company also gets blanket orders whenever possible, so the workers can start work on store fixtures during the slow periods. "We can give them a price break if we can do the work in the off-season," Herbert says. "Retailers will generally take you up on that offer."

In addition to having year-round work, Pullman says that the diversification also give the company another advantage. "When you have a lot of experience in other areas and specific products, like custom millwork, you might be able to offer the retail industry something different," he says.

Wood is still the primary material used, but the company is expanding into other materials. Herbert said that for a typical Mikasa store of 10,000 square feet, the company uses up to 60,000 pounds of glass in addition to the wood cabinets. He added that the designs also call for more metal than four or five years ago.

Mahogany has been the traditional wood of choice, but Paul Herbert Woodworking has been using lighter woods of late, including maple and anigre. Herbert says his company did about 40 original Abercrombie & Fitch stores, which used all mahogany. The second generation of stores, though, wanted a less formal look and went to pine. Paul Herbert Woodworking still generates work from the old Abercrombie stores by making mahogany replacement pieces for when the fixtures need repairs.

"A fixture life is anywhere from five to 10 years," he says. "After 10 years, the store is really old and either has to replace the fixtures or come up with a new design entirely to keep up with the competition."

 

A One-House Story

One of Paul Herbert Woodworking Co.'s most unusual jobs has been a residence in Westport, CT. Calling the house an eccentric design really does not do it justice. For example, if the door for a master bedroom were shaped like an airplane wing, it may be considered eccentric. However, this house not only has a door that is shaped like an airplane wing, but it's also covered in orange leather.

"It's been a lot of fun," Herbert says, "but boy, is it different."

One of the immediately noticeable features of the house are the skylights. They are about 5 feet in diameter and 8 feet long and are embedded in the roof throughout the house. What's more, the lights have been painted orange, yellow, green and other colors. Below, an aisle made of hand-painted tiles runs the length of the house, cutting through two fireplaces and an island in the kitchen.

Paul Herbert Woodworking was brought into the project through Pentagram Architects, who had worked with the company on several projects, including a Fortunoff store on Long Island. In total, Herbert's company has made $400,000 worth of woodworking for the house. The leather-covered door alone was a $20,000 piece. Other jobs included almost all of the other doors, cabinets, bedroom vanities, the enclosures for the skylights and the kitchen island.

"A lot of people think 3 feet to 6 feet is an island," Herbert says. "This one is probably 6 1/2 feet by 15 feet. We had to do curved front doors because it's an oval." The island is divided up in sections. "There's going to be a bird's-eye maple chopping block section," he explains. Then comes the aisle. "Then there's a range, and that's going to be a granite top. The next section is a copper top with the sink built right in. Then another piece of red stone. The end of it is going to be an eating area, and that's going to be a lacewood top." The rest of the kitchen cabinets are painted orange and green with green translucent glass and orange doors.

The other doors in the house are just as interesting. Four more wing-shaped doors are placed on steel rods and can pivot to close off the exercise room. The doors are painted orange, purple, yellow and green. Other doors have strips of colored leaded glass placed in them. "But they didn't want any visible glass stop," Herbert says, "so we had to put them together with the glass and clamp it all together and glue it up."

Some of the work has had a learning process attached. The leather door, for example, was put on a pivot hinge and had to close automatically. "We don't really do enough of those to see how the hardware works," Herbert says, "so we got the hardware and made a mockup just to make sure that the door would swing."

The house, with its unusual shapes, ideas and colors has been a challenge for the company and its employees, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. "It's fun for our guys, because they don't get to do it every day," Herbert says. Pullman adds, "This is what they like to do, projects that are a challenge. They're very skilled."

 

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