Miami Enjoys 77 Years of Peace

A fourth-generation company succeeds in the modern woodworking industry by following old-fashioned values.

By Sam Gazdziak

George Williams Peace founded George W. Peace Co. in 1923, a small woodworking company that was based on the woodworking fundamentals of hard work and quality craftsmanship. Peace Millwork Co. of Miami, FL, is still following those fundamentals, passed down from owner to owner, almost 80 years later.

“We’re an old-fashioned custom quality woodworking company,” says George Peace, the fourth-generation president of the company. “We still use the old-fashioned techniques for building, because I haven’t found any of the new ways of doing things to be of the same quality as the way projects used to be built.” Those old-fashioned techniques have worked well, as the company’s sales reached $1.5 million in 1999 and are expected to grow.

     
     
   
  Peace Millwork used wormy chestnut for this kitchen. The chestnut was taken from old barns that had been knocked down. The beehive design on the far wall and the weaving pattern on the cabinet doors (lower right) were done by hand.  

Instead of looking for the newest high-tech machines, Peace has looked for employees who would contribute to the quality of the company’s woodworking. “I’ve probably hired and fired in 10 years between 30 and 40 people, because they were not up to the expectations that we need for quality,” says Peace. “I’ve hired and kept a couple that were ambitious. They didn’t know a lot about woodworking, but they wanted to learn.

“The true craftsman is a dying trade,” he adds. “Everyone’s going with automation and computerization. There’s not really any company that I know of that is still building with the same craftsmanship that we are.”

As an example of the company’s beliefs, all carving is done by hand. Once, Peace says the company was inundated with work, and he had a set of carvings outsourced. “When we got the carvings, I told him they weren’t right. They didn’t have the detail the customer was asking for,” he explains. “He told me, ‘Nobody does that kind of detail.’ I had to remind him that yes, they do, because I do it. So we had to do all the carvings here in our shop, because no other company would put the time and effort in a job that we do.”

Those carvings, which included a series of stars and comedy and tragedy masks, belong to a small table that houses a projection TV unit. Peace estimates that there are six weeks’ worth of carving on the unit. The design for the unit was originally done by another company, but the client brought the shop drawings to Peace. The employees looked at the drawings and the projection unit’s manufacturer specs and determined that the wood casing was going to block part of the TV image, so they redesigned it to make it work.

Peace Millwork manufactures anything in wood, Peace says. Products can vary from a television unit or closet to an entire set of library or kitchen cabinets. The company’s work is primarily residential, but it also gets into commercial work for banks, hotels and cruise lines.

While the company is at home with all species, it has been known to go to great lengths to get the right wood for the project. Peace once sent an employee to F.M. Parisette, one of its veneer suppliers, to hand-select some macassar ebony for residential doors. The employee spent three days picking out several logs that had just the right color for the job.

Another client asked several companies to send her various wood samples for a project. After getting little response, she turned to Peace Millwork. Peace says he found three-quarters of the samples within a few weeks and told the client he could get a tree cut down if she wanted the others. She was suitably impressed by the work.

     
     
   
    This column is made of Cuban mahogany and lacewood. Cuban mahogany is excellent for carving, but it is some of the rarest wood available.

“That client told the contractor that if any wood came through the house that didn’t come through me, they would have to rip it out,” Peace says. “I thought that was very honorable on their part, because I had spent at least 100 hours of my time finding those samples.”

One particular sample was Japanese ash. After several local lumber companies told him it was impossible to get, Peace finally had to have several logs flown over from Japan.

“I enjoy doing something that’s impossible more than I enjoy doing something that’s repetitive,” says Peace, “so that’s why I don’t ever get bored in my job.”

Peace Millwork has also made hand-carved columns of Cuban mahogany and satinwood for a home. Peace says Cuban mahogany is the finest mahogany for use in furniture, but it is also some of the rarest wood around. The company managed to find lumber that came from trees knocked down by Hurricane Andrew.

One of Peace’s favorite jobs was a kitchen made of wormy chestnut. The wood came from barns that had been torn down, so nail holes can still be seen in the lumber. Peace says that the wood adds warmth to the kitchen.

It also displays Peace’s woodworking talents. The cabinet doors are hand-carved, as is a beehive design over the refrigerator doors. The design of the doors and mouldings actually came from an antique piece of furniture the client had. Peace’s employees were able to duplicate those designs and incorporate them into the kitchen.

“What makes it fun is when the customer can afford to have us perform at our highest level,” Peace says of the kitchen, which cost $60,000 and took four months to build. The carvings alone took two months.

Peace acknowledges his competitors can complete a project quicker than his company, and they would often charge less. “It’s not because I’m making that much more money, because I’m not,” he explains, “but because I have that much more time invested into the job. It takes us considerably longer, almost double the time, to build a cabinet compared to what other people are building. But my product, when I’m done, is a better product.”

Much of the company’s success is dependent on the skills of the employees, and Peace says he is blessed to have them. “The majority of the people who are working in my shop used to push me around on a lumber dolly when I was a little kid,” he says. “I worked under these guys, and they’re still here.” He says he has been able to keep his employees by paying them better than his competitors, making sure they work full 40-hour weeks, and by treating them fairly.

Peace Millwork has a total of 14 employees. They have varied backgrounds, coming from the United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Poland, Columbia and elsewhere. Many spent years training slowly as apprentices under craftsmen to learn their trade. That attitude toward apprenticeship is used at Peace Millwork. One employee has been with the company for a year and recently completed just his third unit.

“It’s like a family,” Peace says. “We’ve worked until two in the morning because somebody needed something the next day. We have open communication. I’ll walk out into the shop and explain the situation, that a customer desperately needs something, and everybody will stay to get that job done. Everybody in the shop contributes to the company.”

     
     
   
  This table houses a projection TV unit. The carvings along the side took about six weeks to make.  

Peace himself did not do his apprenticeship in the family business. When he graduated from Pittsburg State University in Kansas, his father wanted him to see how things were run in different companies. He worked for a company in Connecticut for two years before going back to Miami in 1988.

“I worked here for about a year before my father passed away,” he says, “and because of my lack of experience in running a company, I scaled it back to where I could comprehend it.” Peace also eliminated the in-house finishing department and began subbing out the work. He is currently in the process of opening a finishing shop, “but I have the experience today to expand, which I didn’t have back then.”

Peace Millwork has been based in the same building since 1934. It contains the office, the production area and a cabinetmakers’ room. A second building across the street houses the door and carving shop. Both buildings total about 4,000 square feet of space.

The machinery is a mixture of new and old equipment, ranging from a Michael Weinig moulder, an Ogam gang rip saw and a Vacupress from Vacuum Pressing Systems to several machines that date to Peace’s great-grandfather’s time. Employees also use a variety of hand tools, including Hitachi cross-cut saws, Porter-Cable routers and sanders, DeWalt cordless and Milwaukee corded drills.

When Peace first became president, the company was primarily local. Peace Millwork now ships its products throughout the Northeast, and he wants to expand further. The company recently shipped its first project to California, and Peace says he is able to provide service anywhere in the country. The California project also came as a result of another woodworking company being unable to complete a project on time.

“When I hear the way some of my competitors treat their customers, it amazes me that they put up with this,” he says. “Some of my customers come to me and I give them a price, and they think I’m robbing them. When I look at what they got for what they paid, my price isn’t ridiculous, because it’s not the same thing that I priced. It’s much cheaper and with more headaches.”

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