Lumber Company Builds Future with Premium Millwork

As it celebrates its 50th year in business, Huntington Park, CA-based Saroyan Lumber Co.'s focus is on its future in millwork.

BY MARGIE MELANIPHY

Saroyan Lumber Co. was a well-established, family-run company buying and selling rough hardwood lumber in Southern California, when the "Trojan Invasion" began in 1980.

At that time, University of Southern California graduate John Saroyan started working for his family's business full time and brought with him a fresh perspective and ideas about the future of Saroyan Lumber. Over the years, Saroyan has brought three of his fellow Trojans into the company.

Building on his father Richard's hard-earned reputation for quality and personal service in the lumber business, Saroyan has guided the company through some dramatic changes. At the root of many of the changes was John's belief that the more value a manufacturer can add to a piece of wood, the larger the profit that can be made on it.

This philosophy ultimately led to Saroyan's decision to evolve into the millwork end of the hardwood lumber business. Over the last 15 years, moulding work has become the bulk of Saroyan's business.

"Our millwork used to be sent out to a custom mill, and we'd find ourselves waiting forever just to have it done, only to discover that it was done wrong and have to return it and continue to fight the battle," said Saroyan. "Since we built our mill in 1984, we have grown to become what we believe to be the largest and most diverse hardwood millwork operation on the West Coast."

Saroyan backs up his claim to the millwork throne by pointing out that his company cuts between 18 million and 20 million board feet of lumber every year and keeps 900 Premium Series moulding line items on its shelves, ready to ship, at all times.

"We have about a 4 million board foot standing inventory of kiln-dried hardwood lumber to sustain all the different types of production we do, and the inventory includes stock from 5Ã?Â?8 inch to 4 inches thick. At least 50 percent of that goes all the way through the moulders," said Vice President and General Manager Robert Lemke, one of the people Saroyan brought with him from USC 17 years ago. "We use all kinds of hardwoods, from alder to zebrawood, and we run all of our stock oak mouldings in northern red oak to provide better color and quality."

Although 90 percent of Saroyan's work is in hardwoods, the company also carries a complete line of furniture and clear grades of pine.

'FULL-TIME PANIC'

"We essentially run four companies here between our stock moulding, custom moulding, lumber and flooring divisions," Saroyan said. "Our hardwood choices are unlimited. We direct source lumber from all over the world, and we have material brought in from Saroyan Hardwoods, a separate entity that concentrates and kiln-dries hardwood lumber in Pekin, IN. So you could say we keep pretty busy."

The Saroyan family has been keeping busy with the business since 1947, when Sue Saroyan and her son, Richard, who is still active in the company, founded Saroyan Lumber Co. in a 200-square-foot office in Los Angeles.

Fifty years later, in addition to the 6-acre manufacturing and finished goods facility in Huntington Park, CA, Saroyan has another 4-acre facility two miles down the street, in Maywood, devoted to hardwood lumber unloading. The company is breaking ground in May on a 90,000-square-foot climate-controlled warehouse at the Maywood facility that will be used to store lumber. The facility is scheduled to be finished by January 1998 and will include an automated grading system that will make it easier for workers to unload lumber and pull the widths they need right away.

"The room we have allows us to maintain a large inventory, which gives us a competitive edge for a lot of jobs. We can put together almost any size millwork job in two weeks," said Saroyan. "But to us, a two-week lead time is a luxury. Most of our products are shipped within five working days. It's full-time panic, but we have the machinery, the inventory and the expertise we need to perform under that pressure."

In 1984, the company wanted to provide quicker mill service to its customers and wanted to ensure the quality of its milled products. Saroyan's mill started off with one Oliver Strato planer, one Mereen-Johnson ripsaw and one Weinig moulder. Thirteen years later, the mill has added a Newman-Whitney straight-knife planer, a Cemco knife planer-sander, three Mereen-Johnson gang ripsaws, five more Weinig moulders, a Diehl moulder, two Mattison moulders and a Paulson moulder. The company also has a 17-foot L&L electronic glue press and a fully automated flooring production line.

Since building its mill, the company has gone from 30 employees to 180 employees, working two shifts.

To keep up with the demands placed on its ten moulders, Saroyan employs three full-time machinists who grind knives on the two Weinig Rondamat grinders.

"We grind high-speed steel and carbide. All knives for custom mouldings are templated and kept for about six months before they are recycled and reground to other details," said Lemke. "As a result of all the custom work we do, we now have a collection of thousands of knives."

Saroyan buys lumber from all over the world that arrives at its facility via ocean containers and railroad cars. The lumber is bought in the rough in random widths and lengths. The lumber is run through the planers to even out the thickness, then taken to the ripsaw where it is ripped to width, 3Ã?Â?16-inch over what the net size of the finished detail will be after moulding.

"We are the top account for some of the largest lumber manufacturers in the country," said Saroyan. "We don't buy from every Tom, Dick and Harry -- we know what works and what doesn't and we choose suppliers that add to the continuity of the quality we provide our customers."

Lemke said the company's customer base is broad and includes furniture plants, cabinet shops, and showcase and fixture houses that do interiors of hotels, department stores and large banks.

"About 30 percent of our millwork business is stock moulding. A lot of companies have catalogs of stock moulding, but are often out of their catalog items. We basically have every one of the 900 line items and 195 stock flooring items in stock and on the shelf," Lemke said.

THE FUTURE

Saroyan Lumber has come so far in the past 15 years that the company has to work hard to keep its plans ahead of its progress.

To continue to increase efficiencies in production, Saroyan said they are looking at the benefits of a barcode management system.

"The shortness of our lead time, the diversity of our product and the amount of custom work we do almost allows us to manufacture a product before I can get a barcode sticker on it. That's how fast it moves around here," said Saroyan.

Saroyan also credits his employees with keeping up the pace at which his company works.

"You've got to take into account the labor force and what they're capable of. Ninety percent of the people working here were trained here and had never touched a piece of wood until they walked in our door, so they learned our way of doing things," said Saroyan. "We've tried hiring people from other companies, but it does not work very often for us. We've been very successful doing things our own way, keeping turnover very low by treating people fairly and giving them a chance to grow here."

Increasing the staff, particularly the number of salespeople, is one of the company's goals for 1997.

"We've only had two salespeople since we started our millwork program. Up until now, we've been growing by virtue of word of mouth," said Lemke. "Our salespeople have almost become order takers, and we feel that somebody needs to start selling the mouldings we have in stock proactively. Our goal for 1997 is to have 12 salespeople on staff by the end of the year."

The company's plans for proactive selling also include exhibiting at the Woodworking, Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair this summer in Anaheim. Saroyan will have a joint booth with PlyTech Corp., a Glasgow, KY-based manufacturer of hardwood plywood for architectural, furniture and cabinet applications, which is another Saroyan Wood Products company.

"PlyTech has exhibited in the past because it sells its products nationally and the show gives it good exposure to furniture and other woodworking companies. Saroyan will be exhibiting for the first time to promote our moulding, flooring and lumber programs," said Lemke.

Saroyan plans to continue to beef up its presence in the 11 western states it already serves while increasing its reach into the eastern United States and across the Pacific Ocean.

"We've come a long way in a short period of time," Saroyan said. "We came out of the blocks with such big moulding and hardwood flooring programs that if somebody wants to chase us, chances are that by this point, we're too far ahead to catch."

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