How a new CNC router is just one of many changes helping keep a company on time.
In just 13 years, Jeff Burton grew his rural Massachusetts company from employing one to 40 people, from utilizing 1,500- to a soon-to-be 40,000-square-foot facility and from subcontracting doors, frames and trim to drawing up and installing its own full-home projects.
Located in the unassuming scenic forests about halfway between Boston and Providence, RI, South Shore Millwork of Norton, MA, has prospered from the right mix of change and constancy. This year, it earned the No. 42 spot in its first appearance on Wood & Wood Products' WOOD 100 Report, featuring fast-growing woodworking companies. The company's sales reached $5.5 million, up 30 percent from 2002.
Nothing's Better Than More
"More people, more equipment, more software, more space, it's a never-ending battle," Burton says. "But all this has come with the growth of the company."
And grow it has. In addition to the 17,000-square-foot expansion currently underway, one of South Shore's most notable changes recently was the acquisition of a Homag BOF 311/4/K CNC router from Stiles Machinery with five Benz aggregates. The impact of the new machine already is apparent, Burton says. "A job that used to take one-and-a-half hours now takes 10 minutes," he says.
South Shore Millwork
Year Founded: 1992
FYI: Owner Jeff Burton chose the "bright and cheery" maple look for his personal office, sporting a desk and cabinets with unique mappa burl veneers.
The router was delivered in October 2003. Three South Shore employees received two weeks of training ~ one week at Stiles Education Center and the other on-site with visiting Stiles technicians, who spent an additional week installing the machinery.
Other machinery in the shop includes a Weinig Unimat moulder; a Striebig panel saw (5192-111-AV); a Raimann computerized ripsaw; multiple tilting arbor shapers; Panhans saws, planers and joiners; and software from AlphaCAM, Pattern Systems and AutoCAD. Burton says his machinery, especially the new router, helps him stay on time ~ a point he drives home when asked what it takes to be successful in the woodworking industry: "You have to be on time ... You can't be late on your products. You cannot be late."
With most employees in their 30s, Burton tags his 25-man strong millworking roster as a "pretty young crowd" that is able to work and adapt quickly. Still, their average experience is around 10 years, and Burton says, "The skill level in our company is the highest it's ever been."
While South Shore Millwork has expanded its capabilities, it is still best known for its custom door work.>Youth might just be a theme for the company. Burton himself started refinishing furniture at 17. After working for a couple of millwork companies, he started his own business at the age of 27.
"When I was a kid, we'd cut little things on a drill saw, which is something I enjoy. When you were done, you saw something you built, and that was a good feeling," he says. "I always wanted to do it on my own."
With more than 30 percent sales growth between 2002 and 2003, it appears the risk paid off. Since the company's inception, Burton says his role changed from one who "just wore all the hats" - including millworker, estimator, truck driver and shop cleaner - to one who focuses on sales, estimating and project management.
"Now, I have a person that runs the shop. I have a person that runs the office. I have a person that runs my field and installs. Really good people," he says. "Over the years, it's been tough finding people for those positions. I manage. That's basically what I do."
Not Just Bigger - Better
As size, responsibilities, employment opportunities and technology expanded and caused change for South Shore, its capabilities grew. With its newfound resources, other changes fell into place.
The acquisition of more and more skilled employees, for instance, allowed South Shore to expand its market. "If somebody wants doors, they call South Shore Millwork. They still do this today. Doors and frames, South Shore Millwork, they relate the two. But in the last seven or eight years, we've also expanded into the cabinet market, stairs and everything else there is in high-end residential," Burton says. "Before, we were strictly doors and frames and trim. Now, we're cabinets, door frames, trim - whole packages."
The shift in products moved the company from a commercial-heavy market to a more stable, residentially focused one. "The commercial guys get affected when the rent in Boston goes down and tenant people aren't building. But wealthy people always do their houses over," Burton says. "We're not so affected by things around us."
Today, about 75 percent of South Shore's work is residential, and Burton says he works mostly on new houses. In turn, the company does less sub-contract work and more of its own jobs. "When we did sub-contract work, most of our jobs were handed to us already drafted. Now, we draw our own jobs. We install our jobs," Burton says. "That was a big change. We still [subcontract], but to a small extent. We draft and install as much as we subcontract."
The addition of a new finishing shop allowed South Shore to complete many of its own projects without outsourcing part of the work. "Our standards are so high that people come to us for it," Burton says. "When it comes time to sub something out, the quality isn't out there in the marketplace."
Quality a Fluid Challenge
To South Shore's owner, "quality" does not just mean having a great finished project or outstanding customer service. He believes in more of a cradle-to-grave approach to quality - one that includes materials, craftsmanship, products, installation, service and employee treatment.
"If our quality is here," Burton says while holding his hand at eye level, "and it drops down a little bit," gesturing down to nose level, "because something happens, we're still usually above the general marketplace. And that's what we sell. We sell our quality. We sell our service."
What kind of service and quality? Burton explains, "It could mean having a job that needs to be done by the end of next week that's not started. It could be customers that have a huge job, and they want to move in by next summer. They know they can depend on us for that, and we have that following behind us. We don't worry about the overtime; the overtime is what it is. If they call us and they have a problem on a Friday night, like they can't lock their house because a lock broke, someone will be there so they can lock their house. Things like that. People know we'll do that.
"We have a policy that the customer is always first. The old saying is, 'The customer is always right.' Well, they're not always right, but we treat them like they're always right. We give them what they want, when they want it," he continues. "We've installed rooms we've torn out to change. That's what we mean by our service and our quality. Our service motto is: You don't like it, we'll take it out and change it."
But customers are not the only people atop Burton's first-place podium. Also vying for the gold are his employees. "We do a lot for the employees. We try to make them number one. That's part of who we are. It's been fairly easy the last couple of months to get people in our shop," he says. "I think word-of-mouth has spread. We're air conditioned, we're not hard on the guys, it's a pretty easy-going company to work for, there are benefits, there are bonuses and there's good pay.
"But more than anything, it's the little things. Treat them with respect. They get treated like they're a person and not a number," Burton adds.
However, nice service and good employment is meaningful only when coupled with a quality product. When surveyed for the WOOD 100, wood quality was one of Burton's top concerns. South Shore does a lot of exterior work on double-hung windows, exterior entries, doors and railing systems. "It's all out of mahogany, and mahogany is becoming harder and harder to get," he says. "The quality has dropped in the last 12 months to half of what it was ... we're getting shorts, narrows, more notches, more wormholes. And the prices are up. On mahogany alone, it's up 20 percent.
"[The customers] request mahogany. It's a wanted wood. It's pretty. It withstands weather. It resists rot. We use it for our paint-grade product," Burton says, explaining that because of all these factors he does not foresee a "mahogany replacement" in the near future. Prices will simply rise, he thinks, but since his customer base is likely to continue paying for whatever they want, he does not seem too worried about that part of it.
All of these factors are prerequisites for obtaining the overall quality necessary to compete in an industry Burton describes as both "tough" and "stressful." On the part of the customer, such quality takes time and money. Indeed, the average price tag on South Shore's work is about $400,000, with ranges from about $100,000 up to $2 million. Most projects take between six months and one year to complete. But, as Burton suggests, you get what you pay for.
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