Quality Millwork and a Few Specialties Keep a Company Thriving
Developing market specialties, like preservation work and its own storm door line, have kept this 60-year-old North Carolina company successful over the years.
By Hannah Miller
When Russell L. Stephenson Sr. started Stephenson Millwork in Wilson, NC, in the 1940s, the company did everything to a log except grow it. It had a sawmill to produce the lumber, a dry kiln to cure it and a handful of employees to turn it into millwork.
“He bought it at the stump,” recalls his son, Russell Lee Stephenson Jr. “He hired five or six people and put up a cinder block building right here in this cow pasture.” Over the years, the sales of raw lumber ended for the company, but millwork grew to be a $14.4 million business, with customers including high-end homes, hospitals, churches, libraries, museums, universities and commercial establishments.
Today, founder Stephenson is retired from day-to-day operations although he still serves as chairman. Russell Jr., “Russ,” who spent 37 years in banking before joining the family-owned company in 1998, is president. Russ’s son, Russell L. Stephenson III, “Lee,” is vice president.
Russ, now 64, remembers “the old days” when he labored as a teen. “They used to stick me on the green end of the sawmill in the summer. That will make a man out of you,” he remembers ruefully.
The sawmill and kiln are long since gone, but believing that the quality of their work depends on the materials they start out with, “We’re picky about the quality of timber that comes in here,” Russ says.
“With every order of lumber received, we check the moisture content. And if there are imperfections beyond what we think that grade should have, we have negotiations with the supplier,” he adds.
Only the best hardware is used as well, he says. “Quality’s got to flow through from the suppliers right up the line.”
Instead of depending heavily on vendors, the company still performs many of the steps involved in creating the millwork it sells. It presses its own veneers, like the cherry winding through the new Left Bank restaurant at the famed Sanderling Inn in Duck, NC. “It is bookmatched and sequenced all around the room,” says project manager Rex Ward, “strictly adhering to AWI standards for blueprint-matched panels and cabinetry.”
It also cold presses its plastic laminates, making the panels it uses in institutional and commercial millwork. It makes most of its own mouldings and mantels, cuts and assembles its own cabinet boxes, and makes many of its doors, including storm doors.
The Stephenson Storm Door is a specialty of the house, made of 118-inch solid wood. Glass panels are placed so they reveal the raised panels of the door behind. In eastern North Carolina’s mild climate, with its long spring and fall seasons, people want to leave their front doors open to let light in, but they want an extra layer of lockable protection, Russ says in explaining the door’s popularity.
“Forty years ago, Dad realized people wanted more than an aluminum door. We covered North Carolina with that door; it’s a real big item for us,” he says.
Leaving out the Kitchens
Three years ago, however, the company became a Marvin window and door distributor, and last year it added the Vetter line. It also sells TruStile doors in addition to the stile-and-rail doors it makes.
As an example of the company’s breadth of work, one customer says that Stephenson Millwork did “everything that’s wood” in her house. Although Russ notes the exception of the kitchen cabinets and stairway, he says the company did do the crown mouldings, built-in upper and lower bookcases, custom windows, wine cabinet, other cabinetry and chair rails.
The company also does exterior millwork, like entranceways. In addition, it has such a reputation for its historic preservation projects that a preservation organization refers clients to Stephenson.
Preservation work can be exacting, because of the surprises that can come up in old construction. For this reason, “some people don’t want that work,” Russ says. “But if that’s what our customer needs, we’ll find a way to do it.” He adds that the creative nature of the work “gets the creative juices flowing” for his woodworkers.
One preservation project helped turn a dilapidated former cotton mill near Raleigh into the home of a charter school and a software development company. Windows and doors had been knocked out while the building lay abandoned, and Stephenson had to painstakingly create new ones to fit.
Recent projects have included the Harnett County Courthouse, where the company layered wood around Kevlar for a bulletproof judge’s bench and jury rail, millwork at the Pharmacy School and School of Dramatic Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cabinetry and other millwork for Cary Academy in Cary, NC, and millwork for the North Carolina Museum of Natural History and the Exploris Museum, both in Raleigh.
The company is well equipped to handle large projects. Even in the early years, Russ recalls, “Dad was very progressive in buying modern equipment.”
The company spent $1 million on machinery shortly before Russ assumed the presidency. CNC equipment includes a Busellato router and a Schelling panel saw that are linked to Pattern System’s Cut Planner 4.14 and Drillmate 3.74. Additional design/engineering systems include AutoCAD 2004, CADcode 5 and Eurosoft Ardis 1.7. The shop also has a Holz-Her edgebander and a Blum minipress.
A Nordfab system collects dust and chips from the grinder for use as shop heating fuel in winter. The excess is sold to a particleboard manufacturer for use in its products.
The 90,000-square-foot shop is is divided into five separate buildings, one of which houses a commercial flush door operation. This department is unique, Russ says, in that it is a true “two-step” operation, inventorying 5,000 flush doors and selling strictly to hardware distributors. Machining preps are done using a Kval Edge, Kval Commander, Elson panel saw and Kval DL-Light Cutter.
“The emphasis here is quick turnaround,” says Lee. “We offer a three- to five-day turnaround on doors that typically take four to eight weeks from the factory.”
The door-prepping, combined with sales of non- custom millwork to small contractors and building supply firms, accounts for about 25 percent of Stephenson Millwork sales.
Residential work accounts for about one-third of sales, Russ says. The company typically works in houses that cost $300,000 and up. “That ‘up’ can get real far up,” he adds, sometimes topping $5 million.
Though mid- and lower-priced homes sold well during the recession, high-end homes are not interest-rate sensitive and sales weren’t helped by rate cuts, says Russ, sounding like the banker he once was. Demand lagged until July, when he saw a pickup, he adds.
The company relied more heavily on institutional work during the residential downturn and found enough not only to get by, but also to add two employees to the design/engineering department and a new IT manager last year. Its work force is now about 115.
On a brighter note, “North Carolina’s construction industry has been blessed,” he says, by a voter-approved $3.1 billion bond package for construction and renovation in its college and university system. If it hadn’t been for that and for hospital construction, the North Carolina construction market “would be in a freefall depression,” he adds.
Instead, “we are trying to position ourselves to continue to grow,” he says. The company, a fixture in eastern North Carolina, is extending its geographical reach. It is completing cabinetry for Philip Morris headquarters in Richmond, VA, and also is working on a hospital project in Gaston County in North Carolina’s western Piedmont area.
For a company that Lee Stephenson characterizes as somewhat conservative, Stephenson Millwork has stepped outside conventional thinking several times.
For example, when Russ was considering taking the presidency, he wanted to make sure the business relationship wouldn’t harm the personal relationship he had with his father and son. So the family hired a small- business consultant to come in from Minneapolis and analyze their operation, then help each man decide the boundaries of his professional role. It is a step he would recommend to any family in business together, Russ says.
As another example, two years ago Stephenson Millwork opened a showroom in the capital city of Raleigh 40 miles away from Wilson. The goal was to give the company a presence in a prime market and give architects and designers a chance to show their clients millwork options in a room-like setting.
One wall features a window where the wood window sill matches the chair rails beside it. A heart-pine mantel “shows what we can do in antique wood,” Russ says. Another wall display contains samples of mouldings. Some have come to be synonymous with Stephenson Millwork over the years, such as the “Benton Back Band,” which is named for the Raleigh architect who designed it.
Architects have welcomed the showroom, located on a street with other residential building suppliers like plumbing and electrical companies. And, surprisingly, “We have had a limited number of walk-ins,” Russ says, adding that it has fulfilled its mission. “We felt like we needed to have our flag out in this important market.”
The sawmill may be gone, the equipment computerized, and new markets embraced , but Stephenson Millwork is holding fast to the standards it has established over the years. Asked what the company is known for, Russ unhesitatingly answers, “Quality. Quality and standing by what we do. There are places we could cut corners that a customer would never know, but that’s just not our style.”
Career Switch Brings a Son Back to Millwork
Stephenson Millwork in Wilson, NC, may be the only woodworking shop in the country run by a career banker.
And no, the company didn’t default on a loan and get taken over by a bank.
Russell L. “Russ” Stephenson Jr., son of the founder, decided when he graduated from Wake Forest University in 1960 that he wanted to try something other than the family business. His father, he says, was disappointed but understanding.
Russ went to work with Wachovia Bank in nearby Raleigh, rising to be senior vice president in charge of corporate banking for central North Carolina and eastern Virginia.
It was up to his son, Russell “Lee” Stephenson III, to take aim at a millwork career. But when he graduated from Wake Forest, his grandfather suggested he try something else for a few years before entering the business. So he worked for IBM and a medical instruments company for four years before going to work for Stephenson Millwork.
Then, “when he hit 82, Dad finally decided he wanted to retire,” Russ Stephenson remembers. That was five-and-a-half years ago.
“Dad was ready to step down and Lee was too young (29),” to lead the company, recalls banker Stephenson, the man in the middle. So he became president and after 37 years dealing with money, he started dealing with millwork.
In spite of some frustrations caused by the unpredictability of millwork scheduling, he says he has found the late-career move “stimulating.” Accountable to time-pressed general contractors, he does sometimes get verbally chewed out, he says, something that seldom happened with bank customers. But he has put the financial knowledge he gained to good use, driving sales from $9 million to $14.4 million during his tenure.
“I worked for one of the best-run companies in the country,” he says of Wachovia. “Also, having spent most of my career in the corporate relationship side of the bank, I gained a fair amount of insight into what makes businesses successful and what makes them fail.”
Those can be “dear lessons” for a banker, he says. For Stephenson Millwork, they have been a boon.