High-end retailers choose Sunac Woodwork to create their stores’ luxurious ambiance.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Marketing gurus say that consumers these days are not so much interested in buying products as they are interested in purchasing a pleasant buying experience. That is why so many retail stores are adorned with eye-catching, richly colored wooden displays and wall paneling that create an enticing environment and a distinctive image for the retailer.

When it comes to doing that high-end architectural millwork and installation, Canada-based Sunac Woodwork Inc., of Edmonton, AB, is definitely a top-drawer player on the global market. Founded in 1990 and operating from a 100,000-square-foot facility, the company’s client list includes Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston and Christian Dior, to name a few.

In a niche sector of the wood product industry where image is everything, Sunac Woodwork has taken great care to ensure that the décor in its own front office in north Edmonton also reflects the refined flavor of the products it supplies to its high-end clientele.

“Wood will always be very popular from a decorative standpoint,” says Sunac Woodwork plant manager, Ric Ptak. “It has warmth, attractiveness and strength.” There is a great variety and selection of structural building material in the marketplace, yet more than 80 percent of Sunac Woodwork’s fixtures consist of wood-based materials, he adds.

While the wood veneer surfaces and the solid wood components used in the company’s products typically come from exotic hardwoods, a high percentage of the MDF and/or particleboard that the company uses in its product construction comes from local Alberta-based panel board plants. There are a number of suppliers and distributors located throughout the province.

“We work only with those distributors that understand our way of doing business,” says Ptak. Sunac Woodwork combines state-of-the-art technology with a meticulous “old school” approach to quality and craftsmanship, he adds. While the core materials come from the local area, the end products head for destinations afar. More than 95 percent of Sunac’s products are exported throughout the United States and South America.

Sunac Woodwork’s founder and major shareholder, Rudy Hahn, came to Canada from Germany. After managing furniture companies in Montreal for 21 years, Hahn moved to Alberta where he managed a company called Artec, a construction and millwork provider. In 1990, he ventured out on his own and established Canus Construction Inc. It offered general contracting and installation services for architectural millwork. He became his own millwork provider when he established Sunac Woodwork Inc. as part of the business.

Today, the company also owns general contracting divisions in Kingwood, TX, operating as Cantex Contracting Inc., and in Huntington Beach, CA, operating as CanCal Construction Inc. Sunac Woodwork complements the general contracting branch of Hahn’s businesses by providing all the custom architectural millwork they require.

Offering Total Solutions to a Demanding Clientele

Having this amount of both millwork and strategically placed general contracting capacity, Canus Construction can offer a total manufacturing and installation solution to its clients, while maintaining complete quality control over all aspects of each project. Over the past 16 years, the company has become extremely proficient in providing turnkey store renovations and new-store installations for high-end clients, developing an impressive client list, particularly in the retail store sector.

Retailers like Louis Vuitton are very demanding clients, according to Canus Construction chief operations officer, Eli Hoffman. A manufacturing engineer and industrial designer, Hoffman spent more than 30 years working in the furniture and store fixture manufacturing industry in Canada, the U.S. and Europe before moving to Edmonton. He says he chose to join Canus Construction last spring because of the challenge it provided and its growth potential, given the exceptionally high standards demanded by the company’s clients.

“The level of detail, quality workmanship, finish and veneer matching requirements of these clients is very high,” says Hoffman. “I haven’t seen that anywhere else.”

What high-end clients are particularly looking for is consistency in store fixture quality and the ability of fixture manufacturers to deliver that quality within a reasonable time frame. The tone and texture of all store units must be identical and a perfect match in appearance to the veneer sample. They also typically require a closed pore finish.

Achieving that level of consistency is difficult, especially when selecting and matching the veneer depends on the human eye rather than on automated systems, Hoffman says.

“The reason we don't use automated systems is because automation is not for everyone,” he says. A second reason is that even though there are similarities, each store is unique. Every store will have different dimensions. So, the type of fixtures will change from one location to another, and styles also are being upgraded regularly as companies attempt to provide their customers with a fresh look to enhance their buying experiences. About half of Sunac Woodwork’s business comes from interior renovations. The other half is new store installations.

The company discusses its needs with its veneer distributors, who provide samples of wood species and specific logs that deliver the desired color and grain matching. The issue of veneer manufactured from logs harvested in a sustainable manner has not yet become a factor within the industry sector Sunac serves, says Hoffman. Finding the veneer quality demanded by clients is a bigger issue, he says, adding that more clients today also are specifying that panels contain a minimum or no amount of formaldehyde resins.

In terms of the structural material, two of the main considerations when purchasing particleboard or MDF are its fire rating and green factor. For example, the millwork manufacturing process begins in the engineering and drafting department, where detailed instructions regarding component design and assembly techniques are applied.

“This ensures that quality is built into the product, not inspected into it,” says Hoffman. “That is why most of Sunac’s associates that work in the engineering department are certified cabinetmakers.”

The company also actively searches for talented employees.

“Our shop floor has the highest quality tradespeople you can find,” he says. “A large number of them are certified master cabinetmakers/journeymen from Europe. As a matter of fact, most of them were attracted to Sunac from their homeland and sponsored directly by Canus and Sunac to come to Canada. We arranged for work permits, relocation, etc.”

As soon as a project hits the shop floor, the drawings and bill of materials follow.

“All we are concerned with on the shop floor is machining the components, assembling the product, finishing it and getting it out the door on time and in the highest quality,” says Hoffman. “We instill in our people our ‘quality credo’ and maintain quality control to

Sunac’s high standards throughout the manufacturing process.”

Another reason for the company’s success is the close family-like atmosphere and relationship that has developed between management and its production crews, he adds. To complement the talented craftsmen’s skills, the shop also has a variety of sophisticated equipment.

The manufacturing process starts with cutting the prescribed panel board into the different component sizes on a Homag CNC panel saw. Veneer sheets are prepared for application to panels through a Kuper guillotine and splicer. The company has an Italpresse hot press with a cycle time of 1 to 1.5 minutes.

After curing and cooling, the panels proceed to the panel processing area where they are trimmed and cut into components, then moved to a Homag edgebander. The company’s Biesse CNC router does all required doweling, routing, grooving and/or sawing operations. From this point, some components may be transported to a V-groover to machine the detail required for the folded joint components.

Once Sunac Woodwork’s internal process control team verifies that all the components are completed and ready for assembly, a cart carrying the entire package, including the drawings and the detailed work orders, is directed to the sub-assembly department. This is where the product begins to take shape in the hands of Sunac Woodwork’s journeymen/cabinetmakers.

After full assembly and inspection, the product continues its path to the finishing department where the specific finish processes are applied.

“At present, we are using hand applications to get the finish we want,” says Hoffman. However, this is an area where the company wants to make changes and has plans to invest some capital for new equipment and revise its methods.

It is a remarkable local achievement when a company like Sunac Woodwork has acquired such an impressive client list. The company is very busy, but is still feeling the pressure from foreign competitors from places like Europe, the United States and China, as the clients’ buyers are always looking for savings.

“The biggest challenge for us is to improve efficiency, using the motto, ‘work smarter, not harder’,” says Hoffman.

The company’s aim is to take action to make continuous improvements, such as reducing waste, adding value, increasing production volume and gaining full employee support for actions taken by management to imbed more of a lean manufacturing philosophy into the company’s operations.

Lean implementation already is taking shape at the company. It is currently reorganizing its engineering and detailing department for greater efficiency. It also has made a priority to hire a lean “champion,” who will coordinate the steady implementation of the lean manufacturing philosophy.

Hoffman says that the lean method is really nothing new because its principles are deeply rooted in industrial engineering. The only reason that it has gotten so much attention, he adds, is because Toyota implemented it and then wrote about it.

“I know the tools that are necessary for us to become more efficient,” he says. “There are different ways to do it. Our method will be partially lean and partially ‘old school’ industrial engineering. It might not ultimately look like Toyota. It may be more like Rolls-Royce.”

A part of the new process implemented by Sunac is a color-coded work order system that guarantees that all components for any specific product arrive at each department simultaneously. The component is completed by the established completion date and able to be shipped as originally scheduled.

While other wood product sectors, like the furniture industry, are in danger from highly automated and efficient manufacturers, especially from China, Hoffman says they cannot offer the consistent quality and short lead times that high-end clients demand in his market niche.

“Fortunately for Sunac, thanks to the credentials and ongoing effort of our staff to achieve high-quality products, we believe that this gives us an edge and that our clients are unlikely to go elsewhere,” he says.

Sunac Woodwork provided all the fixtures and did the installation work for this Tiffany’s store in Montreal, QC, Canada.
All the furniture and fixtures for this Harry Winston store in Dallas, TX, were manufactured and installed by Sunac Woodwork, including the silver leaf ceiling, suede wall panels and brass inserts. A Biesse CNC router is used for doweling, routing, grooving and sawing operations.
Sunac sponsors master cabinetmakers from around the world to acquire the talent necessary to meet its clients’ exacting specifications for high-end woodwork. Sunac provided all the interior fixtures for the Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy office tower in New York City.

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