Constantly Evolving

Union Planing Mill's business has changed a bit over the past 115 years. Its success, however, has not.

By Andy Jenkins
Union Planing Mill

Stockton, CA

Established in 1891, originally as a windmill and wooden watertank manufacturing and repair facility, Union Planing Mill now employs 49 people at its 60,000-square-foot facility. The company's current business is focused on its commercial casework, retail fixture and architectural millwork for its markets in Northern and Southern California.

Three Keys

  1. The company supports a four-year apprenticeship program that is taught in conjunction with a class from the local junior college. All new employees take part in the training program.
  2. Union Planing Mill typically installs all of the work it creates in the shop. Instead of merely shipping work to a site, a team of trained installers travels to the project's final destination.
  3. Union Planing Mill's previous President, Ralph McClure, was instrumental in founding the Woodwork Institute in 1951.

Union Planing Mill is one of those companies that seems to have it all figured out - time-honored traditions, employee education, family ownership, ties to the local community. These, along with a 115-year proven track record, are just a few of the characteristics that define what Union Planing Mill is all about.

And by the way, you read that correctly. 115 years. The company has been based in its Stockton, CA location since its inception in 1891. Then it was primarily focused on building windmills, water towers and irrigation systems.

Union Planing Mill's product line has evolved as times have changed, and today company President Dick McClure will tell you that his company is selling more than its high-end commercial and residential woodworking.

"What we are trying to sell here at Union Planing Mill is emotion. We want to present the best product to the customer we are working for," McClure says. "We rely on the quality general contractors we work with, who build a great building, and then it is our work that creates that emotion in the building - when someone walks in and sees a beautifully detailed reception desk with wall paneling behind it, and the color, grain and texture of the wood all matches together."

The Business Model

Just over a year ago, Matt Brodie joined forces with McClure as a partner in Union Planing Mill. Brodie describes the company's basic business model as having three parts: commercial casework, retail showcase and fixtures and architectural millwork. The beauty of the current model, McClure and Brodie say, is the flexibility it offers Union Planing Mill.

"It's a good model because, as times change, and one area maybe slows down, another sustains you," Brodie says. "Right now we are fortunate enough that all three areas are going pretty good for us."

Recently, McClure and Brodie have seen a sharp influx in the company's retail fixture business; they anticipate that segment to represent nearly 50 percent of the business in 2006.

The bulk of Union Planing Mill's business comes from roughly a dozen general contractors throughout Northern and Southern California. The relationships McClure has formed with these contractors has led to work for Stanford University, Hilton Hotels, and Bloomingdales, as well as a variety of local business and medical institutions.

Union Planing Mill did this restoration job for Pier One in San Francisco.

"A perfect job for us breaks down to about a third millwork, a third trim and a third casework," McClure says. "We strive for jobs where all three of these aspects are mixed in together."

Remarking on a recent job for a shopping area in downtown San Francisco, McClure says, "That job is about $1 million worth of work for us, and that is right about where we want to be in terms of the ceiling on a contract. Any more than that and we are getting out of our comfort zone. We don't want to sacrifice quality for speed, and we don't want to just rush through our projects."

The flexibility that Union Planing Mill's business model provides is a strong asset to the company, and has given Union Planing Mill plenty of repeat business, McClure says.

"I'm always telling Matt that at the level we are working at, that we have striven to get to, if you perform for the customer they will keep feeding you with work," McClure says. "So for us, it's about quality, performance and flexibility. We'll admit that we are not the cheapest on the block, but our track record is what we are selling, along with emotion for our work."

Personal Investments

In addition to investing in the business, McClure and Brodie have also spent considerable time, energy and money investing in the future of their employees - and this is where the company really starts to win you over. Most of the 49 employees were trained during a four-year apprenticeship program that Union Planing Mill supports through the local junior college. The program, accredited by the state of California, is taught in conjunction with San Joaquin Delta College. Union Planing Mill's Senior Project Manager Bob Freeman has been the instructor for the program for more than 30 years.

This work was completed for Leo Burnett's office in San Francisco.

"In four years we are able to turn out a journeyman in mill and cabinet work, and the skills that they learn in the program are predominately focused on safety, equipment, learning how to build cabinetry and be a benchman, installation...all of the facets of mill and cabinet work," McClure says. "It's an investment for us in a person who is going to maintain the continuity of what we are trying to do here."

The apprenticeship program has created a unique environment, where employees often choose to make Union Planing Mill the first and last destination for their career in the woodworking industry. Ben Castellon, general foreman, has been with the company for 22 years. Project Manager, Paul Bernardis has been there 12, and Project Manager Steve Zarate recently celebrated his 20th anniversary with the company, not to mention the multiple generations of employees who have passed through Union Planing Mill. Castellon's stepson, for instance, is currently going through the apprenticeship program. "He's earning his job here," Castellon says.

"Being based in Stockton, we have had great success in bringing kids into this apprenticeship program," McClure says. "I hope it continues."

What a History

McClure says the evolution of his company over the past 115 years has been interesting, to say the least. Stockton's agricultural roots in the late 1890s led Union Planing Mill into the water tower and windmill business. The company did not delve into casework until World War II, when it was asked to contribute items like military lockers and pine boxes for the war effort. From there, Union Planing Mill developed its own line of school cabinetry and overlay-type casework, McClure says.

A Project to Remember

A few years ago, Union Planing Mill President Dick McClure received a phone call from an architect, asking if he would be interested in helping restore an old estate called Wyntoon. To the architect's surprise, McClure already knew that Wyntoon was the 67,000-acre property owned by the family of infamous newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Needless to say, McClure and Union Planing Mill took the job.

"As you can imagine, a job like that doesn't come around very often," McClure says. "We made a series of doors for the estate that had to look like old European monastic-type doors. All of the carving designs had to come from furniture or remaining pieces that were housed in the estate."

From meeting members of the Hearst family and digging through boxed relics from the family's past, McClure developed a strong connection to that particular job.

"It was just neat to see how all of the original woodworking was made. I got pretty emotionally attached to that project. It was very rewarding, he says."

It wasn't until the 1940s that the McClure family began its long history with the company. Dick's father, Ralph McClure, came on board at the company after finishing his career with the Air Force following World War II.

"My dad always liked to say that he had two jobs in his entire life. He worked for the government once, and then he worked for Union Planing Mill for the rest of his life after that," McClure says.

Ralph would go on to be one of the founding members of the Woodwork Institute in 1951. Today, Union Planing Mill is the last-standing charter member of the organization, and the Ralph B. McClure Craftsmanship Award Program honors Woodwork Institute members for exceptional craftsmanship and installation of any architectural millwork.

"I think over the past 54 years that the Institute has been around, one Union Planing Mill employee has been involved as a director or on a standing sub-committee," McClure says. "The industry has been good, and this has been one way of giving back, while staying on top of everything that is going on."

McClure came to work with his father at Union Planing Mill in 1977, a few hours after finishing college. Literally.

"I had taken my last college final in the morning, and I was down in the shop right after lunch that same day. And I've been here ever since," McClure says. "I went through every aspect of what the company was doing. From working on the lumber inventory, running the machines, going out and doing sales, to making cold calls. Then finally maturing into the architectural millwork end of our business. That is what I understand the best today."

Five years after taking the company reins, McClure has his new partner in place, and is looking forward to re-marketing and re-connecting with customers; something he did quite often earlier in his career.

"We feel that it is one of our responsibilities to be a benchmark company in the industry," McClure says. "And we feel that, with our employees, our training program and our association with various organizations, we are able to sustain that benchmark."


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