A Full-Service Approach
CNC technology enabled an Ohio cabinetmaker to offer high-end architectural millwork as well as plastic laminate options.
By Michaelle Bradford
As the saying often goes, "Like father, like son." Greg Luettke, owner of Walbridge Woodworks located in Walbridge, OH, followed his father's example as a small business owner when he started his own company 15 years ago. Becoming his own boss seemed inevitable to Luettke because his father, who operated a dry cleaner, was a small business owner. "It put me in the mindset of owning my own business," he says.
Initially, Luettke worked out of his garage. But then he got a job at a store fixture company. This proved to be a turning point because Walbridge Woodworks was later set up to handle its overflow. After Luettke started his shop, the store fixture company fed him work continuously. "It was the main part of our workflow," he says. Still, Luettke says that he was also developing contacts with general contractors for additional work.
Walbridge worked with the store fixture company as its main customer for at least 12 years, until business for the company began to slow down about three years ago. At that time, Luettke says he had to "beef up" work from other sources. Although the store fixture company went out of business two years ago, Walbridge thrived because of the commercial casework projects from other sources Luettke had developed.
The process of finding projects to bid on was done mainly through the FW Dodge Report, which is an online service that, among other things, supplies daily leads for construction work. Luettke says he mainly works within a 100-mile radius of his shop, so he buys service for counties around northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Today, Luettke is looking to expand into more high-end architectural woodwork for commercial corporations, and, in particular, hospitals, which often feature wood paneling and high-grade veneers in their reception areas. This expansion would also widen the company's market area beyond Toledo to metro areas like Detroit and Cleveland even, as far away as New York, he says.
Expanding into New Markets
"An advantage of my shop is that it can be expanded. If I secure another large job before the end of the University of Toledo project, I will keep the expanded space," he says.
Until now, Luettke says he felt lucky if he got a large project once every year, and a project the size of the University of Toledo once every other year. His goal is to keep these large projects going on a continuous basis. He says one way to accomplish that is by developing a full-service approach. "I recognize the value of being able to offer a general contractor both the high-end architectural millwork and plastic laminate casework. In the past, we had to outsource the high-end work," Luettke says.
Now, thanks to changes in the shop, Walbridge has the capacity to do high-end architectural millwork in-house.
High-Tech Machinery Makes Expansion Possible
A year and a half ago, Luettke purchased a Selco EB 70 panel saw. For 13 years, he had a smaller panel saw that was a slower and less expensive model. With the Selco, Luettke can cut larger quantities faster, he says.
A feature of the Selco that has been a major benefit is its ability to do bar code labeling. Because of that, Luettke says he no longer loses parts. Bar coding has reduced waste and increased accuracy, he says. "The labels give directions, like where to put the edgebanding. At the CNC point-to-point, the bar code is scanned, and it tells the machine exactly what it needs to do for that part," Luettke adds.
The CNC technology he incorporated in his shop several years ago, plus the quality of his employees, has made a big difference, he adds. Walbridge has 16 employees, including members of Luettke's family. His wife, Sue, handles office billing and paperwork, his son-in-law Jeff Detray handles the drawings and his daughter Kelly also works for the company.
It's All in the Software
To address this problem, Luettke decided to buy Pattern Systems software when he purchased the Selco panel saw. He says the system contains several different software programs - Rapid Engineer, Draw Power, Product Planner and Drill Mate - that work together. "These programs generate signals to send to machines in the network and can intergrate any brand of machinery," he says.
According to Luettke, the driving program that controls Pattern Systems is AutoCAD. "It ties a project together," he says. "CAD drawings are done in-house and sent out to the saw and then to the router, which means less operator error at the machines."
Although Luettke says that it has been a long learning curve to make Pattern Systems software fully functional in his shop, he is optimistic. "There is so much more to it than what training can teach. It just takes time," he says. "The draftsman must have very good computer knowledge to be able to run this system."
Luettke's commitment to a "full-service" approach offering high-end millwork has opened a lot of doors, he says. Walbridge completed a project for First Citizens Bank in Upper Sandusky, OH, in late July, and just recently the company completed a project for the Toledo Museum of Art's gift shop, which opened Oct. 29.
As a result of his success, Luettke plans to continue investing in high-tech machinery for the shop, including a new point-to-point in the next couple of years. Some of the features he is looking at are hold-down systems, better pod systems and PC-based equipment.
Luettke believes that the return on his investment will be good. Sales for Walbridge Woodworks have been $1.3 million to $1.5 million for years. It is typical, he says, but he also expects it to go up from there. Luettke would like to grow to $2.5 million. One way to achieve that is through high-end work. "There is more money in high-end architectural millwork," he says.
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