Wisconsin Built, a dynamic manufacturer of custom casework and retail store fixtures, has an uncomplicated, clear-cut recipe for growth and success.

“We call it the ‘common sense method.’ If it makes sense to do something a better way, we do it that way,” says Vice President Dan Petersen.

Managing growth by maintaining product diversity, evaluating the efficiency of processes and retaining qualified employees has been a successful strategy for Wisconsin Built. Jeff Ball, the company’s president, started out in 1988 with six employees and an 8,000-square-foot shop. The company has since grown to 115 employees and 225,000 square feet over the last 18 years. “We’ve always grown at the pace that our customers need from us,” Petersen says, “and right now our customers need us to grow. The customers that are looking at us have bigger demands.”

From the Deerfield, WI, company’s founding in 1988 through to 2003, the average growth rate was 57 percent per year. 2005 saw a sales increase of 10 percent, with a 15 percent increase forecasted for 2006. Five additions to the plant have been completed since 1990, and a 99,000-square-foot property across the street was acquired in 2005. Wisconsin Built has been featured eight times in Wood and Wood Products annual WOOD 100 Report.

Wisconsin Built

Deerfield, WI


Year founded: 1988

Employees: 115

Shop/Office size: 225,000 sq. ft

FYI: Wisconsin Built recently purchased a 99,000-square-foot facility across the street from its current shop and is partially leasing out some of the new space, which gives them room for comfortable growth.

Wisconsin Built’s store fixtures in this clothing retailer’s showroom incorporate an open design with rich wood that complements the ceiling and brick walls.

Diversified Projects

Wisconsin Built divides its business between retail store fixtures and architectural woodwork. About 75 percent of the business is devoted to retail store fixtures, with clients that include Chipotle Mexican Grille, Starbucks and Sprint Nextel. The other 25 percent of the jobs are architectural woodwork, which includes custom casework for banks, hospitals and offices. “We probably have anywhere from 15 to 20 different projects being worked on on the shop floor at one time,” Petersen says.

According to Ball and Petersen, since the retail projects can be seasonal, strategically bidding on the architectural woodwork projects fills in the gaps. “What we find attractive about it is that it blends our talent pool and utilizes our equipment the best. It helps even out our workload throughout the year when we blend the two,” says Petersen.

Wisconsin Built has also worked on projects as diverse as the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, WI, and the Ho-Chunk Casino in Wisconsin Dells, WI. The museum and fan club headquarters of NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth in Cambridge, WI, was a project awarded to the company from a design competition and for which they received some design ideas from employees on the shop floor.

These easy-access display cases were crafted by Wisconsin Built to fit around refrigerated units for this Boston Market restaurant.

“There are a few NASCAR fans on the shop floor, and Jeff asked if they had any ideas how we could recreate the racetrack experience in the store. They came up with several ideas and we prepared some designs,” says Petersen, “We’re very modest about our design capabilities, but it was a design success that we’ve had. I think it stretched our design capability and certainly demonstrated that we are capable of coming up with some creativity and executing it well.”

Many of Wisconsin Built’s projects combine a variety of media, including wood, laminate, metal, lighting, electrical, glass and solid surface materials.

“Our approach is to not build just cabinets or counters or displays. We’re building a store. We’re building an office or an airport terminal. What that allows us to do is to incorporate a lot of different disciplines,” says Petersen. “We’ll bring the whole package together and make it quite comprehensive.”

The Production Cycle

At Wisconsin Built, a project begins in engineering, where drawings are done on one of 15 AutoCAD stations, and flow and scheduling are determined. The general workflow runs clockwise around the plant, with the flat panel processing area at its core.

This Chipotle Mexican Grille features contemporary-styled fixtures combining wood with the look of corrugated metal.

“We have projects that are merging into this system and exiting at different areas, so this is really just the backbone of everything else that gets done in the shop,” Petersen says of the flat panel processing area.

The flat panel processing area starts with materials being cut to size on a Giben Prismatic 12-foot, rear loading panel saw. From there, panels are cut into shape on one of two Komo CNC routers utilizing Router-CIM software, a twin table 5 x 12 and a VR508 5 x 8 machine. A Homag CNC 9600 edgebander, by Stiles Machinery, as well as a newly installed double-sided IMA edgebander apply material to the raw panel edges. “Every machine we have will run a full shift,” says Ball.

Once a part is edgebanded, it is then sent to one of two SCM Morbidelli Author U550 PTP boring machines that are operated using ASPAN software. “They (the Morbidellis) do all the sides of the cabinets, drilling the system, hinge and assembly holes that are glued to the back,” says Petersen.

A Tritec Gannomat dowel inserter is also used to drill all the horizontal parts of the cabinet.

In regards to the equipment, Petersen says, “We’re going through an exercise of linking them more efficiently through work habits and supervisory changes. We’re trying to get the flow through the whole machinery department to be more efficient.”

The Role of a Project Manager at Wisconsin Built

Project managers play an important role at Wisconsin Built. They represent the retailer or general contractor within the walls of the company, both on the shop floor and in the production schedule.

“I would point to the Project Management team as being one of the key sources of communication, so that customers really feel they do have as direct a line as possible to what is happening on their product,” says Vice President Dan Petersen. “They know the product intimately. The customers are responded to quickly.”

According to Petersen, a project manager maintains the order of all matters that are important in keeping a project running smoothly, including project-specific correspondence, material and inventory planning, shipping coordination, drawing maintenance, and oversight and monitoring of scheduling.

“They work one-on-one with the customer,” says Petersen. “We expect a lot of our project managers. They are the ones who are dealing with the site superintendent, the customer in the office, the general contractor, the architect and the shop floor. They attend to all those details and bring it all together.”

Ball adds that this year it is a goal to work on processes and flows to “see if we can speed it up and still have our quality there.”

Other machines utilized in the shop include an SCM Z-30 10-foot panel saw, a JC Uhling HP2000 case clamp and a 5-foot PVA laminating glue line. For finishing, Wisconsin Built has a Makor automated spray line and three finishing booths for hand spraying.

“We try to have a good balance of spending our profits on our employees and on machinery. We try to get the newest stuff out there,” says Ball.

Customer Service is Key

Customer service is a priority, and is taken into account at every phase of the project. “We have, really, no outside salespeople. So our growth is by word-of-mouth, and that word-of-mouth is based on the quality performances of our engineering and project management team and the shop floor and warehouse employees,” says Petersen. “It just all has to do with working together.”

Organizationally, Wisconsin Built is only three levels deep, from the owners to the shop floor. Petersen says that this clear, three-leveled reporting structure is one of the biggest benefits they can share with their customers. “There’s a very straight line through customer contact. Getting clear answers promptly, that’s where customer service comes.”

Making their employees feel valued is another goal for Wisconsin Built. “Our turnover rate is virtually nil,” says Ball, “because our philosophy is that we treat people the way we would want to be treated.” The current average length of employment at Wisconsin Built is five years, and Petersen says that the company’s ability to attract and retain quality employees has had a favorable effect on accommodating growth.

“We’re proud of the cooperative level at which people do work here,” says Petersen. “We’re producing more than just cabinets and countertops and displays here. We’re providing a method for people to accomplish what they want to do. We feel we’ve got bragging rights to the quality of employees we’ve got here. We’re more proud of that than we are of any project out there.”

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