Fixtures Part of a Flexible Mix

A California company maintains a diverse customer base, with store fixtures as a strong part.

By Helen Kuhl

     
Wood Connection Inc.

Modesto, CA

Year Founded: 1981

Employees: 23

Shop Size: 30,000 sq. ft.

FYI: To avoid problems in its store fixtures work, the company does a “background check” of potential clients and stays away from those known to “pull shenanigans.”

 
   
     

Although Bill Fenstermacher says that he “choked a little” when a consultant first quoted him a price for evaluating plant operations at Wood Connection Inc., his Modesto, CA, woodworking company, he adds that it turned out to be worth every penny.

Fenstermacher called in the consultant in 1990, when the company was about nine years old. It had been growing nicely since Fenstermacher started it as a one-person shop in his home, doing small medical and dental office casework and some residences. A firm believer in machinery and technology, Fenstermacher says he also wanted an expert’s advice about how to maximize his shop layout and operations to be as efficient as possible, especially as the company was going through many incremental additions of space fairly rapidly. The consultant (whose fees amounted to about $4,300) helped Fenstermacher plan for current and future needs, giving advice that panned out well.

One of his key recommendations was to pursue a diversity of work in order to weather economic ups-and-downs in individual market segments — advice that really helped the company in the early 2000s.

“The consultant said, ‘Look, you have the knowledge and the equipment. You just need to have the versatility to go whichever way the economy takes you and not specialize in any segment that dead-ends in a bad economy,’” says Fenstermacher. “So what we have done is make ourselves able to service any client’s needs.”

     
 
One of Wood Connection’s biggest store fixture customers is the Restoration Hardware chain. The company does all millwork, perimeters and freestanding fixtures for the retailer nationwide.  
     

Following that philosophy, Wood Connection has done work in a number of different markets and stayed consistently busy through the years. The one common thread is that it stays in the commercial market, a decision it made when it hired the consultant. Work has swung back and forth from tenant improvement, laminated casework and architectural millwork to store fixtures — whichever market is thriving at any given time.

The company did a lot of convenience markets in the 1980s and started doing more store fixture work in the early 1990s, Fenstermacher says, with Restoration Hardware being one of its biggest retail customers. It also did many stores for Peet’s Coffee and Tea. Both of those chains involved nationwide work. In addition, Wood Connection has done smaller local chains and independent stores.

Typical projects in the 1990s ranged between $50,000 and $150,000 and rose to $250,000 to $750,000 by the end of the decade, Fenstermacher says. However, “That came to a screeching halt in 2001,” he adds. “Now we are back to an average between $75,000 and $100,000, with a couple at $250,000 or $300,000. However, I think the economy in northern California is starting to turn. Architects are starting to talk about the bigger projects again.”

The company’s flexibility enabled it to switch gears and find work even in the recent slowdown, and retail work has remained part of the mix. Today, store fixtures account for about 20% of Wood Connection’s business, and Fenstermacher says he expects 2003 to be fairly strong in that market.

Store fixture work always is a challenge, with tight deadlines and competitive pricing. Wood Connection handles the former problem by putting in long hours and also hiring temp help to supplement its steady work force.

“It has worked well for us to bring in temp help and, in some areas, to put as many as four temp helpers with one regular employee,” Fenstermacher says. “That one employee will work with temps, maybe assembling a simple box that’s easy to train a person to do in a couple of days.”

He says the company meets the pricing challenge by being careful about who it works for, both retailers and general contractors. “We got burned by some stores in the late 1990s where we hammered down to a low price and then we didn’t get paid anyway,” Fenstermacher says. “Today, we are more careful and take better clients. We pre-qualify by doing some background checking to see whether they pay on-time or have pulled any shenanigans with other companies. You learn that there are some people in the industry that you just don’t want to work for.”

     
 
Wood Connection has done several stores for the Books Inc./Compass Books chain, including perimeter fixtures, gondolas and freestanding items. This is the flagship store at Downtown Disney in Disneyland.  
     

While some of its work is bid, some is negotiated and some is direct pricing to owners. Despite the challenges, Fenstermacher says he likes store fixture work because it is repetitive. “You design a product and once you have it engineered, the customer just orders a product. There is some customizing, but that is taken care of by the software. With the software and the link to the machines, it is very easy to throw the material on, get the parts out and build what they need.”

Wood Connection generally supplies all millwork and casework required in a store, including perimeters and display cases. It supervises metal and glass work. Store fixture installation is usually handled by the general contractor. The company does its own installation for most other types of work.

Association Involvement Brings Rewards

One of the vehicles Fenstermacher uses to “pre-check” potential customers is networking with other woodworking companies, especially through the Woodwork Institute (formerly Woodwork Institute of California). Fenstermacher says he joined the group in 1991, when he was doing a lot of tenant improvement projects in California that involved WI specifications.

Fenstermacher became active in the association, serving on its Board of Directors and then as vice president and, ultimately, president in 2001-02. After a one-year hiatus, he is back on the board and serves on several committees.

In addition to the networking benefits, Fenstermacher says he also gains valuable recognition from customers because of his association involvement. “General contractors and the owners know the Woodwork Institute and they know I am heavily involved,” he says. “It has helped our business, being recognized as being active and following WI standards to build a quality product.”

He also feels that his reputation as a WI officer was one of the reasons he was recently asked by the California Contractors License Board to serve on a committee to develop new questions for C6 licensing, which covers cabinetry, millwork and finish carpentry. “They update the test internally on a fairly regular basis,” he says. “But I think this is going to be a major rewriting.”

Finishing Challenges and Shop Strategies

Because of the strict limitation on VOC emissions in California, most general contractors require all woodwork to be prefinished in the shop, rather than on-site. While it has experimented with using a contract finisher, Wood Connection now does all its finishing in-house to ensure quality and reliability, Fenstermacher says.

The company has a 6,000-square-foot finishing department equipped with an open-face spray booth and an enclosed automotive booth for higher-end finishes. It uses California-compliant HVLP spray equipment, most of it from Graco. Its primary finishing materials vendor is R.J. McGlenon, a local company. Wood Connection uses McGlenon’s Maclac acetone-based sealers and lacquers.

“We also do some real specialized finishes,” Fenstermacher says. “For example, Peet’s has a red rift oak solid wood countertop that needs a fill finish. We use a spray polyester with an aircraft-quality acrylic finish over the top. Those finishes were developed in conjunction with McGlenon specifically to meet Peet’s requirements for wear and stainability.”

While Fenstermacher says the state has been a little more lenient about emissions levels in the past year because of the tough economy, which presents enough of a challenge to small businesses, he expects another reduction in emissions levels to be mandated in the not-too-distant future, with a requirement to switch to water-based materials. At that point, he will add drying ovens to his finishing department and learn to allow for more drying time in his production process.

Fenstermacher does not seem too concerned at the prospect of changing technologies. Since he started the company, he has always been willing to invest in machinery and steadily built up an arsenal of high-tech equipment. “We recognized early on the value of equipment and technology,” he says. “We bought our first edgebander in 1985.”

Today, the shop includes a Schelling FM panel saw, Holz-Her Triathlon 360 edgebander, Weeke Optimat BP-150 boring machine, Gannomat point-to-point dowel drill inserter, two Wimer HP3000 case clamps and a Butfering widebelt sander. It also has an Altendorf F45 Elmo sliding table saw, equipped with NC fences, which is used for miter and angle work on specialty parts.

The Optimat, purchased from Stiles Machinery, was custom built by Weeke to have a 14-foot axis frame and special internal programming that enables it to do bypassing zones. The Gannomat was purchased when the company switched to dowel construction, which was recommended by the consultant. The consultant also worked on plant layout and suggested using conveyors. So Wood Connection subsequently implemented a full conveyor system for moving parts and product around the shop.

     
 
Fixtures for Peet’s Coffee and Tea shops involve some high-end woodwork and specialty finishes.  
     

To accommodate the huge amount of mouldings required for work on Restoration Hardware stores, the company bought a Wadkin 5-head moulder and gang rip saw. “We did more than one million feet of mouldings for Restoration Hardware in 1997,” Fenstermacher says. That year, the company also purchased a Makor moulding pre-finishing line, commonly used by picture frame manufacturers. “We ran as much as 36,000 feet through that line in a day,” Fenstermacher says. “So it paid for itself in 12 months.”

The Butfering sander was purchased to do veneer sanding and sand/sealer sanding so the company can sand panels. “We started doing a lot of veneer panel work for tenant improvement projects in the mid-1990s, to accommodate the changing desires of contractors then,” Fenstermacher says. It currently is doing a lot of high-end law firms in the San Francisco area, which involve veneer work. The company buys its panels laid-up.

Software Part of Production Efficiencies

As part of its commitment to high technology, the company was an early proponent of software. It began using Keytrix in the 1980s, when it was just being introduced for the woodworking industry. “At that time, it didn’t drive machinery at all,” Fenstermacher says. “So we were using it mainly for manufacturing information, doing all of our cutlists and assembly.

“It definitely became a key part of manufacturing by 1988,” he adds, “and by 1997, we had linked so that all our cutlists came direct from the program to the saw, with barcoded labels used for machine operation and job tracking.”

The company continues to use Keytrix today, and Fenstermacher says, “We do everything by computer.”

Currently, about 60 percent of the company’s work is in plastic laminate, most of which involves higher-end materials, 20 percent is painted and 20 percent is veneers. Wood Connection produces most of its own casework doors, as well as frame-and-panel interior doors.

The company has always been located in Modesto and at its current location since 1985. It has undergone more than a half-dozen expansions through the years to reach its current size, about 30,000 square feet. The most recent expansion, earlier this year, enabled Wood Connection to relocate all its offices into one area; previously office space had to be spread throughout the shop.

The company took advantage of the remodel to show off its capabilities, creating a reception area, conference room and offices with “a 1920s bank look,” featuring mouldings and transoms over the doors. The millwork was done in Lyptus, a genetically engineered wood grown in South America, enhanced with a reddish-brown stain. Some casework has matching wood-grain laminate, and there are several Avonite solid surface countertops, as well as a conference table that combines Avonite and Lyptus.

Wood Connection has done quite a bit of solid surface work, Fenstermacher says, especially when the economy was stronger and it was specced even for copy rooms and lunchrooms in some projects. “In 2001, we used more than 400 sheets of solid surface material in our projects,” he says.

In addition to an Avonite top, the reception desk features an engraved Wood Connection logo, done on the Weeke. The company has done similar engraved signage for customers, Fenstermacher says.

The new offices include a workout room for employees, one of the benefits the company uses to retain good workers. It also offers medical insurance, profit sharing, paid vacations and a 401(k) plan. The company has about 23 employees and to help them understand and appreciate the value of benefits, Fenstermacher has a profit-sharing plan representative visit the company once a year to explain the program. He also invites his accountant to speak to employees annually.

“He will say, ‘You are making this much per hour, but the company is providing you with benefits, so in reality you could add another 35% or 40% to your wage, or whatever amount he comes up with based on the benefit package at the time,’” Fenstermacher says. “That way employees can see that there is value here beyond just what they make per hour. The accountant also shows the value of staying with the company for five years to become fully vested. This works well.”

Fenstermacher serves as company president and oversees project management, production, delivery and installation. His brother Alan, who joined the company in 1984 and is a co-owner, is vice president and handles estimating, production information, accounting and administration. This year, annual sales will be a little over $3 million and next year are expected to grow to $4.5 million, equalling the company’s previous record year.

Although Wood Connection will always maintain its business strategy of being involved in numerous markets, Fenstermacher expects its store fixture work to pick up more this year. He sees that market growing, as retailers begin to do some high-end remodels in an effort to attract well-heeled “baby boomers,” who are becoming a large segment of the population and are drawn to stores with an upscale look. A good example is the Restoration Hardware and Peet’s chains, which involve very high-end work.

“We expect 2003 to be a fairly strong store fixture year for us,” he says.

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