After almost 17 years in business together, WoodArts Systems Inc. President/Owner David Pena and Vice President John Nguyen might not always agree, but they are aware of each other’s strengths and when to defer to the other.

“We’re like a married couple,” jokes Pena.

“I look at him like my older brother,” says Nguyen. “We can fight in here, but when we walk out, we watch out for each other. And when you have leaders like that in the company, it will be successful.”

A strong partnership is just one of the ingredients in the success of WoodArts, a Houston, TX-based architectural millwork company. Pena’s knowledge of the business and sales side, paired with Nguyen’s mechanical engineering and architectural background, have helped the company remain on a steady growth track since its inception in 1991. In the beginning, Pena used a $5,000 credit card to help finance the company, which at that time was making plastic laminate casework.

“Actually, we started out doing plastic laminate casework, just building cabinets, very plain,” says Pena, “until we built a reputation and people let us bid on the nicer jobs, the jobs that we really like, the solid woods and veneers, the higher end projects.”

WoodArts is a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) and is certified as a Premium Grade Woodworker in AWI’s Quality Certification Program, one of only two woodworkers in Houston with this certification. The company says it combines old world craftsmanship with new technology. 

“We use old craftsmen’s knowledge here in the office and then we integrate it to the CNC machines,” says Nguyen. “The CNC machine will run out a template, and we’ll all look at it and make sure it’s right.”

Things didn’t always run this way at WoodArts. Nguyen says he came from the old school of drafting and manufacturing. “We used to draw everything by hand and do the cutting by hand,” he says. “We didn’t have any automatic equipment until three years ago.”

Technology Is Good

According to Nguyen, the company takes a slow, methodical approach to buying new equipment. 

“I spend so much time researching and making sure it’s going to work,” he says, “because when I open my mouth and say we’re going to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars on a piece of machinery, I have to make darn sure that that machine will turn around and make us money.”

WoodArts’ first CNC purchase was a Komo VR512 Mach II router. “We started looking at CNC machines about seven or eight years ago,” says Nguyen, “and we just got it about three years ago. I don’t know how we got by without it.”

When the company saw results from the Komo, the next purchase was much easier. “We wanted to buy a beam saw,” says Pena. “We got a Holzma HPP350. We didn’t take too much time to make the decision to buy it, and we saw the return real fast.”

Other equipment utilized by WoodArts includes a Dantherm NFP 2H-OP dust collector; an SI350 sliding table saw, a LineTech 1186 double-head line boring machine and an F410NC 16-in. joiner, all by SCMI; a Holz-Her Sprint 1417 edgebander; a Kaeser SK19-110 compressor; and a Casadei/Libra 3PH 220 widebelt sander.

The company also recently purchased Microvellum Toolbox, and so far, is more than happy with the software. “The Microvellum is great,” Pena says. “It used to take us six-hours worth of programming to get something to the CNC machines and out to the saw. Now it takes an hour. That’s unbelievable. We’ve got a $500,000 casework job that I swear, Microvellum will almost pay for itself on that one job.”

Implementing new software can be a chore, but Pena says that because the company was already using AutoCAD, transitioning to Microvellum has been a fairly smooth process. 

“The transition for us has been super good,” he says. “We’re pretty strong inside, in the engineering department, obviously because of John, and our AutoCAD experience helped us transition into the Microvellum.”

The company does all its drafting in-house, employing two draftsmen with occasional help from Nguyen, who is a draftsman himself. 

“We’re doing a project right now where the general contractor turned us loose with the architect early on in the job and they had, like a napkin sketch of what they wanted the millwork to look like. John pretty much developed all the shop drawings. I’d call him a designer myself.”

Nguyen says that most of WoodArts’ employees are cross-trained. “Very few of us can only do one thing,” he says. “From the president all the way down to the last guy in the shop, we can, and will, wear a different hat.”

WoodArts manufactured this reception desk, wood walls and thick panels for The Ashton, a 25-story apartment complex in Dallas, TX.
WoodArts specializes in corporate interiors, making products that include veneer wall panel systems, premium doors and window walls.

Paying Attention to Detail

According to Pena, WoodArts’ manufacturing process is the opposite of lean. “Everything runs through different departments,” he says.

“From what I’ve understood, lean manufacturing would be really good to apply into building casework, with multiple products at the same time,” says Nguyen. “In the custom woodworking world, where we only build one thing at a time, if you try to do lean manufacturing and custom woodworking at the same time, it’s not going to go very well. You start to cut corners.”

Pena says that the company has seen an increase in LEED projects, but still only three to five a year at this point. “It is growing,” he says. “It’s a lot more expensive to manufacture green. It’s harder to get the products and there’s a longer lead-time. There’s a lot of paperwork in the office. So there’s more management involved to get those LEED points, which the end-user is obviously looking for.”

Nguyen likes to be involved at many points in the design and production process, and credits some of WoodArts’ success to its attention to detail and refusal to cut corners.

“Yes, I check a lot of things,” he says. “When our draftsmen are done with the drafting, I check the drawing. And I work with the engineers on problems. I’m the kind of guy who walks that shop all the time. I can go out there in the morning, and by the end of the day know exactly how much my guys got done. And when they finish, before they take it apart and put a finish on it, they have to get me out there to check them. So, I’m very meticulous.”

This type of hands-on approach is a key ingredient in WoodArts’ success, according to Nguyen. “We work together as a team,” he says. “But a team has to have a team leader to take the responsibility of every single move that the team makes. I look at the company like my own company. For every single thing I do, I care.”

A Solid Reputation

WoodArts Systems’ Vice President John Nguyen, left, and President David Pena have spent 17 years working together.

WoodArts specializes in corporate interiors, manufacturing products such as veneer wall panel systems, premium doors, window walls, frames, cabinetry and more. The company also makes mixed media products that encompass glass, stone, fabric and metal, though it outsources for those materials.

“Usually, we’ll do the whole package — we’ll do the woodwork and the casework,” says Pena. “When you do projects like that, the owner or the general contractor will want to buy all from one source. So, the more we can provide, the easier it is for them to manage their job, obviously. We coordinate the whole thing, the deliveries and everything, and we’re in charge of it. But we’re not actually building that here. We pull it all together.”

The company has done projects for a long list of clients, including Exxon Mobil, Sysco, Chicago Bridge & Iron, British Petroleum (BP), Shell Oil, Chevron Phillips, Merrill Lynch and the Bracewell Giuliani Law Firm in Houston. The company is not at a loss for new projects either, with almost a year’s worth of work already booked. The abundance of work allows for WoodArts to take only local jobs.

“We’ve been able to find enough work here, so why go out,” Pena says. “We have five or six general contractors that we do business for and they keep us busy. We only bid projects where the general contractor already has the job, and they need to get two or three millwork bids. So, our success rate is pretty good. I guess that comes with our reputation.”

Pena says WoodArts also markets directly to architects. 

“They’ll spec us on jobs,” he says. “We’ll do finish samples for them so that they can show their clients, and that’s how we get our foot in the door. And then we’re able to bid the projects. They know the general contractors will never have a problem selling our work because of the quality of work that we do.”

“We care about our name,” adds Nguyen. “If we put our name on the product, it has to be right. We take it personally.”

In addition to traditional architectural millwork, WoodArts also produces mixed media products that use metal, stone, glass and fabric.

Building on Success

The future looks promising for WoodArts, with a possible shop and office expansion in the works and expectations of solid sales growth. Pena predicts the company will go over $5 million in sales for 2007.

"I’ve always been told that once you get up to $4 million or $5 million, that’s kind of a hump to get over,” he says. “We do want to keep growing. We have plans to expand another 18,000 feet and put just our plastic laminate work in there completely, and do the premium on the other side. A different set of equipment and different people.”

“I don’t know that we’re that much different than other woodworking companies that call themselves successful,” adds Nguyen. “If you are not out of business in three years, you are successful!”

The company also plans on just continuing doing what it’s been doing. “It’s an unbelievable market right now,” says Pena. “We’re just riding it out. I actually can sell more work than we can produce here. We have potential to have our best year ever.”

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