Woodharbor Sails Toward New Horizons

A small-town interior door and cabinetry manufacturer has big-time aspirations in a rapidly-growing niche market.

By John Iwanski

 

Growing from a dream in 1993 to a $27 million dollar interior door and cabinet company in 2000 might seem like success to most manufacturers. But for Mason City, IA-based Woodharbor Doors & Cabinetry, it is just the tip of the iceberg in a marketplace that has grown by leaps and bounds since the company opened its doors nearly seven years ago.

“Our current five-year goal is to be a $100 million a year company,” says Woodharbor president Curtis Lewerke. “We could do that in maybe four years, but five years is realistic. With the growth we’ve had and the market we serve, that is certainly an attainable goal.”

Woodharbor’s market is a mixture of finished and unfinished doors, cabinetry, millwork and mouldings, which the company packages to suppliers and end-users as the “Woodharbor Home.” The company offers its products as custom, because it provides a variety of styles and finishes which can be matched according to each customer’s taste.

“We are really trying to give people one place where they can match all their interior wood needs,” says Karen Wistrom, marketing director for Woodharbor. “Instead of a contractor or a builder having to go to one supplier for cabinetry, another for doors and maybe two or three others for interior moulding and millwork, they can purchase everything from one source. All the woods and finishes match and the cabinet doors match the interior doors of the house. It’s just an easier way for the homeowner to get exactly what they want and not have to worry about how it will look when it’s done. With Woodharbor, the customers’ doors, cabinetry and interior wood millwork are all coordinated in design.”

An Integrated Operation

In order to have custom products made on the scale the company needs, Woodharbor has implemented an integrated operation design that allows products ordered by door dealers to be delivered a month after the request is entered into the company’s records. As a result, the company can produce the components necessary at its own rough mill, convert the blanks into product back at its 160,000-square-foot plant and ship it on its own fleet of trucks to the final destination point.

“When the order comes in, we enter it into the computer and it’s in our system,” says plant and manufacturing manager Todd Piper. “We fax the order over to the rough mill, they see the components we need here at the plant and they get started. We allow three days from the time we put the order in to the rough mill to receive the parts we need for a particular order.”

Woodharbor’s rough mill is actually located about a mile away from the company’s main production plant. The 40,000-square-foot facility receives all its lumber there, and the company currently goes through approximately five to six truckloads of lumber per week. All of the components found in Woodharbor’s products are produced at the rough mill facility, then shipped to the main plant for final production.

 

     
     
   

Woodharbor’s French door line has become so popular, the company had to dedicate a separate machining and production area to keep up with orders. The company produces all its stiles and mouldings for the doors in house, and installs the glass at its Mason City, IA, location. Woodharbor also offers cabinetry in matching door styles, as well as mouldings, mantleplaces and other accessories.

“Anything that goes in our doors or cabinets starts out here,” says Piper. In addition to the lumber that the company purchases, Woodharbor also stocks veneers for its interior door stiles and rails. All the veneers are pressed at the rough mill facility. Woodharbor uses a Finn glue spreader and a EuroPress feed-through hot press from Atlantic Machinery Corp. to veneer the wood. The finished components are then sent over with each custom order to the main plant. It’s a system that the company has found highly effective.

“When we veneer the boards, there actually is a little overhang on the pieces,” says Piper. “Once we mould and sand down the edges, they’ll fit exactly the way the design calls for. We also stamp the date that each piece was pressed and veneered. It allows us to see how the parts are progressing through our line and where we are in the production schedule.”

Having the parts dated also allows the company to check any potential defects by looking at other pieces produced on the same day. Workers can see if the problem is an individual piece of wood or is part of a larger scale quality control issue.

“If we have a problem, we can always rework or re-sand what we need to,” says Piper. “We have the capability here.”

New Business Changes Finish Flow

As the orders make their way around the rough mill, they are back checked against the production list and then loaded for shipment to the production plant. Parts are sent for either interior door production or cabinetry.

The company currently has one finishing room with eight spray booths and a conveyorized overhead system. Single finish or same finish orders are placed on the overhead system. All doors and cabinets with multi-step finishes are transferred into the finishing booths and finished in the same area. But with an addition that will house five new finishing booths, Piper says the work flow — and product output — will change.

“We currently finish all our products in this finishing room,” says Piper. “Whether a cabinet needs to have three passes made to be finished or 15, it comes into the same area. When we have the new addition on-line, any complex finishes will go into that room. It allows us to separate slightly more labor-intensive products and keep our production up.”

With the new plant configuration and finishing room, Piper estimates that the company will more than triple its current production rate.

Piper also feels that as production increases, the company will see more improvements in the value-added segments of business, namely interior passage doors.

“When we started out the business, passage doors were finished maybe 2 percent of the time,” says Piper. “Now we finish around 25-30 percent of our doors, compared to our cabinets, which are all finished. I think a 50 to 60 percent average for finished interior doors is very realistic. With the product offerings we have, that certainly can be done.”

One of the problems the company had with the construction of the new finishing area and the addition of finishing booths was the change in air pressure in the main finishing room. With the construction of the new area, Woodharbor had difficulty maintaining a consistent pressure and airflow in that portion of the plant. The close proximity of the two areas also exacerbated the problem. Despite the size of the finishing room, air laden with dust was beginning to enter from the production areas of the plant. To combat the problem, Woodharbor installed air curtains to stabilize the pressure and keep any wood-laden dust outside the room.

“That was a great improvement that has meant a big difference in our quality,” says Piper. “We have to have this area dust free to achieve the finish quality we want. When you can control your finishing quality, it will reduce rework, quality control problems and a lot of other headaches that might otherwise come up.”

Production Drives Technology

Because Woodharbor offers so many product lines, the company has to be versatile in its production methods, yet still be able to produce a high volume of products every day. Many times the company has found it necessary to streamline or redesign a process to improve the productivity in a particular area, even designing a machine to fit the needs of the company.

“We needed to find a machine that could cut the top and bottom of the door,” says Piper, “but didn’t want to go out and spend $150,000 on a double-sided tenoning machine. U.S. Concepts came in, looked at what we needed and came up with a design that fit exactly what we wanted. It was a perfect fit for us.”

The company has automated its processes in almost every area, and sees technology as an advantage to manufacturing.

“We will always need good workers,” says Lewerke, “but you have to have technology in place to help you improve your processes.”

In fact, the only area where processes aren’t completely automated yet are in the cabinetry production area and finishing room. But Piper notes that will not be the case much longer.

“We’re going to have a conveyor system to bring the parts into the room and then back out again when they are finished,” says Piper. “It will improve our efficiency immensely.”

The company also has added features such as return conveyors on its Gabbiani GDG tenoners from Delmac Machinery Group to allow for single man production, and is looking for other ways to improve efficiency in operations.

“We’re always looking to upgrade our machinery capabilities,” says Piper. “We have orders in right now for machines that will be on display at IWF 2000 in Atlanta, and then are coming right here to us. It’s an ongoing process to help improve our quality and quantity as well.”

In addition to improvements in machinery, growing orders for French doors caused the company to reconfigure part of the plant and dedicate one area specifically for French door production.

“It was becoming a bottleneck, because there is so much that goes into the construction,” says Piper. “Not only are those doors customized more often, but we install the glass here. Now we have one area that creates that product. It makes it easier for everyone on the production line.”

Creating The Perfect Door

Because the company’s doors are multi-panel, joinery is key to the consistency of the doors. The company commits much of its production and component manufacturing to ensure that the doors are secure throughout the production process.

“We use mortise and tennon and dowels on the doors,” says Piper. “Making sure that we have solid joints is the most important thing in quality door construction. You have to have it or all the other steps you take to make a quality product won’t mean anything.”

Once the stiles and rails are received at the plant for interior doors, they are assembled with the panels, glued and then finished if necessary. The center panels are hand-sanded and stained before the door is assembled. Piper says this allows the door panels to expand and contract within the door without exposing unfinished wood.

Cabinets are built in a similar fashion to Woodharbor’s interior door products. According to Piper, this helps in the long run in terms of shipping and installation.

Discovering a Niche

Woodharbor was incorporated in October 1993 and began producing interior doors in the spring of 1994. But the company has a story which carries on back into the late 1970s, when Curtis, Dennis and Jon Lewerke founded Fieldstone Cabinetry.

Growing from nothing to a $25 million-a-year business, the brothers merged their company with Masco in 1986. In May of 1993, the Lewerke’s left Masco and were faced with the prospect of what to do next. Others, including Piper, also joined them in starting up Woodharbor. The company began in nearby Clear Lake, IA, leasing space out of the former Unisys building and using machinery which employees had shuttled down from a former cabinet manufacturing plant in Minnesota.

“It was interesting at first,” says Piper. “We were up there in trailers, tearing machines out of the plant and bringing them down here. The overhead finishing system we brought down here, along with tenoning machines, basically any equipment used for cabinet and door production.”

Because of a non-compete agreement between the Lewerke’s and Masco, the company could not begin production of cabinetry until at least June of 1996, so the company had to find a way to begin producing products with the machines and knowledge they had; Enter interior doors.

“We had to find a product that we could build and had some knowledge of,” says Lewerke. “Then we got to thinking that an interior door is a lot like a cabinet door, but larger. It took some adjustments, but it worked out well.”

When the company began designing cabinets in the fall of 1996, it became a natural fit to market the diverse products under a single idea.

“It just made perfect sense,” says Wistrom. “We realized that the combined production of interior doors and cabinetry offered homeowners a tremendous advantage in being able to coordinate an entire home of finished wood products — not only in matching finishes but also in matching woods, designs, profiles and quality workmanship.”

Lewerke notes that it also made it easier to promote it to contractors and those who would use the company’s products.

“Even though they are two different industries (interior doors and cabinets), they go in the same projects,” says Lewerke. That got us into the market, and now we are poised for continued growth. Everyday when I get here, there is something new or different going on. That is always an exciting feeling.”

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