May 2005

Finding Success

A North Carolina architectural woodworking firm focuses on big-ticket projects.

By Hannah Miller
The slip-matched rift sawn red oak flitches in this conference table are taper cut to the radial lines of the curve. A solid quartered red oak bullnose edge surrounds them.

Woodpecker Enterprises' client list reads like a directory of corporate heavyweights: computer giant IBM, pharmaceutical leader GlaxoSmithKline, biostatistical analysis company Quintiles Transnational, etc.

That's not counting the banks, law firms, insurance companies, churches and universities that have turned to the Apex, NC, firm for custom contract furniture during its 33 years in business.

These well-heeled corporations, many of them located in nearby Research Triangle Park, best fit the company's needs and talents, says Woodpecker President Ramsey Terhune. Since the company was founded in the woods beside North Carolina's Jordan Lake in 1972, Woodpecker has grown to 12 woodworkers who share chores and split the rewards when a job comes in under its labor budget.

Keeping a shop the size of theirs afloat is easier when your jobs are in the $30,000 to $200,000 range, Terhune says. "The more zeroes, the easier it is to make it work out," he says. Woodpecker has about $1 million in annual sales.

Finding a New Focus

Terhune says turning Woodpecker's focus to big-ticket jobs "is the logical sequence. The economies of scale have directed us that way. Why make 10 residential dining room tables for $2,000 each when you can do a single conference table for $20,000?"

The larger, more complicated projects make better use of the talent Woodpecker represents, Terhune says. Terhune, who has worked for the company almost since its beginning, bought it in 1977. He has 33 years with Woodpecker, production supervisor Allan Smith has 25 and several others have been there more than a dozen years.

Nearly every woodworker in the 12,000-square-foot shop handles nearly every chore, with a few who are especially skilled at working with metal or high-end laminate doing much of that work. "I do have one person who does all the finishing. One of our goals is to keep him busy," Terhune says.

Woodpecker made this lectern and media wall to match the ropy cherry table at IBM Global Services. The company also made the ramp to the left, using granite posts and cherry handrails.

Sharing is the name of the game with that many woodworkers, all of whom are individuals, Terhune says. "They know they have to work cooperatively. That's part of the objective," he says.

Woodpecker also offers extra incentive. Terhune and Smith draw up a labor budget for each job. When the job comes in under budget, the money saved is split between employees. Everybody gets something, but those with the most time on the job get the most money.

The incentive helps foster an atmosphere of "you help me rip this plywood, I'll help you band that case," Terhune says, "rather than, 'get out of my way because I need to rip this piece of plywood.'"

With a customer list of large companies, "it's either feast or famine," Terhune says. When business is good, "our biggest problem is trying to get everything out of here," he says.

Woodpecker began what has turned into a long-term relationship with IBM in 1991. It was making conference tables for the company's new marketing center in Cary, NC, when IBM found out a German company could not meet the deadline on 125 tables it had contracted to do for executive briefing rooms.

With six weeks to go before high-powered delegations, including World Bank and U.S. Marine Corps representatives, showed up at the new center, Woodpecker was asked to make the tables. They checked with their suppliers and a couple of other shops who agreed to help, then finished the tables on time. A grateful IBM held a luncheon for the entire shop.

When a general recession hits, things can get lean at a company that focuses on large projects, however. Last year, Terhune says, "We took advantage of a lull to work on the shop, expanding it to have a veneer pressing room." The company has two Vacuum Pressing Systems veneer presses and buy most of their veneer from High Point, NC, suppliers to the furniture industry, a source Terhune hopes will not dry up as furniture manufacturers increasingly import their products.

This three-sided mahogany desk for a financial services company has pomele sapele panels in a windowpane design and a black granite transaction top. The front panels are diagonally matched.

"I've lost track of how many recessions we've been through," Terhune says. "I haven't made tomato stakes yet, but I almost did one time."

In his ongoing quest for big accounts, he's got an invaluable electronic ally. "A Web site is the best sales tool available for a company like us," he says.

Creating an Enriched Portfolio

Woodpecker depends on its portfolio to establish credibility; The Web "puts that in a format that's accessible to everybody around the world," Terhune says

Before the Internet (and its Web site, www.woodpeckerinc.com), Woodpecker expanded its presence regionally by hiring a sales representative in the state's largest city, Charlotte, 130 miles to the west. "Our Web site has provided the logical next step," Terhune says.

A financial services company in Tampa, FL, recently "came through cyberspace" with its order of a cherry conference table and audiovisual cabinet and credenza, Terhune says. Woodpecker trucked the completed project to Tampa and set it up with a local woodworking shop's help.

Terhune believes geographic expansion offers valuable opportunity, and that the best way to do it is by partnering with a local company on installation.

"I can send multiple people to do the job, but it's expensive," he says. "In Tampa, we had a small amount of chair rail we needed to run." Woodpecker supplied the material, but the local company was a cost effective resource for additional skilled craftsmen and tools, he adds.

"When you ship furniture, you're always concerned about the potential for damage," he says. A little scuff on the Tampa project was taken care of with one more coat of lacquer, he adds.

What's in a Name?

On the surface, the cultures of Woodpecker and its high-end clients might seem an odd mix. "We had this kind of goofy name," Terhune says. The name was chosen by founder Peter J. Laughton, an Englishman who'd never heard of the cartoon Woody Woodpecker.

They've kept the name because people always remember it, but "we changed our logo and made it more corporate-looking," he says. A pecking woodpecker forms one side of the "W" in Woodpecker.

Woodpecker's shop is at the end of a dirt and gravel road, in the woods, a half-mile from 46,768-acre Jordan Lake. Only a few miles away, many of Woodpecker's high-tech clients go about their business amidst the modern architecture and landscaped lawns of Research Triangle Park.

"Not many of them come out here," Terhune says. When they do, he says, "people are generally amazed at what comes out of our funky environment."

Another advantage of the Internet is that visitors to Woodpecker's Web site, whether local or at a distance, get a good idea of the size jobs the company undertakes and the prices it charges. That shrinks the number of callers, Terhune says, but limits them to the kind of companies Woodpecker wants to deal with. "We've lost a number of deals because the price was too high," Terhune says.

Terhune says Woodpecker's strengths are good design, good craftsmanship and the kind of look clients can't find elsewhere. "Design is a big part of what we sell," he notes.

Terhune does all the drawings, using CAD software. The shop uses a Brandt edgebander and also a Hess edge clamping device that Terhune describes as an unusual tool that fills a real need for Woodpecker. Using pneumatic cylinders and heat, it puts a solid wood edging onto pieces like tabletops. "You couldn't put a tabletop through the edgebander and get anything you'd be happy with," he says. The alternative would be the time-consuming process of using bar clamps.

Other tools include two Robland sliding table saws from Laguna Tools, two Powermatic table saws, a ShopBot CNC router, an SCMI T130 shaper, a Sandingmaster widebelt sander, high-pressure and HVLP spray guns, mostly from Graco, and finishing materials from M.L. Campbell, ICA and Sherwin-Williams.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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