Keeping the Beat with Steady Customers
Zorn Productions Unlimited maintains a consistent clientele for commercial laminate casework.
By Greg Landgraf
While Randy Zorn grew up in the woodworking business, he graduated from high school with rock and roll dreams.
“I was supposed to be playing drums in a big rock band,” Zorn says. “And I was for a while — we were supposed to be touring, we recorded albums, we did all kinds of stuff — but it never panned out.”
Returning to woodworking, fortunately, turned out to be a more-than-adequate career solution. Zorn had learned the trade from his father, who in turn had learned during his youth in Austria. Ultimately, it has developed into Zorn Productions Unlimited Inc., a six-person business in Torrance, CA, with a set of steady clients focusing on laminate-based commercial tenant improvement projects.
That represents a conscious, if gradual, shift from his father’s business, which was high-end residential work. “I do not want any more of worrying about the oven size, the refrigerator size, what type of handle they want on the refrigerator — I’m done with that. I’m happy just to do the commercial work,” Zorn says.
“The mainstay of the business is plastic laminate-based cabinets, countertops and uppers in typical commercial settings, but we still do more custom-based areas like reception areas, elevator lobbies and conference rooms,” Zorn says. “A lot of the time it’s veneer or a plastic laminate or combinations of five different p-lams.” This specialty work represents a growing part of the business, enough so that one of the shop employees focuses on it.
The bulk of the company’s work goes into greater Los Angeles office towers, particularly offices for professional services, the entertainment field and Internet companies. “There are all these little dot-coms who have come into all this money all of a sudden and they need to spend it somewhere, so they do marvelous build-outs,” Zorn says.
The company gets most of its work from five general contractors. It lands many jobs without bidding, based on past performance. “The contractors say, as long as you are consistent with your pricing and don’t try to take advantage of the situation, we’ll continue to do this,” Zorn says.
He adds that the situation is far better than competitive bidding, where jobs can be won or lost on a few dollars. Part of ensuring that such negotiated work will continue is only accepting work the shop can do within the time-frame needed. “I think 50 percent of our success is being able to do things on time,” Zorn says. “If we can’t do it on time, the general contractor isn’t going to come to us next time with that negotiated job.”
The company now builds at least 200 jobs per year, ranging from eight-foot coffee bars up to two-story suites. And while the company has done work for big names like Dreamworks and the Discovery Channel, big clients are not the focus. “To drop a name doesn’t mean anything,” Zorn says. “The big jobs are important. But it’s the medium-size and smaller jobs that consistently keep the money flowing in this business.”
Zorn’s father folded his business in the early 1980s, and Zorn worked for other shops for nearly 15 years, first with his father’s former partner and then as an installer for a commercial cabinet shop. During that time, he also did side work in his garage.
During a slow period at his day job, Zorn took some time off to focus on a large residential job on his own. “In doing that I ran into a superintendent for one of the general contractors that I work for now,” Zorn says. He knew the super from previous installations, and they got to discussing Zorn’s side business. The superintendent told Zorn that he was dissatisfied with the countertop laminations he had received from a subcontractor, and the meeting turned into a contract to relaminate the countertops — Zorn’s first commercial job.
“I met with the super’s boss, and we started talking more and more, and I told him where I was going,” Zorn says. “He told me, ‘I will help you if you help me,’ and it started cooking.”
Zorn’s side business soon outgrew his garage and became his day job in 1995. He hired his first employee and moved into 1,800 square feet of commercial space near his home, which a friend’s sister was offering at a “ridiculously low” price of 30 cents per square foot.
Connections he had made during his previous jobs served him in other ways as well. He learned job cost estimating early on from a former colleague. Superintendents for contractors he had worked with had given Zorn an open invitation to call when he struck out on his own. “As we started getting busier, I was calling all these people, and they were very helpful, very accommodating and very understanding, too,” Zorn says, adding that he could trust them to tell him if his pricing was off.
The shop’s growth began to take off with an equipment upgrade at the Anaheim Woodworking Fair in 1997. Prior to that, the shop worked on a used manual-feed edgebander that had been “hot-rodded” with power feeders. “It was okay for a while, but we had a bottleneck at the edgebander,” Zorn says. At the show, he bought a new SCMI K 203 B edgebander. “Things were just flying through the edgebander, but we were still cutting on a table saw, and there were bottlenecks there now.” At IWF the next year, Zorn bought a Striebig Optisaw 1 Plus vertical panel saw, as well as a Ritter R-486 line boring machine.
The shop’s staff was growing at the same time. Zorn’s wife Michelle left her job to run the office. “It was scary, because she brought home the regular paycheck,” Zorn says. He had added another shop employee as well, and was to the point where he needed a full-time installer.
“I would install what I could myself, and what I couldn’t, I would call all the people I knew for years and they would do it for me on evenings and weekends,” Zorn says. ”Finally it got to the point where I started tallying up how many dollars we were spending on outside labor for installation and realized it was as much or more than a full-time installer would be.
“Every day I’d come here and play a little head game of ‘keep the installer busy.’ If I had a full-time installer, what would he be doing? If there wasn’t anything in the field, would he be busy?” Zorn adds.
He hired the installer after returning from IWF. “By that time we were more in the cycle of having to wait for the money” from previous jobs, Zorn says. Any fears that the installer wouldn’t stay busy were unfounded. Zorn says there is enough work that he still calls upon outside help from time to time, although he tries to minimize outsourcing and only farms work out to people he has known for a long time and who know his expectations.
“There is a line that you have to be familiar with as far as quality is concerned, as well as productivity,” he says. Zorn also pays the installer piecework, which he says gives the incentive to work quickly but keep quality high, because any rework comes out of the installer’s time.
The added staff and machinery necessitated a move to a larger space. The technician who sharpens the shop’s saw blades told Zorn about his current 6,000-square-foot location, which is affordable, near his house, in an area that doesn’t get too hot and has easy truck access with the ability to pull the truck into the facility, so weather isn’t a factor.
Now, material in the shop flows from the panel saw to the edgebander to the boring machine. From there it goes to the hardware attachment area, which uses a Ryobi 10-inch drill press and a Delta 8-inch press to drill cabinet pulls.
Laminating is mostly a “by-hand” operation. The company purchases most of its laminated panels already laid up, but also uses a Binks air-assisted spray system to apply glue when it does press laminates or veneers. Beyond that, lamination is done with routers and files. “The fact that you have somebody who knows how to laminate is the important thing,” Zorn says. “The equipment isn’t that complicated.”
The shop has ample space to save small wood pieces, left over from the saw, for components like toe kicks, as well as other necessities like grommets, loose hardware and fasteners. The space can also be expanded in the future if necessary, although that doesn’t look likely.
“The big issue Michelle and I are trying to decide is how big we want to get,” Zorn says. “Our hunch is, not much bigger.” Zorn says a staff of seven or eight is the maximum ideal: one each for countertops, cabinets and specialty work, one milling on the saw for all three, one installer, plus Zorn and his wife in the office.
“Even that is that much more in salaries, which means we have to bring in that much more in sales,” Zorn says. “I don’t want it to snowball out of control.”
Keeping healthy relationships with friends and family despite working together has not proven to be a big problem. Zorn says he and a current employee had been friends for years before Zorn hired him. “We both said, ‘We’d like to make this work, but we don’t want to risk losing the friendship.’ We kicked that around for six months, whether or not it would work, and we finally agreed to try it,” Zorn says. “It’s been three years now and everything has been fine.” And working with his wife has provided a balancing force in the business. “We bounce ideas off each other a lot, and we’ll check for each other’s mistakes.”
Zorn admits that, “learning to be a boss was not easy.” Analyzing experience and learning speed to determine an employee’s worth to begin with, for example, was a challenge. “If they are familiar with the process by which we do it, it makes the job so much easier,” Zorn says.
Leadership styles he wants to avoid are ruling with an iron fist or continually cutting back on niceties. To encourage a friendly atmosphere, Zorn springs for lunches once in a while and encourages after-work socializing among the group.
Handling employee mistakes and successes properly is also a vital part. “To compliment someone when they are doing well is really important — and if you keep doing that, generally speaking, things won’t go wrong that often,” Zorn says, adding that when mistakes happen, coming unglued and yelling is the wrong approach. “If you do that, employees will always be worried about their next mistake.”
Zorn’s musical background shows through in one final effort to make the shop a “harmonious” place to work. “We’ve got quite a stereo out in the shop,” he says. “You have music that’s really pumping and you almost work to the pace.”
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