Rick Hill is a Contract Buyer Specialist with Timberland Wood Products, Sheboygan, WI. Timberland contracts with woodworking companies to help them lower their total lumber costs at timberlandwood.com. Rick comes from a 20 year history in the cabinet and furniture supply industry. On fall weekends Rick can be found banding hawks and falcons at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Park. You can reach Rick at [email protected].
Timberland Wood Products took me under its wing and is teaching me about the lumber business. Woodworking companies, purchasing agents, and people new to the industry could use the same help. Here it is.
Author’s note: It is difficult writing an article about an Amish manufacturer. I worked with the Miller family on several occasions, and even worked a woodworking show in their booth. The Miller’s were reluctant to be quoted, and find an article about their company to be very embarrassing and a bit to forward and showy. Many of the comments were brought out in discussions on product quality and from their non-Amish customers. With this in mind, I want to make sure that the readers know that the Miller’s did not really want this article written and I apologize if I have offended their cultural ethics and decorum.
In a small white shop beside a dairy barn in Amish country Ohio, David slowly chips away at Goliath. Throughout the Midwest USA, dairy barns and their adjacent buildings have fostered thousand of small businesses serving local needs, but Century Components decided 6 years ago to use their shop to and develop a line of kitchen accessories, going up against some of the largest manufacturer of cabinet accessories in the country.
Century Components started in 1991 as a manufacturer of hand steam bent rims and embossing for chair backs. Jeff and Jay Miller took over the company from their father, Atlee in 2007. The Millers knew that the market for chairs was steadily declining, so they translated their steam bending experience in a new direction and started making solid wood one-piece rims on lazy susans for kitchen cabinets.
The logical adaptation created a new higher quality product for lazy susans.
“The Century Component product line gives the cabinet company an upgrade from the common products they now use. Customers started telling us that they wanted to set their cabinets apart from the local competition. We gave them an opportunity to upgrade their qualitym,” says Jeff Miller. As the business increased in double-digit percentages over the next few years, Jeff and Jay Miller realized they had a unique business on their hands.
The next step was to create pullout trash container systems. Century developed both plywood and solid maple; hand dovetailed, multi-coat, finished trash pullout using Blum undermount heavy duty slides. Century priced these units competitively, and Century continued to grow.
More new products were introduced. Pullout fillers were added. Pullout organizers in plywood and solid maple with soft-close slides came into the mix. Trim-able silverware trays and spice racks followed.
“Our new product ideas and improvements come from our customers," Miller says. "They call and we listen.” That listening attitude has increased sales 36 percent in 2011.
Century now employs seven people making all kinds of cabinet components. The limited space issues of their beloved shop have created some unique challenges in manufacturing.
Jay Miller runs production and he uses other businesses in the community to either manufacture products or distribute to local cabinet shops. A local drawer manufacturer employs another six people helping with dovetail boxes for the trash units. Another shop in town does the multiple coat, clear finishing.
The hardware distributor in the next town stocks the full line of Century Components, ready to ship out. As in many Amish communities, whenever opportunities for business growth develop, Century relies on their network of shops close by to help with the workload.
The steam bending is done is the same way it has been for decades. The maple is steamed in a steam tank and then put in a press for making the radius of the susan. Century has some proprietary secrets that make this process easier and quicker, but it is more of an art than a science.
After the wood takes on the proper radius it is hand fitted and mitered to the susan tray. Jay and Jeff feel that this hand fitting is where their product excels. “Compare our susan to the imports and you will find our joints are solid without putty. Our finish is very smooth and doesn’t have that starved look and feel of the imports.”
By making the susans in the U.S., Century can offer standard and custom sizes. “We make all kinds of sizes. Our current standard offering is 20”, 22”, 28”, 30”’ and 32”. We also fabricate our continuous one piece rim in 1 ½”, 2” and 3” heights,” says Jeff.
The most recent introduction is custom-made roll out pantry units. "We see a market for a solid maple, American made, custom size, made to order program that is a great alternative," says Miller.
One particular challenge to the Millers is their lack of a computer and e-mail. Amish companies face this difficulty on a regular basis and must rely on their products to promote themselves.
One myth about Amish companies is that they have an advantage over other companies because they don’t pay taxes. For the correct answer to this myth, I turned to ASK Yahoo: Here is the response:
Just like the rest of us, the Amish are not exempt from life's two certainties: death and taxes. However, there is a reason behind the persistent myth that the Amish do not pay taxes.
The Amish live within self-sufficient communities and do not collect Social Security, unemployment, or welfare benefits. According to their religious beliefs, paying Social Security, an insurance premium for the elderly, is tantamount to not "taking care of their own." Amish people who are self-employed are not obliged to pay Social Security tax, but they do still pay all other taxes, including property, income, and sales tax. If an Amish person decides to work outside of the community, he or she must also pay Social Security tax like any other American.
In 1955, the IRS extended the Social Security Act of 1935 to include farm operators. At the time, some Amish people immediately complied with the tax, while others conscientiously objected to it. Many felt that it violated the separation of church and state, some did not want to accept monies for government programs, and still others believed that paying a commercial insurance for the elderly went against their trust in God to take care of them.
The IRS and the Amish went back and forth for close to a decade, until it all came to a head with the seizure of a struggling farmer's horses in 1961. The Amish elders stuck firmly by their principles, and the ensuing media and community outrage over the incident led the IRS to relent four years later. Tucked away in the 1965 Medicare Bill was a clause exempting the "Old Order Amish" and other religious groups that conscientiously objected to paying insurance premiums from Social Security tax. To be exempt, the group or sect must have been established prior to 1950 and maintain reasonable provisions for their elderly.
As the growth of Century continues, the Millers realize that the small white shop will not suffice as the center of their operations; and are planning ahead for a bigger facility in the future. But for now they both share the same sentiment. “We are blessed to be able to work close to our homes with family and friends nearby. We enjoy being able to share our work with the many great customers and distributors that see a value in our ethics, ideals and products.