“When I brought in the CNC router, all of the old-world craftsmen looked at the machine and said, ‘What is that, and what does it mean for my job?’” says C. O’Donnell Winchester of Greatlakes Architectural Millworks LLC.

Winchester bought the Chicago-based firm in 2010. He says purchasing the company during the economic downturn was a leap of faith, but Greatlakes’ dedication to its customers ensured a steady course of repeat business and referrals.

Prior to his ownership, Greatlakes had seen many changes. Initially a general contracting firm on Chicago’s Goose Island, the company re-located to Wisconsin in the late 1980’s.

In 1995, senior project manager Jerry Skowronski purchased the company and brought it back to an industrial center in Chicago – Fulton Market, where it currently manufactures custom cabinetry for commercial clients including Advocate Medical Center and the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team (Greatlakes manufactured the millwork in the Owner’s Suite at the United Center, as well as the locker rooms in Johnny’s IceHouse West, where the team practices during the off-season.)

As he took ownership, Winchester brought in a collection of new machines, and the mentality of constantly improving both products and processes. 

“This was a scary place,” says Winchester, who had worked in a more automated operation before joining Greatlakes. “Here we were doing everything on a sliding table saw. I realized that wasn’t a sustainable model for staying in business. So I started looking at CNC machines to automate our process.”

When he considers a new machine, he asks, “Can we make a better product with it?” And, “Can we save time?”

His response to the team as they scoped out the new Weeke Vantage 33 CNC router: “It will make us more efficient, so we can bid more jobs, make more money and stay busy in the process.

“And that’s what it has done. We were able to grow and keep everyone employed,” he says.

The company harnessed its teamwork and years of experience through employee retention in order to provide superior product and service.

NEW TECHNOLOGY BRINGS PROGRESS

The culture has changed since the CNC came in, Winchester says, but his team has no objection. Instead of dedicating hours to cutting dadoes or boring holes, they have been able to focus on other areas of production such as design, finishing and assembly.

And they have since welcomed other changes, including an oven to heat and form Corian surfaces for curved drawer fronts, and an SCM Olympic M80 to edgeband the curved surfaces.

Winchester has also upgraded the facility with a Brandt edgebander, SawStop tablesaws, an Altendorf sliding tablesaw, and a Butfering Optimat SKO 213 drum sander with pneumatic rolls.

He notes that the machine companies have all been very good with customer service. It’s something he values highly.

He especially values prompt service from the companies. “We just can’t take our machines out of production,” he says. When a dust collector went down recently, Winchester sent a van overnight to pick up a replacement in Ohio.

INVENTIVE PROJECTS

With the commitment to keeping the machines running, and to keeping designs and processes new, Greatlakes has taken on several innovative projects, including the Chicago showroom for ESI Ergonomic Solutions – a company dedicated to promoting ergonomic furniture design in the modern workplace. In fabricating the showroom, Greatlakes met the standards of ESI with wall-mounted counter displays, benches, islands and tables which flow together without interruption. (architect: Design Collaboratives.)

Other projects include wall panels and door frames for the institutional investment firm, Advisory Research Inc. and reception desks and waiting areas for the law firm (architect: Michael J. Leary), Burke Wise Morrissey Kaveny (architect: Holabird and Root), and the headquarters of the commercial real-estate company, Carr Workplaces (architect: David Fleener, Architects Inc.).

In addition to commercial office interiors and hospitals, Greatlakes manufactures desks, cabinets and storage units for local students at Chiaravalle Montessori and Bright Horizons.

Winchester and his team also take on custom interiors for residential customers. Though the company primarily works in the commercial market, O’Donnell says he generally doesn’t turn any job down. Greatlakes is also a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute.

Moving forward, Winchester plans to continue growing with new technology. The shop is always changing, he says, and he only plans on letting it grow more with new products and processes.

He is also looking into purchasing another CNC router, and based on the team’s experience with the Weeke, it’s likely they might be quite welcoming to the new addition this time around.

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