Oak Designs is fighting imports of bedroom furniture with a simple formula: quality, quick delivery and customer service. The Manchester, N.H., company makes mid- to high-end oak and birch residential furniture, including chests, beds and nightstands.

The business was started in 1990 by Gene and Catherine Boutin, and the company initially made unfinished oak entertainment centers and bookcases. By the mid-1990s Oak Designs was making office and bedroom furniture. They began using brighter colors, so birch was brought in because it accepted painted colors better. Then juvenile furniture took off in the mid-1990s. Today, daughter Amanda Plecinoga, who oversees administration and marketing, and son Justin Boutin, who supervises and manages the shop, make most of the decisions.

"We concentrate on the quality of the product, quick turnaround and customer service," Plecinoga says. "Those are the things you're not getting from imports.

"A lot of the import competition is offering a less expensive product, great marketing, but is missing the boat when it comes to quality and customer service. It's hard to service the product when you are in China.

"Some domestic competition has slower turnaround time because of imported components," she says. "We've found our niche: custom, quality, timeliness and customer service"

Completely custom  

Plecinoga says a customer can walk into a store and order a bedroom suite that's completely custom, and Oak Designs can make and ship it in four weeks. The company also makes desks, entertainment centers and bookcases.

Catherine Boutin says that the company offers bookcases in widths from 24 to 60 inches in 6-inch increments. Heights can be made in any size from 24 to 84 inches, all in 20 different colors, and two tones. That adds up to thousands of options on bookcases alone.

In addition to custom options, Oak Designs must communicate its quality level to people who buy and sell the furniture in stores.

"We have a reputation, much like the higher-end American companies," Plecinoga says. "Our sales and service team goes out and trains the retail salespeople as to why our product is better, so they can relate this to the end consumer."

Customer service is also a priority. "No matter whose problem it is we take care of it as soon as possible," Plecinoga says. "Retail salespeople become confident in the product. You inspire them and get their confidence. That's what you need."

Oak Designs does better in the specialty stores rather than in mass merchants. The company also displays finished products in a new cube truck. Retailers can walk into the back of the truck and see the traveling showroom, Gene Boutin explains. Smaller stores that don't know Oak Designs can see the quality of the product.

Oak Designs is taking part in a program in which refugees from Bosnia and Russia are trained to work in the plant. This project is a combined effort sponsored by the  New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Employment Security and the Manchester Community Council. The program trains potential employees in both a classroom setting and the Oak Designs factory, after work hours. Most of these individuals become Oak Designs employees.

New building in Manchester  

Oak Designs started in a 6,000 square-foot space, then moved to 25,000 square feet of space in an old mill building. The current 40,000 square-foot building was newly built in 2000, and the 35,000 square feet of manufacturing space was designed by Gene for easier work flow.

Even though everything is built to order, a case can be made in as little as eight minutes. Most panels are oak or birch plywood, and many mouldings are solid wood. Assembly is all dado construction.

"Dado construction is stronger, faster and cleaner to put together," says Justin Boutin. "It's like putting a big puzzle together. Once the glue sets, it's really hard to take apart. One person can do twice as much in half the time as dowel construction."

In the plant, Oak Designs has a newer SCMI Sigma 120 panel saw, and a Sigma 90 saw. The company makes frequent use of a Multiscore panel beadboard machine.

"We feed in a plain board, and there are 32 heads on that machine," Justin says. "Each head has a blade, and that's what puts the bead on it. We offer headboards, casegoods and doors with the beadboard."

Previously, an outside supplier provided full beaded sheets, but Oak Designs was unable to use the excess material. Now they make the dropoff pieces into drawer parts.

Oak Designs makes all of its own drawers here, and all are dovetailed on a Dodds dovetailing machine. Drawers are handled separately through the plant, going into the assembled product near the end of the process. There are no CNC machines here. Cutout components are delivered and bed parts are outsourced.

Oak Designs also has an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw, Delta table saw and several Whirlwind cutoff saws with TigerStop.

Also there are two Lasm profile sanders and shapers, and two SCM T130 class shapers. Justin says the two shapers saved a lot of time in changing tools, and the quality of the cut is a lot better. On a previous shaper, it took one person a half hour to change a blade. These two newer shapers replaced 10 older models.

Two edgebanders are used at Oak Designs. An Olimpic N300 does 3/4-inch solid wood strips and an SCM S215 is used to apply 0.5mm wood tape.

The SCMI Sandya 10, 53-inch three-head widebelt sander has resulted in a big improvement in sanding. Every piece is also hand sanded (there are 24 random orbital sanders). "Every piece is hand touched. Random orbital sanding is a true technique of finishing wood," Gene says. (Equipment was supplied by Akins Machinery, Hudson, N.H.)

A new Nilfisk dust collection system has been in since last year. Gene points out that there is very little dust in the plant, even with everyone doing hand sanding. The plant also uses a Donaldson Torit dust collection system with GreCon cutoff.

After sanding and assembly, all colors and lacquers are applied in the large finishing area, which has six spray booths. Oak Designs upgraded its spray equipment used in sealer and lacquer area from HVLP to Kremlin's Airmix, which reduced flow rate and overspray. (Norris Weiner, North Billerica, Mass., provided this equipment.) Oak Designs has an inspection team in place to ensure only top quality products are shipped.

Pricing and import challenge  

Plecinoga says that meeting the import threat is a major challenge for Oak Designs. "We have to build a quality product while holding down the price and competing with imports," she says. "We also have to educate our customer."

Then there is the problem of competition for lumber - with imports. "U.S. veneer suppliers are shipping veneers overseas, so we're having a problem with availability," she says.

Right now, Oak Designs is concentrating on the youth market, but they want to expand into master bedroom furniture, and plan to introduce a new bedroom suite at the High Point market.

"Since quick-ship is such an important part of our success, we're in a perfect location," Catherine Boutin says. "We're four hours from New York, so we can make daily runs."

Oak Designs uses its own trucks for shipping in the New England area, and uses common carriers when selling outside this area. The company is planning expansion to other East Coast and Midwest locations, using its quality, custom orientation and quick ship as a strategy for success.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.