Carolina Cabinet Co. recognizes that continued success hinges on making calculated changes. As a result, the Wilson, N.C., store fixture manufacturer has developed and implemented a strategy to improve operations and sustain growth.

These ongoing, mutually supportive improvements encompass every operation and involve every employee, and support the goals outlined in the company's mission statement:

"Carolina Cabinet Co. is committed to:

Building a company that is profitable, stable and respected throughout the industry for high quality, good value and innovation.

Providing outstanding customer service in all aspects of our business to ensure loyal and long-lasting customers.

Creating the best team of skilled and ethical management and production personnel who work together in an environment of opportunity, personal growth and job satisfaction."

New facility

Owner Tony Daniel started Carolina Kitchens in a small farm building in Black Creek, N.C., in 1975. He moved to a larger facility in 1976 and later changed the name to Carolina Cabinet Co. to include its store fixture products. Growth during the next 30 years required 15 additions and off-site expansion to the point where operations had spread over 180,000 square feet in four buildings.

"For us to continue to expand, we either had to look at another shift, more outsourcing or more real estate," says Eddie Williamson, operations manager. The company chose the third option.

In 2006, Carolina Cabinet moved to a 415,000 square-foot former textile manufacturing building in Wilson, N.C., which includes 125,000 square feet of warehouse space under the same roof.

"If we had sat down and designed a building to meet our needs, this could have been a rough draft," Daniel says. The 1960s-era building required extensive modernization, such as demolition and restoration of selected areas, energy-efficient T5 lighting and a new HVAC system, before Carolina Cabinet Co. could move in and begin operations. Gary Aycock, production manager, Williamson and Jeanette Bryant, financial manager, worked together to direct the upfitting process.

Logical flow

The building is laid out in an efficient, logical sequence. "We made a corridor straight through the plant to provide easy access to all areas," says Daniel. "Raw materials are brought in the back door and flow easily from one department to the next. Finished goods are moved from packaging into either warehouse storage or shipping staging." A company-owned truck fleet delivers products to the customer.

Key equipment includes Selco, Schelling and Giben panel saws; two Biesse Rover CNC machining centers, Busellato CNC machining center; Homag BAZ processsing center; Holz-Her and IMA edgebanders; Black Bros. high-pressure laminating line; Powermatic shapers and tenoner; Her Saf and Onsrud routers; Gabbiani tenoner; and J.C. Uhling and Biesse case clamps. Microvellum engineering software and 20-20 Insight ERP software are in the early stages of implementation.

There's also ample room for growth. "We could expand our sales at least 50 percent from where we are now and never have to look outside these walls with the space we've got," says Williamson.

Education program

The company allocated space on-site for a new employee education program. "We came up with 14 categories that we wanted to teach," says Daniel. The first three are general courses taught by instructors from nearby Wilson Technical Community College. The Turning Point Workforce Development Board provided grants for classroom and in-plant training.

The first course, a prerequisite for all the others, teaches Spanish-speaking employees how to read, write and speak English. "For the Spanish-speaking guys to be able to work themselves up to a higher level of responsibility, i.e., more money, they've got to be able to take a set of drawings, read it, follow it and communicate what's got to happen," says Williamson.

The second course is introduction to computers. "Our goal is to make everybody in the plant computer literate, at least to the point of being able to use it to find drawings, log in and out for the day, scan onto and off of jobs," Daniel says.

Courses are offered after hours on a volunteer basis. "We pay for the courses and they supply the time," says Daniel. "If they're not interested enough to make some sacrifices themselves, they probably won't make good students anyway. They don't have any costs we pay for the books, materials and teachers."

"They reap benefits from improving their skills and their value to the company, which results in performance increases," says Aycock.

Employees tend to stay at Carolina Cabinet. More than one-third of the production employees have been with the company at least 10 years. Supervisors average 15 years and management averages more than 20 years.

"We share that when we're out there making sales because retailers like the security of knowing that you're stable as a company," says Michael Jones, sales manager. "It says a lot about our owner, too, to have employees that are here that length of time. And, obviously, it speaks volumes about the company."

Customer service

Williamson says commitment and service distinguish Carolina Cabinet in the store fixture industry. "Some of our customer relationships span 20 years or more," he says. "It takes superior customer service, competitive pricing and consistent high quality to build long-term relationships. That's where we excel."

Carolina Cabinet targets regional and national chains and franchises, and currently serves seven primary retail customers throughout North America. "Our customer base ranges everywhere from the big boxes to specialty shops," Williamson says.

The company is both flexible and able to meet tight deadlines. Customers have been known to call in the morning and say they need a product delivered the next day. "If it's something we're in the process of building or have drawings on, we do it," Jones says.

One time a finished product was on a truck headed for Ohio when the customer decided that the fixture was needed elsewhere. "We called the driver and re-routed the doggone thing to Texas because Texas needed it first," says Williamson. "We do basically whatever is required."

Lean manufacturing

In 2004, Carolina Cabinet introduced lean manufacturing principles into its operation. "We read a little bit about it, and we felt that it was a chance for us to improve, to be a better company," says Aycock. N.C. State University in Raleigh helped initiate and oversee the process. "We liked what we saw," he says.

Some employees initially resisted, but changed their minds once they became more involved in the process. "When they saw they could make changes to help improve their day-to-day job function, everybody felt positive toward it," Aycock says.

For example, lean improved production when a customer upped its ongoing fixture order from 10 to 24 a week. N.C. State came in and led a kaizen event. "We basically went in and did a process flow and mapped it out and made some changes," Aycock says. Lean enabled the company to more than double production of this display, while adding just two employees to the original 12.

"Starting this summer, we will have an industrial engineer on staff who will concentrate on job costing and lean manufacturing. He'll be responsible for continuing the lean process," says Daniel. "That will keep it from deteriorating over time because we'll be adding fresh input into it all the time."

"He's going to be given a free hand to go out there with a new set of eyes to look at our processes and our material usages," says Williamson. "We're looking for ways to increase efficiency or cut costs."

ISO certification

Last year Carolina Cabinet started earning International Organization of Standards (ISO) 9001: 2000 certification. "That's kind of rare in the fixture industry," Jones says. "It's something that differentiates us from other fixture companies." The whole premise behind ISO certification is customer service and customer satisfaction, he says.

ISO 9001: 2000 certification requires adherence to an extensive set of guidelines. "We feel that ISO helps us to identify the root cause of waste and errors, and allows us to put documentation and a procedure in place to keep them from reoccurring," Williamson says.

Certification is expected this August. "We'll be certified, which is great, but it's not just about being certified," Daniel says. "It's really a method through which we run our business. It's a constant improvement program."

Green conversion

Another objective is to become a green company. For example, Carolina Cabinet is eliminating hazards in the spraying process by converting to latex paints. "We've been pursuing that now for some time," Aycock says. "We haven't gotten it all in place yet, but we're continuing to endeavor to do that."

Green conversion also is another ISO program. "We're hoping to attack that, too, after we're said and done with 9001," Jones says. "It's a long and daunting process. It's everything, from rain water to the lighting, energy consumption, to the material types that you choose and use."

The payoff

These changes have combined to improve Carolina Cabinet's customer service and maintain double-digit annual growth. "We've just kind of grown at a consistent 10 to 20 percent a year, over and over," Williamson says.

Last year was the best to date and, based on incoming orders, Daniel says 2007 should eclipse 2006's record sales figure.

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