Expanding company goes green and lean
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

In recent years, Bend, Oregon, has become a magnet for people who love the outdoors and are concerned about the environment.

Mark Kramer watched this influx of eco-minded people from Washington and California settle in Bend. His experience in the local construction industry taught him there was strong demand in the area for eco-friendly building materials and cabinets. But there were few local builders and cabinetmakers meeting the demand.

When Kramer's friend, Todd Hakala, bought 26-year-old Brian's Cabinets in Bend in 2003, Kramer went to work for him and the two developed a plan to create a green and lean, eco-friendly product line. Their work, and that of 97 hard-working employees, has enabled the company to achieve a sales growth rate of approximately 25 percent the last two years.

Before Hakala bought Brian's Cabinets, the company produced primarily custom cabinetry for customers in central Oregon. Now, the company is much larger and more production-oriented.

According to Kramer, the company has produced "green" custom cabinetry for years, but only recently has the company focused on producing cabinetry that is both green and lean (production-oriented).

Brian's Cabinets' frameless eco-friendly Nature Series cabinets are made of formaldehyde-free WoodStalk wheatboard from Dow BioProducts. Columbia Forest Products supplies the company with WoodStalk and overlays it with locally grown alder veneer. Assembled cabinets are finished with low-VOC finishes from Chemcraft International.

Brian's Cabinets is also making use of a new product from Columbia Forest Products called EcoColors, which is made from Columbia's FSC-certified M3-grade particleboard. The panels are finished on both sides with a zero-emissions UV acrylic surface that is tinted in a range of color options.

The company has a project in production that will use the EcoColors for the box of the custom cabinets. The doors and face frames will be alder, says Kramer, with the balance of the cabinet made from the EcoColors, in the straw color.

"I also have plans to use the EcoColors zinfandel (burgundy color) in a utility cabinet display," says Kramer.

Wide-ranging appeal

Brian's Cabinets' Nature Series cabinets appeal to all age ranges, says Kramer, from retirees who have migrated from San Francisco and Seattle to young professionals who have settled in the area. In addition to alder, which is very popular locally, the eco-friendly cabinets also can be made of Lyptus, bamboo or sustainably grown German beech from Pollmeier.

The one drawback to the Nature Series cabinets is that they cost a bit more than Brian's Cabinets' other product offering because of the panel stock used and the complexity of the finishing process.

But, Brian's Cabinets is working to offset the material cost difference by making the company leaner in its manufacturing approach.

"We've recently invested in a lot of equipment to automate more of our manufacturing processes so we can produce at a higher capacity," says Kramer. "We're going to offer our Nature Series in more of a production line of cabinetry, so we'll be able to hit a price point (for eco-friendly cabinets) that most cabinet manufacturers don't normally hit."

The machines Brian's Cabinets added to speed production and make it leaner include a Komo VR510 CNC router, a Holzma Optimat beam saw, a Grecon Dimter OptiCut chop saw, a Unique Shape and Sand machine, an Omal bore, glue and dowel insertion machine, a J.C. Uhling case clamp and a Raimann optimizing rip saw.

In addition to the new machinery, Brian's Cabinets also built a new 13,000-square-foot mill and door facility. This enabled the company to move machinery around in its larger, 33,000-square-foot plant to streamline production. The company also set up the new machinery in its smaller facility with lean processes in mind. And it also created lean manufacturing cells in both facilities.

Hiring lean experts

To help achieve its goals of becoming lean and green, Brian's Cabinets hired the Oregon Manufacturers Extension Partnership, a consulting group that's partially funded by the state and federal government. "They came in and helped us evaluate our current facility and helped us apply lean principles, improving our flow and eliminating constraints," says Kramer.

Grant money is available through the state of Oregon that will pay for part of the consulting cost in hiring the Oregon Manufacturers Extension Partnership, explains Kramer. "They've been a huge help. Most of the focus has been on our manufacturing process, but we're applying some of the same principles to some of our sales processes and other processes where we have to move information."

The smartest thing

Brian's Cabinets' decision to go lean and green, and its choice to become more of a production shop led to some really smart decisions, says Kramer. "One of the smartest things we've done is standardize more of what we do."

In the past, Brian's Cabinets products were so custom that it was unable to achieve the efficiencies that come with a standardized product. "There's a point where you can't maintain profitability by having everything so customized," says Kramer. "We're cataloging a lot of our cabinetry right now, so we can select pre-engineered cabinets right from a catalog."

As Brian's Cabinets has grown in recent years, it has also made smart decisions about hiring employees who want to serve the customer. "We've hired a lot of people recently who have a real customer service mindset," says Kramer. "It's something that Todd Hakala and I take very seriously. We're trying to make that attitude permeate our company."

The future

One outgrowth of Brian's Cabinets' move to become more lean, green and automated with a more standardized product is a 25 percent annual sales growth rate for the past two years. Will this continue? Does the company want to keep growing?

"Probably not," says Kramer. "We don't have aspirations to be a huge company. The main thing is to have a strong and profitable company. We just want to keep an innovative mindset and offer our customers more and more. Our goal is to always be innovative."



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About the author
Stephanie Steenbergen

Stephanie Steenbergen was on the editorial staff and wrote feature and news stories for FDM and CabinetMaker magazines.