Wisconsin Built’s success comes in part from its ability to match the right jobs – and customers – to its capabilities. The Deerfield, Wis., company has a wide range of woodworking, metalworking and upholstery capabilities, and can handle almost any material or design idea its retail, restaurant and millwork customers can come up with.
Wisconsin Built has to be flexible and agile to handle these specialized materials, compressed timelines, and retail requirements that may be require one-of-a-kind displays or a larger rollout.
“We pride ourselves on agility,” says Jeff Ball, president. “We keep it uncomplicated to make it achievable, and don’t want to fight an obstacle in time. Accelerating timelines and indecision are probably the two biggest problems we face.”
“We have to maintain the agility it takes to respond to customers who may know when they want something before they know what they want,” says Dan Petersen, vice president. When asked at an earlier meeting what was the hardest thing for the company to deal with, he replied “Indecision.”
Ball says that the company wants to collaborate, and is being consulted earlier in the process to contribute ideas and suggest materials.
Ball and Petersen met while they were both working at a fixture manufacturer. Ball had worked on the shop floor and then moved into the office. He had experience building, installing, drawing, project managing and buying materials. Petersen is in charge of sales, engineering and marketing. They describe their roles simply: Dan gets it in the door, and Jeff gets it out the door.
Restaurant and retail
Petersen estimates that 75 percent of work is restaurant and retail, and 25 percent is architectural woodwork. “Restaurant and retail have similar construction cycles, opening in the fall,” he says. “Architectural woodwork helps us balance production.
“We’re not building fixtures, we’re building a store or a restaurant. We can provide the laminates, solid surface, veneers, upholstery, a substantial amount of metal fabrication, and bring together that whole package. That gravitates us toward specialty retail and specialty restaurant.”
Petersen says that when business was slow from 2008 to 2010 Wisconsin Built had to be less selective and take any work that they had the technical capability to do. In 2011 business was up and the company took a second look at some of those customers that had unrealistic expectations.
“We chose to discontinue the relationships —- we fired some customers, in part to be fair to our best customers,” Petersen says. “The customers we fired weren’t high volume, but they were high maintenance.”
Concentrating on the best customers meant that Wisconsin Built could deliver more to its bank, cell phone stores, chain restaurant, coffee retailers and automotive showroom customers.
For one customer, they produce and assemble teller counters custom-made for each bank location that can be installed over a weekend. A retail customer requires a slightly different look for each location and is using more than 40 different wood finishes to help meet this request.
In retail, Wisconsin Built takes a close look at potential customers, hoping to work with a company that is growing and adding locations.
“We’re willing to invest time in the younger emerging companies,” Petersen says. “We’re being realistic with what we can grow with. There’s more value added with a smaller company that is growing, than a large company with established standard purchasing methods so that we’re supplying just a commodity product.”
Petersen says the company doesn’t participate in reverse auctions, and has seen fewer of these lately than a few years ago.
Selective of millwork jobs
Petersen says they only bid on about one of four architectural millwork jobs that they’re invited to bid on. Generally, the percentage of project management labor to shop labor is higher than in retail.
Millwork customers include financial institutions, hotels, hospitals, tenant improvements, dental and medical offices, large office campuses and even the nearby Dane County Regional Airport. In most cases the customer is the general contractor.
“Contractors send us plans, and we decide whether we want to bid on them or not,” Petersen says. “We have no salespeople. Much of the business comes from word-of-mouth.”
Ball started Wisconsin Built in 1988 in Deerfield, near Madison, and moved to its current location in an industrial park in 1990. The company has 206 total employees in 225,000 square feet in two buildings.
A Weeke Venture 200 from Stiles Machinery has been used for the past year, primarily for nesting, which the company is doing more of. A lot of box jobs are being drawn in Microvellum.
Two Komo CNC routers, a VR1005TT twin-table model and Komo VR 508 Mach One, are used here, with two Giben rear-load panel saws.
A Homag Optimat edgebander is used with an IDM Activa edgebander. Also here is Weeke Venture 3M point-to-point, a new Holzma HPP 250 panel saw is being installed, Gannomat Index 230 CNC dowel inserter with barcode reader and several Schmaltz vacuum lifts.
One section of the shop has eight people making individual retail displays. A separate metalworking area includes three people who can weld, a band saw and Lagun end mill that came from the former GM plant in Janesville. (One restaurant chain customer spec’s heavy-duty welded steel benches.)
Countertops, upholstery and finishing
Countertops, primarily solid surface and mostly Corian, are fabricated in the building across the street. A Komo VR 1605 router is used to cut solid surface countertops. Some tops are stainless steel.
There is also a small upholstery area on the second floor of other building where seats and other products can be made of leather, fabrics, or whatever is specified. Suppliers deliver cut foam pieces. Also in the second building, a large staging area holds finished work to be sent when needed to retail locations. Displays are packaged in blankets and then shrink wrapped.
The finishing department uses a higher-quality ICA catalyzed polyurethane from Italy to meet better quality retail and restaurants requirements. They also spray water-based if a customer requires it.
There are three open-mouth booths, and one automotive closed finish booth. A halogen system was installed but is not being fully used and hasn’t proven to be a good fit.
Old wood wanted
Retail and restaurant customers want more than basic solid wood and laminates to create a special look. On the menu may be logs salvaged from Lake Superior, wood from old bowling lanes, grain elevators and dry docks, or even wood from Wyoming snow fences. For one countertop, pine trees were cut lengthwise and covered with an epoxy pour coat. Another display uses bamboo board insets surrounded by solid wood.
One customer has a requirement for FSC-certified material, while another has a requirement for Chain-of-Custody documentation. Wisconsin Built does panel layup on a Midwest Automation glue line and press table for HPL and some veneer. Petersen says that hot-rolled steel is a popular complementary material because of its organic, underprocessed appearance.
“Production control is a challenge,” Ball says. “We have a network of nine supervisors taking direction from 18 project managers. A lot of it is intuitive. You have to stay on top of it.
“There are opportunities going forward to improve production control. We’re still at basically the same type of production scheduling as when we were 500 man-hours a week. We’re at 5,000 man hours a week now.”
Ball says they don’t want to have automation just to have it. “We don’t do high volumes,” he says. “Five years ago our saws were cutting five sheets at a time. Now they’re cutting two sheets at a time. So we don’t need a larger saw, we need agility. We don’t want to automate our way out of agility.
“We are keeping an eye on what software is out there and what’s becoming more intuitive, (such as) RFID technology. How do you spend less time knowing what you need to know? The speed of knowledge brings that agility.
Ball says that getting good employees can be a challenge, but Wisconsin Built has people with a variety of backgrounds and education, and low turnover. The company is working with nearby Madison Area Technical College and has hired a number of graduates of that program. Wisconsin Built also has several people with the Woodwork Career Alliance skills passport program and is considering adopting it companywide.
Petersen says the best employees have good curiosity. ”Curiosity is one of the best qualifications in my book, someone who wants to learn,” he says. “Someone who isn’t just clockwatching, but admires the experienced craftsman and wants to learn from them.”
Overall business was up in 2012 by 20 percent, after a big increase in 2011. “The opportunities are out there,” Petersen says. “The retail market remains competitive. Word of mouth continues to be one of our best opportunities.”
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