Moving with the millwork market
May 31, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

Successful millwork producers have had to be nimble to respond to changing markets. A.J. Pietsch Co. of Milwaukee has been in the millwork market since 1916, and provides detailing, finishing, fabrication, installation and restoration, with an emphasis on office interiors and custom furniture.

The Milwaukee company has responded to strengths and weaknesses in the market for millwork, and president Greg Reistad has some interesting views of that market.

"Over the past few years, we've noticed a growth in wellness or similar facilities within the health care market and have adapted some of our cabinetry and other fixtures to the needs associated with those evolutionary changes," Reistad says. "The customers we have been working with have required a blend of institutional and architectural millwork."

In addition to the wellness trend in the healthcare industry, Reistad has also noticed an increase in smaller medical clinics. The company has provided a variety of millwork services for these clinics.

There are also changes in the restaurant millwork market. "It seems that they're designing their facilities to cater to an upscale clientele," Reistad says. "For example, we've recently been called upon to provide high-end woodwork in restaurants that include wine displays, booths, paneling, ceilings and hostess stations. We even did the woodwork for a bistro-style café at an East Coast casino."
Office furniture down
On the other hand, office furniture has been hit hard. "There's been a decrease in custom office furniture from corporate America, including our long-time clients, who seem to have been hit by the economy," Reistad says. "The work we are performing for them is mostly service and maintenance."

Reistad has noticed an increase in construction in the public segment in such areas as police departments, courthouses and correctional facilities, but Pietsch is selective in the public projects it pursues.

"We focus on client relationships, which are very difficult to establish in the public arena," Reistad says. "Public projects generally go with the low bidder and we don't have the opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the long list of competitors that pursue that type of work.

"There are always exceptions, and if the project matches our skill set and expresses the importance of the woodwork, we might find ourselves pursuing a particular public project, perhaps a museum, library or village hall."

Pietsch has also been recognized for church interior work. Renovating luxury private passenger rail car interiors has been another niche market, with three such interiors completed in the last two years.
High-end market
There continues to be a strong need for high-end millwork, Reistad says. "Unfortunately, there are many millwork shops, some qualified and some not so qualified, that have noticed this trend and are beginning to pursue the high-end market," he says. "These commodity shops entering the market don't always appreciate certain commercial specifications or standards and, as a result, can disrupt basic issues like pricing strategies or service standards."

Reistad says Pietsch is adapting to those changes by educating its clients in face-to-face meetings and technical presentations.
Business backlog
Looking back, Reistad says the company was busy through Sept. 11, 2001, and had an established backlog. As they caught up on the backlog, however, the market began to change. The industry slowed down and Pietsch's competitors started to lower their bids to get work.

Reistad says that Pietsch hired Trey Brooks as sales and marketing manager to aggressively pursue new work and maintain relationships with existing companies.

"We also realize that the cycle time from the initial request for bid to the award has lengthened in this economy, and it takes time to get the work through the design pipeline," says Reistad.

Reistad says that Pietsch has also restructured its office operations into strategic business units that allow the company to identify its most profitable markets to help it in strategic planning.

Pietsch can also now monitor or more accurately estimate design time, finishing time or programming time, which allows for better job costing.

The reorganization, Reistad says, has allowed him and his partner to focus more time on business development and client management.

"Historically, we would gravitate to the shop floor to keep busy but now we can let the department managers or project managers oversee operations while my partner and I rebuild our way out of this recession," Reistad says.

Experienced employees  
In Milwaukee, Pietsch has 25,000 square feet of space in four two- and three-story buildings. The oldest was built in 1916. The two-story buildings are connected openly with a freight elevator in the center.

Reistad says that the heavier machines are on the first floor, with a separate laminate department on one floor and a finishing department in another area. Machining cells are used to localize job functions so the elevator doesn't have to be used all the time.

The company has 25 employees, some of whom have been with the company for 40 or 50 years, and who have a wide range of woodworking, finishing, installation and project management experience.

An Anderson America Exxact 51 router has become the primary workhorse. It has an eight-tool changer and is used for horizontal and vertical drilling. Three people have been trained on the machine, which uses AlphaCAM software.

"Our cabinet casework is nested in full sheets," Reistad says. "Then we use a separate multispindle boring machine for edge boring on the components.

"We chose a router over a point-to-point because we also use it for all the radiused components and tops, such as in a nurses' station or reception desk. The router is also heavy enough to handle thick conference tabletops and monumental wood pieces that we often get into. In fact, part of our design process is to look at what parts of any job could best be run on the router."

Custom profiles
A Weinig Profimat 23 moulder is used for S4S work. The moulder provides the customer with any custom profiles they need. Pietsch maintains a catalog of hundreds of cuts the moulder has done.

Pietsch has a Striebig vertical panel saw, Martin and Altendorf F45 sliding table saws, which are used for miter cuts and when a cut needs to be precise. Other saws include a Cantek and Diehl straight line ripsaw, along with a Whirlwind cutoff saw with TigerStop. A Brandt edgebander, Adwood Detel multispindle boring machine, Castle pocket cutters and SCM planers, shapers and jointers are also used.

The SCMI T150 tilt-spindle shaper provides a lot of options. Sanding and finishing is performed by an Opti-Sand profile sander, AEM widebelt sander and Molding Master 150 spray line.

Business has been slow in recent months, but Reistad says that backlog is starting to grow and the company has a number of proposals pending.

Reistad says that the company will be more active in seeking business.

"Our customers and our competition are going to be hearing more about us in the future," he says. "We can't just wait for the fax machine to do the sale for us any more." 

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About the author
Karl Forth

Karl D. Forth is online editor for CCI Media. He also writes news and feature stories in FDMC Magazine, in addition to newsletters and custom publishing projects. He is also involved in event organization, and compiles the annual FDM 300 list of industry leaders. He can be reached at [email protected].