New owners’ custom approach reinvigorates Colecraft

Most of the furniture manufacturing that was once a key industry in western New York in the early 20th century has gone away, but new owners of one manufacturer are bucking that trend. They are showing that a custom approach with an emphasis on effective product design and customer service can allow even a smaller manufacturer to compete in today’s challenging economy.

Colecraft Commercial Furnishings was reborn eight years ago when five principals took ownership of what was left of Colecraft Manufacturing. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., the original Colecraft emphasized commercial tables and meeting room furniture, with relatively limited product offerings and largely regional marketing focus. The new owners, many formerly from Bush Industries Inc. (42 on the FDM300), had a bigger plan for Colecraft, and today, despite the slow economy, that plan is showing growth and success.

New start 

The original Colecraft was already shut down when David Messinger, Randy Jackson, Chris Friend, Ben Kozlowski, and Shelton Pitney took control of the assets and launched Colecraft Commercial Furnishings.

“When we purchased Colecraft eight years ago, we recognized that we were facing an uphill battle,” says Messinger, who handles administrative duties, sales and marketing for the new company. “Historically, the business had been successful manufacturing mid-priced commercial grade tables and related meeting room furniture. We saw the increased commoditization of that segment of furniture. Price points were dropping due to the increase in both domestic and offshore competition. We recognized that we were making essentially the same product in a much smaller plant and with the same materials as our much larger competitors. We could not compete with the economies of scale available to the larger manufacturers.”

After moving 26 trailer loads of equipment to a new location in Falconer, N.Y., they were up and running in just three months. Of course, that sounds easier than it was. Even though the new owners purchased a business, they were largely starting from scratch. Only one of them, Chris Friend, who now handles material management and purchasing, had experience with the old Colecraft. In one incident that has become legendary in the new company, Shelton Pitney, who now works in product design, had to go dumpster diving to rescue important Colecraft records before they were carted away.

Expanded custom offerings 

The secret to the new Colecraft’s success is an approach that builds more business from each customer by emphasizing an intense focus on meeting customer needs. A good example of how this works would be a public library project. Whereas the old Colecraft might have sold a few tables for the project, the new Colecraft offers reception desks, custom shelves, computer stations, custom media storage, countertops, and even matched architectural panels.

Ben Kozlowski, whose focus is engineering, explains how Colecraft uses modern computer design techniques to work with clients and meet their needs. “We can rapidly design a product to exactly meet customer needs,” he says. “We use SolidWorks, GoToMeeting, email and eDrawings for almost real-time feedback.” Comparing it to sending a 3D PDF file, Kozlowski says the eDrawings allow for notes, messages and customer sign-off, making for a collegial process with customers, who then become enthusiastic partners. The company has branded this process as Colecraft Custom Designer.

“With regard to serving our customers’ needs,” says Messinger, “we know that providing a unique solution for their specific requirements is the key to building our reputation.”

“The old company was not as flexible,” says Chris Field. “Now we have a willingness to do things out of the box.”

“The large companies don’t take the time to understand the needs of their customers,” says Messinger. “We enjoy cultivating close relationships with our customers. Personal service is a strength of our company.”

Collegial business approach 

That team approach with customers is a reflection of the collegial business approach inside the whole company. Messinger leads a team that clearly thrives on sharing ideas and working with each other to find solutions and move the company ahead. “We all complement each other,” says Messinger. “We don’t overlap on our skills sets. We’ve all been in business for years and experienced different management styles. We’ve reflected on that. As a group we’ve tried to apply what we’ve learned.”

“We all have to yield to a common intent in the end,” says Pitney, and Kozlowski echoes that sentiment. “We are all willing to compromise in the end.”

But don’t mistake the compromise of collaboration with any compromise in quality. All the Colecraft owners are concerned about the growing commoditization of the furniture industry and what they see as an ensuing “race to the bottom.” By offering higher quality and custom solutions borne out of this collegial approach inside and out of the factory, the company is fast setting itself apart from competitors.

Pragmatic manufacturing 

Despite the enthusiastic endorsement of computer technology for design, engineering, and sales, Colecraft has found it works best in the manufacturing plant to blend high-tech and low-tech approaches.

Randy Jackson, who is in charge of manufacturing operations, notes that a Weeke Optimat CNC machine is at the center of manufacturing, but they freely mix conventional and computerized manufacturing to provide optimum efficiency. For example, on some projects, Jackson says, it is more efficient to use the CNC machine to make jigs and fixtures for use on a shaper or saw rather than actually machining the final parts on the CNC. An entire wall of neatly organized jigs and fixtures is testament to how frequently the plant relies on conventional processing.

Since the CNC machine uses pods instead of a vacuum table to hold work, the company machines most work with an “onion skin” technique, leaving a thin flange of material to be cleaned off with a hand router. “It’s quicker to knock off the onion skin than use a spoil board,” says Jackson.

Another area where Colecraft departs from some standard manufacturing methods is in the use of high speed steel moulding cutters on the CNC machine. “We do lots of custom profile options, and this is more cost effective,” says Jackson.

Smaller lots work

A big key to Colecraft’s success is efficiently working in smaller lot sizes. “We typically work in lots of one to five pieces,” says Jackson. And that fits neatly with the overall economic plan for the company.

“What we understood was that the larger domestic and offshore suppliers do not like small order quantities,” says Messinger. “They do not like individual customization of designs that limit mass production of orders. We could excel at design and customization of products by taking advantage of our small factory’s less automated equipment and our employees’ skills in woodworking.”

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.