Using ingenuity to maintain profits
October 27, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Wood Designs Inc. in Oklahoma City has always been open to change. Founded in 1961 as a home building company, in the late 1980s it saw better opportunities elsewhere and moved into store fixture manufacturing. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that even now the company maintains an atmosphere of flexibility and creativity.

And clearly this is a strategy that is working. This year Wood Designs expects to post an increase in sales over 2007, at a time when many manufacturers are doing what they can just to weather the current economic climate.

Wood Designs does numerous things that reflect its flexibility and creativity. However, these qualities are best seen in four areas: in its use of space within its main manufacturing plant; in its market focus; in its organizational structure; and in its view and approach to customer service.

Space usage

Wood Designs recently shifted the majority of its manufacturing operations to a 140,000-square-foot building in Oklahoma City. The new space allows for increased production and also gives Wood Designs enough room to maintain a flexible area for finishing.

In its previous location, Wood Designs had built standard sheetrock walls around its finishing area. Occasionally traffic flow was pinched by the finishing area's doorways, and when it vacated the facility it was required to tear down the walls it had built. When it moved into its new, larger building, it took a different approach to creating its finishing area. Instead of building sheetrock walls, it used clear vinyl curtainwalls provided by Goff Enterprises Inc. Access to the area is provided by clear vinyl strip doorways.

"With the clear curtains you can see what's going on without going in. Everything is pushed by hand and the curtain doesn't impede product flow," says Scott Griffin, senior vice president, adding that because the walls hang from the ceiling and require little work to reconfigure, they give Wood Designs options. "The nice thing about them is that with our growth mode we are never boxed in," Griffin says.

Market focus

Wood Designs' flexibility also is evident in its approach to a fundamental part of any company's operation: sales. According to Griffin, there was a point in its history when Wood Designs reacted to downturns in the economy by looking to other areas using high-end products. It now has changed its thinking.

"If you have all the retail store fixture business and it's shrinking, then it makes sense to go looking at other industries," Griffin says. "However, we don't have all the retail fixture business. So when we sensed that the economy was moving, we decided to go more aggressively after the retail sector instead of diversifying. It didn't make sense to go to a strange neighborhood and knock on doors. We decided to knock on the doors in our own neighborhood."

Rethinking the management structure

Flexibility isn't often a word used in connection with a company's leadership structure, but it's appropriate at Wood Designs. Founded in 1961 by Sonny Kuykendall, the company was family-owned and operated until recently, when Aaron Kuykendall, the youngest brother in the Kuykendall family, moved out of the position as the company's CEO.

"Aaron has extraordinary talent and is the most creative person in this company," explains Griffin. "Aaron's leadership brought us up to where we are now, what I call the tweener' stage not small and not large. That's a tough time for a company. The dilemma we were facing was that we were pulling on his time more and more as a CEO, and at the same time we also desperately needed his creative abilities."

Not surprisingly, Wood Designs took a creative approach to the dilemma. Aaron Kuykendall decided to shift out of the role of CEO and focus his attention on the creative aspects of the company's operations, and the company pulled on another of its assets, its CFO, to fill the role of CEO. "Our former CFO and now CEO, Jack Moore, had served as CEO of another company before coming to Wood Designs," Griffin explains. "The plan was that he would act as a mentor for us from the vantage point of CFO. The shifting of roles was not what anyone intended, but we were open minded, Jack Moore was open-minded, and as a result the company is growing and getting the highest and best use of both of their skill sets."

Customer service

Providing good customer service always is an important aspect of any company's business. However, for Wood Designs, listening to its customers ultimately ended up changing its whole approach to service. "A couple of years ago we learned that we were going to have to become as good at distribution as we were at manufacturing," Griffin says. "We have customers where we supply everything except the product for the store. In one program we have 80 different SKUs that we buy from the customer's vendors. That's distribution, not manufacturing. It can become complex from an accounting standpoint, but it makes us a solutions provider from a service standpoint."

Shop tour

In the plant, manufacturing of jobs follows a logical sequence from one end of the plant to the other. Sheet goods for individual jobs are cut on one of two panel saws, a Schelling and a Holzma. Further work is done on either a Biesse Rover B-7 CNC or one of two 346 Biesse CNC routers. Edgebanding is done on a SCMI edgebander.

Wood Designs makes all its own mouldings, and knives for them are made on a Weinig knife grinder. The company has about 2,000 profiles on file that it has created for clients over the years. Large, complex mouldings are created on a Weinig Unimat, and smaller jobs are done on one of several small Weinig moulders.

After mouldings have been made and sheet goods have been cut, machined and edgebanded, all components go to assembly. There, a craftsman will take the parts, together with a traveler containing notes, drawings, blueprints (if available) and a cutlist for lumber, and assemble the piece.

Once the fixture has been assembled it is sanded, primed, stained and sealed. All jobs receive a finish sand. Following the finish sand, projects go to post-assembly where non-wood components are attached.

Market demand

According to Griffin, being flexible and creative is a part of Wood Designs' identity, one which he doesn't foresee changing anytime soon. "Ingenuity and creativity that is right on target with who we are and who we've been for some time. Those are aspects of our company that we're trying to emphasize when we present ourselves.

"What drove us to be this way wasn't economic; what drove us was a market demand for difficult, custom, retail interior solutions. There was a demand for those items, and project after project we had those types of requirements without enough time to really accomplish them. So we had to find creative ways to accomplish the work and also engage in some ingenuity to figure out a way to meet the time frames," he says. "But ultimately, the need to express ingenuity and creativity is simply a part of who we are."

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About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.