The year 1964 was big for cultural icons. The Rolling Stones released their first album. The Beatles made their first U.S. appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. In Detroit, Ford debuted the Mustang. And while it may not have rocked the world, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, an iconic woodworking business was born when Norman and Samuel Hahn began making custom kitchen cabinetry components at Conestoga Wood Specialties.
The last 50 years have seen some incredible changes in the industry. And Conestoga has weathered them all, growing from three employees to its current workforce of nearly 1,100 employees across the United States.
Changing Styles and Tastes
This industry has always been subject to the whims of consumer taste and design trends, whether it’s the latest wood species, color or door style. Thirty years ago, the frameless cabinetry popular in Europe began to gain a modest foothold in the United States, requiring cabinet and component makers to expand their skills and product lines to include this alternative as well as the shift away from 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch overlay doors to full overlays.
Functional needs have changed as well. Dovetail drawer boxes, pull-out trays, storage racks and improved access solutions have transformed kitchen cabinets from simple boxes to specialized storage areas that challenge large manufacturers and small shops alike to deliver kitchens that are just as customized in their utility as they are in their appearance.
Conestoga has responded to trends with a steadily expanding product line as well as a willingness to create virtually any custom component. A commitment to innovation and flexibility has enabled us to help manufacturers and kitchen designers meet their customers’ demands.
Changing Landscapes and Technologies
One of the most significant changes to impact the cabinetry industry in the last 50 years is the rise of the retail home center, beginning in the early 1980s and exploding with the housing boom of the 1990s. Currently, half of all kitchens sold in the United States are sold through home center stores. This has changed consumer expectations and driven demand for faster delivery across the entire industry.
In the ‘80s it was normal for lead times to stretch to six weeks or more during peak months. Now, Conestoga’s standard lead time is under two weeks, and we still receive expedited orders. One way we’ve answered that need is through expansion, mirroring the shift to broader markets throughout the industry. Expanding into other states to get closer to both the lumber supply and customers has been key to Conestoga’s long-term success.
It isn’t just lead times that have changed. Consumers want more choices. In the past, large cabinetry companies offered only five or six finishes on ten door designs in two or three wood species. Today, even stock box companies have dozens of door styles, glazed finishes and at least some customization of cabinet sizes. Custom shops have had to up the ante by offering even more styles, finishes and wood species. This has led to a significant increase in outsourcing, as custom shops of all sizes rely on companies like Conestoga to handle unique door styles, less common species and specialty finishes.
Fortunately, another revolutionary cultural shift helped the industry keep pace with consumer demands. Computerization has transformed manufacturing at companies including Conestoga. In the early 1980s, we began using Numerically Controlled (NC) routers, eventually converting to CNC equipment. This allowed us to produce highly complex components in minutes rather than hours or days. The information made available by these operating systems lets us run the business in ways that couldn’t be imagined 20 years ago: better materials management, improved product and cost tracking and more efficient scheduling and shipping.
Technology has also enabled huge improvements in the level of customer service we can provide. Conestoga has averaged an unprecedented 99.8 percent complete-and-on-time shipping rate for the past decade that would have been impossible without computerized orders and bar coding applications for order tracking.
Constant Principles in a Changing Industry
It’s equally important to the team at Conestoga to point out the things that haven’t changed in 50 years: the focus on consistent quality, personal integrity and dependable service. The company is still owned and run by the Hahn family, who continue to instill basic moral and ethical values into every day operations and donate 10 percent of the profits to charity as they have since its founding. Including three Hahns, there are a total of 50 second-generation employees at Conestoga. And in 2014, four employees will celebrate 47 years at the company.
No one knows what the cabinetry industry will be like 50 years in the future. Looking ahead, we see IKEA as an up-and-coming force that is impacting the design preferences of the next generation of kitchen consumers. And the internet continues to expose consumers to more style and color choices and allow them to compare pricing, putting pressure on manufacturers to be competitive.
Adapting to changing styles, markets and technologies will always be a challenge. However, there is one constant you can always depend on: Staying focused on solving customers’ challenges is what will keep companies like Conestoga Wood Specialties thriving for another 50 years.
Jeff Eichenseer is the marketing director at Conestoga Wood Specialties. For more information contact (800) 964-3667 or visit ConestogaWood.com.
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