Paul Wellborn: A Man With a Plan
October 14, 2004 | 5:05 pm CDT
Wellborn Cabinet Quality Control Supervisor Roy Janey Jr., left, describes his boss, Paul Wellborn as a "people person."

Paul Wellborn, winner of the second annual Jerry Metz Achievement Award, has plotted the course of Wellborn Cabinet for four decades. He's the first to note that many others have contributed to the company's success along the way.

As the oft-repeated story goes, Paul Wellborn was staring out the window of his high school English class when he was snapped to attention by his teacher. Asked what he was looking at, Wellborn replied, "I'm thinking about all of the things I could make out of that tall tree."

 Talk about prophetic. A few years later, Wellborn would embark on a cabinetmaking career and begin turning his adolescent daydreams into a reality. He and his brother, Doug, co-founded Wellborn Cabinet in a 20-foot by 40-foot building located behind their family's home in 1962. Forty-two years later, and bolstered by the recently completed acquisition of Rutt HandCrafted Cabinetry and Heritage Custom Cabinetry, Wellborn Cabinet now has annual sales of $170 million and employs 1,700 people at plants in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Utah. It didn't all happen overnight and it didn't come easy for this year's winner of the Jerry Metz Achievement Award. Along the way to creating one of North America's largest cabinet companies was a devastating fire and an untold number of 70-plus-hour work weeks.

Wellborn says the fruits have been well worth the labors. Not only has he had the opportunity to satisfy his professional ambitions, he also has the pleasure of involving his wife, all five children and three of their spouses in the family business. In addition, building up a successful cabinet company allows Wellborn to give back to the local community through the creation of jobs and to be a major contributor of charities benefiting abandoned and abused children. Each year, Wellborn Cabinet donates 10 percent of its net profit to worthy causes, such as the Big Oak Ranch for Boys and Girls located near Birmingham, AL.

A long-time member of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Assn., Wellborn served as KCMA president in 1994.

"I've always liked the challenge of growing the business," says Wellborn, who feels far more comfortable making his daily rounds of the company's 1.3-million-square foot flagship factory in Ashland, AL, than sitting behind his desk. "To grow each year you have to think about what you have to do to develop products that will sell. Then you have to add new lines of products and have a delivery system. If you decide you want to become a $100 million company, then a lot of planning goes through your head and you have to have good people to help you put those plans together. You need to do things like plan new buildings and buy new machinery ahead of time because if you don't it will be too late when you start getting the orders."

Humble Beginnings
Wellborn learned how to work with his hands from his father, Curtis Morgan Wellborn, who built and remodeled homes throughout the Southeast in the '40s and '50s.

"My brother, Doug, and I learned a lot about manufacturing from our father, even though he was into house building," Wellborn says. "He was very good at laying out a project and very fast in the way he did jobs, whether it was laying floors or installing doors. He always worked based on time. He could tell you that it's going to take two hours to do something and you would have to work real hard to do it, but you could. I still like to time things and then find ways to improve the methods."

The Wellborn brothers' first crack at cabinetmaking was for one of the spec homes their father built. "The market slowed down and we knew it was going to take awhile to sell them. We decided to build our own kitchen cabinets for the first house. We bought a couple of sheets of knotty pine plywood and built the face frames, doors and drawer fronts and cases. From that point on, we started building cabinets for all of the houses that my father built."

In 1964, the Wellborns constructed a 40-foot by 80-foot building on six acres of cotton field in Ashland that their father purchased and began manufacturing cabinets full-time. They also took on whatever other woodworking projects they could to make ends meet.

"Even though we were in the cabinet and remodeling business, when we first started out, if you wanted to bring us a piece of furniture to refinish or needed a new door for your cabinet, we'd do that. We were in a rural community; there just wasn't a lot of work out here."

To grow their business, the Wellborns branched out geographically. They began providing cabinets for apartments, condominiums and military bases up and down the East Coast. "We also did a lot of low-income, HUD projects in New York City," Wellborn says.

As sales for its mass-produced stock cabinets took off, the company expanded its manufacturing facility. It also added a sawmill in 1966 and its first automated finishing line in 1970.

The business was on a roll when disaster struck.

A Devastating Fire
In 1971, a fire destroyed two-thirds of Wellborn Cabinet's plant causing about $200,000 in damage.

"That was one of the worst days; it seemed like a nightmare. I was sitting in my office when the paint manager told me he couldn't see a fire but he could smell it," Wellborn recalls. "I walked out there and saw that one of the finishing ovens had just flamed up. We didn't have a sprinkler system at the time and within two or three minutes the flames had spread across a 140-foot-long metal conveyor that had lacquer paint on it; black smoke was everywhere."

 The fire destroyed the finish room, offices, countertop shop and loading zone. Fortunately, the machining department was spared and Wellborn says someone "grabbed a stack of contract drawings" before the fire reached the office area.

"We were lucky that the wind was blowing south that day, so the machine building's roof didn't catch on fire. That, combined with the two firewalls and the efforts of the fire department, prevented the fire from destroying everything."

Less than two weeks after the blaze, the company erected a makeshift 250-foot-long by 14-foot-wide building draped with Visquine walls and roof; it was temporarily used for finishing and assembling. "Amazingly," Wellborn says, "we didn't miss a contract."

"Having a fire will make you think; it can put you out of business real fast," Wellborn says. "When we went to rebuild, I talked to my insurance company about being sure that we built the proper firewalls and put in the proper sprinkler system. We started our own fire department and added spark detectors and fire suppression units in our dust collection system. At least every six months, we blow dust down from the ceilings and ductwork throughout the entire plant."

Growth Resumes
After putting their darkest day behind them, the Wellborn brothers regrouped and began to regain their momentum.

In the early 1980s, Wellborn says the company began to ship more and more of its product to distributors, particularly in the Northeast. By 1986, about half of Wellborn Cabinet's production was devoted to servicing the burgeoning distribution market. Paul Wellborn bought out his brother's share of the business and fully redirected the company's market focus to kitchen and bath dealers. That same year, Wellborn Cabinet broke ground for a 130,000-square-foot warehouse located directly behind the company's existing 90,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.

From that point, Wellborn Cabinet's business exploded and a steady stream of plant expansions and capital improvements ensued. In 1987, the company added a wood-fired boiler system, which not only saves landfills but also creates steam used for the company's 12 dry kilns, and generates about 25 percent of the plant's electrical power needs. Additions of 120,000 square feet, 400,000 square feet and 250,000 square feet were dedicated in 1992, 1994 and 1998, respectively.

Each of these and other construction projects were facilitated by the company's on-premise cement mixing plant. Further evidence of Wellborn Cabinet's highly unusual vertical integration includes the sawmill that processes oak and hickory logs and a metal fabricating shop, which among other things, makes and repairs conveyors and custom material handling carts.

New Projects
Wellborn is not one to sit still. For every project completed, several others are in the works or on the drawing board.

 Last February, Wellborn Cabinet opened a company-subsidized child's daycare center across the street from the Ashland plant.

Current projects include the near completion of a 50,000-square-foot training center. The first floor will be used for hands-on training of new employees and cross-training existing employees on machine setup and operation. Wellborn says plans include developing a vocational training program for local high school students. The upstairs will feature classrooms, a showroom and an area for training cabinet installers.

The company is also building a lodge to house its overnight customers and guests. The lodge will be adjacent to a new 35-acre bass fishing lake, designed by Ray Scott. The lake expands guest and employee recreational opportunities that already include a shooting range and 300-acre private hunting preserve.

Next on the docket is a new parking and maintenance facility for the company's fleet of 70 trucks.

As if the recent flurry of construction activities was not enough, Wellborn Cabinet completed deals to purchase Karman Kitchens of Salt Lake City in early 2003 and Rutt and Heritage this fall. The company is also preparing to ramp up an SAP system that will integrate order entry, accounting, purchasing and manufacturing functions beginning next year.

A Stickler for Quality
Wellborn dearly prizes his company's commitment to quality. The company has 63 employees dedicated to quality control and another 25 who perform white wood and finished part repairs. He says the company's return product rate is less than 0.1 percent.

"You have to have quality from the sawmill all the way through," he says. "The best we can do is build it right here and get it on the truck right for the customer. In the long term, you'll benefit from it because people appreciate good quality. You have to look at it like you're going to put it in your own house, so you want it to look good. You also want to avoid creating problems for the installer. If he's missing even one part or opens up a cabinet and it's damaged or is the wrong color, then it's going to cost him a lot of money in lost time.

"I would rather be overboard on quality than on the light side," he continues. "There have been a lot of times through the years where people wanted us to drop our quality to be more competitive with someone in the lower product range. I don't think that's ever the right way to go. I think you have to stay with good quality and service. There's always business out there. You may lose something occasionally, but I think you'll lose more existing business if you drop your quality level."

Each day, Wellborn walks through the plant "until I find something or somebody finds me. I spend more time in the finishing room than anywhere else. I mostly pay attention to color. When the cabinets are installed and you're looking at them from eye level, they all have to match. You'll have some variations in sapwood and heartwood, but you have to be very consistent in cabinet finishing."

A Team Effort
No doubt, Wellborn deserves the lion's share of the credit for leading his company to its current height of success. He would beg to differ, though. He says he feels blessed to have a crew of dedicated employees.

"I've said this a number of times. You can have all the best machinery and best buildings, but if you go in the plant and you don't have good people or if the people are not happy, then the product you make reflects that."

Quality Control Supervisor Roy Janey Jr., who nominated Wellborn for the Metz Award, says, "Paul Wellborn is a 'people person' and a Christian, which extends through his family and working staff. Mr. Wellborn makes provision for the best benefits in the industry, including insurance, vacation time, holidays, bonuses/incentives and activities for employees and their families."

Wellborn says he merely follows the Golden Rule. "People need to be treated like you want to be treated. I try to put myself in their shoes. If they need a fan, something to stand on or have a problem of any kind, it needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible.

"If you try to do what's right and have good people, I believe that things will work out. You'll have hard times, but hard times can be good sometimes. They make you appreciate the good times."

What Others Say About Paul Wellborn

"Mr. Wellborn puts quality first in all the cabinets made at Wellborn Cabinet," says Roy Janey Jr., quality control supervisor of Wellborn Cabinet, who nominated Paul Wellborn for the Metz Award. "The return ratio is unheard of in the cabinet industry or in furniture.

"Safety of employees is always Mr. Wellborn's concern. His motto could be, 'Quality first, production second and safety always!' because this is how he feels about his business and his employees."

"My father is a very strong Christian and is consistent in his treatment of people," says Angela O'Neill, director of marketing and advertising for Wellborn Cabinet. "He very much believes that it's the customers and employees of our company who make it happen. He puts in more hours than anybody and gets actively involved in everything from plant production and layout to marketing, but you'll never see him blowing his own horn. He's always giving credit to those who do the work."

O'Neill adds that she and others are inspired by her father's work ethic and his energy. "He's driven to do what he does. If he travels to see customers, it's usually to see six in one day, not just two or three. He loves what he does."

"Paul gently taught me that business is about people, not the newest technologies and techniques," says Steve Leonard, who has serviced Wellborn Cabinet for 3M Co. since being transferred from Minneapolis to Birmingham, AL, in 1991. "He introduced me to the Jerry Metz column and made me an avid reader of it. Just as Jerry Metz served as a role model and gave back to the woodworking community through his columns, Paul continues Jerry's philosophy through educating and mentoring us, not just in business acumen, but in caring about people. He schooled me in thinking from the customer's perspective on present and future needs. I know that I enjoy my work more than I ever have, and I credit Paul for that."

About the Metz Award
The Jerry Metz Achievement Award was inaugurated last year by Wood & Wood Products in memory of woodworking legend and beloved W&WP columnist Jerry Metz.

Metz passed away in February 2003 at the age of 93 having served the wood products industry for more than 70 years.

Metz enjoyed nearly a 40-year career with the J.L. Metz Furniture Co. of Hammond, IN. Under his leadership, Metz Furniture won the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers' Safety Award more than a dozen years in a row. Metz Furniture had the well-earned reputation of being "the safest in its field." The company's dining room furniture also won numerous design awards.

Upon selling Metz Furniture in 1970, Metz became a consultant and contributing editor to W&WP. His immensely popular column, "Consult Jerry Metz," repeatedly touched on the four cornerstones upon which the Metz Award is founded: safety, training, quality and productivity.

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About the author
Rich Christianson | President/Owner/C-Level

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the industrial woodworking sector. Rich is the former long-time editorial director and associate publisher of Woodworking Network. During his nearly 35-year career, Rich has toured more than 250 woodworking operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia and has written extensively on woodworking technology, design and supply trends. He has also directed and promoted dozens of woodworking trade shows, conferences and seminars including the Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and the Woodworking Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo, Canada’s largest woodworking show.