A successful merger and continued adherence to green principles have made ALC-Collegedale a leader in the laboratory furniture and fume hood markets, as well as this year’s Best of the WOOD 100.

ALC-Collegedale offers two brands, with the Collegedale brand being more of a standard product and not necessarily spec-driven, while the ALC product is laboratory-grade millwork and ranges from being semi-standard to very custom. The company builds everything to order.

In a year where many companies were hard pressed to achieve any growth at all, 2008’s Best of the WOOD 100, ALC-Collegedale, pulled double-duty on the yearly sales growth report. The company is the result of a 2008 merger between Advanced Lab Concepts in Austin, TX, and Collegedale Casework in Ooltewah, TN, which both made the WOOD 100 report this year.

“We are honored to be viewed in the top tier of the industry,” says Chip Albright, president of ALC-Collegedale. “I think our success is all about value and service. We don’t sell product, we sell projects.”

The company primarily manufactures science casework for universities and K-12 institutions, which makes up 95 percent of its business. While wood is the principal material used, ALC-Collegedale also has a complete lab offering of metal casework and systems products, as well as accessories necessary for usable lab space such as worktops, plumbing fixtures and fume hoods.

“Our customers are lab owners, ranging from a simple science lab in a middle school to a research lab in a bio-tech company,” says Albright. “Many are public institutions.”

Between the company’s two facilities in Texas and Tennessee, it has about 225,000 square feet of shop space and employs more than 220 people. Due to the nature of the business, ALC-Collegedale carries a much larger non-production staff than a typical wood manufacturer.

Meeting of the Minds

According to Albright, the merger accentuated each company’s strengths, giving the former competitors the best of both worlds and making the new company the largest wood laboratory furniture manufacturer in the United States.

“When the ownership of Collegedale made a decision to see if there was someone out there who might make a good partner, we looked at companies making things like plastic laminate casework, which were complementary products sold by our dealers,” he says. “The more we got into it, we realized it’s a different world between the metal, the plastic laminate, the wood. Even though we are all doing science casework, it isn’t the same kind of thing. As we did several analyses, it became more apparent that the right competitor made more sense than one of these complementary businesses, because at least with the right competitor we are doing exactly the same things. It just so happened that ALC was a good fit for us because they were strong in the West, we were very strong in the East; they were much stronger in the university market, we were much stronger in the K-12 market. We didn’t have nearly the overlap, so actually it has been a fairly easy merger. We have not had anything near the kind of integration problems one sometimes runs into.”

ALC-Collegedale primarily manufactures science casework for universities and K-12 institutions, which makes up 95 percent of its business.

Albright says that the Collegedale brand is more of a standard product, not necessarily spec-driven, while the ALC product is more furniture-like, or as he calls it, “laboratory-grade millwork,” and ranges from being semi-standard to very custom. The company builds everything to order.

“We sell solutions, and as such we do a lot of modified and custom product to meet special requirements of the work being performed,” says Albright. “Thus, our design talent is one of our biggest assets. There isn’t much that we haven’t encountered. Normally we start with something we have that is similar to what is needed and we build upon that. And then sometimes we sit in front of a whiteboard or a notepad and have a lab planner explain the problem and what is needed. Then we go back to the office and go to work and eventually we find a creative solution. We pride ourselves on being innovative. We can go into a meeting with customers we do not know and comfortably say, ‘You may not know who we are, but if you line up all the competitors’ products, you will always pick ours.’”

Being in a competitive market that is often bid work requires ALC-Collegedale to find clever ways to do more with less, according to Albright. “We invested heavily in becoming very lean,” he says. “We have adopted technology such as flatline finishing and CNC machining technology. But we are a hybrid business, part millworker and part production house; part standard and part custom. The term ‘mass customization’ probably fits. Given the number of base models and options we have to choose from, every order is like a new product. As such, we have had to blend a combination of new technology and age-proven methods together to find the optimum process.”

To find the optimum processes, the company uses equipment that includes saws and accessories by Mayer, Altendorf and TigerStop; edgebanders by IDM, CEHISA and Brandt; Weeke CNC machining centers; a Biesse CNC nesting router; Heesemann, QuickWood and SCM sanders; Accu-System drill and dowel inserters; a Ritter horizontal drill and more.

Green, Before Green Was Cool

Albright says that his company was an early adopter of green technologies and the use of sustainable materials.

“Most of our people were green before green was cool,” he says. “Many thought it was a fad, and many fought it, but we got on the train early. We attended the first U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) conference in Austin, TX, in 2002 and made a decision this was a direction we wanted to take. We have offered a variety of green products for years now and they have become almost half of our business. Starting with the ownership and top management, we are committed to doing business in an environmentally responsible way. We fully support Sustainable Laboratory practices and we are a member of the USGBC.”

According to Albright, ALC-Collegedale has an opportunity to go further with its green practices than most others in the woodworking industry.

“Our core products are wood, but we have just introduced a Green Fume Hood, which is used in chemistry labs,” he says. “It uses a revolutionary new technology that eliminates the need to exhaust chemicals outside along with huge amounts of conditioned air. An average fume hood uses about $9,000 per year worth of energy, but our new hood uses less than $500. With well over 1 million hoods in use, that is a big number.

“We have staked out a position in the market and we want to be known for being the greenest, and being the premium producer of laboratory-grade millwork. We were early to embrace sustainable building, and it is the majority of our business. We are also Chain-of-Custody certified and continually search the world over looking for materials that can be part of our solution. We recently just finished a large bamboo project at the University of Massachusetts.”

Albright also says he sees a trend towards projects hoping to achieve a LEED rating.

“LEED for Schools has gained a lot of ground and LEED for Labs, which is still in committee and being influenced by the LABS21 EPC, has put a spotlight on the green issues,” he says.

ALC-Collegedale primarily manufactures science casework for universities and K-12 institutions, which makes up 95 percent of its business.

Sharing the Knowledge

In addition to building products for educational facilities, ALC-Collegedale hopes to be educators themselves. Albright says that the company’s

knowledge and experience could be useful to the rest of the industry.

“We feel that with our combined size we can offer market leadership, and we feel that the market is in need of more education about wood, wood products and green practices,” says Albright. “We want to play a role in that education. In fact, we are promoting the concept of a trade association to focus on laboratory-grade millwork. We have been working with some of our competitors, suppliers and some lab planners, trying to gain support for the concept.”

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