Phil Bowers is President of Advanced Cabinet Systems, a plastic laminate casework and store fixture manufacturer in Marion, IN. Bowers took on the role in 2013, after working in the family business through high school and college.
In honor of Young Woodworking Professionals Week, we spoke with Phil about his experience in taking control of the company at a young age:
What is your background in Woodworking?
I grew up sweeping the floors and running edge banders every summer at ACS. It is a family owned business and I was used as free labor as a kid. I enjoyed working with my father in the business and knew that I wanted to be involved in manufacturing since the beginning. However, I am not a woodworker by any means. Just ask the guys around the factory, they’ll be sure to point that out.
When did you become president of Advanced Cabinet Systems?What challenges did you face?
I took over as President in January of 2013. It has been an amazing experience but it has definitely come with its challenges. One of the biggest challenges I faced, as silly as it sounds now, was gracefully accepting input from others. I wasted so much time trying to make all of the decisions myself and it wasn’t good for anybody. That strategy may work great for some but it’s certainly not my leadership style. I’ve been able to surround myself with an incredibly smart and experienced team and they have been the single greatest key to success at ACS. I most certainly don’t know it all. Then there are always the daily challenges of scheduling, sales, marketing, etc. Every business faces the same challenges no matter how many zeros are on the income statement.
Has your company developed since then? Any major differences?
Absolutely! One of the implementations we made that has had the biggest impact is measuring. We measure anything you can think of. A lot of people say that “what gets measured gets done”, our saying is “what doesn’t get measured, gets worse”. We measure everything from shipping misses, to parts machined, to vendor meetings, to material price increases/decreases, and anything else you can imagine. We even installed a KPI (Key Performance Indicators) board outside of our break room and Team Leaders from each department update their numbers on a monthly basis after our “Grow The Company” meetings where they report their measurements to the management team. Trends are surfacing and it’s exciting to watch! Another major project was creating new processes and tweaking old processes. The K-12 laminate casework market is incredibly competitive and product innovations are rarely considered. We decided to use processes as our innovative competitive edge. If we can make the same cabinet better, faster, and cheaper than anyone else without sacrificing our margin, we’ll win. The communication flow process on the front end of orders, prior to production, is crucial to a project’s success and there must be buy-in at every single level. If you’re having trouble getting buy-in from your team, take a look at your culture.
Is there an aspect of woodworking that has been especially important in your career?
Understanding the barriers to entry to this his industry is very important. We’ve built an infrastructure at ACS over the past 30 years that we work on every single day but we can still lose a job to a guy in his garage with a table saw. It’s tough to compete against that. If Architects would stick to specifying products that have been engineered, cataloged and tested, there would be more of an even playing field. Like it or not, Architects have a lot of the power in this business.
What advice do you have for younger woodworkers who are just getting into the industry, or are getting ready to start their own businesses? What do you wish someone had told you?
You must decide whether you wish to pursue woodworking as a hobby or a career. I was never really a “woodworker” as much as a salesman but I knew I could make money selling casework and store fixtures so I dove in head first. You don’t necessarily need to be a woodworker to get in to this business. I know plenty of woodworking hobbyists who wouldn’t dream of doing what we do, and I wouldn’t dream of doing what they do. Woodworking is an art but if you want to compete it’s important to know that CNC automation is replacing a lot of the fine woodworking skills out there.
Any trade schools you recommend?
There are plenty of woodworking trade schools around the country and I’ve heard good and bad things about a lot of them. The key is having the desire to go to a trade school at any level of experience. If you’ve got that, you’re on the right track. There is a major lack of woodworking talent in this industry and businesses are searching far and wide for skilled woodworkers. State K-12 schools have cut woodshop classes in many areas so the talent pool is continuing to shrink. We started a program at ACS called “MyShop” that brings in local K-12 students and lets them spend a day in our factory with our engineers learning about casework production. It’s been a rewarding experience for us and them.
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