Volume 46, Issue 4 - May 2007

A Change of Pace
A Lumber Company Turns to Millworking to Increase Profitability

When Russ Wackenheim started working at a local lumberyard in Attica, N.Y., in 1963, he never imagined that one day he would own it. 

But by the end of the 1960s, Wackenheim had purchased the business from his employer at the age of 30. It was a typical lumberyard, but what made it unique was the small milling operation located in an adjacent building. 

“If someone was building a house and needed some mouldings or doors, we were able to supply them so our customer wouldn’t have to go to a mill,” says Russ Wackenheim’s son, Tom. 

Today, Tom is co-owner of the moulding and cabinet drawer business, which has a staff of 17 people. The company produces 2500 drawer boxes and 40,000 lineal feet of moulding a week. 

While the company owners will not release its annual sales figures, they say that 40 percent of the business is cabinet drawers and 40 percent is mouldings. A variety of component parts, including panel doors, make up the other 20 percent. These are sold to cabinet and case good manufacturers and architectural milling shops. Presently, the market is concentrated in western and central New York, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Tom says the business climate is nothing like what his father faced in the 1950s. 

He and his partners have made investments and changes in their business model to achieve success. The change in direction worked because Attica achieved financial success and has a lot of satisfied customers.

Competition Forces a Change
Attica Lumber wasn’t the only business in the Western New York market to face competition. As the big-box home-improvement retailers moved into the area, other local lumberyards could no longer compete.

“It got to be so severe, we were advised to get out,” Wackenheim says. “In the meantime, our milling operation was growing, and we had to face the reality that we could not be successful as a retailer.” 

So Wackenheim made the obvious choice. He closed the retail store in early 1997. With that move, Attica focused on millworking. “We put all of our energy into expanding this operation,” Wackenheim says.

Equipment Replacement
From the outset, Attica’s milling operation was small and simple. There was a planer, a band saw and a couple of joiners and cut-off saws. The company purchased a used moulder and located it at a separate nearby manufacturing company. 

As business began to grow, this basic equipment had to be replaced. The company bought a new moulder in the late 1990s “which represented the latest technology and gave us speed, a digital unit with computerized machine heads” Wackenheim says. 

Today, it has nearly 1200 profiles that we can run and it can run. It can also accommodate the cutting of custom knives.

Within two years, there were other investments. A computerized drawer box dove-tail machine replaced a hand-held unit. A straight-line rip with two blades and a laser light replaced a single-bladed rip-saw and a number of new chop saws replaced old ones. 

The investment paid off. Sales continued to increase and so did the number of people.

Kevin Demars, co-owner of the company, was one of those new employees. He joined the company in 2002 as an inside salesperson. 

“I slowly became involved, learning how the company functions and familiarizing myself with every aspect of this business,” says Demars, who was instrumental in helping to expand the business by increasing sales by $700,000 over a 24-month period.

An Ambitious Expansion
Today, as part owner, Demars recognizes the need to invest in equipment in order to better serve its customers and expand its market.

“Last June (2006), we concluded that capitalization was necessary if we were going to grow,” Demars says. 

Demars explains that the company is in the middle of an ambitious $200,000 expansion which includes an $80,000 Mereen-Johnson gang ripsaw. 

“Our goal is to add efficiency to our operation and this unit helps us do that,” says Justin Papucci, co-owner. “It is quite an improvement over the saw it replaced.”

A new, automated packaging machine replaced a manual operation and a new glue wheel was added, both of which also improve efficiency. Computer touch screens and manufacturing software supplied by J-Mos in the mill also make it easier for the operators. “We rely heavily on word-of-mouth and these purchases were made on that basis. Also, I saw some of these units demonstrated at an industry trade show,” Demars says.

In addition to improvements in equipment, Demars explains that machinery—including an SCMI moulder and a Dodds dovetailer—is being rearranged to improve the flow.

“We traced the steps to our workflow and realized there were too many and that paths were being crossed,” Demars says. 

From a maintenance standpoint, the company services its own equipment and relies on its vendors.

“If we have a problem, the equipment manufacturers are very good,” Papucci says. “We may be small, but they are there when we need support.”

Flexibility
Attica doesn’t just have flexibility in its products. It also retains the ability to get products out quickly, which helps both lead time and service.

“Lead times are our strength,” Demars says. “We’re successful because we’re big on flex time [with employees’ work hours]. It allows us to accommodate our customers and it gives our people latitude as well.”

Demars says there are no limits to order size and a small order is no less important. His customers agree.

“The company is very good to us,” says Richard Primm, president and owner of R.O. Primm in Rochester, N.Y. “They are very flexible and they meet our deadlines. They will also hold their prices on projects. I would recommend them to anybody.”

“We’re a small woodworking shop, and we do custom cabinetry,” says Scott Peters, president and owner of True Wood Products in Victor, N.Y. “We rely on Attica for mouldings and other materials, and they are very understanding, given the size of our business.”

While there’s no way Russ Wackenheim could have envisioned the twists and turns his company has taken over the past 50 years, with a change of pace from retailing to millworking, there’s little doubt that its focus on the customer and flexibility keep it alive today. 

by Alan B. Goldberg, a contributing writer for Shelter magazine.

From Taxes to China
Kevin Demars, part owner of Attica Lumber in Attica, N.Y., says that running a business in the State of New York is difficult because of the tax structure and the insurance premiums. Taxes and insurance premiums are very high and that cuts into the company’s profits. The company tries to continually increase its business to compensate for the high cost of doing business in New York.

Then there is the globalization issue.

In spite of the niche that Attica has carved, they are hardly immune from imports. Demars knows his customers face strong competition because of the lower cost of imported furnishings.

“We are most definitely affected by globalization,” Demars says. “Cabinets that are imported from China are having an impact on my customers and the product I provide.”

Family Connections
Adjacent to Attica Lumber is a bright red building with, “The Godfrey Milling Co.,” on its façade. Once a grain mill, it is now the home of Davis Woodworking, which opened on September 11, 2001. The company represents the dreams of its co-owners Jane and Lee Davis, who are also the parents of Attica Lumber co-owner Kevin Demars.

The young entrepreneur was constantly exposed to interesting wood products (and a few lessons in life) during his younger years, explains Jane Davis.

The business relationship between the two companies is no less unique than the family connection. 

“We sell to each other and have a great working relationship,” Demars says. “They have a moulder and will run mouldings and other products for us when we get backed up, and we sell lumber to them when we have enough inventory.” 

In another interesting twist, Russ Wackenheim, who at age 74 still works at Attica Lumber on a part-time basis, using the same types of saws he operated for most of his career, is both landlord and friend to the Davis’. 

“Most important, he is a grandfather to us (at work),” Demars says. “He has been my mentor and he is a great resource when I am faced with problems that just seem overwhelming.” 

 


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