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Character, technology drive growth at American Millwork

PHOTO/BRIAN PEDERSEN An employee works on the manufacturing floor at American Millwork & Cabinetry in Emmaus. The company makes and installs millwork, cabinetry and countertops.

To learn to not only survive, but thrive in today’s business climate, it takes tenacity and drive to overcome adversity and willingness to embrace change.

To do so, businesses need effective leadership, the desire to reinvest in themselves, opportunities for employee advancement and a steady focus on quality and customer satisfaction.

These are some of the qualities that have helped American Millwork & Cabinetry Inc. of Emmaus succeed. Today, the company competes on a regional basis with similar firms from the Midwest and Canada.

Founded in 2001, AMC produces architectural millwork for sectors that include medical, retail and institutional and fabricates plastic laminate and veneer casework, all at its Emmaus manufacturing plant.

The company started shipping product in 2002 from its first home in Quakertown. By 2005, it occupied 14,000 square feet and had 18 employees, founder George Reitz said.

AMC sought more space and continued expansion but plans were derailed when a devastating fire destroyed its Quakertown facility in January 2006.

While the fire left Reitz, AMC and employees scrambling to survive, a lot of support from the local community and other woodworkers helped.

“All of the specialty machinery was destroyed in the fire,” said Daniel Smith, Certified Public Accountant and chief financial officer for AMC.

Precise Graphix of Emmaus, a competitor, gave Reitz access at night to its machines so he could still do processing, Smith said.

By working with colleagues and friends in the industry, Reitz said, he was able to cut his product at night at Precise Graphix’s facility and assemble it during the day in a leased, 4,000-square-foot-building next door to his benefactor.

EYES ON EMMAUS

Just before the fire, Reitz had negotiated the purchase of a former Emmaus fish farm that had been vacant. The space required extensive repurposing of land and buildings.

He retrofitted the property and, in October 2006, moved AMC into its new home at 840 Broad St., where it remains today.

Though the recession hit two years later, the company persevered.

“It even astonished me, but it took a lot of tenacity,” Reitz said. “Not only did we survive, we grew. We went from 18 employees at the time of the fire to 63 today.”

LEARNING CURVE

AMC management credits employees for its success. The company places a high value on promoting from within, while each department has a team leader. It’s a way for employees to take ownership of their growth.

“We are organically growing our workforce,” Reitz said.

As an example, Reitz said, he hired a janitor, and the company will start incorporating him into production based on an understanding of his ethics and character.

In anticipation of growth, AMC tends to hire before it needs the employee.

“There’s a 60-to-90-day learning curve just to get up to speed,” Reitz said.

MATTER OF CHARACTER

The company also looks to hire for character, rather than skill, he said.

“We can’t break an old habit,” Reitz said. “We need that reliability.

“… We pay a very fair wage. That’s why we have a high retention.”

There’s room to grow at its 90,000-square-foot Emmaus location, where it is expanding.

STRONG SALES

Construction in the region’s cities is contributing to growth, said David Reitz, brother of George and AMC general project manager.

Most of the company’s work, about 25 percent, is in the Greater Lehigh Valley, with the rest in the mid-Atlantic, George Reitz said. The company is competitive on a regional level and works with customers from Long Island to Virginia.

In its first year, the company did $735,000 in gross sales, Reitz said. From that point to 2012, sales grew to $3 million annually, Smith said.

Sales last year grew to $8.3 million, with an expected 15 percent increase this year.

From 2013 to now, the company has nearly doubled revenues, Smith said.

A lot of that revenue was in place and allowed AMC to buy roughly $3 million in equipment since 2013.

EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY

The company has practiced lean manufacturing since it set up shop in Emmaus, enabling it to stay nimble and responsive.

“We can turn those shop drawings around in two weeks,” George Reitz said.

New technology is crucial. For example, several years ago AMC installed a computer numeric control saw-and-robotic panel retrieval system which transformed a significant portion of the 65,000-square-foot operations, Reitz said.

It makes the company more competitive and allows it to reassign employees from nonvalue-added jobs to value-added jobs, Reitz said.

“There is less forklift use, less damage to sheet goods and it gives us better time and inventory management,” Reitz said.

PROJECT TRACKING

The company now is choosier about the work it takes on, allowing it to control growth, Smith said.

“Our industry technically hasn’t grown as much as other ones, such as wholesalers,” he said. “With us, we are almost reinventing the wheel with every step.”

AMC now uses a project tracking system that offers quicker access to information so it can make decisions more efficiently.

“Schedules are so compounded that almost every project is a fast-track project,” David Reitz said. “Every contractor is at full-tilt right now, and it’s not going to change.”

HEAVY SCRUTINY

AMC is continuing to narrow its niche market because contractors have more work and the economy is doing better, George Reitz said.

“We turn away 75 percent of what we are asked to bid, although we would love to bid on them,” Reitz said.

Aside from woodwork, the company is increasingly picking up elements that are part of the projects customers want, such as metal, stone and leather panels, and is managing that aspect of the project as well, Reitz said.

“Our work is scrutinized more heavily than anyone else,” David Reitz said. “The millwork is almost 100 percent custom.”

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