Fetzer Architectural Woodwork’s history dates back to 1909, when German immigrant Kaspar Fetzer founded a small workshop in Salt Lake City. In doing so, he established a family legacy of woodworking excellence. For almost a century, new generations of Fetzers helped the business grow. Dan Harvey describes how the salt lake cabinet and fixture company evolved from a local business into a national leader in the woodworking industry.
n business, a little negativity doesn’t always have to be a bad thing – as long as it’s kept in proper perspective and manageable proportions and provokes a positive response. Often, it serves as a sharp spur that compels an organization to want to do better. Take Fetzer Architectural Woodwork, for instance. The Salt Lake City-based company once had a bit of an inferiority complex. However, that self-perception prompted greater organizational improvement and growth.
“We always harbored the notion that the other guys were a bit better, so we established a goal to be just as good as they are,” relates Wallace Fetzer, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. “Much of the success we’ve achieved has been based on a dogged desire to improve ourselves, as well as the assumption that if you stick to a plan, you’ll ultimately achieve what you desire.”
Fetzer Architectural Woodwork’s specific plan included building a new facility designed to increase its efficiency and output, as well as implementing lean manufacturing processes to enhance the improvements. Both factors help the organization meet its goals related to short lead times, on-time delivery and superior customer service.
But that’s jumping ahead in the story. Throughout its history, the company hasn’t exactly been a slouch. Growth and continuous improvement are the major themes running through its narrative. Poised to celebrate its centennial next year, the company dates back to 1909 and a small woodworking shop set up in Utah by German immigrant Kaspar Fetzer. Today, the company is a nationally recognized firm with nearly 200 employees who combine art with craftsmanship achieved with both high technology and traditional, hands-on skills. As the company points out, Fetzer Architectural Woodwork’s Employees are not only fine craftsmen, but they are technical experts when it comes to precision equipment. Thus, the company provides the best of both worlds.
Since its founding, the company has remained within the family, with second-, third- and fourth-generations contributing to the ongoing success. The company’s current output includes architectural woodwork; corporate, public and high-end residential interiors; retail store perimeters, fixtures and woodwork; library furniture and woodwork; custom tables, carrels and chairs; museum showcases, auditorium woodwork and stadium seating, among other items.
“Through the years, we determined that it would be to our advantage to diversify,” says Wallace Fetzer, who is the founder’s grandson.
Subsequently, the company has engaged in projects within retail, hospitality, civic, institutional, performing arts centers and corporate sectors, and its customers include well-known names such as Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, The Gap, Nordstrom, Marriott, Four Seasons, Sony and Novell. Some recent projects have been quite substantial in scope. For instance, one of its largest jobs involved the LDS Conference Center, wherein the company’s vice president of design, Paul Fetzer, working from original designs, created a cherry veneer, monumental woodwork organ. One of the largest in the world, the organ weighs 432,000 pounds.
Currently, Fetzer Architectural Woodwork is working on a multimillion dollar wood project for Lincoln Center in New York City, specifically the renovation of its Alice Tully Hall. “This involves providing some highly specified sound-quality paneling that measures an inch-and-a-half thick,” says Wallace Fetzer. “Ultimately, the hall will be the first of its kind in the world.”
To increase efficiency and promote further growth, the company began building a new Salt Lake City facility in 2004. Completed the following year, the site includes 120,000 square feet of manufacturing space and about 13,000 square feet of office space.
Its impact on company fortunes was almost immediate. “In the first year after it opened, we realized a 10 percent efficiency improvement,” reports Wallace Fetzer. “Also, since 2005, we have doubled our sales, increasing from $20 million to $40 million. The difference it has made in only three years has been quite dramatic.”
A carefully calculated plant layout, advanced machinery and production systems culminated in shorter lead times and reduced costs for the company and its customers. The higher capacity and more rapid throughput did more than place it on par with the competition; it set Fetzer Architectural Woodwork apart from the rest of the field.
The company’s capabilities include retail and interior design; specification, budgeting and value engineering; Auto CAD woodwork engineering and detailing/preparation; sample and mock-up production and revision; complete veneering and panel production; project management and consultation; as well as manufacturing, finishing, warehousing, shipping, and installation/service.
EQUIPMENT AND PROCESS INVESTMENTS
Making a substantial investment in technology, the company filled the new facility with the most advanced woodworking tools and equipment. Upgrades include AutoCAD engineering, CNC machining, a state-of-the art veneer press line and point-to-point routing. Veneering equipment includes a Josting veneer guillotine, Savi cut-off saw, Kuper splicer and Diehl veneer splicer. In addition, the site has a new panel processing production area that includes Schelling panel saws, a Holz-Her Accord 1468B edgebander, an Accu Systems dowel inserter, and a Ligmatech MPH40 case clamp. The facility also has spray booths and a 14,000-square-foot positive pressure finishing room with drying tunnel.
As the company focuses strongly on on-time delivery, it has also invested time and money into the implementation of lean manufacturing. “One of the things that is notable about our company is our capacity to implement lean in such a highly custom environment, where a lot of our work is accomplished by craftsmen,” says Fetzer. “It’s one of the things that we do best. We have a good lean team in place right now, and its members are dedicated to continuous improvement. For us, lean has been very effective, and it has made us very competitive in the marketplace.”
Lean manufacturing is helping the company meet the China challenge that has hurt all kinds of U.S. companies. “One of the incentives for our going lean was that we could do it better and more efficiently here,” explains Fetzer. “We feel that it’s a waste of time, money and energy resources for companies to send product from here to China and back again.”
THE FETZER LEGACY
The metaphoric distance between the current plant – with its equipment capabilities and lean focus – and the company’s initial operations is immeasurable. When Kaspar Fetzer began the business in 1909, it was essentially a small cabinet shop. In 1913, when the business was incorporated as the Salt Lake Cabinet and Fixture, its main customers were local churches and bar rooms.
The company survived through two world wars. “After World War II, we entered the store fixture market, and that is what took us into the national arena,” recalls Wallace Fetzer.
By the 1950s, the period when Kaspar’s sons John and Percy took over operations, it was renamed Fetzers’ Inc. In ensuing years, third- and fourth-generation family members entered the picture, carrying on Kaspar Fetzer’s legacy while expanding the business.
If Kaspar could have envisioned what his progeny would eventually accomplish, he’d have been quite proud. The company doesn’t have to bow to other woodworking enterprises. Fetzer Architectural Woodwork now hopes to be as good as – and even better than – anyone else.