Volume 5 | Issue 4 | Year 2002

Manufacturing practices and processes today would certainly appear quite strange to counterpart manufacturers working in the late 1800s. Vertical manufacturing is a concept manufacturing companies on the threshold of the 20th century never even dreamed of. Even wicker basket manufacturing changed dramatically over the last century. Just ask Rick Thompson, CEO of Burlington Basket Company of Burlington, Iowa.
It was way back in 1888 when Thompson’s great-grandfather, Emil E. Florang, established his own handmade wicker basket company. Although a lot has changed during that time, what remains the same over those 114 years is that Burlington Basket Company continues to be a family-run business with a strong family-oriented working environment. Today, the company offers product categories in bath and laundry, juvenile, and RTA (ready-to-assemble) furniture. It recently launched a new line of products called Essential Solutions offering unique product solutions.

21st Century Weaving
Although the products originally produced by Burlington Basket were traditional examples of old-style American handicrafts, the company’s present manufacturing capabilities are far from old-style. Quick to recognize that competition in today’s marketplace requires nimble thinking and innovative responses to that ever-changing global marketplace, Burlington Basket took immediate control over its own destiny.

“We are a company that continues to diversify our product offerings in order to meet the new challenges of today’s marketplace,” says Thompson, a fourth-generation member of the Florang family. And diversify it does. “We offer a range of other products in order to offer our customers one-stop shopping convenience. They can buy a wide variety of products from us in a particular product category. For example, rather than our customers buying baby bassinets from us and imported willow baskets from another vendor and baby monitors from yet another vendor, we can offer all of these products to them under one roof.”

Over the last 15 years or so, Burlington Basket began importing willow products such as baskets and hampers from China. It enhances these with value-added embellishments with the idea that these products will complement Burlington Basket’s range of offerings.

Baskets Plus
In addition to bath and laundry-related products such as wicker hampers and waste baskets, Burlington Basket also offers RTA space-saving utility cabinets, wall cabinets, and linen cabinets. “Although there are a number of companies in this market, we feel our products are distinguished from the rest by what we’ve done with the doors of our products,” says Thompson. “Our wicker insets give the cabinets a totally different look and in another line of products we use molded door insets that offer a leaded-glass look. This product is new this year and our customers are already showing a lot of interest.”

Within the juvenile category, Burlington Basket offers innovative products such as its rail rider, a portable changing table that collapses when not in use to be stored on the sides of the crib. “This product is safer to use than a high changing table because it rests only about 12 inches from the crib’s mattress,” notes Thompson. “It’s also a space-saver. Changing tables take up a lot of space but they don’t give you the utility for the amount of space they require in the
nursery, which is usually a small room.”

Another Burlington innovation is the Baby Vibes monitoring device. “It has the audio feature of other baby monitors. But its vibration feature lets you hear your baby when you are doing noisy chores like vacuuming, running the dishwasher, or even mowing the lawn,” says Thompson. Vibrations can be adjusted to be strong or weak, depending upon the sensitivity of the device’s wearer.

Other products in the juvenile category include willow baskets in white or natural, with different colored gingham liners. “These decorative baskets are often used as drawers in cabinets with open shelves,” says Thompson.

The company’s Essential Solutions product category offers a unique product called Pill Time. “It’s a watch you can program for four alarm settings to alert when it’s time to take pills,” Thompson says. The back of the watch opens for pill storage and the watch can be clipped to a belt or purse. This item is being marketed to people 50 years and older.

Another Essential Solutions product is Easy Cork – offering what could be the easiest way in the world to uncork a celebration. A pressurized air canister slides into a molded plastic tube, a needle at the end is inserted into the cork and all it takes is thumb pressure on the canister to uncork a wine bottle in less time than it takes to ask “White or red?”

Vertical Manufacturing
Among the most significant changes in the 114-year-old company include its move to automate production of its wicker baskets – and its move toward vertical control of all raw materials used in the products it manufactures. With three subsidiaries supplying Burlington Basket, the company certainly is 21st-century ready.

Burlington Timber manufactures all of the wicker. The wicker’s water-resistant coating is the perfect choice of material for products used in bathrooms. Joanne Plastics produces all the necessary plastic components such as inserts for molded basket covers and hamper lids. Thompson Machine makes the dies used in injection-molding processes.

All three subsidiaries also do contract manufacturing for other companies’ innovative products. Burlington Timber, for example, manufactures a specially designed wicker sold to a company in Florida that makes pith helmets used by the U.S. Postal Service. Joanne Plastics manufactures a molded plastic lid for containers of industrial wipes used by consumers in areas such as garages.

For the present, contract outsourcing accounts for about 20 percent of Burlington Basket’s business. The other 80 percent of the subsidiaries’ manufacturing segment supplies raw materials to the company. However, the company’s goal for the subsidiaries is to reach a 50-50 mix of contract manufacturing and supplier to the company.

Burlington Basket markets its products worldwide through every available channel, including discounters like Wal-Mart and Kmart; department stores such as J.C. Penney; catalogers such as Plough and Hearth and Popular Club, home improvement chains like Menards, and specialty stores.

Housed right alongside Ole Man River for generations, Burlington Basket and its subsidiary companies – along with its 79 dedicated employees – will soon take occupancy in a new one-level 120,000-square-foot building, to which it plans to add an additional 60,000 square feet within the next two years. The company is looking for a very healthy growth rate of 25 percent for next year, after a struggling year in 2001.

Burlington Basket plans to be around for a long time to come. “We have name recognition after these last 114 years. We will continue to be a major player in the industry, as we’ve been in the last 25 years – and we will do this by being the leader of innovative products,” says Thompson. “We will be efficient and streamlined in our manufacturing processes and we will continue to offer quality products at excellent value.”