Pacific, Mo.–With 111 years of history under its belt, Kirkwood Stair Company isn’t the kind of firm that rests on its laurels. In fact, the family-owned and operated company stays on the cutting edge by frequently upgrading its equipment and operations to reflect new trends and innovations. Most recently, this manufacturer acquired a C.R. Onsrud 5-axis CNC router with proprietary software that’s being used to engineer and mill complicated stair systems.
Kirkwood Stair purchases Poplar, Red and White Oak, Hard Maple, Cherry, Birch, Hickory, African Mahogany, Ash, Jatoba, yellow pine and various exotics in FAS, Select & Btr., No. 1 Com., SAP & Btr., 4/4 through 16/4. All of its lumber is kiln-dried to furniture specs, and is all skip surfaced with no straight line. According to company President Brian Berger, 70 percent of lumber purchased are uppers in Poplar, Red Oak and yellow pine, with the remainder comprising furniture grade domestics and exotics.
With 50+ employees and three locations, the firm purchases 250,000 board feet of lumber annually, including 5,000 board feet of certified lumber.
“That investment of the router with software made us a standalone company in the Midwest for complex stair projects,” said Berger. With the CNC machine, Kirkwood Stair can handle tight radiuses, wreathing, complicated “S” and elliptical stairs, and carvings that “meet just about any design an architect can come up with,” said Berger. “We can also design and show the stairs in 3-D, thus allowing clients to get a feel for what the stairs will look like before we build them.”
70 percent of lumber purchased by Kirkwood Stair are uppers in Poplar, Red Oak and some yellow pine.
That attention to customer service and detail has kept Kirkwood Stair at the forefront of its industry for over 100 years. Founded in 1899, the firm manufactures fine, handcrafted stairs and balustrades, and more recently added doors, mouldings and casework for homebuilders in the greater St. Louis area.
According to Berger, Kirkwood Stair is one of the few stair builders in the country that offers a complete manufacturing facility that sells direct to the builder.
Since originating in Highland, Ill., and moving to the Kirkwood area in the early 1920s, the manufacturer has been through the typical ups and downs that one would expect from a century-old firm. The company was nearly wiped out in 1982 when the banks of the Meramec River flowed over and flooded the town of Valley Park, just outside of Kirkwood, Mo. With the help of disaster relief loans, the company moved to Pacific in the mid-1980s. “We salvaged what we could,” said Berger, “and then used the funding to purchase new inventory and equipment and get back up and running.”
With 50+ employees and three locations, Kirkwood Stair purchases 250,000 board feet of lumber annually, including 5,000 board feet of certified lumber.
The Berger and Barr families purchased Kirkwood Stair in 1994 and are its current owners. Berger has been with the firm since 1978. His brother-in-law Bryan Barr serves in sales and marketing; sister Cheryl Barr is head of human resources and accounting; and Nancy Berger (Berger’s wife) oversees payables and front office work at the Home Gallery showroom.
Since buying the company, the Bergers and Barrs have expanded into new lines of business. In 1999, they started marketing millwork and doors, and later that year launched Innovative Vent Solutions (IVS) to market a patented vent program to large box stores and retail flooring companies. “We own 10 patents on those products,” said Berger.
In 2005, the company opened the doors to its Kirkwood Home Gallery showroom www.kirkwooodhomegallery.com in Brentwood, where it started selling Kolbe and Hurd windows. In addition to its wide product selection, Kirkwood Stair’s services include complete and accurate millwork take-offs with detailed listings of all the mouldings and doors that are going into the home, as well their positioning and quantities.
“Custom profiles are a snap due to our in-house template and knife grinding machinery,” said Berger. “Our 5-axis machines produce the best pre-hung doors in the business with exacting standards on door and jamb margins, hinge margins and so forth.” In addition, curved crowns and arched casings are matched to the straight mouldings exactly by utilizing the straight knives used in the moulder into a custom made carrier for the 5-axis CNC.
The company’s salespeople have over 100 years of combined stair and millwork experience, and its shop and installation personnel are members of the Carpenters District Council. That experience goes a long way when it comes to taking customer projects from concept to completion. “Not only can we offer materials, but due to our experience with the stairs, we can offer installation of millwork as well,” said Berger.
To get its products delivered to its customers, Kirkwood Stair uses proactive, custom-designed customer service programs that track and log client construction schedules to accurately pinpoint manufacturing, delivery and installation requirements in order to alleviate delays and backlogs in the construction schedules. “This virtually eliminates any missed closings that would revolve around our work,” said Berger, who added that software systems are constantly being created and re-worked by the firm’s full-time, custom programmer.
Founded in 1899, Kirkwood Stair manufactures fine, handcrafted stairs and balustrades, and more recently added doors, mouldings and casework for homebuilders.
Focused on the higher end of the market, which includes solid wood mouldings, arched casings, curved crowns, high end pre-hung doors, and custom casework such as mantles, bookcases and library paneling, Kirkwood Stair uses lean manufacturing and just-in-time ordering techniques to create a seamless workflow. Even with those advantages, Berger said the firm is facing challenges under the same economic conditions as its competitors.
But those constraints won’t stop the team at Kirkwood Stair from introducing new initiatives like a “Doors in a Day” replacement door program, a remodeled home gallery showroom and various website upgrades and launches. “Our biggest challenge today is diversifying our business enough to sustain our capital investments in people and machinery, secure raw materials fast enough to service the ‘quick ship,’ short lead times our clients now demand,” said Berger, “and successfully secure the ever-shrinking business pie we’re competing for with the Kirkwood value assurance.”